Sponge or Repellent? Print
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Thursday, 30 December 2010 12:53

Jan N. Bremmer, Greek Religion and Culture, the Bible and the Ancient Near East. Leiden: Brill, 2008.

Jan Bremmer begins his book with a brief examination of an eighth-century Assyrian text that mentions Tiglath-pileser’s troubles with "Ionian" (= Greek) pirates.  Already two centuries earlier, the Greeks were "engaged in a lively trade with the Levant and North Syria." Following in the wake of research by Walter Burkert and M. L. West, Bremmer, a classics professor at Edinburgh, breaks through the artificial academic barriers between Orient and Occident, especially between Greece and the Ancient Near East.

Breaching these boundaries nicely complicates the history of the ancient world. As Bremmer puts it, "Instead of a Mediterranean and Near East with closed borders, we can now see a world in which an individual area, such as Greece, might be advanced in one sphere, such as politics, but in another, such as literary, might be the grateful beneficiary." We can follow religious and mythical motifs as they travel from the east to Greece, and back, and intersect with Israel. All in all, "attention to cultural and religious borrows provides us with a much more exciting picture of the ancient world than we used to have."

Each chapter examines a set of mythic motifs or a religious practice in its various Greek, the Ancient New Eastern, and Hebrew forms. It is largely organized according to the biblical canon, as one might expect from the son of a Calvinist pastor and church historian and a graduate of the Free University of Amsterdam. From creation myths, a comparison of Pandora and Eve, and a philological study of the term pardes/paradeios, Bremmer moves to myths of fratricide, Titans and angels, flood stories, scapegoat rituals. The last few chapters bring us into the realm of New Testament studies, with a discussion of Paul’s Damascus Road experience and a study of how Persian Magi/magoi became associated with "magic."

Bremmer’s book is immensely learned, carefully and thoroughly researched, stuffed with information, hugely stimulating. Throughout he draws intriguing connections.  For instance: In Greek creation myths, as in Genesis, the world begins with water and disorder, but "it remains noteworthy that any reference to an original progenitor is lacking" in extrabiblical creation myths. When the Septuagint translators translated the Hebrew gan (garden) as paradeisos, the Greek word connoted a "royal park with many trees, suitable for walking: and wooded." From an examination of scapegoat rituals and scapegoat motifs in tragedy, he concludes that "the tragedies of Euripides are very likely to have contributed to the interpretation of Jesus’ death."

Though not uninformed about Scripture, Bremmer is (not surprisingly) more sure-footed when discussing classical texts. There are slight missteps (e.g., calling Joachim Jeremias an "Old Testament scholar") and also more serious flaws. Though he says that Genesis is "already more advanced" than the Greek myth of Pandora, he concludes, "like male Israelites, the male Greeks ascribed the source of their present sorrow state to the creation of woman."  That reflects Adam’s assessment of things, but it is not the view of the writer of Genesis 3, who tells us that Adam was present and culpably silent during Eve’s temptation.

More fundamentally, Bremmer’s entire discussion assumes critical dating of the Hebrew Bible and especially the Pentateuch, and also assumes that even the most distinctive claims of the Hebrew Bible must have originated elsewhere.  His discussion of Genesis 1:1 in Appendix I illustrates both problems. He summarizes the scholarly quest for a predecessor to the majestic opening sentence of the Bible and judges them inconclusive. Instead of accepting that Genesis might actually be unique, he provides a convoluted account of the origin that passes from a Persian text celebrating the rise of the god Ahuramazda as "creator of heaven and earth," through Isaiah, to Genesis. He believes that the "authors" of Genesis 1:1 must have witnessed Ahuramazda’s exaltation and "wrote a competing claim for Jahweh as the creator of heaven and earth." Obviously, if Genesis 1 was a polemic against a Persian god, it could not have been written in the time of Moses.

Once we put Genesis 1 back where it belongs, in the early history of the human race, written in its original form centuries before Moses, written perhaps by Adam himself, then the history that Bremmer recounts is turned upside down. Instead of only being influenced by surrounding cultures, Hebrew culture and Hebrew texts are foundational.  They are positioned to exercise influence. Instead of being a reflection of earlier stories of fratricide, Cain-and-Abel becomes the archetypal fratricide story; instead of being a pale reflection of the Titan myth, the intermarriage of the sons of God with daughters of men becomes the source of later, distorted, myths.

The church father Aristeas argued that God forbade Israel to engage in certain religious practices as a prophylactic against foreign influence. This explanation, as Mary Douglas pointed out in one of her last books, doesn’t work, since it cannot explain why some Israelite practices did overlap with pagan practices. Douglas sardonically comments that scholars "seem content to use the foreign influence argument one way or the other, according to the mood of the moment. . . . But it is not an explanation to represent Israel as a sponge one moment and as a repellent the next, without explaining why it soaked up this foreign element but repelled that one."

For all his erudition and insight, Bremmer (like many contemporary Old Testament scholars) mostly emphasize Israel’s sponginess. And that means that his tremendously useful book provides only the raw data for a fresh and much more exciting picture of the ancient world.

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