In ancient times, the Jews were accused of having a statue of a donkey in their temple. In some versions of the story, Moses was depicted riding the ass, in other versions it was just an ass by itself, or only the head of an ass. From whence did this accusation of onolatry (donkey worship) arise? Was it simply libel meant to discredit the Jews, or is there some truth to the claim?
The best source we have of this claim is found in the writings of the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus. In his work, Against Apion, he replies to the ancient Greek-Egyptian scholar Apion who lived circa 20 BC to 50 AD. Unfortunately, none of Apion's writings have survived, so we must rely on the response from Josephus, written around 100 AD.
Apion hath the impudence to pretend that "the Jews placed an ass's head in their holy place;" and he affirms that this was discovered when Antiochus Epiphanes spoiled our temple, and found that ass's head there made of gold, and worth a great deal of money. To this my first answer shall be this, that had there been any such thing among us, an Egyptian ought by no means to have thrown it in our teeth, since an ass is not a more contemptible animal than furones [it's unknown which animal is refered to here] and goats, and other such creatures, which among them are gods [...] Apion ought to have had a regard to these facts, unless he had himself had either an ass's heart or a dog's impudence; of such a dog I mean as they worship; for he had no other external reason for the lies he tells of us. (Josephus, Against Apion II:7)
Josephus uses the common apologetic tactic of "I'm rubber, you're glue. Whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you." In answer to Apion's claim that that Jews worship a donkey, he accuses him of worshiping a dog. Josephus then goes on to call Apion an ass for saying the Jews worship an ass:
The latter [Mnaseas of Patara] according to Apion, related how, "while the Jews were once in a long war with the Idumeans, there came a man out of one of the cities of the Idumeans, who there had worshipped Apollo. This man, whose name is said to have been Zabidus, came to the Jews, and promised that he would deliver Apollo, the god of Dora, into their hands, and that he would come to our temple, if they would all come up with him, and bring the whole multitude of the Jews with them; that Zabidus made him a certain wooden instrument, and put it round about him, and set three rows of lamps therein, and walked after such a manner, that he appeared to those that stood a great way off him to be a kind of star, walking upon the earth; that the Jews were terribly affrighted at so surprising an appearance, and stood very quiet at a distance; and that Zabidus, while they continued so very quiet, went into the holy house, and carried off that golden head of an ass, (for so facetiously does he write,) and then went his way back again to Dora in great haste." And say you so, sir! as I may reply; then does Apion load the ass, that is, himself, and lays on him a burden of fooleries and lies. (Josephus, Against Apion II:10)
The historian Apion references here is Mnaseas of Patara who wrote about 200 BC. In Mnaseas' native land of Lycia, the ass was associated with Apollo. There was a statue of an ass in the temple of Apollo at Mysia and an ass appears as a votive offering in the Panhellenic temple of Apollo at Delphi. Here, we have one possible explanation for the ass in the temple. Someone could be combining the Jewish god with Apollo.
There is a reference in the Suda, an abstract on a book by Damocritus, called On Jews. It is unknown exactly when Damocritus lived, but it may have been around the same time as Apion.
Damocritus, historian. Tactics in two books. On Jews, in which he says they used to worship the golden head of an ass, and every seventh year, being idle, they would bring [to the altar] a stranger, and bit by bit cut his flesh, and in this way destroy him. (Suda s.v. Δαμόκριτος, although s.v. 'Ιούδας καὶ 'Ιουδαῖος places the interval at 3 years instead of 7)
When emperors such as Antiochus and Caligula demanded to have their statues put in the Temple, the Jews said images were forbidden in their Temple. A story of a statue being discovered in the Temple therefor would prove the Jews disloyal to the emperor and perhaps the story was invented for precisely this reason.
The Roman historian Tacitus, a contemporary of Josephus, provides another explanation for why the head of the ass was in the temple. He claims that while the Jews were wandering through the desert, they were about to die of dehydration. They were saved when a pack of wild donkeys lead them to water. They therefor made an image of a donkey in their temple to commemorate the occasion.
