Uncovering Jewish Creativity in Book III of the Sibylline Oracles: Gender, Intertextuality, and Politics

Ashley L. Bacchi, Uncovering Jewish Creativity in Book III of the Sibylline Oracles: Gender, Intertextuality, and Politics (Leiden: Brill, 2020). 9789004424340.

Reviewed by Gillian Glass, University of British Columbia, rgglass@student.ubc.ca

In Uncovering Jewish Creativity, Bacchi articulates the significance of Jewish literature for the field of Hellenistic literature generally, in addition to contributing to the ever-growing understanding of how the Hellenic tradition influenced Jewish literary production and theological expression. Focusing on the persona of the Sibyl in Book III of the Sibylline Oracles, Bacchi expertly argues that this piece of Jewish pseudepigrapha demonstrates an engaged reception of ancient Greek literature and participates in the highly competitive Hellenistic world of social and cultural production to position Judaism and the One True God as simultaneously superior to Greek beliefs and accessible to all those who seek truth greater than that offered through hero-cults and idol worship.

The book’s introduction and first chapter neatly lay out the key terminology,[1] central arguments, and Bacchi’s approach to Book III of the Sibylline Oracles. Within feminist approaches, Bacchi combines Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s concept of a hermeneutics of suspicion with Tal Ilan’s methods for recovering silenced female voices (8).[2] The introduction also draws on the study of appropriated cultural symbols as a sign of participation in a social environment from Sian Jones’s archaeological study of Jewish identity.[3] Bacchi rightly maintains that this approach is a means of better understanding the hybrid presentation of ethnicity in Jewish literature, rather than attempting to explain away inconvenient literary devices or motifs (10–11). Having established her method, Bacchi uses the first chapter to construct a “genealogical consciousness” of her study (28); just as Book III creates a familial tie between the Sibyl and Noah, Bacchi demonstrates her study’s inheritance of studies in Hellenistic Judaism and the Sibylline Oracles.[4] The result is a well explained, current bibliography and historiography of the text.[5] The book then falls into two halves: one about reclaiming and (re)legitimising female prophecy and the other about Jewish identity construction. The themes of intertextuality and politics identified in the monograph’s subtitle are interwoven throughout the book.

Bacchi begins her analysis of the Sibylline Oracles by arguing for the centrality and significance of the Sibyl as a prophetess in this literature. Chapters 2 and 3 demonstrate that the assumption of the inferiority of female prophecy is born of modern prejudices and is not supported by evidence from antiquity. Focusing on Hellenistic Egypt, Bacchi provides an overview of women’s erudition, in addition to the influential and highly public political and religious offices women held during the Hellenistic period. Against a backdrop of Hellenistic queens and Hellenic prophetic traditions, the Sibyl’s gender is shown to be central to her significant power as a voice for Jewish prophecy in the period’s religious competition. Moreover, Bacchi demonstrates that the imagined lineage of the Sibyl fits perfectly within the pseudepigraphic writings of the period, drawing on yet more authoritative sources—in this instance, Noah’s antediluvian knowledge. Cast as the descendant of Noah and allowed to speak in a prophetic voice typical of male Jewish prophets, the Sibyl becomes a perfect symbol of expropriation[6] and cultural hybridity.

Chapters 4 and 5 demonstrate that the sibyllists, the authors of Book III of the Sibylline Oracles, were as educated and skilled as any Alexandrian author (50, 52), incorporating the Greek literary tradition into their oracles but subverting them to their own ends. In other words, these Jewish authors were using the same techniques as their polytheistic peers. Their writings are, therefore, just as much a part of Greek literature as the works of Callimachus or Apollonius Rhodius. Central to Bacchi’s argument is the rivalry established between the Sibyl and Homer. Book III of the Sibylline Oracles portrays the Sibyl as older than Homer, the original source of hexametric poetry (149), and a source of true prophecy, the inspiration of which is the One True God, rather than Apollo (145). Once Homer has been cut down to size, the Sibyl is able to use a euhemerist approach to the retelling of the Titanomachy to undermine Greek hero-cult and lift up Jewish veneration of their God (149).

