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  • Paul Michael Kurtz

What’s So Jewish About Hellenistic Judaism?

Paul Michael Kurtz on the Complexities of Jewish Identity

If “all men are either Jews or Greeks,” as Heinrich Heine had it, small wonder that Hellenistic Judaism has long posed such a problem. Jews writing in Greek after Alexander seemed to represent a contradiction in terms: Bible blended with Homer and Moses mixed with Plato: Athens alloyed with Jerusalem. Where, then, did the Hebraic end and the Hellenic begin? How could modern readers of ancient works possibly detect anonymous or pseudonymous Jewish authors behind fragmented, interpolated, and overall ambiguous Greek texts?

Two German Jewish scholars showed the way in the late nineteenth century. Together Jacob Bernays and Jacob Freudenthal forged the modern study of Hellenistic Judaism. Both were active in Breslau, Prussia (Wrocław, Poland), at the Jewish Theological Seminary, also called the Fraenkel Foundation. There, Bernays and Freudenthal worked in one of the leading centers of the flourishing “Science of Judaism” as well as a burgeoning Reform Judaism. In doing so, each made grand discoveries: Jewish authors of Greek works previously thought to be pagan or Christian. Beyond the specific results themselves, their meticulous philological studies exhibited the instability of determining Jewishness in antiquity. At the same time, they displayed the concerns and resonances of ancient Greek Jews for modern German Jews.

Jacob Bernays was born into an established family in Hamburg, his father the Chief Rabbi who combined traditional Jewish learning with modern philosophy, in both his own life and the education system for Jews. After studying at Bonn – one of the most exciting places for philology – he declined to succeed his father as rabbi in Hamburg and helped found the seminary in Breslau. In the end, Bernays returned to Bonn as librarian and associate professor, where he lived out his days.

Although Bernays commanded respect from the greatest minds of his day and hobnobbed with diplomats and aristocrats, his Jewishness was an obstacle to his career. Many attempts to secure him a professorial chair failed. The pressure only increased for him to convert as he remained proudly and famously observant. That pressure drove him to write one of the now classic statements of modern German Jewry: if born a Jew today, Jesus would let himself be crucified by all the church authorities one by one rather than join one of the Christian confessions, which did not live up to his name. This fate contrasted that of his brother, Michael, who did convert and assumed the chair of German literature at the University of Munich, and of his uncle Adolphus, who converted and became the first professor of German at King’s College, London. So incensed was he with Michael that Jacob mourned him as dead. Theodor Mommsen, the high priest of ancient history, also avoided Michael out of deference to his friend Jacob.

A master of biblical and classical learning, Bernays once referred to “the great task assigned to humankind: to unite the Bible with Graeco-Roman Bildung.” Contemporaries saw this unity in the man himself. One history of classical scholarship records, “The Jew and the Greek were united in the person of Bernays, who was at once a strictly orthodox Jew, and a devoted adherent of Hellenic culture.” With characteristic erudition, this “Hellenistic Jew,” as Bernays once called himself, overturned centuries of consensus when he identified the author of an ancient Greek text as Jewish. The work in question was that of Pseudo-Phocylides, a didactic poem dating somewhere between the first century BCE and first century CE. (The original Phocylides was an ancient bard from Ionia who lived much earlier, in the mid-sixth century BCE.) The verses of Pseudo-Phocylides rose to prominence in the late medieval period, serving as a schoolbook because of their apparent unification of lofty biblical morality and classical literary aesthetic. But in 1606 the great humanist Joseph Scaliger, whom Bernays admired and wrote about, established the pseudonymity of these lines and found its author to be a Christian, rather than a pagan, as previously thought. Interest in the poem then declined dramatically, as the truth of Christianity no longer seemed to shine through a pagan poem.

