Thursday, March 17, 2011


Bezalel Bar-Kochva, The Image of the Jews in Greek Literature: The Hellenistic Period. Hellenistic Culture and Society 51. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 2010. Pp. xiv, 606. ISBN 9780520253360. $95.00.

Reviewed by Jed Wyrick, California State University, Chico (

Version at BMCR home site


This volume treats surviving passages about Jews written from 333 B.C.E. - 63 B.C.E. by Gentile Greek authors. It provides remarkable depth to materials that, as a result of the format of previous commentaries and compendia, are often read as discrete, de-contextualized artifacts. It also challenges the prevailing scholarly narrative about these passages, claiming that there was little early admiration of the Jews and no steady increase in its opposite in response to historical events.

One of this work's virtues, its insistence that "no reference to the Jews in Hellenistic literature should be interpreted in isolation from its context" (p. 146), is closely tied to its principal flaw: its overconfident historical reconstruction of the context of each passage and frequent recourse to an argumentum ex silentio. The work also over-utilizes source criticism as a means to resolve difficulties in each passage rather than making reasonable efforts to consider these difficulties as the result of attempts by ancient historians and ethnographers to reconcile their esteemed sources with new information.

Bar-Kochva's challenge to traditional scholarly views begins with his argument that Theophrastus had claimed that the Jews burn their sacrificial victims alive. His reading of the passage thus turns the philosopher into an early anti-Jewish calumniator, although he cautions against viewing Theophrastus as "anti-Semitic," describing him instead as merely a witness to early Egyptian anti-Judaism and "no admirer" of the Jews. But Bar-Kochva makes overmuch of a suggested "emendation": to remove the iota subscript from ζῳοθυτεῖν 'to sacrifice animals', reading instead ζωοθυτεῖν 'to sacrifice a victim alive' (in this case by burning). However punctuated in the later manuscript tradition, the word could not have been taken to refer so narrowly to a form of sacrifice involving live animals but not the sacrificial knife without more pointed elaboration. That Theophrastus, by saying "we would be repelled from the act", means himself and his vegetarian followers and not all Greeks is also over-hastily dismissed.

A similarly idiosyncratic reading yields a completely new view of the famous passage by Clearchus on Aristotle's encounter with a learned Jew. In Bar-Kochva's view, Clearchus asserts that Aristotle was not impressed by the Jew but merely shocked that he was able to converse in Greek about learned topics. Bar-Kochva is unwilling to countenance that Clearchus had imagined an Aristotle who was bested by a barbarian. But the eclipse of the famous philosopher by a Jew is no more shocking than the subordination of Socrates to Diotima in Plato's Symposium.

The so-called "excursus" of Hecataeus of Abdera preserved in Diodorus Siculus 40.3 by way of Photius serves as the subject of the next chapter. Bar-Kochva, the author of a 1996 monograph on the falsely attributed passages to Hecataeus in Josephus, rightly gives little credence to views that minimize the heavy usage of Hecataeus' Aegyptiaka by Diodorus in Book 1 of the Histories (see p. 95n12), although more attention should be given to the possible shaping of these sources by Diodorus himself. Simultaneously, Bar-Kochva hypothesizes the existence of an extended "excursus" on the Jews. As a result of these two positions, he is forced to assert that crucial differences between what Hecataeus has to say about the Jews in Diodorus 1.28 and in the "excursus"—namely, whether the Jews are Egyptian by ethnicity or merely by geographical origin—effectively amount to Hecataeus changing his mind (p. 111). The compelling argument of D. R. Schwartz that Diodorus 40.3 recalls connections between the Jews and Spartans promoted during the Hasmonean period and that it is linguistically and thematically incompatible with the Hecataeus of Diodorus Book 1 is briefly and incompletely refuted (pp. 106-7n48).1

