BMCR 2020.08.13

The Jewish-Greek tradition in antiquity and the Byzantine Empire

, , The Jewish-Greek tradition in antiquity and the Byzantine Empire. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xxii, 359. ISBN 9781107001633. $112.00.


Editor’s Note:  This is not the magisterial review of Aitken/Paget that my long-time friend and colleague Bob Kraft would have written if not impeded by ill health, but we publish it in advanced draft because of the importance of the subject and the unique eminence of Bob Kraft as a reader of just this book.  – Jim O’Donnell, Arizona State University

A “Festschrift” is a congratulatory volume, usually on some special event such as a respected person’s birthday or retirement. This volume honors Nicholas Robert Michael de Lange for another type of recognition — the recovery of a largely overlooked aspect/period of Jewish history, namely the Jewish encounter with Greek culture from the earliest points of contact in antiquity to the end of the Byzantine Empire. Nicholas de Lange’s distinguished career has brought recognition to this undeservedly neglected field, in part by dispelling the common belief/claim that Jewish-Greek culture largely disappeared after about 100 CE and the rise of Christianity. The seventeen contributors to this collection examine literature, archaeology, and biblical translations, such as those collected in the old Greek anthology or “Septuagint,” in order to illustrate the substantial survival/appropriation of Jewish-Greek language and ideas. The Jewish-Greek Tradition in Antiquity and the Byzantine Empire demonstrates the enduring significance of the tradition and will be an essential handbook for anyone interested in Jewish studies, biblical studies, ancient and Byzantine history, or the Greek language [wording adapted from the publisher’s blurb]. So this is not a “Festschrift” in the usual sense, although it is noted (p.5) that the honoree is well-advanced in his eighth decade of life (born 1944) while also continuing to teach at Cambridge University. The editors are former students of de Lange, and his bibliography (chronological to 2013) fills pp. 300-308.

As with many anthologies, this is not an easy volume to review. It begins with a eulogistic “Preface” [xi-xii] by the much-decorated Hebrew literary giant, the late Amos Oz, which is a moving personal reflection on how de Lange met Oz and came to be the premier translator of his Hebrew works (especially the poetry) into English — a tribute to the honoree’s driving spirit and communicative talents. After the death of Oz in Dec 2018, de Lange commented similarly about first meeting Oz, adding that “[t]here is something magical in the way Amos’s stories enter my head in Hebrew and come out again clothed in English words” [The Jewish Chronicle, 03 Jan 2019; available online].

After the expected Acknowledgements & Abbreviations [xiii-xxii, with some omissions and mislabels], comes an excellent Introduction by the editors, James K. Aitken (Cambridge) and James Carleton Paget (Cambridge) [01-11], which includes an explanation of the subject of the book in relation to the work of de Lange along with brief chapter summaries. The contributions are arranged into four loose groupings — history [3 chs], historiography [2 chs], Greek bible and language [4 chs], and Greek elements within Jewish culture [8 chs]. The editors comment, “The chapters in  this volume, all written by friends and colleagues of Nicholas, reflect the range of his contribution to Judeo-Greek studies, in terms of both their chronological spread and subject matter (from the origins of the Septuagint to late Byzantine history) and their genre (from the general survey of a historical period or a central subject, to the more precise examination of a collection of Judeo-Greek manuscripts)” [5].  I will outline the individual contributions very briefly, meaning to give at least a sense of their contribution.

Part I: History

Chapter 2. “Jews and Greco-Roman culture: from Alexander to Theodosius II,” by Günter Stemberger (Vienna) [15-36]: An excellent descriptive survey of the main developments as of the early 21st century, without much of an attempt to adjudicate (but see on Feldman, 35), and minimal discussion in the largely bibliographical notes. He refers to (assumes) the presence of “central aspects of Jewish life and thought” (35) as a criterion without attempting to be more specific.

3. “The Jewish experience in Byzantium,” by Steven Bowman (Cincinnati) [37-53]: is a very confident synthesis, sometimes neglecting chronological relationships (compare the detailed following ch.)

4. “Jews and Jewish communities in the Balkans and the Aegean until the twelfth century,” by Alexander Panayotov (Bulgaria, independent scholar) [54-76]: is very detailed and while needing an index and similar aids, is also available online (03 Aug 2019) for such purposes.

