Friday, July 31, 2009

Yirmeyahu and Plato in Egypt

Over at DovBear, LSK asks some questions about a story in Artscroll's Kinos about a meeting of Yirmeyahu and Plato, with Plato ending up impressed with the prophet, which they attributed to Rav Moshe Isserles (=the Ramah), presumably from his sefer Torat HaOlah.

While LSK raises some questions, though I think the only real and apparently strong one is about chronology, with Plato being in the wrong century to meet Yirmeyahu. But as noted in the comment section, this assumes a non-Jewish dating system for the First Temple's destruction, but the Jewish dating system is somehow missing about 165 years. Thus, while that commenter / guest poster at DovBear writes:

Plato lived from 428-348 BC or a year later, according to detailed and reputable Greek texts.
The temple was destroyed in 586 BC! So these three could never have met!

We can bring the destruction of the temple to about 420 BCE, according to the Jewish count. By adding 165 years to 586 BCE (which is subtraction), we end up with 421 BCE. If Plato meets Yirmeyahu after the Temple's destruction, when the latter is in Egypt (which is what the legend states), then it does work out. Except of course you have to adopt the Jewish timeline. So they can be parallel. Someone also suggests that Socrates was a better match even with all this. Perhaps. Anyway, I tracked down many of these sources, so we can see what they say. They are quite interesting.

First, Jewish Encyclopedia's take on this legend:

The assertion—made by Yaḥya (l.c. p. 101a) and by Abravanel (to Jer. i. 5), but not by Isserles, as Yaḥya erroneously states—that Jeremiah held a conversation with Plato, is also of Christian origin.

I haven't tracked it down in Christian sources, but we can see what these Jewish sources say. First, R' Gedaliah Ibn Yachya, in his Shalshelet HaKabbalah (see right). He cites Rabbi Netanel Ibn Caspi in a commentary on the Kuzari:

"Plato said: I was with Jeremiah in Egypt, and initially I was mocking him and his words, and in the end, once I become accustomed to speaking with him and to watch his actions carefully, I saw that his words were words of the Living God. Then, I said in my heart, and I established, that he was a sage and prophet." And so wrote the author of Torat HaOlah {=the Rema} in volume I, chapter 11.
The continuation, with the story about bees, is from another source. We see when Ibn Yachya dated Plato. On the previous page, he writes that Plato was really Ezra! Ezra, who received from Baruch (Yirmeyahu's scribe) at about 3385. His name was not really Plato, but was really names Aristocles. Indeed, other sources give this as Plato's name, but do not claim that "Rabboteinu" changed his name to Plato. Ibn Yachya also claims that Plato was a student of Pythagoras, who we know from elsewhere lived from about 580 - 490 BCE. This was about the time of the Churban according to secular reckoning, so his student "Plato" would be as well. He also writes that he was a descendant of the philosopher Solon, which we have from other sources. But that was 6 generations removed, and Solon was about at the time of the Churban. And at the same time, however, Ibn Yachya refers (in the first clip I provided) to Theophrastus, a student of Plato. And he lived much later, 371 – c. 287 BCE, according to what we know from elsewhere.

There are also two other Aristocles, who were earlier and about the time of the Churban (from the secular date). Could this be a source for confusion? Probably not.Regardless, he does think, based on his sources, to place Yirmeyahu and Plato at about the same time. Perhaps someone else wants to try to hammer this out.

Now, while Ibn Yachya does appear to attribute this same story to Rema, in which case he is incorrect, he does give us a volume and chapter. So either he is misremembering or else he simply means that this is another, similar source, that early philosophers greatly respected Jewish knowledge and drew their philosophy from us. (See previous page: "And I saw in the book of Preparazioni {Preparations} siman 82 that they learned from the Jewish philosophers who were called Barkomani, who were exiled from Jerusalem to go to Babylon and Egypt. And know that the early philosophers of the nations referred to Jews as Barkomani, and at time Barberei {barbarians?} as is apparent in many scattered places in the aforementioned book.) Thus, when citing Rema for this, he perhaps does not mean the particular story about Plato and Yirmeyahu, but rather this point he is developing about the gentile philosophers drawing from Jewish sources.

