BMCR 1994.05.06

1994.05.06, Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World

, Jew and Gentile in the ancient world : attitudes and interactions from Alexander to Justinian. Princeton:: Princeton University Press, 1993. 1 online resource (xii, 679 pages). ISBN 9781400811564. $59.50.

Over the past three decades Professor Louis H. Feldman has written extensively and with great erudition on the Jew in the Greco-Roman world. He has now assembled his major articles listed in the Preface xi-xii in this impressive volume. They deal with the influence of Hellenism in Palestine and in the Diaspora, the contact between Jews and Gentiles, the attitudes of the Gentile world toward Jews and the involvement of the Jews in proselytism. He notes that “most of them have been altered very substantially,” but unfortunately he has not indicated in the body of the text or in the notes the nature of these alterations, which would have been helpful for the reader. Likewise there is no indication of any change of mind on the part of the author as to his earlier conclusions. Since the work draws upon his many articles there is much repetition of material, which is unfortunate. The volume contains 11 chapters together with a concluding section and it is well indexed and well annotated.

Feldman’s use of the sources shows that he is a master of Greek and Latin literature, the Bible and rabbinic sources. One criticism in this area is that while Feldman is always careful in attempting to date the Latin and Greek sources with precision, when dealing with biblical material he tries to avoid precise dating. This avoidance seems to be due to the religious agenda which he brings to his scholarship. Evidence of this agenda is his use of G-d, L-rd, imitatio d-i, and G-ttesfuerchtigen in order to avoid writing out the name God in any language. This preference does not affect his scholarship, but a different aspect does in other connections. He skirts the issue of whether the Book of Esther is an historical work or a work of fiction. Instead of taking a position he dismisses the issue by stating, “The historicity of the whole episode (in Esther) has been challenged on grounds that we know of no official named Haman and no queens named Vashti and Esther; but this is really irrelevant” (p.85). Scientific biblical scholars, unfettered by rigid literalism, are of one mind that the Book of Isaiah is the product of at least two hands, Isaiah son of Amoz of the eighth century and an anonymous writer called Deutero-Isaiah of the sixth. Others have posited yet a third, Trito Isaiah, as the author of chapts. 57-66. Feldman avoids this issue completely. For example, “But we can see in the prophet Isaiah and in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah that even before the Hellenistic period the Jews were favorably inclined toward the Persians” (p.13). How much before? Is this the Isaiah of the eighth century or the anonymous prophet living some two hundred years later? Feldman, against the school of modern biblical criticism, is unwilling to admit any Greek influence on the Book of Ecclesiastes or reference to Hellenistic times in the Book of Daniel. He offers weak rebuttals to the widely held views that these books do indeed reflect the Hellenistic age (p.16). His position apparently is due to his commitment to the talmudic statement that “With the death of the last of the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi prophecy ceased from Israel” (Yoma 9b). Since all biblical books were thought to have been composed under divine influence, no book could then have entered the Canon that had been authored after this terminus ad quem. He even protects Ben Sira, an extra-canonical work, from Hellenistic influence, which is in line with his view that “the evidence for appreciable influence of Greek thought on the Jews of Palestine prior to the Hasomeans is slight” (p.18).

Feldman, to his credit, is extremely careful to point out that the use of all of these sources involves a great deal of speculation and inference. Because the sources preserved concerning the Jews in the Hellenistic world are relatively few and scattered in the literature, the researcher is best advised to phrase his or her findings using the subjunctive. Feldman does this throughout the book. In listing, for example, “the special factors that attracted non-Jews to become ‘sympathizers’ with Judaism at this time” he lists thirty-one and in each paragraph he employs the language of suggestion, conjecture and possibility (pp.372ff).

