Sunday, May 25, 2008


I'm wrestling with the Egyptians--or at least with representations of them--tonight.

Plato presents us with some third-hand Egyptians in Timaeus, and I'm wondering if they're trustworthy as Egyptians--that is, if the opinions they express are more or less legitimate Egyptian opinions (and then if those opinions are valid). They call themselves not the oldest civilization but rather the only one that's not destroyed by divine floods like the one in Genesis 7. At any rate, we should accept Egyptian views on history because
in our country neither then nor at any other time does the water pour down over our fields from above, on the contrary it all tends naturally to well up from below. Hence it is, for these reasons, that what is here preserved is reckoned to be most ancient; the truth being that in every place where there is no excessive heat or cold to prevent it there always exists some human stock (22E-23A).
I don't doubt that this was a common Greek view of the Egyptians. Herodotus, for example, makes a similar claim in his Histories--against the views of the Egyptians themselves, he claims them as the oldest civilization:
The Egyptians before the reign of Psammetichus used to think that of all races in the world they were the most ancient; Psammetichus, however, when he came to the throne, took it into his head to settle the question of priority, and ever since his time the Egyptians have believed that the Phrygians surpass them in antiquity and that they themselves come second.
Herodotus is clearly not convinced by the bizarre and ridiculous method Psammetichus comes up with for "proving" which race is older--his implication is that the Egyptians were right in the first place and foolish to believe this bit of snake oil.

Herodotus does not exactly bow before the Egyptians, particularly in matters of religion--"I do not think that any one nation knows much more about such things than any other"--but he puts them ahead of the Greeks in science and in the formation of religion, since they were the first to name the gods and to built altars and idols.

I suspect but do not know that 4th-century-B.C.E. Greek attitudes toward Egypt resembled Victorian attitudes toward Asian cultures (some of which, of course, still exist today): "Here's an ancient civilization, in many ways unchanged since the day of its formation, and while it's still largely barbarian, its advanced age gives it access to knowledge--both scientific and mystical--that we don't have." I suspect, that is, that the Greeks orientalized Egypt and that Plato puts the story of Atlantis in an Egyptian's mouth to give it more credence. What I'd like to know is whether or not the Egyptians held this opinion of themselves.

(By the way, the attitude I suspect Greeks had toward Egypt would reappear in the 1820s, when Jean-Francois Champillon found the Rosetta Stone and hieroglyphics became a cultural big deal. You can read all about it in John Irwin's excellent American Hieroglyphics.)

It's an important question for biblical scholars, who are all but expressly told by the Book to distrust Egypt but who are faced with ancient evidence that suggests that Egyptian sources are pretty reliable, maybe the most reliable. Plato's Egyptians, for example, condemn the Greeks (and by extension the Hebrews and the Babylonians) because "you remember but one deluge, though many had occurred previously" (23B). In some ways, this condemnation still jives with the biblical account; after all, much of Egypt was built on the Nile's flood plain, and so you'd expect them to get a whole load of floods--and all the better if you accept Higher Criticism's hypothesis that Noah's flood was local rather than global.

But Israel does not even register as a civilization--or even as a partial civilization--with Herodotus, even though he devotes quite a bit of space to their oppressors like Babylon and Egypt (among others). What's more, he assigns to Egypt rites and beliefs we associate with Israel:
Pigs are considered unclean. If anyone touches a pig accidentally in passing, he will at once plunge into the river, clothes and all, to wash himself, and swineherds, though of pure Eygptian blood, are the only people in the country who never enter a temple.
I'm not sure why a civilization that holds pigs to be unclean would even have swineherds, but no matter--this next passage is even more damning in its way:
They practice circumcision, while men of other nations--except those who have learnt from Egypt--leave their private parts as nature made them.
It's not as though passages like these spell the end of Judeo-Christian faith--after all, they've existed longer than Christianity has, and generations of believers and scholars have dealt with them--but they do complicate it, cast doubt on it. What does it mean that the Egyptians practice circumcision, the outward sign of YHWH's covenant with Abraham? Are we to believe the Egyptians took genital fashion tips from their slaves? Isn't it more likely that Moses took parts of his law from his oppressors--as he took "articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing (Exodus 12:35, NAS)--and then justified both theft and sudden exit with a cock-and-bull story about Abraham?

I'm not sure either of these views can be proven; like most aspects of biblical scholarship, it's a matter of willful faith, of reading the hieroglyphics and deciding which Rosetta Stone to translate with.

1 comment:

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

The "ancient primitives" view also accounts for Rome's longstanding toleration of Jewish monotheism. It wasn't until they started waging open war that burning incense to Caesar became obligatory, and even then many governors exempted the Jews.

As far as circumcision goes, I'm not sure that circumcision has to be unique to Israel to stand as a sign for Israelite identity. (After all, Christians weren't the first to baptize or to eat ritual meals, and yet those still stand as sacraments.) But I imagine that's what you had in mind when you talked about generations dealing with Herodotus.

Incidentally, I find Herodotus's treatment of the Ethiopians the most fascinating part of the Histories--they're not knuckle-draggers like the Cimmerians or Yetis like the Hyperboreans, but they're still some of the most alien people in the work.

I'm going to have to brush up my Greeks this summer. I'm quickly losing my position as the English-grad-student-who-reads-the-Greeks. :)