A Jewish Historian in Hellenistic Egypt


The Fragments of Demetrius the Chronographer’s “On the Kings of Judaea”


By Jared L. Olar



Among the communities of the Jewish Diaspora during the centuries before the coming of Christ, one of the greatest and most influential was that located in the city of Alexandria in the Nile Delta of Egypt. As a bustling cultural center and crossroads during the height of Hellenistic culture, Alexandria was an ideal environment for an exchange of ideas between Jews and Gentiles. It was in Alexandria where the five books of the Torah were first translated into Greek during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-247 B.C.), followed not long after by the translation of the remaining books of the Old Testament – the ancient Bible translation known as the Septuagint (“the Seventy,” from the tradition that 70 expert Jewish scribes did the translation work). The Septuagint was a cultural milestone of the highest significance, enabling widespread access to Israel’s Holy Scriptures to Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles throughout the Hellenised Near East – a development that in time would facilitate the spread of the Gospel.


As a matter of course, it was the first or second generations following the creation of the Greek Septuagint version that saw the appearance of the earliest Jewish histories in the Greek language. Our first known Greek-language Jewish history was a work entitled, “On the Kings of Judaea,” written in the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator (221-204 B.C.) by a man named Demetrius, known from his work as “the Chronographer” to distinguish him from other ancient writers name Demetrius.


Unfortunately the work of Demetrius no longer exists in its entirety, surviving only in a series of six fragments preserved by the pagan historian Alexander Polyhistor, the Christian historian Eusebius, and the early Church Father Clement of Alexandria. However, those fragments do permit us to discern that Demetrius was a Jew almost certainly of Alexandria who wrote his work circa 220 B.C., that his work was concerned with biblical chronology and the history of Israel’s ancient rulers and patriarchs, and that he relied upon the Septuagint translation. Demetrius is identified as Alexandrian not only because he wrote in Greek and used the Septuagint (facts which of themselves would not require Demetrius to be Alexandrian), but because he used the beginning of the reign of the Egyptian monarch Ptolemy IV as a baseline for his chronological calculations. On the other hand, in those days the Holy Land was under Egyptian rule, so even if Demetrius lived in Jerusalem it still would have been natural for him to count time from the start of Ptolemy IV’s reign.


Demetrius’ reliance on the Septuagint is shown by the specific Grecianised spellings of his biblical names and by his stated total of years from Adam’s creation to Israel’s entrance into Egypt – 3,624 years, a chronological figure that can only be calculated from the Septuagint tradition of the numbers found in Gen. 5 and 11. As we have noted previously, Demetrius is the earliest extra-biblical witness for the Septuagint chronological tradition, preceding the earliest known witnesses for the proto-Masoretic tradition by some three centuries or more. The Masoretic total for the years from Adam to the entrance into Egypt is 2,298 years. Despite the apparent Alexandrian milieu of Demetrius’ work, though, the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia noted that, “For the determination of certain dates he relied on the Biblical exegesis in use among the Palestinian Jews.” For that reason, some have suggested that Demetrius may in fact have lived in Judaea rather than Egypt. It seems more likely, however, that in the 220s B.C. there was no significant difference between the method of exegesis preferred in Jerusalem versus that preferred in Alexandria.


Of the six fragments of Demetrius’ work, five of them are found in Book 9 of Eusebius Pamphilii’s Praeparatio Evangelica (“Preparation of the Gospel,” a work in which Eusebius endeavored to show how God worked throughout human history to lay the groundwork for the preaching of the Gospel and the conversion of the Gentiles). Eusebius did not quote directly from Demetrius’ work, but rather excerpted it from Alexander Polyhistor’sOn the Jews,” which had incorporated extensive verbatim quotes from Demetrius. The first fragment is a brief, annalistic-style summary of the Binding of Isaac (Gen. 22:1-14). The second fragment is by far the longest, being an extended chronological schema of the life of Jacob, supplying dates for the events of Jacob’s life that are related in Genesis, including dates for the births of Jacob’s children down to the month and concluding with the genealogy of Levi down to Moses and Aaron. The third fragment deals with the life of Moses, presenting a remarkable genealogy of Moses’ Midianite wife Zipporah. The fourth and fifth fragments are excerpts from Demetrius’ account of Israel’s trek to Mount Sinai, telling of Moses’ miraculous healing of the bitter waters of Marah, and explaining where Israel got the weapons it used in the battle with the Amalekites. The sixth and final fragment comes from Clement of Alexandria’s Stromata, in which Demetrius calculates the periods of the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities of the tribes of Israel down to the reign of Ptolemy IV.


Below are J. Hanson’s English translations of the six fragments of Demetrius the Chronographer’s “On the Kings of Judaea” (with bold emphasis added), followed by my own comments and observations.