Two centuries later, in 1856, Bernays offered a new analysis of Pseudo-Phocylides – one upheld ever since – which he published in a volume that marked the anniversary of the Jewish seminary in Breslau. Bernays claimed the author was Jewish. To do so, he saw the traces of monotheism, use of Jewish scriptures, knowledge of Jewish tradition, criticism of Hellenic culture, and Hebraizing trends in the Greek itself. Arguing the case was not without its challenges, however. Although Bernays thought dependence on the Hebrew Bible was clear for all to see, that clarity required him to overcome inconvenient statements in the ancient text, especially on the matter of monotheism. Where two explicit references to multiple deities appeared, he emended the text. Elsewhere, he contended that Pseudo-Phocylides had employed but “bent” other terms used by pagans for divine beings to suit his own monotheistic Jewish faith. In like manner, he denied any familiarity with the New Testament or Christian convictions, a conclusion made easier by his elimination of several passages as later Byzantine additions.

Not only did Bernays identify Pseudo-Phocylides as a Jew. But he also offered a critique of the Judaism on display. First, Bernays saw a sin of commission. The author had downplayed essential elements of Judaism, changing the Jewish scriptures to suit a non-Jewish audience. Second, he saw a sin of omission. The ancient said nothing of Sabbath, sacrifice, or idolatry, even though his biblical source text had emphasized these three subjects. Pseudo-Phocylides, Bernays believed, had stripped Pentateuchal law of anything distinctively Jewish. This denationalized, deritualized Judaism, he argued, had yielded “a guide for ethical life, indeed created from biblical sources yet stripped from every positive biblical element.” The specifically Jewish had been diluted into general ethics, universal principles acceptable to the Greek world.

Bernays sought an explanation for the Jewishness on display in Pseudo-Phocylides. He referred to the “deliberation with which our author skirts around everything nationally Jewish” – a deliberation he assigned to attempts at acculturation. According to Bernays, Hellenistic Jews had stripped Judaism of its essence out of laziness as well as self-interest. Not only had idolatry become so entangled with all aspects of life that resistance seemed futile to them, he argued, but they also did not want to risk jeopardizing their favorable position, protected as they were by Alexander the Great and his Ptolemaic successors. Bernays found such a stance inexcusable, both religiously and morally.

The fate of Pseudo-Phocylides, for Bernays, was also well-deserved. The modern Jewish Hellenist called the ancient Hellenistic Jew a victim of his own success. He argued that Pseudo-Phocylides had been received so well into the Christian tradition – from the church fathers to medieval Christendom – precisely because he had so successfully disguised, even disavowed, the quintessentially Jewish. In his own words, “the history of this minor Jewish-Hellenistic product mirrors the fate to which the entire Judaeo-Hellenistic and any writing like it deservedly succumbs, namely, the fate of being unable to exert a lasting influence on the spiritual life of the nations.” With this statement, Bernays also suggested, however obliquely, his own opinion on the push to reform Jewish tradition.

First student of and then successor to Jacob Bernays, Jacob Freudenthal came from a different background but stood equally in the foreground of work on Hellenistic Judaism. As the son of a merchant, Freudenthal liked filling out invoices less than filling in grammatical paradigms. Despite his affinity for Greek and Latin, and his dream of becoming a schoolmaster, the family was poor, so he went to the Breslau seminary for his education, on course to become a rabbi. There, he first introduced his roommate Hermann Cohen, the famed Neo-Kantian philosopher, to the writings of Kant. Owing to sickness, Freudenthal left and completed a doctorate at Göttingen, only to return to teach classics and philosophy before he then replaced Bernays at the seminary when the latter went to Bonn. In the end, he became a full professor at the university in Breslau, where he became best known for his work on philosophy, especially Spinoza.

As with Bernays, conversion threatened the Family Freudenthal. Almost all of his children were baptized, yet he and his wife (Therese née Sachs) were sympathetic, even if they themselves refrained from conversion, despite great pressure to do. In fact, as Freudenthal left the seminary for the university in Breslau, he left traditional practice behind, too, which created tensions in the community. Nevertheless, his Jewishness still presented problems for procuring a professorship, and the philosopher consistently found himself foiled, from Strasbourg to Königsberg, from Giessen to Graz. Even if Freudenthal himself doubted Judaism to be a significant factor in such frustrations, he admitted feeling like a “second-class professor” given unequal treatment in Breslau.