Nothing, however, distressed them so much as the scarcity of water, and they had sunk ready to perish in all directions over the plain, when a herd of wild asses was seen to retire from their pasture to a rock shaded by trees. Moyses followed them, and, guided by the appearance of a grassy spot, discovered an abundant spring of water. This furnished relief. After a continuous journey for six days, on the seventh they possessed themselves of a country, from which they expelled the inhabitants, and in which they founded a city and a temple. [...] In their holy place they have consecrated an image of the animal by whose guidance they found deliverance from their long and thirsty wanderings. (Tacitus, Histories V:3-4)
The Tacitus account could have been based on an incident described in the Bible. In the midst of a genealogy, we are told in an aside that 'Anah (i.e. "the ass") found water in the desert thanks to some donkeys.
The sons of Zibeon: Aiah and Anah. This is the Anah who discovered the hot springs in the desert while he was grazing the donkeys of his father Zibeon. (Genesis 36:24)
The Tacitus account is also found in the writings of his contemporary Plutarch who says the Jews revered not just the pig, which they refused to eat, but also the ass and hare.
But I should think that if the Jews had such an antipathy against a hog, they would kill it as the magicians do mice; when, on the contrary, they are by their religion as much prohibited to kill as to eat it. And perhaps there may be some reason given for this; for as the ass is worshipped by them as the first discoverer of fountains, so perhaps the hog may be had in like veneration, which first taught them to sow and plough. Nay, some say that the Jews also abstain from hares, as abominable and unclean. They have reason for that, said Lamprias [Plutarch's grandfather], because a hare is so like an ass which they detest; for in its color, ears, and the sparkling of its eyes, it is so like an ass, that I do not know any little creature that represents a great one so much as a hare doth an ass. (Plutarch, Quæstiones Conviviales 4.5.2)
Plurach also claims Bacchus and Apollo are he same god and that the Jews worship him (Quæstiones Conviviales 4.6). This may tie in with the account given by Mnaseas of Patara who connected Jewish ass worship with Apollo.
Writing in the first century BC, Diodorus Siculus tells us that it's not simply an ass or the head of an ass in the temple, Moses himself is depicted riding upon it.
For, say they, Antiochus, surnamed Epiphanes, having subdued the Jews, entered into the temple of God, into which by their law no one was permitted to enter but the priest. Here, when he found the image of a man with a long beard carved in stone sitting on an ass, he conceived it to be Moses who built Jerusalem, established the nation, and made all their impious customs and practices legal: for these abound in hatred and enmity to all other men. Antiochus, therefore, abhorring this their contrary to all other nations, used his utmost endeavour to abrogate their laws. In order to effect this, he sacrificed a large hog at the image of Moses and at the altar of God that stood in the outward court, and sprinkled them with the blood of the sacrifice. He commanded likewise that the sacred books, whereby they were taught to hate all other nations, should be sprinkled with the broth made of the hog's flesh. And he extinguished the lamp called by them immortal, which was continually burning in the temple. Lastly, he compelled the high priest and the other Jews to eat swine's flesh. Afterwards, when Antiochus and his friends had deliberately considered these things, they urged him to root out the whole nation, or at least to abrogate their laws and compel them to change their former mode of conducting themselves in common life. But the king being generous and of a mild disposition, received hostages and pardoned the Jews. He demolished, however, the walls of Jerusalem, and took the tribute that was due.' (Diodorus, fragment from Book 34 of The Library of History)
As Bezalel Bar-Kochva writes (The Image of the Jews in Greek Literature: The Hellenistic Period, also Josephus' Contra Apionem) Diodorus Siculus got this story from Posidonius of Apamea (or possibly Apollonius Molon) who recorded it in the first century BC, who in turn got it from Timochares (circa 129 BC), a Seleucid court historian. Timochares' source was a previous Seleucid court historian who lived during the Hasmonaean revolt (c. 163 BC).
