The Study of Man: Pagan Ideas and the Jewish Mind
The Study of Man: Pagan Ideas and the Jewish Mind

The Study of Man: Pagan Ideas and the Jewish Mind

The deeper scholars dig into the Jewish past, and the less they find in it that is exclusively Jewish in detail, the more unique becomes the synthesis of those details that is known as Judaism. Theodor H. Gaster’s survey of some of the most important and recent of such delvings—into the Judaism of Graeco-Roman times—results in further confirmation of this fact.


Almost everybody knows by now that Christmas and Easter and many of the saints’ days of the Church go back to earlier heathen festivals, and that several of the saints themselves are but Christian transformations of pagan gods and heroes. Often, indeed, the latter still appear on the Christian stage without appreciable change of outward trappings, as when Cosmas and Damian still ride the white horses of the Heavenly Twins and are surmounted by the morning and evening stars.

To what extent the same process has taken place in Judaism is, however, far less well known; for although it has been the subject of considerable study, the conclusions at which scholars have arrived have not yet percolated to the popular level. Consequently, the average Jew still adheres to a somewhat one-sided conception of how his faith really evolved.


The story begins in the Bible itself, for scholars have had little difficulty in showing that many of the legends recounted in the earlier chapters of Genesis, or incidentally referred to by the prophets and poets, really hark back to the pagan lore current in Palestine and the neighboring countries even before the advent of Israel. The story of the Flood, for example, is related in substantially the same form in the far earlier Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh and was probably designed originally to account for the annual flooding of the Euphrates valley. In that version, too, we have the sparing of the righteous man, the construction of the ark, the dispatch of the birds, and the eventual sacrifice of thanksgiving. Similarly, the legend of the Tower of Babel, “with its top in heaven,” very probably originated in a popular tale designed to account for the great stepped temple (ziggurat) of Babylon; while when the Psalmist speaks (Ps. 74: 13-14) of Jehovah’s primeval combat with Leviathan, or when Job exclaims (7:12), “Am I sea or dragon, that Thou shouldst set watch over me?” they are alluding to a Canaanite myth which has been rediscovered, during the past twenty-five years, on clay tablets unearthed in North Syria. Indeed, Isaiah’s description of that monster (27:1) as “the slant serpent . . . the tortuous serpent,” reproduces the very words of the more ancient pagan text!

Again, the familiar tale of the temptation of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife has its earlier counterpart in an Egyptian story told in a papyrus of the 13th century B.C.E.; while an entire section of the Book of Proverbs has been traced to the Egyptian maxims of Amen-emope.

Even the Psalms—so distinctive an expression of the Israelite genius—draw heavily on earlier models. It has been pointed out, for example, that Psalm 93, with its reference to Jehovah’s becoming king, dominating the seas and rivers, dispensing his sure decrees and occupying his palace of beauty, is in all likelihood a mere reworking or adaptation of a Canaanite hymn based on a recently recovered myth which relates how the god Baal attained sovereignty and was installed in a sumptuous palace by virtue of the fact that he engaged and vanquished the truculent Lord of the Sea and Streams. So, too, when “the sons of the mighty” are bidden, in Psalm 29, to “ascribe unto Jehovah glory and strength,” it is not difficult to recognize the same process, for the fact is that the Hebrew words translated as “sons of the mighty” really mean “lesser gods,” and this is the standard expression used in Canaanite texts to refer to the minor members of the pantheon.

Sometimes, to be sure, the indebtedness of the Hebrews to their neighbors is apparent only in an implicit allusion, a mere turn of speech embodying a tidbit of traditional mythology. A case in point is the prophet Habakkuk’s Statement (3:5) that when Jehovah goes on the warpath, “Pestilence stalketh before Him, and plague goeth forth at His feet”; for the word rendered “plague” is really the name of the Canaanite plague-god, Resheph, and the allusion is to the ancient belief that when gods walked abroad they were flanked by two celestial attendants. In the Babylonian story of the Flood, for example, it is said expressly that when the storm-god appeared on the horizon, he was escorted by two servitors, and in the Iliad we read similarly that Apollo and Ares were accompanied by the two demons Fear and Terror.

