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Modern Jewish History:
Strabo on the Land of the Jews

(c. 22 CE)


Modern Jewish History: Table of Contents | The Holocaust | The Inquisition


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These districts (of Jerusalem and Joppa) lie towards the north; they are inhabited generally, and each place in particular, by mixed tribes of Egyptians, Arabians, and Phoenicians. Of this description are the inhabitants of Galilee, of the plain of Jericho, and of the territories of Philadelphia and Samaria, surnamed Sebaste by Herod; but though there is such a mixture of inhabitants, the report most credited, among many things believed respecting the temple and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, is that the Egyptians were the ancestors of the present Jews. An Egyptian priest named Moses, who possessed a portion of the country called Lower Egypt, being dissatisfied with the established institutions there, left it and came to Judea with a large body of people who worshiped the Divinity. He declared and taught that the Egyptians and Africans entertained erroneous sentiments, in representing, the Divinity under the likeness of wild beasts and cattle of the field; that the Greeks also were error in making images of their gods after the human form. For God, said he, may be this one thing which encompasses us all, land and sea, which we call heaven, or the universe, or the nature of things. Who, then, of any understanding would venture to form an image of this Deity, resembling anything with which we are conversant? On the contrary, we ought not to carve any images, but to set apart some sacred ground as a shrine worthy of the Deity, and to worship Him without any similitude. He taught that those who made fortunate dreams were to be permitted to sleep in the temple, where they might dream both for themselves and others; that those who practiced temperance and justice, and none else, might expect good, or some gift or sign from the God, from time to time.

By such doctrine Moses persuaded a large body of right-minded persons to accompany him to the place where Jerusalem now stands. He easily obtained possession of it as the spot was not such as to excite jealousy, nor for which there could be any fierce contention; for it is rocky, and, although well supplied with water, it is surrounded by a barren and waterless territory. The space within the city is 60 stadia in circumference, with rock underneath the surface. Instead of arms, he taught that their defense was in their sacred things and the Divinity, for whom he was desirous of finding a settled place, promising to the people to deliver such a kind of worship and religion as should not burden those who adopted it with great expense, nor molest them with so-called divine possessions, nor other absurd practices. Moses thus obtained their good opinion, and established no ordinary kind of government. All the nations around willingly united themselves to him, allured by his discourses and promises.

His successors continued for some time to observe the same conduct, doing justly, and worshipping God with sincerity. Afterwards superstitious persons were appointed to the priesthood, and then tyrants. From superstition arose abstinence from flesh, from the eating of which it is now the custom to refrain, circumcision, cliterodectomy, and other practices which the people observe. The tyrannical government produced robbery; for the rebels plundered both their own and the neighboring countries. Those also who shared in the government seized upon the property of others, and ravaged a large part of Syria and of Phoenicia. Respect, however, was paid to the Acropolis [Zion, or the Temple Mount in Jerusalem]; it was not abhorred as the seat of tyranny, but honoured and venerated as a temple. . . .Such was Moses and his successors; their beginning was good, but they degenerated.

When Judaea openly became subject to a tyrannic government, the first person who exchanged the title of priest for that of king was Alexander [Alexander Jannaeus]. His sons were Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. While they were disputing the succesion to the kingdom, Pompey came upon them by surprise, deprived them of their power, and destroyed their fortress first taking Jerusalem itself by storm [63 B.C.]. It was a stronghold situated on a rock, well-fortified and well-supplied with water within, but externally entirely parched with drought. A ditch was cut in the rock, 60 feet in depth, and in width 250 feet. On the wall of the temple were built towers, constructed of the materials procured when the ditch was excavated. The city was taken, it is said, by waiting for the day of fast, on which the Jews were in the habit of abstaining from all work. Pompey, availing himself of this, filled up the ditch, and threw bridges over it. He gave orders to raze all the walls, and he destroyed, as far as was in his power, the haunts of the robbers and the treasure-holds of the tyrants. Two of these forts, Thrax and Taurus, were situated in the passes leading to Jericho. Others were Alexandrium, Hyrcanium, Machaerus, Lysias, and those about Philadelphia, and Scythopolis near

Galilee.

Pompey curtailed the territory which had been forcibly appropriated by the Jews, and assigned to Hyrcanus the priesthood. Some time afterwards, Herod, of the same family, and a native of the country, having surreptitiously obtained the priesthood, distinguished himself so much above his predecessors, particularly in his intercourse, both civil and political, with the Romans, that he received the title and authority of king, first from Antony, and afterwards from Augustus Caesar. He put to death some of his sons, on the pretext of their having conspired against him; other sons he left at his death [in 4 B.C.] to succeed him, and assigned to each portions of his kingdom. Caesar bestowed upon the sons also of Herod marks of honor, as also upon their sister Salome, and on her daughter Berenice too. The sons were unfortunate, and were publicly accused. One of them [Archelaus] died in exile among the Galatae Allobroges, whose country [Vienne, south of Lyons in France] was assigned for his abode. The others, by great interest and solicitation, but with difficulty, obtained leave to return to their own country, each with his tetrarchy restored to him.


Sources: From Strabo, The Geography, Book XVI. ii.34-38, 40, 46, c. 22 CE quoted in the Ancient History Sourcebook.

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