Fragment one

So much says Polyhistor; to which he [rather, Demetrius] adds, after other (sentences), saying; But not long after, God commanded Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a whole burnt offering to him. And when he led his son up to the mountain, he heaped up a pyre, and placed Isaac on it. But when he was about to sacrifice him, he was prevented by an angel, who provided him with a ram for the offering. And Abraham took his son down from the pyre and offered the ram.

Demetrius’ remarks here are a factual summary of this significant episode in Abraham’s life. Entirely absent is any kind of theological reflection on, for example, the question of why God, who abhorred human sacrifice, commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac only to send an angel to intervene and provide a ram in Isaac’s place. The point of this fragment is simply Demetrius’ assertion that the near-sacrifice of Isaac really did take place. An accurate setting forth and clarification of Israel’s history (as best as Demetrius understood it) was the purpose of Demetrius’ chronicle, not providing deeper theological reflection on the biblical texts under consideration.


Fragment two

“Let us return again to Polyhistor: Demetrius Concerning Jacob, from the same writing of Polyhistor. Demetrius says that Jacob was (77) years old when he fled to Haran in Mesopotamia, having been sent away by his parents on account of the secret enmity of Esau towards his brother (which was due to the fact that his father had blessed him thinking that he was Esau), and in order that he might acquire a wife there.
“Jacob, then, set out for Haran in Mesopotamia, having left his father Isaac, who was 137 years of age, while he was himself 77 years old.

“Then after spending 7 years there, he married two daughters of Laban, his maternal uncle, Leah and Rachel, when he was 84 years old. In seven more years, 12 children were born to him. In the 10th month of the 8th year, Reuben (was born); and in the 8th month of the 9th year, Simeon; and in the 6th month of the 10th year, Levi; and in the 4th month of the 11th year, Judah. And since Rachel did not bear, she became envious of her sister, and gave her own handmaid (Bilhah to Jacob as a concubine, who bore Dan in the 4th month of the 11th year, and in the 2nd month of the 12th year, Naphtali. And Leah gave her own handmaid) Zilpah to Jacob as a concubine, at the same time as Bilhah conceived Naphtali, in the 5th month of the 11th year, and he begot a son in the 2nd month of the 12th year, whom Leah named Gad; and of the same month in the 12th month of the same year he begot another son, whom Leah named Asher.
“And in return for the mandrake apples which Reuben brought to Rachel, Leah again conceived, as did her handmaid Zilpah at the same time, in the 3rd month of the 12th year, and bore a son in the 12th month of the same year, and gave him the name Issachar.
“And again Leah bore another son in the 10th month of the 13th year, whose name was Zebulun; and in the 8th month of the 14th year, the same Leah bore a (daughter) named (Dinah). And at the same time as Leah (conceived) a daughter, Dinah, Rachel also conceived in her womb, and in the 8th month of the 14th year she bore a son, who was named Joseph, so that in the 7 years spent with Laban, 12 children were born.
“But when Jacob wanted to return to his father in Canaan, at Laban’s request he stayed six more years, so that in all he stayed for twenty years with Laban in Haran.
“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.
“And he came to (Salem, a city) of the land of Canaan, having with him his children, Reuben, 12 years and 2 months old; Simeon, 11 years and 4 months; Levi, 10 years and 6 months; Judah, 9 years and 8 months; (Dan 9 years and 8 months
😉;) Naphtali, 8 years and 10 months; Gad, 8 years and 10 months; Asher, 8 years; Issachar, 8 years; Zebulon, 7 years and 2 months; Dinah, 6 years and 4 months; Joseph, 6 years and 4 months old.
“Now Israel lived beside Hamor for 10 years, and Israel’s daughter, Dinah, was defiled by Shechem the son of Hamor, when she was 16 years and 4 months old. And Israel’s son Simeon, at 21 years and 4 months, and Levi, at 20 years and 6 months of age, rushed out and slew both Hamor and his son Shechem, and all their males, because of the defilement of Dinah; and Jacob was 107 years old at the time.
“To resume, when he had come to Luz (which is) Bethel, God said that he was no longer to be called Jacob, but Israel. From that place he came to Chaphratha, and after that to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem, and there he fathered Benjamin; and Rachel died after giving birth to
Benjamin, and Jacob lived with her for 23 years.
“From there, Jacob came to Mamre, (which is) Hebron, to his father, Isaac, Joseph was then 17 years old, and he was sold into Egypt, and remained in prison 13 years, so that he was then 30 years old. And Jacob was 120 years of age, one year before Isaac’s death at 180 years of age.
“And Joseph, having interpreted the king’s dreams, governed Egypt for 7 years, in which time he married Aseneth, daughter of Pentephres the priest of Heliopolis, and begot Manasseh and Ephraim, and 2 years of famine followed.