An even more striking illustration is afforded by the familiar passage in the Book of Genesis (3:24) which states that after the expulsion of Adam and Eve, cherubim were posted eastward of Eden “to keep the way to the tree of life.” Throughout the centuries, these cherubim have been portrayed as night-gowned angels—a conception which is, in fact, utterly foreign to the ancient Semitic mind. In reality, as we now know from Mesopotamian sources, they were simply griffins, like those which the Babylonians and Assyrians placed at the doors of their houses, so that what confronts us is but another relic of primitive myth, analogous to the widespread motif of the dragon guarding the pot of gold.


Nor is it only in the field of literature that such indebtedness obtains. Scholars have shown also that the seasonal festivals of Israel were patterned largely upon earlier pagan institutions. Take, for example, the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Although this was given a historical raison d’être as the memorial of a crucial incident in Israel’s past, the existence of similar practices elsewhere strongly suggests that the ban on fermented food was originally nothing more than a precautionary measure designed to insure that the communal meal eaten ceremonially by kinsmen at the season of harvest should leave no untoward effects; while the signing of the lintel with blood is paralleled in many parts of the world and was therefore scarcely an innovation; nor was it, in fact, conditioned by the particular circumstances by which it is validated in the Scriptural narrative.

In the same way, too, the popular celebration of Purim, with its burning of Haman in effigy, its election of a “Purim rabbi,” and its burlesque mummeries, has undoubtedly drawn largely on the contemporaneous Carnival and Shrovetide ceremonies of the Christian year—themselves, in turn, derived from pagan prototypes. There, too, it is customary to burn the spirit of the past year, or the noxious and malevolent demons, to appoint a temporary “bishop of fools,” and to stage guisings and miracle plays.

The debt extends also to many of the customs and superstitions connected with the life of the Jew at home. An excellent example is the so-called Kimpezettel (i.e. Kindbett-zettel) , a written charm hung in the room of a woman in labor, or of one who has just given birth, in order to forfend Lilith, the child-stealing witch. A common element of the charm is the text of a story relating how that fell beldam once encountered the prophet Elijah and was persuaded to reveal to him all her secret names, thereby surrendering herself automatically into the power of anyone to whom he might transmit them. These names are duly set forth in the traditional amulet, and the interesting thing is that they are simply a hodge-podge of the different styles by which the child-stealing witch has been known in different parts of the world. One of them, for instance, is Striga, in which we may recognize at once the vampiric strix, or screech owl, of Roman folklore, the dread Strygoi of the Balkans, and the Italian strega, or “witch.” Another is Gello or Gylo (perhaps originally a distortion of the Arabic ghoul, meaning “vampire”), and this links up with an ancient Greek belief, mentioned already by Sappho, to the effect that the spirit of a young woman named Gello, who died childless, pursued infants and carried them off.

Moreover, the child-stealing witch herself appears at a very early date in both Mesopotamian and Hittite magic, while a charm against Lilith “who flies into darkened chambers” has been found inscribed in Canaanite characters of the 7th century B.C.E. on a small limestone plaque discovered, some twenty years ago, at Arslan Tash on the Upper Euphrates. That plaque, it may be added, is furnished with a hole for hanging it on the wall, and it bears weird drawings in one of which the demon is portrayed as a wolf from whose jaws the legs of a child protrude. This last detail is particularly interesting in view of the fact that classical Greek writers frequently allude to the “Bogeywolf” (Mormolukeion) who comes to frighten naughty children; while a French work of the 17th century includes among the accomplishments of a magician that of teaching witches “to take the form of wolves and eat children.”


The devices by which the “pagan” material was “made kosher” are often as piquant as they are ingenious. The parade example is, of course, the way in which the letters N G H S on the four sides of the Chanukah trendl were converted from their original meaning of Nichts (nothing), Ganz (all), Halb (half) and Stell (put) in a game of chance to the initials of the Hebrew motto, Nes Gadol Hayak Sham, “a great miracle occurred there”—referring to the victory of the Maccabees and to the legend that, when the Temple was rededicated, oil which was really sufficient only for one day miraculously lasted for eight. But this by no means stands alone. Hermes, the inventor of the lyre, was transmogrified into the angel Hermesiel, leader of the heavenly choir, and this celestial being was in turn identified with David, “the sweet singer of Israel,” who was believed to be still playing his harp before the throne of God. The vine of Bacchus, a common theme of pagan art, became the vine of Israel which God transplanted from Egypt and which “sent out her branches unto the sea, and her shoots unto the river” (see Psalm 80: 9-14). Similarly, too, because the pagans had a traditional book of magic named, for one of their ancient magicians, The Sword of Dardanos, a Hebrew work of the same character had perforce to be called The Sword of Moses.

