Pieter W. van der Horst on Florentino García Martínez’s Between Philology and Theology

Martínez, Between Philology and Theology, Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 162, SJSJ 162,
Florentino García Martínez, Between Philology and Theology: Contributions to the Study of Ancient Jewish Interpretation, Brill, 2012, xvi+194 pp., $149 or €107.

Spanish scholar Florentino García Martínez spent most of his academic career as professor of Early Judaism at the universities of Groningen (The Netherlands) and Leuven (Belgium) and as director of the well-known Qumran Institute in Groningen. He became famous for his influential publications on the Dead Sea Scrolls, many of which were collected in his two volumes Qumranica Minora of 2007 (Brill). In the same year he was honored with a Festschrift (Flores Florentino: Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Early Jewish Studies, Brill). In 2012 he was honored again with a special issue of the Journal for the Study of Judaism (43, 4-5 [2012]) on the occasion of his retirement as editor-in-chief of that prestigious journal. Two of his colleagues also collected a number of his articles published between 1997 and 2012, had some of them translated from Spanish into English, and provided them with an introduction about García Martínez’s work. This new volume contains eleven essays. Even though the book does not have an overall thesis, much can be learned from it about Jewish Bible interpretation in the ancient world.

In the first essay, “Abraham and the Gods: The Paths to Monotheism in Jewish Religion,” García-Martínez traces the development from Israelite monolatry to Jewish monotheism, that is to say, the shift from Israelites serving YHWH as one god among many to the Jewish belief that there were no other gods than YHWH. As an entry point for this discussion, García Martínez focuses on post–biblical stories about Abraham in which the patriarch of Israel discovers that there is only one God. He argues that the influence of Greek philosophy on Jewish thought provided the decisive impulse in that direction.

Intriguing though this thesis is, the author does not sufficiently take into account that the so-called “monotheistic trend” in Greek philosophy most often was more of a henotheistic (i.e., acknowledging one god among many) and monolatric quality than of a strictly monotheistic nature (moreover, the use of “Neo-Platonic” in the context of the first centuries BCE and CE [pp. 5, 14] is highly anachronistic). Strangely, the opening page refers to “other lectures” without any explanation of what this refers to, and the essay has no footnotes at all (unlike the other essays). This is a somewhat infelicitous start to an otherwise excellent volume.

A provocatively titled essay, “The Foreskins of Angels,” focuses on the ancient Jewish debate about the gender of angels (male, female, both, none?). The majority opinion was that angels were male and the highest class of angels was created already circumcised. The author also shows, however, that ancient copyists of Jewish texts sometimes altered the text to omit references to angelic circumcision.

García Martínez turns to Genesis 10 in “Geography as Theology: From the Book of Jubilees to the Phaleg by Aria Montano,” demonstrating how later Jewish writers updated its geographical and ethnic data to keep in step with their contemporaries. To that end, Josephus used the knowledge produced by Greek geographers; the author of the Aramaic Bible translation that goes by the name of Targum Neofiti used cartographic knowledge current in the Roman Empire of the third century; and, by way of Christian example, in his Phaleg of 1572, Arias Montano interpreted Genesis 10 in light of the discovery of the Americas (Parwaim is Peru [in the dual]!). Other early Jewish writings, however, such as Jubilees and the Genesis Apocryphon, do not modernize the biblical text but try to use the geographical knowledge of their time to reinterpret it theologically. For example, Jubilees explicitly emphasizes that Shem’s God-given inheritance is the central part of the earth that belongs to his descendants forever, a clear theologico-political statement. Conversely, Ham’s son Canaan has no right whatsoever to Palestine: the Genesis Apocryphon assigns the right to the land of Israel unequivocally to the descendants of Shem alone. It is striking that here Israel is presented as the rightful possessors of the very land that in Genesis 10 is allocated to Canaan and his descendants!