Only in one source which he cites does this reviewer suggest that the subject cited is to be understood as referring to a group not generally assumed. Feldman writes, “Indeed, genuine contact with the pagans must have been slight, because on only one occasion (Matt. 6.7, whose historicity is suspect) does Jesus refer to pagan practices, namely when he criticizes the Gentiles heaping up empty phrases in their prayers” (p.24). “Gentiles” is the translation of the Greek ethnikoi and occurs only five times in the New Testament, three times in Matthew, 5.47; 6.7; 18.17; once in Gal. 2.14 and once in III John 7. Matthew, when referring to the non-Jewish world, usually employs ethnos. Only in these three passages does he use ethnikoi which Jerome renders in Latin ethnici while in Gal. and III John he translates ethnikoi by gentibus. Presumably Jerome realized that ethnikoi was not used as a general term for the non-Jew by Matthew but that it designated a specific group. Since Matthew’s audience was made up primarily of Jews it is reasonable to conclude that he was referring to a group within the Jewish community. We suggest that it refers to the -am ha’aretz, literally the people of the land, a term used for the ignorant, and the unlettered. From the context the ethnikoi have more in common with the ignorant who out of their ignorance of the nature of prayer pray with a superfluity of words, thinking that thereby their prayer will be heard, than with the gentile-pagan who could have been quite learned and aware of the meaning of prayer and its efficacy and did not engage in verbose prayer. (See my “Studies in the Semitic Background to the Gospel of Matthew”JQR Vol. LXVII [1977] 203-207.)

One of the basic theses of the book is that Hellenism did not make great inroads into the lives of the Jews of Palestine. In taking this position, Feldman stands against such scholars as Saul Lieberman, David Daube, Yitzhak Baer Elimelekh Halevi and Henry Fischel, who have shown “that the rabbis were influenced not merely in their vocabulary (approximately twenty-five hundred to three thousand different words in the Talmudic corpus are of Greek origin) but also in their method of Platonic-like dialectic, as well as in their techniques of analysis and in their motifs” (p.31). His refutation of this evidence is weak and unconvincing. For example, he comments that “it is significant that the words borrowed from the Greek appear in such realms as military affairs, politics, law, administration, trade, items of food, clothing, household utensils, and building materials, and almost never in religious, philosophical, or literary passages” (p.32). These examples are hardly a refutation; they indicate just how pervasive this influence was. Hebrew has terms in these areas, but preference was given to Greek terms. The rabbis had no need for Greek terms in the field of religious, philosophical and literary passages since at this time the rabbis of Palestine had no interest in pursuing the study of philosophy and allied subjects. They actually interdicted such study, as even Feldman maintains.

Although Feldman admits the similarities between Stoicism, Platonism and Epicureanism and Jewish teaching, he is unwilling to admit any influence of these philosophies on Jewish thought. He writes, “Comparing the attitude of the rabbis in medieval Babylonia and Spain toward Greek philosophy, we see a striking difference; in the Middle Ages many of the writings of Plato and Aristotle were translated into Arabic and Hebrew and annotated. On the other hand, not a single Jew from the land of Israel in antiquity distinguished himself in philosophy” (p.34). The reason for this difference is that during the Hellenistic period the Jews of Palestine rejected philosophy as a meaningful study to be applied to their traditional religious literature because they identified philosophy with the paganism of the Greeks and their life-style. Only when Greek philosophical and scientific texts were employed by the monotheistic Arabs were the rabbis motivated to pursue its study. Furthermore, although in the Hellenistic period this was not done in Palestine, it is not to say that the rabbis did not read these works and did not take away some of the ideas which they felt were compatible with their own tradition.

In chapter two Feldman emphasizes the strength of Judaism in the Diaspora where the impact of Hellenistic culture was undeniably strong and pervasive. He minimizes incidents of intermarriage and apostasy or free thinking among Jews and sees deviation from Jewish tradition due to “simply non observance” (p.83). It would then be interesting to know how he explains the virtual disappearance of the Alexandrian Jewry which was the largest and most flourishing Jewish community in the Diaspora.

Feldman’s attempt to minimize Hellenistic influences on rabbinic interpretation of Scripture is weak in the face of the convincing examples adduced by Lieberman ( Hellenism in Jewish Palestine [New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1950] pp.47-82). He selects the allegory and the hermeneutic rule of gezerah as being problematical but ignores a host of other examples of borrowings and influences which are generally accepted as legitimate. “In the field of law,” he writes “although there are nearly two hundred Greek and Latin terms of law, narrowly defined, in rabbinic literature, the vast majority appear only in aggadic texts (containing homiletic expositions of the Bible); less than fifty appear in halakhic (legal) contexts, and remarkably few actually entered the rabbis’ legal vocabulary” (p.35). But the fact that these terms were in use indicates influence and it matters not that most are employed in aggadic rather than in halakhic passages.

