BMCR 2004.02.17

Japheth in the Tents of Shem: Studies on Jewish Hellenism in Antiquity

, Japheth in the tents of Shem : studies on Jewish Hellenism in antiquity. Contributions to biblical exegesis & theology ; 32. Leuven: Peeters, 2002. 272 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9042911379. EUR 35.00.

In this collection of fifteen essays primarily culled from articles previously published in journals and edited volumes, Pieter W. van der Horst continues the research program developed in his Hellenism Judaism Christianity: Essays on Their Interaction (1998, Leuven: Peeters). A distinguished historian and director of Utrecht University’s faculty of Theology, van der Horst addresses basic questions of Judaism in the Greco-Roman World through a careful analysis of the literary and material record. A survey of titles indicates the broad and impressive range covered by this collection:

1.”Greek in Jewish Palestine in the Light of Jewish Epigraphy”;

2. “The Last Jewish Patriarch(s) and Graeco-Roman Medicine”;

3. “Neglected Greek Evidence for Early Jewish Liturgical Prayer”;

4. “Was the Synagogue a Place of Sabbath Worship Before 70 CE?”;

5. “Greek Synagogue Prayers in the Apostolic Constitutions, book VII”;

6. “Jews and Christians in Antioch at the End of the Fourth Century”;

7. “The Tombs of the Prophets in Early Judaism”;

8. “Antediluvian Knowledge”;

9. “Sortes: Sacred Books as Instant Oracles in Late Antiquity”;

10. “Celibacy in Early Judaism”;

11. “Maria Alchemista, the First Female Jewish Author”;

12. “Who Was Apion?”;

13. “The Distinctive Vocabulary of Josephus’ Contra Apionem“;

14. “The Samaritan Languages in the Pre-Islamic Period”;

15. “Samaritans at Rome?”.

Since, as van der Horst himself acknowledges, each essay stands by itself, the reviewer must integrate observations on the book as a whole with the analysis of particular essays. Therefore, I will be considering general features and relevant details of particular essays.

The essays are characterized by a clarity of thinking and expression particularly admirable for topics primarily of interest to specialists. For example, I would recommend the first essay as an excellent and lucid summary of the current epigraphical evidence relevant to the question of bi- and tri-lingualism in Palestine as well as a way of introducing the problems and contributions of inscriptions for historical research. In the ninth essay, van der Horst provides a fascinating catalogue of the types of divination in antiquity. What reader would not be both delighted and informed by a list that includes “omoplatoscopy (observing the shoulder blades of sacrificial animals), sphondylomancy (divination from the movements of a spindle)” and “coscinomancy (divination by means of a sieve)” (p. 159)?

In addition, the essays model careful and thorough scholarship and include a variety of significant and compelling insights. Here is a sample. Van der Horst ingeniously suggests that the liturgy discussed in the third essay may be a Greek tefilah qetsarah (a reduced version of the Hebrew Amidah — also known as the eighteen benedictions) (p. 48). Such an explanation accounts for the striking similarities and expected differences between the Greek and Hebrew prayers. In “Was the Synagogue a Place of Sabbath Worship Before 70 CE?,” van der Horst deserves particular commendation for decisively refuting Heather McKay’s claim that torah-reading, not worship, took place in the synagogue on the Sabbath on the grounds that torah study does not constitute worship.1 Rather, explains van der Horst with a barrage of evidence from Philo, Josephus, rabbinic sources, New Testament, and archaeological finds, ritualized reading of torah was central to Jewish cult, especially on the Sabbath (pp. 62-82). Among the many other important contributions that pervade this collection, mention should also be made of the piece on Maria Alchemista (essay 11), an authoress oft-neglected even by scholars who work on gender and Jews in the Graeco-Roman period, the connection of Apion’s grammatical work to his anti-Jewish polemics (essay 12), and the discussion of Samaritans (essays 14 and 15) thereby expanding the categories for understanding Palestine and the Diaspora during the Graeco-Roman period.