Few did more than Jacob Freudenthal to advance the study of ancient Grecophone Judaism. Early on, in 1869, he lamented the current state of work on Hellenistic Judaism, noting “the theology of the Jewish Hellenists” remained “a stepchild of modern Jewish scholarship.” None less than Solomon Schechter hailed him “the only Jewish student who has ever written anything on the Hellenistic literature which deserves the name of research.” Freudenthal succeeded Bernays in Breslau, and like Bernays he succeeded in reversing centuries of consensus. In his foundational book Hellenistic Studies, he examined the work of Eupolemus, a historian writing around the mid-second century BCE. Yet that work, which retold Jewish history, had a problem of preservation in two senses: being fragmentary and transmitted primarily by the Christian apologist Eusebius. When Freudenthal studied these fragments, he entered 18 centuries of debate. Others had found Eupolemus to be a pagan, a Jew, a Samaritan, a Jew in pagan’s clothing, a pagan collector of Jewish legends, and a pagan writer with Samaritan interpolations. No other solution seemed possible, he noted. “If someone wanted to prove the fallibility and uncertainty of historical criticism through contradictions in which it only too often proceeds, the fragments of Eupolemus preserved by Alexander could deliver the most striking evidence.”

And yet he offered a new one. Even more, his solution has been upheld ever since. The text assigned to Eupolemus had come from two different ancient authors: one a Judaean, the other a Samaritan. Freudenthal called the Judaean the real Eupolemus and the Samaritan Pseudo-Eupolemus. To identify that Jewishness, he saw a knowledge of Hebrew (including its inflection in the Greek) and a shaky one of Homer’s tongue. But Freudenthal argued on the basis of content as well as form. Eupolemus knew the content of the Tanakh and Jewish tradition beyond the Bible, from techniques of interpretation to still older legends. But Freudenthal also had to explain absences and errors, things a Jew would not have forgotten or mistaken. He attributed most of them not to the Jewish writer but the Greek transmitter.

Freudenthal constructed then considered the Jewishness on display in Eupolemus. His view was sympathetic. The modern defended the ancient, affirming, “A Jew can also be ignorant of Jewish things.” He also found embellishments, even complete inventions, understandable in Eupolemus. Outright contradictions he justified as well. According to Freudenthal, the author was neither careless nor unconscious but eager to resolve inconsistency and pass on more ancient tradition. Any violation of good historical writing, he argued, had stemmed from an ambition to make Jewish history impressive to the Greeks. Eupolemus thus undertook a bold exegesis, comparing biblical passages, reinterpreting the text, and incorporating foreign material. In any case, these foibles were far better, for Freudenthal, than the “sickness” of allegorical interpretation characteristic of later writers.

This account of Eupolemus figured into Freudenthal’s larger explanation for the Jewishness on display in Hellenistic Judaism. The German Jew believed the Greek Jews had been caught between two worlds, in geography and language, in culture and religion. On one side, they faced opposition by the Jews of Palestine, who never considered them legitimate or authentic. Through Eupolemus, he rejected the common notion that “every Palestinian Hellenist must have been a traitor to his fatherland and every Palestinian patriot an enemy of Greek Bildung.” On the other side, they confronted resistance from the Greeks, who regarded them as foreign and treated them with prejudice. Writers like Eupolemus, for Freudenthal, had been forced into apologetics rather than high history, pressed to glorify the Hebrew nation, adorn the biblical material, and draw together the Jewish and pagan pasts – all in good literary form. They did the best they could.

In the end, Bernays and Freudenthal saw different undertakings in their ancient sources. Whereas Pseudo-Phocylides formulated the universalization of ethics at the expense of Jewish national heritage, Eupolemus articulated the universalization of Jewish significance at the cost of historical accuracy. Both Greek Jews may have sought to generalize the Jewish – its practice, its teaching, its history – but the two German Jews rendered starkly different judgments on that venture. For Freudenthal, Eupolemus was a bad historian. For Bernays, Pseudo-Phocylides was a bad Jew.

