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The eight hundred years between the first Roman conquests and the conquest of Islam saw a rich, constantly shifting blend of languages and writing systems, legal structures, religious practices and beliefs in the Near East. While the different ethnic groups and cultural forms often clashed with each other, adaptation was as much a characteristic of the region as conflict. This volume, emphasizing the inscriptions in many languages from the Near East, brings together mutually informative studies by scholars in diverse fields. Together, they reveal how the different languages, peoples and cultures interacted, competed with, tried to ignore or were influenced by each other, and how their relationships evolved over time. It will be of great value to those interested in Greek and Roman history, Jewish history and Near Eastern studies.
This book is devoted to processes of continuity and change over the thousand years which separate Alexander the Great from Muhammad the Prophet – two men perceived as instrumental in changing the linguistic and cultural map of the Middle East, the former responsible for the spread of Greek, the latter for the demise of Greek and the rise of Arabic. Obviously the reality is not so simple, and the main purpose of this book is to examine the finer details and complexities of the relationship between languages and cultures during this period, and also to offer some account of the variety of responses that Greek, and other languages, evoked in the peoples of that area from Greece (and Rome) eastwards to Iran.
Like many other collective works, this book too has its own history. It grew out of the success of a conference, and the conference itself out of the experience of the editors as leaders and participants in a yearlong research group at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2002–3. The group was led by Hannah M. Cotton (of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Jonathan J. Price (of Tel Aviv University) and David J. Wasserstein (then of Tel Aviv University, now of Vanderbilt University); the other members were Leah Di Segni and Shlomo Naeh (of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Robert G. Hoyland (then of Oxford University, now of the University of St Andrews), E. Axel Knauf (of Bern University), Marijana Ricl (of the University of Belgrade) and Seth Schwartz (of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York).
Gedalya ibn Yahya marks the end of the pre-modern history of our story. His contemporary and fellow Jew Azaria de' Rossi points forward to the modern era. The two had much in common, and it is no accident that both should have lived in Italy. This meant, among other things, that they were both able to enjoy fairly easy access to non-Jewish literature and society more broadly considered while not losing either their roots in Jewish culture or their Jewish identity. In the case of Gedalya, as we have seen, the new books which he read, like the Letter, simply helped to increase the database, so to say, for his historical writing and to expand the story that he had to tell. Azaria de' Rossi, by contrast, who would probably have been a remarkable person in any context, was able to benefit much more from the broadening of horizons which life in renaissance Italy meant for Jews.
Our concern in this final chapter will be not so much with the story and its literary peregrinations and transformations as with the beginnings of modern critical study of the story and its background. The renaissance and the age of print gave a new lease of life to the legend which the Letter told. Its subject matter made the Letter of interest to three distinct, if overlapping, groups. First, as a Greek text from antiquity it excited interest among scholars of the ancient world.
The legend told in the Letter of Aristeas about the Greek translation of Scripture engaged the attention and stimulated the imagination of Jews and Christians alike. The Septuagint was important to the followers of both Palestinian religions. For some considerable time it served large parts of Diaspora Jewry and, to some extent, Jews in Palestine, as their only accessible text of the Bible to be used in worship and study as well as in proselytization and apologetics. The reasons for the high value attached to the Septuagint by the Christians were similar: as soon as Christianity ceased being merely a local, Palestinian, Jewish sect and became the religion of Greek-speaking gentiles, the Bible had to be read to the faithful and to potential converts in the only language many of them knew. Providentially, the Old Testament, the Jewish inheritance of the new Church, was available in the language in which the Gospel was to be preached to a large part of mankind. Hence Christians shared with Jews the desire to invest the Septuagint with an authority that could approach, perhaps even equal, that of the original revelation from Mount Sinai. In both traditions the text of the Greek Bible was thought to be literally inspired. Veneration for the text of the Septuagint among Jews in the Greek-speaking Diaspora is reflected in the Letter where, apart from the praises heaped on the excellence of the translation, the author reports expressions concerning the need to keep its text inviolable that are reminiscent of those that are found in the Torah itself about the Hebrew text.
The rise of Islam caused profound changes in the whole of the Near East. The one most relevant for our concern here is the linguistic. Within some three hundred years of the initial conquests of Islam, the principal language, literary and to a great degree also spoken, over most of the Near East was Arabic. This transformation affected both Muslims and non-Muslims, though in different ways. For Christians, it meant a gradual distancing from the cultural equipment of the Hellenic–Christian past. As this heritage was expressed mainly in Greek or in Syriac, the move to Arabic meant that only those elements in it that were translated into that language, or otherwise capable of cultural and linguistic transformation, could survive. For Jews, it meant the addition of yet another linguistic dress to those of the past, and they lost little or nothing of the literary corpus expressed in other languages. Indeed, the addition of Arabic to their linguistic armoury, like other such additions in the past, made possible cultural openness which proved of immense benefit to Jewish culture in many ways. Among Muslims, themselves largely descendants of pre-Islamic Near Eastern Christians, the use of Arabic for literary expression meant that the cultural baggage inherited from earlier times and other cultures faced the twin needs of translation and reformulation. The Bible did not have, could not have, the same status or the same meaning for Muslims as it did for Christians and Jews.
This book is an essay in tracing the life of the legend that grew up around the origin of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. It is not concerned, except incidentally, with how that translation, surely the most momentous literary enterprise in the annals of western mankind, came into being. The answer to that question is largely unknown and must be sought mainly in the internal evidence of the texts. That task must be left to textual critics and other students of the Greek Old Testament. What is presented here is an analysis of the legend of the original translation of the Pentateuch.
As far as our evidence allows us to judge, the legend of the Pentateuch has its beginning in the Letter of Aristeas. We have attempted to examine the embellishments that later generations added to the story as told in that work. Commentators, apologists and polemicists belonging to different traditions, in Jewish hellenism and in rabbinic Jewry no less than in the Christian churches and in the world of Islam, often used the legend for partisan purposes. Their additions were inspired by various theological and sectarian interests, and they created narrative patterns, literary motifs and models of special pleading that lived on for many centuries, occasionally in unexpected places. To this day the legend exerts its power over the formulation of arguments about the inspiration of sacred texts.
The first stage in the surviving testimony to the history of the Septuagint lies in the hellenistic Jewish tradition. This is as it should be, not only because the Septuagint was born in that community and not only because the legend of its birth there was a creation of a member of that community but also because that community was the largest and culturally the richest of all those to the west of Palestine in its time. From this point of view, indeed, we may be a little surprised at the paucity and thinness of the evidence that we have. The evidence consists in three parts. The first, associated with the name of Aristobulus, is of very dubious character. The third, from Josephus, is essentially a long quotation in the form of an extensive paraphrase, from the Letter of Aristeas, although there is also some information in the same writer's Against Apion. Only the second witness, Philo, offers testimony of real value and significance, and even what he has to say is not wholly free of difficulty.
Aristobulus is a most recalcitrant witness, even a slippery customer. He stands out among the small group of Jewish writers of the hellenistic age. Who was he? Did he ever exist? How many individuals, if any, lie hidden behind the name Aristobulus in our sources? How much of the writings attributed to him can be regarded as genuine? When was it composed? Is it all by a single person?