BMCR 2020.10.66

We and they: decolonizing Graeco-Roman and Biblical antiquities

, , We and they: decolonizing Graeco-Roman and Biblical antiquities. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2019. Pp. 151. ISBN 9788771844436 €35,75.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Decolonization is the most important issue in Classics today. As recent debates at Princeton, Cambridge, and in the US Senate reveal,[1] the question of decolonization is central as scholars seek to define the field for the 21st century. I am one who thinks that Classics and Biblical Studies need decolonization. The fields still require uncoupling from the ideas of European supremacy that define colonialism, even after more than two generations of criticism in Classics and hundreds of years of criticism in emancipatory branches of the Christian Church and of Judaism.

We and They spans Classics and Biblical Studies and is firmly in the tradition of the anthropology of the ancient world. It positions itself in the realm of “decolonization,” but the word is meant in a distinctly European sense. Decolonization in North American universities attempts to include in academia groups, knowledge, and intellectual traditions that have been systematically disenfranchised or devalued through colonialism. This enormous challenge, when it comes to Classics and Biblical Studies, is to imagine the students and scholars of these subjects as plural and non-European in origin. Decolonization seeks to falsify the idea that by studying Mediterranean antiquity we are studying ourselves. To decolonize Classics and Biblical Studies we must abandon the fiction that it is European heritage that is the subject of study, so that the classroom and professoriate is not divided between European insiders and non-European outsiders. The book under review here does not address these questions, and so I challenge its use of the word “decolonizing.” Rather, it seeks to decolonialize the discourse of Classics and Biblical Studies, that is, to challenge and dismantle Eurocentrism in the scholarly discourse on antiquity. This is related to decolonization in North America but is much less bound up with living human beings and their dignity and franchise. The intellectual project the book pursues is still worthwhile. Progress is made here along the road to decolonialize Classical and Biblical scholarship even as the papers of the collection vary in perspective and quality.

In the introduction to this volume the reader encounters an ideological position that the editors maintain, that “history has repeatedly demonstrated that colonialism never contributed to mutual understanding and constructive exchange of ideas…” On the face of it this statement is false. To their embarrassment the fields of history, anthropology, sociology, and biology might be forced to disagree that European colonial projects never contributed to mutual understanding or to the constructive exchange of ideas. We need scholarship that seeks to move beyond colonialism, but academia’s relationship to colonialism is not as simple as the editors indicate here. Their anti-colonial statement is followed by a shocking claim of identity, referring to ancient Mediterranean cultures as “our ancestors,” without clarifying at all who “we” are in this formulation. Are “we” humanity, and therefore the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean are our common heritage? I would agree. If “we” are Europeans who falsely claim classical and Biblical cultures as our literal ancestors, I could not support such a “neo-colonial” position.

Manuela Giordano’s study is a thought-provoking piece reassessing the relationship of Aeschylus’ Persians to Orientalism. It rightly detects little negative in the portrayal of the Persians in the play and so challenges the dominant idea that the play reflects Athenian anti-Persian chauvinism. It argues that the “other,” which the Persians represent, is the Homeric, heroic past, against which the Athenians are forging a new identity. The main evidence for this is shared diction between the Homeric poems and the play. This is a useful new argument, but I question the unity of the cultures presented in the Homeric poems. This paper takes the Homeric poems as the idealized representation of the Greek past but does not address the self-other dichotomy in both the Iliad and Odyssey. No matter how sympathetic the portrayal of Hector is, for example, these idealizations of the Greek past also define cultural difference between the Greeks and others. It would strengthen this argument about the Persians if the diction shared with Homer was further analyzed to determine whether it was applied to Greeks, to Trojans, or to others in the Homeric hypotext.

Co-editor Karmen MacKendrick follows with a dynamic study of Valentinian Gnosticism, whose main decolonial point is that this philosophy obliterates the distinction between ‘we’ and ‘they’ or between ‘self’ and ‘other’ in its esoteric conception of the universe and reality. Through a long exploration of the Valentinian concepts the One, Limit, and the Dyad, MacKendrick shows that “the other is one and one is other” (41). The most succinct statement of the thesis is on p. 43: “The thought of the unthinkable One makes two, Father and Son. But the two are One; there is nothing between them. Indeed, there is no division that does not contain wholeness.” Here, and throughout, we can see that MacKendrick both explicates and partakes of gnostic esotericism, which can be disorienting to the reader, but I suppose it is purposely so.

