Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Artapanus

PharaohIntroduction to the Text:

Artpanus deals with Abraham, Joseph and Moses, each presented as founders of culture in Egypt. Three fragments of his work are present in Eusebius’ Praeparatio Evangelica. J. J. Collins offers a tentative date of composition at the end of the 3rd century BCE. More broadly, he proposes any possible date from 250-100 BCE.

Artapanus expands on three biblical stories: Genesis 12:10-20, Genesis 37-50, and Exodus 1-16. He expands each of these texts significantly and re-appropriates it as apologetic literature for late 3rd century Judaism, which Collins calls “competitive historiography”. Competitive historiography sought to establish the primacy of cultural traditions in antiquity. Especially in a predominately Greek culture which tended to critique the Judean ethnos (Manetho, Apion, etc.), his work applied Greek concepts to Abraham, Joseph, and Moses in order to make them more favorable to Greeks. For example, Artapanus considers Moses a “divine man” (theios aner). Moses is also called Hermes by priests and is auspicious in warfare.   These sorts of elements made Moses in antiquity, along with Abraham and Joseph, more favorable to Greeks.

Magic in Artapanus

Artapanus displays an interesting religious synchronizing tendencies; however, perhaps it is too much to say his use of magic of synchronic. The multiple references to magic in Fragment 3 include ibises [1], burning fire without wood or kindling [2], the name of Yahweh [3], and the plagues [4]. These occurrences of magic may not be due to synchronizing various religious traditions. As has been noted by many scholars, ancient Israel practiced magic, albeit not in the modern sense of Harry Potter (Perhaps closer to Lord of the Rings?). Jeremy Smoak, for example, argues that the Aaronic Benediction (Numbers 6:23-27) was part of a wider apotropaic magic blessing formula, evidenced by archaeology and the Hebrew Bible [5]. Likewise, the Urim and Thummin have been associated with divination [6]. These two examples demonstrate that, perhaps, Moses’ magic in Artapanus was not heretical or abnormal in any sense; rather, it merely represented magic through Greek ideas rather than ancient Mesopotamian ideas. In short, magic was an important part of the ancient world, and modern sensibilities should not attempt to sever the important role it played in a variety of traditions, as each tradition appropriates magic according to their culture [7].

[1] Ibises have an apotropaic function in 3.27.4, 3.27.9. See also Donna Runnals, “Moses’ Ethiopian Campaign”, in Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Period, 14 no 2 (Dec 1983), 135-156.

[2] Although this is a reference to the burning bush in Exodus, the brevity and historical context of Artapanus’ statement indicates a possible explanation of magic as the origin for the fire in 3.27.2. The text does not explicitly or implicitly imply that God’s presence was in the fire; rather, the fire was primarily a miracle in nature. See Collins, “Artapanus”, in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Vol. 2 (Peabody: 1983), 901, n. g2.

[3] “But he [Moses] bent forward and pronounced it in his ear. When the king heard it, he fell down speechless but revived when taken hold of by Moses” 3.27.25, translation by J. J. Collins. The name of God holds power to stun the king, indicating that the name held a sort of magical function.

[4] Like the burning bush, the series of plagues in Artapanus come across as a series of magic tricks when compared to Exodus. Unlike Exodus, Artapanus does not attribute the plagues and miracles directly to God. Furthermore, the plagues do not follow the same order and also include additions ones, such as an earthquake.

[5] Jeremy D. Smoak, The Priestly Blessing in Inscription and Scripture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[6] Victor Horwitz, “Urim and Thummim in Light of a Psephomancy Ritual from Assur (LKA 137)”, in Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Studies 21 (1992), 95-115, esp. 114.

[7] Horowitz, “Urim and Thummim”, 115, notes that “in Mesopotamia, psephomancy was assimilated to rpevailing religious practices, “Shamashzing” it, while in Israelite religion it was “Yahwehized”.


Collins, J. J.. “Artapanus,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Vol. 2 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1983). 889-903.

Horwitz, Victor. “Urim and Thummim in Light of a Psephomancy Ritual from Assur (LKA 137),” in Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Studies 21 (1992). 95-115. Click here to view online.

Smoak, Jeremy D. The Priestly Blessing in Inscription and Scripture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).



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