Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.09.19 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.09.19

Sara Raup Johnson, Rubén R.​ Dupertuis, Christine Shea (ed.), Reading and Teaching Ancient Fiction: Jewish, Christian, and Greco-Roman Narratives. Writings from the Greco-Roman World Supplements, 11.   Atlanta, GA:  SBL Press, 2018.  Pp. xv, 320.  ISBN 9781628371963.  $55.95 (hb); $40.95 (pb).  


Reviewed by Laura Quick, Princeton University (lquick@princeton.edu)

Preview
[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This book is the third volume of research derived from papers presented in the Ancient Fiction and Early Christian and Jewish Narrative section of the Society of Biblical Literature.1 As well as providing insights into the latest scholarly developments in ancient Mediterranean narrative including both classical authors as well as canonical and noncanonical Jewish and Christian texts, the volume also explores the use of ancient texts to encourage students to examine their assumptions about gender and sexuality, or to view familiar texts from a new perspective. As such, several of the contributions are explicitly pedagogical in orientation.

After a brief “Introduction” by Richard I. Pervo that summarizes the main findings of the various contributions, the volume opens in Part One by focusing on early Christian narratives. The first two essays focus on same-sex relationships. In “Desiring Women: Xanthippe, Polyxena, Rebecca,” Virginia Burrus considers the Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena, preserved in an eleventh-century Greek manuscript but usually dated somewhere between the fourth and sixth centuries. Burrus argues that, uniquely, the plot of the Acts pivots on an all-female romantic triangle. But in contrast to previous studies, Burrus does not agree that this female homoeroticism is policed and condemned, but rather in its depiction of the separation, trial, and reunion of its female characters, the Acts is borrowing from the genre of romance. Christy Cobb continues this focus on romance, considering the theme of lovesickness from the perspective of relations between men in the Acts of Andrew and Leucippe and Clitophon, also utilizing pertinent perspectives from ancient medical thought on the topic. In this case, the motif of lovesickness is utilized to portray an erotic connection between two male characters, the apostle of Andrew and his disciple Stratocles, illuminating the complexities of the apostle/follower relationship.

In “Trophy Wives of Christ: Tropes of Seduction and Conquest in the Apocryphal Acts,” John W. Marshall considers narratives in which female characters embrace chastity in response to apostolic preaching. In these narratives, the woman’s sexual activity “is a ground of contest between the apostle of Jesus and the non-Christian man” (p. 43), namely the woman’s husband or fiancé. Thus while some scholars have emphasized the liberating potential of these stories for women in antiquity, ultimately they derive from a context in which the possession of and sexual access to a woman was “a good over which men contend” (p. 45).

“Unsettling Heroes: Reading Identity Politics in Mark’s Gospel and Ancient Fiction” by Scott S. Elliott and Eric Thurman considers identity construction in Mark’s Gospel, specifically by looking at Mark’s characterization of Jesus. They argue that Jesus is couched here as a national hero and counterpart to rebel messianic pretenders. The final essay of Part One, “Narrative Pathology or Strategy for Making Present and Authorization? Metalepsis in the Gospels,” utilizes Gérard Genette’s concept of metalepsis—instances in which the author or narrator intervenes in a narrative, resulting in the blending of narrative voices—as a heuristic tool to examine the Gospel of Mark, Luke-Acts, and the Gospel of John. In so doing, Ute E. Eisen provides an interesting alternative to puzzling textual phenomena beyond the typical source-critical paradigm.

Part Two moves to consider Jewish, Greek, Roman and “other” ancient fictions. The portrayal of the power of writing and, related to this, the link between literacy and power is explored in Donald C. Polaski’s “‘And Also to the Jews in Their Script’: Power and Writing in the Scroll of Esther.” Employing Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of carnival, Polaski explores the dichotomy that writing is assumed to have a great deal of power in the book of Esther, and yet is frequently subverted by parody and reversal. In “History Told by Losers: Dictys and Dares on the Trojan War,” Richard I. Pervo considers ancient descriptions of the fall of Troy, asking whether the ancient authors or implied readers considered these accounts to be historically reliable, something that is picked up by Shelly Matthews in Part Three. Ultimately, Pervo concludes that such authorial intentions and their correlated outcomes are not reconstructable, and will not produce substantial advances in the study of ancient literature.

