BMCR 2006.03.16

Historical Fictions and Hellenistic Jewish Identity: Third Maccabees in Its Cultural Context. Hellenistic Culture and Society, 43

, Historical Fictions and Hellenistic Jewish Identity : Third Maccabees in Its Cultural Context.. Hellenistic culture and society ; 43. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. 1 online resource (281 pages).. ISBN 9780520928435 $49.95.

Sara Raup Johnson’s study of 3 Maccabees is filled with a wealth of information on the treatment of history in the historical romances of Hellenistic Judaism. According to Johnson (J.), these works are identity statements achieved by the deliberate manipulation of historical traditions. Simultaneously, J. asserts that the authors of these works did not aim to fool their audiences; rather, they shaped historical traditions for didactic purposes.

In an introduction entitled “Historical Fictions and Jewish Identity,” J. delineates this study’s subject matter: a number of Jewish historical narratives, defined here as “historical fictions” rather than as examples of the “romance” or “novel” genre. J. is probably correct that these non-canonical and legendary Jewish texts partake of a variety of genres and defy classification (at least in terms of Hellenistic genres). But throughout her work, not least by classifying these writings as fictions, J.’s study falls under the sway of two anachronistic assumptions: that untrue works (mostly defined in terms of their errors in historical fact) are often the conscious and deliberate productions of knowing fabricators, and that all literary deliberate untruths should be classified as fiction, regardless of how they were actually and typically received in antiquity. Moreover, it is difficult to agree that all errors and distortions located here by J. were “readily apparent to the alert [ancient] reader” (p. 49).

In chapter 1, “Jews at Court,” J. gives an overview of seven works preserved in the Septuagint or associated with it: Esther, Daniel, Judith, Tobit, the Letter of Aristeas, 2 Maccabees, and 3 Maccabees, all of which are described as forms of the “court narrative.” J. discerns a “deliberate misrepresentation of history” in each. The author’s general conclusion is that “glaring anachronisms” are “meant precisely to signal to the reader that the texts are fiction rather than history” (p. 33).

Chapter 2, “Josephus,” explores the Jewish historian’s account of Alexander and the Jews together with the Tales of the Tobiads. The rationale for exploring these narratives in particular is that they both consist of “once independent legends or motifs” organized “into a coherent narrative with a particular ideological purpose” (p. 60 n. 10). The themes of Josephus’ versions of these narratives are precisely analogous to those of 3 Maccabees (treated in the second half of J.’s study): loyalty towards a foreign ruler is identified with piety and disloyalty with the basest of motives. J.’s treatment of Josephus’ version of Alexander in Jerusalem is commendable as a guide to the historicity of the tradition. Further, J.’s suggestion that the original author of the Tales of the Tobiads was a member of a Jewish community under Ptolemaic rule is fascinating and important.

Chapter 3, “Patriarchal Fictions,” treats the legendary writings of Artapanus together with Joseph and Aseneth, usually described as an ancient novel. Artapanus, in J.’s view, is engaged in a “sincere polemic with a light touch” rather than pulling our leg throughout. His single purpose is “to provide a historical context for the life of the Jews in Egypt, reinforcing their position and status there” (p. 99). While I do not agree that Artapanus was consciously attempting to create a fictionalized version of the Egyptian diaspora, J. is right to highlight this author’s non-transgressive intent. J. more effectively analyzes Joseph and Aseneth as “a fiction of identity based on the genre of the ancient novel” (p. 115), one which highlights the interior lives of the protagonists rather than their historical roles (p. 113). I am convinced by J.’s view of the novel’s cultic meal as wholly symbolic of Aseneth’s interior transformation rather than a reference to an initiation ritual (p. 118 n. 81). While the novelistic genre gives J. firmer footing on which to call this work a fiction, I would caution that the polar opposition between “free invention” and “close midrash” (with Artapanus and Joseph and Aseneth exemplifying the former) is inadequate to grasp fully the mode of composition involved. “Free invention” in Second Temple Jewish literature is more often than not an illusion created by our lack of attention to the biblical exegesis that was being performed by these writers.

