Compassion in the Making: Lexicographic Explorations in Judeo-Hellenistic Literature

Citation with persistent identifier:

Mirguet, Françoise. “Compassion in the Making: Lexicographic Explorations in Judeo-Hellenistic Literature.” CHS Research Bulletin 1, no. 2 (2013).

§1  Nothing may seem more spontaneous and universally human than crying at the suffering of a friend, feeling compassion for a stranger’s grief, or feeling in one’s own body the pain experienced by one’s child. Languages reveal, however, traces of historical developments and cultural changes. The Greek word συμπάθεια, originally a scientific term referring to an affinity between bodies, did not take on an emotional meaning before the second century BCE. Around the same time, in Jewish texts, terms constructed on the noun σπλάγχνα, the “inner parts” or “entrails,” were invested with a new meaning, similar to what we now call “compassion.” Emotional discourses have an history, and so does the discourse on compassion.

§2  This paper constitutes the lexicographic side of broader research devoted to the origins of compassion in the Jewish world. Focusing less on actual emotions than on the discourses that construct and use them, this research shows that Judeo-Hellenistic texts, around the turn of the era, display evidence of new discourses, valuing and encouraging emotional responses to others’ suffering. This paper examines the use of two roots, συμπαθ- and σπλαγχν-, and traces the process by which they came to refer to “sympathy” (as a convention, I translate words from the root συμπαθ- to terms coined on “sympathy”) and “compassion” (words from σπλαγχν-). The association of the root συμπαθ- with the idea of sympathy is attested in Hellenistic historiography and in Jewish texts, while the root σπλαγχν- is linked to compassion (almost) exclusively in Hellenistic Judaism. The research is based on the presupposition that discourses do not develop independently from words: lexical uses and discourses grow together, with mutual influence. In that sense, other uses of the two roots, earlier or contemporary, may help us recover specific connotations of ancient sympathy and compassion. Also, similarities in the use of the two terms may shed some light on how Judeo-Hellenistic communities, in their diversity, would construct emotional responses to others’ pain.

§3  Discourses on compassion in Judeo-Hellenistic literature have a dual heritage: they are rooted both in the Hellenistic and in the Hebrew literary traditions. The encounter of the two cultures is an occasion for new discourses to emerge, adjusting the available vocabulary and reframing the existing Hebrew and Greek views on how to react towards others’ suffering. The corpus lacks formal criteria of delimitation, though its existence is undeniable. Not only are dates (ranging from the third century BCE to the sixth century CE) and places of composition (various Jewish centers in the Hellenistic world) often impossible to determine, but even the very characters of “Jewish” (some texts have been rewritten by Christian editors) and “Hellenistic” (some texts evolved from a Hebrew form). It is therefore not surprising that this diverse body of texts presents a varied vocabulary and a range of discourses with different levels of engagement with the Greek and/or Hebrew traditions.

The Inner Parts as Seat of Compassion [σπλάγχνα]

§4  The most unique terms used in Judeo-Hellenistic texts to describe emotional responses to the suffering of others are formed on the root σπλαγχν-.[1] After briefly outlining the use of the root in Classical Greek, I will examine the various meanings that it takes in Judeo-Hellenistic literature, first in Greek translations of Hebrew books, then in works composed in Greek.

In Classical Greek

§5  The root is not unknown in Classical Greek. The plural σπλάγχνα originally designated the inner parts of a sacrificial victim (Herodotus Histories IV 61); its use was then extended to the human inner organs. Among them, the σπλάγχνα can designate the womb. For example, Pindar describes the birth of Zeus’ son, suddenly emerging from “[his] mother’s inner parts [σπλάγχνων]” (Nemean Odes 1.35; see also for example Plutarch On Affection for Offspring 496d). It also refers to the inner organs as a seat of passions, according to the context, for example: anger (Aristophanes Frogs 844), pain (Aeschylus Libation-Bearers 413; Sophocles Ajax 992), anxiety (Aeschylus Agamemnon 995), and love (Theocritus Idylls 7.99). The association of the root with the idea of compassion is quasi-absent in non-Jewish Greek literature, except for one fragment from Chrysippus. In this passage, preserved by Galen, the Stoic philosopher wonders whether ἄσπλαγχνος should be defined as “not having any compassion [συναλγοῦν] in one’s inner parts” (fragment 904).[2] The evidence is thin, but could suggest that the root σπλαγχν- was already associated with compassion in the Hellenistic world, and that Jewish writers only expanded an existing use, perhaps in reference to Hebrew, a possibility I will now consider.

The Association of σπλαγχν- with Compassion: A Hebrew Origin?

§6  The root σπλαγχν- is found twice in the books of the Septuagint (LXX) translating a Hebrew source. These occurrences of the root are among the earliest in Judeo-Hellenistic literature, and raise the question of a possible influence of Hebrew on the association of the root with the idea of compassion. Both occurrences are found in the Septuagint’s rendering of the book of Proverbs. The first one has a Hebrew source, but with a slightly different text:

“The inner parts [σπλάγχνα] of the impious are without pity [ἀνελεήμονα]” (LXX Proverbs 12:10).

Hebrew text: “The inner parts [ורחמי] of the wicked are cruel [אכזרי].”

“He who has compassion [έπισπλαγχνιζόμενος] will be pitied [ἐλεηθήσεται]” (LXX Proverbs 17:5).

This portion of the verse has no equivalent in the Hebrew text.

§7  In both verses, the root σπλαγχν- is associated with the root ἐλε-; the noun σπλάγχνα refers to the seat of pity in LXX Proverbs 12:10, while the verb ἐπισπλαγχνίζομαι is equated with ἐλεέω in LXX Proverbs 17:5. This suggests that this discourse of compassion emerges in connection with pity. It is also linked with the exercise of piety: being pious is associated with having pity, while being compassionate appears as a way to receive divine pity. Compassion is therefore to be practiced among humans, but from the perspective of the human’s relationship to the divine.

