In his NYRB reviewof Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews, G. W. Bowersock claims that Schama doesn’t give enough attention to the role of the Septuagint in late antique efforts to reconcile Judaism and Hellenism. 

Bowerstock doesn’t seem impressed with the claim of Aristobulus of Paneas (and many church fathers) that Plato read Moses. But he does think that historians haven’t given enough attention to “Greek” exposure to Hebraic texts:

“The translation of the Hebrew Bible took place in that atmosphere, and its consequences were momentous. It immediately made the Torah, and the rest of the Hebrew Bible, accessible to Greek speakers everywhere, including the earliest Christians. The Greek vocabulary that the translators chose to render such words as ‘angel’ or ‘highest god’ had a permanent impact on the Greek language in the following centuries. The extent to which non-Jews read the Bible in Greek is still unclear, but there are tantalizing hints that we may have underestimated what was going on.

“Perhaps the greatest of all Greek literary critics in antiquity, the author known as Longinus, who wrote a treatise On the Sublime, introduces a verbatim quotation from Genesis near the beginning of his work, and an affluent and influential figure in Roman Greece put up a Greek inscription on his property with a quotation from Deuteronomy. A pagan inscription in Asia Minor contains clear allusions to the Greek language of Exodus and the Psalms. These three examples, which have nothing to do with Christianity, imply a much broader knowledge of the Hebrew Bible among pagan Greeks than is usually assumed.”

Non-Jewish attraction to Judaism reached its high point in the conversion of Yemen’s Arabs and the Khazars to Judaism: “Both had kingdoms that lasted more than a century. Schama is well aware of these bizarre episodes, and he recognizes that the evidence for them is strong enough to assure them a conspicuous place in his story of the Jews, even if they were soon gone. The Arab Jews of Himyar tried vigorously to eradicate Christianity in the region but were ultimately wiped out in 525 by Ethiopian Christians who crossed the Red Sea from Axum. Before succumbing to armies from Kiev, the Jewish Khazars forged a link with Jews far away in Córdoba in Spain, even issuing coins with ‘Land of the Khazars’ on one side and ‘Moses is the Messenger of God’ on the other, thereby appropriating the Islamic designation for Muhammad.”

Bowersock also summarizes the connections between Judaism and early Islam: “The fateful arrival of Islam as a new monotheist religion in the seventh century was fraught with consequences for all those Jews whom Muslims encountered wherever they went. The new faith was not only uncompromisingly monotheist but recognized that it shared this conviction with the Jews. It looked back to Abraham as an ancestor, much as the Jews did. He was, as the Bible said, the progenitor of nations. Even Moses, whom the Greek-speaking Christians could easily comprehend as a lawgiver and a precursor of Plato, lacked the primal authority of Abraham among Jews and Muslims. The links between Jewish and Muslim monotheism are obscure, although powerful arguments have been advanced in recent decades for Jewish material in Gabriel’s revelations to Muhammad, as we know them from the Koran.”

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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