But this isn't the earliest account of the story. Mnaseas of Patara wrote about 200 BC, but the story goes back even further. The translators of the Septuagint (circa 250 - 200 BC) apparently knew of the story and didn't want Moses to be associated with an ass, so they simply changed the word "ass" to something else whenever it appeared. The Hebrew version of Exodus 4:20 reads: "And Moses took his wife and children, mounted them on an ass, and set out for Egypt with the staff of God in his hand" but the Greek of the Septuagint changes "ass" to "beast of burden". The Septuagint also changes the reference to "ass" in Numbers 16:15 to "a desirable object".
And Moses was very wroth, and said unto the LORD, Respect not thou their offering: I have not taken one ass [a desirable object] from them, neither have I hurt one of them. (Numbers 16:15)
There are very few places in the Bible where a word is deliberately changed. The Jews obviously found the association of Moses with asses embarrassing, but why? Was there some truth to the claim that Jews held asses in high regard?
In the Bible, the first born of every mother, both human and animal, must be sacrificed. However, the Bible allows a substitute sacrifice to be made in the cases of donkeys and men.
And every firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb; and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break his neck: and all the firstborn of man among thy children shalt thou redeem. (Exodus 13:13)
It's obvious why the Jews wouldn't want to perform human sacrifice like their ancestors, but why do asses get to be redeemed by a substitute sacrifice as well? The answer, my friend, is found in the Talmud.
For they [the asses] supported Israel in the time of the Exodus, for there was not even one in Israel who did not take with him ninety Lybian asses loaded with silver and gold of Egypt. (B. Berakhot 5b, see also Exodus 12:35-36)
We've already discussed a possible association of the Jewish god with Apollo, but Apollo wasn't the only god associated with the ass. The Egyptian god Set-Typhon was sometimes depicted with a donkey head and he has also been more explicitly associated with the Jewish god. For example, we have the following passage from Plutarch:
Those who say that Typhon fled from the battle on an ass for seven days, and having been saved produced sons, Hierosolymus and Judeaus, are at this point clearly dragging Jewish issues into the story. (Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride 363C-D)
In Morton Smith's book, Jesus the Magician, he argues that the association of the Jewish gods with the donkey may have something to do with the Egyptian god Seth. The Egyptians considered Seth the god of foreigners and he is sometimes depicted on magical gems with a donkey head and called Iao, a variant of Yahweh's name. "Iao" may have also been thought to be the sound that a donkey makes.
Also, Manetho's Aegyptiaca (quoted in part by Josephus) written about 270 BC, connects the Jews in general and Moses in particular with the Egyptian god Seth. He tells us the Hyksos (shephards) withdrew from Egypt, wandered in the desert, and finally settled in Judea where they founded the city of Jerusalem (Against Apion I:75-90). The Hyksos are elsewhere described as worshipers of Seth.
In addition to being associated with the ass, Typhon is also associated with a certain golden calf. The golden calf incident is explained in Exodus 32:1-20. While Moses goes up the mountain to receive commandments from God, his brother Aaron makes a golden calf for the Israelites to worship. When Moses finds out, he punishes the people by grounding up the calf into powder, putting it into water, and making them drink it. This really isn't fair when you realize that the Israelites hadn't been commanded not to worship graven images yet. Now, if he had punished them the second time they started worshiping golden calfs (1 Kings 12:28-33), making them drink gold Kool-Aid would actually make sense. As it is, Moses punishes them for breaking a law which he didn't even know about before he went up to the mountain. Philo tells us the golden calf was meant to be the Egyptian god Typhon.
