Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece: Religion, Politics, and Culture

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Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece: Religion, Politics, and Culture. By John Pairman Bowman. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003, 229 pp., $22.00.

John Pairman Bowman, who has taught at the American University in Beirut and at the Pacific School of Religion, has distilled for the general public some of the essays originally published in three volumes in Germany as Israel and Hellas (1995, 2000, 2001). he offers a stimulating and often provocative comparison of the two unique cultures that have been most important to Western Civilization as they were each "the center of a free society generating a novel literature" (p. 1).

The four conditions that made a new freedom possible, liberating these two cultures from the dominance of the ancient Near East were: (1) a defensible citadel surrounded by rain-watered fields; (2) iron for weapons and tools, lime for waterproofing cisterns; (3) elements of democracy; and (4) a phonetic alphabetic script (pp. 6-7). Like W. F. Albright, he sees the contributions of Hellas and Israel culminating in the new synthesis offered by the NT (p. 26).

He contrasts Israel as "an old inland society" with Hellas as "a new seaboard society" (pp. 8-9). he desires to use insights from the past to motivate us to reform society in the present. he stresses the uniqueness of the Ten Commandments (p. 11) and the significance of the resurrection of Christ (pp. 214-15).

The author knows not only classical and biblical texts very well, but also has a command of later European texts and their translations. Like Cyrus H. Gordon and Michael Astour, he is able to recognize comparisons between Hellas and Israel not noted by others. The results are at times exhilarating and at other times exasperating, as some comparisons are persuasive while others are dubious.

He offers this striking observation: "How do Plato's Socrates and Jeremiah most clearly differ? Socrates is constantly in dialogue with other human beings (always, in fact, men) of different viewpoints . . . whereas Jeremiah is in dialogue only with God" (p. 3). he correctly notes in one comparison that similarity of language (between Exod 13:9 and Iliad 25.694-95) may actually conceal very different viewpoints (p. 13).

His best essay is a chapter on "Paradise and the Forest of Lebanon," based on his extensive research into ancient forests and his firsthand knowledge of deforestation in Lebanon. …