§8  In LXX Proverbs 12:10, the term σπλάγχνα translates the Hebrew רַחֲמִים (rachamim), also a plural form. The two nouns share a number of characteristics. The singular רֶחֶם (rechem) designates the womb (Genesis 20:18; 29:31; etc.), one of the meanings of σπλάγχνα, as noted above. The plural רַחֲמִים (rachamim) refers to an intense brotherly or motherly feeling (Genesis 43:30; 1 Kings 3:26), a meaning that σπλάγχνα can also have, as we will see. The plural form רַחֲמִים (rachamim) is associated with compassion, though it almost exclusively designates divine compassion (Deuteronomy 13:18; 2 Samuel 24:14; etc.). The corresponding verb, רִחַם (richam), “to have compassion,” is used mainly with a divine subject.[3] The root σπλαγχν-, by contrast, is used for both divine and human compassion.

§9  It should also be noted that LXX Proverbs 12:10 is the only occurrence where the root σπλαγχν- in the Septuagint translates the Hebrew root רחם (rchm),[4] usually translated by ἐλε- or οἰκτ-. If indeed the term σπλάγχνα has been associated with the meaning “compassion” under the influence of the Hebrew רַחֲמִים (rachamim), it was probably towards the end of the process by which the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. Besides, to go back to the two verses quoted above, we note that the רַחֲמִים (rachamim), in Proverbs 12:10, do not explicitly refer to compassion in the Hebrew text, but are said to be “cruel”; it is the Greek translation that associates the “inner parts” with pity. As for LXX Proverbs 17:5, the portion of the verse containing the verb ἐπισπλαγχνίζομαι does not have a Hebrew source, but constitutes one of the (not uncommon) passages where the Septuagint introduces the idea of pity where it is absent in the Hebrew text (see also LXX Proverbs 3:16; 12:13; 13:9 etc.).[5]

§10  In conclusion, the connection between σπλαγχν- and compassion may have existed in non-Jewish circles, as suggested by a fragment by Chrysippus. However, the proximity between the Hebrew רַחֲמִים (rachamim) and the Greek σπλάγχνα suggests a possible Hebrew influence, though probably slightly later than the composition of the Septuagint. A look at the other occurrences of the root σπλαγχν- in Judeo-Hellenistic literature will help us to better understand its connotations.

The σπλάγχνα as Organs of the Body

§11  The original meaning of σπλάγχνα as sacrificial victims’ entrails is present in Judeo-Hellenistic literature through the use of σπλαγχνισμός, a sacrifice during which animals’ entrails are eaten (2 Maccabees 6:7, 21; 7:42), and in the corresponding verb σπλαγχνίζειν (2 Maccabees 6:8).[6] More commonly, σπλάγχνα designates the inner organs or entrails. Philo, for example, lists seven σπλάγχνα: the stomach, the heart, the lungs, the spleen, the liver, and the kidneys (On the Creation of the World 118; Allegorical Interpretation I 12). The term is also used to refer to the martyr’s inner organs, tortured and crushed (Jewish War I 635; 4 Maccabees 5:30; 10:8 etc.). It may be associated with κοιλία (Psalms of Solomon 2:14). It is used once to denote the repository of the spirit [πνεῦμα] in the human body, perhaps as a metonymy for the whole body (Baruch 2:17).

The σπλάγχνα as Seat of Emotions 

§12  In a number of passages, the noun σπλάγχνα designates the seat of different emotions. Metaphors preserve the idea of the σπλάγχνα as physical organs. For example, physicality is implied when σπλάγχνα is associated with a verb of movement:

“The inner parts [σπλάγχνα] of Abraham were moved [ἐκινήθησαν]” (Testament of Abraham 3:9 [L]; see also 5:10 [L][7]).

“And Aseneth saw Joseph […] and her inner parts [σπλάγχνα] were shattered [συνεκλάσθη]…” (Joseph and Aseneth 6:1 [S]).

§13  The metaphors here establish emotion as a force capable of moving or even breaking the inner organs. When Josephus describes Aristobulus’ agony and mentions that his “inner parts [σπλάγχνων] [were] torn by intense pain [λύπης]” (Jewish War I 81)—i.e. intense guilt, according to the context—, readers are given a sense of what Aristobulus feels in his body. The metaphor of fire likewise suggests the physical sensation caused by the emotion: “I burned in my inner parts [σπλάγχνοις]” (Testament of Naphtali 7:4). These passages are typical of emotional depictions in Judeo-Hellenistic literature, using metaphors to render the sensations that emotions provoke inside the body.

The σπλάγχνα as Parental Affection for a Child

§14  The term σπλάγχνα often refers to the seat of a specific emotion: a mother’s or a father’s affection for her or his child. This use can be paralleled with the Hebrew  חֲמִיםרַ (rachamim). For example, we read about a mother facing the threat of her child’s death:

“Her inner parts [רחמיה] were burning because of her son” (1 Kings 3:26).

§15  The רַחֲמִים (rachamim) where the “burning” sensation of maternal love is experienced probably refers here to the womb, which is the primary meaning of the singular רֶחֶם (rechem). Likewise, in a number of metaphors situating parental affection in the σπλάγχνα, the organs could be the “womb,” a meaning attested in Classical literature. This use is best exemplified in 4 Maccabees, a Judeo-Hellenistic philosophical treatise on emotions, illustrated by narrative scenes of martyrdom.[8] The text extols the power of reason and piety to control the emotions. It presents as a model a mother of seven martyr brothers who witnesses her sons’ torture and death without opposition, even encouraging them to accept death valiantly. The point of the text is that the mother overcame maternal affection, her piety and love for her country being stronger than her love for her children. Maternal love is described as “the sympathy of/from the inner parts [τὴν τῶν σπλάγχνων συμπάθειαν]” (4 Maccabees 14:13). The mother’s compassion for her sons originates in her σπλάγχνα, possibly to be understood as the womb.[9]

§16  Two passages of the same text depict the opposition between the mother’s σπλάγχνα and her reason:

“But pious reason, acting as a man [ἀνδρειώσας] in the midst of those sufferings, incited her inner parts [τὰ σπλάγχνα αὐτῆς] to disregard the temporary parental love [φιλοτεκνίαν]” (4 Maccabees 15:23).

