The Exegesis of Demetrius the Chronographer





Demetrius is considered to be the earliest datable Jewish author writing in Greek. He wrote after the completion of the Greek translation of the Torah (dated to the 3rd century BCE) and his works were already being quoted in the early first century BCE. He is generally dated to the time of Ptolemy IV (c. 221-204 BCE).1 Only a few fragments of the writings of Demetrius have survived. Most of them, including the ones discussed in this article, are known to us because they were preserved by Eusebius in Book 9 of Praeparatio Evangelica, which excerpted the work of Alexander Polyhistor, On the Jews, who quoted Demetrius.2

Although the main focus of Demetrius’ concern is resolving inconsistencies in Biblical chronology, hence his title “Demetrius the Chronographer”, he also deals with other problems raised by the biblical narrative. His writing is associated with the “difficulties and solutions” or “questions and answers” genre popular in his day, where ancient works were examined for difficulties, which were then resolved.3 Some of the questions Demetrius raises are also dealt with in the Talmud, others are only dealt with by later commentaries.4 In this article we will examine three cases where Demetrius offered an explanation for a problem in the text (not having to do with chronology) and compare his approach to that of the rabbinic exegetes.


While Joseph was a slave in Egypt and later imprisoned, it is clear that he could  not contact his father Jacob  to tell  him that he was alive.  However, on rising to prominence in Egypt, why did Joseph not contact his father? This well known question is not dealt with in the Talmud. In the midrashic literature, there

is no explicit answer given either. Midrash Tanhuma (Vayeshev 8) states that when Joseph was getting too comfortable in his position in Potiphar’s house, God said “Your father is grieving for you in sackcloth and ashes and you are eating and drinking and curling your hair? Now your mistress will join battle with you and will make your life miserable.”5 No actual explanation is offered for Joseph not contacting his father, although the implication is that Joseph simply put his old life behind him.

Ramban (to Gen. 42:9) appears to be the earliest exegete to raise this question and provide solutions. His first answer is that Joseph wanted to insure that his dreams would come true. Informing them that he is in fact alive would tamper with the message of his dreams that his family members would bow down to him (Gen. 37:5-11). Ramban adds another idea, that Joseph wanted to make sure that his brothers repented and regretted what they did to him, and that they did not mistreat Benjamin. This approach is followed by Abarbanel (to Gen. 42:15) and R. Isaac Arama (Akeidat Yitzchak, 42:2). According to this approach, Joseph kept his identity hidden from his brothers, and his whereabouts from his family, as part of a test to see if they changed their ways since selling him into slavery.

In recent times, R. Yoel Bin Nun has suggested that Joseph in fact misunderstood his father’s role and thought that Jacob was part of the conspiracy to sell him into slavery. Until recognizing that that was not the case he did not feel any reason to inform anyone that he was alive and well.6

The pros and cons of these and similar explanations have been discussed over the years.7 However, the earliest recorded resolution to this problem, that offered by Demetrius, is barely known or mentioned.8

Demetrius explains as follows: “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.” 9 This is based on Genesis 46:32-33, where although they are described as shepherds, Joseph instructs them to tell Pharaoh that they are breeders of livestock…for all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.

Through centuries of Jewish exegesis, the answer proposed by Demetrius was never offered. It is reasonable to assume that most Jewish writers were completely unfamiliar with the writings of Demetrius, as they were written in Greek and lost for many years, but it is still notable that nobody ever came up with the reason that he suggested.

A major factor working against this interpretation is that it casts Joseph in a very negative light. Traditional exegetes have always seen Joseph as a fundamentally positive figure, and did not ascribe such petty social concerns to him. Commentaries which speak negatively about biblical figures have survived, and some of those are about Joseph, for example TB Sotah 36b presents the opinion that Joseph had decided to yield to the advances of Potiphar’s wife, and Bereishit Rabbah 89:3 states that Joseph did not have enough faith that God would rescue him from imprisonment. However, these are understandable human failings. If the reason Joseph did not contact his father for so many years was because he was concerned about how it would impact on his social status in Egypt, then Joseph would have to be viewed as an awful person. This particular interpretation of Demetrius is so negative that it is brought as evidence that his intended readership was fellow Jews, not outsiders, otherwise his “readiness to ascribe social inferiority and also dishonesty to the patriarchs” would be very unusual.10

This explanation is also difficult from a textual perspective. The very verses brought as evidence by Demetrius seem to contradict his entire approach. Genesis 46:31-32 has Joseph explaining that he will tell Pharaoh, My brothers and my father’s household, who were in the land of Canaan, have come to me. The men are shepherds; they have always been breeders of livestock, and they have brought with them their flocks and herds and all that is theirs. This clearly shows that Joseph plans to be honest with Pharaoh about his family’s occupation, for no effort is made to hide the fact that they are shepherds.