Co-editor Jonathan Cahana-Blum makes several welcome points in his article on anachronism in the study of ancient sexuality. Ancient sexuality continues to confound scholarly approaches, which Cahana-Blum demonstrates through an examination of the work of David Halperin, Dale Martin, and Daniel Boyarin. More conservative scholarship imposes a narrow Christian conception of sexuality on antiquity, thereby colonizing it with the investigator’s prejudices. More radical scholarship runs the risk of misrepresenting ancient and modern sexuality by manufacturing a fictional point of articulation: heterosexual sex is private and optional. Sex, sexuality, and gender identification are protected individual freedoms in industrialized democracies (rightly so!), but heterosexual sex is generally not optional in traditional societies today or in antiquity, being bound up, as Cahana-Blum emphasizes following Halperin, with an individual’s social and political role. Cahana-Blum’s case studies show that thus far scholarship on ancient sexuality misses the mark by importing the contemporary concerns of the researcher, whether from the political right or the left.

I commend Luca Pucci’s paper for taking up Detienne’s challenge to conduct “constructive and experimental comparativism” among human societies. Pucci sets out to employ Malinowski’s analysis of narratives among Trobriand Islanders in an interpretation of the myths of Orestes, showing that they developed over time in reference to community concerns about violence and purification. Pucci seeks to show the limitations of “our” ability to understand “them,” the ancient Greeks, drawing on Malinowski’s remarks about the poverty of mere mythological texts without a community of storytellers and believers. Guided by Malinowski’s assessment that the historicity of legends is limited by their obvious functions for the community, Pucci argues that we should seek such points of “epichoric contextualization” to give greater historical and geographical substance to our analysis of myths. These insights from a functional analysis of Orestes myths are welcome, but we can learn the same thing about myths from Paul Veyne and others in the 1980s.

In the collection’s most persuasive chapter, Jessica van ‘t Westeinde argues that the scholarly approaches to the Aramaic Levi Document and to the Greek Testament of Levi import far too much from a modern conception of a univocal Judaism. The debates about these two texts have been distorted by the modern denominational partisanship of scholars, Christian and Jewish, who fail to address the diversity of ancient Judaisms and Christianities, and fail to entertain the possibility that the Levi texts predate clear distinctions between Christian and Jewish. Adopting a cultural-evolutionary approach van ‘t Westeinde finds in the texts Jewish authorship that is not self-conscious of any binary split between themselves and “Christians,” composing for a Jewish audience interested in the promised messiah. In response to disasters visited on Hebrews in 70 and 135 CE, the Testament of Levi seeks to redefine Jewish priesthood at a time of destabilization and diversification of Judaism. This is the cultural evolution van ‘t Westeinde perceives in this text. There is overwhelming evidence in this chapter that the standard interpretation of both documents, that they are Jewish in origin with substantial Christian redaction, needs overhaul in the directions van ‘t Westeinde suggests.

In a perplexing chapter about Jewish Yemen in the 6th century CE, Pieter W. van der Horst outlines the efforts of a Jewish King of Himyar to decolonize the territory from the influence of the Christian kingdom of Axum in Ethiopia. This chapter has nothing to do with decolonializing scholarly perspectives on the ancient world but is rather about an ancient decolonial effort. I am concerned that this chapter colonializes rather than decolonializes our perspectives. A Jewish king of Himyar called Yusuf, Masruq, Dhu Nuwas, or Yusuf As’ar Yath’ar is given yet another, completely unnecessary name, “Joseph,” by van der Horst. This Yusuf, seeking to define his kingdom against neighbouring Byzantine, Sassanid, and Ethiopian powers, converted to Judaism and forced the conversion of everyone in his territory, including large Christian populations who rebelled and were massacred. Shortly thereafter, Yusuf was defeated by an Ethiopian Christian king who engaged in his own policy of forced conversion to Christianity. In trying to account for the silence of Jewish sources on these events, van der Horst hits upon the correct answer as he introduces the issue: there is almost no Jewish historiography to speak of in late antiquity or in the Medieval period. The bulk of this section addresses the notion that Jewish identity demands victimhood, and that a story about Jewish oppressors does not match Jewish self-image. It is a misreading of the Hebrew Bible to posit that Jewish identity does not accommodate short-term victory followed by disaster.

