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Wire, Antoinette Clark


Holy Lives, Holy Deaths. A Close Hearing of Early Jewish Storytellers.


Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature 2002. X, 420 S. gr.8 = Studies in Biblical Literature, 1. Kart. US$ 49,95. ISBN 1-58983-022-9.


Johannes Tromp

Taking as her point of departure that many, if not most, stories in early Jewish narrative literature are based upon previously existing oral traditions, the author of this book attempts to reach back to that oral stage. Laudibly, W. clearly explicates the underlying aims of this endeavor. As a Christian woman living in a pluralistic world, she wishes to deepen our knowledge of Jesus by placing the tradition concerning him in a broader context than that of literature written by males only: that of the world of Jewish story-telling about holy lives, a world in which women participated as much as men, and which may be expected to throw new light on the life of Jesus.

In the Introduction to her study, W. correctly argues that in oral story-telling, there is more that conveys meaning than the words of the story alone (the "text"): there is also the way in which it is told (the intonation of the voice, pitch, volume and tempo, gestures etc.: the "texture"), and the concrete situation in which it is told (the "context"). When a story is set down in writing, texture and context characteristic of oral performance are lost. If I understand W. well, she proposes to restore these important constituents of meaning by asking how the stories that are preserved in early Jewish literature would have been told orally. Her answers seem to be found mainly by actually playing out the written stories as if they were oral, and by imagining plausible audiences. The problems that arise in this connection are noted in the Introduction, but answered in a rather light-hearted manner (see below).

The stories selected by W. (129 in total) are grouped into four categories: stories about portents at births; about miraculous provision in times of need; about prophetic signs of destruction or deliverance; and about martyrdom and vindication. Only stories that were presumably told from ca. 50 BCE to the early second century CE have been chosen. No distinction is made between Jewish and Christian stories, since earliest Christianity is regarded as "a kind of sectarian Judaism" (6). The literary sources from which the stories are taken actually date from a much wider period, including not only Jubilees (2nd century BCE), the Babylonian Talmud (7th century), but also the Midrash on the Ten Martyrs (i. e., on the Ten Commandments, 10th century), and the Latin version of the Life of Adam and Eve (Christian, Southern Germany, 9th or 10th century). W. believes this procedure to be justifiable, because the stories contained in this literature may be much older in their oral origin.

The concluding chapter summarizes the results of the study. Many conclusions are negative or rather vague. This does not mean that they are incorrect. One cannot but agree that neither the subject of a story, nor its form predetermines the meaning it may have had for those who told or heard it; that the contexts in which they were told may have varied widely; that "this kind of story-telling occurs everywhere and can be said to involve all people who speak" (384), including women. It must also be acknowledged, however, that such observations might as well have been made in the introductory chapter, since they follow from reasonable assumptions about the world of story-telling, but not from reading the stories in their written form and pretending that they are oral.

A single, randomly selected example may illustrate this. On p. 237 W. comments on Lives of the Prophets 5, that the names of Hosea and other prophets are followed "by an imperfect verb and the place of origin, showing that these were real people who were raised in tribes, towns or even fields that the hearer knows, and who came from all parts of Israel." Mentioning a prophet's place of origin does not imply that the hearer was already familiar with it, nor does the use of the imperfect tense form of the Greek verb einai (even if there had been an aorist alternative). That hearers of a story knew it before an actual performance of it was given, forms part of an interpretative model, which cannot be deduced from the written sources, but is necessarily preconceived and used as a tool to analyze the sources.

The present reviewer's main objection to this book, then, is that its author has greatly underestimated the difficulties involved in her effort to reach back to the oral stage of the tradition. To imagine contexts in which particular stories might have functioned; the persons who might have told them; the way in which these persons might have intonated their voices; the gestures with which they might have accompanied their voice, all these matters, which are extensively addressed in every case discussed, really belong to the realm of speculation only. To counter such objections, it is not sufficient to state, as W. does, that writers also form part of an oral story-telling community, or to assert that the stories were considered as reports of actual events, not fiction, that they were authoritative, and could not be adjusted except in a minor way only - claims that are demonstrably untrue even for the written transmission of many of these stories.

It is of little use to complain about the carelessness with which W. treats questions of the origin of the writings from which the stories are taken, or of chronology in general. W. is well aware of her shortcomings in this respect and quite adamantly expresses her disregard for the "shifting soils of literary research that will be with us for some time" (5). "What I want to recognize are patterns in Early Jewish story-telling," she states in the same sentence. Apparently, the reader is asked to rely once more on the author's imagination to establish which stories and patterns qualify for being regarded as early Jewish.