The Image of the Jews in Greek Literature: The Hellenistic Period

By Niehoff, Maren | Shofar, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview
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The Image of the Jews in Greek Literature: The Hellenistic Period


Niehoff, Maren, Shofar


The Image of the Jews in Greek Literature: The Hellenistic Period, by Bezalel Bar-Kochva. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. 606 pp. $95.00.

Recently the image of Jews and Judaism in antiquity has received new scholarly attention. It has usually been discussed in the context of the question of whether antisemitism existed already in antiquity and, if so, under what circumstances it developed and whether Egypt played a special role in this process. Josephus Flavius' treatise Against Apion was always central in these discussions, because it provides the bulk of the highly fragmentary evidence and is the first known attempt at a scholarly interpretation of the evidence. Mentioning both earlier Hellenistic and contemporary writers, Josephus has moreover encouraged subsequent scholars to consider the sources from the Ptolemaic and the Roman period as belonging to one continuous discourse.

The present book is an important contribution to this scholarly discussion. It is extremely rich in detail, impressively balanced in its scholarly judgments and not lacking creative intuition, vital for reconstructing the messages and contexts of the fragmentary evidence. Bar-Kochva offers a close investigation of twelve authors who wrote in Greek in the Hellenistic period, thus felicitously distinguishing between Greek and Roman literature. Five of these authors were outstanding authorities in their fields, constructing the image of the Jews on the basis of a comprehensive world-view and leaving behind influential accounts. Theophrastus was a leading Aristotelian philosopher and father of ancient botany, Hecetaus of Abdera the founder of "scientific" ethnography, Agatharchides of Cnidus a prominent Alexandrian historian, while Posidonius was famous as a Stoic philosopher and Appolonius Molon as a rhetorican. The particular value of the present book lies in its attention to the overall outlook and methods of the respective writers. All too often judgments on the Jews have been analyzed without fully taking into account the intellectual, historical, and cultural context of each writer. Bar Kochva goes a long way to amend this situation, often concluding that the views expressed on the Jews reflect rather more neutral or general assumptions of the author.

Several examples may illustrate this point. Mnasius of Patara, a pupil of the famous Alexandrian scientist Eratosthenes and briefly head of the Alexandrian library (third through second century BCE), tells a story about Zabidus stealing the statue of an ass from the Jerusalem Temple ( Jos., C. Ap. 2.112- 14). Most scholars have interpreted this story as evidence of early antisemitism, taking the ass as sign of ridicule. Bar Kochva, on the other hand, argues that Mnasius did not aim at mocking the Jews, as subsequent writers using his material did, but rather assumed the ass to be an acceptable symbol of deity. This interpretation derives from a study of Greek, rather than Egyptian, sources, which are likely to have influenced the author (pp. 231-37). According to Bar-Kochva, the original point of the story is to show the superb cunning of Zabidus, who achieved a similar military success as Odysseus with the Trojan horse. In the same vein, Agatharchides' judgment of the Sabbath rest as a superstition, which prevented the Jews from defending themselves against invaders ( Jos., C. Ap. 1.205-11), is shown to derive from the author's general attitude towards superstition as well as his historical experience of Ptolemy I capturing Jerusalem (pp. 280-305).

Bar-Kochva devotes special attention to Posidonius, offering a meticulous study of the man and his writings before approaching his views on the Jews (pp. 338-54). He points to the philosopher's interest in travelling and ethnography, while stressing that his works qualify as philosophy rather than history. Bar-Kochva moreover takes a position on the fundamental question of how to identify Posidonius' fragmentary work.

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