Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition

By Kerkeslager, Allen | Shofar, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition


Kerkeslager, Allen, Shofar


Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition, by Erich S. Gruen. Hellenistic Culture and Society 30. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998. 335 pp. $38.00.

In Heritage and Hellenism, Erich Gruen applies his formidable expertise as a major historian of the Hellenistic world to the question of how Jews accommodated themselves to this world while at the same time reasserting their own cultural identity. The end result is a delightful treat that challenges a host of cherished assumptions and suggests a radical modification in the way scholars approach much of the evidence for ancient Judaism.

The primary focus of the book is on Jewish writings composed in Greek in the Hellenistic period. The introduction boldly announces Gruen' s rejection of prevailing notions that these writings served the apologetic and propagandistic motives of a beleaguered minority trying to protect itself from loss of its identity in an alien world. Gruen's thesis is that these writings were produced instead by a self-confident Judaism to reaffirm its traditions and to supply itself with a means of entertainment, amusement, and aggrandizement. Gruen argues that in the process of achieving these goals, the authors of these writings freely invented new material that would assist them in reappropriating older Jewish traditions. Jewish adjustment to the Hellenistic world may be understood without the customarily assumed polarization between assimilation and adherence to tradition.

Chapter 1 emphasizes that the Hasmoneans operated upon an assumption of compatibility between Judaism and Hellenism. The Maccabean revolt was directed against the policies of the Seleucid king and indigenous enemies in Palestine rather than against Hellenism.

Chapter 2 makes the brilliant suggestion that Egyptian versions of the Exodus originally resulted from Jewish appropriations of Egyptian legends rather than antisemitic distortions of Jewish traditions. Jews used Egyptian stories "to establish the claims of Jews to a place of eminence in the history of Egypt" (p. 64).

Chapter 3 shows how Jewish writers exploited both the positive and negative features of the biblical picture of Joseph. Joseph became a model for expressing the relationship of Jews to surrounding society not only through his wit, success, and superiority, but also through his condescension and arrogance.

Chapters 4-7 arguably form the heart of the book. In Chapter 4 Gruen appears to want to give midrash its due by emphasizing that many Jewish writers fostered pride in Jewish tradition by expanding upon the Scriptures. But in chapters 5-6 he demonstrates that certain texts must be understood primarily as folklore rather than midrash. Artapanus and other Jewish writers surveyed in chapter 5 freely employed purely fictitious inventions even when telling stories somehow related to those found in the Scriptures. Gruen sees the "tales of the Tobiads" and other sources surveyed in Chapter 6 predominantly as folktales and works of fiction given verisimilitude through a historical framework.

The texts sampled in Chapters 5 and 6 displayed a robust sense of national identity by freely appropriating both Jewish and Gentile traditions to emphasize Jewish cultural superiority, unashamedly encouraging success within the framework of political subordination to Hellenistic rulers, poking fun at Gentile kings and Jewish heroes, and a variety of other ways.

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