But though Joseph had prospered for 9 years, he did not send for his father, because he was a shepherd, as were Joseph’s brothers; and to the Egyptians it is disgraceful to be a shepherd. That this was the reason why he did not send for him, he himself had made clear, for when his relatives came, he told them that if they should be summoned by the king and asked what their occupation was, they should say that they were breeders of cattle.
“And they were at a loss as to why Joseph gave Benjamin at breakfast a portion 5 times as much as theirs, since he was not able to consume so much meat. He had done this because his father had had (six) sons by Leah, and two by his mother, Rachel; therefore, he set five portions before Benjamin, and he himself took one; accordingly they had (six) portions, as many as the sons of Leah received.
“Similarly, while he gave two garments to each, to Benjamin he gave five, and three hundred pieces of gold; and he sent (him) to his father likewise, so that his mother’s house might be equal to the other.
“And they lived in the land of Canaan from the time when Abraham was chosen from among the gentiles and migrated to Canaan; Abraham for 25 years; Isaac 60 years; Jacob, 130 years. All the years in the land of Canaan were (thus) 215.
“And in the third year of the famine in Egypt, Jacob came into Egypt when he was 130 years old; Reuben, (44 years and 10 months); Simeon, 44 years; Levi, 43 years (and 2 months); Judah, 42 years, and (4) months; (Dan, 42 years and 4 months); Naphtali, 41 years and (6) months; Gad, 41 years and (6) months; Asher, 40 years and 8 months; (Issachar, 40 years and 8 months); Zebulun, (39 years and 10 months); Dinah, 39 years; and Benjamin, (22) years old.
“But Joseph (he says) was already there in Egypt, (at age) 39; and from Adam until Joseph’s brothers came into Egypt there were 3,624 years; and from the Deluge until Jacob’s coming into Egypt, 1,360 years; and from the time when Abraham was chosen from among the Gentiles and came from Haran into Canaan until Jacob and his family came into Egypt there were 215 years.
“But Jacob came into Haran to Laban when he was (77) years old, and begot Levi (….) And Levi lived on in Egypt for 17 years, from the time of his coming from Canaan into Egypt, so that he was 60 years old when he begot (Kohath). And in the same year in which (Kohath) was born, Jacob died in Egypt, after he had blessed the sons of Joseph, when he himself was 147 years old, leaving Joseph at the age of 56 years. And Levi was 137 years old when he died. And when (Kohath) was 40 years old he begot Amram, who was 14 years old when Joseph died in Egypt at the age of 110; and (Kohath) was 133 years old when he died. Amram took as his wife his uncle’s daughter Jochebed, and when he was 75 years old he begot Aaron (and Moses). But when he begot Moses, Amram was 78 years old, and Amram was 136 years old when he died.”

This fragment addresses matters that are related in Genesis 27-47, concluding with a chronological elaboration on the genealogy of Moses and Aaron in Exodus 6:16-20. Demetrius’ focus here is on chronology, but along the way he comments on a few aspects of the biblical narrative – we will explore the fragment’s chronological schema first, then look at Demetrius’ other comments.


It is in this fragment where we find Demetrius’ total of 3,624 years from Adam’s creation until Israel’s entrance into Egypt, a figure that, as discussed previously, is calculated from the Septuagint’s long chronology. In his Eupolemus: A Study of Judaeo-Greek Literature, pages 102-104, Ben Zion Wacholder suggested that the Septuagint’s long chronology was probably the invention of Demetrius himself, or at least of someone in his “school.” Wacholder even speculated that Demetrius may have been one of the Seventy who had produced the Septuagint, which traditionally was produced a generation or two before Demetrius wrote. Nevertheless, Wacholder admitted that, “There is no direct proof that Demetrius had tampered with the biblical texts to lengthen the antediluvian and pre-Abrahamic periods.” Not only is there no direct proof of Wacholder’s suggestions, but, as Henry B. Smith Jr. has cogently demonstrated, there is no evidence whatsoever that the Septuagint numbers in Genesis 5 and 11 were inflated (See “The Generations of Adam” in Grace and Knowledge, Jan. 2018, Issue 32).


The main point of the fragment is an attempt to discern the chronology of the life of Jacob, working out a schema of dates for significant events such as when Jacob went to Mesopotamia, when he married Leah and Rachel, when his children were born, when he returned to Canaan, and when he and his family migrated to Goshen in Egypt. Demetrius also provides the sums that he worked out for the total years from Adam to the Flood, from the Flood to Israel’s entrance into Egypt, and from the Call of Abraham to Jacob’s entrances into Egypt, concluding with a chronological framework for the lineage from Levi to Moses. Along the way, Demetrius offers scriptural exegesis of various aspects of the historical narrative of the Patriarchs in Genesis – in addressing those aspects, he made use of a literary form known as aporiai kai luseis (“difficulties and solutions”), a form that was popular among Demetrius’ contemporaries.


