Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.04.59

René Bloch, Moses und der Mythos: die Auseinandersetzung mit der griechischen Mythologie bei jüdisch-hellenistischen Autoren. Supplements to the Journal for the study of Judaism, 145.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2011.  Pp. x, 298.  ISBN 9789004165014.  $153.00.  

Reviewed by Gábor Buzási, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest (


This volume, based on the author’s Habilitationsschrift in Jewish Studies and Classics at the University of Basel (2008), contains studies on various aspects of mythology in Hellenistic Jewish literature. Its primary focus is an author, Flavius Josephus (most chapters deal with him or are written with a view to him) and a key problem, namely the reception of Greek mythology by Josephus and other Hellenistic writers. The book shows all the strengths of a philologist’s approach: it consists of careful readings of the source material and thorough inquiries into their context and background. Thus the volume is not only worth reading for those interested in its specific field but also for anyone who needs a good introduction to the literature and intellectual milieu of Hellenistic Judaism.

In the Introduction (pp. 1-15), the author reflects on the term ‘myth’ (pp. 5-8), both its meaning and its use in antiquity (an authoritative narrative or, alternatively, something invented and fabricated), and on its modern definitions (‘ideology in narrative form’ or, more restrictively, narratives presupposing a polytheistic system). The author stresses that he does not aim to engage in theoretical discussion of the term but wishes to examine the reception of Greek myth in Hellenistic Judaism. The outline of previous research (pp. 8-13) concentrates on three areas: Greek mythology in Hellenistic Judaism (hitherto only partially examined1); the relation between Judaism and Hellenism (the author sides with those arguing for an essentially Hellenistic character of Early Judaism, to some extent including Palestinian Judaism); and the attitude of Jews to their own myths.

Chapter One (pp. 17-49) consists of close readings of two passages by Josephus, in which the historian denounces Greek mythology, once even calling it ἀσχήμων, ‘shameful’ (hence the title of the chapter 'Schändliche Mythologie': Flavius Josephus’ Verurteilungen des Mythos’). After a short general introduction to Josephus’ life and works (pp. 17- 23, introducing in a sense the entire book), we have two different sections containing the source texts, their translations and analyses. The first one (analyzing Jewish Antiquities, 1.15-16, 21-23, pp. 23-30) highlights, through a parallel in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the similarly negative attitude to myth in the Jewish and the Roman tradition (accompanied by a comparison with Philo’s introduction to his On the Creation). The second one (pp. 30-49) delineates the Greek philosophical background of Against Apion 2.236-256 and points out how, in his defense of Judaism, Josephus used the authority of Greek philosophers, especially Plato, to support his own criticism of Greek mythology.

Chapter Two (‘Mythenloses Römertum, Mythenloses Judentum’, pp. 51-70) elaborates the parallel between the Roman and Jewish attitude to myth in a historical perspective and resumes the theoretical discussion of myth opened in the Introduction. Focusing on the Romans first (pp. 51-54), the author shows how an ancient scholarly prejudice, based on a Hellenocentric definition of myth and the ensuing claim that the Romans had no mythology, has been replaced more recently by a more inclusive definition (F. Graf). The discussion of Jewish myth (pp. 55-70) follows a similar pattern. The allegation that Judaism does not have myths is traced back to the Hellenistic Jewish authors themselves (who, the author emphasizes, are in this respect part of a Pagan tradition). In the 18th and 19th centuries this claim got an anti-Jewish overtone in that it denied that the Jews were capable of having their own mythology; this prompted a reaction on the part of Jewish scholars (I. Goldziher), giving birth to modern research on Jewish mythology. In the contemporary debate Bloch takes sides with those who hold that many narratives in the Jewish tradition fall into the category of mythology (M. Fishbane) against those who deny this on the ground that it is incompatible with Jewish monotheism and aniconism.