§17  The mother’s pious reason is victorious over her maternal affection for her sons. Her reason is described in masculine terms, while her emotions are located in the σπλάγχνα.[10] Understanding these organs as the womb would reinforce the opposition between the masculinity of the mother’s reason and her female body. A few verses later in the same chapter, the mother is celebrated as “prize-winner of the contest within your inner parts [σπλάγχνων]” (4 Maccabees 15:29), and immediately afterward is called “more noble than males [ἀρρένων]” in patience, and “more manly than men” [ἀνδρῶν … ἀνδρειοτέρα] in endurance (15:30). Again, interpreting σπλάγχνα as womb would support the opposition the text draws between the manly reason of the mother and her natural feelings as a woman. In that sense, her reason would allow her to transcend the emotions dictated by her female body. This would fit the binary system that the text is based on, with reason and emotion (4 Maccabees 1:1 etc.), as well as reason and body (7:13–14) and man and woman (14:11; 15:30; 16:1–2), at opposite poles.

§18  The term σπλάγχνα can also be used as the seat of the father’s affection for his children. For example, the Greek text of Sirach talks about a father who loves his child: “to every cry [of one’s child], his inner parts [σπλάγχνα] are troubled” (Sirach 30:7). In the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, when Joseph tries to convince his brothers to spare his life, he begs them to have pity on their father: “Pity me, my brothers, have pity of the inner parts [τὰ σπλάγχνα] of Jacob our father” (Testament of Zebulun 2:2). In another section, Jacob agrees to Joseph’s request to pray for his other sons, so that God may forgive them: “Child Joseph, kind child, you have conquered the inner parts [σπλάγχνα] of Jacob your father” (Testament of Benjamin 3:7).

§19  In most passages where the σπλάγχνα refer to the seat of maternal or paternal affection, the child is in a situation of suffering, or at least vulnerability. The mother’s or father’s σπλάγχνα experience the pain of the child, or the danger that threatens her. The association of the root with the idea of compassion may constitute an expansion of this use. The love of the mother or the father, felt deep inside the body, for a child in a situation of danger or pain may have provided the lexical basis for expressing compassion, not only for the child, but also for all others facing vulnerability and pain.

From Compassion to Mercy

§20  The use of σπλάγχνα as seat of compassion is anchored, I suggest, in the previous use. Feeling in one’s σπλάγχνα the suffering of others evokes the immediacy and intensity of a mother’s or father’s affection for a child. The physicality of the σπλάγχνα as seat of compassion may be apparent:

“For my heart was hard, and my livers were immovable, and my inner parts [σπλάγχνα] were without sympathy [ἀσυμπαθῆ]” (Testament of Simeon 2:4).

“Suffer [with the one in need] [συμπάσχετε] in σπλάγχνα of pity [ἐν σπλάγχνοις ἐλέους]” (Testament of Zebulun 7:3).

§21  In the first example, the σπλάγχνα are paralleled with the liver. The capacity of the inner organs to “move”—to be affected by the suffering of others, as indicated by the context—is regarded as a virtue. The σπλάγχνα are the seat of sympathy, which will be examined in the second part of this paper. In the second verse, the term σπλάγχνα is accompanied by the genitive of ἔλεος; it is unclear whether it refers to a physical organ, to a feeling, or whether the two terms are equivalent (in a kind of reverse hendiadys).[11]

§22  The Testament of Zebulun, part of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, is the Judeo-Hellenistic text with the most developed discourse on compassion. It starts by depicting compassion towards brothers, and, at the end, recommends practicing it towards all human beings. This expansion echoes the previous observations of compassion’s being rooted in feelings for closely related kin. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs is a collection of pseudepigraphic deathbed discourses, attributed to the twelve sons of Jacob. The text developed from a Jewish core, and has been expanded by Christians; the extent of this expansion is debatable.[12] Each of the Testaments focuses on particular virtues or emotions. The Testament of Zebulun is devoted to pity and compassion; some of its manuscripts include the title: Περὶ εὐσπλαγχνίας καὶ ἐλέους.[13]

§23  The following passage describes the feelings of the pseudepigraphic speaker, Zebulun, when his brother Joseph is threatened by their other brothers, and begs for their pity:

“As he was saying those words, I was moved to pity, and I began to cry, and my livers were pouring out within me, and all the foundation of my inner parts [σπλάγχνων] became porous in my soul. And Joseph cried, and I with him, and my heart was humming, and the joints of my body were shaken, and I was not able to stand. And, when [Joseph] saw me crying with him, and them coming to kill him, he fled behind me, fearing them.” (Testament of Zebulun 2:4–6)

§24  This short passage, loaded with pathos, graphically renders the experience of compassion for a brother. The physical reactions alluded to—internal confusion, weakness, elevated heart rate—evoke intense fear. They suggest that Zebulun is experiencing the physical symptoms of the terror affecting his brother. Compassion is thus pictured as the physical experience of an emotion felt by another person.

