Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2011.06.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.06.29

Bar-Kochva on Wyrick on Bar-Kochva, The Image of the Jews in Greek Literature.   Response to BMCR 2011.03.51

Response by Bezalel Bar-Kochva, Tel-Aviv University (

It was kind of Jed Wyrick to conclude that my book “is invigorating and challenging, both when it is most plausible (which holds true especially for many of its conclusions relating to Posidonius) and when not”. However, more interesting are the comments accompanying the survey of the chapters.

The review criticizes the first chapters of the book and praises the last. In the first chapters the book challenges the received opinion according to which Greek intellectuals living at the beginning of the Hellenistic period admired the Jews and acknowledged the superiority of “Jewish Wisdom” over Greek learning. Some scholars even went so far as to suggest that the myth of the “theft” of Jewish Wisdom by Greeks had been invented by Greeks, not Jews. It appears that the reviewer finds it quite difficult to depart from these views and digest the new approach. Not accidentally, he praises the last chapters of the book, devoted mainly to Posidonius of Apamea. These chapters show that Posidonius presented Mosaic Judaism as an ideal society, a model for his contemporaries. Wyrick even went out of his way to accept the source criticism applied in the last chapters (para. 13), despite his explicit aversion to this field of research (paras. 2, 9, 11).

Due to the strict word limit, I will refer in this response only to the first five paragraphs of the review. The comments of the reviewer in these paragraphs reflect the features of the review by and large.

The first two chapters of the book analyze the passages on the Jews in Theophrastus and Clearchus. These passages were used by scholars as the main evidence for the traditional view. Let us begin with Wyrick's comments on Clearchus. It is hard to avoid the impression that the reviewer relies too much on scholarly literature and translations rather than on the Greek text itself. In a celebrated fragment and testimonium, Clearchus describes an imaginary meeting between Aristotle and a Jew living in Asia Minor, when Aristotle was temporarily residing in Assus (Josephus, C. Apionem I.179-83). According to the accepted view—repeated by several scholars at second hand— Clearchus’ “Aristotle” admitted that he had learned from the Jew more than the Jew had learned from him, or the like, and that what he learned was Jewish wisdom. This interpretation is based on mistaken translations of a certain sentence and, in the case of some competent scholars, on understandable wishful thinking. The text says something entirely different (The Image of the Jews, pp. 49-53)

Here is Wyrick’s reaction (para. 4): “in Bar-Kochva’s view, Clearchus asserts that Aristotle was not impressed by the Jew, but merely shocked that he was able to converse in Greek about learned topics. Bar-Kochva is unwilling to countenance that Aristotle was bested by a barbarian. But the eclipse of the famous philosopher by a Jew is no more shocking than the subordination of Socrates to Diotima in Plato’s Symposium”.1 I would note at the outset that my book does not use the word "shocked" but "impressed".

Clearchus does not say anything of what Wyrick and his predecessors impute to “Aristotle”. The Greek text reads (I.181) : ἄνθρωπος. . . ὡς δὲ πολλοῖς τῶν ἐν παιδείᾳ συνῳκείωτο, παρεδίδου τι μᾶλλον ὧν εἶχεν. The verb εἶχεν obviously refers to the Jew, who remains the subject ( ἄνθρωπος . . . εἶχεν), not to Aristotle (unless one inserts the name of Aristotle into the text, which would be too much).2 The textual issue is thus closed.

It would be of advantage to look further into the phrasing of the passage, which excludes any possibility of further wishful “midrashic” interpretation. The sentence can be understood only in one of two ways. The first possibility is that the word μᾶλλον should be taken as a comparative, and the sentence has thus to be translated: “But as he (the Jew) had been living together with many educated people, he transmitted to us (i.e., to Aristotle and his followers), somewhat more than he (the Jew) held [himself].” Such a statement does not make sense. We have, therefore, to adopt the second possibility: μᾶλλον appears in the absolute sense, meaning “rather”, which occurs in the fragments of Clearchus no less than as a comparative. The correct translation should therefore be: “he (the Jew) was imparting [to us] (Aristotle and his disciples) somewhat of the [things (learning, wisdom)] at his disposal”.3 Where does the sentence say that “Aristotle was bested by a barbarian”, and where can one find here an indication to “the eclipse of the famous philosopher by a Jew” (to use the reviewer’s phrasing)?

The sentence is explicitly causal: the Jew was able to say whatever he said because he had been staying for certain periods among “educated people”. Who were these people? Clearchus reports (I.180) that the Jew lived in Asia Minor, and as from time to time he used to descend to the coastal plain (dotted by Greek cultural centers), he turned to be a Greek “not only in his language but also by his soul”. The “educated people” were therefore Greeks, and what the Jew imparted to “Aristotle” had thus nothing to do with Jewish wisdom, but originated in the Greek education attained by the Jew in his recurring visits to the Greek coastal cities. “Aristotle” met the Jew in his stay at Assus, and was impressed by the Greek wisdom of the Jew which showed up in their conversation,4 in as much as Clearchus expressed his appreciation of the Greek language and spirit of the Jews.5 And to avoid misunderstanding: the “wonder” attributed to the Jew (I.177) was his “great and wonderful karteria and sōphrosynē in his lifestyle” (I.182), not his wisdom.6