The most effective portion of this work is its extended case study of 3 Maccabees. This portion of the monograph includes an introduction and two lengthy chapters: “Date, Context, Authorship, Audience” and “Historicity and Historical Ambivalence” (chapters 4 and 5). J. convincingly dates the text to the late Hellenistic period rather than to the Roman era, the latter aptly described as typified by its aggressive Jewish apologetic (p. 170). The extensive study on the historical sources for Ptolemy Philopator is fascinating and useful. J. also provides some excellent observations on the use of the word laographia in antiquity. The implications of 3 Maccabees for contact between Palestine and the Egyptian diaspora as developed by J. are intriguing in their own right.

J. effectively cautions against viewing 3 Maccabees as confrontational and anti-assimilationist, claiming instead that the persecution envisioned in the text is the abnormal exception that provides its plot. It is persuasively argued that the text’s emphasis on the non-violence of the Jews amounts to a thesis about Jewish loyalty to the king (that only the pious are truly loyal), a point bolstered by reference to the Letter of Aristeas, correctly viewed by J. as harmonious with the overall argument of 3 Maccabees. The text thus repudiates the idea that, owing to their xenophobia, Jews are liable to betray the state. Further, the perspective of 3 Maccabees is that “leaders who persecute the Jews only do so when they have been misled by wicked advisors” (p. 213). Instead of rejecting interaction with gentiles, 3 Maccabees “aims to define to what extent cooperation and friendly associations . . . are permissible and desirable” (p. 129). This view represents an valuable and innovative perspective. J.’s survey of the literary world in which 3 Maccabees appears is less successful, owing to the way each work is treated from the perspective of a modern historian rather than in a manner suitably appreciative of the conventions of Greco-Roman historians or biblical historical narratives. In addition, some of the author’s conclusions about these texts may be contested. J. does not adequately argue that 2 Maccabees is pro-Hasmonean (pp. 40-1), and there is little account taken of the fact that 2 Maccabees is merely an epitome of a five-volume history by Jason of Cyrene. J.’s overall perspective on the Letter of Aristeas — that it represents “a self-conscious historical fiction from beginning to end” (p. 53) — is overly confident in unmasking the alleged deceits of the text. Other recent work on this text more persuasively suggests involuntary inaccuracy rather than outright duplicity in the Letter of Aristeas’ connection of Demetrius of Phalerum with Ptolemy II. Further, J. seems rarely to acknowledge that Greco-Roman historians are often similarly culpable from a modern historical perspective.

Another serious drawback to this study is its lack of attention to early modes of biblical interpretation. These texts are the products of writers who were also biblical interpreters making every effort to reconcile conflicting evidence in the biblical sources. Claiming that the author of Daniel is “indifferent to genuine historical accuracy” does not acknowledge the way that Daniel attempts to reconcile history with the prophecies of Jeremiah. Since Jeremiah (chapter 51) prophesies a Median conquest of Babylon, it seems more likely that Daniel is harmonizing the traditions by labeling Darius a Mede, rather than engaging in the creation of an alternative fictional reality. In addition, what is sometimes referred to as “typology” (in a non-Christian sense) is also underemphasized in this study, except when, for example, J. discerns echoes of the biblical Joseph cycle in the Tales of the Tobiads. I am also intrigued by J.’s apt point that the battle of Bethulia in Judith recapitulates the battle of Thermopylae (pp. 46-7 n. 123). But there is no reference to how Judith recapitulates the character of Deborah in Judges or to the way that Daniel serves as a “type” of Joseph the dream interpreter. This leads to other oversights, such as when J. claims that 3 Maccabees’ ideas on kingship entirely derive from Hellenistic kingship theory, completely ignoring the Deuteronomistic Historian’s stance on the importance of divine favor for the prosperity of royalty.

