Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Pieter W. van der Horst, Studies in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. Ancient Judaism and early Christianity, 87. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2014. Pp. xiii, 307. ISBN 9789004271043. $163.00.

Reviewed by Matthew V. Novenson, University of Edinburgh (matthew.novenson@ed.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site


Pieter Willem van der Horst, long a distinguished scholar of ancient Mediterranean religions, became something of an international cause célèbre in 2006, when his valedictory lecture on the occasion of his retirement from the Chair of Early Christian and Early Jewish Studies at the University of Utrecht was allegedly censored by the university's rector magnificus for its potential to incite outrage among Muslim constituencies in Utrecht. That lecture, entitled "The Myth of Jewish Cannibalism," traced the longstanding chauvinist trope that charges Jews with eating human flesh from its origins in Graeco-Roman sources through medieval Christian legend down to modernity, including social propaganda in Nazi Germany and in some present-day majority-Muslim communities. It was this lattermost part of the lecture that seems to have raised concerns among the university administration, according to van der Horst's account in a widely read 2006 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, "Tying Down Academic Freedom" (30 June 2006). In the eight years since the turbulent events surrounding his retirement, van der Horst has been far from idle, and Studies in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity represents the fruit of his labors during that period. The book comprises some 24 essays on a wide range of topics in ancient Judaism and Christianity, all previously published between 2006 and 2014. The full, unexpurgated Dutch text of van der Horst's valedictory lecture, which was published by Uitgeverij Aspekt in 2006, has not been reprinted here; but an abbreviated English translation of it, originally published in Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities 8/3 (2008), does comprise ch. 17 of this volume. Readers may come for "The Myth of Jewish Cannibalism" and stay for the many other similarly learned essays on topics that lie just a bit off the beaten path of ancient Jewish and Christian studies.

There is little in the way of an organizing principle to the essays here assembled. They simply represent van der Horst, 2006–2014. But this aspect of the book is entirely clear up front. The title, Studies in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, is appropriately capacious. As the author explains in the preface, "This volume does not make any grand claims about the thematic unity of its chapters…. They reflect my research interests in the six or seven years since my early retirement in 2006: Jewish epigraphy, Jewish interpretation of the Bible, Jewish prayer culture, the diaspora in Asia Minor, exegetical problems in the writings of Philo and Josephus, Samaritan history, texts from ancient Christianity which have received little attention…, and miscellanea" (ix). The 24 chapters are not subdivided into parts, but they are roughly ordered with an eye to topical affinity rather than, say, date of publication. Thus chs. 1–4 address several puzzles in ancient Jewish scriptural interpretation: "The Site of Adam's Tomb"; "Bitenosh's Orgasm (1QapGen 2:9–15)"; "At Abraham's Table: Early Jewish Interpretations of Genesis 18:8"; and "Moses' Father Speaks Out." Chapters 56 are notes on some problem texts in Philo and ch. 7 likewise for Josephus: "Philo and the Problem of God's Emotions"; "Two Short Notes on Philo"; and "Philosophia epeisaktos: Some Notes on Josephus, Ant. 18.9." Chapters 8–10 are a miscellany on texts both literary and epigraphic, Jewish and pagan: "Biblical Quotations in Judaeo–Greek Inscriptions"; "Did the Gentiles Know Who Abraham Was?"; and "The Provenance of 2 Enoch 69–73: Jewish or Christian?" Chapters 11–13 are a cluster of studies on Jewish prayer in antiquity: "Greek Philosophical Elements in Some Judaeo–Christian Prayers"; "Mystical Motifs in a Greek Synagogal Prayer?"; and "A Qedushat ha- Yom in Greek." Most of chs. 16–24 are miscellanea, with the exception of chapters 19–21, which cluster around several little-known early Christian texts: "A Short Note on the Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizati"; "Consolation from Prison: Mara bar Sarapion and Boethius"; and "Cyrus: A Forgotten Christian Poet." The topically diverse chapters 16–18 and 22–24 treat a number of interesting, even whimsical subjects in ancient Jewish, Christian, and pagan sources: "Samarian Origins according to the Paralipomena Jeremiae"; "The Myth of Jewish Cannibalism: A Chapter in the History of Antisemitism"; "Porphyry on Judaism: Some Observations"; "'Without God': Some Notes on a Greek Expression"; "The Omen of Sneezing in Pagan Antiquity"; "and "Pious Long-Sleepers in Pagan, Jewish and Christian Antiquity."