Now to textual criticism. The first chapter of the book, devoted to Theophrastus’ passage on the Jews (ap. Porphyry. De abstinentia. II.26.1-4; quoted by Eusebius. PE IX.2.1), discusses, inter alia, the reading of a sentence (26.1a) which is important for evaluating Theophrastus’ perception of the Jews (besides the statement that the Jews were the first to introduce human sacrifice [26.4], overlooked by scholars or explained away as a reminiscence of the sacrifice of Isaac). The book shows that a slight amendment of one word in the sentence is inevitable (pp. 24-30). According to the present reading of the text, the Jews “sacrifice animals (ζῳοθυτοῦσι) . . . burning [them] completely (ὁλοκαυτοῦντες)” (26.1-2), namely, the animals were first slaughtered (according to the usual practice) and afterwards sacrificed holocaust. The right reading, however, should be “sacrifice living animals (ζωοθυτοῦσι; omitting the iota/iota subscriptum). . . burning [them] completely”, i.e., the Jews burn the animals alive without killing them prior to burning. A mistaken addition (or omission) of iota or iota subscriptum by later scribes is a frequent occurrence, and in this case it should certainly not surprise us given the disappearance of Theophrastus’ manuscripts in the Hellenistic period, the evident spelling and grammatical corrections required in the passage (including the verb under discussion),7 and the preservation of the text later only in Porphyry and Eusebius’s works: Porphyry, who was versed in the Jewish scriptures , could well have been aware that the Jews had not burnt animals alive. The same applies even more to Eusebius’ version, and obviously to later Christian copyists. It should also be taken into account that probably by the time of Porphyry the two spelling variants became homophones.

Wyrick reacts as follows: “However punctuated in the later manuscript tradition, the word could not have been taken to refer so narrowly to a form of sacrifice involving live animal but not the sacrificial knife without more pointed elaboration. That Theophrastus, by saying ‘we would be repelled from the act’, means himself and his vegetarian followers and not all Greeks is also over-hastily dismissed” (para. 4).

I wonder why Theophrastus should have elaborated on the practice of sacrificing living animals. ζωοθυτοῦσι is a simple compound expression, and the custom was practiced in primitive, remote regions of Greece and in Asia Minor (not by civilized Greeks). Is not the description ὁλοκαυτοῦντες (burning [them] completely; 26.2) more than required? Do the compounds ζωοποιεῖν (reanimate), ζωγρεῖν (to take captives alive), or ζωόκαυστος (burnt alive), also require elaboration? The verb ζωοθυτοῦσι by itself, and in the sentence under discussion, imposes a difficulty only for modern readers who do not know that animals were usually sacrificed only after slaughter.

As far as the second argument is concerned, the reviewer seems to have read rather hastily the discussion. In addition to the detailed arguments in the book, I would note that the expression αὐτὸντρόπον (in the same way; para. 2) is by itself decisive. Theophrastus sharply deplores this practice calling it δεῖνος (terrible) and stating (26.1): εἰ τὸν αὐτὸν ἡμᾶς τρόπον τις κελεύοι θύειν, ἀποσταιήμεν ἂν τῆς πράξεως (“if someone were to command us to sacrifice in the same way, we would be repelled from the act”). As the successor of Aristotle, Theophrastus, who also wrote a monumental doxography which obviously required high precision, knew perfectly well how to express himself accurately. He does not merely say “if someone were to command us to sacrifice”, but adds the adverbial description “in the same way”. (para. 2). The anthropological introduction of Theophrastus' treatise explains that animal sacrifice must be rejected because of the evil in killing animals (Porphyry, esp. II.2.12.2-4; 24.2-5; 25); would Theophrastus and his fellow vegetarians — if ordered — have consented to sacrifice animals in another way? Was holocaust more cruel for the dead animal than feast sacrifice? The reference is therefore to Greeks by and large and to an extraordinary and cruel way of sacrifice detested by civilized Greeks. As holocaust sacrifices were normative and widely accepted in Greece (and Athens),8 what remains is to omit the iota subscriptum in ζῳοθυτοῦσι. The correction is necessary even if "us" refers to the vegetarians.

Wyrick’s methodological stand is roundly stated already at the beginning of the review: “The work over-utilizes source criticism as a means to resolve difficulties in each passages rather than making reasonable efforts to consider these difficulties as the result of attempts by ancient historians and ethnographers to reconcile their esteemed sources with new information” (para. 2; but is this not also source criticism?). This declarative statement, repeated, in one way or another, twice later in the review (paras. 9, 11), remains unsubstantiated, and the reviewer does not illustrate how the trick works in the specific cases to solve contradictions, duplications, anachronisms, and the like.

I hope that these comments on the statements and issues raised in the first five paragraphs of the review may help the reader in considering the validity of the rest of the review.

[For a response to this review by Christopher Pelling, please see BMCR 2011.07.11.]


1.   I fail to see the relevance of the subject to the discourse in which Diotima, a wise Boeotian woman whose wisdom had saved the Athenians from a plague, proved herself superior to Socrates—himself not a great success in heterosexual love —in understanding the characteristics of eros. How can it be compared to the claim that “Aristotle”—according to one of his ardent disciples — declared that the Jewish wisdom was superior to that of the Greeks (and himself)?
2.   For more arguments why εἶχεν cannot refer to Aristotle, see The Image of the Jews, pp. 50-51, and on p. 50 why it cannot be emended to ἔχομεν.
3.   On the word order in the sentence see ibid., p. 51, n. 39.
4.   For possibilities to understand the course of such an imaginary conversation, see ibid., p. 53 (cf. p. 43), and there also on the general message of the sentence.
5.   For further considerations, see ibid. pp. 49-53.
6.   See ibid., pp. 53-59, and pp. 59-80 on the meaning of karteria and sōphrosynē in the context, and the polemic-didactic purpose of Clearchus.
7.   The ending οῦσι is an amendment of Bernays. The Mss. of Porphyry read οῦντες, and of Eusebius ούντων. For other corrections by Bernays, Pötscher and others, see: ibid., pp. 23-4, nn. 22-32.
8.   See the survey, ibid p.26. ​

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010