BMCR 2021.11.44

Times of transition: Judea in the early Hellenistic period

, , , Times of transition: Judea in the early Hellenistic period. Mosaics: studies on ancient Israel, 1. University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 2021. Pp. 416. ISBN 9781646021147 $129.95.

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

The book under review takes a fresh look at the history of Judea in the period from Alexander’s conquest in 332 BCE to the early years of Seleucid domination, which it approaches from an archaeological, historical and literary perspective. Most of the essays were first given at the International Conference “Judea in the Long Third Century BCE. The Transition between the Persian and the Hellenistic Periods” held in Tel Aviv in 2014. They aim at presenting new research approaches placing studies on Judea in a broader view from both a geographical and a chronological point of view, and studying changes and continuities.

The volume is divided into five parts. It begins with an introduction by Sylvie Honigman focusing on the changes in the various fields of study which have cast new light on the history of the period under examination. A summary of the essays and a presentation of possible new ways of research follow.

The first set of essays begins with a paper by Lester Grabbe, who asks whether the Ptolemaic period was a “dark age” in Jewish history. According to the author, our knowledge of Judea in Hellenistic times could be greatly expanded. Archaeological evidence suggests great continuity between Persian and Hellenistic times and scholars should try to deepen these aspects from other sources: Greek stories, inscriptions, papyri of great importance that have not always been adequately studied. Catharine C. Lorber discusses the chronology of the fifth Syrian war. She shows how the literary evidence on which Maurice Holleaux founded his thesis in 1908 should now be revised based on evidence from coinage and epigraphic and papyrological documents. Stefan Pfeiffer describes the importance of Jaffa/Joppe, an old and great port on the coast of ancient Phoenicia, “one of the central bases of Ptolemaic dominion over the province Syria kai Phoinikē“. He studies an inscription found in a catacomb that is one of the oldest Greek inscriptions found in Israel. It is particularly significant as it sheds light on the representation of the king’s victories in the Ptolemaic empire and on the perception of Ptolemy, who is called “Great King”. David S. Vanderhooft examines the precursors of the so-called “Jewish script(s)” and in what sense these writings were or were not related to the Jewish ethnos in the Ptolemaic era. He considers the distinction made by F.M. Cross of three distinct script groups which he called paleo-Hebrew, Aramaic, and Jewish and of three chronological phases. He criticizes the theses of other scholars including Dušek[1] and argues that the introduction of the monumental Aramaic script in Judea had no ethnic connotation.

The second group of essays deals with the history of rural settlements in Judea and in the neighboring regions from the sixth to the mid-second century BCE. Nitsan Shalom, Oded Lipschits, Noa Shatil and Yuval Gadot mainly deal with the elements of continuity and change in the pattern of rural settlements based on recent excavations. The authors highlight how in the transition period from the Iron Age to the Persian period there was much greater continuity than in the passage from Persian to Hellenistic times. The following essays speak about the finds from Kirbet Qeyafa and Tel Azekah: Yoseph Garfinkel deals with the late Persian and early Hellenistic material remains and differentiates pottery from different periods based on the discovery of coins in different areas; Yoav Farhi studies the types of coins circulating during the period and suggests that the sites formed a Ptolemaic cleruchy; while Igor Kreimerman and Debora Sandhaus study the new ceramic finds and formulate an hypothesis on the dating of several sites.

The third part begins with the construction of the artificial port of Akko/Acre. It is normally considered linked to the military operations which the Persians led in Egypt but in Gambash’s view the harbor must have been built after the refoundation of Akko by Ptolemy II Philadelphus and it must have been built for commercial reasons. Andrea M. Berlin and Sharon C. Herbert analyse some relevant governmental changes which occurred in the passage from Achaemenid to Ptolemaic dominion. Boris Chrubasik highlights the privileged interrelations existing in the Seleucid empire between the central empire and local elites. Damien Agut-Labordère opposes the thesis that the second Persian domination (342-336 BCE)—unlike Alexander’s period—was a time of oppression for the Egyptian temples in Egypt, while Gilles Gorre analyzes the changes which occurred in the relations between Egyptian temples in Egypt and the royal administration in Ptolemaic times. Sylvie Honigman studies the work of the scribes in the production of literary works in the Hellenistic period. She believes that some writings were produced by scribes linked to the temple, others by scribes dependent on the royal bureau, and that one cannot think that literate circles linked to different institutions should necessarily have different positions, for example with respect to Hellenization.

The fourth part of the book deals with the Greek translations and receptions of the Bible: the identity of the recipient of the translation of the Seventy (Timothy H. Lim); and the status of the Greek text and its relationship to the Hebrew source with respect to texts originally composed in Greek and the probability of the translators being scribes within the Ptolemaic administration (Benjamin G. Wright). Martin Rösel draws a comparison between the Hebrew and Greek text and argues that many differences are clearly a matter of translation. In support of his thesis he brings some examples of the account of the creation and the subsequent stories of the flood and of the giants to show how the translators have often used Platonic or Herodotean categories. According to Rösel the differences “between the Greek and the Hebrew text show the translator’s willingness to adapt the Greek text to the culture of the times” (p. 256), including the emergence of certain forms of messianism and specific anthropological ideas such as the appearance of the Greek idea of a mind-body dichotomy. Reinhard G. Kratz deals with the Greek historians’ comments on Jews and Judaism in the third century BCE, in particular Berossus, Manetho, and Hecataeus. He notes how Berossus’ and Manetho’s reference to biblical history appear only in the commentaries of late epitomators and reiterates how the works reported in the name of Hecateus are in fact to be attributed to a pseudo-Hecataeus. These facts raise the question of the literary strategies pursued by authors like Diodorus, Josephus, Eusebius and Photius who designated one or the other of these authors as their sources.