The fragment begins by fixing Jacob’s departure for Mesopotamia to his 77th year, a statement not found in the text of Genesis, which indicates that Jacob obtained his older twin brother Esau’s birthright at some point after Esau married two Hittite women when he was 40 (i.e., when Isaac was 100 years old, for Esau and Jacob were born when Isaac was 60). Demetrius may be following an old tradition in dating Jacob’s departure, but that date may simply be Demetrius’ own speculation, favoring the numerically significant number 77 as being especially fitting. Jacob’s departure for Mesopotamia could be placed earlier than that without contradicting the biblical data (for some suggest that Jacob was in Mesopotamia for 40 years rather than 20 years).


From that point, Demetrius follows the biblical narrative which describes Jacob working for his uncle Laban for seven years, after which he married Leah and Rachel, followed by seven more years working for Laban during which time, according to Demetrius, most of Jacob’s children were born. The dates of birth for Jacob’s children were calculated by Demetrius, who sought to fit the births of 11 of Jacob’s sons and his daughter Dinah into the second seven years of Jacob’s service to Laban (which is, in fact, probably when most of Jacob’s children were born). Demetrius was able to arrive at these dates by following the order of births in Genesis and then taking account of an expectant mother’s normal nine months of pregnancy, allowing for sufficient time between pregnancies.


Demetrius then says Jacob worked another six years for Laban before he finally returned to Canaan with his wives, concubines, and children (cf. Genesis 31:38, 41). Genesis 35:28-29 says Isaac died at the age of 180 at some point after Jacob’s return to Canaan and the defilement of Jacob’s daughter Dinah – the biblical data shows Jacob was 120 when his father died. From this we know that Jacob went to Mesopotamia after Isaac’s 100th year and returned before Isaac’s 180th year. Going further, the biblical data allows us to determine that Joseph was 39 or 40 years old when his father and his kinsfolk entered Egypt, at which time Jacob was 130. This is known because Joseph was 30 years old when Pharaoh appointed him second over Egypt, after which there were seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine – and two years after the famine began is when Joseph’s brothers first came to Egypt seeking food. Consequently Joseph was born when Jacob was 90 years old, which means Jacob could not have returned to Canaan until after that date, but before Joseph was 17, when Jacob was 107, for Jacob and his family were certainly established in Canaan by then.


Considering the remainder of Demetrius’ dates for Jacob’s life, it is evident that most of these latter dates conflict with the biblical narrative. For instance, while Demetrius says Benjamin was only 22 when he entered Egypt, Genesis 46:21 says Benjamin already had nine sons by that time. Furthermore, Benjamin was born before 17-year-old Joseph was sold into Egypt, but Demetrius’ statement that Benjamin was only 22 when his father was 130 would mean Benjamin wasn’t even born until a year after Joseph was sold by his brothers. How then could Joseph in Egypt have known of the existence of his baby brother Benjamin? Clearly Benjamin was born before Joseph was sold but after Jacob’s return to Canaan – the biblical data does not permit us to fix the date of Benjamin’s birth any more precisely than that, but Benjamin must have still been a child when Joseph was sold. If Benjamin was, say, 10 years old when Joseph was sold (Benjamin may even have been a couple years older at the time), Benjamin would have been 33 when he entered Egypt, which would allow more than enough time (about 15 years or so) for Benjamin’s nine children to have been born by then.


Again, while Demetrius says Levi’s son Kohath was born 17 years after Israel arrived in Egypt, Genesis 46:11 says Kohath was born prior to Israel’s coming to Egypt. It is evident that Demetrius’ figures for the genealogy from Kohath to Moses are not founded on any authentic tradition, but were crafted by Demetrius to cover the period from the entrance into Egypt to the Exodus. Thus, 17 + 40 + 78 = 135, and since Exodus 7:7 says Moses was 80 at the time of the Exodus, we find that Demetrius believed Israel sojourned in Egypt for 215 years. This contradicts Genesis 15:13, which prophesies that Israel would be in bondage in a foreign land for 400 years, as well as Exodus 12:40-41 in the Masoretic text and in the vast majority of ancient Bible translations, which say Israel dwelt in Egypt for exactly 430 years.


However, the reading of Exodus 12:40-41 in most Septuagint manuscripts and all extant Samaritan Pentateuch manuscripts adds words that change the meaning of verse 40. Whereas the Masoretic and the vast majority of ancient Bible translations say “Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years,” the Septuagint and Samaritan Pentateuch show either “. . . who dwelt in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan . . .” or “. . . who dwelt in the land of Canaan and in the land of Egypt . . .” The Samaritan Pentateuch also adds the words “and their fathers” to the words “the children of Israel.” These alternate readings interpret the 430 years as extending from the Call of Abraham until the Exodus: 215 years from Abraham’s arrival in Canaan until Jacob’s coming to Egypt, and then a second 215 years from Jacob’s coming to Egypt until the Exodus. It also would appear at first glance that St. Paul in Galatians 3:17 interpreted the 430 years in the same way that Demetrius and the majority of Septuagint manuscripts did, for St. Paul refers to the Torah being made 430 years after God confirmed the covenant with Abraham.