Bar-Kochva finds that the famous mention of Jews and Brahmans by Megasthenes indicates that both groups were considered communities of priestly philosophers with opinions similar to the pre-Socratics. However, he finds that Megasthenes made no detailed account of the opinions of the Jews. It was Clement who concluded that early Greek philosophical views were of Indian and Jewish origin by misreading the statement of Megasthenes. In a parallel fashion, Bar-Kochva endeavors to argue that Hermippus of Smyrna's claim that the Jews were the source for Pythagorean customs was part of an attempt to ridicule Pythagoras, treated by Hermippus as "nothing but a cheat and a charlatan" (p. 178), rather than evidence of Greek admiration for the Jews (as Josephus mistakenly or willfully concluded).

The accusation of ancient "anti-Semitism" is downplayed in Bar-Kochva's treatment of Mnaseas of Patara and the ass libel (the charge that the Jews worshipped a statue of an ass in the Jerusalem Temple). While granting that the kernel of Mnaseas' story may derive from anti-Jewish Edomite and Egyptian slander, Bar-Kochva insists that Mnaseas made innocent reference to this story. The Lycian author and cloistered member of the "ivory tower" of the Library of Alexandria is implausibly claimed to have held only positive, Greek and Anatolian views of the ass and to have been ignorant of negative Egyptian attitudes and the animal's associations with Seth-Typhon. Incidentally, it is unlikely that the origin of the connection between the Jews and the ass lies in a pre-existing connection between Moses and Seth or in biblical passages connecting Moses with an ass, as Bar-Kochva suggests; more pertinent is the fact that the ass was the totemic animal of Seth, a god associated with nomads and Semitic aliens residing in Egypt.

In a highly subjective reconstruction of the original sources of a text describing the blood libel attributed by Josephus (in Ap. 2.91-96) to his arch-enemy, Apion, Bar-Kochva (following Elias Bickerman) discerns traces of two originally independent passages stitched together by a redactor he calls "The Seleucid Court Scribe." Bar-Kochva arbitrarily fills out the putative "second source" with details from an entirely different (and sparse) version of the story attributed to Damocritus. The first version of the libel involved a Greek fattened for a year then sacrificed and burned, while the second supposedly involved seizing a Greek foreigner, tearing him apart in a grove and tasting his flesh, and then swearing an oath against foreigners. The blood libel itself was invented by Egyptians, not Greeks, a conclusion Bar-Kochva bases mostly on the fact that the word "Greek" was (allegedly) missing in the original versions (as indicated by a certain "literary awkwardness"). The exercise is unsatisfying from the perspective of source critical, literary, and folklore analysis alike.

According to Bar-Kochva, Agatharchides of Cnidus abbreviated his sources for the capture of Jerusalem by Ptolemy I Soter and used the incident to voice his longstanding dislike of idleness and superstition. Agatharchides did not nourish a grudge against the Jews, although he does mark a transition from the unbiased writings of previous Greek writers to the open hostility of later Greek and Roman treatments. Bar-Kochva argues that Josephus (who preserves the passage by Agatharchides) also made use of an additional, unnamed source for Ptolemy's taking of the city that included explicit reference to the Sabbath. However, a separate source is unnecessary, considering the way that Josephus often attempts to make sense of his sources.

A tendency to engage in unwarranted source criticism is again seen in the chapter on Lysimachus of Alexandria. Here, Bar-Kochva does not notice that Lysimachus seeks to update the traditions he had received (from Manetho and others) and to make them compatible with new or "better" information (such as a new view on when the departure of the Jews from Egypt had really occurred, or the fact that Jews did not suffer inordinately from skin ailments, despite the prominence of these diseases in the origin stories Lysimachus had before him). "Seams" in the story are more likely a result of this process than indications of editorial redaction.

