The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides


by Luke L. Cheung

[Luke L. Cheung is a doctoral student working with Professor Richard Bauckham at the Divinity School of the University of St. Andrews.–JRD]

I. The Genre of The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides

The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides can be seen as both a hellenic gnomology and a Jewish sapiential didactic poem. Almost all scholars unanimously agree at this point. It is a typical example of a cross-cultural product of its time (Derron, XXIX-XXX). As Pascale Derron (XXIX; also van der Horst, 1988, 12-13) rightly points out, the characteristics of Greek gnomological literature, namely, the use for educational purposes (particularly for the young), the recurrence of universal moral themes, the attribution to a figure in the past (such as Solomon), the disconnected juxtaposition of phrases, the elevated diction, and the use of antithesis, can all be found in Ps-Phoc. Yet we would argue that it is better to treat the entire work as a Jewish wisdom instruction.

There are significant overlappings between the general characteristics of the sub-genre of hellenistic paraenesis and wisdom instruction under the genre of paraenetic literature. The following two characteristics are common to both hellenistic paraensis and Jewish wisdom instructions:

A. The Use of Aphorisms and Imperatives

The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides is characterized by collections of GNW=MAI, short sentences giving rules for conduct in daily life. These sentences are loosely arranged, with no clear connection with the preceding or succeeding verses. Only sometimes are they arranged alphabetically or thematically. Van der Horst arranges the Sentences under 15 headings and Derron (XXVI-XXVII) into 18 sections. The themes of some of the units are very clear, but some are not. Vv 153-174, for example, are on the usefulness of labour, while followed by vv 175-227 on marriage, chastity and family life. An important formal difference is that the typical Old Testament form of the two-membered sayings in parallelismus membrorum has been dropped. It is more like Jewish didactic poetry, one of the literary forms found in wisdom paraenesis.

B. The Use of Earlier Traditions

Wisdom thinking can be found in all ages and among all peoples. By the end of the hellenistic period, an intriguing amalgamation of Eastern and Western elements has been taking place, as can also be found in later rabbinic literature. It may be an exaggeration to regard wisdom writings as religiously neutral or non-committal. Yet the very nature of paraenetic literature in using traditional materials from the ancients seems to provide the matrix for differing degrees of exchange of ideas and literary forms.

(1) The Use of Hellenistic Traditions Ps-Phoc. shows clear acquaintance with the Greek gnomological traditions, perhaps indirectly through other Hellenized Jewish literature at his time (van der Horst, 1978, 64f.). Ps-Phoc., written in the Ionic Greek dialect, is closer to the Greek didactic poetry in dactylic hexameters. It seems that Ps-Phoc. intends to place itself within that tradition which began with Hesiod. As we have mentioned earlier, the two-membered unit in a verse typical of Jewish wisdom paraenesis has been dropped. Instead, the poem is composed of GNW=MAI, not unlike that of the prose gnomic sayings of Isocrates. The writer may have known Stoic theories, even second hand, as can be seen in vv 63-67 (van der Horst, 1978, 57f.). There are also some other non-Jewish parallels in classical Greek authors. Gilbert, (314 n.113) cites the followig possible parallels: vv 124-128 may depend on Protagoras, either directly or indirectly; vv 199-204, 143 on Theognis; and vv 159-160 on Hesiod. See also the parallels listed in Derron (35-54).

(2) The Use of Jewish Traditions His primary sources are from the Greek Old Testament, especially from the Pentateuch and the wisdom writings (see the statistical chart summarizing the possible allusions in Niebuhr, 10-11). The influence of the LXX upon the work can be found in some of the typical LXX words such as SUNEGEIRW in the poem (van der Horst, 1978, 58).

