Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 14 (2014) - Review

Silverman, Jason M., Persepolis and Jerusalem: Iranian Influence on the Apocalyptic Hermeneutic (LHBOTS, 558; London: T & T Clark, 2012). Pp. 320. Hardcover. US$146.00. ISBN 978-0567-20551-3.

This monograph is a revised version of the author's 2010 doctoral dissertation (Trinity College Dublin). It successfully attempts to answer a question that has for decades troubled those working on Second Temple Judaism: the types and extents of Persian influence on ideas and institutions within Jewish culture. Silverman proposes a reexamination of both the question and the evidence and produces a study of Jewish “apocalyptic” with enough methodological sophistication to justify his call for renewed scholarly attention. His analysis of Jewish texts in light of Persian texts and traditions is good, but does not form the primary strength of the volume. The author would seem to admit that the results are relatively modest and that the particular examples he examines have been known and debated by specialists for some time. Where Silverman succeeds in greater measure, however, is in reframing the question of how Iranian cultural components might have been integral in the production of apocalypses, apocalypticism, and apocalyptic movements within Second Temple Judaism. In doing so, he takes advantage of and contributes to a more sophisticated scholarly conception of ancient Jewish scribal practices.

Since the days in which enthusiasm for finding Persian influences has waned, the sort of parallelomania that might have once sought direct Near Eastern or Greek source texts for every known Jewish text has also waned. It is now clear that even in texts where borrowing is patently obvious, it is rarely a process of copy-and-paste—even in, e.g., highly formulaic legal texts. In other words, most scholars who work on the book of Daniel would see a reflex of the Canaanite combat myth expressed in Dan 7, but I know of no one who would actually propose that the writer of Dan 7 possessed or read what we know as the Ugaritic Ba'al cycle. The process of transmission is complicated and the hermeneutics involved in appropriating and shaping a Bronze Age myth in the second century b.c.e. are equally complex. So while Silverman does not, in most cases, present “smoking-gun” evidence of direct borrowing between a Persian text and a Judean text, he often does show that the type of evidence that one finds for Persian influence is no less compelling than the types of parallels that could be found in Mesopotamia, Egypt, or Greece. Moreover, and even more impressive, he provides a methodology that allows scholars to reimagine and reconstruct the kinds of hermeneutical matrices that might have existed. As he shows, the cultural influences affecting a Judean scribe can hardly be limited to an either/or scenario. For example, to ask whether or not the writer of Dan 2 derived the four kingdoms motif from Hesiod or from the Wahman Yašt is to radically oversimplify the question and deny the literary and cultural sophistication of which Judean scribes were capable, as well as the diverse cultural matrices in which the scribe would have necessarily found themselves. There are points on which I disagree with the author, but these points tend to be related to debates already firmly entrenched among specialists, so it seems unnecessary to raise them here. Instead, I proceed to describe the contents of the book in more detail.

Silverman opens the book by assessing the state of the question: what can be learned from past attempts to understand Persian influence on Jewish “apocalyptic?” (Silverman proposes using the adjective “apocalyptic” as a noun that embodies all the concerns relevant to apocalypses, apocalypticism, millenarian movements, etc. Whatever confusion or anachronisms this meta-term might create are overshadowed by its utility.) He suggests that previous studies have been less successful than they might have been because they have focused on the influence of Zoroastrianism. Silverman prefers to investigate “Iranian” rather than “Zoroastrian” influence because doing so allows him to investigate a wider spectrum of traditions, some of which might not have become prominent or permanent fixtures within the religion of the Sassanian period. Of course, Silverman's primary interests lie in Achaemenid religion, but reconstructing that religion is hardly possible without processing data that is both considerably earlier and later. He spends the last half of the Prolegomena laying out the various debates and consensus points on the origins and development of Jewish “apocalyptic.” His summary is both succinct and even-handed, and he funnels the discussion into a statement of what his study can offer to advance the debates. He does a good job of incorporating theoretical work on religion, especially that of Vroom and Light, which helps to frame a Jewish apocalyptic within a discussion of how religio-cultural interactions take place and on what levels they take place.[1] From the beginning, then, the reader understands that he wants to explain Iranian influence in Jewish apocalyptic not via specific instances of, e.g., textual quotations, but through a hermeneutic that was forged in part by interactions with Iranian religio-cultural ideas and institutions: “Each tradition has symbols and categories which are more central and others which are more peripheral. Central elements will be more resistant to influence, while more peripheral ones will be less so…it is necessary to determine the radicalness of the proposed element within the perspective of that tradition: the ‘organizational rules’ of the receiving tradition must be taken into account” (p. 37). In other words, Silverman is looking for more than a “smoking gun” linguistic argument that links one Iranian text to one Jewish apocalypse. He is looking for a way in which the various symbols and organizational rules of one religio-cultural system might be imported or transposed onto another.