§25  The Testament continues with different instances where Zebulun practices compassion towards foreigners (Testament of Zebulun 6:4) and people in distress (Testament of Zebulun 7:1). Towards the end of the text, Zebulun gives his descendants his final recommendations:

Καὶ ὑμεῖς οὖν, τέκνα μου, ἔχετε εὐσπλαγχνίαν κατὰ παντὸς ἀνθρώπου ἐν ἐλέει, ἵνα καὶ ὁ κύριος εἰς ὑμᾶς σπλαγχνισθεὶς ἐλεήσῃ ὑμᾶς.

“Have compassion for every human being in pity, so that also the Lord, having compassion of you, will pity you” (Testament of Zebulun 8:1).

§26  Compassion is here extended to all human beings. The construction of the text suggests that this universal compassion is supposed to be as intimate and intensely felt as the compassion one can experience for a brother in danger. It is also situated in the perspective of the relationship to the divine, in a way that reminds us of LXX Proverbs 17:5, quoted above. We can also note the use of two terms, the noun εὐσπλαγχνία and the verb σπλαγχνίζομαι, coined on the name of the organ. They now refer directly to the emotion, human and divine, signaling that the organ has been identified with the emotion, perhaps by influence of the metaphoric uses.

§27  In a last movement, the Testament of Zebulun returns to the story of Joseph and his brothers. Alluding to the reunion of the family in Egypt, the text evokes Joseph’s compassion, in a slightly different sense of the root σπλαγχν-:

῞Οτε γὰρ κατήλθομεν εἰς Αἴγυπτον, ᾽Ιωσὴφ οὐκ ἐμνησικάκησεν εἰς ἡμᾶς; ἐμὲ δὲ ἰδὼν ἐσπλαγχνίσθη. Εἰς ὅν ἐμβλέποντες καὶ ὑμεῖς ἀμνησίκακοι γίνεσθε, τέκνα μου […] ῾Ο γὰρ μνησίκακος σπλάγχνα ἐλέους οὐκ ἔχει.

“For, when we went down into Egypt, Joseph did not remember wrongs we had done to him; seeing me, he had compassion. Considering this, you also, do not remember wrongs done to you, my children […]. For he who remembers wrong done to him has no feelings of pity.” (8:4–5a, 6b)

§28  Being compassionate is equated to “not remembering wrongs done to the self” [μνησικακέω], according to the verb’s etymological meaning (and LSJ’s definition). Basically, compassion corresponds here to a lack of revenge, or even to forgiveness. There is a clear shift from the preceding instances of compassion: the recipients are not innocent victims or destitute neighbors, but, in the case of Joseph’s brothers, wrongdoers. Compassion is not about helping those in need, or even sharing their despondency; it comes close to mercy and forgiveness.

Sympathy [συμπάθεια]

§29  The root συμπαθ- is found in Josephus, Philo, 4 Maccabees, and, to a lesser extent, in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and a few other texts.[14] It is not present in the Septuagint (except for 4 Maccabees). It is used in Judeo-Hellenistic texts in three different but related ways, all present in ancient Greek literature: connection between beings or objects enabling them to react to each other; affection between relatives; and pain for the suffering of others. The first two meanings, both in Judeo-Hellenistic and in classic texts, help provide better insights on the emotional connotations of the root.

Sympathy as Affinity

§30  The noun συμπάθεια is originally a physical term designating an affinity between objects or beings that enables them to react in response to each other. For example, the seventh book of Aristotle’s Problems (written by either Aristotle himself or the later Aristotelian school) is called “Problems arising from sympathy [ἐκ συμπάθειας]” (Problems 886a.23). The book deals with “transmittable” physical reactions, such as yawning or contagious diseases. Epicurus’ Letter to Herodotus, transmitted by Diogenes Laertius, uses the term to describe “affinities” or “contacts” between the self and external objects that allow sensory perception, and between the soul and the body (Letter to Herodotus 48.10; 50.2; 52.7; 53.1; 64.10). The term συμπάθεια is also found in Stoic fragments attributed to Chrysippus. It refers, for example, to a kind of cohesion between bodies, due to their sharing the same matter and being enveloped by the same divine body (Chrysippus Logical and Physical Fragments 458), or to the sympathy between the parts of unified bodies, like the human body, which will be affected if only one of its parts is hurt (1020).[15] Cicero, possibly quoting Chrysippus, employs the Greek term to refer to a “natural conjunction,” “harmony,” or “agreement” between distant things (Cicero Concerning Divination II 14, 34).

§31  Among Judeo-Hellenistic authors, the scientific meaning of the root συμπαθ- is only found in Philo. With this meaning, συμπάθεια refers exclusively to cosmic sympathy, or the connection that the planets and the stars have with the earth, as they cause seasons, tides, and other natural phenomena (On the Creation of the World 113, 117; Allegorical Interpretation I 8; On Dreams I 53; On the Life of Abraham 69; On the Special Laws I 16; On the Migration of Abraham 178). Moses, writes Philo, “seems to have assented to the communion and sympathy between the parts of the whole [of the universe]” (On the Migration of Abraham 180), since he declared the world one and created. As David Runia writes, “what happens in the heavens affects what happens on earth.”[16]

Sympathy as Affection between Relatives

§32  Sympathy as affection between relatives seems to have evolved from its technical meaning; συμπάθεια is here a special affinity or affection between members of the same family. The earliest occurrence of this meaning that I found is in an uncertain passage by Diodorus Siculus, sometimes also attributed to Posidonius.[17] It describes soldiers of two opposing armies recognizing each other on the battlefield, because they were friends or relatives, directly or through marriage: “sympathy [συμπαθείας] compelled them to send friendly greetings…” (Diodorus Siculus Historical Library XXXVII 15.2). Such a meaning is also found in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who questions whether a father’s right to sell his son is “more violent than what is [fitting with] natural sympathy [κατὰ τὴν φυσικὴν συμπάθειαν]” (Dionysius of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities II 27.1). As we will see also in Judeo-Hellenistic texts, συμπάθεια as familial affection may be used for relatives in situations of distress, two meanings of the root being combined, so to speak. For example, in a text attributed to Plutarch, Demosthenes is portrayed offering a public sacrifice just after the death of his only daughter, thus “putting the love of his country before the sympathy [συμπαθείας] for his relatives” (Plutarch Consolation to Apollonius 119c.9). The term συμπάθεια, therefore, refers both to paternal affection and to the father’s grief for his deceased daughter.