For when the prophet, after having been called up to the loftiest and most sacred of all the mountains in that district, was divinely instructed in the generic outlines of all the special laws, and was out of sight of his people for many days; those of the people who were not of a peaceable disposition filled every place with the evils which arise from anarchy, and crowned all their iniquity with open impiety, turning into ridicule all those excellent and beautiful lessons concerning the honour due to the one true and living God, and having made a golden bull, an imitation of the Egyptian Typhos, and brought to it unholy sacrifices, and festivals unhallowed, and instituted profane and impious dances, with songs and hymns instead of lamentations. (Philo, The Special Laws 3:125, see also On Drunkenness 95, On Flight and Finding 90, The Special Laws 1:79, and On the Life of Moses 2:159-73)
Perhaps because of this association with Typhon, Josephus omits the golden calf incident from his retelling of the Bible entirely (Antiquities 3:95-101).
Not only Jews, but also Christians were accused of worshiping the head of an ass. Early Christian apologist Minucius Felix wrote a treatise titled Octavius around 150 AD. In it, a Christian named Octavius defends Christianity from a critic named Caecilius.
I hear that they adore the head of an ass, that basest of creatures, consecrated by I know not what silly persuasion,--a worthy and appropriate religion for such manners. (Octavius, Chapter IX)
This is the business of demons, for by them false rumours are both sown and cherished. Thence arises what you say that you hear, that an ass's head is esteemed among us a divine thing. Who is such a fool as to worship this? Who is so much more foolish as to believe that it is an object of worship? unless that you even consecrate whole asses in your stables, together with your Epona, and religiously devours those same asses with Isis. Also you offer up and worship the heads of oxen and of wethers, and you dedicate gods mingled also of a goat and a man, and gods with the faces of dogs and lions. Do you not adore and feed Apis the ox, with the Egyptians? (Octavius XXVIII)
Like Josephus before him, Minucius Felix also uses the "I'm rubber, you're glue" approach and accuses his critic of being the one who worships animals. Strangely, Tertullian (c. 160 - 225 AD) doesn't deny that Christians worship the head of an ass, although he does use the tried and true apologetic tactic of turning the accusation back around and says his opponents also worship asses.
In the next accusation we are found guilty not just of abandoning our communal faith, but of adding on a monstrosity of superstition. Some of you have entertained the dream that our god is actually the head of an ass. Cornelius Tacitus first launched this fantasy in the fourth book [it's actually the fifth book] of his Histories where he recounts the Jewish war. Starting with the origins of the Jewish people, he traces the source of their religion and its name. He relates how the Jewish people, hard-pressed for water and wondering abroad in desolate places, were delivered by following the lead of a herd of wild asses thought to be in search of water after feeding. For this reason the likeness of this animal is worshiped by the Jew. This is why I believe that we Christians, being linked to the Jewish religion, are associated with the same image. [...]
But what defense do you want from me? I'm admitting now to an occasional transgression that applies equally well to you. Let us suppose that that there is something asinine about our God. You certainly will not deny that you conduct the same worship we do. You in fact worship the ass in its entirety, not just the head. And then you throw in Epona, the patron saint of donkeys and all the beasts of burden, cattle, and wild animals. You even worship their stables. Perhaps this is your charge against us that in the midst of all these indiscriminate animal lovers, we save our devotion for asses alone! (Tertullian, Ad Nationes I:XI, see also Apologeticus XVI)
The onolatry of the Christians isn't just referred to in ancient writings, but also in ancient art. The oldest visual representation of the crucifixion is the Alexamenos graffito scratched onto the plaster of a school room on the Palatine Hill in Rome. It depicts a crucified figure with the head of a donkey and says, "Alexamenos worships [his] god". A little bone crucifix of a crucified donkey has also been found in Montagnana, although it can't be dated. Another graffito, this one drawn in Carthage around 200 AD, depicts a figure with donkey ears and a hoof wrapped in a toga holding a book. This is accompanied by an inscription which reads, "The god of the Christians." Tertullian refers to this image as the Donkey Priest.