Nevertheless, the words “and in the land of Canaan,” etc., are obviously a gloss or interpolation in Exodus 12:40. Note that Moses referred to the dwelling or sojourn not of “the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” but rather specifies the sojourn of “the children of Israel.” No possible chronological schema can find 430 years in the period from the birth of Jacob, father of the Israelites, until the Exodus. Besides that, the family of Abraham was never in bondage to the Canaanites during the days of the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not even for a single year let alone for nearly two centuries. Finally, the alternate readings of Exodus 12:40 do not account for the time that Jacob lived in Mesopotamia – if the 430 years really encompassed the entire period from Abraham’s 75th year until the Exodus, the text ought to have said “in Egypt and Canaan and Haran.”


The fact that the Bible shows only four generations from Levi to Moses would seem to support the shorter sojourn of 215 years in Egypt (cf. Genesis 15:16, which says “But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again”). However, the very large numbers of Kohathites counted in the two Israelite censuses in the Book of Numbers proves beyond all doubt that there were several more generations between Levi and Moses besides Kohath and Amram. Obviously Moses was not literally a son of Amram son Kohath, for it is impossible that Moses, Aaron and Miriam had 2,000 literal brothers. That Moses’ genealogy only summarises his descent from Levi is confirmed by comparing other Israelite genealogies that span the period of the Egyptian sojourn, especially that of Moses’ assistant and successor Joshua the son of Nun (I Chronicles 7:22-23, 25-27), which extends 11 generations inclusive from Joseph to Joshua. Other genealogies, such as those of Nahshon and Bezaleel of the Tribe of Judah, and Zelophehad of the Tribe of Manasseh, show more generations than the genealogy of Moses. If we interpret the biblical data to mean that Moses’ parents were really named Amram and Jochebed, then Moses’ father Amram must have been named after his ancestor Amram, son of Kohath, son of Levi, and that Jochebed was a “daughter” of Levi only in the sense of being a descendant of Levi. This does not contradict Genesis 15:16, for that verse should more accurately be rendered, “But in the fourth ‘era’ they shall come hither again” – the point being the same as Genesis 15:13, that Abraham’s descendants would suffer bondage and oppression in a foreign country for four centuries.


But if the Israelite sojourn in Egypt lasted 430 years, why did St. Paul say the Law was given to Israel 430 years after God confirmed the Abrahamic covenant? The explanation, according to the late Gleason Archer, is that St. Paul counted the 430 years from God’s renewal of His promises to Abraham in Jacob’s vision immediately prior to the entrance into Egypt, as recorded in Genesis 46:1-4. Archer held that St. Paul’s point wasn’t specifically to calculate the period from the inauguration of the Abrahamic covenant until the giving of the Law, but rather to show the great passage of time separating the Patriarchal era, when God made a covenant with Abraham and reconfirmed it several times to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, from the era of the Torah which began at Mount Sinai soon after the Exodus.


Returning to Demetrius’ chronography, then, he was likely the first of many exegetes to notice that the period from the Call of Abraham to Jacob’s coming to Egypt added up to 215 years, which is exactly half of 430, and to reason from that fact that the 430 years of Exodus 12:40 must include not only the sojourn of Israel in Egypt, but to all of the sojourning in both Canaan and Egypt from Abraham’s 75th year until the Exodus. We cannot say whether or not the Septuagint in Demetrius’ day already had the interpolation “and in the land of Canaan.” It could well be that the text was not interpolated until later – i.e., later scribes or copyists glossed Exodus 12:40 in order to insert Demetrius’ interpretation into the biblical text. In the second century A.D., the Seder Olam (followed by the great medieval Jewish scholar Rashi) reduced the period of the Egyptian sojourn to just 210 years. In the early 200s A.D., the Christian writer Tertullian held to a 215-year sojourn, but his contemporary Hippolytus of Rome held to a 430-year sojourn. Soon after that, Origen in his Hexapla marked the Septuagint’s words “and in the land of Canaan” in Exodus 12:40 as an “obelus” (doubtful or disputed reading). As already noted, the Septuagint and the Samaritan Pentateuch support variant forms of this reading – the variant forms being telltale evidence that they are independent interpolations. However, the Masoretic reading of this verse is supported by seven ancient Bible versions and even one Septuagint manuscript. We must conclude, then, that Demetrius’ interpretation of the 430 years is erroneous.


