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Mendels, Doron


Why Did Paul Go West? Jewish Historical Narrative and Thought


London u. a.: Bloomsbury T & T Clark 2013. 181 S. = T & T Clark Jewish and Christian Texts Series, 15. Geb. US$ 120,00. ISBN 978-0-567-36469-2.


Gary Gilbert

The volume by Doron Mendels brings together ten separate yet interconnected essays that examine Jewish narratives (esp. 1Maccabees) and thought, centering around the themes of Jewish identity, the role of memory, historiography, gift giving and its relation to honor, and political theology. Most chapters were originally de-livered as talks or previously published, and build on ideas from M.’s previous work, particularly his treatment of Hasmonean political history in Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism (1997) and the exploration of memory in Memory in Jewish, Pagan, and Christian Societies of the Graeco-Roman World (2004).
On the subject of political theology, M. posits an evolutionary development that begins with the judges and kings and ends with the Hasmoneans. Whereas the biblical texts present God as having direct (and sometimes messy) involvement in the selection, success, and failure of Israel’s political leaders, the Hasmoneans, according to 1M, rule in a state of exception, where their successes and fail-ures are the result of human choice without divine guidance. Political legitimacy is now conferred through personal success, approval by the people, and participation in the political networks of the time (e. g., Seleucids, Spartans, Romans). History, however, is never quite so neat, and many Jews, especially those represented in apocalyptic texts, remained attached to a God-infused political leadership. The Dead Sea Scrolls, many of which were written in opposition to Hasmonean rule, believed that God still had a thing or two to say about power and authority in the Jewish community.
On the topic gift giving and Hasmonean politics, M. begins with the observation that the presence of gifts created bonds between political parties, and their absence could fuel antagonism and even acts of revenge. The rejection of gifts in part contributed to the outbreak of the Maccabean revolt, while their acceptance helped to cement relations between Hasmoneans and Seleucids. Here M. offers an important corrective to the standard view that 1M was written in support of the Hasmoneans and their achievements. M. shows that 1M is not without criticism of the new regime. In the case of gift giving, the author was troubled by the Hasmonean re-liance on gift exchanges, and shows that the Hasmoneans sought out gifts at their own risk. The ultimate »gifts« that Jonathan and Simeon receive from Seleucid rulers do not result in honor, but a violent and shameful death. On occasion, however, M.’s theory runs up against unexamined alternatives. According to M., Jonathan refused Demetrius’ gift because the latter offered only flat-tery, while Alexander promised honor in the form of being the king’s friend. 1M presents a different motivation, suggesting that Jonathan did not trust Demetrius (1M 10.46–47). M. may be correct, but he provides no reason why we should reject the explicit information provided in 1M. After all, the Hasmoneans had good reason to distrust Seleucid rulers (e. g., 1M 11.53).
Several chapters deal with the themes of memory and historiography. M. argues that 1M uses the past to justify a new beginning in Judaism under the Hasmoneans (15). He then applies the musical concept of polyphony to ancient narratives as a way to distinguish between horizontal themes that progress linearly through the narrative and vertical themes which are concentrated in a narrative block and reflect simultaneous occurrence. 1M builds its symphonic narrative around a series of dichotomies, including purity and foreignness, power and weakness, peace and false peace. He also addresses the topic of authoritative texts and their interpretation. M. concludes that the »process of changing the Bible by re-writing sections of it went on for centuries, and it shows among other things that its authoritative status was never absolute« and that the »fixed linearity [of the narrative] was questioned and sometimes even discarded for various ideological, theological, literary and political reasons.« (64) He also addresses the question of why the rabbis did not write history, positing (contrary to many other scholars) a general absence of linear history in the broader Hellenistic world, and a rabbinic perspective that God alone was repository of national common memory.
In another essay with far reaching implications, M. seeks to complicate the categories of Judaism and Hellenism. The two terms do a poor job describing the divisions in Judean society before the revolt, and have limited usefulness during the Hasmonean period. Antiochus IV’s efforts were not to turn Jews into Hellenes, but to have them abandon their distinctive practices and thus allow them to assimilate with local non-Judean population. In support M. states that »the patrioi nomoi of the Jews, or at least part of them, could not coexist with the legal system of the Seleucids and its pagan habits« (76). It is not clear, however, why this is so, given that Jews had been living under Seleucid rule for 25 years without confrontation. M. further argues that 1M differs considerably from biblical narratives. »Although 1M was written in a biblical style that reflects nostalgia for the old memories preserved in the Bible, it has added a different set of memories, quite polemical in nature, emanating from Jewish circles that created the new state of the Hasmoneans« (92). 1M represents a »new phase in Jewish history and thought, highlighting the tension between nostalgia for the old biblical memories and a desire for freedom from those same memories« (85). Whereas the biblical narratives rely on the men-tion of physical sites, monuments and memorials, 1M places em­phasis on the creation of memory of the Hasmonean leaders.
In answering the question why did Paul go west, M. begins by arguing that Jews in the Western diaspora developed independently from the rabbinic community and the Eastern communities that were in connect with the rabbis. The cause for the gap was largely linguistic; the rabbinic community transmitted its ideas in Hebrew and Aramaic, while Jews in the Western diaspora lived in a world of Greek and Latin. M. imagines the rabbis as a spiritual norm against which the Western diaspora communities fall short. The latter were spiritually bereft (8), lacked spiritual leaders (9), and were willing to forfeit their connection with the center in Israel (10). Into this spiritually bereft market Paul came to sell his »religious commodity« (9). Two points render this argument highly suspect. First, the epigraphic and architectural remains paint a different picture of vibrant spiritual communities that possessed spiritual leaders (e. g., didaskaloi), valued the Torah (e. g., Torah shrine in Sardis synagogue), and acknowledged a deep connection to Jerusalem and the Temple. Second, M. relies heavily on the Paul presented in Acts. Paul, self-described apostle to the gentiles, had no intention on preaching to Jews (Rom 11.13; Gal 2.7), and thus was not attempting to plug some spiritual void. Indeed the only deficiency Paul saw among his contemporary Jews was their unwillingness to acknowledge that divine justification had been granted apart from the law (e. g., Rom 3.21). In rejecting this proposition, the rabbis together with Jews in the Western diaspora were in complete agreement.