Greek Philosophical Discourse in the Book of Judith?

By Wills, Lawrence M. | Journal of Biblical Literature, December 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Greek Philosophical Discourse in the Book of Judith?


Wills, Lawrence M., Journal of Biblical Literature


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In recent years the Greek philosophical virtue of ..., self-mastery, has been increasingly recognized in ancient Jewish literature. With regard to Philo and Josephus, Stanley K. Stowers paints a picture of "Judaism as a school for selfmastery," and Michael L. Satlow continues this discussion into rabbinic literature.1 Although one would not expect philosophical concepts to appear explicitly in works of narrative fiction, I would like to address the question of whether, in the book of Judith, the heroine's version of self-mastery also reflects the influence of Greek .... I propose here an affirmative answer to this question and will reinforce this conclusion by identifying four related aspects of Greek philosophical discourse that can be discerned in Judith: (1) Judith's steely determination suggests the Greek virtue of self-mastery (...); (2) the depiction of the angry tyrants (Nebuchadnezzar and Holofernes) resonates with Greek philosophical critiques of the angry tyrant-and with ?γκρ?τ[varepsilon]ια's opposite, ?κρασiα, or lack of self-mastery; (3) Judith's division of time into past, present, and future reflects Greek philosophical discourse about time; and (4) Judith's criticism of the Bethulians' prayer calls to mind the Greek philosophical reflections on rational prayer. Although none of these aspects of Greek thinking is unambiguously present in Judith, the combination will provide added plausibility for each argument.

The consensus dating of Judith would certainly make Greek influence possible. If, as most scholars agree, Judith was written in the late second-early first centuries BCE,2 there is already ample evidence of Jews writing under the influence of Greek philosophy. In Alexandria, by the end of the third century BCE, Demetrius the Chronographer embraced Greek standards of scholarship, and by the middle of the second century BCE Aristobulus and Pseudo-Aristeas imbibed Greek thought. Even in Jerusalem, the probable home of the book of Judith, we find some Greek influences on Ben Sira's wisdom text (early second century BCE), and there are also Hellenistic influences discernible in 1 and 2 Maccabees. That the author of Judith engages Greek thought is not difficult to imagine; we might be more surprised if he or she did not. The second century BCE was a period in which Greek philosophy and culture were being felt in Jewish writings even in Judea, but not in the very visible way that was evident in Alexandria. But the case must still be explored and demonstrated. Certainly, there are narrative motifs in Judith that have parallels in Greek tradition-the prayer, during a siege, for rain to come within five days, or the ritualized surrender with earth and water3-but narrative traditions might have been freely traded across cultural lines for centuries. Even though one would not expect to find the explicit terminology of philosophical schools in narrative fiction, it is quite possible that Greek philosophical ideas have influenced our text (see below on philosophy in Greek novels).

I. Greek Philosophical Traditions about Self-Mastery

At the center of the general ideal of the philosopher in Greece was a focus on ?γκρ?τ[varepsilon]ια, self-mastery. The Greek sage has equanimity of soul and is happy regardless of circumstances; he is self-sufficient, independent, and not disturbed by externals. Plato placed γκρ?τ[varepsilon]ια among the four virtues, along with σωφροσ?νη (prudence), δικαιοσ?νη (justice), and ?νδρ[varepsilon]iα (courage) (Resp. 427e, 435b). Plato was himself responsible for altering the meaning of ?γκρ?τ[varepsilon]ια, from the control of something or someone else to the control of oneself, thus effectively ensuring the centrality of self-mastery in Greek ethics. Xenophon of Athens saw ?γκρ?τ[varepsilon]ια in a way that became typical of the age to follow: "genuine freedom consists in dominating one's pleasures, while the worst slavery is to be subjected to them" (Mem. …

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