In addition to the chronological schema in this fragment, Demetrius also tackled the question of why Joseph delayed nine years before sending word to his father that he was alive. Some interpreters see Joseph’s delay as arising from a deep emotional alienation from his brothers who had betrayed him: though he may have wished to reunite with his father, perhaps Joseph was not yet able to forgive his brothers and his aversion to them overpowered his love for his father. Demetrius, however, used a common Jewish exegetical method that seeks the answer to a question pertaining to one biblical passage by looking at another biblical passage. Thus, Joseph’s knowledge of the disdain that Egyptians had for shepherds, mentioned in the story of how Joseph enabled his father and brothers to settle in the fertile territory of Goshen, is used by Demetrius to explain why Joseph didn’t send word to his father for nine years: Joseph was worried that the Egyptians might not welcome his family since they were shepherds. Demetrius’ exegesis here is not convincing, though – surely Joseph did not have to wait nine years before he could arrange to bring his family to Goshen?


Demetrius makes a further exegetical comment in this fragment, regarding the great portions of food and the gifts that Joseph lavished on his younger brother Benjamin. Though the biblical text does not plainly support Demetrius’ explanation, neither does the text contradict what Demetrius says. The exegesis of Demetrius here is a plausible and reasonable explanation, though of course one may suppose instead that Joseph merely wished to show his affection for his younger brother whom he had not seen in 22 years. We may also guess that Joseph’s actions were a subtle hint to his older brothers that he held nothing against Benjamin, who had not taken part in the conspiracy to kill or sell him.


Fragment three

“Demetrius described the slaying of the Egyptian and the quarrel with the man who disclosed the information about the one who dies in the same way as the writer of the Sacred Book. He says, however, that Moses fled into Midian and there married Zipporah the daughter of Jethro, who was, as far as it may be conjectured from the names of those born from Keturah of the stock of Abraham, a descendant of Jokshan, who was the son of Abraham by Keturah. And from Jokshan was born Dedan, and from Dedan, Reuel, and from Reuel, Jethro and Hobab, and from Jethro, Zipporah, whom Moses married.
“The generations also agree, for Moses was seventh from Abraham, and Zipporah, sixth. For Isaac, from whom Moses descended, was already married when Abraham, at the age of 140 married Keturah, and begot by her a second son (Jokshan). But he begot Isaac when he was 100 years old, so that (Jokshan), from whom Zipporah derived her descent, was born 42 years later.
“There is, therefore, no inconsistency in Moses and Zipporah having lived at the same time. And they lived in the city of Midian, which was named from one of the sons of Abraham. For it (i.e., Scripture) says that Abraham sent his sons to the East to settle there. And (it says that) for this reason also, Aaron and Miriam said at Hazeroth that Moses had married an Ethiopian woman.”

This fragment was excerpted from the portion of Demetrius’ work where he related the story of Moses. Here Demetrius presents a remarkable genealogy of Moses’ wife Zipporah, one of the seven daughters of Reuel, priest of Midian. Especially noteworthy are the names Reuel, Jethro, and Hobab, all of which are linked to Zipporah and Moses in Holy Scripture. In Exodus 2:18 and elsewhere, Zipporah’s father is called “Reuel,” but in Exodus 3:1 the father-in-law of Moses is called “Jethro,” priest of Midian. Meanwhile in Numbers 10:29, “Hobab” is identified as the son of Moses’ father-in-law “Reuel.” Hobab, ancestor of the Kenites, also appears in Judges 4:11, where he is identified as Moses’ brother-in-law, but in the King James Version and other versions is misidentified as Moses’ “father-in-law.” This was due to later erroneous vowel pointing that confused the Hebrew word chathan, brother-in-law, for chothen, father-in-law. As a result, some exegetes have mistakenly identified Reuel, Jethro, and Hobab as the same man, while others have followed Demetrius in identifying Reuel as Zipporah’s grandfather rather than literal father. Evidently, however, “Jethro” was simply another name for Reuel, or perhaps was an honorific (since “Jethro” means “Excellency”), and Hobab was Zipporah’s brother. Demetrius’ solution to this exegetical difficulty is clearly unsatisfactory, since it results in identifying Hobab as Zipporah’s uncle rather than brother, a contradiction that is avoided by equating Reuel with Jethro.


As for Demetrius’ genealogy of Reuel, as a Midianite one would expect Reuel to have been a descendant of Midian, son of Abraham by his second wife Keturah (Genesis 25:1-2). While Demetrius does trace Zipporah’s paternal lineage back to Abraham, he takes the line back not to Midian, but to Midian’s older brother Jokshan. Apparently Demetrius explained the description of Zipporah’s family as “Midianite” as indicating not an actual descent from Midian himself, but as a resident of the territory and “city” of Midian – or perhaps there was a levirate marriage involving Jokshan and Midian that resulted in Reuel being “Midianite” even though he was biologically descended from Jokshan.