What we find in Torat HaOlah is (starting from the previous page):
"For in truth, all the wisdom of the philosophers and researchers {and now the text in the image} came from Israel, and all of their wisdom is encompassed in the Torah, as the Rav of the Moreh {Nevuchim?} goes on at length to teach; that all the wisdom of the philosophers is found in the midrashim of Chazal and their aggadot. And know that I have perused an extremely old sefer amd there were sketched in it all the philosophers in their form and their wisdom, how it came about {?}. And it was written in it that Socrates, who is the one that the philosophers call Socrat the Godly, that he was the one who brought out at first in Philosophy that there was a separate reality {?}. And after him were drawn other the philosophers. And it is written there that he received the wisdom from Asaf the Korchi {who was in the time of King David} and from Achitofel. And it is further written in Shevilei Emunah {I think this sefer from R' Meir Ibn Aldabi} that the wisdom of Aristotle was stolen from King Solomon, peace be upon him, for when Alexander the Macedonian conquered Yerushalayim, he set his teacher Aristotle to govern over the collection of the books of Solomon. And every good thing he found in them, he wrote his name upon them, and intermixed in them some of the bad positions, such as the Antiquity of the World and the denial of Providence, in order to cover for himself, so that people who came after him would not know that he stole this wisdom from the Jews. And it is possible that every thing that he did not find a clear-cut proof for in the words of Solomon he did not believe. Regardless, it is explained that all the wisdom are dependent upon the vine {see a similar idea in Ibn Yachya}. And in truth it is so that it is fitting for every Jewish person to believe this belief, and not to give our praise and our glory to strangers, the scholars of the nations. And behold, the verses praises Solomon, peace be upon him, that "He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even to the hyssop that grows on the wall." And if the source of this wisdom was not stolen from him, what was his greatness over Aristotle and those who came after him, who researched into all aspects of nature, as is made clear in their words. Therefore, it is fitting to believe these words, that as we have written, so it is."
Finally, in Abarbanel, in his commentary on Yirmeyahu 1:5. That pasuk reads:

ה בְּטֶרֶם אצורך (אֶצָּרְךָ) בַבֶּטֶן יְדַעְתִּיךָ, וּבְטֶרֶם תֵּצֵא מֵרֶחֶם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּיךָ: נָבִיא לַגּוֹיִם, נְתַתִּיךָ.5 Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee, and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee; I have appointed thee a prophet unto the nations.

Even before we get anywhere in Abarbanel's words, we can see the idea of Yirmeyahu being a prophet for the gentiles, in giving over philosophy to Plato; or else Plato being impressed with the Godly knowledge of Yirmeyahu.

But this is not what he is actually using it for. Rather, it is for calculating the time span, and age, of Yirmeyahu. And if we look carefully at Abarbanel, he is commenting of Yirmeyahu 1:6, and JewishEncyclopedia referred to the wrong verse. Yirmeyahu says in the next pasuk that he is a child.

ו וָאֹמַר, אֲהָהּ אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה, הִנֵּה לֹא-יָדַעְתִּי, דַּבֵּר: כִּי-נַעַר, אָנֹכִי. {ס}6 Then said I: 'Ah, Lord GOD! behold, I cannot speak; for I am a child.' {S}

And he would have to be a naar at this time in order to speak with Plato.

Anyway, what Abarbanel says is:

"The Scripture put forth to explain that Yirmeyahu began to prophesy in the days of Yoshiyahu, 13 years to his reign, and it is a full explicit verse that he prophesied for 40 years, as I mentioned. And that after the destruction he traveled to Egypt and stayed there for many years without prophecy until the day of his death, like the words of the Rav {=Rambam?}. And the Greek scholars testify that Plato spoke with him in Egypt. And according to this, from the beginning of his prophecy until his death, there passed more than 50 years. And this proves that when he began his prophecy, he was only about 12 years old or 15 years old."