Feldman, by omission, apparently gives no validity to the theory that the Seder ritual of the Passover celebration developed in imitation of or under the influence of the Greek symposia literature (see S. Stein, “The Influence of Symposia Literature on the Literary Form of the Pesah Haggadah”Journal of Jewish Studies 8 [1957] 13-44). It is an attractive theory and should have been treated by the author.

Chapters seven and eight, entitled “The Attraction of the Jews: The Cardinal Virtues” and “The Attraction of the Jews: The Ideal Leader Moses,” are clearly intended to introduce the concluding chapters 9-11, which deal with Jewish proselytism. Feldman writes, “If the Jews were viewed in antiquity with the disdain and contempt that most scholars claim, we must somehow explain how during the very same period they attracted, as we shall see, so many proselytes and ‘sympathizers'” (p.201). To make his point Feldman adduces words of praise of the Jews by pagan intellectuals for their espousal of the four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. First, it should be noted that these comments are of the pagan intellectuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of the common man from whose ranks most prospective proselytes would come. Second, most of the quotations deal not with contemporary Jews but with the heroes of Jewish history, particularly Moses. That these encomia indicate such admiration of the Jews that they would motivate the pagan to convert is highly unlikely. Feldman in both chapters emphasizes Josephus’ comments on the four virtues of Jewish heroes. Josephus does so only in order to answer the anti-Jewish attacks of those pagans who were maligning Jews. Feldman’s treatment of Josephus is excellent but is irrelevant to his presentation and argument, i.e. the attraction of the Jews.

In three chapters dealing with Jewish proselytism, Feldman opposes most scholars and argues that Jewish proselytism was both widespread and very successful during the Hellenistic period. This is the best argued part of the book but by no means are his argument and proofs conclusive. There is little direct evidence either for his thesis or for an opposing one. Primarily he bases his position on the conjectures of demographers who point out that in just a few centuries the ranks of the Jewish people swelled with significant numbers. This was due, argues Feldman, to the success of a concerted effort by the Jewish establishment to gain converts for their religious group. Together with this demographic conjecture Feldman offers four direct proofs and other indirect ones. The first is Matthew (23.13) “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” He freely admits that “the passage in Matthew may well be tendentious and because it is not found in the other gospels, may reflect his special interest” (p.298). The second is an aggadic statement of the third century that Rabbi Johanan and Rabbi Eliezer declared (Pesahim 87b) that God exiled Israel among the nations in order to facilitate proselytism (p.339). This may simply be a pious attempt to explain the Exile, rather than proof that Jews were successful in their efforts to gain souls. The third is various legislation prohibiting proselytism by Jews. This does not, however, indicate the degree of active proselytism on the part of the Jews. The legislation might well be intended to prevent pagans from accepting Judaism, while placing the blame upon the Jews who accepted them. The fourth is the demographic evidence. He cites Baron that “at the time of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. the Jewish population of pre-exilic Judea which contained the major part of the Jewish population numbered no more than 150,000 and that by the middle of the first century the total number of Jews in the world had risen to about eight million” (p.293). Feldman concludes that “only proselytism can account for this vast increase.” But he goes on to state in the same line “though admittedly aggressive proselytism is only one possible explanation for the numerous conversions.” Feldman raises two basic questions in connection with the subject of proselytism: First, “Was Judaism in the Hellenistic-Roman period (from Alexander the Great to Bar Kochba [336 B.C.E.-135 C.E.]) a missionary religion?” and second, “If it was, how can we explain this fact when we neither know the names of any Jewish missionaries (other than a few who preached the Gospel) nor possess as it seems a single missionary tract?” (p.289) These are significant questions for which no definite solutions are easily forthcoming either by Feldman or by others who differ with him. He has made a thoughtful case for one point on proselytism and the other subjects presented in this learned volume. It serves as a balance against opposing positions.