We cannot tell whether this genealogy of Zipporah was derived from an authentic extrabiblical tradition or rather was fabricated by Demetrius himself. It may be partly traditional and partly fabricated. The fact that Zipporah is traced back to Jokshan rather than Midian is a point in favor of its authenticity, for if the genealogy had been fabricated simply to supply a genealogy for Reuel and to explain the biblical names of Reuel, Jethro, and Hobab, the fabricator would have taken the line back to Midian rather than Jokshan. Perhaps, then, it is simply Demetrius’ exegesis of the names Reuel, Jethro, and Hobab that is mistaken, while the genealogy of Reuel is correct. On the other hand, it is possible that Demetrius opted for Jokshan as Zipporah’s ancestor due to the Kushite associations of Jokshan’s sons Sheba and Dedan. Even if we accept the genealogy as correct, it likely skips some generations as is common in biblical genealogies. Demetrius was at pains to show that his genealogy for Zipporah was chronologically plausible, but his calculations are based on a 215-year sojourn and on his distinguishing Jethro from Reuel. Even if Reuel was a descendant of Jokshan, we are not obliged to hold that Reuel was literally Jokshan’s grandson.


This fragment concludes with a statement identifying Moses’ wife Zipporah as “the Ethiopian woman” mentioned in Numbers 12:1. Thus, Demetrius asserted that Moses had but one wife, and that Zipporah was called “Kushite” or Ethiopian because the descendants of Keturah had settled in “the East,” i.e. Arabia, where descendants of Kush, son of Ham, are also known to have lived (namely Sheba and Dedan – Genesis 10:7; Genesis 25:3 – given the names of Jokshan’s sons, he must have married a descendant of Sheba or Dedan, son of Raamah, son of Kush). Besides Demetrius’ explanation, however, other Jewish writers have explained “the Ethiopian woman” as an earlier wife whom Moses had married either before he fled from Egypt or soon after his flight. For example, Josephus identifies her as Tharbis, daughter of the King of Kush, whom Moses married during his days as an Egyptian prince. A later Jewish midrash, however, places Moses’ marriage to the Ethiopian princess immediately after his flight from Egypt – the midrash says Moses separated from her, though, and moved to the land of Midian where he married Zipporah. In this tradition, Miriam and Aaron later discovered Moses’ earlier Ethiopian wife and disapproved of his having separated from her (Zipporah herself meanwhile also having separated from Moses, who from then on lived in holy celibacy). Other rabbis held to a view like that of Demetrius, that Moses married but once, that Zipporah for whatever reason was known as “Kushite” (in this regard, it is perhaps significant that in the animated movie Prince of Egypt, Zipporah is represented as dark-skinned), and that Moses and Zipporah were alienated after she objected to the circumcision of their son, Moses remaining celibate from then on. With the evidence currently at our disposal, it is not possible to tell which tradition is the correct one – but it should at least be noted that Demetrius’ explanation of this difficulty is the earliest we have on record.


Fragment four

“And again after a little. From there they went for three days, as Demetrius himself says, and the Sacred Book agrees with him. Since he (i.e. Moses) found there not sweet but bitter water, when God said he should cast some wood into the fountain, the water became sweet. And from there they came to Elim, where they found 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees.”

This is comparable to the first fragment, in that it merely restates the biblical record without comment or embellishment. This once again shows that the purpose of Demetrius’ chronicle was the accurate setting forth and clarification of Israel’s history (as best as Demetrius could understand it), not providing deeper theological reflection on the biblical text.


Fragment five

“And after a short space: Someone asked how the Israelites had weapons, since they came out unarmed. For they said that after they had gone out on a three-day journey, and made sacrifice, they would return again. It appears, therefore, that those who had not been drowned made use of the others’ arms.”

In this fragment, Demetrius provides an explanation for how the Israelites came to have weapons when they fought Amalek soon after the Exodus. The answer, according to Demetrius, is that most likely the Israelites had retrieved them from the bodies of the Egyptian soldiers who had drowned in the Red Sea.


Fragment six

“But Demetrius says, in his (work) ‘On the Kings of Judaea,’ that the tribe of Judah and (those of) Benjamin and Levi were not taken captive by Sennacherib, but from this captivity to the last (captivity), which Nebuchadnezzar effected out of Jerusalem, (there were) 128 years and 6 months. But from the time when the ten tribes of Samaria were taken captive to that of Ptolemy the 4th, there were 573 years and 9 months. But from the time (of the captivity) of Jerusalem (to Ptolemy the 4th), there were 338 years (and) 3 months.”