Chapter Three (‘Griechische Mythologie in Palästina und Rom zur Zeit des Flavius Josephus’, pp. 71-87) gives a survey of the (potential) sources of Josephus’ information on Greek mythology in the two major locations of his life. In Palestine (pp. 71-84) he may have had access to Greek myths through three channels: the language (Greek playing a major role in Jewish Palestine), the poems of Homer (the Rabbis’ general acquaintance with Homer and Greek mythology is also discussed), and art (vases and mosaics - motifs on the latter well into Late Antiquity are surveyed). Josephus’ access and attitude to myth in Rome (pp. 84-87) is inferred from his ekphrastic descriptions of pieces of art, the presence of Greek myth in the intellectual milieu of Josephus’ Rome, and from his knowledge of Greek and Roman literature.

Chapter Four (‘Das Wortfeld ΜΥΘΟΣ bei Flavius Josephus’, pp. 89-103) is a philological analysis of the word μῦθος and its derivatives (μυθεύω, μυθολογέω, μυθολογία) in Josephus. Not only do we find here the whole semantic spectrum of these terms (‘word’, ‘narrative’, ‘story’ in a neutral sense; ‘(Greek) myth’ in a specific sense, whether polemically or not; and ‘rumors’ or ‘legendary tales’ in a pejorative sense), but we can also read careful analyses of the passages in which these terms occur.

Chapter Five (‘Die Moses-Geschichte bei Flavius Josephus: Ein Beispiel antik-mediterraner Heroenliteratur’, pp. 105- 120), partly based on the author’s previously published research, discusses Josephus’ account of the life of Moses in Jewish Antiquities, focusing on four episodes: the announcement of his birth, his exposure and youth, his love affair with the Ethiopian princess Tharbis, and his disappearance or assumption at his death. The central question is whether Josephus’ expansions on the Biblical narrative follow Pagan examples or can be explained from the Jewish tradition as well. The author argues for the latter and comes to the conclusion that both the Pagan and the Jewish versions of the popular hero narrative grew from a common ancient Mediterranean milieu. This is plausible despite the difficulty presented by the generally-accepted later date of most Rabbinic documents used here as evidence.

Chapter Six undertakes a systematic presentation of the encounter with Greek mythology in Hellenistic Jewish texts/authors other than Josephus (‘Der griechische Mythos bei jüdisch-hellenistischen Autoren ausser Josephus’, pp. 121-189). This ‘representative selection’ (p. 3) includes the Septuagint, Hellenistic Jewish Pseudepigrapha (the Ps-Orphic fragments, Ps-Eupolemus, Ps-Aristeas, the Sibylline Oracles, Ps-Phocylides) and individual authors (Artapanus the historian, Ezechiel the tragedian, Aristobulus the philosopher, the epic poets Philo and Theodotus, and Philo of Alexandria). Together with the parallel chapter on Josephus (Ch. 7), this is the fullest discussion of the volume’s central question. Each of the twelve units has an appropriate introduction, each of them is richly documented, and most of them are brought into relation with Josephus in a concluding section. Although every textual corpus has a different character (one is an authoritative translation of the Hebrew Bible, others were purportedly composed by well known Greek authors, yet others explicitly imitate Greek literary genres, and one of them, Philo of Alexandria, is no less amply documented than Josephus himself) there are certain considerations which are here commonly applied in studying them, such as the presence of mythical names or the terms for mythology (cf. Ch. 4). Particularly interesting is the discussion of Artapanus (pp. 134-141), Ezechiel (pp. 141-149) and the Oracula Sibyllina (pp. 159-165) while the section on Philo (pp. 173-189), although discussing several relevant passages of the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher, admittedly remained incomplete (cf. pp. 173-4, n. 369).

