Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.11.44 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.11.44

Françoise Mirguet, An Early History of Compassion: Emotion and Imagination in Hellenistic Judaism.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2017.  Pp. viii, 271.  ISBN 9781107146266.  $99.99.  

Reviewed by Andrew R. Krause, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster (


Françoise Mirguet’s An Early History of Compassion: Emotion and Imagination in Hellenistic Judaism charts the development of literary articulations of pity and compassion in Hellenistic Judaism using a number of distinct, though interrelated, theories and methods for the analysis of emotion in literary texts. Mirguet seeks to offer “a literary inquiry into how Judeo-Hellenistic authors describe, prescribe, and imagine emotional responses to others’ pain” (pg. 2). For Mirguet, pity and compassion are the “discourse of the other” and they negotiate and shape the self’s encounter with others; these emotions train the self to encounter the other. This become immediately complicated, however, as the Jewish particularity of the texts presents an unstable self, which is at once male and elite, yet feminized, politically marginal, and subservient to the will of surrounding cultures and empires.

The author begins her discussion with Zebulun’s exhortation to his children to show pity and compassion to all, which is said to encompass the Torah as a whole (T.Zev 5.1). Hellenistic Jews “made the emotion [of compassion] a trademark of their own tradition” (pg. 5), though in a way similar to the Greeks and Romans. Mirguet specifically tracks pity and compassion together, as they occur in the sociopolitical context of Second Temple and Late Antique Judaism. The author thus sets out the history of emotions—which presupposes emotions to be social constructs—as the theoretical framework of this study, establishing the work of David Konstan as the paragon of this method.1 She does, however, question the method’s ability to offer a true history, asking whether it is merely the representation of emotions that are social constructs. On the former issue, she concludes that emotional practises are indeed historically traceable through both their linguistic and embodied representations.

In chapter 1, “Between Power and Vulnerability,” Mirguet opens with an overview of some Greek vocabulary related to emotion, which speaks to the relationship between power and vulnerability. She claims that compassion serves to “other” the subject from the sufferer and indicate the subject’s privilege, on the one hand, and to validate the suffering and force the subject to face this pain, on the other. She compares this with Graeco-Roman literature in which pity is a conflicting emotion, as it is both respected as a virtue, while conversely spoken of as an untrustworthy emotion. Sympathy thus speaks to the relationship between different subjects/objects, affection between related individuals, and pain at the suffering of others. For example, Flavius Josephus rewrites the Jewish scriptures in such a way as to provide the individual character with a choice of whether or not to show pity and acknowledge their privilege. In so doing, he attempts to elicit an emotional response from his reader through his use of the tragic. Pity can express moral superiority over enemies, though also a morally healthy ruler; in both cases it is the prerogative of the more powerful actor/group to show pity. In the writings of Philo of Alexandria, the Stoic rejection of pity and compassion (as untrustworthy emotions) is prevalent, though God is also shown to have pity at times. If it is controlled by reason, pity is a tool to be used for good and, as in Josephus, is an indicator of moral superiority. Misused, it is the cause of injustice, personal pain, and weakness. Pity and compassion therefore offer an interface between power and vulnerability in Hellenistic Judaism. These are thus treated as two sides of the same coin, or modalities of the same dynamic.

In chapter 2, “Found in Translation,” Mirguet analyzes Greek translation and paraphrasing of texts from the Hebrew Bible in order to track significant changes in attitudes regarding the articulation of pity and compassion. According to Mirguet, the Hebrew Bible never explicitly states the emotional response of the individuals to the suffering of others. Biblical Hebrew has no “meta- descriptions” of emotion, though some terms are translated into English as emotive. This translation occurred in ancient reception into Greek, which did have such terms and a tradition of verbalizing such emotions. This articulation led to significant changes at the lexical and phrasal levels. Pity and compassion as they appear in Greek translations and paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible are two key examples of such emotionalizing translation. As such, both the deity and various humans are presented as offering pity, thus offering greater insights into power dynamics.

Chapter 3, “Within the Fabric of Society,” argues that the use of pity in a society allows a construction of the self that acknowledges social hierarchies and inequalities, though it may also embrace the imbalance. Pity presupposes power on the part of the subject and sometimes a fear of contamination in proximity to those pitied, which might include sympathy, aid, or alms/donations. In Sirach, acts of pity or aid secure or improve one’s standing in the community, which exists in a fixed social system. Pity can be spoken of as a “social asset” despite the tension between solidarity and reciprocity. Conversely, Tobit and the Testament of Job are foundation myths of pity, in which acts of pity may invert the system, with potential either to promote or to destabilize hierarchies. Tobit is both provider and recipient of pity, as his good deeds bring about suffering. In both cases, a level of femininity results, largely from the suffering. Ultimately, pity and self-pity acknowledge vulnerability and question the ability of the sufferer to persevere, and as such degrade the masculinity of the sufferer. Care is also a feminine task, which complicates the feeling of sympathy or pity by the one reacting to suffering. Pity encapsulates the inversion of roles, as the one feeling pity loses control and higher status.