Part II. Historiography:

Chapter 5. “Origen and the Jews and Jewish-Greek-Christian relations,” by William Horbury (Cambridge) [79-90]: is a somewhat turgid but mainly on target survey, with focus on the influence/legacy of de Lange’s book by that title.

6. “Jewish-Greek studies in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Germany: a brief overview,” by Giuseppe Veltri (Hamburg) [91-102], with particular attention to the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement.

Part III. Greek Bible and Language:

7. “The origins of the Septuagint,” by James Carleton Paget (Cambridge) [105-119 ]: A well balanced treatment based mainly on publications from 1945 onward. No attention to realia issues [scrolls, papyri]; reasonable, if vague, conclusions. Paget is skeptical about any role for a Ptolemaic monarch.

8. “The language of the Septuagint [Pentateuch] and Jewish-Greek identity,” by James K. Aitken (Cambridge) [120-134]: A careful evaluation of claims about a Jewish-Greek dialect behind the Pentateuch translation. Aitken does not see an existing distinctively Jewish dialect at work, but of course acknowledges the impact of the authoritative translation [much like that of the “King James” translation in English for many Protestant Christians].

9. “Afterlives of the Septuagint: a Christian witness to the Greek Bible in Byzantine Judaism,” by Cameron Boyd-Taylor (Trinity Western) [135-151]: Detailed explication of complex textual phenomena in glosses attributed to something called “to Ioudaikon,” in two Greek MSS and especially from Deuteronomy in the Ambrosian MS “F.”

10. “Medieval and early modern Judaeo-Greek biblical translations: a linguistic viewpoint,” by Julia G. Krivoruchko (Cambridge) [152-170]: Very detailed focus on interpretations of the “Constantinopolitan Pentateuch,” a Greek rendering in Hebrew transliteration, virtually a translationese independent of any spoken tongue.

Part IV. The Greek element within Jewish Culture:

Chapter 11. “Philo’s knowledge of Hebrew: the meaning of the etymologies,” by Tessa Rajak (Reading & Oxford) [173-187]: A good survey of the issues.

12. “The plain and laughter: the hermeneutical function of the sign in Philo of Alexandria,” by Francis Schmidt (Paris) [188-199]: Very instructive on Philo’s use of the technical term semeion and its connections with Stoic thought.

13. “Jewish archaeology and art in antiquity,” by David Noy (Wales) [200-214]: Very detailed; solid; little that is new or startling, based on four sites often thought to be Jewish synagogues: Delos, Ostia, Apamea and Mopsuestia.

14. “Jewish-Greek epigraphy in antiquity,” by Pieter van der Horst (Utrecht) [215-228].

15. “The Rabbis, the Greek Bible, and Hellenism,” by Philip Alexander (Manchester) [229-246]: Sometimes is somewhat “reductionist” in general statements about “the Rabbis,” etc., while also well aware of diversity; especially instructive on the terminology of translation/interpretation and even somewhat adventurous on relationships to traditions attributed to Aquila, Theodotion and Symmachus.

16. “Greek-Hebrew linguistic contacts in late antique and medieval magical texts,” by Gideon Bohak (Tel Aviv) [247-260].

17. “Jewish and Christian hymnody in the early Byzantine period,” by Wout van Bekkum (Groningen) [261-278]: Suggests that piyyut may itself derive from Greek term for poet(ry), examining and translating a piyyut in Byzantine Hebrew from the Cairo Genizah.

18. “On the Hebrew script of the Greek-Hebrew palimpsests from the Cairo Genizah,” by Judith Olszowy-Schlanger (Paris) [279-299]: Detailed, but with little attention to technical paleographical conventions on how letters were actually written— e.g. base line relationships, end strokes etc.; on historical conjectures, no mention of previous Christian use of Ben Ezra synagogue, or trade in used MSS.

This book is a treasury of information and ideas relating to Jewish-Greek in its various connections/contexts, an appropriate homage to Nicholas de Lange and his groundbreaking efforts in these subject areas. The editors and publication staff are to be congratulated for a relatively “clean” text of highly complex materials — errata are few.[1] Many users, however, may be disappointed with the well-intentioned readers’ aids: the two bibliographies are predictably full, and can now be supplemented with items not yet published when the contributions were collected (2013) — e.g. de Lange’s continued output such as Japheth in the Tents of Shem: Translations in Byzantine Judaism. Texts and Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Judaism 30 (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015); or related detailed studies such as  “The Religious Provenance of the Aquila Manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah,” by Edmon L. Gallagher, Journal of Jewish Studies 64 (2013): 283–305 [but his 2012 book on Hebrew Scripture is listed in the bibliography], or A. Kulik, “Judeo-Greek Legacy in Medieval Rus,” Viator 39 (2008): 51–64.

