Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Maren Niehoff, Jewish Exegesis and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xiv, 222. ISBN 9781107000728. $85.00.

Reviewed by Phillip Michael Sherman, Maryville College (

Version at BMCR home site


Niehoff opens her work with the observation that "Jewish Bible exegesis in Alexandria has often been regarded as a marginal phenomenon or a puzzling hybrid." Within both Jewish and Classical Studies, such opinions were very often the result of a greater focus on later "normative" rabbinic approaches to reading and interpreting the Hebrew Bible or a desire on the part of scholars to look for inchoate approaches which became central in early Christian readings of the Old Testament. Niehoff seeks to correct such marginalizing tendencies and to demonstrate that, while Alexandrian Jewish biblical exegesis was hybridized, it was much less puzzling than has been previously believed. She takes as her starting point the practice of literal Homeric scholarship popularized in Alexandria, particularly under the work of Aristarchus. She systematically re-reads a number of Jewish exegetical works produced in Alexandria in light of the larger conversations concerning the reception and interpretation of the Homeric epics in the last few centuries before the Common Era. Niehoff's unique contribution is to read Jewish exegetical works in light of un-translated scholia on the Homeric epics. The inclusion of this "new" material in a presentation of Alexandrian Jewish biblical interpretation is one of the signal contributions of Niehoff's work.

The monograph is divided into three sections. Part One covers early Jewish responses to Homeric scholarship during the Ptolemaic period. Chapter One explores the account of the translation of the Hebrew Bible into the Greek language found in the Letter of Aristeas. Niehoff sees the author of the letter drawing on technical, text-critical language associated with Homeric scholarship in order to argue that such scholarship is illegitimate when applied to the Greek text of the Hebrew Bible. In the context of Homeric scholarship, certain verses would be marked with critical signs, an obelus or asterisk, to indicate a belief that the verse was an addition made to the manuscript in its scribal transmission or that the verse was currently located in the wrong location. Such text critical work was one method of dealing with elements of the Homeric epics which seemed problematic to its Alexandrian readers. This type of critical work is most associated with Aristarchus. The author of the Letter of Aristeas was less concerned with narrating an account of the translation of the Jewish Scriptures from Hebrew to Greek, than asserting the production of an "authentic" Greek manuscript which should not be tampered with. Niehoff claims that some Jewish scholars were applying Aristarchan text-critical techniques to the Jewish Scriptures and that "the author (of the letter) reacted to the activity of his colleagues by offering an authentic Greek text of the Bible, which must be protected against critical work" (27). He utilizes the language of textual scholarship to argue that the Greek text of the Hebrew Bible is beyond such scholarship.

Chapters Two and Three deal with Jewish interpreters, Demetrius and Aristobulus, whose work exists only in fragmentary form in the later work of the early Christian historian, Eusebius. Niehoff contrasts the attitude towards critical scholarship in the Letter of Aristeas with the work of Demetrius, whose fragments indicate a "positive connection between biblical and Homeric scholarship" (38). She explores the similarities between Demetrius' concern with contradictions between various biblical passages and similar concerns regarding a desire for Homeric non-contradiction, particular in Aristotle's influential Aporemata Homerica. Both Aristotle and Demetrius employ similar methods to resolve such contradictions and Niehoff suggests that Demetrius' questions "could equally have been raised by Aristotle, had he come across the Jewish Scriptures" (44). Niehoff also points to a shared concern with verisimilitude in both Homeric scholarship and the fragments of Demetrius. How does the traditional text and its claims align with what is known from "an external reality accessible by other disciplines?" (46) One method of resolving such questions of verisimilitude was to develop a theory of poetry which made fantastic claims intelligible from a larger narrative perspective. Niehoff concludes her analysis of Demetrius by examining several examples of his exegetical work and by making a rather intriguing suggestion that the "question and answer" style of his biblical interpretation has some parallels to later rabbinic modes of biblical interpretation. Chapter Four is devoted to Aristobulus, an interpreter who uses many of the same techniques as Demetrius, but does so to serve larger philosophical goals. Niehoff styles him an "Aristotelian scholar … who offers metaphorical solutions to textual problems" (58). While Demetrius' fragments seem to focus on particular contradictions, Aristobulus begins with much larger, philosophically driven, questions: what does it mean to claim that God "descended" on Mt. Sinai, how might an Alexandrian reader make sense of the anthropomorphic imagery associated with the Israelite God, or how can it be that God is said to "rest" at the conclusion of the story of creation in Genesis 1? While his questions are broad ranging, Aristobulus provides answers by textual comparison of the biblical materials. In the case of the descent of the Israelite God upon Mt. Sinai, Aristobulus draws from a passage in Deut. 5: 23 which offers another narration of the event and states explicitly that the 'mountain was burning with fire.' A mountain engulfed in flames is the proper meaning of the statement that God "descended" on the Mt. Sinai in Exodus. Niehoff states that "Aristobulus remained remarkably faithful to the literal text … He neither adopts the language of secrecy nor implies that Moses has intentionally hidden his message" (63). In this regard, he is a precursor of Philo.

