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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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The accusation that Jews worshiped the ass was for four centuries persistently made by certain Greek and Latin writers.

Various Authors of the Calumny.

  1. Mnaseas of Patras (second century B.C.) is quoted by Josephus ("Contra Ap." 2:9) as claiming that the Jews worshiped the head of a golden ass (χρυσὴν . . . τοῦ κάνϑωνος κεφαλήν). The word κάνϑων, instead of the usual ὂνος, suggested by its similarity to the κάνϑωρος (the scarabs), worshiped in Egypt, betrays the Egyptian standpoint of the author, it being also used to denote the sign upon the tongue of the Egyptian god Apis.
  2. A similar charge is made by Damocritus (Suidas, s. Δαμόκριτος), whose period is undetermined, but who certainly preceded Josephus. In his book "About the Jews" Damocritus asserts that the Jews reverenced the head of a golden ass (χρυσὴν ὂνου κεφαλην προσεκύνουν), to which every seven years they sacrificed a foreigner, whom they seized for that purpose, and cut his flesh into small pieces. Suidas (s. 'Ιούδας καὶ 'Ιουδαῖος) places the interval between these ritual-murders at three years instead of seven.
  3. The next writer is Plutarch (46-120), who, in his "Quæstiones Conviviales," 4:5, states that the Jews abstained from eating the flesh of the hare because it resembled the ass, which is an animal worshiped by them.
  4. Julius Florus, who lived under Antoninus Pius, speaks of the conquest of Jerusalem by Pompey, and mentions a secret place discovered in the Temple on that occasion, which contained, he says, an ass under a golden vine ("sub aurea vite cillum"). But the word "cillum," the most important word in the passage, is only a guess at a very much disfigured text, which, in its received form, gives no sense at all. This author's testimony, therefore, hardly deserves consideration.
  5. Quite different from these accounts is that in Diodorus, "Eclogæ," § 34, by Posidonius of Apamæa (died about 51 B.C.), that when Antiochus Epiphanes conquered Jerusalem in the year 168 B.C. and entered the Temple, he found in the Holy of Holies the image of a man sitting upon an ass (καϑήμενον ἔπ δνον) and holding a book in his hand; the king understood the statue to represent Moses. In addition to the association of this story with an historical personage, Antiochus Epiphanes, and to the mention of a statue, this account is further distinguished by the element that not the head alone but the whole animal is referred to, just as in Plutarch. Apion combined these accounts in stating that the Jews had in their Temple an ass's head set up, which was discovered when Antiochus Epiphanes penetrated into the sacred precincts (Josephus, "Contra Ap." 2:7; all the passages referred to are given by Th. Reinach, "Fontes Rerum Judaicarum," , Paris, 1895). Reinach (p. 131) remarks that it is clear from Josephus that Apollonius Molon, too, was acquainted with the calumny.

Same Accusation Against Early Christians.

As was the case with many another calumny against the Jews, Christianity, the daughter-religion of Judaism, was likewise charged with Ass-Worship (see Minucius Felix, "Octavius," , ). As Tertullian ("Apologia," ) remarks tersely and truthfully, the same accusation was made against Christians because theirs was the nearest to the Jewish religion ("ut Judaicæ religionis propinquos"). Writing against the heathens, Tertullian further says, "Certain people out of your midst have dreamed that an ass's head is our God" (see also "Ad Nationes," 1:11). He quotes Tacitus, who, as is well known, contributed most to spread false reports concerning Judaism. Tacitus' story runs ("Historiæ," 5:3) that the Jews suffered from thirst in the wilderness, and that they followed a herd ofwild asses which led them to a spring of water; in recognition of this benefit they made the domestic ass—its nearest congener—the object of their worship. A similar account is found in Plutarch (c. § 5). These accounts are essentially different from the preceding ones, for they endeavor to supply some cause for such a remarkable form of worship.

Josephus' Disproof for the Jews.

Josephus knows nothing of any such alleged reason. He takes ("Contra Ap." 2:7) the whole story as a stupid calumny, all the more despicable as it seeks to detract from the sanctity of the celebrated Temple. With clever irony he remarks that it ill befits Apion the Egyptian to bring forward such an accusation, for nothing can be more absurd than the Egyptian animalworship. The falsity of this shameful charge is established by facts: for Antiochus Epiphanes (Theus), Pompey the Great, Licinius Crassus, and lastly Titus, who all entered the Temple, found nothing there of that kind, but found, instead, the purest forms of divine adoration. Tacitus, as quoted by Tertullian, expressly states that Pompey found no image or idol in the Temple. Although this disproof seems quite sufficient as defense, it gives no clue concerning the origin of such a report. Tertullian indicates that he considers the calumny as simply the offspring of malevolence, for it was in like manner, he relates in his "Apologia," , that a rascal in his town (in "Ad Nationes," 1:14, he is described as a Jew), who had to take care of the wild animals intended for the arena, would carry around an image with the inscription "Onokoites, the God of the Christians." The image had ass's ears, a hoof on one foot, and it carried a book and a toga. The meaning of the word "Onokoites" is not clear.

Mockery of Christianity.

