Jewish Poets, Greek Poetry: Contextualizing Jewish-Greek Poetry as Post-Classical Literature

  Dhont, Marieke. "Jewish Poets, Greek Poetry: Contextualizing Jewish-Greek Poetry as Post-Classical Literature." CHS Research Bulletin 9 (2021).


This project focuses on Jewish identity in antiquity, analyzing the relationship between literary practices, identity construction, and multilingualism in the ancient world through the study of Jewish poetic writings in Greek. It restores the status of Jewish-Greek poetry as literary works and their authors as legitimate voices of a Jewish identity. In the study of post-classical Greek literature, Jewish poets have been routinely neglected because they are not seen as canonical compared to Hellenistic contemporaries such as Apollonius Rhodius and Callimachus. Meanwhile, Jewish identity in the Hellenistic era has been constructed through the perspective of a Semitic and Jewish-biblical culture (e.g., Qumran). In light of current scholarly debates on Greek sociolinguistics and cultural interaction in antiquity, we can gain a greater appreciation of Greek-speaking Judaism as an expression of Jewish multilingualism in the Second Temple Period alongside Hebrew and Aramaic and of the link between literary practices and identity in the ancient Mediterranean.


The interplay between Jewish and Greek traditions constitutes one of the big questions in Second Temple Studies. How do we understand the nature of Hellenistic Judaism? My project aims to formulate an answer to this question by looking at Jewish poetry in Greek. The engagement of Hellenophone Jews with Greek poetic traditions is varied and includes epic poetry and tragedy. Transmitted to us are the works of at least three Jewish poets, Theodotus, Philo, and Ezekiel, as well as some pseudonymous writings, which can be dated to some time prior to the first century BCE and which have been preserved mainly indirectly through citations in the writings of some Church Fathers, particularly Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius.

In past scholarship, Jewish-Greek poetry has often been disparaged. Some have argued, for example, that Jews were unable to write proper Greek poetry: “The Greek reader (…) would certainly have laughed at those feeble attempts to create a Jewish literature in the style of Homer and Euripides, especially since the Jewish writers lacked any talent to accomplish such a daring literary enterprise” (Tcherikover, Apologetics, 179-180). Alternatively, using a Greek form to express Jewish content has led others to characterize Judeo-Greek poetry as a “paradox” (Siegert, Einleitung, 488). The integration of Jewish and Greek traditions was, in this view, not a successful project.

These disparaging comments, however, are not supported by any textual evidence. This gives rise to the question, What does the text itself tell us about the Jewish-Greek encounter? My project looks at what happens when Judaism and Hellenism are embodied in a text, when Jewish tradition meets Greek literary culture. I examine the texts themselves to show how Jewish poets writing in Greek draw consciously and skillfully from both Greek and Jewish traditions. For my CHS fellowship, I have focused particularly on Ezekiel the Tragedian and his Exagoge, a Greek tragedy featuring the story of Moses as recounted in Exodus 1–15 as its main source of inspiration. I have analyzed Ezekiel’s vocabulary and syntax to show how it draws on the Septuagint translation as well as on classical poetic works. I not only identify points of contact with Greek Exodus or Greek epic or tragic poetry, but particularly also to trace the process of poetic assimilation.

My work on Ezekiel is part of a broader project on Jewish-Greek poetry which will result in a monograph and will represent the first systematic study of Hellenistic Jewish poetry in Greek ever published. Studies on individual works have recently appeared (e.g., Lanfranchi 2006, Whitmarsh 2013, and Stewart 2018 on Ezekiel, among others), and the first detailed examination of the Jewish adoption of Greek genres appeared this year (Adams 2021), but Jewish-Greek poetry has not yet been studied comprehensively and in-depth from a (socio)linguistic and literary perspective. Discussions of individual authors benefit from a broader understanding of literary practices in the ancient world in order not to impute originality or idiosyncracy to a more common practice and to understand how literature expresses identity. I argue that Ezekiel’s Exagoge, and other Jewish-Greek poetic works as well, must be viewed as a fruitful integration of Jewish and Greek literary traditions rather than caricatured as a failure to write good Greek poetry or as a paradox in Jewish culture.

While the Jews’ adoption of Greek is often framed in terms of necessity (see most famously Rajak, Translation, 154), the encounter with the Greek world also provided Jews with opportunity, namely, the opportunity to develop and expand their own tradition in a new language while drawing on the existing tradition of Greek poetics and to position themselves in a multicultural environment. Alongside the translation of their scriptures, we see the flourishing of Jewish composition in Greek, including historiography, philosophy, and poetry. These texts are concrete expressions of the cultural encounter of Greek and Jewish traditions. What happens when Jews start writing Greek and expressing their own cultural heritage in a new language? How do they engage with the traditions that accompany the adoption of a language that has an extensive literary heritage? An analysis of compositional strategies in Jewish-Greek poets shows the complexities of cultural dynamics at play. My argument represents a step towards a further integration of Greek-speaking Judaism into our understanding of Judaism in the Second Temple period. At the same time, I demonstrate how Jews in turn also represent the cultural diversity which characterizes Hellenism. As much as the shaping of their literature attests to the development of a Jewish tradition in Greek, it also attests to the different ways in which Hellenistic literature could be shaped to fit specific contexts. Jewish-Greek poetry offers a fascinating example of the expression of multiculturalism in the ancient world.


While (as a result of the global pandemic) “non-residentially” at CHS, I authored one article on Ezekiel the Tragedian (“Jewish Poets, Greek Poetry: Literary Traditions in Hellenistic Jewish Poetry,” published in 2021 in a special volume of Biblische Notizen (65-86), on the theme of “Perceptions of Tradition,” edited by Mika Pajunen and Jessi Orpana), and wrote the chapter on the Exagoge for my second monograph, provisionally entitled Jewish Poets, Greek Poetry. I also authored another article on a related theme, namely on the level of Greek in Eupolemus, the Jewish-Greek historiographer (“The Use of Greek in Palestine: Eupolemus as a Case Study,” forthcoming in Palestine Exploration Quarterley). I am tremendously grateful to the CHS for their support during a challenging year.

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