But before delivering their divergent verdicts, Bernays and Freudenthal employed a number of criteria to redefine Pseudo-Phocylides and Eupolemus as Jews. Many of those diagnostic features centered on what the ancient writers knew: the Tanakh, non-biblical Jewish tradition, Hebrew, and Greek (however inadequately). Moving from proficiency to viewpoint, other indicators included a pride in Jewish “nationality” and a criticism of Greek culture. These two Jewish classicists evaluated the Judaism of classical antiquity that they had reconstructed: whether silence on Sabbath, sacrifice, and idolatry or a more open relationship with the past – and textual tradition – as it had really been.

Those markers of the distinctively Jewish, however, were freighted with assumptions about their importance for defining Jewishness among Hellenistic Jews after Alexander. The same markers also resonated with the new challenges, new visions, and new boundaries of Judaism in the nineteenth century. Reform initiatives debated what one ought to do and when, from music in the synagogue to school on holidays to opening-hours for shops. Alongside these questions of doing were those of knowing and speaking, be it the push away from Yiddish culture toward a high German one or the kind of education pupils should receive. Both the Hellenistic Judaism of antiquity and the German Jewry of modernity were not static but in flux. Caught between worlds Jewish and German, based in a reforming Breslau, obstructed by systemic discrimination, and affected by conversion in their families, Bernays and Freudenthal found themselves in a position not unlike that of their Hellenistic Jews.

Such diagnostic features were not inevitable but historically contingent, embedded in a concrete time and place. By explicitly redefining Pseudo-Phocylides and Eupolemus as Jews, they implicitly defined their own expectations and understandings of the authentically Jewish. Their ancient texts contained within them other interpretative possibilities, other means of identifying Jewishness – ones not chosen but perhaps more indicative or obvious today. Eupolemus wrote of the temple in Jerusalem, a Jewish mother of a Phoenician architect, and Solomon’s inheritance at age, yet Freudenthal did not use connection to ancestral land, matrilineal descent, or ritual events as markers for identifying his author as a Jew.

Bernays, too, read Pseudo-Phocylides against his biblical source text and rebuked him for omitting Sabbath and sacrifice and for keeping silent on idolatry in his ethical teachings. But he did not criticize the absence of any statement on dietary laws, even though the base texts had prohibited the consumption of blood and regulated Passover meals. Nor did he censure the lack of any statement on circumcision, despite the reference to bodily purification in Pseudo-Phocylides and the proscription on “uncircumcised” fruits in the source text. The distinctive markers of Jewishness that Bernays and Freudenthal did select helped cast light on Hellenistic Judaism. Equally illuminating, for modern Judaism, were the indicators that they did not choose and use from among the interpretative potentialities within their ancient texts: diet, heritage, circumcision.

Both Bernays and Freudenthal lived in a time much concerned with what it meant to be Jewish. Culturally, intellectually, socially, the Hebraic occupied a deeply fraught position in nineteenth-century Germany, where the Hellenic was identified with the Christian as well as with the German. Athens, it seemed, had more to do with Berlin. The identification of the Greek with the specifically German Protestant posed an acute problem for German Jews who wanted to assert their place in “European culture” while also affirming the value of Judaism past and present. The philosopher Hermann Cohen, who had studied beneath Bernays and with Freudenthal, placed Hebrew prophets with Plato as the two nourishing streams of Western culture: ethical monotheism with scientific knowledge. He argued that the Hebraic and Hellenic were coupled now.

With their work on Hellenistic Judaism, Bernays and Freudenthal discerned the complexities and anxieties of Jewish life. They showed how the Jewish and the Greek were coupled, and complicated, even then. In classical antiquity, as in modern Germany, the matter for pious, educated Jews was not an issue of either/or but of both-and: Jewish and Greek, Jewish and German. All too often, the problem has been getting others to see them that way.


Paul Michael Kurtz is a cultural, intellectual, and religious historian of modern Europe. A research fellow of the Flemish Research Council at Ghent University, Belgium, he writes on the history of the humanities, especially biblical, classical, and orientalist scholarship in Germany during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His articles have appeared in Critical Inquiry, History & Theory, Central European History, and Harvard Theological Review.


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