Chapters 1–3 could be the most useful for students of ancient Judaism and the Hebrew Bible. He details the current state of knowledge about the relevant Iranian primary source material (ch. 1) as well as the Achaemenid context in which any cultural transmission would have taken place (ch. 2). Related to these chapters are two helpful appendices at the end of the book: one provides a bibliography of Iranian primary sources and the other a glossary of terms. Finally, he investigates the actual media of influence: the roles of orality and literacy in cultural interactions (ch. 3). Chapter 3 is strong enough to stand on its own, but it is also the most abstracted from the aims of the study. Its strength comes in the ability to demonstrate that apocalypses are more purely scribal (literary) phenomena than related genres like prophecy (even if persons did experience visions). This observation assists one in looking for the most relevant kinds of influences for the genre.

Chapters 4–5 consider a selection of specific parallels and similarities between Iranian and Jewish texts. As already mentioned, the particular parallels discussed will already be known to specialists—though several have not been actively debated for some time. These include: Ezek 37:1–14, Ezek 38–39, Dan 2 (and 7), and several concepts and motifs found in 1 Enoch's Book of Watchers, Book of Parables/Similitudes, and the Birth of Noah Fragment. It is possible that a Judean scribe borrowed directly from a Persian source in several of these cases. But I prefer to view the relationships according to the proposition Silverman articulates in his treatment of the Kulturentstehungsmythos integral to the forbidden knowledge motif found in the Book of Watchers: “One should perhaps posit a scholarly koine or stock of tropes from which the scribe could adapt or borrow. In this koine it is just as likely that the authors of 1 Enoch knew the current Persian variations on the myth as the Greek or Babylonian ones” (p. 185). I have argued recently that the symbolic language of apocalypses is best understood as being drawn from a broad repertoire of Near Eastern tropes and symbols.[2] Even if direct and unambiguous evidence of influence is missing, the only logical conclusion is that Persian concepts were just as likely—if not more likely—to be part of the cultural encyclopedia of Jewish scribes during the Second Temple Period than Mesopotamian and Greek concepts.

Silverman closes the study by proposing to understand the possible relationships examined in chapters 4–5 through an intellectual model he describes as an apocalyptic hermeneutic. Integral to this hermeneutic (though to varying degrees) would be concepts such as the Jerusalem temple, immanence and transcendence, theodicy and pessimism, teleology, determinism and freedom, eschatology (imminent and deferred), typology, mythology, prediction, and epistemology. This constellation of concerns can be found in various ways within apocalypses, apocalypticism (as a worldview), and millenarianism (a social movement). It forms a useful basis from which to attempt to understand Iranian influences, not least of which because it does not require a mutually exclusive concept of cultural interactions. I commend this book to all those working on Second Temple Judaism. Specialists working on apocalypses should heed his call to take more seriously the influence of Persian religio-cultural concepts on ancient Judaism.

Bennie H. Reynolds III, Millsaps College

[1] Hendrik M. Vroom, “Syncretism and Dialogue: A Philosophical Analysis,” in Anita M. Leopold and Jeppe S. Jensen (eds.), Syncretism in Religion: A Reader (London: Equinox, 2004), 103–12. Timothy Light, “Orthosyncretism: An Account of Melding in Religion,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 12 (2000), 162–86. reference

[2] Bennie H. Reynolds III, Between Symbolism and Realism: The Use of Symbolic and Non-Symbolic Language in Ancient Jewish Apocalypses 333–63 b.c.e. (JAJSup, 8; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011). reference