According to Jewish thinking, religion is foundational to ethics and in close union with it. This kind of thinking is different from Greek sophists who generally see wisdom merely as something acquired through education and constant rational reflection (See, e.g., George B. Kerferd, “The Sage in Hellenistic Philosophical Literature [399 B.C.E.-199 C.E.],” in _The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East_, edited by John G. Gammie and Leo G. Perdue [Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990], 319-328.) Ps-Phoc. seems to assume an ethical monotheism that humans are supposed to live in accordance with the divine will for them (v 1; see Mack & Murphy, 396). This can be seen in the author’s seeing God as “the only God” EI(=S QEO/N; cf. Deut 6:4: KU/RION O( QEO\N H(MW=N KU/RION EI(=S E)STIN; Philo Opif. 171; Or. Sib. III.11f.) who is immortal (v 17), wise, mighty and rich in blessings (v 54). He deserves first and foremost honour from human beings (v 8). The human body is made out of the dust of the earth and shall return to dust; while the human spirit is created in God’s image (v 106; cf. vv 125-128). This implies that God is the creator of humanity. He is also the judge and the ruler of all (vv 11, 111 cf. 17) . The human being is ultimately accountable to God. The religious motivation of the instructions cannot be easily dismissed.

Vv. 3-8 is a summarizing paraphrase of the Decalogue (van der Horst, 1978, 110-12; Niebuhr, 15-16; also Derron, XXVI, 19, though he also finds each having parallels in Delphic precepts), with the omission of the introductory formula “I am the Lord, your God…” and the commandments on idolatry and sabbath. The inverse in order of the first two commandments of the second table in vv. 3-4 is found not only in LXX (Exod 20:13, 14; Deut 5:17, 18: OU( MOICEU/SEIS–OU) FONEU/SEIS), but also in Philo (Spec. leg. III 8ff., 83ff.; Decal. 36, 51, 121ff., 132ff.) and the New Testament (Matt 5:21-33; 19:18; Mark 7:21-22; 10:19; Luke 18:20; Rom 13:9; Jas 2:11). The condemnation of lasciviousness in adultery and homosexuality is followed by that of greed, corresponding to the commandments of “thou shalt not steal” and “thou shalt not covet” (Exod 20: 15, 17; Deut 5:19, 21). Together lasciviousness and greediness are regarded as the two cardinal vices in early Jewish literature (cf. Philo Decal. 36; 4 Macc 2:3-6 where they occur together) and often appear together in the New Testament as sins to avoid (1 Cor 5:10, 11; Eph 4:19; 5:3, 5; Col 3:5; 2 Pet 2:2-3, 14). A great part of the precepts in vv. 9-41 alludes to Lev 19, omitting again the introductory formula, and precepts on idolatry, cult and purity (v 31 is an interpolation; see van der Horst, 1978, 135; Derron, 22). Vv 9-10, e.g., finds parallels in Lev 19:15 (cf. Exod 23:1-3; Deut 1:17; 16:18-20; Prov 24:23). Johnson (393) notices that in vv 9-21, the putting together of the condemnation of perjury, partiality and oppression can best be explained in seeing Lev 19 as providing the organizing principle for this part of the work. It may be that the author takes Lev 19 as a kind of summary or central chapter of the Torah (van der Horst, 1978, 66f.). He cites Sifra Qedoshim, Parasha I (on 19:1) and Lev. Rabbah XXIV 5 in support (1978a, 191). As to vv 84-95 which bear no parallels in Greek literature, they may be a reworking of Deut 22:6-7. Philo and Josephus also has these passages in their summaries of Jewish laws (van der Horst, 1978a, 194). The use of ant and bee as examples for human beings in the section on the usefulness of labour (vv 153-174) can only be found in the LXX of Prov 6:6-8c (not in the Hebrew), not in other Greek literature (van der Horst, 1978a, 196). Vv 177-227 also reflect much of the sexual ethics contained in Lev 18/20 (Niebuhr, 26ff.). In general, the allusions are more thematic than verbal (Johnson, 392). Typically Jewish themes can be found, for example, in the concern for the poor and needy (vv 10, 19, 22-3, 29), the concern for strangers (vv 39ff.), the bodily resurrection from the dead (vv. 103-4), a very heavy emphasis on sexual matters (esp. vv 186-190) and greediness, etc. The bodily resurrection from the dead is also exclusively Jewish. As in Ben Sira, though it used legal materials, its sayings are typically sage. Van der Horst (1978, 67) rightly remarks

Though Ps-Phoc. has adopted many precepts from the Pentateuch, the spirit of his writing is more congenial to the Wisdom literature. There, too, we see a constant search for a universal ethics which shuns particularistic elements and is not averse to the good and useful elements in the ethics of the surrounding peoples.

