The Joseph of Genesis as Hellenistic Scientist

Reviews of the Enoch Seminar 2016.05.03

Ljubica Jovanović, The Joseph of Genesis as Hellenistic Scientist. Hebrew Bible Monographs 48. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2013. ISBN: 978-1-907534-69-0. Pp. xvii + 327. 90 € / $120. Hardcover.

Carson Bay
Florida State University

Although the figure of Joseph has been a popular topic of investigation in biblical scholarship, the monograph by Ljubica Jovanović asks fresh questions of Jacob’s favorite son, examining familiar material through new lenses. Specifically, Jovanović challenges the tendency to place divination within the realm of magic/witchcraft through a survey of Joseph’s characterization as a Hellenistic scientist. She argues that divination, understood as “the different methods of discovering the principles of nature and significance of events, with a focus on future ones” (6), should instead be viewed within the history of western science and not necessarily apart from it.

In Chapter 1, she establishes the characterization of Joseph as a Hellenistic scientist. In the Hellenistic period there was a bifurcation in terms of Joseph’s reception. One school, represented by Josephus and the Ethiopic Story of Joseph, lauds Joseph and appreciates scientific inquiry, whereas the other (e.g., Jubilees) deemphasizes Joseph qua biblical patriarch and effectively ignores “science.” This latter school “promotes a single ideology” and is defined by the “intolerance of the foreign,” “political absolutism,” “religious extremism,” and “ethnic purity” (11). (The characterization of this latter school seems overstated here.) Jovanović approaches this binary by establishing the literary genre of RVE (Revelation by Visual Effects) by the metaphorical usage of “key terms of RVE such as water, light, cups, mirrors, lamps or wells” (28). This stems from a holistic view of Hellenistic science that collapses modern categories of physics, biology, psychology, and theology, placing an epistemological premium upon the “science of vision” and its main elements, light and water. These “ancient optics” Jovanović surveys through the categories of hydromancy (water divination), captromancy/catoptromancy (mirror divination), lychnomancy/lecanomancy (lamp divination), and oneiromancy (dream divination). In so doing, Jovanović replaces twentieth-century scholarship – which distinguished oil lecanomancy from “Etruscan-Greco-Egyptian hallucinatory lecanomancy” – with the categories of RVE (where images need interpretation) and “gazing lecanomancy” (“direct discourse with otherworldly creatures”) (45). She argues that ancient divination be understood as science, against modern attitudes that effectively conflate divination of any time and occultism. Her description of said science is lengthier than necessary, and for a book about a Hellenistic scientist relies often upon older Mesopotamian, Babylonian, and Egyptian material. Other scholars, Jovanović avers, have missed Joseph’s scientific side. Recent scholars treating Joseph’s Hellenistic Receptionsgeschichte not only disagree about Joseph’s general reception but divide depictions of him into categories of “good” and “bad.” However, Jovanović herself approaches the latter in the dualism posited between a purist Judaism for whom Joseph “betrayed his nation” and a culturally apologetic Judaism for whom Joseph was an ethnic hero. Where Jovanović moves beyond previous scholarship is in her exploration of Joseph not as ethical character, but as scientist and “conduit of Hebrew religious and intellectual property” (75).

In Chapter 2, Jovanović introduces Josephus and his corpus. She argues that Josephus presents Joseph as a Hellenistic scientist invested in the social implications of divinatory discovery. Her summary of Josephus’ life here takes his autobiographical statements at face value, a position in tension with much contemporary Josephus scholarship. Her Josephan Joseph is a ἱερογραμματεύς (scribal priest) who, like Solomon, operates via φρόνησις (prudence) and is thus distinct from a prophetic Daniel, who operates via revelation. A potential problem here is that God does communicate to Joseph via revelation (AJ 2.13ff), and Jovanović plays up Joseph’s suffering as part of his qualifications as a scientist in Josephus – the very experiences which often define prophets. Moreover, Joseph’s dreams share the same “standard word” – ὄψις – as divine revelation, but Jovanović calls Joseph’s promptings “divine inspiration by reason” (112). While this prophet-scientist divide may be strained, Josephus’s Joseph is well placed alongside other heroic scientists like Seth, Abraham, and Noah, highlighting the importance in Josephus placed upon Joseph’s perceived education, zeal and handsomeness, virginity, and humanitarian concerns as the pockmarks of a Hellenistic scientist. Josephus, for one, readily adopts the scientist Joseph. Methodologically, this chapter relies on some questionable assumptions, such as 1) that Joseph’s replacement of Levi with Ephraim and Manasseh implied a transfer from Levi to Joseph of responsibility for “communication with the supernatural” (83); and 2) that Josephus’ witch of Endor serves as a good “capable scientist” to compare with Joseph. Beyond this, she assumes lexicographical analysis of Josephus to be fruitless because as a historian he “does not invest in the special meaning” of words (85). This aim is impossible to demonstrate in one chapter, and is therefore possibly misleading to the reader.