Makiko Sato’s chapter on the Lucretia legend in Augustine’s De civitate dei shows how Augustine analyzed rape in a way that anticipates modern notions that what a woman experiences does not define her moral quality. Augustine attempts to show that Lucretia’s suicide was unnecessary because her mind remained chaste. Sato’s approach is useful because it discovers in antiquity ideas that we think are new or only characteristic of industrialized democracies. The decolonial force of such arguments is to free ancient cultures from negative assessments of their morality and from blanket statements on their ideas about sex. Sato carries out her study through an examination of terms applied to women: pudor, pudicitia, sanctitas, castitas, corpus, and animus, and her thesis is that Augustine’s ideas about rape are more like our own than his Christian and polytheistic contemporaries.

Rounding out the collection is an excellent article by Anna Usacheva. It addresses the “we and they” theme by challenging prominent scholarly interpretations of the work of Origen. Like other papers in this collection, Usacheva detects the importation of the rigid religious views of modern scholars in claims that Origen attempted to produce a critical edition of the Bible or that he sought to produce an authoritative canon of Biblical texts. This paper happens to address another “we and they” issue in the study of antiquity. By illustrating clearly Origen’s use of Alexandrian Homeric scholarship in his readings of Biblical texts, this chapter reminds the reader of the unhelpful disciplinary divide between Classics and Biblical Studies. Applying the principles of criticism developed by Aristotle and Aristarchus, Origen adopted a pluralistic approach to Biblical texts which allowed for their fluidity and multivocality. He athetized nothing, but permitted alternative readings in his edition, causing the Hexapla to be a comprehensive rather than a critical edition of the Bible.

I thank the editors for producing this volume that seeks to address the most pressing issue in Classics and Biblical Studies and for hosting the conference in August 2016 where these papers were given. I expect many future collections and monographs addressing and debating decolonialization and decolonization.

Authors and titles

Introduction—Karmen MacKendrick and Jonathan Cahana-Blum
Aeschylus’ Persians: Empathizing with the Enemy, or Orientalizing Them?—Manuela Giordano
Revelation at the Limit: Mystery and Matter after the Valentinians—Karmen MacKendrick
Decolonizing Ancient Sexuality: Three Case Studies—Jonathan Cahana-Blum
Myths as Cultural Vectors: Some reflections on Ancient Greece and Modern Ethnographic Traditions—Luca Pucci
Liberating Levi: A Cultural-Evolutionary Approach to Aramaic and Greek Levi Beyond Denominational Essentialism—Jessica van ‘t Westeinde
Religion and Politics in the Jewish-Christian War in Sixth-century Himyar—Pieter W. van der Horst
The Rape of Lucretia: Sanctity of Body and Soul in Augustine—Makiko Sato
A Fluidity of Canon and Textual Criticism in the Works of Origen—Anna Usacheva

I append a list of typos.
P. 38, “only when” is doubled.
P. 49, “inoculated” instead of ‘inculcated.’
P. 50, extraneous “have produced.”
P. 102, “alomg” instead of ‘along’
P. 103, “tat” instead of ‘that’
P. 112, extraneous “is” in line 8
P. 113, “pudicia” instead of ‘pudicitia,’ and “sanctitia” instead of ‘sanctitas’
P. 116, extraneous “the” in line 9


[1] Joshua Katz writing in the online magazine Quillette, various critical responses to it, e.g. this one in Medium by Vanessa Stovall, with the controversy picked up by Mitch McConnell in the US Senate (New York Post, July, 22, 2020), and another similar piece by David Butterfield in The Spectator (The Spectator, July 18, 2020), with a response reported on by Tiffany Tsoi in Varsity August 22, 2020.