Nowhere, perhaps, is the absorption of foreign elements by Judaism more strikingly brought out than in the decorations of synagogues, tombstones, and catacombs during the Graeco-Roman age. Discoveries made during the past twenty-five years have revealed that these very commonly include representations of pagan gods and goddesses and of figures and scenes drawn from pagan mythology. In the ancient synagogue at Chorazin, for example, there are pictures of centaurs and of the mace of Heracles; at Sheikh Abreiq, there is an Amazon and two Psyches; at Capernaum there is a frieze depicting six Cupids; at Jaffa, there is a typically Dionysiac design of a vine and a tiger; while elsewhere there are representations of Helios, the sun-god, of Leda, the mother of Apollo and Artemis, and (on an amulet) of Hecate.

The usual explanation of these designs is that they represent no more than artistic conventions which the Jews adopted mechanically but which had as little significance for their real religious faith as has (say) the rabbit’s foot which might dangle today from the radiator of a Jew’s automobile. This explanation, however, merely sidesteps the problem. For what is really at issue is not the significance of this or that particular borrowing, but rather of the underlying influence which led to such borrowing in general.

An alternative view attributes the designs, roundly and loosely, to a “syncretism” of Jewish and pagan cultures at the period in question. This, too, scarcely carries us much further. For syncretism implies a genuine and organic “growing together,” whereas the very point that has here to be decided is whether what confronts us is a real “growing together” or merely a superficial juxtaposition.


Recently, a new and revolutionary approach to the whole problem has been propounded by Professor Erwin R. Goodenough, of Yale.1 According to Professor Goodenough, instead of starting with the assumption that the designs and symbols are necessarily “un-Jewish,” we ought rather to revise our notions of what Judaism actually was in the GraecoRoman age. The trouble is, he says, that we have been looking at it too narrowly, through exclusively Talmudic or rabbinic eyes, whereas in point of fact the broad masses of Jews tended at the time to view their ancestral heritage in a somewhat different perspective. The essence of their attitude was that they tried to find a Jewish meaning in the pagan symbols around them, and at the same time to invest traditional Jewish symbols with ideas picked up “from the outside.” To be sure, the process operated at different levels, for not all elements of a population are endowed with the same type of mentality or the same degree of intellect. On the one hand, it was a matter of rarefied speculation and found expression in the philosophy of a Philo; on the other, it was one of mere osmosis, and was reflected in synagogal and funerary art and in popular amulets and magical spells.

When, for instance, a Jew engraved on a talisman the portrait of a heathen god and then labeled it “Iao” (i.e. Jehovah), he was not just combining two disparate things in a mechanical and meaningless fashion: he was expressing—or perhaps only dimly reflecting—the notion that some at least of the qualities that the pagans associated with the former might indeed be seen also in the latter. Conversely, when he depioted the seven-branched candlestick on the walls of synagogues or catacombs, he was reading into the time-honored Jewish symbol ideas about the transcendent light of God or the “illumination” of the dead which he had absorbed from the general thought of the day and which can be illustrated, on a less popular level, in the writings of the philosophers and theologians.


Some of Goodenough’s examples are at least arresting. He points out, for instance, that only in the Greek period did Jews begin to inscribe on tombstones the familiar legend, “Peace” (shalom), or such analogous mottoes as “May he enter into peace, rest upon his bed.” The phrases themselves were taken from the Bible (see Isaiah 57:2); what they now expressed, however, says Professor Goodenough, was not only a hope for repose in the grave but also—as Philo indeed interpreted them—for that perfect life of the soul, that “rest in God,” which was made possible by its release from the things of the senses. Similarly, when cups and goblets found in tombs bear the legend, “Drink and live,” they are not to be regarded as mere household glassware buried with the dead, nor is the inscription simply the equivalent of the modern Le-chayim; they symbolized the imbibing of eternal life. Or again, when magical spells invoked “the powers of God,” they were employing a traditional Jewish expression with a special nuance, for what the writers had in mind was a contemporary “mystic” idea that God revealed himself, or operated, by a gradation of powers. Even such familiar symbols as the palm branch (lulab) and the ram’s horn (shofar) were endowed with new significance, for now they served also as tokens of the resurrection.