The final fragment of Demetrius’ work On the Kings of Judaea comes from the Early Church Father Clement of Alexandria. It is from this fragment that we learn the title of Demetrius’ work. Notably, though the title refers to the kings of Judaea, none of the surviving fragments of Demetrius directly deal with any of the ancient kings of Israel and Judah. It is true, of course, that Moses is described as “king in Jeshurun” in Deuteronomy 33:4-5, but otherwise we find no reference to Saul, David, Solomon, or any other Israelite king in the extant fragments of Demetrius.


It is, however, merely an accident that the fragments of Demetrius that survived the ravages of time deal almost exclusively with the ages from Adam to Moses.  Even so, this particular fragment shows that Demetrius did write about the reigns of the kings, for in this fragment are chronological calculations that attempt to show how much time elapsed from the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities (when the kingdoms of Israel and Judah ended) until the reign of Ptolemy IV, King of Egypt.


We cannot be sure that the numerical figures in this fragment have been preserved without corruption. As they stand now they are certainly incorrect, for it was actually 125 years from the Assyrian captivity in 722 B.C. to the Babylonian captivity in 597 B.C., not 128 years and 6 months. Again, it was 501 years, not 573 years and 9 months, from the Assyrian captivity to the reign of Ptolemy IV in 221 B.C. Finally, it was 366 years, not 338 years and 3 months, from the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. to the reign of Ptolemy IV. It is likely that the numbers in this fragment are corrupt, but besides that it is also probable that Demetrius did not have accurate dates for the ends of the Northern and Southern kingdoms.


Summing Up


From this review of the six surviving fragments of Demetrius’ work, we are able to glimpse the beginnings of Greek-language or Hellenistic Jewish historiography and chronography, which would continue to be developed in the second and first centuries B.C. and the first century A.D. by such Jewish writers as Cleodemus Malchus, Eupolemus, Jason of Cyrene, Artapanus, Philo of Alexandria, and Flavius Josephus. (Josephus, writing in the latter first century A.D., knows of Demetrius only by way of Polyhistor, and mistakenly believed Demetrius was a Gentile historian.) These later writers wrote for both a Jewish and a Gentile audience. Demetrius, however, shows no interest in historical apologetics or in synchronizing Jewish and Gentile history. Rather, he simply sought to clarify biblical chronology and history, probably as an aid to his fellow Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria and elsewhere. But his work would soon come to the attention of Gentile writers – especially Alexander Polyhistor, to whose broad interest in the histories of the peoples of his day we chiefly owe the preservation of most of the fragments of Demetrius’ work, which then found their way from Polyhistor to Eusebius Pamphilii in the fourth century A.D.





The Septuagint with Apocrypha:  Greek and English, translated by Sir Lancelot C. L. Brenton, London, 1851, 2001.


Josephus – Complete Works, translated by William Whiston, Kregel Publications, 1960, 1985.

The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by James H. Charlesworth, Yale University Press, Hendrickson Publishers, 1983, vol. II.


The Jewish Encyclopedia, “Demetrius,” article by Joseph Jacobs and Isaac Broyde, 1906 -- http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5079-demetrius


Eupolemus: A Study of Judaeo-Greek Literature, by Ben Zion Wacholder, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, M. Dworkin and Co., New York/Jerusalem, 1974.


Answers Research Journal, 2 Aug. 2017, “Methuselah’s Begetting Age in Genesis 5:25 and the Primeval Chronology of the Septuagint: A Closer Look at the Textual and Historical Evidence,” Henry B. Smith Jr.


Associates for Biblical Research, 18 Feb. 2019, “Setting the Record Straight on the Primeval Chronology of the Septuagint: A Response to Cosner and Carter” (Parts 1-4), Henry B. Smith Jr. – http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2019/02/18/Setting-the-Record-Straight-on-the-Primeval-Chronology-of-the-Septuagint.aspx


Associates for Biblical Research, 27 July 2018, “The Case for the Septuagint's Chronology in Genesis 5 and 11,” Henry B. Smith Jr. -- http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2018/07/27/The-Case-for-the-Septuagints-Chronology-in-Genesis-5-and-11.aspx


Associates for Biblical Research, 5 Jan. 2012, “The Duration of the Israelite Sojourn in Egypt,” Paul J. Ray Jr. -- http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2012/01/05/The-Duration-of-the-Israelite-Sojourn-In-Egypt.aspx


Ask the Rabbi, Aish Ha Torah, “Moses’ Cushite Wife,” Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld -- https://www.aish.com/atr/Moses-Cushite-Wife.html


Grace Theological Journal 12.1, Winter 1971, “The Length of Israel’s Sojourn in Egypt,” Jack R. Riggs -- https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/OTeSources/02-Exodus/Text/Articles/Riggs-EgyptSojourn-GTJ.pdf


Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, by Gleason L. Archer, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1982 -- https://archive.org/details/B-001-014-054


Issue 34