Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition

By van der Horst, Pieter W. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition


van der Horst, Pieter W., Journal of Biblical Literature


Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition, by Erich S. Gruen. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998. Pp. xx + 335. $38.00.

In this book, Gruen, professor of ancient history at Berkeley, deals with the Jewish reactions to Hellenistic culture in the centuries around the turn of the era ("How did Jews accommodate themselves to the larger cultural world of the Mediterranean while at the same time reasserting the character of their own heritage within it" [p. xiv]). Philo and Josephus are left out of account; the main emphasis lies on the other (most often fragmentary) Jewish-Greek authors of the third through first centuries BCE. The study begins, however, with an examination of Hasmonean politics. Gruen highlights the seeming paradox that, after the Maccabean revolt, the Hasmoneans "engaged regularly in diplomatic dealings with Greek kings, adopted Greek names, donned garb and paraded emblems redolent with Hellenic significance, erected monuments, displayed stelai, and minted coinage inspired by Greek models" (p. 2). It is significant, therefore, that the campaigns of the Hasmoneans were most often directed against other neighboring Gentile peoples rather than the Greeks. Sometimes they even campaigned against others with forces containing substantial numbers of Greek mercenaries, They destroyed pagan temples that long predated the coming of the Greeks, and they never stated as their objective the eradication of Greek power or Hellenistic culture in Palestine. Scrutiny of the sources (without being taken in by the propaganda of 1 and 2 Maccabees) makes the construct of a clash between Greek and Jew during the Hasmonean period untenable. "The Hasmonaeans operated on the premise that Judaism and Hellenism march hand in hand" (p. 33). They advertised their regime as "one that absorbed the ways of the Greeks but worked within the tradition of the Jews" (p. 37).

In this light the subsequent chapters deal with Judeo-Greek literature, under the following headings: "The Use and Abuse of the Exodus Story," "The Hellenistic Images of Joseph," "Scriptural Stories in New Guise," "Embellishments and Inventions," "Kings and Jews," and "Pride and Precedence.- The leitmotif in these chapters is that the documents display "a talent not so much for adaptation as for expropriation" (p. 293), and Gruen follows Tcherikover's lead in saying that these products "do not present a struggle for identity in an alien world, an apologia for strange customs and beliefs, or propaganda meant to persuade the Gentile." On the contrary, they display "a positive quality, bold and inventive, sometimes startling, often light-hearted and engaging, and throughout directed internally to Jews conversant with or altogether inseparable from the culture of the Greeks" (pp. 292-93). This insight leads to the bold conclusion that several of the so-called anti-Semitic versions of the exodus story "do not derive from Egyptian distortion of the Jewish legend, but exactly the reverse: Jewish inventiveness expropriated Egyptian myth in order to insert into it their own heroes, their religious superiority, and even their military triumphs" (p. …

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