The politically fraught valedictory lecture episode might give an impression of van der Horst as a kind of intellectual provocateur, but that is not at all the picture that emerges from these essays. Even the "Myth of Jewish Cannibalism" article—which admittedly, in the abbreviated form in which it appears here, lacks the peroration on contemporary Jewish-Muslim relations—is a model of old-fashioned primary text spadework, klassische Philologie in the traditional sense. Van der Horst's facility with this kind of research is on display in all of these essays. Thus, for instance, in "Biblical Quotations in Judaeo-Greek Inscriptions," he begins by noting the statistical scarcity of biblical quotations in ancient Jewish inscriptions relative to Christian ones, then marshals all the extant primary evidence for the former, discusses every particular case, and finally draws a number of judicious but nevertheless interesting conclusions (e.g., there are precisely two scriptural texts that account for almost all the quotations in the Jewish epigraphic record). Or again, in "Did the Gentiles Know Who Abraham Was?" van der Horst assesses Origen's claim that the pagans use the formula "the god of Abraham" in their exorcisms but do not know who Abraham was (Origen, Cels. 1.22), showing that while Nicolaus of Damascus, for instance, is confused about the identity of Abraham, writers such as Alexander Polyhistor and Celsus have an accurate knowledge of the biblical Abraham story.

If one hallmark of this book is the author's magisterial command of a vast array of primary texts, the other striking feature is his keen eye for weird and wonderful details. In many of these essays, van der Horst's modus operandi is to identify a curio in an ancient text and then to explain whence it comes, what it means, and whither it leads in the history of tradition. Thus, for instance, in "Bitenosh's Orgasm," he enquires why Bitenosh, the wife of Lamech and mother of Noah in the Genesis Apocryphon, responds to Lamech's anxiety about the child's paternity with the words "remember my pleasure." This, van der Horst argues, shows that the text assumes a Greek double-seed model of embryogenesis in which female orgasm signals the emission of the mother's seed, which mingles with the father's seed to effect generation. Or again, in "Pious Long-Sleepers in Pagan, Jewish and Christian Antiquity," van der Horst argues that the medieval Christian myths of saints who were given to sleep for centuries and thereby survive the persecutions are derived from rabbinic stories of long-sleeping tzadikim, which in turn presuppose still older Graeco-Roman speculations about the skewed perception of the passage of time during sleep. One might perhaps quarrel with some of van der Horst's hypotheses about the genealogy of ideas, but as a rule he marshals ample evidence and makes cautious claims. The burden of most of the essays is not to enter into the fray of interpretive debate but to uncover strange, new things in the primary texts. It is a fair assessment, and a credit to the author, to say that one rarely reads a van der Horst essay from which one does not learn something new.

The book is handsomely put together, as one would expect from Brill and its Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity series, of which this book is vol. 87. The present reviewer's eye spotted a few typos in the notes and bibliography, in particular, but in general the copyediting and production are of a very high standard. The front matter includes full bibliographical information on all the original sites of publication. The back matter includes thorough indices of ancient sources, modern authors, and names and subjects and, moreover, a full bibliography of van der Horst's publications from 2006 to 2013, which number a staggering nine books (or pamphlets), 109 articles, and 98 book reviews. When van der Horst's last book, Jews and Christians in Their Graeco-Roman Context (Mohr Siebeck), was published in 2006, he noted in the introduction that it would, for health reasons, probably be his final collection of essays. In the preface to the book here under review, which happily falsifies that earlier prediction, van der Horst reiterates the claim, only now with reference to this 2014 volume. The failing eyesight which occasioned his early retirement in 2006 has perhaps finally caught up with this remarkably learned and productive scholar. We may continue to hope that that is not the case, but if it is, then it may be fitting to conclude a review such as this with thanks to van der Horst for his many significant contributions to the field and sincere good wishes for his retirement.

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