BMCR 2011.01.16

L’embryon et son âme dans les sources grecques (VIe siècle av. J.-C.-Ve siècle apr. J.-C.). Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance, Monographies 26

, L'embryon et son âme dans les sources grecques (VIe siècle av. J.-C.-Ve siècle apr. J.-C.). Centre de recherche d'histoire et civilisation de Byzance, Monographies 26. Paris: Association des amis du Centre d'histoire et civilisation de Byzance, 2007. 355. ISBN 9782916716145. €30.00 (pb).

Table of Contents

In this book, Congourdeau presents a proposal for a map of the knowledge available and the beliefs about the embryo and its soul at the end of Antiquity, when the Greek Orthodox view was elaborated and began to spread. The author defines three main access roads to the knowledge and beliefs – reason, revelation, and irrational wisdom – based on three types of sources – philosophy and medicine; gnosis and biblical traditions; and all kinds of magic, astrology and other popular recipes. She confines herself to analysing the first two types of sources only, but innovates in integrating elements from Ancient Rabbinic Literature into her work. The result is a very rich, but also somewhat problematic account of what people thought about the embryo and its soul over one thousand years of time and in various cultures. While the beginning is cautiously presented, the true force of the inquiry really begins to take hold in the second half of the book when concrete questions are asked.

There are three main parts to the book: two descriptive, and the last more synthetic. In the first part, Congourdeau describes the hegemonic frame of thought in Antiquity about the soul of the embryo, which was thought of as “the receptacle of a preexistent soul, fallen down from heaven”. The author calls this part “the soul epos”. The soul is preexisting to the embryo, and the resulting anthropology is fundamentally a dualist one. She describes this frame of thought in five different contexts: the pre-Platonic school; the Platonic and neo-Platonic schools; Hellenistic Judaism; Gnosis; and what she called the “pre-existentialist temptation within the great Church”. The most elaborated chapter is the last one. In the second part, she describes various minority schemes of thought, all of which opposed the previously presented dualistic view. The author unites these various schools of thought under the title of “The unyielding holders of a non-separable soul”: philosophers (especially Aristotle and the Stoics); physicians; the Biblical tradition; and “The Christians against the soul epos”. Finally comes the third and most developed part (about half the book), which deals with the ensoulment of the embryo. But, in order to deal with this issue, the author chooses first to introduce us to how the ancients thought the body came about, then she turns to answer questions regarding the soul: how many souls do we have? Where does the soul come from? When does the soul join the body? These two last issues are developed in the third chapter of this part. Finally, the author concludes summarizing her findings within the specific area of the origins of a (Greek, oriental) Christian view on the embryo and its soul, and suggests how this view developed within the writings of some Christian thinkers after the fifth century CE.

I know of no other account of the embryo and its soul which deals with so many different sources covering so long a period of time, more than 1000 years! If only the author had succeeded in her initial project and added an analysis of what she called “the irrational wisdom tradition”! But, given the huge scope, she is wise to restrict herself as she has done. Secondly, it is a very innovative project, as the author has not restricted herself to the Greek sources, but also made use of the Rabbinic Literature. There is already an established (even if not a majority) tradition in scholarship which takes Greek and Latin sources into account when dealing with ancient rabbinic literature. There is also a well-established scholarly tradition taking ancient rabbinic literature into account when dealing with Christian biblical commentaries. However, this is far from being the case with apologetics and theological topics, and Congourdeau is breaking new ground here.

However, the present book also carries the flaws of its richness, resulting in a somewhat problematic account in various ways. First, it is quite difficult to cover such a long period of time and still remain relevant regarding historical context: what did the world of Plato and Aristotle, not to speak of the Pre-Socratics, have in common with the world of Late Antiquity? It looks as if the author were trying to go further and further back in time in order to understand her topic. The danger here is of building a history of ideas, or doctrines, completely disconnected from their historical, sociological, and cultural contexts. Thus, we may ask what intellectual material was really available at the end of the Antiquity when the (Greek, oriental) Christians articulated their ideas about the embryo and its soul, where the author goes back to such ancient traditions as the Pre-Socratics! To be fair to the author, she many times points to the tradition of doxography or to the “rediscovery of Aristotle’s works,” but without – in my view – giving sufficient place to their historical settings, ways of teaching, etc. How did people read the already ancient philosophical traditions in Late Antiquity? In this sense I would say that for me as a reader, the two first parts (on the various conceptions of the souls, either preexistent or inseparable from the body) were quite “indigestible”. It is as if the author has put together her historical bits one after the other without “emplotting” them in a structured and living story. Her chapters function more as a dictionary than a historical analysis of how the soul was understood by the ancients.

