While I am sure that the fragments of the otherwise unattested writer Abenephius that I translated and wrote about last week are probably not as interesting to you as they are to me, I’ve been puzzling a bit over the question of authenticity. As I wrote last week, the material found in the excerpts recorded by the Renaissance polymath Athanasius Kircher is not terribly original, but at the same time it is not exactly what one would expect Kircher to have made up, either, since a forger would have been more likely to produce something more … exciting? … well, interesting anyway. However, one question that came to my mind is if we know the degree to which the fragments reflect material from a specifically Jewish context. Previous analyses, taking the text at its Arabic face value, have attempted to fit the fragments into an Arab-Islamic context, possibly because many scholars have chosen to assume that Kircher’s identification of the author as “Abenephius the Arab” superseded his original identification of him as an Egyptian Jew named Rabbi Baracahias Nephi.
In reading about the way that Abenephius “resembles authentic Arabic traditions known from surviving works by other authors, such as Jalala al-Din al-Suyuti and Ibn Wahshiyya…” in Daniel Stolzenberg’s book Egyptian Oedipus, I found a reference to a fragment of Abenephius I had missed in my efforts to root them out of Kircher’s thousands of pages of text. This one pretty much obviates any effort to assign the work to an Arab-Islamic tradition. The fragment appears to be the opening of Abenephius’s book, or else the opening to a major section with in it. It sets up the book as a contrast between the Mosaic Law and the practices of the Egyptians, and it argues that the Hebrews were led astray by the abominable practices of the Egyptians, such that God himself, during the Exodus, needed to lay down the Law to prohibit the types of magical and occult practices the Jews had adopted from the Egyptians. It goes into rather obscure depth into the fine details of Jewish ritual practice, right down to the question of whether honey and leaven can be used in sacrifices (Lev. 2:11). The fragment refers to facts, reported by Plutarch (Isis and Osiris 32) and other Classical authors, that salt was for the Egyptians the “spume of Typhon.”
This is quite clearly not an Arab-Islamic text since I have yet to see an Islamic treatise on Egypt or the pyramids that goes into such minutia of Jewish law and ritual practice. As Kircher himself noted, the text is, however, a quite close parallel to Maimonides’ discussion in chapter 46 of Part 3 of the Guide for the Perplexed of the contrast between the Law and Egyptian practice when it comes to sacrifices. To give just one small taste of the close parallels:
Maimonides (Guide 3.43)
Maimonides was living in Egypt at the time he wrote his Guide, and it is interesting that Abenephius seems a bit more Hellenized in terms of discussing Classical accounts alongside Jewish ones. Of course, this could also be taken as evidence of a European forgery based on known texts.
A few other examples suggest that the text of Abenephius might actually be a lost Jewish account of Egyptian mysteries, albeit one that was written in the cosmopolitan context of Islamic Egypt. The important points are the otherwise strange differences between the stories given in Abenephius and known versions, differences that a hoaxer probably wouldn’t have bothered with.
Consider this story of the origin of human sacrifice on the Nile:
In this time, a great famine prevailed over the land of Egypt, such that many of the men of Egypt had been killed by hunger. The priests were thoroughly troubled by this great public calamity, and they consulted their gods. And the gods answered that there would be no end to the great scarcity of provisions unless they should sacrifice a man every year to the great god of fire, and to do so around the inundation of the Nile. And they did as the gods commanded, and the famine ceased over the whole of the land of Egypt. And that is how the custom of sacrificing men first arose. (Oedpius Aegyptiacus 1.4.15)
This story is clearly quite similar to the account found in even the oldest Islamic sources, but it is significantly different. In the Muslim account, the Copts tell the Arab conquerors that they had a custom in which they would dress a virgin girl in splendid robes and throw her into the Nile to drown in order to guarantee the annual flood. The Islamic story is mixed up and confused, ascribing the sacrifice to Christians in order to guarantee the Nile flood. The version in Abenephius is much clearer, and according to Kircher’s commentary, it reflects the story of the death of a euhemerized Osiris (who is also Hermes Trismegistus) in the Nile.
The sections in which Abenephius tries to explain hieroglyphs share a few similarities with Horapollo though I’m not sure one is dependent on the other. Some similarities are rather straightforward: both authors identify the ibis as the bird of Hermes Trismegistus. Both identify the hawk as the bird of the sun. But the differences are rather profound, too. Where they discuss the same symbols, their interpretations differ, and in most cases Abenephius speaks of symbols not covered by Horapollo. The conclusion seems to be that Abenephius and Horapollo were both drawing, probably independently, on popular folk traditions about the hieroglyphs. I think, though, that Abenephius is drawing on a Hermetic tradition, the same one that fed into Gnostic Hermeticism, Arab-Islamic Hermeticism, and Christian Hermeticism. At first this confused me because I wasn’t aware of a Jewish Hermetic tradition prior to the Hermetic Kabbalah interpretations that emerged in Italy after 1470. But I read that Moshe Idel, a scholar of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, has traced Hermetic influence on Jewish texts from the medieval period. However, most of the work on the subject focuses on European Judaism, and there is much less information about Judaism in medieval Egypt.
That said, what scholarship there is on the subject suggests that Christians, Jews, and Gnostics cross-pollinated quite a bit with each other and with Hermeticism, and then all of these with Islam. Many have argued that the Hermetic corpus contains elements borrowed from Judaism—as indeed it must since Hermetic writers from the time of Zosimus of Panopolis identified Hermetic beliefs with Jewish apocalyptic traditions of the Watchers and Giants—so it seems reasonable that some of those same elements would filter back the other way. I just wish we had other proof of similar texts.
I guess what bothers me about Abenephius is my inability to figure out whether the text is authentic. My instinct is that it might well be an Arabic translation of a Late Antique or early medieval Hellenized Jewish text on Egyptian mysteries, one that sought to contextualize them by placing them at the origin point for Jewish practice and acknowledging their power while trying to subordinate them to the “correct” practice of Jewish monotheism. In this, Abenephius would be performing the exact same function as the Arab-Islamic writers, who took the same material and produced versions venerating the power of Egyptian magic but subordinating it to the will of Allah. If the text really is an Arabic translation, rather than an original Arabic composition, then the brief references to Islamic characters like Idris might just be translators’ glosses, like the way Arabic translators altered and adapted texts by Aristotle, Plotinus, and others.
It would be fascinating if Abenephius turned out to be real, and if more of his text survived.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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