Greek Genres and Jewish Authors
Negotiating Literary Culture in the Greco-Roman Era
- ISBN: 9781481312912
- Published By: Baylor University Press
- Published: September 2020
With Greek Genres and Jewish Authors: Negotiating Literary Culture in the Greco-Roman Era, Sean A. Adams builds upon his prior research on ancient Jewish and Christian texts and genre theory. Analyzing Jewish writings dated roughly between 330 bce and 117 ce, Adams offers what he calls a “macro-perspective,” tracing the broad contours of the ways in which early Jewish authors writing in Greek adopted and transformed conventional Greco-Roman literary genres. The insight revealed by such a study, according to Adams, is that increased exposure to Hellenistic literature and Greek education motivated Jewish authors to experiment with genres that were otherwise left untouched by authors writing in Hebrew or Aramaic (7).
Chapter 1 introduces the book with a discussion of genre theory and how literary texts come to be identified with particular genres. While acknowledging from the outset that neither of the key phrases in the title are entirely unproblematic (4), Adams’ methodological commitment to prototype theory allows him to assign expansive definitions to both “Jewish authors” and “Greek genres” without resorting to an overly rigid set of necessary-and-sufficient characteristics for either of these labels. According to Adams, “the production of a text automatically places that work in a complex network of relationships with other compositions and in turn becomes a node of comparison for subsequent texts” (8). Thus, texts do not “belong” to genres, but rather participate in them, with varying degrees of conformity to the author’s prototypical ideal of a given genre’s features. Further, Adams argues, an author’s choice of genre is never neutral, but instead carries “ideological freight related to that genre’s status in its literary culture” (16). By carefully examining the ways in which Jewish authors and their texts participated in Greek genres, therefore, we gain a fuller understanding of how these authors adapted the literary preferences of a dominant culture to the specific needs of their minority communities.
In chapter 2, Adams begins his analysis of genre participation with Jewish epic poetry written in Greek (Philo Epicus, Theodotus, Sosates), and continues in chapter 3 with works by other poets like Ezekiel the Tragedian, Pseudo-Orpheus, and the author of the Sibylline Oracles. Chapter 4 deals with the Jewish didactic literature of Aristobulus, Pseudo-Phocylides, and Philo of Alexandria, and chapter 5 considers Jewish philosophical treatises like the Letter of Aristeas, 4 Maccabees, the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, and the New Testament epistles, among others.
In chapter 6, Adams’ discussion of Jewish novels (Joseph and Aseneth, 3 Maccabees) entertains an intriguing possibility: Given that the novel did not originate as a Greek genre, we cannot rule out the possibility that early Jewish novelists played a role in determining later Greek expectations of the novel’s prototypical features. Chapter 7 examines historiography, perhaps the most popular Greek genre among Jewish authors. Adams offers two possible reasons for the proliferation of Jewish history texts in antiquity. First, Jewish authors may have adopted historiography precisely because of its enduring popularity among Greek audiences (201). Second, historiography was a highly malleable craft, and authors like Eupolemus, Demetrius the Chronographer, and Josephus readily adapted the genre to suit their particular aims (255)
The final genre covered in the book is that of bios, or Greco-Roman biography, under which rubric Adams includes the New Testament gospels and several works by Philo of Alexandria (Life of Moses, On Abraham, and On Joseph). The book closes with a substantial chapter containing Adams’ parting observations, including a proposed hierarchy of early Jewish preferences among Greek genres (prose over poetry, for example, and the avoidance of genres like geography and comedy). Students hunting for further research opportunities in genre theory, ancient texts, and cultural studies will also find a great deal of useful material in this final chapter.
While Adams’ labeling of some texts as “Jewish” may be questionable—the characterization of the Gospel of Thomas as “Jewish didactic literature,” for example—his insistence on situating the New Testament canon firmly within a Jewish milieu is certainly praiseworthy and consistent with similar developments elsewhere in the field. And if the book does suffer occasionally from “fuzzy” distinctions between text, author, and the process of genre participation, this is simply a minor consequence of Adams’ chosen methodology. Given the fact that the book adds significant nuance to the critical discussion of ancient Jewish literature, this is a perfectly understandable and acceptable trade-off.
These trivial concerns notwithstanding, Greek Genres and Jewish Authors is an extraordinarily valuable piece of scholarship, providing an ideal starting point for those researching the interplay between Jewish and Greco-Roman literary cultures in antiquity, especially the extent to which authors belonging to an ancient minority culture discovered the freedom to adopt and transform the popular literature of the dominant culture. Moreover, by approaching genre through the lens of prototype theory rather than treating it as an immutable list of recognizable literary features, Adams shows how a Jewish text may interface with any number of genres and cultures at once, depending on the social setting and personal aims of its author. An ancient author’s adept use of Greek language and Greco-Roman literary convention, for example, does not entirely preclude the possibility of their Jewishness. In this way, Adams’ book marks a crucial advancement toward dismantling some of the old dichotomies that were once taken for granted by critical scholarship in the study of Jewish and Christian origins.
Joshua Paul Smith is an adjunct instructor in religious studies at Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and an adjunct instructor in New Testament studies at Central Seminary, Shawnee, Kansas.Joshua Paul SmithDate Of Review:June 30, 2022