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Notes from Newcastle one-day Limmud 2005

A Nation of Philosophers: Jewish scholars and the Greek world in the Second Temple period

Robert Hayward

For two hundred years or so, until 144 BCE, the Jews were under the authority of the Greeks. The Greek language spread among the Jewish people, and some of the Greeks were rather impressed with the Jews. There were Greeks who encountering Jews for the first time decided that they were a nation of philosophers - high praise from the Greeks!

Hecataeus of Abdea, who lived at the end of the fourth century BCE, was one such Greek who made this case to the other Greeks. He presented Moses preeminently as an outstanding lawgiver, distinguished for his sagacity - phrolaeses - the essential quality of a good ruler according to Aristotle. He also presented Moses as a kind of king. Even in Jewish tradition Moses has royal qualities (and later on Philo called him a king).

The historian Megasthenes (320 BCE - not long after the death of Aristotle), was the first to speak of the Jewish people as a nation of philosophers. There are others who placed their writings amongst those of Plato &c.

When they spoke of philosophers they had in mind several things in mind. First, people who studied, studied texts on a regular basis - very similar to people discussing Plato and Aristotle's writings.

Also the idea of a succession of teachers - in both traditions one teacher hands on to another. Ethics of the Fathers speaks about later, but it was already going on now when the Greeks first wrote about them.

Also implied in the concept of philosophers was regular meetings to discuss these writings, e.g. the Jewish sabbath. Many Greek schools had rules dictating their way of life; the Pythagoreans, for example, had strict dietary rules. Others had rules of dress, others rules about how to conduct oneself with people ouside the group.

Those all gave the Greek intellectuals a very positive view of Judaism. (There were also other pagans other than the Greeks who painted the Jews in a positive way this way.)

Philosophy was all to do with culture for the Greeks; it was inseperable from a system of education. Children went to the gymnasion to learn all the Greek arts; so too was the case with the Jews' education. When Ezra called the people to hear the Torah (Nehemiah 8) everyone was there - i.e. women and children included. They also explained things - מדרש.

These all make the Jews civilised in the eyes of the Greeks, but above all else what made a people civilised for the Greeks was law. Aristotle wrote two treatises on constitutions, those of Athens and Sparta. The whole concept of order was of paramount importance. The reasons differed from philosophers to philosophers but for the Stoics, nomos enabled you to live in harmony with the universe. This was because the universe is governed by rules - logos. The philosopher's job was to discover those laws so people can live by them.

Cf. also Ben Sira 32:7

Why is one day more important than another, when the same sun lights up each day of the year? By the Lord's knowledge they are kept distinct; among them He designates seasons and festivals. Some He exalts, and some He sanctifies; but oters He lists as ordinary days.

Ben Sira, mid third to second century BCE, was the greatest of the Jewish philosophers. In his book Wisdom (called The Book of Ben Sira in the Talmud ( ברכות ‎11b, חגיגה ‎13a, נדה ‎16b)) he talks about how wisdom is to be found in the Torah, because for him those are the same things. To get to this conclusion he will have done a lot of things.

Ben Sira probably lived in Jerusalem, and was probably a priest. Above all he showed to the Greeks the Jews were a nation of philosophers.

He wrote portraying to his own people an approach to the Greek world which was quite positive. He quotes Homer - as close as the Greeks got to a Bible; also passages reminiscent of the poets and playwrights. And he has travelled, and he recommends travel, and an interest in the world at large (ch.39), for the Torah scholar! "He who has no experience knows little but he who has travelled has wisdom." (ch. 34)

Ben Sira 14:18:

As with leaves that grow on a vigorous tree: one falls off and another sprouts, so with the generations of flesh and blood: one dies and another flourishes.

Compare this with Homer, Iliad VI:146-149:

People come and go as leaves year by year upon the trees. Those of autumn the wind sheds upon the ground; but when spring returns the forest buds with fresh ones. Even so is it it with the generations of mankind: the new spring up as the old are passing away.

At this stage of history, he doesn't find the outside world threatening at all; the split between the Hellenists and Torah - Zealots - hadn't happened yet. Ben Sira brought together the quest for wisdom and the concern for wisdom from the two cultures.