When Joseph actually speaks to Pharaoh, he says, My father and my brothers with their flocks and herds and all that is theirs have come from the land of Canaan (Gen. 47:1). This can be read as Joseph being ambiguous regarding what exactly the occupation of his family was, as “shepherds” is not explicitly stated, supporting the position of Demetrius. However, immediately following that, when the brothers speak to Pharaoh they tell him outright, We your servants are shepherds as were also our fathers (Gen. 47:3). No effort was made to hide the fact that they are shepherds.

Furthermore, at the outset the brothers are described as both shepherds and breeders of livestock (Gen. 46:32), so there is no dishonesty in Joseph instructing them to call themselves breeders of livestock when presented to Pharaoh (Gen. 46:34). Whatever the case, when actually speaking to Pharaoh in Genesis 47:3, the brothers described themselves only as shepherds, not as breeders of livestock.

Additionally, there is no indication in the text that Joseph hesitated to have his extended family relocate to Egypt once he revealed to his brothers that he was alive. In fact he says, Hurry back to my father and say to him . . . come down to me without delay, you will dwell in the region of Goshen where you will be near me, you and your children and your grandchildren, your flocks and all that is yours (Gen. 45:9-10). For these reasons, the solution proposed by Demetrius is unpersuasive.11

The interpretation of Demetrius can be contrasted to that of Josephus, presented in his Antiquities (2:184-186). He explains that since the Israelites were mainly shepherds, they were advised by Joseph to show goodwill towards the Egyptians by switching to breeding livestock. According to this understanding, the Israelites are presented as very accommodating to their new neighbors, rather than the deceitful figures of Demetrius.12 This approach is reflected in later rabbinic literature. For example, Rashi (to Gen. 46:34) states that their occupation as shepherds was given as a reason for the Israelites to dwell in Goshen, away from the sight of the Egyptians who would be offended since they worship livestock.

All the traditional exegetes explained that Joseph did not attempt to hide the occupation of his brothers. Ramban (to Gen. 46:32) explains that Joseph told Pharaoh their occupation in order to impress him by describing their success and wealth generated from livestock.

It is true that many commentators point out that Joseph wanted to make sure that his brothers were not drafted into service to Pharaoh13 or scattered throughout Egypt,14 and these concerns caused him to emphasize that his brothers deal with livestock and thus should settle in Goshen, but again, there is no indication that Joseph viewed this occupation as lowly or negative in any way.


When the brothers brought Benjamin to Joseph for the first time, we read that, Portions were served them from his table; but Benjamin’s potion was five times that of anyone else (Gen. 43:34). Why did Joseph give Benjamin specifically five times as much as the other brothers? Demetrius explains, “He had done this because his father 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.”15

The traditional rabbinic explanation is found in Bereishit Rabbah 92:5 and Midrash Tanhuma (Vayigash 4). There it is explained that Joseph, his wife Asenath, and sons Ephraim and Menashe all gave their portions to Benjamin, so that along with his original potion he now had five portions. This explanation is brought in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and Rashi.

Later midrashim explain that the five portions foreshadowed something having to do with the number five, for example, something regarding Benjamin’s descendants. According to Yalkut Or ha-Afela, the portions represented five righteous descendants of Benjamin- Mordechai, Yair, Shimi, Kish and Shaul.16 According to Midrash ha-Gadol, the portions foreshadowed that Mordechai his descendant would wear five royal garments (Esther 8:15).17

The explanation of Demetrius once again is not represented in rabbinic literature. The reason for that is not readily apparent.

Modern scholars have pointed out that the number five is a recurrent theme in the Joseph narrative. It is the remaining years of famine in Genesis 45:6, the number of brothers presented to Pharaoh in Genesis 47:2, and the amount of tax (one fifth) that the Egyptians must give of their harvest in Genesis 47:24. Five may be a general term meaning “several”, a standard round number, or a narrative device used in this story.18


Exodus 17:8-13 describes the battle of the Israelites against the Amalekites, presupposing that the Israelites had weapons. Using somewhat uncertain phrasing,19 Exodus 13:18 states that the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt. Where did they get their weapons? Demetrius deals with this question. “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.”20 Meaning that the Israelites took the weapons from the dead Egyptian soldiers. This is the same explanation offered by Josephus in his Antiquities (2:349).

The term used in Exodus 13:18 translated as “armed” is hamushim. The Septuagint translates this as “in the fifth generation”, and it seems that this is the text Demetrius was following.21 Based on this reading, the Israelites were not yet armed at Exodus 13:18, which takes place before the splitting of the Red Sea. However, translating hamushim as “the fifth generation” conflicts with God’s promise in Genesis 15:16 that they shall return here in the fourth generation. For this reason, traditional exegetes preferred translating hamushim as “armed”, so the Israelites were understood to have weapons even before the Egyptian troops drowned.

   Translating hamushim as “armed” has its own difficulties, since “no mention is made of weapons” at the parting of the Sea and “the distinct impression is created that only miraculous divine intervention can rescue Israel.”22 Still, “all extant midrashic sources describing the events at the sea unanimously affirm that the Israelites were armed,” 23 although no explanation is provided for how these weapons were procured. It is unreasonable that they somehow borrowed weapons from their Egyptian neighbors along with the objects of silver and gold, and clothing (Ex. 12:35). Once again the approach of Demetrius was rejected by rabbinic sources, although in this instance the question he posed went unanswered.

