The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity

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Eva Mroczek
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     2016.
     288 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190279837.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Scholars have increasingly argued that the use of the labels “canon” and “Bible” in reference to the Second Temple period is anachronistic. Building upon this trend, Eva Mroczek alerts us to the ways in which our modern notion of the “Bible” continues to inform the questions we ask, and how our assumptions about “books” shape our expectations. In The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity, Mroczek argues that such categories are inadequate for understanding how individuals in the Second Temple period conceived of their literary world. In place of these religious and bibliographic frameworks she offers us an alternative paradigm, reorienting the ways we think about texts and producers of texts from this time period. In the course of the introduction and the five main chapters, Mroczek succeeds in demonstrating how the ideas of “Bible” and “book” skew our perception and produce conclusions at odds with the evidence. Focusing on several well-known literary works—Psalms, Ben Sira, and Jubilees—in addition to a number of peripheral examples, Mroczek skillfully guides the reader around the pitfalls of previous scholars, and towards imagining a new perspective more in line with the world of the Second Temple period.

In her first two chapters Mroczek presents a case study on Psalms. She challenges those who assert that Psalms is “the most highly attested book at Qumran” (26), arguing that this community did not possess the “Book of Psalms,” but rather numerous psalms presented in a variety of different genres. Offering a digital metaphor for breaking the regnant book-centered model, Mroczek suggests that Psalms did not exist in this period as a fixed or bounded corpus, but rather as “a celestial cache that is partly, but not fully, accessible in various collections” (44). In the next chapter, Mroczek shifts her attention to the link between Psalms and King David, which scholars typically understand as a pseudepigraphic effort at investing this collection with authority. By contrast, Mroczek suggests that we should understand the attribution of Psalms to David from a Davidic perspective, as a character in search of a story (16) to animate and dramatize his voice and thereby flesh out this beloved character (67). Breaking from our bibliographic concerns over authorship and our addiction to issues of authority, this alternate perspective provides a new and thought-provoking lens for thinking about Psalms. By reorienting our approach to the problem of biblical attributions, Mroczek enables us to ask a new set of questions and read these traditional texts anew.

Ben Sira is the focus of Mroczek’s third chapter where she challenges the ideas that “Ben Sira” is an “author” and a “book” instead proposing that the text known by this name constitutes a tradition in transmission and an “ongoing sapiential project” (89). The thrust of this argument stems from the opposition between the metaphors of fluidity and movement found in the Book of Ben Sira itself and the label of “book” (βιβλιος) applied by the Greek translator’s prologue which she claims has skewed scholars’ reading of the text. Given her insistence on the lack of a bookish mentality in the Second Temple period it is surprising that Mroczek does not offer a more in depth treatment of the meaning of the term “book” in the prologue. She reiterates that it is the Greek text that “colors our understanding of Ben Sira’s own self-presentation,” but she does not develop what Ben Sira “as a ‘book’ to be translated and published” means for the Second Temple period translator (96-97). Nevertheless, Mroczek’s point is well taken; Ben Sira “himself” did not construct his work as a definitive and closed text.

The fourth chapter takes a step back to explore how Scripture as a whole, and not just “biblical material,” was conceived of in the “imagined sacred library in early Judaism” (117). Through the lens of Jubilee’s references to writers and writings, together with examples from Qumran, Mroczek argues that divine communication is to be found in various locations, transcending the limited written words that capture only a glimpse of a larger inaccessible tradition. Within this context Mroczek presents a brief history of modern published editions of pseudepigraphic literature, plotting theological and conceptual shifts in how we arrange and label these sources. Such a digression is particularly useful for contextualizing Mroczek’s own project and her rejection of biblical-centralism.

Numbers occupy center stage in the final chapter which reconsiders the relationship between fixed enumerations of Scripture (e.g., twenty-two books for Josephus and twenty-four for 4 Ezra), and the corpus of “divinely inspired writing” (4). Rather than viewing these as identical categories, Mroczek provides a Venn diagram in which revelatory works stand outside of the counted collections while still retaining their authoritative status. This positioning disrupts scholarly attempts to identify the precise works intended, and restricts the significance of the numbers to their typological designation, which allows us to observe a broader imagined library of scriptures.

Although she does not fully connect the dots between the envisioned pre-biblical and pre-book world of Second Temple Judaism and the growing sense of concrete works and collections that we eventually encounter, Mroczek’s study presents an important corrective to modern assumptions that inform our reading of early Jewish texts. The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity is a profitable read for anyone who thinks deeply about Scripture, canon, and the way we encounter the Bible.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Goldstone is a Ph.D. candidate in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.

Date of Review: 
September 9, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Eva Mroczek is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Davis. She holds a PhD in the Study of Religion from the University of Toronto. Her work on early Jewish literary culture has appeared in venues like the Journal for the Study of Judaism, the Journal of Ancient Judaism, and Book History. She has also written forReligion Dispatches and the Marginalia Review of Books.

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