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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Hagiography.

1.

A rudimentary biographical literature begins to develop in Second-Temple Judaism. Initially it focused on the biblical heroes, and filled out their lives with legendary additions. It grew naturally out of the process of retelling and filling the lacunae in the biblical narratives (see ANTH A.6). The Bible story functioned as the national epic of ancient Israel, and was crucial for Jewish national identity, just as the Homeric epics were crucial to Greek national identity. It is not surprising, therefore, that the major figures of the national epic should have become cultural icons and their stories embellished. Moses, the lawgiver of Israel, whose Torah was the foundation of the Jewish polity, became the most revered national hero. Philo wrote an important life of him in Greek, which represented him as the wisest of law-givers. Josephus recorded extensive legendary material, probably originating among Egyptian Jews, which fills out the obscure period of Moses' life when he was a prince at the court of Pharaoh. He describes a series of successful military campaigns which Moses conducted on Pharaoh's behalf in Ethiopia (Ant. 2. 238–53). The exaltation of Moses reached its peak in the Exagoge of Ezekiel the Tragedian. This Greek drama, composed probably by a learned Alexandrian Jew in the second century BCE, has survived only in fragmentary quotations in later writers (text, tr., and commentary: Jacobson (1983 ); tr.: Robertson, OTP ii. 803–20). It seems to have retold the story of the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt down to about Exod 15. In one crucial passage in which he forsees in a dream the giving of the Torah on Sinai, Moses is apotheosized (ANTH G.1). Though pre-eminent among the biblical heroes, Moses was by no means the only biblical figure to attract legend. We have already noted the strong interest in some circles in Enoch (see MAJ GEN A.7, C.4–5, D.7–9). The Qumran scrolls also attest a surprisingly deep interest in the figure of Noah.

2.

These legends about the biblical saints served two main purposes. They contained an element of pure entertainment. This can be seen clearly in Joseph and Aseneth (ANTH G.2). This work, which was probably composed by a Jew in Greek in the first century BCE or the first century CE (though whether in Palestine, Syria, or Egypt is much disputed), is basically a romantic novel which elaborates at length on the passing reference in Gen 41:45 that ‘Pharaoh gave Joseph … Asenath daughter of Potiphera [= Pentephres in our text], priest of On, as his wife’. (Text: Philonenko (1968); tr: Cook, in Sparks (1984: 465–504); Burchard, OTP ii. 177–248; Kraemer (1998 ) calls into question the date and origin of Joseph and Aseneth proposed above.) Joseph and Aseneth and the Esther cycle of stories (both the original Heb. and the Gk. additions) are among the earliest examples that survive from the ancient world of what might be called novels, and it has been argued that Jewish writers made a significant contribution to the development of this genre. However the majority of these tales of the biblical heroes, including Joseph and Aseneth, also had a serious purpose and were meant for edification. The biblical figures were put forward as exemplars whose behaviour was to be followed—or occasionally shunned—by the pious.

3.

The veneration of the biblical heroes began to develop in late Second-Temple Judaism into a cult of the saints. Herod built a great mausoleum to mark the graves of the patriarchs in Hebron and adorned the tomb of David with a marble memorial (Jos. Ant. 16.182). Both these sites may have become centres of pilgrimage. Interest in the tombs of the saints is further shown by the curious work transmitted under the name of the Lives of the Prophets (ANTH G.3; text: Torrey (1946); tr.: Hare, OTP ii. 379–400; see further Schwemer (1997 ). Though passed down within the Christian church, and containing in some of its versions Christian additions, the Lives of the Prophets is generally agreed to go back to a Jewish text, probably composed in Palestine in Greek in the first half of the first century CE. The text shows a clear interest in memorializing the sites where the biblical prophets lay buried, with a view, presumably, to encouraging people to visit the tombs and venerate their occupants. The cult of the saints which became so powerful and popular a religious movement among Christians throughout the Levant in the Byzantine period, seems to have its roots in a Second Temple period Jewish practice. Indeed, the fact that so many of the legends of the saints contained in the Lives of the Prophets are found scattered throughout latter rabbinic literature may indicate that the practice persisted among Jews in the Talmudic period as well. It was certainly widespread among Jews in medieval and modern times.