But it is very evident that the image must have been intended for the amusement of the crowds, and that the intended mockery of Christianity must have been understood as referring to one of the best-known dogmas of Christianity. The word ὀνοκοίτης, formed after the analogy of παρακοίτης —though not strictly according to philological rules —caused Tertullian to observe "risimus et nomen" (the very name of it made us laugh). It probably hints at something like ex concubitu asini (et feminœ) procreatus, and is thus a malicious insult upon the Christian God, claimed to be a compound being, both God and man (H. Kellner, "Ausgewählte Schriften des Septimius Tertullianus," 1:62,1871). This anecdote, however, can not be taken as indicating that the Jews transferred the reproach under which they had suffered from themselves to the Christians; for it is simply the silly wit of a coarse hireling that had deserted the Jewish faith to become champion fighter with wild beasts, as Tertullian himself states.

Real Foundation in a Gnostic Sect.

The Rabbis explain "tartaḳ" (2 Kings 17:31) as the image of an ass (Winer, "B. R." 2:605); but Tartak is not described as a god of the Samaritans, and the Samaritans therefore are not accused by the Jews of worshiping the ass, as is wrongly stated by Roesch ("Theol. Studien und Kritiken," 1882, p. 523). That the Christians were accused by the Jews of this cult is also without foundation, for neither Justin ("Dialogus cum Tryphone," pp. 10, 17, 108, and 117) nor Origenes ("Contra Celsum," 6:27) mentions anything of the kind. On the other hand, it is quite true that the Christians accused some Gnostic sect of their own of Ass-Worship, and, it appears, with full justification. The supreme spirit is called Onoel (ὂνος, ass + , God) by the Gnostics. According to the Gnostic work Τέννα Μαρίας (Epiphanius, "Hæres." 26:12), Zachariah saw in a vision a man in the Temple at Jerusalem who had the form of an ass. Some Gnostics ascribed to the demon Sabaot an ass' shape, others that of a pig (ib. 26:10). Here may also be mentioned that according to a baraita in Yoma 19b, a Sadducean high priest is said to have died in the Temple, and the imprint of a calf's foot to have been found between his shoulders.

Origin in the Egyptian Typhon-Worship.

Now all these varying accounts are remarkably illustrated by a graffito found in Rome in 1856, representing a man bearing the head of an ass, and nailed to a cross, before whom another man kneels in the attitude of adoration (F. S. Kraus, "Das Spottcruzifix," Freiburg, Br. 1872). Another graffito, found likewise on the Palatine in Rome, depicts the same man, and designates him as "fidelis" (faithful); so that this is not intended for a caricature, as usually claimed, but for an earnestly intended symbol of faith (Wünsch, "Sethianische Verfluchungstafeln aus Rom," p. 112, Leipsic, 1898). From the circumstance that at the right of the ass's head (see p. 222) there stands a Y, Wünscn deduces that it is a symbol of the Typhon-Seth worship, for on the numerous curse-tablets in Rome the same symbol always stands at the right of the ass's head of Typhon-Seth. It is the religious symbol of the Gnostic sect of the Sethinai (from Seth, son of Adam; but also from Seth, the surname of the Egyptian god Typhon); and they in their turn derived the ass's head—as shown in the above-cited quotation from Epiphanius—from the representation of the "Jewish god Sabaoth." Wünsch is therefore inclined to consider the cult of the ass as having foundation in fact and not merely in calumny.

Jews Can Not Be Connected with Typhon-Worship.

It is of course quite correct to say that the ass-cult is connected with the Egyptian god Typhon (Ælian, "V. H." 10:28). Plutarch relates ("De Iside et Osiride," ch. ) that in Egypt the ass was considered of "demoniac" nature (δαιμονικόν, on account of its resemblance to Typhon (compare ib.; M. Wellmann, "Ægyptisches," in "Hermes," 1896, 31:242). But this would not explain the story of its adoption by Jews. Plutarch brings the Jews into direct connection with Typhon by making him beget "Hierosolymus" (Jerusalem) and "Judæus," after having fled upon an ass subsequently to the war with Jupiter ("De Iside et Osiride," ch.; Reinach, c. p. 137). Roesch, referring to the Talmudic account, that in the Second Temple the so-called foundation-stone () took the place of the Ark of the wilderness, thinks thatthis stone is meant by Posidonius and others by their "ass' statue." The upper millstone being also metaphorically called "the ass," the enemies of the Jews took advantage of this circumstance to accuse them of worshiping a veritable ass. He claims also that a four-cornered stone is the determinative for Typhon in the hieroglyphs. But this explanation is too far-fetched to be acceptable; besides, it must not be forgotten that Mnaseas, the oldest authority for the legend, does not call the ass ὂνος, but κάνϑων. Another suggestion, that of Michaelis, that the enemies of the Jews may have seen a cherub in the Temple with an ass's head, is negatived at once by the fact that the cherubim were certainly never so represented. None of these attempted explanations is based on facts. Nor are Philo's statement (1:371) that the Jews' golden calf represented Typhon (see Winer, "B. R.," s. "Kalb"), and the connection of the ass-cult with that of Seth-Typhon asserted by Movers ("Die Phönizier," 1:297,365), and by W. Pleyte ("La Religion des Pre-Israélites," Leyden, 1865, p. 143).