In fact, the inquiry really begins to gain force with the third part, when the questions become more concrete: where does the body come from? How many souls do we have? Where does the soul come from? Which kind of soul for which kind of embryo? When does the soul enter the embryo? Here the author really succeeds in taking us as readers into the tangle of the various doctrines and ideas of the time, keeping our interest alive. However, there are still some sociological or cultural issues which remain untouched in her story, as appears from the vocabulary the author uses, for instance, when she speaks about the “pre-existentialist temptation within the Great Church.” If the term “Great Church” refers to a majority current versus minority ones, the term “temptation” clearly denotes an orthodoxy, and so involves the issues of canon and canonic text. Such issues are not dealt with by the author in spite of the fact that they are always there in the background. To treat them adequately may not have been possible within the confines of her book, but it should perhaps have been acknowledged.

The second problematic aspect is the use of ancient rabbinic literature. Since the general purpose of the book is to expose – or to reconstruct – the origins of a Christian point of view, the author could not avoid dealing with the Biblical heritage with all its significations, including the ancient rabbinic literature. As already noted, I see this attempt as laudably innovative and something to be encouraged. The significance of it for the present book, however, is another lacuna, this time in terms of languages and cultures. The least I can say here is that the author has not yet fully mastered these. Two small examples will suffice: Tanhuma is not part of the Talmud but a later midrashic compilation (261) and the father of the Mishna is not Rabbi Yehoshua ha Nassi but Rabbi Yehuda haNassi (314). It is to the credit of the author even to attempt such mastery, but, if the general purpose was to map the available knowledge and beliefs existing in the “Mediterranean” world when the Greek orthodox point of view on the embryo and its soul was elaborated, why not bring to the fore the concrete issues of how ancient rabbinic literature may have become available to these Christian authors? Was Jerome paying rabbis to teach him biblical interpretation the only example or did others exist?

Finally, I want to add a word on the presentation of the sources, indexes and footnotes, as I think it denotes something about the author’s own uneasiness toward the story she is telling us. The bibliography is situated at the beginning of the volume and three indexes conclude it. The bibliography is arranged so that the sources are divided in two parts “Sources (except Talmud)” and “Talmudic Sources (in translation)”. While this may be understandable as the main purpose of the book was to deal with the embryo and its soul within the Greek sources, the relevance of such a dichotomy is less accessible when one finds among the former sources: non-Greek writings from the Intertestamental period, Pseudepigrapha or even the Targum! Is this a mark of special respect for the Judaic canon? But if so, why is the Targum not included in Talmudic Sources? And what is the relevance of making such a distinction between one religious tradition and the other? In addition, some works do not seem to belong to the right list, such as the Midrash Rabbah or the books edited by Petit on the Catenae graecae in genesim et in exodum are listed in Secondary Literature when they are obvious sources. Finally, I am dubious about the use of the term ‘Talmud’ and not ‘Ancient Rabbinic Literature,’ as the sources classified in the second section of the bibliography include many Midrashim and not just the two Talmudim. However, in spite of these minor or less minor problems of classification, one cannot but be impressed by the full fourteen pages of sources listed!

At the end of the volume there are two indexes: Scriptures (including intertestamental literature) and Quoted Sources, which itself is divided into: Classical Sources; Biblical, Patristic, Hermetic, Gnostic and Manichean; and Talmudic. The latter, as in the case of the bibliography, also includes the Midrashim in addition to the Talmudic sources per se. But what is more intriguing is the second category – what are these Biblical sources which were not listed in the first index of Scriptures? Of course, these are the Apocrypha and other Pseudepigrapha, but, if so, why is the Intertestamental literature section in the Scripture Index? We are back to the canon issue stated above. I do not think that it is just a sign of bad organization – Congourdeau has accustomed us to well-organized and well-written papers as well as to brilliant synthesis – I rather think that it denotes an uneasiness that may be explained only in part by the really huge variety of sources mobilized in this research. The most intriguing here being that the Jewish sources are called by their religious terminology of Talmudic and put in a separated (canonic?) category while the Patristic sources are put together with all the non-classical and, one may say, ‘heretical’ sources…

In summary: While the topic is quite specific, the embryo and its soul, the sources taken into account by the author in terms of historical periods and cultures, as well as the number of historiographical fields she gets through when trying to cope with this topic, are so huge that her work is more a promise than mature synthesis. The richness of the sources and the choice not to restrict herself to the Christian and pagan worlds, but to make use of the ancient rabbinic literature as well make this book a valuable source of sources and an inspiration for further research.