BMCR 2023.09.04

Turmoil, trauma and tenacity in early Jewish literature

, , Turmoil, trauma and tenacity in early Jewish literature. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2022. Pp. 285. ISBN 9783110784893.


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


Applying contemporary categories to ancient materials has rewards and risks. On the one hand, it can demonstrate the relevance of antiquity to life in the twenty-first century and foster insightful new ways of investigating well-traveled materials. On the other hand, it can unproductively force ancient sources into a procrustean bed of confounding hermeneutics that obscure more than illuminate. These essays, which were based on presentations at the 2019 international congress of the Hungaro-South African Study Group, purport to show how several early Jewish texts offer insight on personal and communal trauma. As argued by Nicholas Peter Legh Allen in the “Introduction”, trauma studies can be “an effective hermeneutic lens for interpreting biblical texts and the contexts in which they were produced and functioned” (p.2). Authors might incorporate into a text their experience of trauma, “an unexpected or overwhelming violent event or events”  (p.2).  Since trauma theory has primarily been applied to the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, the contributors focus on texts of the Second Temple period such as Josephus and the Books of Daniel, Judith, and Tobit.

The essays are distributed into four sections loosely based on genre—Wisdom Writings, Educational Stories/Legends, Historiography, Septuagint and New Testament—and offer a mosaic of insights about trauma and literature. The primary contention of the book, that trauma “complicates the individual’s grasp of the past and its continuity with the present” (pp.2-3) makes sense.  For instance, Steenkamp astutely remarks in his chapter on “The Historiography of Trauma in Josephus,” that, as an eyewitness survivor of the Jewish War culminating in the destruction of the Second Temple, Josephus sought understanding from his readers if his emotions improperly colored his presentation of the events (The Jewish War 1.9-11; 5.20). There are some additional insightful readings scattered throughout the essays. Jordaan broadly construes the implied audience for the martyrdom narratives in Second Maccabees byobserving that these stories include representatives of multiple sections of Judean society. Gericke raises an interesting question of why the trauma of a father would lead to commissioning a statue followed by worship of the dead as a coping mechanism. Gericke also convincingly argues that the Wisdom of Solomon’s explanation for the origin of idolatry derives from contemporary philosophical critique not necessarily Euhemerism. He further thoughtfully observes that the annual worship of the statue of a dead child results in a continuous cycle of trauma through remembrance.  Unfortunately, the occasional perceptiveness of the erudite contributors does not prevent the book as a whole from being disjointed and unpersuasive.

The organization of the essays does not clarify matters. The grouping of the contributionsinto the four sections seems arbitrary and unproductive. Not only do the categories blur the overlapping criteria of genre, content, method, and canonical collection, recent scholarship has rejected the construction of Wisdom as a genre and instead utilizes the classification, “didactic content”.[1] While efforts to distinguish trauma as represented in literature from actual trauma are encouraging—Risimati S. Hobyane’s “The Performative Function of Turmoil, Trauma, and Tenacity in Judith 1-8 is a good example—, it is difficult to grasp the benefits of examining trauma according to a wisdom genre whose existence is contestable.

The “Introduction” further confuses the relationship between trauma and its literary representation.  Here Allen references literary trauma theory espoused by Christopher Frechette and Elizabeth Boase, who underscore how trauma encoded in texts can serve as witnesses to trauma and contribute to “recovery and resilience” (p.2).[2] Trauma, according to Cathy Caruth, as cited by Allen, is the reaction to a devastating event that may “return later in repeated flashbacks, nightmares, and other repetitive phenomena” (p.2).[3] The powerful experience of actual trauma does not obviously correlate with the literary representation of trauma especially if the literary work is composed long after the traumatic event. This can result in a problematic blurring of the distinction between what might be traumatic with real trauma. For example, Friedrich Vinzenz Reiterer, “Afflictions and Trauma in the Book of Ben Sira: Investigations into the Suffering of the Poor and Injury by Speaking,” assumes that the poor living among the rich are traumatized because of the power differential (Ben Sira 13:3, 18), and by means of language. This argument is no more plausible than the likelihood that Ben Sira, a member of the Jerusalem elite, is representing his own anxieties about potentially experiencing poverty and malicious language. Similarly, while Esther, in both Hebrew (4:4) and Greek (14:1-2) is described as deeply distressed, it does not fit the book’s definition of trauma because the event has not yet happened.

Perhaps fear of a potentially traumatic event is the trauma, which raises the question of whether one can or should differentiate between trauma and deep distress. In the case of Josephus, Johan Steenkamp, in “The Historiography of Trauma in Josephus”, circumspectly acknowledges the difficulty of determining individual and collective trauma and more modestly examines how trauma might influence historiography. Citing Odysseus and Aeneas, who are represented as being traumatized by the retelling of their traumatic experiences from the distant past, he suggests that Josephus’s direct eye-witnessing of the defeat of the Judeans and destruction of the Second Temple may have impacted his historical compositions. This explains why Josephus does not completely adhere to the Tacitean principle of writing history sine ira et studio. Nevertheless, Steenkamp acknowledges that, while context matters, it is difficult to recover Josephus’s inner disposition. Since his prolific literary output with its occasional self-serving tone equally suggests that Josephus was not traumatized, Steenkamp’s argument is plausible, but not overwhelmingly convincing. The rubric, “Septuagint and the New Testament” is especially puzzling. For example, it is unclear why the Septuagint matters as a source in Gert J. Steyn’s “A Matrix for Matriarchs: Early Jewish Receptions of the Trauma of Female Sterility and Tenacity in Faith.” Since the taxonomy of narrative rubrics for barren women listed on pages 131-136 also appear in the Hebrew, we do not know if barrenness was traumatic in Israelite society rather than Hellenistic Jewish society.