4.

It was not only biblical heroes who were held up as exemplars. Figures from more recent history were treated hagiographically. A martyr literature began to develop, the initial focus of which was the Jews who had embraced death at the time of the Maccabees rather than obey the command of the Greek king to renounce their religion. There was a widely circulated story about a mother who was forced to witness the death of her seven sons before she herself paid the ultimate price. This story was given powerful philosophical treatment in 4 Maccabees (ANTH G.4; text: Rahlfs (n.d: i. 1157–84); trs.: Townshend, APOT ii. 653–85; Anderson, OTP ii. 531–64; commentary: Hadas (1953); see further van Henten (1997 )). The author, provenance, and date of this work, which influenced later Christian martyr literature and iconography, have been much debated. The text is written in a highly cultured Greek by a Jew well-trained in rhetoric and philosophy (its underlying message is the power of reason to control the emotions). It is clearly a Jewish text and was probably composed in Palestine or Syria in the late first or early second century CE. The possibility cannot be ruled out that it originated in Antioch where, in the patristic period, there was a cult of the Maccabean martyrs centred on tombs which were supposed to contain their relics. Though the evidence is far from clear, it is possible that this Antiochian cult of the Holy Maccabees was pre-Christian Jewish in origin.

5.

A martyr literature also developed within rabbinic Judaism. This focused not on the Maccabean period, but on the persecutions under Hadrian (132–5 CE), during which a number of leading rabbis lost their lives. A version of the story of the mother and her seven sons circulated among rabbinic Jews, but significantly the setting was transferred to the time of Hadrian. The definitive rabbinic martyrology was the Hebrew Legend of the Ten Martyrs. (Text: Reeg (1985 ); tr.: Gollancz (1908: 118–44).) Though in its present form this work may date no earlier than the early Middle Ages, most of the individual tales of martyrdom which it contains are attested much earlier in rabbinic literature (ANTH G.5), and the genre of martyr-tale, as we have seen, goes back to Second Temple times. A central motif of the martyr literature is resistance to tyranny: this element is particularly strong in 4 Maccabees, and, interestingly, it echoes through the speech which Josephus puts in the mouth of Eleazar, when he exhorts the Sicarii at Masada to kill themselves rather than submit to Roman slavery (J.W. 7.323–36). This motif had resonance in the wider non-Jewish world. It brings the Jewish martyr literature into alignment with pagan Greek texts, such as the work called by modern scholars the Acts of the Alexandrian Martyrs, which records acts of heroic philosophical opposition to political tyranny. A hero of this pagan philosophical movement was undoubtedly Socrates, the story of whose death, so powerfully told by Plato and Xenophon, seems to have been an inspiration to the philosophical opponents of the Roman empire.

6.

Sanctifying the name of God in martyrdom was the supreme example of piety that the great saints could provide. But other exemplary stories were also told about them. Anecdotes about the great teachers circulated within the schools. A particularly rich assortment of these has survived in rabbinic literature. It is natural for students to tell stories (some of which may be far from flattering) about their teachers, but this story-telling served a serious purpose. The teacher was seen as an embodiment of his teaching; he was nothing less than the Torah incarnate (ANTH. G.6, taken from the Babylonian Talmud, on which see MAJ GEN B.11). The student not only listened to what he said but observed his every action. The imitation of the master was a cardinal principle of rabbinic education. In the absence of explicit teaching by the master on a given subject, a student could cite the master's actions as evidence of his views. Though large numbers of anecdotes about the leading scholars circulated in the rabbinic schools, in some cases constituting all the necessary raw material of a biography, curiously no one ever felt impelled to draw the anecdotes together to form a Life. Had they done so, the resultant text would have looked something like Diogenes Laertius's Lives of the Philosophers. The biographical urge was not entirely absent from post-biblical Judaism, as the expansions of the biblical narratives and the anecdotes about the non-biblical saints and scholars clearly prove, but, with the possible exceptions of Philo's Life of Moses and the Christian gospels, that biographical urge never reached fruition in anything like a full biography of any individual saint, scholar, or hero.

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