He wrote in Hebrew (though he could have written in Greek or Aramaic); the Hebrew style and language he uses was very close to the Bible (particularly the Book of Proverbs) - anachronistic in his day. For him the centre is wisdom, personified as a Greek lady, like in Proverbs 1-9. He quotes Lady Wisdom - like Proverbs - which is more than Aristotle &c did! We have about 70% of the Hebrew text, found in the Cairo Geniza (only the Greek translation by his grandson was known beforehand).

Ben Sira 7:17 Ms A from the Cairo Geniza: "Humble pride, exceedingly so: for the hope of man is the worm!" (כי תקות אנוש רימה) Compare Rabbi Levitas in Ethics of the Fathers 4:4: "Be exceedingly humble of spirit: for the hope of mman is the worm" (שתקות אנוש רימה)

Though interested in Greek things, Ben Sira is primarily at home as a Jew. There is a reference to Ben Sira in the Mishna, where he is quoted with approval; though there is also one place in the Jerusalem Talmud where it is said anyone who reads him is denied a place in the World to Come, because Ben Sira isn't a Biblical book. That said, there was a movement to include it in the Tenach.

Of Wisdom's self-description in Ben Sira 24:1-22 [the lecturer's handout reads], the Sage remarks: "All this is the Book of the Covenant of the Most High, the Torah which Moses enjoined on us as a heritage for the community of Jacob," going on to compare the Torah with the rivers flowing out from the Garden of Eden and the River Jordan.

This is in the centre of the text. Lady Wisdom talks about her journey - "out of the mouth of the Most High": she has been in the heights and the depths and in the Earth and the seas. She has been everywhere, seen everything in every nation. Is this an answer to Job 28: "Where shall wisdom be found?" (which is not answered in the Book of Job)?

Then she asks where shall she dwell? The answer Ben Sira gives is Jerusalem: in the Holy of Holies, where Moses put the two tablets of the Law. So if you want to know what wisdom is you should go to Jerusalem or listen to Jews who know the Law. When he speaks of wisdom flowing out to all the world like rivers (above) to produce pydaea - culture, he may also be saying if wisdom is resident in the Temple and those who understand wisdom are resident in Jerusalem, then if you have a large question which you get an answer for, don't go to the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, or of Amon in Egypt, etc, but go to Jerusalem and you will find there the Torah of Moses. Yet he is also not hostile to Greek thinking.

Now Ben Sira wrote a generation or two after the Septuagint (which translation was produced after the time of Hecataeus and Megasthenes). An educated Greek reading that translation would be confirmed in thinking that the Jews were a nation of philosophers: some of the words that were used are words used by the Greek philosophers. Where G-d gives his name in the Burning Bush, for example, in the Septuagint He says, "I am ho o" [I think this is Greek rather than shorthand I can't decipher :o)] - the One that Exists - a name used by the philosophers. This god is higher than any of the Greek gods.

They also pepper the translation with Greek terms from Greek philosophy. For example the משכן (the Tabernacle) is made according to a pattern - paradigma - another philosophical term.

By the time of Ben Sira there are Greeks who will have read the Bible in Greek, and have an idea of just how philosophical the Jews are. For them, these books constitute the constitution of the Jews. Aristotle wrote of the constitutions of the Athenians and Spartans; now here is the constitution of the Jews. What impressed them are the passages in Deuteronomy providing care for widows and orphans, etc; there was nothing quite like that in the Greek world.

Now consider Ben Sira 45:16-17:

The Almighty chose him from all humanity, to offer whole burnt offerings and choice sacrifices, to burn sacrifices of a sweet smell as a memorial, and to atone for the people of Israel. He gave to him His laws, and authority to prescribe and judge: to teach the precepts to His people, and his statutes to the sons of Israel.

Here he is telling the Greeks that the High Priest - the head of state at this time, before the Hasmonean revolt - teaches the people the state constitution. And he implies (though doesn't state outright) this is not something which is simply learned by rote, but should be internalised. Any Greek reading the Septuagint should have had a clear sense of the obligation on every member of the Jewish people to know the law, to know the constitution - something Aristotle and co. could only have dreamed of. For Ben Sira it is the priesthood which encapsulates what he has to say about the law and this nation of philosophers.

The book ends with one of the very few eyewitness descriptions of the Temple service. How does this mesh with philosophy?

