Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Demetrius the Chronographer

Introduction to the Text:

Demetrius was an ancient historian who wrote about the “inconsistencies and obscurities found in the biblical tradition, especially in matters of chronography” [1]. A chronologist is one who records the order in which things happen. So, Demetrius, as a chronologist writing from a Jewish perspective, attempts to provide a coherent timeline of events within the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.

At the moment, we only have six extant (existing) fragments. Each fragment is present via excerpts of Alexander Polyhistor (yet another ancient historian) in Praeparatio Evangélica by Eusibius (and yet, another yet: an ancient, Christian historian). That is to say that we don’t have any full manuscripts, only quotes and citations from other authors.

On the Nature Chronography by Demetrius 

As noted previously, Demetrius was chiefly interested in writing a cogent history of biblical tradition with special regard for chronology. What some have missed, though, is exactly what constitutes “chronology”. In the few extant fragments, what can we learn about how Demetrius, and thereby others in a similar school of thought, conceptualized chronology and decided what was relevant?

Fragment 2 focuses on the chronology from Jacob to Joseph, with specifics about the life cycle of each figure and major geographical movements. Fragment 2 specifically notes that, after Jacob left Laban following a twenty year period, Jacob met and wrestled God. Consequently, his name was changed to Israel.

“And while he was going to Canaan, an angel of the Lord wrestled with him, and touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, and he became numb and went lame; on account of this the tendon of the thigh of cattle is not eaten. And the angel said to him that from that time on he would no longer be called Jacob, but Israel” [2].

Although this could be interpreted as a transition explaining to the reader why Demetrius now briefly refers to Jacob as Israel, and to note that they are the same people, it is important consider the context of this statement. Unlike the original Genesis narrative, Demetrius is primarily providing a chronology. Thus, it is important to read the brief digression as a part of the genealogical chronology [3].

Within Demetrius the Chronographer, the sudden digression into the name change of Jacob is an important part of the genealogy. Surrounding context only focuses on geography and chronology. So, the sudden addition of the name change account must have some purpose and connection to its surrounding context, for it doesn’t serve any explanatory purpose of an inconsistency or incongruity. If we read the name change account as a part of the genealogy, then, it becomes evident that Demetrius understands Jacob’s geographical movement into the land of Canaan and subsequent encounter with God as a new generation.

So, a change in name, and thereby identity, is just as important to Demetrius as the birth of a child or age of a person. Having been written in the 3rd century BCE, it highlights the importance of and relationship between names and identities. When considering the method of Demetrius in constructing a coherent chronology, one must consider that what Demetrius considered to be relevant to chronology is not necessarily what we consider to be relevant to chronology.

[1] J. Hanson.”Demetrius the Chronographer”. James H. Charlesworth (ed.). The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Volume II, Third Edition. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013.

[2] Ibid., 849.

[3] Lorenzo DiTommaso, “A Note on Demetrius the Chronographer, Fr 2.11 (=Eusebius, PrEv 9.21.11),” Journal For The Study Of Judaism In The Persian, Hellenistic And Roman Period 29, no. 1 (February 1998): 81-91.

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