Part Two is focused on reading the works of Philo to determine the interpretive positions rejected by Alexandria's most famous biblical expositor. There is, necessarily, a good amount of reconstructing the views of unnamed others in Niehoff's methodology. Chapter Five focuses on the narrative of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11) to examine Philo's rejection of comparative mythology as a methodology for interpreting biblical texts. Philo's treatise On the Confusion of Languages opens with a lengthy polemic against unnamed "others" who question the verisimilitude of the narrative of the building of the Tower of Babel and point to a similar story in the Odyssey. These "others" also highlight a narrative known from Callimachus concerning the confusion of animal languages. The approach adopted by these anonymous, presumably Jewish, readers with whom Philo disagrees, views biblical texts as more refined and rational versions of myths known from other nations. Despite Philo's objections, Niehoff states they "emerge as careful scholars, who applied Aristotelian and Alexandrian notions of scholarship to the Jewish Scriptures. Their hermeneutic assumptions were comparative and universalistic, holding the Bible and Homer's epics to be the same kind of literary work." (92) It was the literary parity attributed to Scripture and Homer, as well as their non-allegorical approach, which appears to have been rejected by Philo. The treatment of the near-sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22) in Philo's De Abrahamo is the subject of Chapter Six. The exegetical opponents of Philo in this case argue that child sacrifice, and therefore the story of Isaac, should be understood in light of both contemporaneous (barbarian) cultures and the history of child sacrifice in the ancient world. A problematic element in a traditional text is here resolved by positing historical distance and an understanding of the development of tradition and religious practice. Aristotle addressed such problems with regard to Homer in the Aporemata Homerica. Philo's opponents seem to be advocating the "legitimacy of historical approaches to Scripture" and making the claim that "Scripture evolved over time and implies a development of the religion." This was in contrast to the more conservative approach of Philo which claimed the Mosaic Torah "reflects an eternal, unchanging truth" if it is interpreted properly. (95) For Philo, the Torah of Moses was to be equated with the unchanging laws of Nature; historical change and development were not theologically possible. Chapter Seven contains a number of smaller examples of Alexandrian Homeric methods of interpretation connected to the Hebrew Bible. These include notions of grammatical "flaws" with regard to the Greek text of the Hebrew Bible. Philo, ignorant of the Hebrew language, always sought some deeper meaning in such "flaws" while other Jewish exegetes were more willing to correct the text to bring it into conformity with Greek linguistic norms.

Part Three is focused on situating the interpretive work of Philo and the various subgroups of his literary corpus against the background of Homeric scholarship in Alexandria. Niehoff styles Part Three the "inversion" of Homeric scholarship by Philo. Chapter Eight is dedicated to Philo's Allegorical Commentary and attempts to explain both his devotion to the literal words of the Greek text of the Hebrew Bible (an Aristotelian, literal approach) and his use of such close textual reading in the explication of the allegorical meaning (a Platonic approach) of the text. Niehoff suggests that the implied audience of the Allegorical Commentary was skeptical of Philo's allegorical approach.

"Philo is primarily an allegorical reader of Scripture, but he continues (the) tradition of literal exegesis. Like his Aristotelian predecessors he is committed to the authorial meaning of Scripture and investigates contradictions in the text as a challenge to the notion of one consistent author. In contrast to them, however, he no longer solves such problems on the literal level but uses contradictions as an instrument to move from the literal to the non-literal level." (140).

Chapter Nine examines the place of Questions and Answers on Genesis and Exodus and their relationship to Philo's other interpretive works. Unlike the Allegorical Commentary, which Niehoff imagines as scholarly and persuasive in its intent, the Questions and Answers assume the legitimacy of the allegorical approach to biblical texts. In these works Philo speaks as a teacher who is providing answers to troubling aspects of the biblical text. His rhetoric is also sharper with regard to other readers of Scripture than it is in the Allegorical Commentary. Niehoff claims that Philo's intellectual reputation and political influence allow him the ability to ignore the text-critical work of other Alexandrian Jewish readers, a group he had attempted to persuade in the Allegorical Commentaries. Niehoff makes the intriguing suggestion that "in Judaism the emergence of orthodox structures is usually associated with the rabbinic movement, but Philo clearly anticipates the sages of the Land of Israel." (155). She also situates the Question and Answer method within the larger Alexandrian context. The exact nature of the social setting which stands behind the Questions and Answers, despite some possible clues in the work of Philo, remains speculative.

In Chapter Ten Niehoff explores the Exposition of the Law which she takes to be a work aimed at a non-Jewish audience and dating from the end of Philo's career. The purpose of the Exposition is to explain and demonstrate the rationality of the Mosaic Torah to its cultured despisers. The genre of commentary, with its focus on the literal text, is eclipsed by a greater concern with a discussion of important themes and well-known Jewish practices, such as circumcision. The Exposition, therefore, is furthest in spirit from the Alexandrian context in which Philo first developed and argued for his literal and textual based allegorical approach. In these earlier works, "Philo was concerned to establish a separate discourse of Jewish hermeneutics, which relies on critical methods shared by Homeric scholarship, while using them to demonstrate the uniqueness of the Jewish Scripture." (185) In the Exposition, he is determined to defend Judaism.

Niehoff's work clearly and carefully situates the work of Philo in its broader Alexandrian context. Her consistent use of sources largely unavailable to many scholars, particularly for those concerned with the history of Jewish biblical interpretation, makes her work an invaluable touchstone for future studies of Philo. One intriguing theme running throughout the work is Niehoff's ability to demonstrate the ways in which the hermeneutics of Philo and other Alexandrian exegetes anticipate or connect with later rabbinic modes of reading. Scholars of rabbinic texts should pay careful attention and begin the process of evaluating her suggestions. Niehoff demonstrates that, contrary to the traditional view which sees Alexandrian Jewish biblical scholarship as "unique" in the history of Jewish biblical interpretation, the work of these named and unnamed exegetes may actually have more in common with other Jewish readers than has previously been thought. They are not a "marginal phenomenon" nor a "puzzling hybrid."

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