At first blush, it might seem that this thesis is simply another excursion into a remote period of the past, and that the problem discussed is merely an academic conundrum or a headache for professional historians. Actually, however, it is far more than that; for although it may be open to challenge on several counts, it nevertheless performs a distinct service by its insistence that, in practice, Judaism was always broader than its rabbinic formulation, and that religion itself is always something different on the popular and emotional level from what it is on the rarefied and intellectual.


The main general objection to the theory lies, it would seem, in the difficulty of believing that ideas which were so much in the air as to find their way even into the decoration of synagogues should not also have invaded its ritual. Why is it, for example, that we do not find such ideas in the burial service itself, though we find them in the tombs of the departed? Why did the Jews never adopt in their worship—albeit with a “mystic” interpretation—the fawn skins and thyrsoi of Dionysus? And why did the mysteries of Attis, which were fashionable enough in Roman society, leave no impress on the Jewish liturgy?

Another general objection is that the “mystic” meanings which Professor Goodenough would read into the pagan designs and symbols are, in fact, derived mostly from the highly speculative philosophy of Philo, and there is no real evidence that such rarefied ideas were indeed entertained on a popular level. After all, the tombstone fashions of a country cemetery are hardly to be explained from the pages of Whitehead! Besides, even on this basis, a little too much still remains obscure. How, for example, are we to account for representations of Ganymede or of the undraped Aphrodite?

Coming down to cases, one is often left wondering whether some at least of the symbols and designs might not be interpreted more plausibly from the idiom of “normative” Judaism itself. Take, for instance, the very common combination of seven-branched candlestick, palm branch, and ram’s horn. Is it really necessary to suppose that these familiar objects held a mystic or esoteric significance? The candlestick, we know, was often taken to symbolize the six days of Creation plus the Sabbath; the palm branch is the emblem of the Feast of Booths (Succoth); and the ram’s horn immediately suggests New Year and the Day of Atonement. Accordingly, the combination would represent simply the familiar threefold division of the Jewish Holy Days into Sabbath, seasonal festivals, and solemn days, and thus symbolize the totality of Jewish festal observance. Moreover, the reason why these three objects were chosen, rather than (say) the kiddush cup, matzah, or the like, would have been that they were objects actually employed in the service of the synagogue.

Take, again, the use of candles and lights in tombs. It is difficult to see any real reason for interpreting them by reference to ideas about the Divine Light, such as are indeed to be found in the works of intellectual writers; nor need one impose upon this early usage the later interpretation of it as signifying that “the soul of a man is a lamp of the Lord” (Proverbs 20:27). The primary idea may have been simply that of lighting the dead through the darkness of the nether world. In the burial service of the Samaritans, for example, there occurs—with a fine homiletic twist—a very similar notion; for men are admonished that “the way is long; ere thou set foot on it, let a lamp of pure conduct be lit, that it may light up the darkness thereof.”

Similarly, it seems unnecessary to read into shalom a wish for the soul’s participation in the “peace of God.” The word may be used simply in the sense of “goodbye,” corresponding to the Roman vale, and—like its Roman counterpart—it may even possess a reciprocal sense, the living taking leave of the dead, and vice versa.

Then, too, there is the case of the “throne of Moses” mentioned both in the New Testament (Matthew 33:2) and in rabbinic literature as a feature of ancient synagogues. It has been commonly assumed that this was really a seat for the chief dignitary, and on this assumption Goodenough suggests that it may have been a transmogrification of the throne set for the deity in a pagan temple. Five years ago, however, Cecil Roth made the interesting and at least equally plausible suggestion that the “throne of Moses” was really a special chair on which the Scroll of the Law was placed at that stage of the service when it had already been read and was awaiting return to its receptacle; and he pointed out that such chairs actually exist—or existed—in the ancient synagogues of Rome, Carpentras, and—of all places—Kai-Feng-Fu.