But the near failure to include any items from the plethora of otherwise unpublished relevant online materials (as well as published) deserves mention and censure — a problem that is only getting more serious for editors and publishers (not to mention authors) as time goes on [welcome exceptions appear on p. 4 n. 14, and p. 40 n.8].

Making indices is a thankless and demanding task. A good index can greatly increase the value/usefulness of a work. But this “General Index” is very unsatisfactory: it lists “Byzantine Judaism” as occurring on only two pages, “Hellenism, Jewish acceptance of” lists one page, “Judeo-Greek, neglected field” refers to a single page! Many similar index entries appear that are completely out of place (superfluous) given the topic and title of the anthology.  Even more serious, is the absence from the index of such obviously important items as the KAIGE translation (mentioned on pp. 155 and 245; the closely related Aquila and Symmachus verstons are incompletely indexed, but Theodotion is absent — all three appear together on 46 and 110, at least). If one is interested in Jewish “messianic” allusions in the volume, there is no listing. And so on. There is inconsistency in the treatment of ancient authors as well — in the general index, Origen gets two page references (neither of which is to the chapter devoted to him!), but he is absent from the “Index of Other Sources,” and has one listing in the “Abbreviations” on p. xii; Philo, on the other hand, appears amply in all three of these aids, as does Josephus. And so on. These “helps” are unpredictable and thus often of limited assistance.

The treatment of Old Greek Scriptural materials merits some comment in closing, since that is one of my own main interests. There is no discussion of the technology-related issues arising from the fact that most of the Old Greek translations were created in the world of scrolls and only later came to be included in the “Septuagint” anthology when codex technology permitted such a development [p.135 comes close].  Even for the Pentateuch, the idea of a single original physical entity is unlikely.  How this might affect the historical and textual reconstructions is not yet clear. Similarly, the story of an ancient Jewish-Latin scriptural translation tradition, hinted at in a few places, is yet to be worked out in detail, though it is refreshing to see recognition of the relevant pioneering work by D.S. Blondheim (1925!) mentioned several times in this volume (there is no index of modern authors, although such information could easily have been included in the general bibliography; a partly searchable internet copy in Google Books offers some consolation). The earliest surviving evidence for the history of Latin Jewish scriptures is very similar to that for the Old Greek, and deserves a closer exploration. Probably similar things could be said concerning non-Hebrew Semitic Jewish scriptural traditions in Aramaic/Syriac. Much remains to be done on such early materials, and the volume under review helps map the way.

Despite such caveats, this is an excellent work, highly recommended to serious students of the subjects covered. That it is not perfect is no surprise, but many of the shortcomings can be overcome by informed/experienced use of the internet. It greatly advances our knowledge, and suggests many new avenues to explore.

[1] Errata and some noteworthy variant spellings and ambiguities:

p. 6, end of line 5: His chapters [read chapter] concentrates on
66 punct. of Philo, from Arad [omit comma?]
67 date for Justin’s Dialog & etc — not 1st century
70 n. 3 close parenthesis
143 [Deut 18.2] Fb reads Λευί [not Greek Levi] for αὐτῷ?
176 line 5 from below Aristoboulos for Aristobulos
179 line 7 from below Philo nic for Philonic scholars [remove space]
187 not to press enquire [inquiry?]
198 n. 34 insert 190 for 000234 omit “?” Tanhuma Vayyera 6.6 Buber
262 names? Qillir Yannai(os)72 last line is not as — either ok
129 in other words [read works?] in everyday use
133 learning or using (either ok)Hebrew transliterations appear in variety of versions
30 war of Qitus/Quitus [29f Quietus]
46 Talmai [46, 238-242]/Tolmi for Ptolemy in rabbinic references. A key passage on p.46 from Neubauer’s Seder Olam on Jewish translations of scripture is all but invisible in the indices/helps! Very frustrating!Significant Latin refs
18 embassies to Rome
24 Jews in Rome
29 inscriptions in Jerusalem
34 names
226 (Prov 10.7 quotes)
42 apocryphal stuff
46 Sedar Olam passage