Four chapters on Posidonius of Apamea follow. Running through the footnotes of these chapters is a debate with K. Berthelot's 2003 article that had engaged with an earlier version of these chapters.2 Following a biographical introduction, Bar-Kochva credits Posidonius as the source of the almost entirely positive passage about the Jews in Strabo's Geographica 16.25-45 on the basis of shared features with the surviving work of Posidonius, the fact that Strabo mentions Posidonius over seventy times, and the fact that Posidonius was Strabo's source for the siege of Jerusalem by Antiochus Sidetes. Bar-Kochva correctly treats this description as being in the tradition of both Manetho and the allegedly Hecataean "excursus" on the Jews (that is, Diodorus 40.3). With regard to the debate between Bar-Kochva and Berthelot over whether Moses' Judaism is a cipher for a political ideal (Bar-Kochva's view) or an exact countermodel to the Hasmoneans (Berthelot), I find Bar-Kochva's position more convincing. However, I would agree with Berthelot that the notion of the Golden Age is not relevant to the description of Mosaic Judaism (contra Bar-Kochva, pp. 372-5).

A third chapter on Posidonius explores the description of the siege of Jerusalem by Antiochus VII Sidetes found in Josephus. Here, at least, source criticism bears fruit: Bar-Kochva's division of AJ 13.236-52 into a "long siege story" (based on Strabo and ultimately derived from Posidonius, contra Berthelot) and a "reception story" (based on Nicolaus of Damascus) is helpful and represents definitive treatment of this material. The fourth chapter on Posidonius treats the description of the entrance of Antiochus into the Temple found in Diodorus 34/35 and persuasively argues for a Posidonian derivation. Bar-Kochva is effective in dismissing the hostility of the references to Jewish misanthropy found in the passage from Diodorus, owing to the fact that Posidonius connected such behavior to the eusebeia of Moses. It also seems likely that Apion falsely named Posidonius as a source for the blood libel and the worship of a statue of an ass in the Temple, as Bar-Kochva asserts; but the contention that the original version of the story included the blood libel (allegedly "omitted" by Posidonius) goes beyond the evidence.

Bar-Kochva argues that Timochares served as Posidonius' source, deriving perhaps an excessive number of conclusions from the brief passage and testimonia about the author. Posidonius also serves as a key figure in Bar-Kochva's understanding of Apollonius Molon. He hypothesizes that the rhetorician Molon was the professional rival of the philosopher Posidonius, the other literary giant from the island of Rhodes, and interprets Molon's description of the cowardice of Moses as a riposte against Posidonius' idealistic depiction of the pacifism of Mosaic Judaism. Molon's presentation of the Jews as uncivilized, in turn, is viewed as a reply to Posidonius' description of them as a community of wise men, while Molon's criticisms of the Jews as misanthropic and atheistic are seen by Bar-Kochva as responses to Posidonius' admiration of their piety and conceptualization of the divine.

The book closes with an appendix by Ivor Ludlam entitled "The God of Moses in Strabo." Ludlam's study bolsters Bar-Kochva's claim about the Posidonian origins of Strabo's passage on the Jews. From a philosophical perspective, Ludlam explains that the source of Strabo's characterization of the god of Moses as surrounding earth and sea and called "both heaven and cosmos and the nature of the things-which-are" could only have been Posidonius, slightly reworked by Strabo in common, non-technical language.

The Image of the Jews in Greek Literature gives innovative readings of almost all the texts it considers by casting a wide net to gather information about each author and passage. The result is invigorating and challenging, both when it is most plausible (which holds true especially for many of its conclusions relating to Posidonius) and when not.

[For a response to this review by Bezalel Bar-Kochva, please see BMCR 2011.06.29.]


1.   D. R. Schwartz, "Diodorus Siculus 40.3—Hecataeus or Pseudo Hecataeus?," in A. Oppenheimer and M. Mor, eds., Jews and Gentiles in the Holy Land in the Days of the Second Temple, the Mishnah, and the Talmud, 2 (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2003), 181-98.
2.   K. Berthelot, "Poseidonios d'Apamée et les juifs," Journal for the Study of Judaism 34 (2003) 160-98.

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