The six first-person narratives relating to Joseph’s sale into slavery are the focus of Brian O. Sigmon’s contribution, “According to the Brothers: First-Person Narration in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.” Comparing the Testaments of Simeon, Zebulun, Dan, Gad, Joseph, and Benjamin, Sigmon argues that first-person narration creates an “intimate and personally focussed” perspective on the story (p. 152), allowing the author to develop the characterization of the narrator of the story in a developed and significant way. James M. Petitfils’s essay is also comparative, contrasting the characterization of Moses in Philo’s On the Life of Moses and Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities 2-4. Drawing these portrayals into dialogue with the Roman discourse of exemplarity, “A Tale of Two Moseses” shows the differing ways in which the authors depict Moses as king: in Josephus, drawing on the celebration of ideal Roman leadership celebrated in the discourse of exemplarity, Moses is a proper Roman general. Philo, on the other hand, presents Moses as an ideal philosopher-king in the guise of Plato.

Jared W. Ludlow’s “Are Weeping and Falling Down Funny? Exaggeration in Ancient Novelistic Texts” looks at instances of hyperbolic weeping, crying out, and falling down in Tobit, Judith, and the Testament of Abraham. As Pervo points out in his “Introduction,” while Tobit and the Testament of Abraham are frequently “read for laughs,” Judith is not typically considered to be comic (p. 4). By drawing attention to the role of exaggeration in comedy, Ludlow is able to draw out the comedic elements in these ancient texts, “even in customarily serious moments such as weeping and falling down in grief” (p. 175). The final essay of Part Two, “Grotesque and Strange Tales of the Beyond: Truth, Fiction, and Social Discourse,” borrows observations from studies into New Religious Movements such as Scientology, that fiction, science fiction and fantasy literature have a serious role in the creation of new mythologies. Gerhard van den Heever reminds us that Christianity, after all, was once a new religious movement, and so proposes to examine ancient fiction in the context of the reordering of the contemporary religious world.

The final part is entitled “Pedagogies Ancient and Modern.” Ilaria Ramelli opens this section with a focus on two ancient pedagogues, “Origen and Hypatia: Parallel Portraits of Platonist Educators.” Although Origen was a Christian and Hypatia was a pagan, Socrates of Constantinople constructed his biographical accounts of these two figures in parallel. As a supporter of “serious, free intellectual research” (p. 211), Socrates revered both figures.

The final contributions move from the ancient world to the modern classroom. “Teaching Fiction, Teaching Acts: Introducing the Linguistic Turn in the Biblical Studies Classroom” suggests that ancient fiction may be used to counter “a resurgence of religious fundamentalism” (p. 213) which promotes positivistic reading strategies of ancient texts deemed to be sacred. Shelly Matthews focuses on Acts in particular, sharing a pedagogical exercise in which parallels between the canonical text with the genre of the ancient novel may be utilized to problematize student assumptions about the historicity of such writings. Moving beyond the canonical frame, in “Signature Pedagogies for Ancient Fiction? Thecla as a Test Case” B. Diane Lipsett suggests that the various theories about the composition and structure of the Acts of Paul may be utilized as a means to engage students in the practice of criticism itself.

Textual criticism is the subject of Dennis R. MacDonald’s “Teaching Mimesis as a Criterion for Textual Criticism: Cases from the Testament of Abraham and the Gospel of Nicodemus.” MacDonald makes the case for utilizing literary imitation in consideration of the compositional process, by looking at imitation of Plato’s Myth of Er from the end of the Republic in the Testament of Abraham and the Gospel of Nicodemus. The Testament of Abraham survives in two recensions, only the longer of which, recension A, contains imitation of Socrates’ myth. The earlier recension A of the Gospel of Nicodemus lacks such allusions, which “never existed before the composition of recension M” (p. 245). MacDonald concludes that “[a]ncient rhetoricians considered mimesis as essential part of philology and literary criticism. It is a pity that it often plays such a modest role among modern critics” (p. 250). MacDonald’s practical demonstration of the importance of mimesis in reconstructing the text of ancient works of literature aptly proves this point.

