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Jews, Greeks, and Dilettantes

From: Hebrew Studies
Volume 54, 2013
pp. 373-385 | 10.1353/hbr.2013.0016

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The title of this publication, based upon the author’s doctoral dissertation completed in 2008 at Université Libre de Bruxelles under Michèle Broze and Philippe Jespers, is misleading throughout. While mentioning the Argonautic mythological cycle (pp. 43–45), the volume does not in any way relate the Argonauts’ expedition to Israel’s journey across the desert as described in Exodus to Deuteronomy. Rather than discussing the Hebrew Bible as a whole, it deals almost exclusively with the Enneateuch (Genesis to Kings) plus Ruth and Esther and barely mentions other books. And it does precious little in terms of analyzing either formal or conceptual structure of the biblical text. Instead, Wajdenbaum’s main, if not the sole purpose is to argue that the above-mentioned biblical books massively draw upon ancient Greek writings, especially upon Plato and Herodotus. These books should be attributed, therefore, to a thoroughly Hellenized Jew who lived in the third or even second century B.C.E. and wanted to shape the Jewish community along the lines of Plato’s ideal polity; however, awareness of the Scripture’s Greek roots was consciously or unconsciously repressed first by the Judeo-Christian tradition and then by modern biblical scholarship.

The book begins with a long introduction that occupies almost one-third of its volume. Although Wajdenbaum divides this part differently, there seem to be five thematic blocks. After formulating the thesis summarized above (pp. 1–12), he proceeds to discuss various aspects of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology as pertaining to the study of mythology (pp. 12–22) and to present, building upon the work of Jacques Cazeaux, Philip Davies, Niels Peter Lemche, Thomas Thompson, Jan-Wim Wesselius, and Yaakov Kupitz, arguments in favor of viewing the Enneateuch as an integral composition, created by a single individual in Hellenistic times (pp. 22–43). Coming next is a concise overview of Greek mythological cycles as well as main Greek and Roman authors (pp. 43–70), followed by that of the techniques supposedly used by the biblical author in working with Greek sources and especially with Plato (pp. 71–91).

The section is rather chaotic: for example, it inexplicably lists Plato as a “Roman-era writer,” lumps him together with Jewish and Christian authors (Josephus, Origen, and Eusebius) who denied Platonic influence upon the Bible, and barely mentions such truly Roman authors as Ovid and Strabo despite the fact that later the author discusses parallels between their writings and the Bible. Likewise, Wajdenbaum fails to make a clear distinction between the literary procedures of splitting and recombining the sources (pp. 71–74) or fusing several characters into one (pp. 74–75) and ideological trajectories, such as demythologization (pp. 89–91) or the transition from polytheism to monotheism (pp. 85–87). Also, the part of the introduction that deals with Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism is largely irrelevant, because, as mentioned above, despite the book’s subtitle, Wajdenbaum does not seem to be interested in any structural facet of the biblical text or, for that matter, of its putative Greek precursors, including Plato’s Laws—supposedly its main source of inspiration.

Most of the book (pp. 92–297) is, as Wajdenbaum freely admits, “an anthology of similarities” (p. 11). Proceeding in the order of the Septuagint and Christian canons (with Ruth discussed under “Judges”), Wajdenbaum for the most part simply places the allegedly parallel pieces of Greek and biblical literature side by side and either offers a brief discussion or simply lets the texts speak for themselves. No attempt is made to assess the relative strength of the parallels, to examine their possible origins, to classify them, for example, as manifestations of the techniques listed in the introduction, or to check whether similar motifs can be found in other cultures (at the very least by consulting Stith Thompson’s index). The apparent aim of this procedure is to substantiate the book’s thesis—or to create the impression of its being substantiated—mainly, if not exclusively, by burying the reader under an avalanche of alleged similarities. As will be explained below, the tactic occasionally backfires, undermining Wajdenbaum’s main contention instead of supporting it.

In the short concluding chapter...

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