In chapter 4, “Bonds in Flux,” Mirguet argues that communities are socially constructed and ever-changing in their self-definition. For example, the book of Tobit shows pity to be a familial and national expectation, even though it creates a tension between ethnic and familial groupings. Tobit’s call for Tobias to open their familial table to all Israelites as if they were kin (1:3) typifies this tension. His family suffers for the pity that he shows his ethnic community in Nineveh. Ultimately, this extension of community is upheld as valid within the book. Other texts, though, treat pity as both a mark of ethnic belonging and a mark of pan-human belonging. For example, in the Letter of Aristeas, King Ptolemy argues that pity is a proof of proper humanity, but that the Jews specifically typify this humane virtue, which ultimately shows Jews to be ideal citizens in the larger Greek world. Likewise, Philo of Alexandria’s presentation of the Mosaic Law as rooted in creation and thus Natural Law holds as a key precept that the pity and social justice found therein apply to all humans equally, though are best presented in this Jewish Natural Law which emanates from the Creator himself. Finally, in chapter 5, “In Dialogue with Empire,” Mirguet expands the discussion in order to contextualize these stories within various imperial literatures. Much of this literature takes a Stoic viewpoint, which disparages pity as an untrustworthy emotion; e.g., Polybius argues that pity should be followed by reproach, as suffering is often the result of the others’ thoughtlessness; or Cicero who sees pity as “a sickness of the mind.” Others, such as Marcus Aurelius, temper their Stoicism with directives to care for all others and demonstrate affection in one’s daily interactions. Both Jewish and imperial literatures stress self-care, with care for others extending from this principle. They also each imagine a kinship of all humanity as an ideal. Despite the Jewish assimilation of Stoic and other imperial discourses, it is not without adaptation and hybridization, especially regarding the imperial virtue of care (cura), which is adapted to form an emotional response of compassion.

Unlike many other disciplines and subdisciplines, pre-rabbinic Judaism has only recently delved into studies of emotion, though this has been compensated for through a flurry of recent activity. The two Experientia volumes that arose from the Society of Biblical Literature annual meetings were a watershed for many biblical and biblical-adjacent fields of study in terms of religious experience, especially that of emotional and cognitive theories.2 More recently, individual studies from scholars such as Colleen Shantz3 and Angela Kim Harkins4 have stressed various emotions and their articulation in various Second Temple Jewish texts, especially within the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Pseudepigrapha, and the New Testament. Emotion recently occasioned an entire edited volume devoted to the study of ancient Jewish prayers.5 Thus, the stage has been set for more specific studies such as Mirguet’s focus on specific emotions and in a specific corpus such as Jewish writings in Greek.

Unfortunately, a serious issue arises in this perceived corpus. Mirguet defines Hellenistic Jews as Greek-speaking Jews from ca. 300 BCE to 200 CE. A global qualifier at the beginning (pg. 1 n. 2) recognizes the issue that all Jews from this period were Hellenized and that this has problematized the use of the term “Hellenistic Judaism” as a distinct literary corpus or cultural entity. 6 However, this note does little beyond drawing attention to the issue as it unfolds through the rest of the argument. While the use of Greek writing does indeed offer a useful contrast to the use of the same terminology in Greek or Roman literature written in Greek, the use of this antiquated notion is at times obfuscating. For example, setting texts such as the later, Septuagintal versions of Sirach and Tobit within this corpus ignores that they were only later translated into Greek. While this is acknowledged in the first instances of the study, this sufficiently problematizes their usage as culturally or literarily proximate texts. Tobit is especially problematic given the growing scholarly consensus that it fits best within Jewish texts written in Aramaic from final three centuries BCE, as argued by George Nickelsburg7 and more recently by Daniel Machiela and Andrew Perrin.8 Furthermore, omitting discussion of such Semitic texts impoverishes the study, as it fails to cultivate the fertile ground of Hebrew and Aramaic texts such as the Hodayot or the Genesis Apocryphon in the study of pity and compassion during this period.

However, this issue of literary cohesion should not detract from the strength of this study in terms of theoretical and literary acumen. Mirguet succinctly and elegantly uses a variety of theories to elicit credible new readings. Unlike many who either ignore the use of psychological or neuroscientific theories and their relevance for literary readings, or those who fail to use these theories judiciously, Mirguet displays mastery of both the texts and theories she has chosen. This work is an important next step in the evolution of embodiment-related studies in ancient Judaism, which should be read by anyone interested in the application of theories of emotion and in the articulation of the outworking of power imbalances during this period.


1.   D. Konstan, Emotions of the Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature (Toronto, 2006).
2.   F. Flannery, C. Shantz, and R. A. Werline, (eds.), Experientia, Volume 1: Inquiry into Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Christianity (Atlanta, 2008); eadem, Experientia, Volume 2: Linking Text and Experience (Atlanta, 2012).
3.   C. Shantz, Paul in Ecstasy: The Neurobiology of the Apostle’s Life and Thought, (Cambridge, 2008).
4.   A. K. Harkins, “The Performative Reading of the Hodayot: The Arousal of Emotions and the Exegetical Generation of Texts,” JSP 21 (2011): 55–71.
5.   S. Reif and R. Egger-Wenzel (eds.), Ancient Jewish Prayer and Emotions (Berlin, 2015).
6.   Most notably, see J. M. G. Barclay, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora (Berkeley, 1996).
7.   G. W. E. Nickelsburg, “Tobit and Enoch: Distant Cousins with a Recognizable Resemblance,” in David Lull (ed.) SBL 1988 Seminar Papers (Atlanta, 1988), 54–68.
8.   D. A. Machiela and A. B. Perrin. "Tobit and the Genesis Apocryphon: Toward a Family Portrait," JBL 133.1 (2014): 111–32.

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