Another essay deals in extenso with the motif of the heavenly tablets in the book of Jubilees. This notion turns out to be remarkably polyvalent: it denotes the pre-existent tables of the Law, the heavenly register of good and evil deeds of humans, the book of eternal destiny, the calendar (based upon the solar year) and feasts, and new halakhot that have no biblical basis. The concept of heavenly tablets clearly constitutes the major underpinning of the ideology of the author of Jubilees.

In the center of the book, the editors gathered two essays relating to the Dead Sea Scrolls. The first addresses the character of Balaam, who is mentioned by name only twice in the Scrolls. Nevertheless, his prophecy was repeatedly used to express the diverse messianic expectations of the group. (In the Acknowledgements, the title of the volume in which this contribution was originally published is incorrect; see p. 76 n. 23.) The second essay addressing the Scrolls looks comparatively at divine sonship in Qumran and Philo. In the Dead Sea Scrolls the term “son of God” is used of the angels, of the people of Israel, but no longer of the earthly king (as it was in the Hebrew Bible) apart from the future messiah-king. In Philo, “son of God” is used to designate the cosmos and also the divine Logos. There is a world of difference here, but the author fails to explain sufficiently the background of this difference.

The following three essays address the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in later Aramaic versions called Targumim. These versions varied in their fidelity to the Hebrew text, often incorporating interesting additions and interpretive glosses. The first of the three essays deals with the perplexing matter of the children of Eve in the Targumim in which striking interpretive moves are made. García Martínez ably illuminates the interpretative developments that led to various traditions: an angel named Samael rather than Adam is identified as the father of Cain; Cain and Abel had twin sisters; these sisters had a role in the dispute between Cain and Abel, among others.

The second essay (ch. 8) deals with “Sodom and Gomorrah in the Targumim” and discusses how these Aramaic translations answer several perennial questions: Who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah? What were the sins of Sodom (hint: not “sodomy”!)? Who was Pelitit (the girl read into the text of Gen. 18:21 by Targum Pseudo-Jonathan)? Ch. 9 does the same with the story of Hagar in the rendering of Pseudo-Jonathan. These are wonderful exercises in ancient Jewish Bible interpretation.

In the final two essays, the book turns in an entirely new direction, namely, the Renaissance reception of 4 Ezra. In the first, García Martínez shows how great the authority of (the then still canonical) 4 Ezra was in medieval Spain and how that authority declined in the 16th century. However, by the end of the 15th century, Columbus was still aided in his discovery of America by a passage from 4 Ezra 6:42, which he knew through Pierre d’Ailly’s Ymago mundi. This discovery made an impact on biblical exegesis of the 16th century (among others again Arias Montano in his Phaleg, discussed in the book’s opening essay).

In the final contribution, García Martínez demonstrates how the same book, 4 Ezra, also played a role in the development of the theory that the American Indians are of Jewish descent since they originated from the ten tribes (based upon 4 Ezra 13:39-50). The 16th-century debate about this theory, including the question of the canonical status of 4 Ezra, is sketched in some detail and illuminated by a wide selection of quotations from the relevant sources. The book has, unfortunately, only an index of subjects.

García Martínez’s wide-ranging scholarship assures the high quality of this book. Nevertheless, there are some aspects that should have received more attention. In some places, the English translations of the original Spanish is so odd that one senses that the translator has mistranslated the underlying text. Sometimes he also translates rather mechanically resulting in names such as Vigilancio instead of Vigilantius (151-2). Quite bizarre is the translator’s handling of passages where García Martínez quotes Spanish translations of an ancient text now rendered in English, resulting in confusing sentences such as: “The recent Spanish translation by [name] is as follows: ‘And regarding what you saw…’” (177). Here the editors should have been more diligent, as in the cases where the author refers to contributions by others “in this volume” (with pagination added in footnotes, see 126 nn. 17 and 20) although the reference is not to “this” volume but to the volume(s) in which the essay originated. All this is unnecessarily confusing and could have been avoided, but it hardly detracts from my high evaluation of this volume.