Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.05.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.05.08

Markus Mülke, Aristobulos in Alexandria. Jüdische Bibelexegese zwischen Griechen und Ägyptern unter Ptolemaios VI. Philometor. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, Band 126.   Berlin; Boston:  de Gruyter, 2018.  Pp. 660.  ISBN 9783110533231.  €119,95.  

Reviewed by John J. Collins, Yale University (

The Hellenistic Jewish author Aristobulus is known only from fragments preserved by Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius, which have been conveniently edited by Carl R. Holladay (Fragments from Hellenistic Jewish Authors. Volume III: Aristobulus, Atlanta: Scholars Press 1995). He is said to have dedicated his book to Ptolemy Philometor in the mid-second century BCE. If this is correct, he is a figure of some importance in the history of Judaism, since he was the earliest author to interpret the Law of Moses in the light of Greek philosophy, a century-and-a-half before Philo of Alexandria. The attribution has been questioned in the past, but was defended convincingly by Nikolaus Walter in his book Der Thoraausleger Aristobulos (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1964). Markus Mülke’s lightly revised 2016 Habilitationschrift from the Westfälischen Wilhelms-Universität Münster, surely the most extensive study of Aristobulus ever written, accepts the consensus established by Walter, and offers occasional incidental support for it. Its goal is to expand the discussion from the perspective of classical philology rather than that of Jewish studies, by putting important features of the work in a broader context. Despite the length of the book, it does not deal with all the fragments attributed to Aristobulus. It leaves aside Holladay’s Fragment 1, which paraphrases what Aristobulus has to say about the Passover; the quotation of an Orphic poem in Fragment 4, on the grounds that it does not belong to the work of Aristobulus; and the discussion of the holiness of the sabbath in Fragment 5, because it has been widely discussed elsewhere. Mülke follows the text of Eusebius rather than that of Clement.

The study is divided into nine chapters plus an introduction and conclusion (numbered 1 and 11). Chapter 2 is devoted to a citation from the Phainomena of Aratus, on the omnipresence of God. Aristobulus explicitly substitutes “God” for “Zeus,” on the grounds that this gives the true dianoia, or underlying intention, of the poet. Mülke distinguishes this procedure from the textual corrections of the Alexandrian grammarians, but traces its pedigree to Aristotelian philosophy, although it is also motivated by Jewish theology. It was not unusual for Hellenistic authors to introduce changes into quotations. Aristobulus was rather exceptional in doing it explicitly. Aristobulus also shows variation in his citation of biblical texts. Especially intriguing is a quotation of Exod, 3:20, where the term apostello corresponds to the Hebrew shalach rather than to the Septuagintal ekteinas (stretched forth). We cannot be sure, however, what biblical text Aristobulus had before him, although it was certainly in Greek rather than in Hebrew. An appendix to this chapter discusses Aristobulus’s use of questions and answers, which is exceptional insofar as he applies it to laws rather than poetry.

Chapter 3 considers the presuppositions implied in Aristobulus’s use of Greek literature. He presupposes broad familiarity with Greek literature on the part of his Jewish readers, but he also assumes that Greek authors were familiar with Moses. He presents Judaism as a philosophical school comparable to those of the Greeks. His citations of poetic authorities are in accordance with contemporary Greek philosophy. The claim of antiquity for one’s own tradition is another Hellenistic trope. Aristobulus is the first to claim that the great Greek authorities, from Homer to Plato, were indebted to Moses. Mülke denies that Aristobulus posits any form of natural theology, since the wisdom of the Greeks is derived from the revelation to Moses.

Chapter 4 considers the location of Aristobulus’s work between the Greeks and Egyptians. While he does not engage in explicit anti-Egyptian polemic, the implicit polemic is pervasive, in the claim of antiquity and in the insistence on the elevated nature of the God of the Jews. Mülke explains this polemic by the fact that Jews and Egyptians were rivals for Ptolemaic respect. This view nuances the supposed apologetic character of Aristobulus, and of other Jewish writings in Ptolemaic Egypt such as the Letter of Aristeas. Hellenistic Jewish literature was not written exclusively for Jews. It was also a bid for the respect of the Greeks.

Chapter 5 further nuances this apologetic stance in terms of Aristobulus’s approach to King Ptolemy. On the one hand, Aristobulus draws on Aristotelian philosophy to defend the use of anthropomorphic metaphors with reference to God. On the other hand, he acknowledges the kingship of Ptolemy and compares the use of metaphor for divine power with its use for royal power.

