Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review
The recent essay collection The Bible and Hellenism, edited by Thomas L. Thompson and Philippe Wajdenbaum, offers an insightful and engaging look into a variety of topics relating to the role encounters with the Greek world and Greek literature played in shaping biblical text. The essays in this volume are generally well-researched and written and often offer quite original arguments. As a whole, it constitutes a significant contribution to biblical studies for many reasons but most especially for its presentation of viewpoints which have not yet had the hearing they deserve in certain quarters of the field of biblical studies. By rendering these accessible in a single volume, Thompson and Wajdenbaum have done biblical scholarship a service. The overall high quality of the essays included makes this even more the case.
Among those that merit special mention, Emanuel Pfoh's elegant analysis in Ancient Historiography, Biblical Stories and Hellenism of, among other topics, the challenges posed by what might be called the historicizing character of biblical narratives, and his presentation of the significant similarities between biblical and Greek historiographies despite challenges is an excellent piece of scholarship. Editing the Bible: Alexandria or Babylon?, Étienne Nodet's re-visitation of the role of discourses relating to Mt. Gerizim in establishing how late significant developments could still occur in the textual history of biblical literature, is insightful and well-researched. Josephus in the Tents of Shem and Japheth, Ingrid Hjelm's investigation of Josephus' approach to historical sources in Against Apion is a very valuable consideration of the philosophy of historiography in Josephus' time. The Philistines as Intermediaries between the Aegean and the Near East, Lukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò's contribution, is out of step chronologically with the rest of the volume but is of high quality, demonstrating the likelihood that Greek influence did not necessarily arrive in the region with Alexander's armies. The caution knowledge of a long history of East-West contacts on sea and on land presses upon scholars interested in comparative work is one that should be whole-heartedly embraced, although this is not always so, both in this collection and more generally.
It is, of course, little surprise that in a volume containing 14 essays all the contributions do not fit as well under the title given them collectively as would be expected of a single-authored work. Many of the essays are indeed aimed at exploring the vital but often neglected role of the Hellenistic Period in the shaping of biblical literature but a number of others have as their goal establishing either the dependence of certain biblical narratives on specific Greek texts or the deliberate nature of their contrast from Greek literature and philosophy. There is nothing wrong with exploring genealogical comparisoncomparisons premised on the existence of an actual relationship between two textsrather than analogical comparisons, but the burden of proof is considerably higher. For this reason, among others, readers will likely find those contributions aimed at historical issues and analogical comparison more convincing than those which attempt to demonstrate actual dependence. In exploring an ancient Mediterranean world in which there will never be enough evidence to offer absolutely convincing reconstructions, new proposals are welcome when they are advanced carefully and with clear attention to what is and is not speculation. Indeed, Thompson's own contribution, Narrative Reiteration and Comparative Literature: Problems in Defining Dependency, argues quite correctly that both similarity and uniqueness are necessary to posit the actual dependence of one story on another.
It is likely the case, for example, that Flemming A. J. Nielsen's argument in Israel, the antithesis of Hellas that certain aspects of biblical discourse on slavery and return in biblical literature are consciously modeled on Greek narratives about Solon fails to meet the second of these criteria. Discourses on slavery might be held to originate in many other vectors than the comparison explored here. So, too, might Russell E. Gmirkin's argument in Greek Evidence for the Hebrew Bible, in favor of the direct dependence of the primeval history and the biblical narrative of Exodus on Berossus and Manetho, although his discussion of scholarly models of interaction between Greek and biblical texts is excellent. Yaakov S. Kupitz's effort to establish the story of the finding of a bride for Isaac in Genesis 24 as consciously modeled on the story of Odysseus and Nausicaa in Stranger and City Girl: An Isomorphism Between Genesis 24 and Homer's Odyssey 613 offers a far more complex comparison than is possible to explore here but is nevertheless generally premised on the idea that narratives in which the protagonist meets a young woman at a watering spot and is taken to her father's house, resulting in a marriage, is unique enough to suppose that one is based upon the other. One can note that in two parts of the world where women lived in their father's house until marriage and in which there were only so many ways to get water, as well as the eternal interest the boy meets girl story (or vice versa) has held for authors and audiences, the appearance of two independent narratives with similar features originating in that premise is not all that surprising. One may consider as another example the narrative in Exodus 2, where Moses meets Zipporah at a well and is also taken back to her father's house.
Still, most of this collection's contents, comparative and otherwise, will be found engaging and useful. Philippe Guillaume's contribution, Hesiod's Heroic Age and the Biblical Period of the Judges offers a sensitive and nuanced attempt to use comparison to explain complicated biblical (and post-biblical) phenomena. His conclusion, that the book of Judges was largely composed in Alexandria around the time of Ben Sira, can hardly be convincingly proven either, but his sophisticated understanding of the work and interests of the Hellenistic Jewish chronographers makes his argument as plausible as possible. Ann Katrine de Hemmer Gudme's excellent essay, Sex, Violence, and State Formation in Judges 1921, which compares the story of the Levite's concubine to the Roman account of the Rape of the Sabine Women and the Egyptian story of Horus, Osiris, and Seth, also offers a considerably illuminating treatment.
As for the other essays in the volume, editor Philippe Wajdenbaum's suggestion in The Books of Maccabees and Polybius that the failure of the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees to appear in the canon may be a direct result of the antipathy of the Pharisees to the Hasmoneans is well taken, and his argument that the author of 1 Maccabees was directly influenced by Polybius is interesting and plausible. Reinhard G. Kratz, whose relatively recent Die Komposition der erzählenden Bücher des Alten Testaments presents a bold new model for the composition of the historical books as a whole, offers a similarly bold re-envisioning of Hellenism at Qumran through the comparison of Qumranic pesharim and pagan commentaries in Text and Commentary: The pesharim of Qumran in the context of Hellenistic scholarship. Hesiod's Theogony and the Book of Revelation 4, 12 and 1920, Bruce Louden's inquiry into the reliance of the Book of Revelation on Greek mythological tropes in general and Hesiod's Theogony in particular, is engaging and sophisticated even if his discussion of the Conflict Myth in that narrative might have dealt more directly with the considerable body of research on the Near Eastern and biblical history of that trope. The literary inquiry of John Taylor into Recognition Scenes in the Odyssey and the Gospels deepens our appreciation of such scenes in both through analogical, rather than genealogical comparison. His contribution is also richly written and framed in an engaging manner.
Overall, The Bible and Hellenism is a welcome contribution to an increasingly important field of inquiry within biblical studies. It has the usual range of strengths and weaknesses that any collection is prone to but it is especially refreshing to see treatments that do not merely establish the importance of the Hellenistic period in biblical development but, taking for granted its importance, explore what some of the more important ramifications might be. The end result is likely to prove a useful addition to many scholarly libraries.