Chapter 3 situates the Ethiopic Story of Joseph among various midrashic traditions, all of which Jovanović traces to the Hellenistic period in terms of word usage and literary motifs. These all agree on reading Joseph in a favorable light. But they are not the same. Between Ethiopic Joseph, Genesis Rabbah, Midrash on Proverbs, Tanḥuma Yelammedenu, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Aggadah Berešit, and The Book of Yashar one finds a veritable smörgåsbord of traditions about Joseph – his education, ethical characters, abilities, ethnicity, et cetera – existing in manuscripts separated in their writing by over a millennium. Via a long chapter and numerous helpful charts Jovanović seeks to show how these all help to inform Ethiopic Joseph. But one must ask whether Ethiopic Joseph can be confidently read as adopting Hellenistic traditions. This story exists only in a 14th-15th century manuscript. Compare the Ge’ez Sefer Yosippon, similarly late, which was informed by Latin, Hebrew, and (Judeo-) Arabic traditions in addition to Hellenistic (Josephus), and whose details, especially “expansive” ones, are very often peculiar to Ge’ez Yosippon. If its sources were not extant, it would be tempting to reading Ge’ez Yosippon’s details as a testament to Hellenistic tradition, but they are often engaging traditions of Late Antiquity, the Medieval, or the Middle Ages. When Ethiopic Joseph adds, for example, “sorcerers and scribes” to the “wise men and magicians” of the LXX Joseph story, this may be unique to the Ethiopic, but it is uncertain if this is a Hellenistic tradition. This chapter does define Ethiopic Joseph’s traditional tenor; however, here Joseph is a diviner/scientist, ethnically neutral, and guaranteed success by his bloodline (his Jacobic lineage).

Chapter 4 examines the “Levitical tradition.” Jubilees, part of the “conservative” Levitical tradition, undermines “Joseph’s contribution to Israelite intellectual property mainly because of his connection with foreigners” (202). Likewise, in Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, although Joseph’s moral integrity is lauded, Levi is portrayed as closest to God, and he appears as the prototypical Hellenistic scientist. In stride, Jovanović treats Joseph and Aseneth, as a tale which “tells us almost nothing about Joseph’s character and absolutely nothing about Joseph as a Hellenistic scientist” (222). So why is it – and the rest of the Levitical tradition – in Jovanović’s book? The answer, it seems, is that she uses “conservative”(Jubilees, Testament) and “liberal” (Aseneth) traditions to speak apophatically about the Joseph tradition. The conservative branch is nationalistic, monotheistic, misogynistic, and narrow. The liberal branch is not, but Levi, not Joseph, is still central. These embody in important ways what the Joseph tradition is not, but belie the book’s title by their length of treatment, they are not really about Joseph.

Chapter 5 probes the “Anti-Joseph” tradition of Philo of Alexandria. She argues that Philo denigrates the “spoiled, vainglorious youth” alongside his dream interpretation – “idle works of a frenzied imagination” (243). This owes to Philo’s juxtaposition of Egyptian and Jewish values and, no doubt, the soul-selling diasporic prosperity of Philo’s brother and nephew. Jovanović rejects scholarship that sees in De Josepho and De Somniis strictly positive or negative representations of Joseph, or that sees a consistent portrayal of Joseph throughout Philo’s writings. Rather, Philo’s construction of Joseph is everywhere kaleidoscopic. For Philo, Joseph is the ideal statesman, a job necessitating cosmopolitan multiplicity. But Jovanović’s identification of Philo’s characterization an “Anti-Joseph” tradition is too strong; I would argue that Philo is against supplanting Jewish values with Egyptian, and that Joseph is for him an object lesson that “even the best can fail.”

Overall, this study broaches a new and important scholarly topic – Joseph as a Hellenistic scientist in post-biblical traditions – while engaging more broadly with the burgeoning field of ancient science. Sometimes Jovanović does take leaps – for example, Philo’s opinion of lecanomancy (or hydromancy), which he never states, is discussed – but here this is often warranted. Discussion also occasionally leaves Joseph aside for focus on RVE and ancient optics. If Joseph is the center of this work, his is a weak gravitational pull. However, as the conclusion demonstrates, this book uses Joseph as a test case to define and discuss RVE and Hellenistic science. As such, it is a valuable contribution to the field of ancient science, and offers new readings of ancient Jewish texts, many of which receive little scholarly treatment. This book offers a resource for scholars interested in Joseph, ancient optics, or any of the texts here treated, providing lengthy treatments of particular tropes. For specialists in these areas, this monograph will prove invaluable.

Carson Bay, Florida State University

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