Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

John Pairman Brown, Israel and Hellas, Vol. III: The Legacy of Iranian Imperialism and the Individual  (BZAW 299; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2001).  Pp. xxxii + 548. Cloth. ISBN: 3-11-016882-0. $ 166.40. 

Brown’s massive comparison of Israel and Greece as the two free and innovative societies of the ancient world comes to its conclusion in this third volume of Israel and Hellas.  The first volume appeared as BZAW 231 in 1995; the second volume, subtitled Sacred Institutions with Roman Counterparts, was published as BZAW 276 in 2000.  This trilogy, in excess of 1450 pages itself, possesses a complex redactional history.  Brown began the project in 1960 and several parts of the first two volumes appeared in separate articles.  Of the seven chapters in the third volume, three chapters were previously published (as early as 1991) and three other chapters have been re-published elsewhere.  This subsequent publication was Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece: Religion, Politics, and Culture (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003; xiv, 229 pages), which combined one chapter from volume I of Israel and Hellas, two chapters from the second volume, and three chapters from the third volume.  As such, Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece offers a relatively brief and affordable paperback compendium of BZAW’s three-volume collection of Brown’s essays.  Except for matters of typography (mostly concerning original languages), errata sheets, and cumulative indexes, the essays in the fulsome Israel and Hellas are virtually unchanged from their original or subsequent publications, with the result that some of the research may seem dated.

Volume III of Israel and Hellas offers a variety of material.  Included are Brown’s two best summary and overview statements: Chapter 22, “Complementarity of Israel and Hellas,” and Chapter 24, “From Particularity to Universalism.”  (Both of these chapters also appear in Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece.)  In these chapters, Brown presents in relatively succinct fashion the overall concepts that drive this vast array of scholarly erudition.  Brown seeks to answer the old question about the relationship of Greece and Israel (or, in the popular phrase to which Brown fortunately resorts only once, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”) with more sensitivity to the commonalities shared by these two complex cultures.  For Brown, both Israel and Greece developed within the overarching context of the dominant ancient Near Eastern imperial powers from Egypt to Mesopotamia.  Both Israel and Greece resisted these empires, expressing themselves as free societies and as cultural innovators, albeit in differing ways:

Israel is an old inland society just inside the ancient Near East, the terminus of trade routes by land, struggling to escape, which however it can do only in the most critical areas.

Hellas is a new seaboard society just outside the ancient Near East, to which the Mediterranean is open for trade and colonization, enjoying indigenous cultural resources, on which the Near East exercises an ongoing fascination. (III: 160).

Thus, two societies are similar in their resistance to and rejection of ancient Near Eastern imperial culture.  The chief differences between Israel and Greece reside in Israelite monotheism, survival themes, and emphasis on lineage, compared to Greek pantheons, themes of tragedy, and emphasis on language (III: 163). Brown, a former professor of New Testament and Christian ethics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, sees the confluence of Hellas and Israel in the New Testament and early Christianity, which produced a non-tragedy of language that could build on the cultural innovations of both cultures in ways more basic and more advantageous to civilization’s subsequent development.  Even today in western civilization, these two cultures continue their influence in the classroom (the Greek heritage of critical questioning) and in the congregation (the Israelite, Judeo-Christian heritage of priestly faith communities).  Rather than understanding the legacies of Greece and Israel as opposites of West and East or as competing forces of Reason and Faith, Brown envisages both as continuing traditions of resistance and critique to the imperialism continuing in the world today, where the classroom critiques from just outside the empire (as did ancient Greece) and the congregation provides a complementary resistance from just inside the values of the empire (as did ancient Israel) (III: 200-201). 

Thus, a portrayal of Brown’s work as a comparison of Greece and Israel fails to comprehend adequately the scope of these volumes.  Brown provides a large-scale cultural critique via a metahistory that unites the past three thousand years (and perhaps more) into a single dialectical story.  In a scholarly era that snubs metahistories, an appreciation of Brown’s Israel and Hellas offers a reminder of the power of metahistories to bring together fragmented academic discourses—and to produce a discourse itself that can resist the dominant metahistories of the present age.  Brown’s vision of (Western) history as the resistance to empire is, in this sense, quite refreshing and extremely powerful as an intervention in the evolutionistic histories so common. 

At the same time, Brown’s metahistory falls prey to the same problems of other metahistories.  Most scholars will find that the particularity of separate cultures falls short of necessary detail in the face of the sweep of connections that tie together Ugaritic tales of Mot, Hesiod, the Iliad, Amos, Plato, Plutarch, and even on toward Milton, Einstein, Lonergan, and Buddhism.  The idealism of “Israel” and “Greece” as cultural units spanning centuries proves problematic, and at times the concept of “cultural innovation” in the face of a broadly defined imperialism seems to operate as an assumption rather than a result of the argument.  The concepts of personal individualism that arises as a resistance to empire and a shift to affinity groups of shared language rather than shared lineage may appeal in  (Romantic) fashion to postmodern sensibilities just as the notion of “free societies” that achieved “cultural innovation” may comfort those of modernist leanings, but all of these concepts demand more rigorous and specific development.   Readers of a more theoretic inclination will find themselves repeatedly longing for treatments of imperialism and culture grounded in sociological and anthropological scholarship; readers of a more historical bent will wish for greater specificity and context to the allusions; and readers with interests in philosophy and literature of these cultures will want much more context than Brown’s emphasis on words and phrases could supply.  In some ways, Brown has produced a theory of language, beginning with concrete examples of linguistic borrowing between adjacent cultures and developing a grand theory of language’s ability to shape culture through vocabulary and eventually through the production of books. 

Future scholarship will thank Brown for the careful linguistic work to gather comparisons for reflection, even when in disagreement with Brown’s conclusions.  We should learn much from Brown’s treatment of topics such as the imperial influences on Jesus’ Aramaic (even though Brown’s reconstruction of Jesus’ Aramaic leaves room for questions), beatitudes and blessings (in the New Testament, Greek and Latin literature, the Hebrew bible, and some rabbinic literature), and the chapters on parks (from mythic paradises to the native forests of Lebanon and elsewhere surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, to the practices of imperially-controlled logging and the creation of satrapal hunting grounds). 

The old scholarly dichotomies of West and East or Greece and Israel cannot stand; Brown provides extensive indication of this impossibility, which had already been established from other directions.  Such hoary dichotomies are as unproductive as the evolutionary models of cultural progression.  The work at hand requires careful attention to the specifics of cultural interaction and the interplays of imperialization and resistance in the periods known as Achaemenid and Hellenistic. 

Jon L. Berquist
Flemington, New Jersey