The fifth part of the book concerns biblical texts in the third century BCE. It begins with Konrad Schmid’s work on the strategies for identifying texts of the Ptolemaic period in the Hebrew Bible, suggesting that we may date many prominent texts to the third century BCE. There are three plausible approaches: the first proposes a Ptolemaic date for Hebrew texts which are missing from the earliest Greek translations; the second concerns the texts which allude to Alexander the Great or which attribute stories about Alexander to biblical characters; the third considers the texts that presuppose the fall of the Persian empire and regard it as a cosmic judgment. Hervé Gonzalez discusses the dating of prophetic texts and explores the possibility that certain passages are from the Hellenistic period, while Sylvie Honigman discusses the social setting of early Judean apocalyptic literature. One hypothesis is that apocalypticism was a form of “resistance” against foreign oppression in Hellenistic times; another is the idea that apocalyptic literature is an innovative hermeneutic relating to texts compiled in Persian times. Manfred Oeming analyses the fictionality of many anti-Jewish pogrom stories before the Maccabean crisis, arguing that the accounts of massacres of Jews were a literary motif linked to a sense of insecurity felt by the Jews in early Hellenistic times.

The book is very rich and complex. The breadth of its perspectives allows readers to have a look at many aspects of the topic.  This is helpful, but at the same time the breadth of perspective and vastness of topics mean that the various articles are not always in dialogue with each other and a certain vagueness results. I found particularly interesting the theses on the functions and aims of the Greek Pentateuch by Martin Rösel, the chapter on retelling stories about Alexander by Konrad Schmid and Sylvie Honigman’s presentation of the emergence of apocalypses as a hermeneutical schift. But I believe all are useful for anyone who wishes to study these topics.

Authors and Titles

Sylvie Honigman, Introduction
Part I. The Chronological Frame, Politics and Identity
1. Lester Grabbe, The Ptolemaic Period: A Dark Age in Jewsh History?
2. Catharine C. Lorber, Numismatic Evidence and the Chronology of the Fifth Syrian War
3. Stefan Pfeiffer, The Representation of the Victorious King. Comments on the Dedication of a Statue of Ptolemy IV in Jaffa (SEG 20.467=CIIP 3.2172)
4. David S. Vanderhooft, Aramaic, Paleo-Hebrew and “Jewish” Scripts in the Ptolemaic Period

Part II. The History of Rural Settlement in Judea
5. Nitsan Shalom, Oded Lipschits, Noa Shatil and Yuval Gadot, Judah in the Early Hellenistic Period: An Archaeological Perspective
6. Yoseph Garfinkel, Khirbet Qeiyafa in the Late Persian and Early Hellenistic Periods
7. Yoav Frahi, Coin Circulation in Judea during the Persian Hellenistic Transition: A View from the Elah Valley
8. Igor Kreimerman and Débora Sandhaus, Political Trends as Reflected in the Material Culture: A New Look at the Transition between the Persian and the Early Hellenistic Periods

Part III. The Workings of Empires in Local and Comparative Perspectives
9. Gil Gambash, The Harbor of Acco-Ptolemaïs: Dates and Functions
10.  Andrea M. Berlin and Sharon C. Herbert, The Achaemenid-Ptolemaic Transition: The View from Southern Phoenicia
11. Boris Chrubasik, Sanctuaries, Priest-Dynasts and the Seleukid Empire
12. Damien Agut-Labordère, Gods in the Grey Zone: A Political History of Egyptian Temples from Artaxerxes III to the End of the Argeadai (342-ca. 305 BCE)
13. Gilles Gorre, Sacred and Secular Activities in the Egyptian Temple Precints (temenē) in the 3rd Century BCE
14. Sylvie Honigman, Searching for the Social Location of Literate Judean Elites in Early Hellenistic Times: A Non-Linear History of the Temple and Royal Administrations in Judea

Part IV. The Pentateuch: Early Greek Translations and Receptions
15. Timothy H. Lim, The Idealization of Ptolemaic Kingship in the Legend of the Origins of the Septuagint
16. Benjamin G. Wright, The Production of Greek Books in Alexandrian Judaism
17. Martin Rösel, The Septuagint: Translating and Adapting the Torah to the 3rd Century BCE
18. Reinhard G. Kratz, Greek Historians on Jews and Judaism in the 3rd Century BCE

Part V. Biblical Texts in the Third Century BCE
19. Konrad Schmid, How to identify a Ptolemaic Period Text in the Hebrew Bible
20. Hervé Gonzalez, No Prophetic Texts from the Hellenistic Period? Methodological, Philological and Historical Observations on the Writing of Prophecy in Early Hellenistic Judea
21. Sylvie Honigman, The Social Setting and Purpose of Early Judean Apocalyptic Literature Between resistance Literature and Literate Hermenutics
22. Manfred Oeming, To be destroyed, to be killed, to be annihilated” (Esther 7:4): Historicity and Fictionality of Anti-Jewish Progrom Stories before the Maccabean Crisis


[1] J. Dušek, Aramaic and Hebrew Inscriptions from Mt. Gerizim and Samaria between Antiochus III and Antiochus IV Epiphanes (Culture and History of the Ancient Near East, 54), Leiden 2012, 5. In this work Dušek questioned the distinctions introduced by Cross and proposed the designation of “monumental” instead of “lapidary” Aramaic for the scripts. He also proposed to eschew the designation “proto-Jewish” in favour of “Aramaic cursive”. He maintained that, if it is appropriate, the term “proto-Jewish”should be related to the province of Judah, while the Gerizim inscriptions come from Samaria.