§33  In Judeo-Hellenistic literature, Josephus describes King David’s feelings for his son Absalom—an archetype of paternal love in the Hebrew scriptures—in terms of sympathy:

“[David], affectionate [φιλόστοργος] by nature, had special sympathy [συμπαθῶς] for that [son]” (Jewish Antiquities VII 252).

§34  The root συμπαθ- designates a particular affection, a father’s love for his son. This use is exemplified in 4 Maccabees. It first designates the bond between the seven martyr brothers:

“Brotherly love being sympathetic [συμπαθοῦς], the seven brothers had an even more sympathetic [συμπαθέστερον] [bond] for each other, for [they had been] instructed in the same law, equipped with the same values, and [had been] brought up in the righteous life…” (4 Maccabees 13:23–24).

§35  The technical meaning of the root is apparent, as the adjective συμπαθής refers less to the affection itself than to one of its qualities, the affinity or like-mindedness that connects the brothers.

§36  The root is then used to refer to the mother’s bond to her sons. To prove the strength of her love, the text shows how even animals are attached to their offspring. It begins with a general statement about maternal affection:

“Observe how complex the affection of parental love [ἡ τῆς φιλοτεκνίας στοργή] is, which drags everything to sympathy [συμπάθειαν] for the inner parts [σπλάγχνων]” (4 Maccabees  14:13).

§37  The text continues by asserting that unreasoning animals also have “affection and sympathy” [συμπάθειαν καὶ στοργήν] for their offspring (4 Maccabees 14:14), giving the example of birds and bees. Sympathy is therefore a natural instinct, independent of human reason. Despite this natural inclination, however, “sympathy [συμπάθεια] for the children did not move the mother of the young men, similar in soul to Abraham” (4 Maccabees 14:20). In other words, driven by the strength of her reason and piety, the mother overcame her animal instincts. She is compared to Abraham, who did not hesitate to sacrifice his son at the divine command (Genesis 22).

§38  Sympathy as maternal affection is further constructed as a natural instinct in the next chapter. Wondering how to characterize “the children-loving emotions of parents,” the author talks about “a likeness of soul and form,” imprinted in the child, and continues: “… especially the mothers, because they are more sympathetic [συμπαθεστέρας] than the fathers to the passions [τῶν παθῶν] of those born from them” (4 Maccabees 15:4).[18] I purposely translate “to the passions,”[19] reading the adjective “sympathetic” as the ability to be tuned in to the children’s emotions, in an extended meaning of the technical sense of the root. The love for children rises with the number of pregnancies (4 Maccabees 15:5). Especially in the case of the martyrs’ mother, “through the many pangs for each of them, she was compelled to have sympathy [συμπάθειαν] for them” (4 Maccabees 15:7). The physical process of childbearing and delivery increases the mother’s ability to be attuned to her children’s emotions. Since the sons have all been tortured and slain, the mother’s sympathy is charged with additional connotations: she shares their sufferings, not without connection with (Pseudo-) Plutarch’s text quoted above. Here too, she is putting a higher love—her piety—above parental attachment.[20]

§39  By opposing maternal sympathy with piety, the author is using the old dichotomy between body and emotions, on one side, and reason on the other. Maternal affection is not discouraged; it does not even seem to be the main focus of the text. It is rather chosen as an example where reason, guided by piety, must overcome emotion. Interestingly, the mother is portrayed as the ultimate model, praised even more than her seven sons, with whom she shares death by martyrdom. Being a woman, thus closer to her body and her physical instincts according to the text’s views, may make the victory of her reason even more unlikely and therefore laudable. The association of women with sympathy is not unique to 4 Maccabees. As Josephus is recounting the siege of Jerusalem, the terrible famine affecting its inhabitants, and pressure from sedition, he gives the example of a woman, who roasted her child and ate him. She even offered portions to city guards, defying them: “Do not become more tender [μαλακώτεροι] than a woman, nor more sympathetic [συμπαθέστεροι] than a mother” (Jewish War VI 211). Motherhood is again given as a prototype of sympathy, which implies that the capacity to tune in to others’ emotions is strongest when a physical bond is present, therefore suggesting the construction of sympathy as natural and embodied.

Sympathy as Emotional Response to the Pain of Others

§40  The third meaning of συμπάθεια constitutes both a restriction and an extension of the previous uses: it refers to fellow-feelings for people in pain, its possible recipients being extended beyond familial bonds. Instances of the root συμπαθ- used with an emotional meaning start to be found in second century BCE historiographical works. Polybius uses the adjective συμπαθής a few times, including once in parallel with “pity”: criticizing Phylarchus’ way of writing, Polybius notes that the historian, by describing scenes of lamentations and tears, is “eager to elicit pity [ἔλεον] in his readers, and to make them sympathetic [συμπαθεῖς] to his words” (Polybius Histories II 56.7). Sympathy refers here to the capacity for an author to cause his readers to adhere to his words, and, more especially, to have them feel pain for the characters. Talking about eulogies pronounced by the sons of deceased illustrious men, Polybius describes the audience becoming “so sympathetic [συμπαθεῖς], so that the misfortune appears not only particular to the mourners, but also common to the people” (Polybius Histories VI 53.3). These two examples illustrate a use of συμπαθής as the state of someone affected by others’ distress, in a vicarious way.[21]

§41  Diodorus Siculus and Dionysius of Halicarnassus make frequent use of the root to designate an emotional response to others in pain. Sympathy is often used in connection with terms referring to pity, οἶκτος and ἔλεος,[22] and conforms to the same conditions as pity, according to Aristotle’s definition of ἔλεος:

“A pain [λύπη] about an apparent, destructive or painful, harm, happening to someone not deserving it, which one, or one of one’s own, might expect to suffer oneself, and when it seems near” (Rhetoric II 8, 1385b13–16).

