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Aristotle in Jewish Legend

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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As the Greek who most impressed his influence upon the development of the Jewish mind, Aristotle is one of the few Gentiles with whom Jewish legend concerns itself. Some 200 years B.C., the Jewish philosopher Aristobulus, made the positive assertion that Jewish revelation and Aristotelian philosophy were identical. Hardly had 200 years elapsed before this opinion was modified to such an extent that it was claimed that Aristotle derived his doctrine directly from Judaism. Josephus on this point says ("Contra Apionem," 2:17): "I do not now explain how these notions of God are the sentiments of the wisest among the Grecians, and how they were reared upon the principles that he [Moses] afforded them." Of Aristotle himself Josephus has preserved ("Contra Apionem," 1:22) a very interesting passage from the writings of Clearchus, the pupil of Aristotle, the authenticity of which is maintained by such authorities as Lobeck, Bernays, von Gutschmid ("Kleine Schriften," 4:578), and Theo. Reinach ("Textes d'Auteurs Grecs et Romains Relatifs au Judaisme," 1895, pp. 10-12). This passage, prefaced by the remark of Josephus, is as follows:

Fragment of Clearchus.

"In his first book on Sleep he relates of Aristotle, his master, that he had a discourse with a Jew; and his own account was that what this Jew said merited admiration and showed philosophicalerudition. To speak of the race first, the man was a Jew by birth and came from Cœlesyria [Palestine]. These Jews are derived from the philosophers of India. In India the philosophers call themselves Kalani, and in Syria Jews, taking their name from the country they inhabit, which is Judea; the name of their capital is rather difficult to pronounce: they call it Jerusalem. Now this man, who had been the guest of many people, had come down from the highland to the seashore [Pergamus]. He was a Greek not only in language, but in soul; so much so that, when we happened to be in Asia in about the same places whither he came, he conversed with us and with other persons of learning in order to test our wisdom. And as he had had intercourse with a large number of sages, he imparted to us more knowledge of his own."

This is Aristotle's own account as recorded by Clearchus, and he adds more specific observations regarding his great and wonderful fortitude in diet and continent mode of living. Obviously it was the Jew's strict observance of the dietary laws that struck Aristotle. Gutschmid (pp. 579-585) thinks that the Jew here spoken of is the same wonder-working magician (exorcist; see Josephus, "Ant." 8:2, § 5) who, by some sort of hypnotism, drew the soul out of the body of a sleeping child and brought it back again with his rod in the presence of Aristotle (Proclus, Commentary on Plato's Republic, ), which part of the narrative Josephus intentionally omitted.

Regarded as a Jew.

In the circles where the antagonism of Judaism and Hellenism was known and understood, Aristotle was reported by tradition to have said: "I do not deny the revelation of the Jews, seeing that I am not acquainted with it; I am occupied with human knowledge only and not with divine" (Judah ha-Levi, "Cuzari," 4:13; 5:14). But when Aristotelianism became harmonized with Judaism by Maimonides, it was an easy step to make Aristotle himself a Jew. Joseph b. Shem-Ṭob assures his reader that he had seen it written in an old book that Aristotle at the end of his life had become a proselyte ("ger zedeḳ"). The reputed statement of Clear-chus is repeated by Abraham Bibago in the guise of the information that Aristotle was a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, born in Jerusalem, and belonging to the family of Kolaiah (Nehemiah 11:7). As authority for it Eusebius is cited, who, however, has merely the above statement of Josephus.

According to another version, Aristotle owed his philosophy to the writings of King Solomon, which were presented to him by his royal pupil Alexander, the latter having obtained them on his conquest of Jerusalem. With this legend of Alexander is associated the celebrated "Letter of Aristotle" to that monarch. Herein Aristotle is made to recant all his previous philosophic teachings, having been convinced of their incorrectness by a Jewish sage. He acknowledges as his chief error the claim that truth is to be ascertained by the reasoning faculty only, inasmuch as divine revelation is the sole way to truth. This "letter" is the conclusion of an alleged book of Aristotle, "two hands thick," in which he withdraws, on the authority of a Jew, Simeon, his views with regard to the immortality of the soul, to the eternity of the world, and similar tenets. The existence of this book is mentioned for the first time about 1370 by Ḥayyim of Briviesca, who expressly declares that he heard from Abraham ibn Zarza that the latter received it from the vizir Ibn al-Khatib (d. 1370). He does not state whether this apocrypha was written in Arabic or Hebrew; the Hebrew "Letter," as received, does not appear like a translation. It is safe to assume with Ḥayyim, that the Simeon mentioned was none other than Simeon the Just, about whose supposed relations to Alexander the Great the oldest Jewish sources give us information (Yoma, 69a; see ALEXANDER THE GREAT (2)). Identical with this letter is the prayer of Aristotle which the Polish BaḦurim had in their prayer-books during the sixteenth century (Isserles, Responsa No. 6; ed. Hanau, 10a.

A second "Letter" by Aristotle to Alexander contains wise counsel on politics; he advises the monarch that he must endeavor to conquer the hearts, and not simply the bodies, of his subjects (preface to "Sod ha-Sodot"). See Samter, "Monatsschrift," (1901) p. 453.

The essay entitled "The Apple," also ascribed to Aristotle, is tinged with a similar tendency. In it Aristotle refers to Noah and to Abraham, "the first philosopher." It was these spurious writings of Aristotle which gained for him the esteem of the cabalists, as evidenced by the very flattering utterances of Moses Botarel (Commentary on "Yeẓirah," 26b). The story of the love-affair between Aristotle and Alexander's wife, in which the former comes off very badly—current in the Middle Ages (see Peter Alfonsi, "Disciplina Clericalis," ) and originating in a Hindoo fable (see "Pantschatantra," ed. Benfey, 2:462)—was also told in Jewish circles, and exists in manuscript by Judah b. Solomon Cohen (thirteenth century), in Spirgati's catalogue, No. 76 (1900), p. 18.

  • Abraham Bibago, Derek Emuna, p. 46;
  • Azaria de Rossi, Meor 'Enayim, ed. Benjacob, p. 236;
  • Gedaliah ibn YaḦyah, Shalshelet ha-Ḳabbala, ed. Warsaw, 1889, pp. 139, 140, under the heading of Ḥakme Yawan;
  • Steinschneider, Hebr. Uebers. 1:229-273, contains an almost complete list of the pseudo-Aristotelian writings;
  • Modlinger, Ḥayye Aristo, Vienna, 1883;
  • A. J. Glassberg, Zikron Berit, pp. 280, 281.
L. G.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Aristotle in Jewish Legend'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia.​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​a/aristotle-in-jewish-legend.html. 1901.