Ezekiel the Tragedian’s play on Moses; quoted by Eusebius, found at Oxyrhynchus

A number of news reports have circulated this week about the finds of Greek literature at Oxyrhynchus.  One of the better ones is in the Daily Mail, which has been running a lot of articles on subjects of interest lately.  The report by James Dunn (2 March 2016) is here.  It’s based on an article in the soon-to-be-extinct Independent, which nobody reads.

A long-lost speech from a play about Moses has been discovered on newly translated papers found more than a hundred years ago on an ancient Egyptian rubbish pile.

The speech explains how he was given the name Moses because he was found on the riverbank, written in a Greek-style tragedy about the Biblical character written in the Second Century BC.

It means that the classic Biblical story would have been performed more than 2,000 years before Charlton Heston played Moses in the 1956 blockbuster The Ten Commandments.

It is one of 500,000 documents found when the Victorian archaeologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt discovered the ancient city Oxyrhynchus, about 120 miles south of modern Cairo, in 1897.

Between then and 2012, only 5,000 had been translated, but thousands more have been translated thanks to an army of volunteers who have inspected the documents which were put online.

But the most interesting to many will be the fragment of a long-lost rendition of the Book of Exodus, written in the style of a Greek tragedy by little-known author called Ezekiel.

It had been quoted in another documents by Church Father Eusebius, written 400 years later, but until now, no-one had ever seen it.

Dr Dirk Oddbink, of Oxford University, co-ordinating the project, said: ‘We didn’t know for certain that a text existed: Eusebius might have made it up or misremembered it,’ reports The Independent.

‘Now we have a real copy, a long speech by Moses, in iambic trimeters, telling the history of his life and how he was discovered as a baby in the bulrushes.

‘We can put some flesh and bones on a lost work of literature, one that was presumably performed long before Charlton Heston.’

Dirk Oddbink is better known as Dirk Obbink.  The Independent has a less people-friendly introduction, but then adds a translation:

Newly discovered fragment of Ezekiel’s Exagoge, spoken by Moses:

Then the princess with her maidservants came down to bathe.
When she saw me, she took me up and recognised that I was a Hebrew.
My sister Mariam then ran up to her and spoke,
‘Shall I get a nursemaid for this child from the Hebrews?’ The princess urged her on.
Mariam went to fetch our mother who presently appeared and took me in her arms.
The princess said to her, ‘Woman, nurse this child and I shall pay your wages.’
She then named me Moses, because she had taken me from the watery river-bank.

The Mail also prints a couple of pictures of papyri, but I learn from a correspondent that these are in fact nothing to do with the Exodus, but are POxy 1.2 (Matthew) and POxy 6.846 (Amos).

We learn more about this author from Louis H. Feldman, here.[1]

2.26 Ezekiel the Tragedian, The Exodus, quoted by Alexander Polyhistor (first century BC), cited by Eusebius (end of third and beginning of fourth century AD), Preparation for the Gospel 9.29.4-6

We know of a Jew, Ezekiel, who composed tragedies, considerable fragments of one of which, The Exodus, have been preserved. His thorough familiarity with various classical authors, particularly Aeschylus and Euripides, indicates that he was well schooled in Greek literature. The play itself follows the biblical narrative closely, though the dream here mentioned, together with the interpretation by Moses’ father-in-law Raguel (Jethro), is non-biblical. There would appear to be significance in the fact that this crucial dream is interpreted by a non-Jew, Raguel.

Ezekiel thus mentions these things in his work The Exodus and includes the dream seen by Moses and interpreted by his father-in-law.

In the following extract, Moses himself speaks in dialogue with his father-in- law.

‘I dreamt there was on the summit of Mount Sinai
A certain great throne extending up to heaven’s cleft,
On which there sat a certain noble man
Wearing a crown and holding a great sceptre
In his left hand. With his right hand
He beckoned to me, and I stood before the throne.
He gave me the sceptre and told me to sit
On the great throne. He gave me the royal crown.
And he himself left the throne.
I beheld the entire circled earth
Both beneath the earth and above the heaven,
And a host of stars fell on its knees before me;
I numbered them all.
They passed before me like a squadron of soldiers.
Then, seized with fear, I rose from my sleep.’
His father-in-law interprets the dream thusly:
‘O friend, that which God has signified to you is good;
Might I live until the time when these things happen to you.
Then you will raise up a great throne
And it is you who will judge and lead humankind;
As you beheld the whole inhabited earth,
The things beneath and the things above God’s heaven,
So will you see things present, past, and future.’

Feldman does not make clear that Eusebius actually quotes far, far more than this: too much, indeed, for me to include in this post.

The Gifford translation of the Praeparatio Evangelica of Eusebius is online, and book 9 is here.  

Eusebius is not quoting directly, however.  He introduces, in chapter 17, his source: the lost work by Alexander Polyhistor:

AND with this agrees also Alexander Polyhistor, a man of great intellect and much learning, and very well known to those Greeks who have gathered the fruits of education in no perfunctory manner: for in his compilation, Concerning the Jews, he records the history of this man Abraham in the following manner word for word…

The Ezekiel material is stated to be copied “word for word” from Polyhistor.

It is nice to see Eusebius confirmed, once again, as an accurate source for lost works.  It has always seemed rather mean-minded, to me, to cast aspersions on a man to whom we owe so much knowledge of antiquity.

  1. [1]Louis H. Feldman, Jewish Life and Thought among Greeks and Romans: Primary Readings (1996) p.41. Online here.