§42  Two elements are at the core of Aristotle’s definition: for us to experience pity for someone in pain, the pain has to be undeserved, and some possibility of suffering a similar fate ourselves must exist.[23] These conditions are discernible when Diodorus notes that, while the perpetrators merit hatred (μισοπονηρία), the innocent victims deserve sympathy (Diodorus Siculus Historical Library XVII 69.2). Often, the context is rhetorical: a leader tries to induce sympathy from his audience by vividly rendering the suffering of the ones to be pitied.[24] This use of συμπάθεια therefore seems to have stemmed from the same lexical field as οἶκτος and ἔλεος, possibly to give older terms a new emphasis.

§43  This meaning of συμπάθεια is prevalent in Judeo-Hellenistic works. Josephus portrays characters feeling sympathy for relatives, such as Hyrcanus, witnessing his mother’s torture (Jewish Antiquities XIII 233), or Herod, taking care of his sick brother Pheroras (Jewish War I 580). Sympathy is also used in a military context, as solidarity for fellow soldiers in distress (Jewish War II 579). In Philo, sympathy is felt for people in deep grief (On the Embassy to Gaius 273), and should be provided for the dead (On the Special Laws IV 202). As noted above, συμπάθεια, like pity, arises primarily for undeserved suffering. Josephus, for example, reporting that Herod, after killing his own sons, also murdered some of his best friends, mentions that the fact that the punishment was justified “made those who perished less sympathized [συμπαθεῖσθαι]…” (Jewish Antiquities XVI 404). Less sympathy is granted to men who deserved their fate, in contrast with the innocence of Herod’s sons. Likewise, sympathy in Philo is sometimes linked to an assessment that the victims are innocent (On the Life of Moses II 228).

§44  Conditions for sympathy may go beyond those for pity. Josephus associates sympathy with kindness (χρηστός, Jewish Antiquities XIX 330), making it part of the positive portrayal of Agrippa. Philo uses συμπάθεια in connection with εὔνοια, “good will” (On the Special Laws I 250), and with ἀνθρώπινος, “human” (On the Special Laws IV 202).[25] These associations suggest that sympathy oversteps the reasonable assessment on which pity is based. A paradigmatic example is found in the encomium Josephus devotes to the necromancer of Ein Dor, who predicts to King Saul his impending death (Jewish Antiquities VI 329–342, retelling 1 Samuel 28). As Saul is left “speechless out of grief,” the woman prepares for him the calf she had in her house, out of purely gratuitous generosity. She also “sympathized [συνεπάθησέ] and comforted him [Saul]” (Jewish Antiquities VI 341). The necromancer’s sympathy goes far beyond pity; she has never seen the king before (Jewish Antiquities VI 340), and is not related to him in any way—on the contrary, Saul has made her livelihood illicit. Besides, Saul, condemned by the oracle she had just transmitted, is not especially worthy of her sympathy (Jewish Antiquities VI 335–336). The fact that the woman feeds the king situates her sympathy alongside care, as the two sides of her response. Tending to the basic needs of the king was somehow not enough; the woman, for Josephus, also had to emotionally share the pain of Saul to become a moral exemplar.

§45  Finally, a few occurrences of the root συμπαθ- refer to divine sympathy.[26] Coerced into eating prohibited meat, the martyr Eleazar, in 4 Maccabees, refuses by invoking obedience to the Mosaic law, which, he says, prohibits what is adverse to human beings, but allows what is beneficial for them:

“We know that the Creator of the world, by giving the law, shows us sympathy [συμπαθεῖ] according to nature” (4 Maccabees 5:25).

§46  According to Eleazar, the Creator has a special understanding of human beings’ nature, knowing what is good and bad for them. The verb συμπαθέω thus refers to an intimate connection between the divine and human nature. In his discussion of the divine law, Philo also uses the verb συμπαθέω, but this time with the idea of consideration for the one in need: “[the Mosaic Law] sympathizes [συνεπάθησε] with the one who is at a loss and gives him pity [ἐλέου]…” (On the Special Laws II 115). Here, we find again the belief that the divine law is not arbitrary, but is adapted to human beings’ needs, especially for those in distress.


§47  The texts examined here, whether involving the root σπλαγχν- or συμπαθ-, help us retrace, on a lexical level, the development of the discourse on compassion in the Judeo-Hellenistic world. They put compassion in an historical perspective: both roots acquire an emotional meaning in a certain time period, around the second century BCE. This provides a particular example of the historical character of emotional discourses: far from being universal, these discourses emerge in particular social and historical contexts. By investing words with new meanings, possibly under the influence of another language, and by expanding existing uses, new lexical possibilities arise. My hypothesis has been that other uses of both roots may help us recover some of the ancient connotations of both compassion and sympathy, and shed light on some common characteristics.

§48  Words constructed on the root σπλαγχν- are built on the noun σπλάγχνα, the “inner organs” or “womb.” Their association with compassion may have been influenced by the Hebrew term רַחֲמִים (rachamim), “compassion,” whose singular form designates the womb. At some point, the meaning “compassion” seems so attached to the root that both a noun (εὐσπλαγχνία) and a verb (σπλαγχνίζομαι) are coined, referring exclusively to the emotion. Terms built on σπλάγχνα, however, retain their embodied connotations, as reflected in metaphors where compassion is portrayed as a force moving or shattering the inner organs, alongside other bodily metaphors, all suggesting the effect of emotion on the body. The terms, therefore, tend to refer to compassion as a sensation, felt in the body. Besides, the association of σπλάγχνα with the womb, as well as its use in reference to maternal and paternal affection, suggests that compassion is felt for someone vulnerable.

