Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Pseudo-Phocylides

Introduction to the Text: 

Pseudo-Phocylides is a text of maxims for people in their daily lives. Written between 1st century CE and BCE, the author wrote under the name Phocylides, an Ionic poet who lived in the 6th century BCE, in order to bolster the importance and value of the text. Unlike the original Phocylides, Pseudo-Phocylides merged Jewish and Greek ideas. Consequently, Pseudo-Phocylides is now “representative of that universalistic current in ancient Judaism” (Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume II; P. W. van der Horst, “Pseudo-Phocylides”, p. 569).

The maxims within the 230 line poetry are remarkably poignant (at least from my modern perspective). As I read Pseudo-Phocylides, I considered how the ideas within the text are actually extremely valuable to our own society. Yet, I also recognized that many of my initial interpretations were very wrong. Certain ideas in the 21st century, for example, did not mean the same thing at the turn of the millennium.

The Threshold and Sacred Ritual: 

Line 24a is the perfect example of something which, in the 21st century, means something very different than it did in the 1st century.

Line 24a: Receive the homeless in (your) house…

Initially the maxim seems straight forward. If a homeless person needs a place to briefly stay or a place to eat, invite them in for a meal. In my interpretation, the focus is on the concept and action of inviting somebody into my house, a relatively simple and mundane act, albeit significant from a social perspective. Reception of this text in my own mind draws out the social emphasis, not any concrete, spatial reality.

In the ancient world, though, receiving the homeless was an incredibly significant act. In order to be received into a household, the homeless person had to cross a threshold, namely the entrance of the household. The threshold “defines a basic opposition between people who own a dwelling place and people who don’t”, a boundary which marks distinction between those with a dwelling place and those without. Now, in religious Greek thought, beggars all come from Zeus. To receive a beggar beyond the threshold (door) and into the dwelling place was a sacred, ritual act (Pietro Giammellaro 2013, 162). So, by receiving a beggar and permitting him/her to cross the threshold, they performed a sacred, ritual act of worship.

Because Pseudo-Phocylides was written within a Hellenistic context, namely a Jewish and Greek context, we should assume that a similar conceptual framework informed the reality of the author. The maxim “receive the homeless in (your) house” is not merely a maxim calling for good deeds; rather, it calls for sanctified and sacred ritual act within a physical space, which results in direct worship Yahweh. In terms of Judaism, it was an act which sanctified the name of God, as the homeless were implicitly sent from Yahweh.

As these two interpretations demonstrate, the conceptual framework of the origin of the text is incredibly valuable. My original interpretation highlighted how it was a good deed and socially beneficial to receive the homeless. My interpretation informed by historical and textual studies of Greek culture highlighted how it was a sacred, ritual act to receive the homeless. These two interpretations are both valid; however, the latter allows us to more fully engage with the mind, context, and intentions of the author of Pseudo-Phocylides. For this reason, it is always important to consider the original conceptual environment of any text.

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