Yet it is still important that the author did ground his ethics on the Jewish Tora (Niebuhr, 12). The author may intend the rest of the poem as an expansion of the opening summary of the Decalogue in the seven commandments in 1:3-8 (von Lips, 414). The linking together of the decalogue with the commandments in Leviticus can also be found in Philo (Hypothetica 7.1-9) and Josephus (Contra Apionem 2.190-219). They all emphasize the moral aspect, especially on sexual ethics and care for the needy, on the other hand, minimizing the cultic aspect of the law (Niebuhr 1987, 20-26, 51;cf. v 228). The non-Jewish injunctions are included in their ethical teachings as applications of the Tora to their particular situations. This is also true of Ps-Phoc. (Niebuhr, 56-57).

Not only the ethical content of the work is predominantly from a Jewish perspective, there is an additional feature that can convincingly show that Ps.-Phoc. is written after the manner of Jewish wisdom paraenesis. It can be shown that one of the characteristic features of Jewish wisdom paraenesis is that the opening often outlines the basic elements found in the rest of the work (see H. von Lips, 413) and the closing often recapitulates what is stated in the opening and thus forms an interpretative framework for the entire work. This pattern can already be found in some of the canonical OT wisdom literature such as Proverbs (chaps 1-9/31)and Ecclesiastes (1:1- 3/12:8-14), and also in the apocrypha Ben Sira, the closest affinity to Ps.-Phoc. In Ben Sira, the introduction (1:1-10) and the opening acrostic poem (1:11-30) are programmatic for the understanding of the work and the latter forms an inclusio with the autobiographical concluding acrostic poem (51:13-20). Harrington (41) notices that Fragment 1 of 4Q416, a wisdom text of Qumran, has an extensive margin on the right-hand side which seems to designate the beginning of the work. The work thus begins with a cosmic and eschatological framework in which other instructions on various issues are to be interpreted. The sage therefore may have provided the eschatological perspective for the entire Sapiential Work A. It is unfortunate that most of the work only exists in fragments. We simply do not know how the work ends.

This pattern of opening and closing forming an interpretative framework can also be found in Pseudo-Phocylides where the opening prologue (1-2) corresponds with the closing epilogue (228-230). Though the authenticity of the first two verses has been disputed, there is no strong external evidence against its presence in the original poem. The TAU/TA DIKAIOSUNHS in v 229 forms an inclusio with TAU+TA DIKHI=S in v. 1. The entire poem must be read in the light of v.1 as obedience to the divine counsel. The word SOFW/TATOS is a traditional epithet of Solomon and here is applied to Phocylides. Vv. 229-230 actually summarizes the entire ethical content of the whole poem as instructions of the way of righteousness (van der Horst, 1978, 260). This again is in line with the understanding of the Jewish wisdom paraenesis. Thus it is not true that Ps.-Phoc. shows a lack of theological foundation in its ethics (as van der Horst, 1978a, 202). The opening and the closing indeed provide the framework in which the entire poem is to be interpreted.

II. The Date, Author, Provenance and Purpose of Ps-Phoc.

Since Ps-Phoc. uses some fifteen words that do not occur in texts before the first century B.C.E., this sets the earliest date of composition of the work. Its many agreements with Philo and other popular philosophical-ethical preachers active in the early Roman period suggests a date before 100 C.E. The only viable suggestion for the place of composition is in Alexandria, the only place known in antiquity where dissection was practiced (van der Horst). V 102 seems to be against such a practice. The influence of the LXX on the poem points to a time of origin long after the real Phocylides who lived in the middle of sixth century B.C.E. in Miletus. Phocylides is a name of great fame in antiquity, famous for his wisdom and counsel on daily living. The use of this Greek pseudonym gives authority for the wise counsels in the work. Different from the perspective of Ben Sira, Philo, or Josephus, Ps-Phoc. tries as much as possible to get rid of the distinctive Hebrew elements. He never mentions the name Israel and avoids anything about Sabbath, circumcision, dietary rules, ritual purity, and any cultic precepts. This explains how for more than 15 centuries no one ever suspected that it may be a forgery despite people’s awareness of the numerous reminiscences of the Hebrew Bible. Any hypothesis on the purpose of the work must be able to explain the phenomena stated above.

