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Historical Fictions and Hellenistic Jewish Identity

Third Maccabees in Its Cultural Context

Sara Raup Johnson

Publication Year: 2005

In this thoughtful and penetrating study, Sara Raup Johnson investigates the creation of historical fictions in a wide range of Hellenistic Jewish texts. Surveying so-called Jewish novels, including the Letter of Aristeas, 2 Maccabees, Esther, Daniel, Judith, Tobit, Josephus's account of Alexander's visit to Jerusalem and of the Tobiads, Artapanus, and Joseph and Aseneth, she demonstrates that the use of historical fiction in these texts does not constitute a uniform genre. Instead it cuts across all boundaries of language, provenance, genre, and even purpose. Johnson argues that each author uses historical fiction to construct a particular model of Hellenistic Jewish identity through the reinvention of the past. The models of identity differ, but all seek to explore relations between Jews and the wider non-Jewish world.

The author goes on to present a focal in-depth analysis of one text, Third Maccabees. Maintaining that this is a late Hellenistic, not a Roman, work Johnson traces important themes in Third Maccabees within a broader literary context. She evaluates the evidence for the authorship, audience, and purpose of the work and analyzes the historicity of the persecution described in the narrative. Illustrating how the author reinvents history in order to construct his own model for life in the diaspora, Johnson weighs the attitudes and stances, from defiance to assimilation, of this crucial period.

Published by: University of California Press

Series: Hellenistic Culture and Society


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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pp. ix-ix

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pp. xi-xv

The Greek East in the Roman period abounded in fictions. In Fiction as History: Nero to Julian (1994), G. Bowersock has written memorably of what he characterizes as an explosion in the production of ancient fictions in the Roman empire, beginning in the reign of Nero (54–68 c.e.), and of the paradoxical character of some of these fictions. Lucian wrote a series of fantastic ...

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pp. xvii-xix

The project that became this book has been a long time in the making, and was born and nurtured by an exceptionally fortunate chain of circumstances. It has emerged from a long process of rewriting and reworking my 1996 dissertation, submitted under the title “Mirror, Mirror” to the University of California at Berkeley. The germ of the dissertation was born after I had ...

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Part I. Historical Fictions and Hellenistic Jewish Identity

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pp. 1-7

Scholarship in recent years has tended increasingly to lump a large number of quasi-fictional Jewish—and, indeed, non-Jewish—texts into the vague category “romance” or “novel.” But this attempt to categorize all the so-called Jewish romances or novels as members of a single genre is both circular and ultimately quite unhelpful.How, then, must we understand the ...

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1. Jews at Court

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pp. 9-55

Any study of Jewish texts that purport to be historical while yet exhibiting significant historical anomalies must begin with seven that have survived as independent, self-contained narratives in or associated with the manuscripts of the Septuagint. All purport to give an authentic account of some incident in Jewish history, yet are so compounded with elements ...

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2. Josephus

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pp. 56-93

Josephus preserves in his Jewish Antiquities a number of remarkable tales that deserve consideration here, the most notable of them his account of Alexander and the Jews, and the so-called Tales of the Tobiads. These stories, like the texts considered in Chapter 1, treat the relations of the Jews with their foreign rulers, specifically with their Greek rulers, as in 3 Maccabees, ...

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3. Patriarchal Fictions

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pp. 94-120

Thus far we have surveyed a wide variety of Jewish fictions about the past, ranging from self-contained fictional narratives like Esther and Judith to fictions embedded in larger works, such as those found in Daniel, 2 Maccabees, and Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities. While the fictions found in Josephus in particular required special handling because of the problems of ...

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Part II. Third Maccabees

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pp. 121-128

In Part 1, we explored a wide variety of Jewish fictions: 3 Maccabees (in passing), the Letter of Aristeas, 2 Maccabees, Esther, Daniel, Judith, Tobit, the tales of Alexander and the Tobiads embedded in the narrative of Josephus, the fragments of Artapanus, and Joseph and Aseneth. Those texts significantly differ one from another in many respects. Indeed, it is hard to imagine ...

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4. Date, Literary Context,Authorship, and Audience

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pp. 129-181

The curious historical distortions that abound in Jewish fictions are in no way random but are deliberately employed for rhetorical purposes. In 3 Maccabees we will explore in depth the setting, author, audience, and intent of the text before turning to examine how the author has manipulated history to support his purpose. Third Maccabees has often been misunderstood. Because ...

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5. Historicity and Historical Ambivalence

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pp. 182-216

Perhaps the most vexed questions surrounding 3 Maccabees regard the relationship of the text to the factual events of the Hellenistic period.The story takes place under the reign of a known historical figure, Ptolemy IV Philopator (r. 221–204 b.c.e.), and the author has gone to some trouble to supply historical details and official documents to add to the verisimilitude of his ...

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pp. 217-223

This study set out to understand the apparently paradoxical juxtaposition of history and fiction, combining historical verisimilitude with a remarkable disregard for historical accuracy, characteristic of a wide variety of Jewish Hellenistic texts. In 3 Maccabees, we have examined one possible model for how and why history and fiction were so combined. Third Maccabees, a ...


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pp. 225-237


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pp. 239-253

E-ISBN-13: 9780520928435
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520233072

Page Count: 271
Publication Year: 2005

Series Title: Hellenistic Culture and Society
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OCLC Number: 70741110
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Historical Fictions and Hellenistic Jewish Identity

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Subject Headings

  • Third Book of Maccabees -- Criticism, interpretation, etc.
  • Jews -- History -- 586 B.C.-70 A.D.
  • Jews -- Identity -- History -- To 1500.
  • Historical fiction -- History and criticism.
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