Hizkuni and Bekhor Shor interpreted hamushim as “carrying a lot of food”, based on a similar usage in Genesis 41:34. In modern times, Umberto Cassuto explained that the word hamushim can be explained as meaning “arranged in military order”, emphasizing that the Israelites did not leave Egypt as a disorderly bunch of frightened slaves on the run.24 While the military connotation is preserved, there is not implication that they were actually armed, in consonance with the sense of the text at the splitting of the Sea, and leaving the explanation of Demetrius a viable one.


The interpretations of Demetrius represent a very early attempt at explaining difficulties found in the narrative of the Bible. These explanations predate rabbinic literature by centuries, but despite being the earliest recorded solutions to certain textual problems, were universally ignored and rejected by rabbinic exegetes based on various textual concerns. The approach of Demetrius shows that these questions were already a concern in ancient times, although it has taken many centuries for more acceptable approaches to develop.



  1. J. Hanson, “Demetrius the Chronographer”, in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha – vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1985), p. 844; See also the discussion in Erich Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism (Berkley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 115.
  2. J. Hanson, “Demetrius the Chronographer”, in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha – vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1985), p. 843.
  3. J. Hanson, “Demetrius the Chronographer”, in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha – vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1985), p. 845; Maren Niehoff, Jewish Exegesis and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 51-52. However, see Tessa Rajak, The Jewish Dialogue with Greece and Rome (Leiden: Brill, 2002), p. 27, note 45, where the idea that this is a form of “question and answer” literature is questioned.
  4. Elias Bickerman, The Jews in the Greek Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 221.
  5. See James Kugel, Traditions of the Bible (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 477.
  6. Yoel Bin-Nun, “The Intractable Question: Why Did Joseph Not Send Word to His Father?” in Ezra Bick and Yaakov Beasley, eds., Torah MiEtzion: New Readings in Tanach, vol. 1: Bereshit (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2011), pp. 428ff.
  7. See for example, Arnold Ages, “Why Didn’t Joseph Call Home?”, Bible Review 9 (1993), pp. 42-46; Moshe Soller, “Why No Message From Joseph to His Father?”, Jewish Bible Quarterly, 26:3 (1988), pp. 158-167.
  8. See J. Freudenthal, Hellenistische Studien – Alexander Polyhistor (Breslau: Verlag von H. Skutsch, 1875), p. 45.
  9. J. Hanson, “Demetrius the Chronographer”, in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha – vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1985), p. 850.
  10. Tessa Rajak, The Jewish Dialogue with Greece and Rome (Leiden: Brill, 2002), p. 26.
  11. Erich Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism (Berkley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 114.
  12. Tessa Rajak, The Jewish Dialogue with Greece and Rome (Leiden: Brill, 2002), p. 27.
  13. Midrash Lekah Tov, Hizkuni, Radak.
  14. Midrash ha-Gadol, Ralbag.
  15. J. Hanson, “Demetrius the Chronographer”, in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha – vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1985), p. 851.
  16. Menahem Kasher, Torah Shelemah (Jerusalem: Torah Shelemah Institute, 1992), p. 1616, item 93.
  17. Menahem Kasher, Torah Shelemah (Jerusalem: Torah Shelemah Institute, 1992), p. 1616, item 94.
  18. Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary – Genesis (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 302.
  19. See Benno Jacob, Exodus (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 192), p. 379; Cornelis Houtman, Historical Commentary on the Old Testament – Exodus vol. 2 (Kampen: Kok Publishing House, 1996), pp. 251-252; Richard Gabriel, The Military History of Ancient Israel (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003), pp. 71-72.
  20. J. Hanson, “Demetrius the Chronographer”, in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha – vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1985), p. 854.
  21. David Winston, The Wisdom of Solomon – Anchor Bible vol. 43 (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1979), p. 222. Wisdom of Solomon 10:20 states that the Israelites “spoiled the godless”, but with no explicit mention of weaponry. The Apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon is dated to around the time of Demetrius, see pp. 20-25.
  22. Samuel Loewenstam, The Evolution of the Exodus Tradition (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1992), p. 232.
  23. Samuel Loewenstam, The Evolution of the Exodus Tradition (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1992), pp. 230-231.
  24. Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1987), p. 107.


Zvi Ron received semikhah from the Israeli Rabbanut and his Ph.D. in Jewish Theology from Spertus University. He is an educator living in Neve Daniel, Israel, and the author of Sefer Katan ve-Gadol (Rossi Publications: 2006) about the large and small letters in Tanakh, and Sefer HaIkkar Haser (Mossad Harav Kook: 2017) about the variant spellings of words in Tanakh. He is the Editor of The Jewish Bible Quarterly.





2017-10-02T08:05:28+00:00Categories: 45:3, Zvi Ron|