§49  As for the root συμπαθ-, it develops from the noun συμπάθεια, originally a technical term referring to an affinity between bodies or objects, enabling them to react in response to each other. This primary meaning can often be traced back in the emotional use of the root: sympathy often appears as a capacity to tune in to others’ needs, emotions, and, in particular, suffering. The technical meaning of the root may shape its connotations. While sympathy occurs between bodies because they share the same substance and belong to a higher unity, sympathy as an emotion may be experienced because of a certain similarity or connection between human beings. 4 Maccabees provides a characteristic example, portraying maternal sympathy as an instinct, rooted in the physical act of childbirth.

§50  Similarities also appear in the evolution of the roots. Both σπλαγχν- and συμπαθ- emerge in a physical context, the former as an organ of the body, and the latter as an affinity between objects. Both roots refer to the love of a mother for her child, especially in a situation of danger. This use seems to have been a crucible for the development of the terms. Like a mother suffering the pain of her child, the compassionate person suffers the pain of a relative, friend, or even stranger. It also suggests that compassion is felt by someone who is safe towards someone who is vulnerable and helpless. In that sense, care often constitutes the other side of compassion. Both terms are also associated with pity. The occurrences of the root σπλαγχν- in the Septuagint are connected to ἔλεος. In both Hellenistic and Judeo-Hellenistic literature, συμπάθεια reinforces either οἶκτος or ἔλεος. It shares characteristics with pity, especially in its rhetorical meaning, based on Aristotle’s definition: pity is reserved for a suffering that is undeserved and to which the self can somehow relate. Both terms, in their own ways, seem however to expand the realm of pity. The term συμπάθεια is used with recipients who deserve their suffering (as King Saul in Josephus’ portrait of the necromancer of Ein Dor), and for suffering the provider of sympathy will probably never share (as the divine sympathy for human beings in 4 Maccabees). Likewise, terms based on σπλάγχνα add an immediate and unconditional component to the idea of pity, apparent, for example, in the Testament of Zebulun.

§51  We could therefore argue for a certain lexical convergence of the roots, despite their unrelated origins. They, however, conserve their own connotations, as συμπάθεια remains rooted in a philosophical context, while terms based on σπλάγχνα suggest an embodied experience. A few passages combine both roots, where the σπλάγχνα are seized with συμπάθεια: “I cried and my inner parts [σπλάγχνα] turned to him [the one in need] in sympathy [εἰς συμπάθειαν]” (Testament of Zebulun 7:4; see also Testament of Simeon 2:4, quoted above, as well as 4 Maccabees 14:13). Such texts realize the convergence of the two roots, each contributing to the emergence of a discourse of compassion that would inspire the centuries to come.

[1] Plural noun σπλάγχνα, verbs σπλαγχνίζομαι and έπισπλαγχνίζομαι, adjectives πολύσπλαγχνος, εὔσπλαγχνος, and ἄσπλαγχνος. For a detailed analysis of these uses, see Helmut Köster, “σπλάγχνον, σπλαγχνίζομαι, εὔσπλαγχνος,  πολύσπλαγχνος, ἄσπλαγχνος.” ThWNT Bd. VII, 548–559.

[2] Fragment 904 in Chrysippe, Œuvre Philosophique. Tome II. Textes traduits et commentés par Richard Dufour. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2004. Corresponds to fragment 902 in Hans Friedrich August von Arnim, Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta. Vol. 2. Leipzig: Teubner, 1903–1924, 249. The adjective ἄσπλαγχνος, rare before the Christian era, refers to lack of courage in Sophocles Ajax 472.

[3] In the few cases where either the noun or verb refers to a human, it is either used as an illustration for divine compassion, in the negative form, or in a construction that suggests divine intervention—the divinity causing an oppressor to have רַחֲמִים (rachamim). In those cases, the oppressor is always a foreigner with a disproportionate power—often of life and death—over the one being pitied (see for example Jeremiah 42:12; Daniel 1:9; Nehemiah 1:11). Only one occurrence—Zechariah 7:9, a pretty late text that may announce the shift happening during the Hellenistic period—contains a commandment to “have (lit. “make”) compassion” for one another.

[4] The root σπλαγχν- occurs in 2 Maccabees 6:7, 8, 21; 7:42; 9:5, 6; 4 Maccabees 5:30; 10:8; 11:19; 14:13; 15:23, 29; Proverbs 12:10; 17:5; 26:22; Wisdom 10:5; 12:5; Sirach 30:7; 33:5; Psalms of Solomon 2:14; Jeremiah 28:13; Baruch 2:17. Only four of those occurrences have a Hebrew source text: Jeremiah 28:13 (where σπλάγχνα translates an unrelated Hebrew word, בצעך, “your unjust gain”); Proverbs 17:5 (the segment where σπλάγχνα occurs does not have an equivalent in Hebrew); Proverbs 26:2 (σπλάγχνα translates בטן, “belly”); Proverbs 12:10, quoted here.

[5] See David-Marc d’Hamonville, avec la collaboration d’Epiphane Dumouchet, La Bible d’Alexandrie: Les Proverbes. Paris: Cerf, 2000, especially 123.

[6] There is a pun between the quoted passages, where the tyrant Antiochus forces the Jewish population to take part in sacrifices [σπλαγχνίζειν], and the description of the tyrant’s fate, seized by “an incurable pain in his inner organs [σπλάγχνων],” “in a completely just way, since he had tortured the inner organs [σπλάγχνα] of others” (2 Maccabees 9:5–6).