Similarly, biblical genres are dismissed in this study, a casualty of the author’s problematic assertion that Jewish “historical fictions” composed in Greek reflect Greek literary forms and those originally composed in Hebrew or Aramaic tend to reflect biblical models (p. 54). A strict connection between language of composition and genre in this corpus willfully ignores formal literary connections between biblical and non-canonical Jewish books, regardless of the language of the latter; to take but one example, Wisdom of Solomon, although composed in Greek, cannot be discussed without reference to the “genre” of biblical wisdom. Most serious of all, there is a lack of acknowledgement of the crucial relationship between 3 Maccabees and the Book of Esther, even though at one point J. astutely acknowledges that “in form and content [3 Maccabees] resembles nothing so closely as the Book of Esther” (p. 53). In fact, in the section on the literary context of 3 Maccabees, it is simply stated that the Hebrew original of Esther will not be treated (p. 142 n.49). Instead, J. briefly touches on the possibility that 3 Maccabees influenced the Greek translation of Esther. An argument that examined 3 Maccabees as a creative rewriting of the persecution faced by the Jews in Persia in the book of Esther might have helped J. articulate her provocative and intriguing view that 3 Maccabees depicts an entirely imaginary pogrom. As a result of overlooking Hebrew Esther and failing to acknowledge that a biblical work like Ezra might have influenced 3 Maccabees’ quotation of official letters, J. implausibly concludes that 3 Maccabees has been packaged as Hellenistic historiography.

One gets the sense that, in addition to overemphasizing the influence of classical models, J.’s description of these works as historical fictions stems from a disciplinary tendency to view literature as the absence of fact. A discussion of anachronisms and “other apparent chronological and historical howlers” (p. 77) opens the analysis of each work treated in the study. But rarely is there an attempt to discern the nature of ancient Jewish views on the facticity of the past, nor does J. provide an analysis of Hellenistic approaches to historiography as a point of departure. In the end, “historical fiction” does not qualify as a genre, since the works grouped under this heading share very little other than that they are not history. A salutary reading of this aspect of the study would be to take J.’s detailed historical analysis and employ it to assess exactly how the Hellenistic Jewish view of history differs from the Greco-Roman view and from our own.

As a whole, J. finds that Jewish historical fiction is not addressed to Greek-speaking Gentiles, but instead that a Jewish, Hellenized, and upper-class readership was intended. But this conclusion rests in part on highly personal reactions to texts — thus, according to J., the scene in the Letter of Aristeas where Ptolemy bows seven times before the scrolls of the law and bursts into tears “can scarcely have inspired anything but incredulity and outright mirth in any gentile” (p. 172). In addition, J. finds that Jewish historical fictions were meant to be understood metaphorically rather than literally and that historical errors and absurdities did not disturb their authors or intended readers. However, Josephus was disturbed by them, and, at least in J.’s view, so was his audience (p. 59). Accordingly, J. proposes that Josephus marks a second stage of audience reception. But what is our evidence for the first stage? J. also avoids answering the central question her study poses in the eyes of this reader (namely, how can one deliberately distort facts and not intend to deceive), by relying too heavily on her impression that the authors of Jewish historical fictions were playful, entertaining, and didactic, as well as on her questionable intuition that their readers were meant to understand how they were distorting history, despite the fact that actual readers often did not.

The foregoing criticisms must be placed in perspective. We are lucky to have a scholar who has applied real learning to 3 Maccabees and created the first significant monograph devoted to it. 3 Maccabees has been almost entirely neglected by scholars, owing to its non-canonical status, its melodramatic tenor, and the difficulties presented by Hellenistic Jewish literature as a whole for scholars trained in either biblical or classical studies. This study’s penetrating historical analysis, its convincing thesis about the original context and message of 3 Maccabees, and its important caveat against over-application of the term “novel” to Jewish historical narratives all represent important advances in the field.