BMCR 2022.02.13

Greek genres and Jewish authors: negotiating literary culture in the Greco-Roman era

, Greek genres and Jewish authors: negotiating literary culture in the Greco-Roman era. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2020. Pp. xi, 430. ISBN 9781481312912 $79.99.

Sean Adams’s goal in this ambitious study is to investigate how Jewish authors in the Hellenistic and early Roman periods (between 330 BCE and 117 CE) interacted with “Greek literary culture,” and particularly how they engaged with Greek genres—which ones they used and how they adapted them to their own use. Through an expansive survey of individual works, Adams builds an impressive database for his synthesis, “a macroperspective on the ways that Jewish authors participated in the composition of Greek works and the evolution of Greek genres” (1).

To begin with his macroperspective, Adams draws six conclusions from his survey. First, Greek genres shaped Jewish authors writing in Greek, constraining their compositional practices. Second, genre preferences of Jewish authors changed over time. Third, Jewish authors were selective in their genre tastes, avoiding some (e.g., comedy; see however further below) and embracing others (e.g., historiography). Fourth, the specific genre choices of different authors suggest differences among their levels of Greek education, the aims they hoped to achieve with their texts, and the interests of their intended audiences. Fifth, part of the reason for these different genre choices were the differing levels of Greek education available to Jewish authors over time and across the Greco-Roman world. Six, the “choice of genre and style of composition speak to the nature of ancient Jewish readers and their literary preferences” (18).

To reach these conclusions Adams begins with an introductory chapter that first addresses definitional issues—e.g., Should he treat the Septuagint (no) and works composed by Jews but regarded now as Christian documentary texts, such as the canonical gospels (yes)? The focus of the chapter, though, is on the theoretical framework he develops to guide his study. Adams argues that a framework is essential because the concept of genre is so complex, enmeshed as it is in recipient expectations and authorial choices which are shaped in turn by differing cultural and social influences. For his framework, Adams draws on Ireneusz Opacki’s notion of “royal genres,” a “prototype genre theory” rooted in cognitive psychology, and Alistair Fowler’s typologies of genre evolution. Opacki’s contribution helps Adams account for the way the genres of the dominant Hellenistic culture exerted vertical pressure on Jewish authors’ genre choices; prototype genre theory helps him explain the horizontal relationships among multiple genre choices available to Jewish authors; and Fowler’s categories of genre evolution provide a vocabulary for describing the mixing and matching of genre features in Jewish works written in Greek from the Greco-Roman period.

Adams applies this theoretical framework to Jewish texts sorted into seven different Greek genre categories. The first is Jewish epic poetry: the works of Philo the Epic Poet, Theodotus, and Sosates (chapter 2). He regards texts of this genre to exhibit “the highest levels of Greek literary knowledge and the clearest evidence of Jewish participation in Greek genres” (19) and their authors to have been beneficiaries of advanced Greek education. These authors deployed this thoroughly Greek knowledge to tell the story of the Jews. Adams declares that this shows how “some Jews willingly participated in the literary forms of the dominant culture” (43) even as they sought to define Jewish identity.

In chapter 3 Adams addresses “Other Jewish-Greek Poets” (Ezekiel the Tragedian, Pseudo-Orpheus, the Sibylline Oracles, fragments of Pseudo-Greek poets), concluding that like the Jewish epic poets, they used a typical Greek genre to express uniquely Jewish traditions, and exhibit only slightly less knowledge of Greek literature and Greek education than the epic poets. He does detect among these writers a greater reliance on the LXX.

 Chapter 4 examines didactic literature: Aristobulus, Pseudo-Phocylides, Philo’s Allegorical Commentary and Quaestiones et solutiones, and the Gospel of Thomas (reflecting his inclusion of texts written by Jews but classified as early Christian). Adams acknowledges that the didactic genre also appears in ancient Near Eastern cultures, including among Jews. Adams thinks this broad availability “reinforces the meaningfulness of choosing to participate in Greek genres” (118). Thus, he assigns the nonprototypical features in Jewish didactic works written in Greek to “literary borrowing from similar genres developed in other cultures” (ibid.). Yet in the same extended sentence he acknowledges that “Greek genres are not hermetically sealed from evolution or adaptation” (ibid.). For the significance of this admission, see further below.

Adams treats Jewish philosophical treatises in chapter 5, addressing the Letter of Aristeas, 4 Maccabees, Philo’s De Vita Contemplativa, Josephus’s Against Apion, Pseudo-Clement’s Hom. 4.7–6.25, and so-called “literary letters” (New Testament letters, Baruch, Epistle of Jeremiah, the Epistle of Enoch [1 Enoch 92:1–105:2], and the Epistle of Baruch [2 Baruch 78:1-87:1]). His investigation confirms the widely-held view that these works use philosophical themes and literary forms to connect Jewish and Greek intellectual cultures.

Chapter 6 is devoted to the Jewish novellas Joseph and Aseneth, the Artapanus fragments, and 3 Maccabees (with additional attention given to the additions to LXX: Daniel, Susanna and Bel and the Dragon). Drawing on prototype genre theory, Adams concludes that Joseph and Aseneth, 3 Maccabees, and Artapanus are peripheral to the core genre; they draw on elements of many other genres, including ones from other Jewish works. In a telling admission, Adams concludes by noting that the use of multiple, differing features in single works “reinforces the idea that rigid divisions between Greek and Jewish literature did not exist in the minds of at least some ancient Jewish authors” (199). On this see further below.