There is now a new rumor about our God going the rounds. Recently a most depraved individual from Rome, your city, had defected from his own faith and allowed his skin to be shredded by wild beasts. Every day he would hire himself out for viewing while his skin was stripped. He would carry around a picture directed against us with the heading "Onocoetes," meaning Donkey Priest. It was a picture of a man wearing a toga and the ears of the donkey with a book in hand and one leg ending in a hoof. And the crowd believed this Jewish man. Who else plants the seed of our infamous reputation? As a result the whole city is talking about the Donkey Priest. Since this rumor has been around since yesterday, it lacks any authority of time and is compromised by the character of its author. I shall now gladly use it to refute your charges.
Let us have a look if you are caught up with us in the same folly. If the image we cherish is a freak, it doesn't really matter what kind of freak. You have gods with the head of a dog, the head a lion, the horns of a cow, a ram, or a horny-headed goat. You have goat-form gods, snake-form gods, gods with winged feet, not to mention wings growing out of the brow and out of the back. Many a donkey priest is lurking in your midst. (Tertullian, Ad Nationes I:XIV)
Tertullian repeats this story in a slightly modified form in his Apologeticus:
But recently in this city, what is really a new representation of our god has been made public, since a certain criminal, hired to trick the wild beasts, exhibited a picture with an inscription to the following effect: 'The Christian God, the Offspring of an Ass.' He had asses' ears, one foot hoofed, was dressed in the toga and carried a book. We laughed both at the name and the figure. But they were bound to worship at once a two-formed divinity, because they have welcomed, as gods, creatures with heads both of dog and of lion, with the horns of a goat and a ram, others with goats' bodies from the loins downwards, and like serpents from the legs, and with wings on the foot or the back. (Tertullian, Apologeticus XVI)
According to the now lost Gnostic book The Descent of Mary quoted by Epiphanius, the god of the Jews had the form of an ass, which some associated with the demon Sabaot. Apparently, spying god in his true form is what got Zacharias killed and is the reason Jewish priests wear bells into the temple.
That it was the occasion of the death of Zacharias in the temple, that when he had seen a vision, he, through surprise, was willing to disclose it, and his mouth was stopped. That which he saw was at the time of his offering incense, and it was a man standing in the form of an ass. When he was gone out, and had a mind to speak thus to the people, Woe unto you, whom do ye worship? he who had appeared to him in the temple took away the use of his speech. Afterwards when he recovered it, and was able to speak, he declared this to the Jews, and they slew him. They [the Gnostics] add, that on this very account the high-priest was appointed by their lawgiver (by God to Moses), to carry little bells, that whensoever he went into the temple to sacrifice, he, whom they worshipped, hearing the noise of the bells, might have time enough to hide himself; and not be caught in that ugly shape and figure. (Epiphanius, Panarion, 26:12:1-4)
The Christian may may have been associated with the ass simply because the Jewish god was, but another possible reason for the association of Jesus with the ass is found in Rabbinic literature such as the Bereshith Rabba. The rabbis believed there would be two different Messiahs, Messiah Son of David associated with the ass and Messiah Son of Joseph associated with the bull.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, thy king cometh unto thee, He is triumphant and victorious, lowly and riding upon an ass: even upon a colt, the foal of an ass. (Zechariah 9:9)
His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth: and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh. (Deuteronomy 33:17)
Jesus was thought to be the Messiah ben David by the early Jewish-Christians, so depicting him with the head of an ass makes a certain kind of sense, even if our modern mind believes the ass to be a symbol of stupidity, the ancients obviously didn't see it that way. In line with the Zechariah prophecy, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on an ass (Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-44, John 12:12-19) or according to Matthew, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on two asses at the same time!
And when they drew nigh unto Jerusalem, and were come to Bethphage, unto the mount of Olives, then sent Jesus two disciples, saying unto them, Go into the village over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her: loose them, and bring them unto me. And if any man say ought unto you, ye shall say, The Lord hath need of them; and straightway he will send them. All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass. And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, and brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon. And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest. And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this? And the multitude said, This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee. (Matthew 21:1-11)
Jesus trades in his two asses for a white horse in the Book of Revelation.