Given the detailed presentation and analysis of these essays, it should not be surprising that there are also many particular points that invite alternative interpretations. For example, the opening essay begins with a fascinating 3rd century CE epitaph from Beth She’arim in Homeric meter with references to Hades and Moira. The evidence that Justus, son of Leontius and Sappho, is Jewish depends on the translation of ἐν οἷς Βεσαροις as (I left … my brothers, alas) “in my Beth She’arim.” However, it could also be read as “in their Beth She’arim” which would make Justus a visitor or one of the several Diaspora Jews who wished to be buried in Beth She’arim. If Justus came from the Diaspora or even nearby Sepphoris, the Homeric verse would be less remarkable. While I agree that ἐκτήσω is a better translation of the Hebrew qanita‘you acquired’ than ἐκτίσω, it is certainly not a mistake as van der Horst suggests in “Neglected Greek Evidence For Early Jewish Liturgical Prayer” (p.40), for in Gen. 14:19 the term does mean “create”. Van der Horst rightly rejects David Saturn’s contention that the tomb tradition of the prophets emerged in Christian culture of the 2nd half of the fourth century. However, tomb traditions have more than the Jewish provenance suggested by van der Horst. The reference to Simon b. Yochai’s tomb and the removal of his son El’azar’s bones from Tiberias (p.127) should be viewed against Simon and El’azar’s purification of Tiberias (Pesiqta de Rab Kahana 11.16) and Josephus Ant. 18.38. The two rabbis purified Tiberias because it was built on a pagan burial ground whose pagan provenance is confirmed by Josephus. The veneration of Simon and El’azar’s bones reflects the revival and mapping of the pagan tradition onto a palestinian rabbinic setting. Moreover, I would qualify van der Horst’s claim that rabbinical literature is silent about worship of the dead — Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 152b, in order to demonstrate that the flesh of the righteous does not decay, recounts how Rabbi Nachman hired diggers for his property who unknowingly disturb the grave of Rabbi Achai. The whole context of the story — Nachman’s erroneous view that flesh of the righteous becomes dust and his own and the diggers’ ignorance about the site and identity of the annoyed (but not decayed) righteous corpse — clearly demonstrates that tombs of saints were not venerated. In chapter nine, the claim that 1 Macc. 3:48 clearly proves that in the second century BCE a Torah scroll “could be consulted as an oracle by opening it a random” is not convincing (p.162-163). Not only, as van der Horst acknowledges, is the passage notoriously difficult to translate, the word for consult ἐjεραυνάω does not have the technical sense of ‘asking for an oracle’, but rather ‘examine thoroughly’. Nor is 2 Macc. 8:23’s version of the event any more convincing. Here, we learn that Judah used Scriptures to select a password ( σύνθεμα), not predict the future. The fact that the actual phrase selected, θεοῦ βοήθειας, does not appear in the Torah, but the collocation of θεός (and κύριος) with some nominal or verbal form of βοηθεῖν occurs regularly, indicates that Judah adapted the phrase for the password. Such adaptation argues against the use of Scripture for divination since the alteration of the scriptural text was permitted. Moreover, it is rather striking that the phrase happens to be a translation of Eleazar ‘my God is Help’, one of Judah’s brothers and officers. Finally, in essay fifteen van der Horst discusses the terminology of Samaritan and Samarian (pp. 254-255), two important points should be noted in connection with the two concluding essays on Samaritans. First, the references to Samaritans as a religious group are all relatively late ( Σαμαρῖται τὴν θρήσκειαν from 586 CE, p. 243), compared to the references to them with an ethnic or geographical identifier, Σαμαρεὺς γένος (Jos. Ant., 18.167, cited on p.259). Second, such a terminological distinction is significant because the passage from Jos. Ant. 12.7-10 may not describe a strictly religious conflict as van der Horst claims. Rather the Loeb has inconsistently translated the Greek as referring to Samaritans, people of Jerusalem, and Shechemites, although the three words in question are all the same form ( Σαμαρεῖται, Ἱεροσολυμῖται, Σικιμῖται). This indicates a regional as well as a religious conflict.2

