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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 judgements 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. Whereas previous scholars had tended towards a maximalist approach, discovering ideas of Posidonius also in contexts where his name is not explicitly mentioned, recent research has tended towards a minimalist approach. Bar-Kochva sides on this issue with scholars of the previous century. Posidonius’ views on the Jews are then appreciated against the background of his philosophy. Bar-Kochva shows how he uses the society established by Moses as an example of the Stoic utopian state, which is thus said to have been historically implemented (pp. 362–70). Bar-Kochva explains that this positive attitude of Posidonius must be understood both in view of the general Stoic appreciation of Jewish monotheism as well as the author’s upbringing in Apamea, where the relations between the Jews and their neighbors are known to have been good (pp. 396–97). The sharp distinction that Posidonius subsequently draws between the ideal Jewish state under Moses and later tyrants is shown to correspond to his general notion of an inevitable decline in human societies. According to Bar-Kochva, it also reflects the rather more critical reaction of Greek writers to Hasmonean expansionism (pp. 372–79). Here, too, Posidonius’ views on the Jews emerge as meaningful in a particular cultural and political context.
One aspect of the book deserves in my view reconsideration, namely the role of Apion in the overall picture. Two chapters of the book deal with this vicious Jew hater, the protagonist of Josephus’ treatise Against Apion. In both chapters, one treating the ass libel, the other the blood libel, he emerges as a transmitter of earlier, especially Seleucid and Egyptian, traditions (pp. 206–80). Josephus had already suggested this interpretation, mentioning Posidonius and Apollonius Mollon as sources for his propaganda (C. Ap. 2.79). Josephus moreover suggested that these libels had been fabricated in order to justify Antiochus’ sacrileges (C. Ap. 2.89–91). While Bar-Kochva is aware of Apion’s role as the head of the Egyptian embassy to Gaius in first-century Rome and points to his motivation to ridicule the Jews in this political context (p. 242), he does not sufficiently explore this aspect for a comprehensive interpretation of Apion’s views and impact. This is especially so with the regard to the blood libel, where no direct sources are identifiable. Elias Bickermann has pointed already to significant Roman parallels, which are, however, rejected by Bar-Kochva as being too general (p. 270). His own suggestions of Egyptian parallels do not seem to be much closer, and many of them significantly appear in Roman sources (pp. 271–75). I would therefore suggest that the Roman context of Apion’s propaganda be taken more seriously into account. As Bar-Kochva himself points out, “the Druids were similarly persecuted and restricted by the Romans on the pretext that they indulged in human sacrifice and cannibalism” (p. 277). Human sacrifice and cannibalism are precisely the elements that are conspicuous in Apion’s story. Given the prevalence of this motif in several Roman sources with distinct political contexts, it is likely that Apion aimed at appealing to a Roman audience by his particular polemics against the Jews. He thus needs to be analyzed more on his own account than mostly as a transmitter of earlier material.
In conclusion, Bar-Kochva’s book covers an important and much discussed field of enquiry, offering new and highly sophisticated interpretations of the fragmentary evidence, which are based on detailed analyses of all the texts and their author’s overall conceptions. Anyone who will wish to disagree with Bar-Kochva will also find the material for his or her own arguments in the book.
Hebrew University of Jerusalem