Compare Ben Sira 24 the language that Lady Wisdom uses to describe [????] and set this alongside the description of the High Priest in ch. 50. There are some remarkable points of comparison.

The High Priest is called in the Greek version Simon, thought by many to be שמעון הצדיק. Ben Sira 50:6-9:

He was like a morning star in the midst of a cloud, like a full on festival days, like the sun shining on the Temple of the Most High, like a rainbow giving light in clouds of glory... like fire and incense upon the censer, like a vessel of gold...

So the question is: is Ben Sira representative? Well, his writings have stood the test of time. The Talmud quotes him, and he clearly thinks the way things are in his day is fine. But it is clear that he does represent a particular interpretation of Judaism that sees Temple and Torah and Judaism as closely tied together. (Cf. Ethics of the Fathers: "On three things the world stands: the Torah, and Temple Service [...].")

Not everyone saw it this way - Tobit (q.v.) regarded the Temple as being a makeshift affair to be replaced at the end of days with a glorious Temple. Ben Sira by contrast regarded this Temple as being the glorious one, and describes the ??? that sits on the second Temple in almost prophetic language. (This is a passage we do have the Hebrew for). [To this Max Sussman pointed out that as a priest he would be pro-Temple.]

Bibliography: Greek and Latin Authors on the Jews of Antiquity - Menachem? Stern

Date: 2005-07-29 10:55 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Very interesting reading, a subject I know little about, and when I studied Aristotle etc at university as I always wondered about the Jewish scholars. Will look up the links you have mentioned and get Hebrew fonts when I eventually update my computer a bit.


Date: 2005-08-04 06:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] snjstar.livejournal.com


Date: 2005-09-27 09:24 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Yes, it is interesting. I just wonder if Tobit is anywhere mentioned in the Hebrew bible. I cannot even remember what kind of prophet he was. In the Greek bible there is a book Tobit and others which are not found in Hebrew and therefore let out. It was often translated as 'Tobias' which must be the Greek version. In the Hebrew dictionary I lost were all Greek made names in Hebrew, 'Tobias' was 'Tovia'.

Re: Tobit

Date: 2005-09-27 09:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Tobit is one of the books of the Apocrypha, which the Catholics regard as canon, but the Jews and Protestants do not. I have not read the book, so can't comment further.

I wish you'd initial your comments at least; so far I've been able to work out who you are from context each time, but there's no guarantee all your comments will have enough context for me to be able to identify you.

Re: Tobit

Date: 2005-09-27 10:24 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
You know who I am. Yes, I will put my initials under it.

Rabbi Larry Tabick only said he was a boring prophet. I had Catholic and Evangelical bible at my parents place. I just cannot remember the story. We read in school I think. I was so boring that I forgot it. Judith was more interesting (actually very cruel).

I know it has nothing to do with your text above but I just have funny comment from Rashi. He tried to explain why the male fish "dag" turned into a "dagah" female fish in the book of Jonah. This is his comment: v.1: a huge fish (dag): it was a male fish; and Jonah had plenty of room there, but did not bother to pray; so the Holy one, blessed be He, gave a hint to the fish, and it vomited him out into the mouth of a female, pregnant with young, and Jonah was cramped there, and he prayed there, as it says (v.2) 'from the belly of the dagah'

Another crazy comment from Rashi (he just does it with the prophet books as Lindsey said or does not comment at all) when the men threw Jonah over board and it said 'they made vows' (v. 16)Rashi comments: that they convert to Judaism
Lindsey said he wanted to make they look really great. They acted all the time much better than the prophet Jonah. I said this was very wishful thinking.

I know you don't like Rashi but this is just so crazy that you can just love about it.


Writing to fast

Date: 2005-09-27 10:28 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Sorry, I think I am tired. I write to quickly. I meant "you can just laugh about it"


Re: Writing to fast

Date: 2005-09-27 10:31 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I should go to bed. I just discover lots of mistakes.


Re: Tobit

Date: 2005-09-28 06:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
I know you don't like Rashi but this is just so crazy that you can just love laugh about it.

Yup, it's crazy.

I don't have anything against Rashi; just don't find such Rashi as I have been exposed to particularly interesting. Though maybe I just need to be directed to the interesting bits of Rashi.


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