Three ancient Jewish texts, composed at different times, in different languages, and in different locations, nevertheless share a remarkably similar description of gentiles. According to the three texts gentiles are characterized by concern for their physical needs. All three texts portray gentiles as obsessed with food and drink and clothing:
Letter of Aristeas §140-141 …the priests who are the guides of the Egyptians…have named us [i.e. the Jews] ‘men of God,’ a title applicable to none others but only to him who reveres the true God. The rest are men of food and drink and clothing, for their whole disposition flees for refuge to these things. With our countrymen, however, these things are reckoned as of no worth, but throughout the whole of life their contemplation is on the sovereignty of God.
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the sky [cf. Luke 12:24 ‘ravens’]: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the gentiles [cf. Luke 12:30 ‘nations of the world’ τὰ ἔθνη τοῦ κόσμου] seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.
Avot de Rabbi Natan (version a) ch.20
Rabbi Hananiah, prefect of the priests, says: He who takes to heart the words of the Torah is relieved of many preoccupations—preoccupations with hunger, foolish preoccupations, unchaste preoccupations, preoccupations with the evil impulse, preoccupations with an evil wife, idle preoccupations, and preoccupations with the yoke of flesh and blood. For thus is it written in the Book of Psalms by David, king of Israel: The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes (Ps. 19:9). But he who does not take to heart the words of the Torah is given over to many preoccupations—preoccupations with hunger, foolish preoccupations, unchaste preoccupations, preoccupations with the evil impulse, preoccupations with an evil wife, idle preoccupations, and preoccupations with the yoke of flesh and blood. For thus it is written in Deuteronomy by Moses our master: And they shall be upon thee for a sign and for a wonder, and upon thy seed for ever; because thou didst not serve the LORD thy God with joyfulness, and with a gladness of heart, by reason of the abundance of all things: therefore thou shalt serve thine enemy whom the LORD shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things (Deut. 28:46 ff.). In hunger: for example, at a time when a man longs to eat even a bit of coarse barley bread but he cannot find it, the nations of the world (אומות העולם) demand from him white bread and choice meat. And in thirst: For example, at a time when a man longs to drink even a drop of vinegar or a drop of bitters but cannot find them, the nations of the world demand of him the finest wine in any country. And in nakedness: For example, at a time when a man is eager to wear even a tunic of wool or of flax but cannot find them, the nations of the world demand from him silks and the best kallak in any country. And in want of all things: (That is,) in want of light, of knife, of table. Another interpretation of In want of all things: (In want) of vinegar and salt. This is the meaning of the curse that men utter: “Mayest thou have neither vinegar nor salt in thy house!”
Their God Is Their Stomach
The passage excerpted from the Letter of Aristeas is part of an apology for Israel’s purity laws. The justification for the restrictions on objects that may be eaten or touched is put in the mouth of Eleazar, the (fictional?) Jewish high priest, who explains that the purity laws are a protective hedge against the errors of gentile idolatry: “Our lawgiver…fenced us about with impregnable palisades and with walls of iron, to the end that we should mingle in no way with any of the other nations, remaining pure in body and spirit, emancipated from vain opinions, revering the one and mighty God above the whole creation,” (§139). The intention of our excerpt from Aristeas is to prove the superiority of Judaism. Whereas non-Jews find security in food and drink and clothing, Judaism leads to the contemplation of the divine. The author of Aristeas (usually referred to as Pseudo-Aristeas in scholarly literature) would have his readers know that Judaism is a truly philosophical religion.
-  Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Aristeas are taken or adapted with minor alterations from Moses Hadas (trans.), Aristeas to Philocrates (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951). ↩
-  ‘Clothing’ translates the Greek noun σκέπη. Hadas translates σκέπη with ‘raiment’ while R. J. H. Shutt translates this word as ‘clothes’ (“Letter of Aristeas” Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (ed. James Charlesworth; New York: Doubleday, 1983) 2:22).
The term σκέπη appears to have the basic meaning of ‘covering.’ Thus the LXX translation of Psalm 104 (105):39 reads, He spread out a cloud for a covering for them (διεπέτασεν νεφέλην εἰς σκέπην αὐτοῖς). Compare this with Job 37:8, The wild beasts come in under cover (εἰσῆλθεν δὲ θηρία ὑπὸ σκέπην). But the Greek term could also indicate clothing, as we see in Josephus’ account of Adam and Eve: “And now they became aware that they were naked and ashamed of such exposure…[they] bethought them of a covering (σκέπην),” (Ant. 1§44). Σκεπάζω, the verbal form of the same root, means ‘to cover’, and the related term σκέπασμα refers ‘chiefly to clothing’ according to BDAG. This makes it all the more puzzling that BDAG defines σκέπη as “shade afforded by trees” citing our text from Aristeas as an example (W. Bauer, W.F. Arndt, F.W. Gingrich, and F.W. Danker, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature [third edition; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000]: 927). See the comments of H. St. J. Thackeray, “Translation of the Letter of Aristeas” Jewish Quarterly Review 15 (1903): 366 n. 4; and Henry Meecham, The Letter of Aristeas: A Linguistic Study with Special Reference to the Greek Bible (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1935): 251. ↩
-  Adapted with minor alterations from the Revised Standard Version. ↩
-  Adapted with minor alterations from Judah Goldin (trans.), The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955). A parallel to this passage attributed to Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai may be found in Tanna Debe Eliyyahu Zuta chapter 16. ↩
-  The text here is difficult, cf. Goldin (above n. 3) Chapter 20 n. 4. My thanks to David Bivin with whom I consulted regarding the translation of this passage. ↩
-  Phil. 3:19, cf. Rom. 16:18. ↩
-  Josephus Ant. 12.4.1 § 157 mentions a high priest named Eleazar who was the brother of Simon the Just. E. Bickerman suggested that “it is probable that pseudo-Aristeas found the name of Eleazar as a High Priest under Ptolemy II in some Hasmonean source,” The Jews in the Greek Age (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1988): 144. ↩
-  See Hadas’ comments on §141 and 142. ↩