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The Old Testament in Byzantium, edited by Paul Magdalino and Robert Nelson. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010.  333 pp.  $35.00.

 

The Septuagint (LXX) is the major Greek translation (among others) of the Hebrew Bible from the early Hellenistic period that is still a central pillar (in its many versions) for Christian cultures to the present day. However, the impact of the LXX upon Byzantium (the common modern term for the Christian Roman Empire that ruled from Constantinople from 330 until 1453) and its successor Orthodox states has not yet been subjected to sustained inquiry by scholars. The eleven chapters in this volume represent a new stage in the study of the LXX and its influence on Byzantine art, culture, politics, and religion.

              The lengthy introduction by the two editors is an important statement for scholars of both Byzantine Hellenism and Judaism. It represents both a survey and a study in itself of the impact of Jews on Byzantine culture and their relations with the Christian majority. Traditionally the Jewish minority in Byzantium, a declining demographic group, has been treated as subject (or victim) to legal restrictions and a hostile rival ecclesiastical tradition. More recently the economic role of the Jews in medieval Mediterranean economy has been treated by a number of scholars. In this volume the editors, in a most welcome emphasis, stress the value and impact of the LXX on many aspects of Christian and Jewish cultures in Byzantium.

              The essay by Nicholas de Lange deals in particular with the use of Greek in the Bible translations of Byzantine Jews. Some years ago Benzion Wacholder emphasized that the Greek of the LXX was a kind of Yiddish Greek, i.e., a semi Atticized Greek version of the Semitic patterns that it introduced into the dominant gentile language. De Lange notes that Jews used mainly a second-century translation by Akylas (Aquila), a convert invited by the Tannaim to prepare a literal translation of the Hebrew text for the use of the Jews, presumably since the LXX had been appropriated by the new Christian movement and also that the text had to be updated for those Jews who did not control Hebrew, which did not become the intellectual language and script of the Jews until the eighth or ninth century. This version of Akylas was used through the sixth century in Greek, and echoes of it can be found in the Hebrew glosses, scholia, and commentaries of Byzantine Jews through the sixteenth century alongside use of other rabbinical sanctioned translations into Greek of the fourth and fifth centuries. De Lange discusses various Byzantine Greek texts extant in Genizah collections, primarily that of Cambridge University, and also notes the possible influence of the Greek-Jewish tradition on Christian scholars. He rightly stresses the paucity of surviving Byzantine Jewish texts, although one should note that more kabbalistic texts from Byzantium are extant than from Sepharad and Ashkenaz combined.

              The two lead essays, comprising a sixth of the volume under review, set the stage for the following informative and perceptive chapters. James Miller, on the centrality of the Prophetologion or the third lectionary (LXX excerpts) of readings from the Old and New Testaments which were of more immediate influence on the “common” Christian population, challenges the thesis of the book at large and asks how much of the Old Testament was known to Byzantines. By way of example he argues that only a handful (perhaps 17) of the 1500 extant Old Testament manuscripts may have contained the whole biblical corpus. This datum, in contradistinction to post-Gutenberg realities where nearly every home has at least one complete Bible (Old and New Testaments), privileges the thesis that Byzantines knew their limited biblical data through the lectionaries to which they were exposed in church. We might suggest a parallel with the Jews where the midrash and Talmud are repositories of relevant texts and few complete Bibles were available other than the regular public reading of the Torah as discussed by de Lange. To Miller the Old Testament was in reality a part of the Orthodox liturgy in its selected readings as he outlines it. Knowledge of the Old Testament material was supplemented by the plethora of images; as Augustine explained: they educate the illiterate.

              Monasticism is a central phenomenon in Orthodoxy and it rapidly found its antecedents in the LXX, albeit from lectionaries rather than from the extended texts. George Parpulov and Derek Burger explore and define the seminal impact of the Book of Psalms on the monastic movement and note the typology of David, Elijah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel among others as models for the monastic life and thought. Most monks learned the book by heart and constantly repeated psalms in whole or in citation. John Lowden explores the impact of the Octateuch manuscripts of the tenth-eleventh centuries, namely the five books of the Torah, plus Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, through the five magnificently illustrated extant manuscripts produced by the ruling class. Claudia Rapp surveys ecclesiastical use of LXX figures in the development of an imperial rhetoric. Elizabeth Jeffreys surveys the Byzantine World Chronicle and the use and misuse of the LXX by John Malalas. The latter’s observations perhaps have a mutual influence on Jewish tradition that is worth further exploration. On the one hand is the rabbinic world chronicle—Seder Olam—which appears after Eusebius’s world chronicle, itself part of a longer tradition and, on the other, the use of midrash directly or indirectly by Byzantine ecclesiastic writers.

              The importance of the Temple for Byzantine symbolism is analyzed by Robert Ousterhout. We should note that the Temple rite is basic to both Synagogue and Church services. For medieval Jews the Temple was described more fully in Sepher Yosippon in the tenth century than in the rabbinic writings. To the Byzantines, however, the Temple was a symbol to be represented metaphorically rather than an icon to be reified. Justinian’s New Church in Jerusalem is fittingly preserved under a parking lot in the restored Jewish Quarter, an ironic commentary on his harsh Jewish policies. He had dared to challenge Solomon’s Temple when he completed Hagia Sophia ,but his later successor Basil was outmatched by a South Italian rabbi who proved that Solomon laid out more gold and silver than Justinian.

              Two final articles round off this fascinating collection. Ivan Biliarsky shows to what extent the Old Testament framed the development of Bulgarian nationalism, an informative paper on the tenth-century emergent state. Indeed many of the articles illuminate what might be deemed an Old Testament renaissance in the tenth-century Byzantine world. So too we should note the appearance of Sepher Yosippon and his humorous retelling of the translation of the LXX. The last paper explores aspects of some odd Old Testament parallels with the Qur’an and ends with a plea for further studies to show the mutual interests in this area among Christians, Muslims, and Jews.  

              This volume is the second in a series of Dumbarton Barton Oaks Byzantine Symposia and Colloquia, and is a seminal contribution to the further development of Byzantine Studies in the United States where the study of this center of Christian civilization in the Middle Ages is sorely underdeveloped in our approach to understanding the tripartite heirs of the Roman Empire: Greek and Latin Christianity, and Islam. This volume, a friendly read even for non-specialists, formally introduces Jews and Judaism into an emerging interdisciplinary paradigm.

 

Steven Bowman

University of Cincinnati