Chapter Seven (‘Griechische Mythen bei Flavius Josephus’, pp. 191-229) applies the method of the previous chapter on Josephus, the main source of the volume. We are offered a careful analysis of mythic elements in Josephus’ account of the creation of Adam and Eve, the Paradise, the Flood, Sodom and Sinai, as well as of his references to Oceanus, the Giants or Andromeda. The lapidary but curious mention of a kinship between Abraham and Heracles (!) in the otherwise unknown historian Cleodemus Malchas (quoted by Josephus) is interpreted as a telling example of the efforts to integrate Judaism into Hellenistic reality by way of Greek mythology (pp. 215-9). The last part of this chapter is devoted to the influence of Greek tragedy in Josephus (pp. 219-23) as well as to the role of theatres in Palestine and Rome in Josephus’ day (pp. 223-9).

Chapter Eight (‘Grenzen der Apologetik: Zusammenfassende Schlussbetrachtungen’, pp. 231-242) is made up of two parts: a critical reflection on the ‘apologetic’ character of Josephus’ writings (pp. 231-238), and concluding remarks on the central argument of the volume as a whole (pp. 238-242). In the first part the author claims, through analyses of Josephus’ treatment of charges against Judaism (such as misanthropy and the contempt of the gods) and of controversial passages (like the miracle at the Red Sea) that it is only to a certain extent that Josephus wishes to defend Judaism against external accusations – for he is no less ready to confront his enemies by restating his controversial points. The second part with the general conclusions will be discussed below.

The volume contains an Appendix (‘Pagan-theophore und “mythophore” Namen in den jüdischen Katakomben Roms’, pp. 243-253) with a list of twenty names in already published inscriptions from Jewish catacombs in the city of Rome. The author suggests that these theophoric names (derived from names such as Aphrodite, Apollo, Asclepius, Dionysus, Hermes, Zeus and the Muses), or names carrying other mythic references (e.g. Daphne, Helene, Jason) imply more than merely the power of fashion; they are more probably the expressions of an attempt at integration.

There is an excellent Bibliography at the end of the volume (pp. 255-282); the only minor deficiency here is, occasionally, the lack of indication in the footnotes as to whether a particular reference is made to an individual study (‘Einzelstudien’, pp. 260-282) or to one of the editions/commentaries (pp. 256-260) – both are indicated by name and publication year only.

Finally, there is an Index locorum (pp. 283-298), well reflecting the emphases of the volume. Those interested in the interpretation of the individual texts cited will greatly benefit from this index. However, an index of names and subjects is badly needed: it would have made it easier to find topics dispersed in the volume (cf. the Giants discussed on pp. 122-124, 132-134, 164-65, 180 and 204-214); moreover, it could have given the volume a more unified character.

From the general perspective of the book (cf. the conclusions on pp. 238-242), Hellenistic Judaism, comparable to Judaism in the Italian Renaissance (cf. pp. 119-120), was an integral part of the cosmopolitan cultural climate surrounding it. Greek mythology was an essential part of this common Hellenistic-Mediterranean milieu, and Hellenistic Jewish authors could not, and probably did not even want to, ignore this fact. When some of them were critical of mythology, their attitude was either that of the learned Hellenistic intellectual or it was provoked by a polemical situation. And when it came to Jewish myth, Jewish authors were normally less critical than their Pagan colleagues were with their own myths.

Perhaps more reflection on these overarching questions would have made the volume easier reading; its argument could also have been made more unified and explicit. In my view, what makes this book really impressive and significant are its excellent case studies and accurate source analyses; it also gives a highly reliable and up to date survey of research on Hellenistic Judaism in its Greco-Roman context. Those interested in Jewish-Pagan relations in Hellenism, or, more generally, in Hellenistic Jewish literature and intellectual history, will certainly benefit from reading René Bloch’s Moses und der Mythos.


1.   Cf. recently F. Siegert, “Griechische Mythen im hellenistischen Judentum”, in: R. von Haehling (ed.), Griechische Mythologie und frühes Christentum. Die antiken Götter und der eine Gott, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2005, pp. 132-152.

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