And it continues with more proofs. I am not sure of Abarbanel's chronology, and when he though Plato and Yirmeyahu respectively lived. But it would seem that he is imagining Plato in existence but 10 years after the Churban. It is possible he did not try to calculate this, but was only relying on the facts as given in different sources {these, he said were Greek sources} to establish Yirmeyahu's young age at the beginning of prophecy.

Regardless, as discussed earlier, if we assume the Jewish timeline, then the chronology more or less works out.

Putting aside Abarbanel, the positions of Rema and Ibn Yachya are interesting. What motivates them? Perhaps Jewish pride, and that we (and we from Hashem) are the source of deep wisdom, much akin to Avi Ezer's position. Alternatively, there is much that philosophy and kabbalah share in common. If so, it can be competition. If so, making kabbalah the Jewish version of it, but also the original and true version of it, helps win the competition. Also, if they share so much in common, it is quite likely that this is because, as Shadal posits , much of kabbalah was actually initially philosophy, but given a Jewish color and read into Chazal. In which case, these parallels argue for kabbalah's illegitimacy. By turning around the direction of borrowing, we can claim that philosophy borrowed the true aspects of it from kabbalah, such that kabbalah is original and true. Finally, for those with a philosophical bent, who reinterpreted pesukim and maamarei Chazal as statements of philosophy via philosophical derash, one is permitted to maintain a foreign system of belief, because we are granting it legitimacy and saying that this is the Torah's truth and things that Chazal have always known.


michael said...

You could say that most of Judaism is plagiarism.
Korbanot - everybody did it
TCHELET - canaanite royalty colours
Aron Habrit - similar to egyptians
Circumcision - Ancient african tradition, brought into Canaan through Egyptian priests.
Genesis - Mesopotamian mythology.

The only thing (but the most important) not plagiarized is the belief in One G-d who created the Universe , to love and fear him
, and to keep the mitzvot( not just as ancient tradition but as divine decrees).

LSK said...


Great analysis, thanks for looking into this. It's interesting how far Rishonim will go to prove the veracity of this story.

Could you look more into the missing 165 years? I always thought that 586 BCE was very accurate historically, independent of adding/subtracting from other dates, as it comes from dating King Nebuchadnezzar and the like. Obviously, 70 CE is correct as well. So why are we so bent on the 2nd Temple lasting 420 years?

joshwaxman said...

since rema is an acharon and ibn yachya is citing him, i would treat it as acharonim rather that rishonim. and abarbanel, the rishon, wasn't trying to prove the veracity of it, but believed that it came from Greek historians. he was probably helped along in this belief by it coming from Christian, and thus non-Jewish, sources.

i am no expert in these "missing" years, but from what i understand, it is from the secular historians that this claim comes. iiuc, several reigns of persian kings are conflated into one -- perhaps because of a closed canon approach, or because it was a *figurative* statement in that their actions were identical. Thus, in Rosh haShana 3b we find that Cyrus = Darius = Artaxerxes. There is more to this, and we have 52 years where conventional chronology has 207 years.


Anonymous said...

I think you got it backwards in your post - the secular dating of the churban is 586 BCE, and the seder olam dating is about 420 BCE. (Working backwards, the second bais hamikdash was destroyed in about 70CE, subtrack 420 years that it stood, plus 70 for galus bavel, and you're at 420 BCE for the first churban.)

So seder olam dating allows Yermiyahu and Plato's lives to overlap somewhat.

joshwaxman said...

thanks. indeed quite probable i got it wrong. i'll try to go over it after shabbos to fix.

thanks again,

Anonymous said...

But even if Plato's and Yermiyahu's lives overlap, Plato is still 6 years old at the time of the alleged meeting. Your post doesn't address this issue at all. Please explain.

joshwaxman said...

good point. but when did this incident occur?

if we take it as given over (purportedly) by Rema, then the incident occurred at Har Habayit immediately after the destruction.

but if we take it as having occurred in Egypt, where Yirmeyahu was taken after the destruction -- and as related in all the sources I present in this post (another post to come), namely Abarbanel and Ibn Yachya) -- then it occurred some time before Yirmeyahu's death. How long was that? There is no pasuk for when this occurred. Abarbanel is assuming 10 years in Egypt, and an approx 70 year life span (12 years start + 40 years prophecy + 10 years in Egypt). Add more years to Yirmeyahu's life, and Plato can be older.

i would note, though, that this works out only according to Jewish chronology, rather than secular chronology. (I originally messed up tremendously, as the previous commenter noted.) and regardless, i would regard this midrash, if authentically a midrash and not a christian legend, as initially intended homiletically, rather than historically.

a follow-up post is in the works, btw.

kol tuv,

Anonymous said...

Fascinating post!
the link to
has someone commenting that the story is quoted in meam loez..does anyone know where?



Z said...

For those interested in the "Missing Years", there's an entire book devoted to this subject - Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology

Anonymous said...

Early on in this post you confuse Plato and Plotinus.

joshwaxman said...

it would have been helpful had you pointed out precisely which reference you read to be Plotinus rather than Plato. אפלטון? פלטוני?


Anonymous said...

Sorry. אפלטון is Plato. פלטוני is usually Plotinus.

Jeff Fox said...

Can you send the exact citation of the Torat ha-Olah where the Rema talks about this?
rebjeff at gmail

joshwaxman said...

it can be found (or not found, as the case may be) in Torah HaOlam, chelek 1, end of perek 11.

see also this follow-up post.

Z said...

Plotinus lived in the 3rd century CE so he cannot possibly be Ezra. Apparently the Ibn Yachya means Plato when he says פלטוני and he calls him אפלטון only when he quotes Ibn Caspi.

jim said...

Links to some christian references

The other day I was reading St. Augustine’s (354-430) De Doctrina Christiana—a treatise that played an enormous role in shaping Western education—and came across an interesting passage in Book 2. In it, Augustine responds to the charge that Jesus Christ derived his teachings from Plato. Drawing on his mentor St. Ambrose (340-397), he denies the charge, and responds that Plato actually borrowed from Jewish thinkers!

“The illustrious bishop [Ambrose], when by his investigations into profane history he had discovered that Plato made a journey into Egypt at the time when Jeremiah the prophet was there, show[ed] that it is much more likely that Plato was through Jeremiah's means initiated into our literature, so as to be able to teach and write those views of his which are so justly praised?”

Augustine also makes the same claim of Pythagoras, namely, that his thought on God depended upon Jewish thinkers, and by proxy, divine revelation.

In his classic The City of God, Augustine later rejected the Jeremiah connection, since the prophet was dead long before Plato visited Egypt. And he also notes tha

jim said...

Does anyone know if (Rabbi Moshe Isserlis) wrote in his book "Toras Ha-Olah" that the Greek philosopher Plato came to Jerusalem with Nebuchadnezzar. ?

The Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserlis) wrote in his book "Toras Ha-Olah" that the Greek philosopher Plato came to Jerusalem with Nebuchadnezzar.

for those who are interested.

Aristotle wrote a letter to his student Alexander, the Great, notifying him of his recanting on his philosophies and acceptation of Torah as the true world philosophy.

There are two versions of the letter one found in the Meam Loez and One Found in the Sefer HaDorot.
We have included both versions below.

S said...

"as Shadal posits , much of kabbalah was actually initially philosophy, but given a Jewish color and read into Chazal"

What is the source for this?


Blog Widget by LinkWithin