Monday, June 17, 2019

Maccabean Amnesia in Philo’s Embassy to Gaius

Two months ago, in my last contribution to this on-going series, I followed Daniel Schwartz in suggesting that King Agrippa I, the great-great-grandson of the last Hasmonean king who ruled Judaea and Galilee between 41-44 CE, seems not to have emphasized his Hasmonean ancestry. After publishing the post, I came across a possible piece of counter-evidence in my notes on Philo of Alexandria’s Embassy to Gaius. In this apologetic treatise, Philo includes a long letter that he claims Agrippa sent to Gaius Caligula in an attempt to convince the emperor not to set up a statue of himself in the Jerusalem temple (Leg. 276-329). In the letter’s introduction Agrippa reminds Caligula that his royal Hasmonean ancestors thought so highly of the temple that they valued their hereditary role as high priest more than the title of king:
“I as you know am by birth a Jew, and my native city is Jerusalem in which is situated the sacred shrine of the most high God. It fell to me to have for my grandparents and ancestors kings, most of whom had the title of high priest, who considered their kingship inferior to the priesthood, holding that the office of high priest is as superior in excellence to that of king as God surpasses men.” (Philo, Leg. 278 LCL)
Everyone agrees that the letter is Philo’s own composition rather than Agrippa’s ,[1] but it shows that Philo, at least, was aware of Agrippa’s Hasmonean ancestry and that he did not hesitate to refer to it in a text composed toward the middle of the first-century CE.[2]

The passage may, however, be an exception that proves the rule, for although the letter demonstrates Philo’s awareness of Hasmonean rule in the first century BCE, Philo goes on to have Agrippa deny that the Jerusalem temple had ever previously been desecrated in this way:
“This temple, my Lord Gaius, has never from the first admitted any figure wrought by men’s hands, because it is the sanctuary of the true God. … Thus no one, Greek or non-Greek, no satrap, no king, no mortal enemy, no faction, no war, no storming or sacking of the city, nor any existing thing ever brought about so great a violation of the temple as the setting up in it of an image or statue or any hand-wrought object for worship.” (Philo, Leg. 290, 292 LCL; cf. 300)
Did Philo not remember the Maccabean revolt?

In her commentary on The Embassy to Gaius, E. Mary Smallwood assumes that Philo did know about the “abomination that causes desolation” erected by Antiochus Epiphanes in the Temple, but chose to ignore it:
“Antiochus Epiphanes had actually robbed the Temple and devoted it to the cult of Olympian Zeus, setting up a statue in it …. But in his eagerness to provide uniformly favourable precedents for the treatment of the Jews, Philo deliberately avoids all mention of the action.”[3]
Possibly. But explaining Philo’s silence as a deliberate omission is itself an argument from silence. It is true that Philo’s description of the first-century CE crisis under Caligula reminds modern readers of the second-century BCE crisis under Antiochus Epiphanes; when I re-read the Embassy to Gaius last fall, my first reaction was to think that Philo was dependent on 1 Maccabees. But, as far as I know, Philo, whose extant works focus almost exclusively on the Pentateuch, never refers directly to the Maccabean revolt. A review of the three volumes in the Philo of Alexandria Annotated Bibliography yields nothing about Antiochus or the Hasmoneans / Maccabees, as such, and very few incidental references to 1-4 Maccabees. No one that I can see claims that Philo knew or was directly dependent on the Maccabean literature.

What am I missing?

[1] Daniel R. Schwartz, Agrippa I: The Last King of Judaea (TSAJ 23; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1990), 200–202 (Appendix VI: The Philonic Authorship of Agrippa’s Epistle to Gaius [Leg. 276-329]); see also Erich S. Gruen, “Caligula, the Imperial Cult, and Philo’s Legato,” SPhilo 24 (2012): 135–47.
[2] The embassy took place in 39-40 CE; Philo’s death is normally placed around 50 CE. See Gregory E. Sterling, “Philo,” in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism (ed. John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 1065.
[3] E. Mary Smallwood, Philonis Alexandrini: Legatio Ad Gaium (Leiden: Brill, 1961), 298–99.

Other posts in this series:
Part 1: First-Century Memories of the Maccabees -- A Footnote with Footnotes
Part 2: First-Century Memories of the Maccabees Part 2: The Origins of Hanukkah
Part 3: First-Century Memories of the Maccabees Part 3: Hanukkah in the First Century
Part 4: Memories of the Maccabees in the Dead Sea Scrolls
Part 5: The Maccabean Revolt and the Success of Hasmonean Propaganda
Part 6: The Case of the Disappearing First-Century Hasmoneans