Origin of Accusation in Alleged Bacchus-Worship.

For explanation of the supposed Ass-Worship, the Dionysos-cult must be taken into consideration. Dionysos, or Bacchus, was, under the name of Sabazios, worshiped by the Phrygians; according to some, Dionysos himself was Sabazios, according to others Sabazios was his son. Dionysos was identified with the Semitic divinity Adonis, which easily suggests the name of the God of the Hebrews. It is said that Dionysos encountered Aphrodite and Adonis in Lebanon; he loved their daughter Beroe (Nonnus, "Dionysiaca," ). Dionysos is identified with pretty nearly all Oriental deities, as, for example, with Moloch, Baal, Melkart, and Hadad. F. Lenormant says, therefore, in the "Dictionnaire des Antiquités," s. "Bacchus": "The disposition was so marked to identify the son of Semele (Bacchus) with the various deities of the Orientals that it was even pushed to the extreme of asserting that the Jews likewise worshiped Dionysos (Plutarch, 'Symposiaca,' 4:6), an assertion based upon nothing further than the similarity of sound between the name Jehovah, Sabaoth, and that of Sabazios (Valerius Maximus, 1:3, § 2; other passages at Lenormant), likewise upon the existence of the golden vine in the Jerusalem Temple (Josephus, 'Ant.' 15:11, § 3)." The similarity of the names Sabaoth and Sabazios, and the existence of the golden vine in the Temple, were then sufficient to suggest to the heathens, who knew very little about Jewish worship, that the Jews, like many other nations, cherished some kind of a Dionysos-worship. It is known that the excessive hilarities at the so-called "Feast of the Water-Drawing" at the Festival of Tabernacles gave cause to the accusation that the Jews celebrated Bacchanalia (see Z. Frankel, "Juden und Judenthum nach Römischer Anschauung," in "Monatsschrift," 1860, 9:125 et seq., and Büchler, in "Rev. Et. Juives," 37:181). Now, the ass was sacred to Bacchus and an unfailing member of his train; the god is often represented as riding upon one. Note the alleged statue in Jerusalem of Moses riding upon an ass, mentioned above. Silenus, Bacchus' constant companion, also rides upon an ass. Creuzer ("Symbolik," 1:480) remarks that Silenus is the ass. The ass was considered a phallic animal, and when once the Jews were accused of the cult of Dionysos, it was not going very much further to accuse them of sexual excesses, as Tacitus does, holding them capable of every shamefulness. One charge involves the other, and calumniators of the Jews would not be likely to hesitate at an additional falsehood or two.

The fables additionally connected with the asscult, such as the fattening of a Greek every seven years for an offering to the ass-god; the attempt of Zabid of Dora to rob the Jews of this god; Tacitus' story of the finding of the water-springs by the wild asses: all of them follow from the idea that the Jews worshiped Dionysos. Everything additional is the offspring simply of the hatred that the world of antiquity bore to the Jews. For this hatred there is no explanation.

Tacitus' story of the finding of the water-springs rests on a genuine Idumean narrative found in Genesis 36:24, according to which "'Anah (= the ass), son of Zibeon the Ḥorite, found the hot springs () in the wilderness while feeding the asses of his father." The whole story, accordingly, points to Idumæa, where the first ass-cult legend as told by Josephus ("Contra Ap." 2:10) originated according to Mnaseas. Apollo, the god of the Idumean city of Dora, represented by Zabidus the Idumean, carrying the golden head of an ass at the battle of Dora, is Baal Anah, who probably became afterward the Gnostic god Anael. It was the identification of the Jews with the Hyksos by Manetho that occasioned the Jews to be accused of Ass-Worship—that is, Seth-Typhon worship. See J. G. Müller, "Des Flavius Josephus Schrift Gegen Apion," p. 258; Schürer, and "Gesch." 1:3, 3:104.

  • Bochart, Hierozoicon, sive de Animalibus Scripturœ, Sacrœ, 1793, 1:199;
  • Jablonski, Panthéon Egyptien, Frankfort-on-the-Oder, 1750;
  • Eckhel, Doctrina Nummorum Veterum, 8:173, Vienna, 1798;
  • Michaelis, Das Mosaische Recht, 1770-1776, 4:184;
  • Movers, Die Phönizier;
  • Pleyte, c.;
  • Grätz, in Monatsschrift, 21:193;
  • Rénan, L'Eglise Chrétienne, 2d ed., 481;
  • Marc-Aurèle, 64;
  • Ewald, Gesch. des Volkes Israel, 2d ed., 7:84;
  • Harnack, Gesch. der Altchristlichen Literatur, 1:167;
  • Schürer, Gesch. 3:104,416. Compare also Smith, Dictionary Christian Antiquities, art. Asinarii;
  • and the description of an Ass Festival in the Middle Ages, in Protest., R. E., 3d ed., s. Eselsfest.
S. Kr.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Ass-Worship'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​a/ass-worship.html. 1901.
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