This last observation points to a larger issue raised by van der Horst’s book. How useful are the rigid distinctions between the various Jewish, Christian and Pagan groups in Greco-Roman antiquity? The work of numerous scholars such as Peter Brown, Glen Bowersock, Averil Cameron, Erich Gruen and Daniel Boyarin,3 suggest that the boundaries between Pagan, Christian, and Jewish are much more fluid than we tend to see them. Moreover, the work of Walter Bauer and more recently Jacob Neusner have called into question the totalizing categories of “Christianity” and “Judaism.”4 Thus, that many inscriptions classified as Jewish could be classified as Samaritan (pp. 257-258) should be seen as evidence that Jews and Samaritans belonged to a social grouping called Jewish that did not always distinguish between Judean and Samaritan.5 Similarly, the situation in Antioch was not simply Christians going to synagogues, but rather a culture that blurred the distinction between Christian and Jew, a blurring that vexed our patristic sources and compelled them to inscribe Christian and Jew as rigid categories. So the incorporation of “Jewish” liturgy into a portion of the Apostolic Constitutions should not be seen as a tactical move (“if you can’t beat them [the Jews], join them”, p. 99), but simply the adaptation of liturgical traditions that formed a seamless part of the community that produced these texts. To be sure van der Horst notes that Homeric and biblical sortes are used interchangeably by some (175), but the implications of such evidence must be drawn out more fully. Rigid distinctions between Judaism, Christianity, and “Paganism” can also obscure other factors. For example, I would argue that Wilken6 does not demonstrate the attractions of Judaism (p.111) as much as attributes Chrysostom’s fierce rhetoric to internal concerns of the/a catholic Church. In a similar vein, Paula Fredriksen has demonstrated that Augustine’s ideology concerning Jews and Judaism had more to do with Manichees than actual Jews.7

Van der Horst candidly admits that the essays have not been integrated and some are repetitive (p.3). This decision is unfortunate because there are numerous cases where one essay could shed light on another essay. For example, the discussion of the language of the Samaritans (essay 14) parallels the discussion of Greek in Jewish Palestine (essay 1), while the discussion of biblical sortes relates to the main pillar in the refutation against McKay, namely that the Bible was a sacred text and its study sacred. I also found some rather odd statements scattered throughout the essays such as: “….we know of a considerable number of Jewish physicians in the Roman empire. It seems that, exactly as in our own days, many educated Jews in antiquity were deeply interested in medical science and knowledge….” (p.31) and (on the connection between eschatology and celibacy) “one who lives in the strong conviction that the end of time is near and whose task is to send a final call to the Jewish people that they should repent and convert, certainly has other priorities than founding a family with all that it involves” (p.197).

Despite such minor quibbles, serious scholars will do well to take van der Horst into account as the topics he addresses continue to be investigated. My more important concern about the assumption of relatively fixed categories of Jewish, Christian, and Pagan should be viewed in the context of a continuing debate about ethnicity in antiquity. As with most issues in this period, incontrovertible conclusions elude our grasp. At the least one must consider the fluidity between boundaries. It would be more apt to suggest that “Shapheth” dwelt in the tents of “Jem.”


1. Heather McKay, Sabbath and the Synagogue: The Question of Sabbath Worship in Ancient Judaism, Leiden: Brill, 1994.

2.See Shaye Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, pp. 125-139. Since, as Cohen argues, the term “Jew” has both an ethnic and religious scope, conflict between groups should also be seen in ethnic as well as religious terms.

3. Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971; Glen Bowersock, Hellenism in Late Antiquity, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990; Averil Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991; Erich Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998; and Daniel Boyarin, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

4. Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, translated and edited by Robert Kraft and Gerhard Krodel, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971, and Jacob Neusner, “Defining Judaism,” in Jacob Neusner and Alan J. Avery Peck, editors, The Blackwell Companion to Judaism, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000, pp. 3-19.

5. According to Jos. Ant. 12.257, the Samaritans made a conscious effort to dissociate themselves from Judeans, thereby demonstrating that in certain contexts Judeans and Samaritans would be considered as part of one group.

6. Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

7. Paula Fredriksen, “Excaecati Occulta Justitia Dei: Augustine on Jews and Judaism,” Journal of Early Christian Studies, 3 (1995) 299-324.