Finally may be cited the case of the little hollows which are often to be found on flat Jewish tombstones in the Near East. Professor Goodenough explains them—albeit tentatively—from the current custom of Jews on the island of Djerba to fill such hollows with water in order therewith to wash the tombs of any deceased person whose intervention they would invoke at a moment of crisis. This, he thinks, goes back ultimately to the common pagan usage of refrigerium, or periodic “refreshment” of the departed. Here, again, an alternative explanation seems possible. It is commonly believed in modern Palestine that the dead come in search of water on Friday night. May not the little hollows have been designed simply to supply such a need? In support of this suggestion is the fact that the thirst of the dead is proverbial in many civilizations. It is mentioned already in the Bible (Isaiah 5: 13-14), while even earlier Babylonian texts speak of the nether world as “the field of thirst.” The idea is likewise attested in early Arabic lore, while in the Greek Orphic Tablets the dead are represented as complaining of unslaked thirst.


It has been said already that Goodenough’s theory does not apply only to synagogal and funerary art; it is intended also to account for the bizarre admixture of Jewish and pagan elements that we find in contemporary magical inscriptions and talismans. On one gem, for instance, Artemis and Aesculapius are portrayed alongside the inscription “Iao” (Jehovah); while a Greek incantation to Eros, god of love, invokes also Adonai Sabaoth, “The Lord of Hosts,” and it is very common for Hebrew tags and quotations from the Bible to be cited as “words of power.”

The question is, however, whether this in fact bears witness to a popular, syncretistic Judaism, as Goodenough supposes. It may be suggested alternatively that what it really evidences is simply the internationalism (or supranationalism) of magic. The essence of this type of magic, it may be submitted, is that when a man resorts to it he steps ipso facto outside the bounds of his own faith just because he deems its resources inadequate to his situation. He is in a state of hysteria and panic, and his intention is to “try everything” in the hope of restraining the essentially universal forces with which he finds himself unexpectedly confronted. Accordingly, he invokes against them indiscriminately Zeus, Thoth, and Jehovah, and whatever other gods and powers he can think of. Moreover, in bewildering uncertainty as to which, if any, human tongue they really understand, he takes no chances and addresses them in all that he can muster, prepared even to supplement the vocabulary of normal speech by inventing special magical words. It was for this reason, for example, that the magicians of Egypt and Greece attached importance to the use of the exotic Cretan language, and it was under the same impulse that Doctor Faustus attempted to conjure the princes of darkness by reeling off the names of the Hebrew tonic accents. It would seem, therefore, to be a radical misunderstanding of this type of magic to see in a hodge-podge born of desperation any real fusion or synthesis of faiths; on the contrary, what the hodge-podge actually reveals is the pitiful shifts of man when all faiths fail.


We come back, then, to the basic question: can the symbols and designs which we have been discussing be described as Jewish?

This, it may be suggested, is not really a substantive problem at all; it is a dilemma created only by verbal ambiguity—by the fact, that is, that the terms Judaism and Jewish happen to be used in modern parlance with two different frames of reference. They are taken, on the one hand, to denote roundly anything and everything characteristic of the life of Jews en masse; and on the other, only those objects, ideas, and institutions that express or reflect a specific religious commitment. And the confusion is compounded by the fact that neither definition is really sound. For, in the first case, the term is too broad, since it has logically to include many things that are by no means distinctive but common also to other cultures; while in the second, it is too narrow, since in traditional Jewish teaching there is in fact no separate category of religion, the Covenantal commitment of the Jew consisting not only in the acceptance of a prescribed code and discipline but equally in the continuous development and interpretation of it through daily life, experience, and insight. Besides, even if—for purely schematic purposes—we were to ignore this ideological objection and to define Judaism in terms of doctrines and rituals, we should still be up against the practical difficulty of determining whether the criterion should be origin or currency. How, for example, should we then classify the Shield (Star) of David, when worn as a brooch by a Gentile girl? Or how, conversely, should we classify Christian clerical garb when it is affected, as in England and France, by rabbis and Jewish “ministers of religion”?

Clearly, the problem goes much deeper than has been suspected. For what is actually involved is not whether this or that symbol held religious significance for Jews at this or that period, but the criterion by which Judaism itself is to be defined. And that, as the more discerning ancient sages would have said, is a problem for Elijah.


1 In Jewish Symbols in the Graeco-Roman Period (Pantheon Press), 3 vols., $25.00.

  • More Networks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *