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Josephus, Antiquities XX, 17-95: The Conversion of the House of Adiabene

Tomb of Queen Helene of AdiabeneLarge numbers of non-Jews were interested in Jewish practices in the Greco-Roman world. Yet to the Jews, a particular source of pride was the decision of the royal house of Adiabene, a minor kingdom in Northern Syria, to convert to Judaism. Josephus’ account, probably taken from an earlier source, indicates the requirements of circumcision, study of the Torah and sacrifice as symbols of the transition to membership in the Jewish community.

(17) About this time it was that Helena, queen of Adiabene, and her son Izates, changed their course of life, and embraced the Jewish customs, and this on the following occasion- (18) Monobazus, the king of Adiabene, who also had the name of Bazeus, fell in love with his sister Helena, took her to be his wife, and conceived a child with her. But as he was in bed with her one night, he laid his hands upon his wife’s belly and fell asleep, and seemed to hear a voice which bade him take his hands off his wife’s belly, and not to hurt the infant that was therein which, by God’s providence, would be safely born, and have a happy end. (19) This voice put him into disorder, so he awakened immediately and told the story to his wife. When his son was born, he called him Izates. 2 (20) He had indeed Monobazus, his elder brother, by Helena also, as he had other sons by other wives besides. Yet he openly placed all his affections on Izates as if he were his only begotten son. (21) This was the origin of the envy which his other brothers, by the same father, bore to him, for they hated him more and more and were all under great affliction that their father should prefer hates to them all (22) Now although their father was very sensible of their passions, yet he forgave them, as not indulging those passions out of an ill disposition, but out of a desire each of them had to be beloved by their father. However, he sent Izates, with many presents, to Abennerigus, 3 the king of Charax-Spasini, 4 because of the great fear he was in about him, lest he should come to some misfortune by the hatred his brothers bore him; and he committed his son’s preservation to him. (23) Abennerigus gladly received the young man, and had such great affection for him that he married him to his own daughter, whose name was Samacha. He also bestowed a territory upon him, from which he received large revenues.

(24) But when Monobazus had grown old, and saw that he had but a little time to live, he wanted to see his son before he died. So he sent for him and embraced him in the most affectionate manner, and bestowed on him the country called Carrae. (25) It was a soil that bore amomum 5 in great plenty. There are also in it the remains of that ark, wherein it is related that Noah escaped the deluge, and where they are still shown to whoever wants to see them. (26) Accordingly Izates stayed in that land until his father’s death. But the very day that Monobazus died, Queen Helena sent for all the grandees and governors of the kingdom and for those that had the armies committed to their command. (27) When they came, she made the following speech to them- “I believe you are not unaware that my husband was desirous that Izates should succeed him in the government and thought him worthy to do so. However, I await your determination for happy is he who receives a kingdom not from a single person only, but from the willing consent of a great many.”

(28) This she said in order to test those who were invited and to discover their sentiments. Upon hearing this, they first of all paid their homage to the queen, as their custom was, and then they said that they confirmed the king’s determination and would submit to it. They rejoiced that Izates’s father had preferred him before the rest of his brothers, as being agreeable to all their wishes. (29) But they were desirous first of all to kill his brothers and kinsmen, that so the government might come securely to Izates because if they were once destroyed, all that fear would be over which might arise from their hatred and envy of him. (30) Helena replied to this that she appreciated their kindness to herself and to Izates but desired that they should, however, defer the execution of this slaughter of brothers until he should be there himself and give his approvalto it (31) So since these men did not prevail with her when they advised her them, they exhorted her at least to keep them in bonds until he should come for their own security. They also gave her counsel to set up someone in whom she could put the greatest trust as governor of the kingdom in the meantime. (32) So Queen Helena complied with this counsel of theirs and set up Monobazus, the eldest son, to be king, and put the diadem upon his head, and gave him his father’s ring, with its signet as well as the ornament which they called Sampser, and exhorted him to administer the affairs of the kingdom until his brother came. (33) He came suddenly upon hearing that his father was dead and succeeded his brother Monobazus, who surrendered the government to him.

(34) Now, during the time Izates abode at Charax-Spasini, a certain Jewish merchant, whose name was Ananias, visited the king’s wives and taught them to worship God according to the Jewish religion. (35) Moreover, through them he became known to Izates- and persuaded him, in like manner, to embrace that religion. He also, at the earnest entreaty of Izates, accompanied him when he was sent for by his father to come to Adiabene. It also happened that Helena, about the same time, was instructed by a certain other Jew and went over to their laws. (36) But when Izates had taken the kingdom and had come to Adiabene, and there saw his brothers and other kinsmen in bonds, he was displeased by it. (37) He thought it an instance of impiety either to kill or imprison them, but still thought it a hazardous thing to let them have their liberty, with the remembrance of the injuries that had been offered to them. He sent some of them and their children as hostages to Rome, to Claudius Caesar, and sent the others to Artabanus, the king of Parthia, with like intentions.

(38) And when he perceived that his mother was highly pleased with the Jewish customs, he made haste to convert and to embrace them entirely. As he supposed that he could not be thoroughly a Jew unless he was circumcised, he was ready to have it done. (39) But when his mother understood his intention, she endeavored to hinder him from doing it. She said to him that it would bring him into danger; and that since he was a king, he would thereby bring about great disaffection among his subjects when they would find out that he was so devoted to rites that were to them strange and foreign, and that they would never bear to be ruled over by a Jew. (40) This it what she said to him, and for the present she persuaded him to forbear. When he had related what she had said to Ananias, he confirmed what his mother had said. He also threatened to leave him and to leave the land unless he complied with him. (41) He said that he was afraid lest if such an action became public, he should himself be in danger of punishment for having been the cause of it, having been the king’s instructor in actions that were unseemly. He said that Izates might worship God without being circumcised, if he had resolved to be a devoted adherent of Judaism and that such worship of God was of a superior nature to circumcision. (42) He added that God would forgive him, though he did not perform the operation, since it was omitted out of necessity and for fear of his subjects. So the king at that time complied with these persuasions of Ananias.

(43) But afterwards, as he had not given up his desire of doing this, a certain other Jew from Galilee, whose name was Eleazer, and who was esteemed very skillful in the learning of his country, persuaded him to do it. (44) For as he entered into his palace to pay him respects and found him reading the law of Moses, he said to him, “You do not consider, O king! that you unjustly break what is commanded in those laws and transgress against God himself for you ought not only to read them, but even more to practice what they enjoin you. (45) How long will you continue to be uncircumcised? If you have not yet read the law about circumcision, and do not know how great an impiety you art guilty of by neglecting it, read it now.” (46) When the king had heard what he said, he delayed the thing no longer, but retired to another room and sent for a surgeon, and did what he was commanded to do. He then sent for his mother, and Ananias his tutor, and informed them that he had done this. (47) They were immediately struck with astonishment and fear beyond measure lest the thing should be openly discovered and censured, and the king should risk the loss of his kingdom since his subjects would not bear to be governed by a man who was so zealous for another religion and lest they should themselves run some risk because they would be supposed the cause of his so doing. (48) But it was God himself who prevented what they feared from taking effect. For He preserved both Izates himself and his sons when they fell into many dangers and procured their deliverance when it seemed to be impossible, and demonstrated thereby that the reward for piety does not perish for those who have regard to Him and fix their faith upon Him only, but these events we shall relate below. 6