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh [often a Biblical euphemism for penis] he has this name written: King of Kings and Lord of Lords. (Reveleation 19:11-16)
In his book, the Pre-Nicene New Testament, Robert M. Price notes that unlike the other books of the New Testament, Revelation does not contain second century anachronisms, which makes it the earliest book in the New Testament. It actually has more in common with Jewish apocalyptic literature than Christian writings, so the rider on the white horse could have originally been Yahweh and only later identified with Jesus once Christianity caught on.
The onolatry claim was apparently still current in Renaissance Italy, for the rabbi Simone Luzzatto (1583 - 1663) listed it first in his refutation of anti-Jewish slanders. Although, he explains that the Tacitus story is based on a kernal of truth.
It could have been that since Samson had been a most valiant man and distinguished captain of the Hebrews, after vanquishing a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, and having been most thirsty, he prayed to God that water might gush out most abundantly from the jawbone, from which he was restored, as can be read in Judges 19 [Actually Judges 15; don't read Judges 19 it's the most horrific chapter in the entire Bible]. In commemoration of so brave an action, the effigy of the head of an ass with water gushing out of it [was placed in the temple.] (Luzzatto, Discorso 60)
That water gushed out of the jawbone isn't explicitly clear in the scripture, but Luzzatto's interpretation is understandable.
Finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey, he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men. Then Samson said, “With a donkey’s jawbone I have made donkeys of them. With a donkey’s jawbone I have killed a thousand men.” When he finished speaking, he threw away the jawbone; and the place was called Ramath Lehi. Because he was very thirsty, he cried out to the Lord, “You have given your servant this great victory. Must I now die of thirst and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?” Then God opened up the hollow place in Lehi, and water came out of it. When Samson drank, his strength returned and he revived. So the spring was called En Hakkore, and it is still there in Lehi. (Judges 15:15-19)
Luzzatto's explanation is clever since he takes the broad outline of the Tacitus story (a donkey being the instrument of a miraculous deliverance from thirst) and connects it to a scripture. However, his explanation is strained.
I recently thought of another explanation after reading The Great Angel by Margaret Barker. In her book, Barker demonstrates that the early Christians considered Jesus and Yahweh to be the same deity. Thus if Yahweh was depicted with a donkey head, Jesus would be as well.
There is no depiction of Yahweh as a donkey in any ancient carvings that survive, however Yahweh is depicted as a horse that the sun rides upon on the Taanach cult stand. Archeologists have also found horse figurines in Jerusalem not far from the Temple. These figurines depict Yahweh as a horse, sometimes with a sun disk around his head. There is also a terra-cotta horse figurine from Hazor dated to the late tenth century B.C. Statues of horses are also mentioned in the Bible. Apparently they used to be located at the entrance to the Temple, but King Josiah had them removed.
He [Josiah] removed from the entrance to the temple of the Lord the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun. They were in the court near the room of an official named Nathan-Melek. Josiah then burned the chariots dedicated to the sun. (2 Kings 23:11)
Since Yahweh was depicted as a sun horse in ancient Israel, it's not that improbable that Jewish critics would ridicule their worship by calling the sun horse an ass. The accusation that Jews worshiped the head of an ass would then be transfered over to the early Christians who believed Jesus and Yahweh were the same person.
In conclusion, we can't really know anything for sure. The claim that Jews worshiped an ass could have come from a number of different sources. Archeology indicates that Yahweh was originally depicted as a horse, which outsiders may have taken for an ass. The story could have originated in Idumea where Apollo was associated with the ass, or from Egypt where Set-Typhon was. The claim might have something to do the the golden calf incident in Exodus. Asses are associated with miracles and prophecies in the Bible and Rabbinic literature associates the Messiah ben David with the ass. Of course the claim could have arisen from something else entirely which has been lost to history. As with most questions dealing with antiquity, we'll just never know for sure.