How Edward Said’s Ideas Perverted the Study of Ancient Jewry

September 17, 2018 | Erich Gruen
About the author:

Having started his scholarly career as a student of ancient Roman politics, Erich Gruen—now a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley—later shifted his focus to the study of Jews in the Hellenistic and ancient Roman eras. In a retrospective on his scholarship of ancient Jewry, Gruen sums up some of his key conclusions:

I entered [the academic debates concerning ancient Jewry] directly by confronting the widespread notion that societies tended to define themselves by “othering” those unlike them and by demonizing those from whom they wished to distance and distinguish themselves. The classic statement of that approach rang loud and clear in Edward Said’s powerfully influential Orientalism. And it seeped deeply into studies of the ancient world. Negative images, misrepresentations, and stereotypes, it was regularly argued, justified marginalization and exclusion, a tendency to divide the world into the acceptable and the unacceptable, whether Greek and Persian, Roman and barbarian, Jew and Gentile—in short, the invention of the “Other.” . . .

[I] attempted to show that Greeks, Romans, and Jews (whence comes the bulk of our evidence) had far more mixed, nuanced, shifting, and complex opinions about other peoples and did not simply propagate derogatory images to enhance their own self-image. There was more going on than ethnocentrism or xenophobia. [Thus, many ancient] Jewish writers underscored their connectedness [to the Gentiles] rather than their separatism, as in the story [in Genesis of Judah and his daughter-in-law] Tamar and of [the convert and ancestor of King David] Ruth, and in the manipulation of traditions that implied kinship between Jews and Greeks, such as turning Abraham into a forefather of the Spartans or inventing a marriage alliance between Abraham and Heracles, as well as a number of tales that linked Jewish sages to Greek philosophers. These intertwinings, however fictitious, reveal a mindset that did not retreat into isolation and xenophobia.

Nor did Greek and Roman writers view Jews as beyond the pale. They might mock their customs and badly misconstrue their practices. But that was due more to ignorance or dismissal than to animosity or malice. Even the notorious [anti-Jewish] tirade by the Roman historian Tacitus, normally seen as the chief purveyor of [ancient] anti-Semitism, had a very different agenda. Tacitus’ penchant for irony and sardonic reversal twisted the image of the Jews largely to skewer his own countrymen. . . .

If a consistent thread runs through my studies of Jewish history in the context of classical antiquity, it can be found in resistance to the common portrayal of Jews as victims.

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