Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece: Religion, Politics, and Culture, by John Pairman Brown

By J, Brian | Shofar, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece: Religion, Politics, and Culture, by John Pairman Brown


J, Brian, Shofar


Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003. 228 pp. $22.00.

Assembled unchanged, save for the deletion of foreign fonts, from essays contained in Brown's three-volume work, Israel and Hellas, Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 231, 276, 299 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1995, 2000, 2001), this compact, erudite, and accessible book seeks to document some remarkable convergences of ancient Greek and Hebrew society and culture. Explicitly diverging from writers like Tertullian and Auerbach, who emphasize the undeniable contrasts between Greek society, religion, and literature, Brown argues that the ancient Greeks and Hebrews, if not siblings, are "cousins" who undertook a "joint breakout from ancient Near Eastern absolutism," an event that allowed each to develop "its own version of newly emergent freedom" (p. 1). Meticulously drawing attention to their shared vocabularies, metaphors, and idioms, Brown traces the development of Hebrews and Greeks into novel societies characterized by the "invention of the book" (p. 204), the "discovery of justice" (p. 202), a "new individualism" (p. 212) and an "efflorescence of humanism "precipitated by" confidence in the future" (p. 201). In ways too often neglected by classical and biblical scholars, and occurring centuries before their union in the Septuagint and New Testament, Brown argues, each people's society and culture already betrays the other's impress.

As to the channels through which this mutual influence took place, Brown gestures towards sea and land trade by the Phoenicians and others, wars among their allies and adversaries, and contacts forged by occasional travelers, artisans, and exiles. But rather than searching (perhaps vainly) for specific evidence of such contacts and exchanges, Brown prefers to mine Greek and Hebrew texts for instances of shared thematic concerns, words and phrases, metaphors, genres, proverbs, and figures of speech. By doing so he claims to find striking and unexpected similarities between the two societies across a wide range of institutions and practices, including trade and warfare, civic formations (especially divine kingship), prophecy, appropriations of foreign religious cults, the status of women and slaves, and the exploitation of nature. One of the book's six chapters, for instance, explores "The Shifting Roles of Women." Ironically, Brown argues, in both early Hellas and Israel women possessed considerable power and privileges, but eventually the necessity of maintaining political and military independence against foreign powers "reduced women's freedom of action, and sharply divided them into categories: insider and outsider, housewife and harlot" (p. 120). To support this claim, given the fact that neither people in its early period left a permanent record of women's power and independence, Brown looks for hints about their status in texts like Judges, 1 Samuel, Joshua, Aristotle's Politics, and Plato's Republic.

But here as in other instances, not only the considerable promise, but the liabilities of Brown's reliance upon inventorying the thematic and semantic similarities in Greek and Hebrew texts, appear. For to substantiate his strong claims not simply for resemblances between the cultures and institutions of these two peoples but for their actual kinship as "cousins...in touch only at one or more removes" (p. 1), Brown relies almost exclusively upon locating common words, metaphors, and thematic concerns in their literary products. He offers little in the way of sustained textual analysis, close investigation of the particular historical and social contexts in which these texts appear, or fulsome engagement with other scholars' work. …

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