In chapter 7 Adams treats historiographic texts: Eupolemus, Pseudo-Eupolemus, Pseudo-Hecataeus, Demetrius the Chronographer, 2 Maccabees, and Josephus’s Jewish War, Antiquities of the Jews, and Vita. He observes that Jewish authors regularly used the basic genre and its subtypes (e.g., chronology, ethnography); they adapted elements of other genres (e.g., biography); they made claims to authorship as did Greeks (unlike Jewish historians writing in Hebrew); and only one work was pseudepigraphal (Pseudo-Hecataeus, On the Jews), which Adams takes to confirm the confidence of Jewish writers in claiming authorship for their histories. It is worth noting in passing, though, that there may be a more basic reason for Jewish writers claiming authorship so readily, a reason that fits better with Adams’ overall hypothesis: in Greco-Roman “competitive historiography” it was only logical to claim authorship.

Finally, in chapter 8 Adams treats biographies: the four canonical gospels, Philo’s On the Life of Moses, On Abraham, On Joseph, and the sections on Moses, Abraham and Joseph in The Exposition of the Law. Adams observes that among the genres he surveys, biographies incorporated the greatest variety of subgenres. He also notes that this genre had the widest temporal distribution among Jewish writers of the genres surveyed (which is hardly surprising in that the genre itself is attested well before, during, and after the period Adams surveys).

I offer here critical responses to three specific claims Adams makes in the work which, taken together, point to a larger critical observation regarding his project. First, in rejecting the notion that Jewish writers wrote comedy in the style of an Aristophanes or Menander Adams is surely correct. But in effectively marginalizing that mode of communicating he also pushes to the side some works composed in Greek that might well have come in for greater attention in his study. For instance, he mentions Testament of Abraham only in a footnote when discussing Bel and the Dragon and Pseudo-Clement, Hom. 4.7–6.25, acknowledging Lawrence Wills’ suggestion that, like those texts, it might be read as a “satirical novella” (296n9). Quite apart from whether one accepts Wills’ designation of the testament as a novella, Adams’ witting omission of the work from consideration is a reminder of the fact that drawing lines between genres is perhaps not as easily done as Adams has to argue to create the seven categories he treats. Indeed, in his commentary on Testament of Abraham Dale Allison resists categorizing the work at all because it is so like “many books from antiquity”: “they are hard to categorize because they mix genres.”[1] To be fair, Adams is completely aware of this problem; this instance merely highlights how much of a problem it might be.

Another moment in his study that gestures toward an underlying weakness in his approach comes when Adams states that “Greek genres are not hermetically sealed from evolution or adaptation” (118). Adams makes the comment in acknowledging the ubiquity of didactic literature in the ancient world. Yet just before that—in the same sentence—he says that in choosing to use the didactic genre the Jewish authors were consciously choosing a Greek genre. Yet by his own admission it seems that one could just as easily say that the Jewish author of a didactic text was consciously using a genre that he or she knew from Greek, Babylonian, Egyptian, or even Jewish literary exemplars. And while some features might be distinctive to Greek instances of the genre, because there is no “hermetic seal” between different cultural expressions of the same genre it is difficult to identify those that are unique as a matter of genre to Greek, Babylonian, Egyptian, or Jewish writers.

A third moment in the study that brings clarity to an underlying issue with Adams’ approach comes in his closing discussion of Jewish novels. Repeating and expanding a quote given above, Adams remarks with respect to novels (perhaps better, novellas) that, “The joining of diverse features to embody one text shows the inherent complexity of literary composition in antiquity and reinforces the idea that rigid divisions between Greek and Jewish literature did not exist in the minds of at least some ancient Jewish authors” (199). Indeed. One thinks of Sylvie Honigman’s argument that many Jewish authors in the Hellenistic world should be viewed as “producing works that are in no significant way different from those produced by any other Hellenistic writer living in the same time and place.”[2]

Taken together these three isolated moments in his study point to a single broad objection some readers might offer regarding the entire enterprise: in spite of the defense that Adams offers against the possibility of the objection (see pgs. 4-5), some of his own conclusions point inexorably toward the notion that genres are far more mixed (Allison) and some writers are far less ethnically self-defining (Honigman) than his categories of “Greek genres” and “Jewish authors” require. The reality of the past and the evidence we have for it in the present might be so complex as to resist even the most valiant attempts to categorize texts and authors according to culturally defined genres and creators. To be sure, Adams recognizes better than most the complexity of the situation; some might argue, though, that the degree of complexity is so great as to vitiate even Adams’ valiant efforts. To be clear, I do not count myself on the side of those who might reject the project’s premises altogether. Indeed, Adams wisely ordered his chapters to address first the Jewish authors who most clearly took up specifically Greek genres and to move from there to the genres less “clean and clear” and authors more difficult to tie to particular, definitively Greek genres. Adams is aware of the varying depth of the ice he chooses to skate on, and for the most part he moves with appropriate care where the ice is thinnest.

Which is to say, in the end: Adams has researched (how he has researched!) and written an expansive and rewarding study. Readers will be well served by dipping into the detailed commentary offered in each of the chapters of this impressive book. Adams deserves our thanks for his efforts.


[1] Dale Allison, Testament of Abraham (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2003), 42.

[2] Sylvie Honigman, The Septuagint and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria: A Study in the Narrative of the ‘Letter of Aristeas’ (London: Routledge, 2003), 6.