Thematic Concordance to the Works of Josephus

Honi the Circle-Drawer

                                                                                                                                                            by G. J. Goldberg


Josephus is extremely skeptical about those who pretend to be miracle-workers, calling them deceivers (apateônes) and enchanters (goêtes).  But there is at least one miracle-worker whom he calls a "righteous man" (dikaios aner) and "beloved of God" (theophilis). This man's name is Onias.
Onias (April, 65 BCE)
Antiquities 14.2.1 21

After Hyrcanus made these promises to Aretas [the King of Arabia]…Aretas made an assault upon the Temple with his entire army and besieged Aristobulus within. The people joined Hyrcanus and assisted him in the siege, while none but the priests continued to support Aristobulus. So Aretas united the forces of the Arabs and the Jews and pressed the siege vigorously. As this happened at the time when the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which we call Passover, was celebrated, the most reputable men among the Jews left the country and fled into Egypt.

Now there was one named Onias, a righteous man and beloved of God, who, in a certain drought, had once prayed to God to put an end to the intense heat, and God had heard his prayer and sent rain. Now seeing that this civil war would last a great while, he had hidden himself, but they took him to the Jewish camp and desired that just as by his prayers he had once put an end to the drought, so he might in like manner call curses down on Aristobulus and his supporters.

And when, having refused and made excuses, he was nonetheless compelled by the mob to supplicate, he said, "O God, king of the whole world! Since those that stand now with me are your people, and those that are besieged are also your priests, I beseech you, that you will neither hear the prayers of those others against these men, nor to bring about what is asked by these men against those others."

Whereupon the wicked Jews that stood about him, as soon as he had made this prayer, stoned him to death.

But God punished them immediately for their barbarity, and took vengeance on them for the murder of Onias…He did not delay their punishment, but sent a mighty and vehement storm of wind that destroyed the crops of the entire country, until a modius of wheat at that time cost eleven drachmae.


A number of scholars have drawn parallels between Onias and Jesus of Nazareth. Note that Onias was widely believed by people of his day to have performed at least one amazing miracle and to have the ability to perform more; was a man of peace; and was killed in Jerusalem at Passover.

For a discussion, see Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew, or Brad H. Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian.

The name "Onias" is the Greek form of the Hebrew name "Honi." In the Rabbinic work the Mishnah, a compilation of traditions that was assembled about a hundred years after Josephus wrote, there appears a man named Honi who also is said to have prayed for rain. It seems safe to assume this is the same man Josephus describes. He is known more fully as Honi the Circle-Drawer.

Here is the passage from the Mishnah (from the translation of Herbert Denby, Oxford University Press, 1933)):
Honi the Circle-Drawer
Mishnah Taanit 3:8

    They sound the shofar because of any public distress -- may it never befall! -- but not because of too great an abundance of rain.

    Once they said to Honi the Circle-Drawer, "Pray that rain may fall."

    He answered, "Go out and bring in the Passover ovens [made of clay] that they be not softened."

    He prayed, but the rain did not fall. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood within it and said before God, "O Lord of the world, your children have turned their faces to me, for I am like a son of the house before you. I swear by your great name that I will not stir from here until you have pity on your children."

    Rain began falling drop by drop. He said, "Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain that will fill the cisterns, pits, and caverns."

    It began to rain with violence. He said, "Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain of goodwill, blessing, and graciousness."

    Then it rained in moderation, until the Israelites had to go up from Jerusalem to the Temple Mount because of the rain. They went to him and said, "Just as you prayed for the rain to come, so pray that it may go away!"

    He replied, "Go and see if the Stone of the Strayers has disappeared."

    Simeon ben Shetah sent to him, saying, "Had you not been Honi I would have pronounced a ban against you! But what shall I do to you? You importune God and he performs your will, like a son that importunes his father he performs his will. Of you the Scripture says, 'Let your father and your mother be glad, and let her that bore you rejoice.' "


This gives even more parallels with Jesus of Nazareth:

        Honi speaks to God as a son to a father
        this behavior angers a person in power, who wants to punish him.
According to Josephus, this capacity to anger the powerful by eventually led to Honi's death, as it did with Jesus. The critic cited in the Mishnah, Simeon ben Shetah, appears elsewhere in that work, from which he is known to be a head of the court (Mishnah Hagigah 2:2), who in his time had eighty women stoned to death (Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:4); according to the Talmud Taanit, the later commentary on the Mishnah, these women were guilty of witchcraft. Apparently Simeon felt it his duty to keep the in check the impulses to perform magic. (Note that, since this was during the Hasmonean era, Simeon did have the power to prosecute capital offenses, which was not true of the Jewish court under the Romans.)

The Talmud Taanit relates further stories about Honi as well as his grandsons, which the interested reader will want to pursue. More similarities to Jesus can be found there, also, such as the story of Honi's return seventy years after he "died."

In both Josephus and the Mishnah, I note that Honi is portrayed as praying for balance: in Josephus, he wants neither of the two sides to be given more heavenly favor than the other; in the Mishnah, he asks for rain that is neither too much nor too little. By hiding from war and by standing in a circle, he avoids extremes by circumscribing his activity. He is thus by nature a man of peace and moderation.

I also note the presence of a parallel expression in Josephus and the Mishnah:

Josephus: "Just as by his prayers he had once put an end to the drought, so he might in like manner call curses down on Aristobulus"

Mishnah: " 'Just as you prayed for the rain to come, so pray that it may go away!' "

Both present the logic that because Honi could bring rain, he could do other things, too. I can imagine Honi grumbling to himself, "You do one little miracle, and suddenly they won't let you alone."


Passover in the Works of Josephus

Flavius Josephus Home Page