Chapter 6 discusses the understanding of the Law. The Greek translation of the Bible uses nomos for the Hebrew torah. This entails an emphasis on its character as law. Nonetheless, Aristobulus also presents it to the Hellenistic world as wisdom, comparable to the wisdom of the philosophical schools. Remarkably, he draws extensively on Greek poetry in his exposition. In Greek tradition, too, laws entailed reflections on the gods and on ethical behavior. Gods, especially Zeus, were the ultimate source and guarantors of laws. Greek philosophers and poets appreciated foreign wisdom, and were likely to appreciate it especially in matters of law. Aristobulus’ work was predicated on the assumption that Greek poets and philosophers had in fact learned from the Law of Moses. He claims explicitly in Fragment 3a that “Plato followed the tradition of the law that we use, and he is conspicuous for having worked through each of the details expressed in it.”

Chapter 7, “ The King and the Law,” takes up the question of the earliest Greek translations of the Torah. If Plato drew on the books of Moses, the latter must already have been available in Greek. Again, Aristobulus is explicit:

“and before Demetrius, before the dominion of Alexander and the Persians, others had translated accounts of the events surrounding the exodus from Egypt of the Hebrews, our countrymen, and the disclosure to them of all the things that had happened as well as their domination of the land, and the detailed account of the entire law” (Fragment 3a).

The material allegedly translated before the Hellenistic period, then, would have included the Pentateuch and the book of Joshua. Aristobulus assumes the story of the translation under Ptolemy II, which is familiar from the Letter of Aristeas. Mülke, following Walter, affirms that Aristobulus is prior to Aristeas, and that they drew on a common tradition about the translation of the Torah.

Chapter 8 touches on the complex relationship between authorship and inspiration. This relationship is also an issue in Greek tradition. The portrayal of Moses as a wise author who was also inspired would not, then, have appeared alien to Greek readers.

Chapter 9 discusses the sources on which Aristobulus drew for his allegorical method. The communis opinio of modern scholarship looks to the Stoics, who were his contemporaries. Mülke questions this consensus, and makes a case for influence from Aristotle’s theory of metaphor. The traditional characterization of Aristobulus as a peripatetikos, should not, however, be taken as evidence of membership in a philosophical school. Aristobulus regarded Judaism as itself a hairesis, or school. For Aristobulus, Moses originally gave rise to this method by speaking metaphorically of God. Homer did likewise. Greek critics interpreted Homer metaphorically, and now Aristobulus applied a similar method to Moses. Mülke goes on to consider the examples of metaphorical speech discussed by Aristobulus in more detail in Chapter 10.

The concluding chapter is not a summary, but offers some reflections on the significance of this study as a recovery of the importance of Aristobulus for the history of the Greek Bible and its interpretation. The precise nature of his use of Greek philosophy and its debt to his Alexandrian context deserve further investigation. The fact that this book was dedicated to a Ptolemy is important for the political status of the Jews in Egypt in the second century BCE. Also worthy of further exploration is the relation between the exegesis of Aristobulus and the implicit exegesis of the translators of the Septuagint. The exegete’s embrace of Greek poetry and philosophy shows that the impact of Hellenism on Judaism in the second century BCE goes far beyond the so-called Hellenistic Reform of Jason in Jerusalem. His ideas about the dependence of Greek poets and philosophers on Moses may not be historically grounded, but they provide an important window on the debates and speculation that were entertained in Alexandria, by Jews as well as Greeks.

The sheer length of this book probably means that it will be consulted primarily by the few scholars and students who take a specialized interest in Aristobulus. Its accessibility is not facilitated by the dense mode of documentation, which mostly consists of lists of authors and page references, with little indication of what the authors actually say. This is unfortunate, as the study has broader significance for the study of Hellenistic Judaism. Since the work of Victor Tcherikover in the middle of the twentieth century it has generally been accepted that so-called Jewish apologetic literature was primarily addressed to Jews rather than to Greeks. Mülke questions that assumption by taking seriously the dedication of Aristobulus’s work to Ptolemy Philometor. He shows at great length that Aristobulus was deeply familiar with Greek literature and methods of interpretation, and he can hardly have been an isolated figure among the Jews of Alexandria. He also shows how Aristobulus is at pains to make his argument in terms that a Greek would understand and respect. This is surely a form of apologetic literature, whether it was successful or not. Of course, Jews who were immersed in Hellenistic culture, as Aristobulus was, would also appreciate this sophisticated Hellenistic explanation of their tradition. The book may have found its primary readership among Jews. But the attempted outreach is still significant. Mülke rightly emphasizes that the outreach does not compromise Jewish identity. It is not a matter of assimilation, but of attempted dialogue.

In light of Mülke’s own sophisticated discussion of inspiration and authorship, his dismissal of “natural theology” appears too facile. His point is that the wisdom and insights of the Greek authorities were thought to be derivative and actually depend on Moses. But even in the case of Moses, there is an interplay between divine inspiration and human creativity. His writings are among the cultural resources available to the Greeks, and they can still arrive at a knowledge of the truth by studious investigation. The theological implications of this understanding of revelation and human knowledge require a more nuanced investigation.

This is an important contribution to the study of Hellenistic Judaism and to the history of biblical interpretation.

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