This points to another issue with the book, the use of evidence by some of the authors. For example, Ibolya Balla “Walking in the Ways of Righteousness: Trauma and Tenacity in the Book of Job and the Book of Tobit” contends that Tobit’s commitment to a Deuteronomic theology in contrast to the theology of the Book of Job can be attributed to its diaspora provenance. Not only is there no evidence for this claim, some scholars have begun to question whether such a category as “diaspora” is productive.[4] While it is fair to claim that “speech utterances” include the reader in the stories and experiences of trauma, turmoil, and tenacity, the examples provided by Risimati S. Hobyane’s “The Performative Function of Turmoil, Trauma and Tenacity in Judith 1-8: A Speech Act Contribution” refer to narrative about speech acts, not the speech acts themselves (Judith 4:4-15) or mixes narratives and the actual speech acts (Judith 7). While the author correctly identifies these speech acts about turmoil and trauma as a literary strategy in Judith, regrettably omitted is any discussion about Second Maccabees 6:7-17, which specifically frames the subsequent narratives as a literary strategy with a didactic theology that might traumatize the reader. Even the piece specifically devoted to the martyrdom narratives in Second Maccabees, Pierre J. Jordaan’s “The Martyr Narratives in 2 Maccabees 6:18-7:42: Trauma, Topoi and Performance”, fails to address the introduction to the narratives. Therefore, Jordaan unconvincingly speculates that the martyr’s speeches would likely have impacted the audience. The author of Second Maccabees explicitly refers not to the speeches, but to the incidents of a mother executed while nursing or Jews being burned alive as potentially traumatizing to the reader (2 Macc. 6:10-11).

Despite the book’s title, less attention is given to the causes of trauma, i.e., “turmoil” and effective responses to trauma, i.e., “tenacity.”  This is not objectionable per se, except that many of the essays do not distinguish between what probably caused trauma and whether there is actual emotional and physical pain, and what classifies as the representation of that pain. For example, living in diaspora, destruction of the Second Temple, or barrenness might generate personal and communal trauma, but this is only an assumption. Much of the evidence marshalled in this book leaves the reader wondering whether we are dealing with the trauma of the Jewish community or the trauma of the ancient author or an empathetic artistic representation of trauma.

The authors are to be commended for acknowledging that the depiction of trauma can be used as a literary strategy, may evoke or re-evoke trauma in the reader, and may influence the author who experienced trauma. Nevertheless, the reader will be left frustrated and unconvinced by how these topics are to be understood in Hellenistic Jewish texts. The authors raise insightful questions, while the answers remain obscured in the analyses of specific texts.


Authors and Titles

Nicholas Peter Legh Allen “Introduction”


I. Wisdom Writings

Friedrich Vinzenz Reiterer “Afflictions and Trauma in the Book of Ben Sira: Investigations into the Suffering of the Poor and Injury by Speaking”

Jaco Gericke “Trauma and the Origin of Idolatry in Wisdom 14:15 Within the Broader Religious-Philosophical Context”


II. Educational Stories/Legends

Helen Efthimiadis-Keith “Trauma, Purity, and Ritual in LXX Esther’s Prayer”

Ibolya Balla “Walking in the Ways of Righteousness: Trauma and Tenacity in the Book of Job and the Book of Tobit”

Francis M. Macatangay “Divine Punishment and Trauma in the Book of Tobit”

Mirjam Piplica “Triumph over Trauma in Tobit (GII): Family Identity as a Model for the Jewish Family in the Diaspora”

Risimati S. Hobyane “The Performative Function of Turmoil, Trauma and Tenacity in Judith 1-8: A Speech Act Contribution”


III. Historiography

Pierre J. Jordaan “The Martyr Narratives in 2 Maccabees 6:18-7:42: Trauma, Topoi and Performance”

Aaron L. Beek “The Hostages’ Tales: The Effects of Prisoners’ Trauma on the Writings of Polybius and Josephus”

Johan J. Steenkamp “The Historiography of Trauma in Josephus”


IV. Septuagint and New Testament

Gert J. Steyn “A Matrix for Matriarchs: Early Jewish Receptions of the Trauma of Female Sterility and Tenacity in Faith”

Jaap J. T. Doedens. “Tenacity’s Trailhead: The Source of Resilience in 4 Ezra and the New Testament Compared”



[1] Will Kynes. An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature”: The Birth, Death, and Intertextual Reintegration of a Biblical Corpus. United Kingdom: OUP Oxford, 2019.

[2] Christopher G. Frechette and Elizabeth Boase, “Defining ‘Trauma’ as a Useful Lens for Biblical Interpretation,” in Bible Through the Lens of Trauma, eds. Elizabeht Boase and Christpher G. Frechette. SBLSS 86 (Atlanta, GA: SBL, 2016), p.10.

[3] Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, History (Baltimore, MD: JHU, 1996}, p.91.

[4] Aryay Finkelstein, “Fitting a Square Peg into a Round Hole: Categorizing Works of Jewish Historiography of the Second Temple Period,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 49(2) 2018.