Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.01.22
Thomas Kuhn, Die jüdisch-hellenistischen Epiker Theodot und Philon: literarische Untersuchungen, kritische Edition und Übersetzung der Fragmente. Vertumnus Bd 9. Göttingen: Edition Ruprecht, 2012. Pp. 91. ISBN 9783846900857. €22.90.
Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, Utrecht University (email@example.com)
This booklet is the printed version of the bachelor thesis of a young German student of classics at Göttingen University, which is a remarkable feat in itself; and it is a good book at that. It deals with the only two Judaeo-Greek authors who wrote epic poetry. To be sure, probably the greatest Jewish epic poet of the Hellenistic period we know of was Sosates, ‘the Jewish Homer,’ as he was called in antiquity, but unfortunately nothing of his work has been preserved.1 We only have the fragments of the epic poems of Theodotus and Philo (not the Alexandrian philosopher-exegete), both from the second century BCE, but these are very scanty: 47 and 23 hexametric lines respectively. They are extant solely as quotations from their work by Alexander Polyhistor in his Peri Ioudaiôn as preserved in Eusebius’ Praeparatio Evangelica and hence available in the excellent GCS edition of Eusebius by Karl Mras and also in the corrected, but not always better, edition by H. Lloyd-Jones and P. Parsons in their Supplementum Hellenisticum. Theodotus’ fragments deal with the city of Shechem and the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dina by its rulers, followed by the murder of these rapists by Jacob’s sons Levi and Simeon. Philo’s fragments are about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac and, curiously enough, the water systems of Jerusalem. We do not know the names of these works.
Kuhn presents an edition of the Greek text, his own but heavily leaning on the above-mentioned editions, accompanied by a critical apparatus (also based on Mras and SH), with a German translation on facing pages accompanied by some text-critical notes. Next follows a chapter in which Kuhn traces the Jewish sources of these authors: not only the Septuagint but also post-biblical Jewish writings containing developments (often embellishments) of the biblical stories. Then there is a chapter, the most original one of the book, in which Kuhn traces the Greek sources of these Jewish authors. He subdivides the material into three sections: ‘Lexik,’ ‘Syntax,’ ‘Motivik,’ and ‘Komposition.’ He comes to the conclusion that Theodotus more traditionally follows Homer in most of these respects, whereas Philo is more of an adept of Lycophron (who is similarly ‘neologismenfreudig’, 66) and his like, with the result that the ‘schwülstige Unverständlichkeit’ (thus Otto Stählin in 1920) of his epyllion has given rise to an alarming divergence in modern translations.2 Finally, there is a short chapter on the prosody of these poems, followed by a bibliography, an index locorum and a subject index.
Even though a number of studies of these two Jewish authors have been published in the last three decades, especially regarding the relationship with their Jewish sources, both biblical and post-biblical, the literary relationship between them and their Greek models has remained understudied. It is the merit of Kuhn that he has done exactly this. He situates these Jewish authors on the map of early Hellenistic poetry and shows how Jews who wanted to deal with biblical material in Greek poetical forms chose different paths (just as did their coreligionists Ezekiel the Tragedian and the didactic poet Pseudo-Phocylides in their own way), one more traditional, the other more modernist, not unlike the Hellenistic poetae docti. The results of this investigation are convincing and important in that they show us to what degree Hellenized Jews had acquainted themselveswith the intricacies of the Greek literary tradition.
I have only a few points of criticism. Kuhn too easily dismisses the possibility that Theodotus was not a Jewish but a Samaritan author. The city of Shechem was the religious center of the Samaritans. The fact that Theodotus presents the sons of Jacob as being proud of their murder of the pre-Israelite Shechemites because they acted on the instigation of God, may imply that he himself was an Israelite Shechemite, i.e., a Samaritan. A Jew would probably not be prone to writing a poem about the city of the archenemies of the Jews, the Samaritans. For the justification of the murder of the Shechemites (against the criticism of it in the Bible) Kuhn might also have referred to the treatise Joseph and Asenath and the rabbinical midrash Bereshit Rabba. Further, on the Aqedah (the sacrifice of Isaac) and on the etymology of names in early Judaism there is a considerable amount of literature that Kuhn does not mention. The Greek particle de is too often translated with ‘aber,’ even when it is not adversative, and at p. 21 deka is wrongly rendered by ‘twelve.’ In Philo’s fragment 682 (=2 ed. Holladay), line 2, spharagoio paraklidon athroisthentos is rendered by Kuhn as “als der Hals zur Seite zusammengedrängt worden war,” but by Holladay as “[when] a rustle at one side became stronger”.3 Here Kuhn remarks (28 n. 1) that if one takes spharagos to mean a kind of noise, it does not make sense in connection with athroisthentos, but I for one fail to see how taking it to mean ‘throat’ makes sense in combination with a verb whose basic sense is ‘to gather, to collect.’ But these are trifles, and I recommend this book to all those interested in the interface of Greek culture and ancient Judaism.
1. S.J.D. Cohen, ‘Sosates, the Jewish Homer,’ Harvard Theological Review 74 (1981) 391-396.
2. In my own Dutch translation of these poets I stated that almost every line of Philo’s poem lends itself to a great variety of translations, mostly because the highly obscure Greek often does not enable the translator to know what exactly the poet is talking about (Joods-hellenistische poëzie, Kampen: Kok, 1987, 55).
3. C.R. Holladay, Fragments from Hellenistic-Jewish Authors, Volume 2: Poets, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989, 237.