(49) But as to Helena, the king’s mother, when she saw that the affairs of Izates’s kingdom were in peace, and that her son was a happy man, and admired among all men and even among foreigners, by means of God’s providence over him, she had a mind to go to the city of Jerusalem, in order to worship at that temple of God which was so very famous among all men and to offer her thank offerings there. So she asked her son to give her permission to go there. (50) He gave his consent to what she desired very willingly, and made great preparations for her departure, and gave her a great deal of money. She set out for the city of Jerusalem, her son accompanying her on her journey a great way. (51) Now her arrival was of very great advantage to the people of Jerusalem since a famine oppressed them at that time, and many people died for lack of money with which to procure food. Queen Helena sent some of her servants to Alexandria with money to buy a great quantity of corn, and others of them to Cyprus to bring a cargo of dried figs. (52) As soon as they came back and brought those provisions, which was done very quickly, she distributed food to those who were in need of it, and left a most excellent memorial behind her of this benefaction, which she bestowed on our whole nation. (53) When her son Izates was informed of this famine, he sent great sums of money to the principal men in Jerusalem. However, the favors that this queen and king conferred upon our city Jerusalem shall be further related below. 7

(75) Now when the king’s brother, Monobazus, and his other relatives saw how Izates, by his piety to God, had become greatly esteemed by all men, they also had a desire to leave the religion of their land and to embrace the customs of the Jews. (76) But that act of theirs was discovered by Izates’s subjects. Whereupon the nobles were much displeased, and could not contain their anger at them, but had an intention, when they should find a proper opportunity, to inflict a punishment upon them. (77) Accordingly, they wrote to Abia, king of the Arabians, and promised him great sums of money if he would make an expedition against their king. They further promised him that on the first engagement, they would desert their king because they were desirous to punish him because of the hatred he had for their religious worship. Then they obligated themselves by oaths to be faithful to each other, and requested that he make haste in his design. (78) The king of Arabia complied with their requests, brought a great army into the field, and marched against Izates. At the beginning of the first engagement and before they came to a close fight, those nobles, as if they were stricken by panic, all deserted Izates, as they had agreed to do, and, turning their backs upon their enemies, ran away. (79) Yet Izates was not dismayed at this. But when he understood that the nobles had betrayed him, he also retired into his camp and made inquiryinto the matter. As soon as he knew who they were who had made this conspiracy with the king of Arabia, he cut off those who were found guilty. Renewing the fight on the next day, he killed the greatest part of his enemies, (80) and so forced all the rest to flee. He also pursued their king, and drove him into a fortress called Arsamus, and, following on the siege vigorously, he took that fortress. When he had plundered it of all the prey that was in it, which was not small, he returned to Adiabene. But he did not take Abia alive because when he had found himself encompassed uponevery side, he killed himself. 8

(92) It was not long before Izates died after he had completed fifty-five years of life and had ruled his kingdom for twenty-four years. He left behind him twenty-four sons and twenty-four daughters. (93) However, he gave an order that his brother Monobazus should succeed to the kingship thereby rewarding him since, while he was himself absent after their father’s death, he had faithfully preserved the government for him. (94) But when Helena, his mother, heard of her son’s death, she was greatly distressed, as was but natural, upon her loss of such a most dutiful son. Yet it was a comfort to her that she heard that the succession came to her eldest son. Accordingly she went to him in haste, and after she arrived in Adiabene, she did not long outlive her son Izates. (95) But Monobazus sent her bones, as well as those of Izates, his brother, to Jerusalem, and gave an order that they should be buried at the tombs which their mother had erected They were three in number, and distant no more than three furlongs from the city of
Jerusalem. 9

1. Trans. by W. Whiston, The Works of Josephus (Peabody, MA- Hendrickson, 1987), revised by L. H. Schiffman in consultation with H. St. J. Thackeray, Ralph Marcus, Allen Wikgren, and L. H. Feldman, trans., Josephus- in Nine Volumes (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, MA- Harvard University, 1976-79).

2. An Iranian name meaning “genius, divine being.”

3. From 5-21 C.E.

4. Capital of the kingdom of Charakene located between the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southern Mesopotamia.

5. An aromatic plant of the ginger family.

6. Cf. 69-91, but since this promise is largely unfulfilled, it may be that Josephus copied this account from elsewhere.

7. Again, this promise is not fulfilled, indicating that this was copied by Josephus from a source.

8. Josephus then relates an account of a similar attempt by the nobles to use the king of Parthia to dislodge Izates.

9. These tombs can be seen today on Nablus Road in East Jerusalem.

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