Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Orphica

Introduction to the Text:

Orphica is a Hellenistic Jewish oracle written in archaizing Greek between 150 BCE and 50 CE. It represents itself as being “esoteric instructions given by Orpheus to his son and pupil Musaeus” (OTP 2, 795). Two versions come to us from Aristobulus, cited in a few early Church sources in works attributed to the pseudonym Justin Martyr, to Eusebius, to Clement of Alexandria, and to a 5th century theosophical text.  Both versions express the oneness of God and introduce us to the beginnings of Jewish mysticism. Additionally, Orphica carefully engages with theodicy, noting that even in God’s goodness “he brings evil upon mortals”.

Orphica as a Primer to Early Jewish Mysticism

Assuming M. Lafargue is accurate in depicting Orphica as an early example of Jewish mysticism, it is an excellent text because it provides insight into how Jewish mysticism, and perhaps many sects of Jewish or Christian Gnosticism, operated. In recensions E and T, Orpheus notes that he does not see God “because around [him] a cloud is set up, / a thin one for me [Orpheus], but tenfold for all [other] people” (Orphica, Long Version, lines 20-21). This brief statement tangibly illustrates how mystic and Gnostic groups conceptualized their understanding and connection to, or with, God. It was one in which certain people could see beyond the “veil” surrounding him.

Likewise, the long version notes that “with souls mortals have, he is seen [only] by Mind” (Orphica, Long Version, Line 12). If reading this recension correctly and apply anachronistic terms for better interpretation of the text, it seems to encourage a more spiritual approach to how Orpheus encourages Musaeus to ‘know’ God. Important, though, is that this idea of only seeing God by Mind is a later interpolation from the shorter and more original J and C recensions (OTP 2, p. 799, fn. d). The short version says the following: “Of mortal men has seen him, but he sees all” (Orphica, Short Version, Line 12). The later interpolation, the long version, may be reflective of the Jewish context in which various political and religious conflict has been a continuous issue. Thus, Jewish mysticism may be a response to struggle with understanding how God is present and active within a region embroiled in tensions between major powers and conservative and progressive voices.


H. Lafargue, “Orphica”, ed. J. H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol 2 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1983), 795-801.


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