The poem was little known in antiquity and was never quoted by Church Fathers. Before 1591, no one has any doubt about its authenticity. It became a favourite schoolbook for the youth on ethics in the sixth century. It was not preserved as a Christian document. On the other hand, no distinctive Christian elements can be found in the work. There is no external nor internal evidence that support it being a Christian work.

There are at least three possibilities for the purpose of the poem: (i) it is written by a Jew for his fellow Jews; (ii) it is written by a Jew to make “sympathizers” for Judaism in the hellenistic world; and (iii) it is written by a non-Jew, probably a “Godfearer” to win over people to Jewish ethical monotheism (van der Horst, 1988, 15). The use of a pseudonym and the elimination of some of the distinctive Jewish elements as mentioned above speak against the last two options. The best hypothesis at present is the one proposed by van der Horst (1988, 16):

…the characteristics of our poem, such as its pseudonimity, the omission of anything exclusively Jewish…, and the incorporation of originally non-biblical commandments, can all be explained on the assumption that the author wrote a kind of compendium of misvot for daily life which could help Jews in a thoroughly Hellenistic environment to live as Jews without having to abandon their interest in Greek culture. If our author intended to write a schoolbook (and we have seen how often gnomologies served educational purposes), one could imagine that, as a Jewish writer, he tried to provide a ‘pagan’ text that could be used safely in Jewish schools to satisfy Jewish parents who wanted their children to be trained in the classical pagan authors.


Derron, 1986
Derron, Pascale. _Pseudo-Phocylide Sentences: Texte -E’tabli, Traduit et Commente’ .Collection des Universite’s de France_. Paris: Socie’te’ D’E’dition (Les Belles Letters), 1986.

Gilbert, 1984
Gilbert, M. “Wisdom Literature.” In _Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period: Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Qumran Sectarian Writings, Philo, Josephus_. Pages 283-324. Edited by Michael E. Stone. Assen/Philadelphia: Van Gorcum/Fortress, 1984.

Harrington, 1996
Harrington, Daniel J. _Wisdom Texts from Qumran_. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

van der Horst, 1978
van der Horst, Pieter W. _The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides_. SVTP 4. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1978.

van der Horst, 1978a
van der Horst, Pieter W. “Pseudo-Phocylides and the New Testament.” _ZNW_ 69 (1978): 187-202.

van der Horst, 1985
van der Horst, Pieter W. “Pseudo-Phocylides: A New Translation and Introduction.” In _The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha_. Vol.2. Pages 565-82. Edited by James H. Charlesworth. London: Longman & Todd, 1985.

van der Horst, 1988
van der Horst, Pieter W. “Pseudo-Phocylides Revisited.” _JSP_ 3 (1988): 3-30.

Johnson, 1982
Johnson, Luke T. “The Use of Leviticus 19 in the Letter of James.” _JBL_ 101 (1982): 391-401.

von Lips, 1990
Lips, H. von. _Weisheitliche Traditionen im Neuen Testament_. WMANT 64. M<“u>nchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 1990.

Mack & Murphy, 1986
Mack, Burton L. and Murphy, Roland E. “Wisdom Literature.” In _Early Judaism and Its Modern Interpreters_. Pages 371-410. Edited by Robert A. Kraft and George W. E. Nickelsburg. Atlanta: Scholars, 1986.

Niebuhr, 1987
Niebuhr, Karl-Wilhelm. _Gesetz und Par<“a>nese: Katechismusartige Weisungsreihen in der fr<“u>hj<“u>dischen Literatur_. WUNT 2/28. T<“u>bingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1987.

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