[7] The letters L and S in references to primary sources designate, respectively, the long and short recensions of the quoted texts.

[8] 4 Maccabees is usually situated between the turn of the era and the early second century CE, with a date sometimes narrowed down to the middle or second half of the first century CE. See for example David A. deSilva, 4 Maccabees: Introduction and Commentary on the Greek Text in Codex Sinaiticus (SCS). Leiden: Brill, 2006, XIV–XVII.

[9] André Dupont-Sommer, Le quatrième livre des Machabées. Introduction, traduction et notes. Paris: Honoré Champion, 1939, translates: “… la tendresse d’une mère, qui ramène tout à l’amour du fruit de ses entrailles.” On one hand, σπλάγχνων is understood here not as the origin of the maternal affection, but as its object. On the other hand, Dupont-Sommer does understand σπλάγχνων as womb, but as a way to refer to the children (“the fruit of the womb”).

[10] On gender relationships in 4 Maccabees, see in particular Stephen D. Moore, Janice Capel Anderson, “Taking it Like a Man: Masculinity in 4 Maccabees,” JBL 117/2 (1998), 249–273.

[11] Klaus Berger, Die Gesetzesauslegung Jesu: Ihr historischer Hintergrund im Judentum und im Alten Testament. Teil I. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag: 1972, 255, note 1, links the expression σπλάγχνα ἐλέους (Testament of Zebulun 7:3; 8:2,6; Luke 1:78) to the Hebrew construction חסד רחמי, found in 1 QS 2:1 (Rule of the Community).

[12] One strand of scholarship argues that the essential part of the text is Jewish, except for the most obvious Christian additions, and predates the first century CE. See for example, among recent scholars, Howard Clark Kee, “The Ethical Dimensions of the Testaments of the XII as a Clue to Provenance.” NTS 24 (1978), 259–270; Jarl H. Ulrichsen, Die Grundschrift der Testamente der zwölf Patriarchen. Eine Untersuchung zu Umfang, Inhalt und Eigenart der ursprünglichen Schrift (Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Historia Religionum 10). Stockolm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1991. For others, the text, in its present state, mainly reflects its Christian edition, and is to be dated around the second or early third century CE. See especially Harm W. Hollander, Marinus de Jonge, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: A Commentary. Leiden: Brill, 1985; Marinus de Jonge, “Defining the Major Issues in the Study of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.” In: Id., Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament as Part of Christian Literature (SVTP 18). Leiden: Brill, 2003, 71–83 (with a complete bibliography); Robert A. Kugler, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Guides to Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha). Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001, 31–39.

[13] In manuscripts blef. Manuscript g has περὶ ἐλεημοσύνης; manuscripts dm have περὶ εὐσπλαγχνίας καὶ ἐλεημοσύνης. See Marinus de Jonge, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: A Critical Edition of the Greek Text (PVTG 1/2). Leiden: Brill, 1978.

[14] The root includes the noun συμπάθεια, the verb συμπαθέω, and the adjective συμπαθής.

[15] Chrysippe, Œuvre philosophique. Tome 1 et 2. Textes traduits et commentés par Richard Dufour. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2004.

[16] Philo of Alexandria, On the Creation of the Cosmos According to Moses. Introduction, Translation, and Commentary by David T. Runia. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001, 285.

[17] In Posidonius, Die Fragmente. Herausgegeben von Willy Theiler. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1982, fragment 225.9.

[18] I follow here Rahlfs’ text. DeSilva reads a second παθῶν instead of πατέρων.

[19] In a similar way, A. Dupont-Sommer, Le quatrième livre des Machabées, translates: “parce qu’elles sont naturellement en union plus intime que les < pères > avec les êtres qu’elles ont enfantés.” Compare for example with deSilva, who translates “from their sufferings for those born from them.”

[20] A very similar use is found in Philo, in his description of the duties that fall to people having taken the “great vow”: they are not allowed to approach any dead body, even those of their parents or brothers, “piety prevailing on the natural affection [εὔνοιαν] and sympathy [συμπάθειαν] for the relatives and beloved friends” (On the Special Laws I 250).

[21] Other occurrences in Polybius’ works of the adjective (Histories X 14.11) or the verb (Histories XV 25.18) refer to a convergence of feelings, but are less clear about the nature of those feelings, which, at least in one case, refer to support in a more general sense (Histories XXVII 9.5).

[22] See respectively Diodorus Siculus Historical Library III 40.8; Dionysius of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities VIII 42.1; X 6.4 (with οἶκτος) and Diodorus Siculus Historical Library XII 24.5; XVII 36.1; Dionysius of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities VIII 42.1; XI 35.4 (with ἔλεος).

[23] Pity in classical literature has already received much attention. See especially David Konstan, Pity Transformed. London:  Duckworth, 2001; Stephen Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002, 207–233; David Konstan, The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007, 201–218; Rachel Hall Sternberg, Tragedy Offstage: Suffering and Sympathy in Ancient Athens. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006; Dana LaCourse Munteanu, Tragic Pathos: Pity and Fear in Greek Philosophy and Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

[24] Diodorus Siculus Historical Library XIII 28.1; XXX 23.1; Dionysius of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities VI 45.1; VIII 43.2.

[25] A similar use is found in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who links the word συμπάθεια to εὔνοια, the former corresponding to the latter for people in distress. Veturia, for example, begs her son Marcius to have pity on Roman women, who “provided us with much goodwill [εὔνοια] for us while we were still prosperous, and compassion [συμπάθειαν] when we stumbled” (Dionysius of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities VIII 46.3; see also IV 40.6).

[26] See also two occurrences in the Apocalypse of Sedrach, where the verb συμπαθέω refers to divine pity (or, even better, mercy) for the sinners (Apocalypse of Sedrach 16:2,3).