David Konstan’s “A New Subjectivity? Teaching Ἔρως through the Greek Novel and Early Christian Texts” closes the volume. He argues that the ancient novels represent a new inflection of the self in the first centuries of the common era, a perspective that comes to the fore most strikingly when early Jewish and Christian literature is read alongside the five ancient Greek novels. This chapter therefore provides an apt close to the volume, demonstrating the vitality and value of the entire Ancient Fiction and Early Christian and Jewish Narrative project.

While the texts and topics treated are necessarily diverse, there will be much of interest here to students and scholars of Hellenistic and Roman literature. The joint goal of the project, both pedagogical as well as research-oriented, is an interesting take on the edited volume, making an important contribution to both the classroom and to our understanding of the various ancient texts under discussion. Indeed, many of the contributions reveal unexpected features in the various narratives, demonstrating the cogency of reading Jewish, Christian, and Greco-Roman literature in dialogue. This will hopefully not be the last volume produced by the Ancient Fiction and Early Christian and Jewish Narrative section.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Richard I. Pervo 1
PART I: Early Christian Narratives 7
1. Desiring Women: Xanthippe, Polyxena, Rebecca, Virginia Burrus 9
2. Madly in Love: The Motif of Lovesickness in the Acts of Andrew, Christy Cobb 29
3. Trophy Wives of Christ: Tropes of Seduction and Conquest in the Apocryphal Acts, John W. Marshall 43
4. Unsettling Heroes: Reading Identity Politics in Mark’s Gospel and Ancient Fiction, Scott S. Elliott and Eric Thurman 71
5. Narrative Pathology or Strategy for Making Present and Authorization? Metalepsis in the Gospels, Ute E. Eisen, Translated by Sara R. Johnson 87
PART II: Jews, Greeks, Romans, and Others 105
6. “And Also to the Jews in Their Script”: Power and Writing in the Scroll of Esther, Donald C. Polaski 107
7. History Told by Losers: Dictys and Dares on the Trojan War, Richard I. Pervo 123
8. According to the Brothers: First-Person Narration in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Brian O. Sigmon 137
9. A Tale of Two Moseses: Philo’s On the Life of Moses and Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities 2-4 in Light of the Roman Discourse of Exemplarity, James M. Petitfils 153
10. Are Weeping and Falling Down Funny? Exaggeration in Ancient Novelistic Texts, Jared W. Ludlow 165
11. Grotesque and Strange Tales of the Beyond: Truth, Fiction, and Social Discourse, Gerhard van den Heever 179
PART III: Pedagogies Ancient and Modern 197
12. Origen and Hypatia: Parallel Portraits of Platonist Educators, Ilaria Ramelli 199
13. Teaching Fiction, Teaching Acts: Introducing the Linguistic Turn in the Biblical Studies Classroom, Shelly Matthews 213
14. Signature Pedagogies for Ancient Fiction? Thecla as a Test Case, B. Diane Lipsett 233
15. Teaching Mimesis as a Criterion for Textual Criticism: Cases from the Testament of Abraham and the Gospel of Nicodemus, Dennis R. MacDonald 241
16. A New Subjectivity? Teaching ⁄ Ἔρως through the Greek Novel and Early Christian Texts, David Konstan 251

Notes:


1.   The two earlier collections have been published as Ronald F. Hock, J. Bradley Chance, Judith Perkins (ed.), Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative (SBL Symposium, 6; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998); and Jo-Ann A. Brant, Charles W. Hedrick, Chris Shea (ed.), Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative (SBL Symposium, 32; Atlanta: SBL Press, 2005).

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