The conclusion is a refreshing change from how the genre of conclusion typically functions in academic monographs. In addition to summarising the book’s central findings, Bacchi argues for the importance of interdisciplinary, diverse, and intersectional hermeneutics in approaches to antiquity. Deliberately anti-racist, feminist analysis of both ancient sources and scholarship thereof, like that of Sarah Bond and Rhiannon Graybill, asks that we challenge our own assumptions when we approach antiquity, so as to see it as it was, rather than as we perceive it based on our own cultural baggage.[7] Moreover, what we study and how we approach it is inherently political—to say nothing of our methods and how they operate is inherently a conservative stance. Bacchi acknowledges the importance of feminist theories in developing her own methodology,[8] and this conclusion adds her own voice to the discussion.

This monograph is a testament to the importance of broader study and research in the interconnected fields of antiquity studies. Bacchi expertly weaves together primary and secondary sources from Classical and Religious Studies, and literary and archaeological studies, demonstrating her own mastery of the subject and the benefits of studying across fields. Hellenistic Jewish literature is Greek literature, and both academic disciplines would benefit if it were treated as such. This book reads like a much-needed manifesto for including Jewish and Christian literature in the canons of Greek and Roman studies.

Thus, Bacchi’s monograph has the potential to interest a broad academic audience. Her approach to literary production, the creation of cultural identity, and the history of women in Ptolemaic Egypt will interest scholars of Classical and Religious Studies alike. The volume should be included on comprehensive exam reading lists in Classical and Religious Studies programmes. Bacchi grounds her work in methodologies from a variety of fields, and her aims and analysis would be useful for students embarking on their own research. Furthermore, her interweaving of materials from various fields models interdisciplinary scholarship for students and researchers alike. Because of the stylistic clarity, the book could be assigned, either in chapters or in its entirety, for graduate and upper-level undergraduate courses in Greek and Jewish literature, and Hellenistic history. Bacchi’s work contributes to interdisciplinary, deliberate, mindful scholarship on inter-cultural exchange in antiquity and will hopefully inspire yet more.

 

Table of Contents

Foreword by Erich Gruen (VII-IX)
Introduction (1-26)
1. Hellenistic Complexities and Cultural Hybridity (27–55)
2. Why the Sibyl? Reclaiming a Female Voice of Prophecy (56-85)
3. Establishing Prophetic Authority and Challenging Gender Norms (86–122)
4. The Sibyl in the Muses’ Bird Cage (123–53)
5. The Sibylline Titan Account as Multi-Layered Commentary (154–191)
Conclusion (192-200)

Notes

[1] Terms defined: Jewish and Judaean (37) and Sibyl and sibyllist(s) (55).

[2] Bacchi references Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1983), and Tal Ilan, Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelanzion and Other Jewish Women (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006).

[3] Specifically, Sian Jones, “Identities in Practice: Towards an Archaeological Perspective on Jewish Identity in Antiquity” in Jewish Local Patriotism and Self-Identification in the Graeco-Roman Period, ed. Sian Jones and Sarah Pearce (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 29–49.

[4] Bacchi engages the difficult question of Jewish/Judaean identity and the concept of ethnicity. Some key studies in her discussion of the topic are: Lee I. Levine, Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity: Conflict or Confluence, The Samuel & Althea Stroum Lectures in Jewish Studies (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998); Sylvie Honigman, “‘Jews as the Best of All Greeks’: Cultural Competition in the Literary Works of Alexandrian Judaeans of the Hellenistic Period,” in Shifting Social Imaginaries in the Hellenistic Period: Narrations, Practices, and Images, Mnemosyne Supplements 363 (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 207–32; Pieter W. van der Horst, Saxa Judaica Loquuntur: Lessons from Early Jewish Inscriptions, Radboud Prestige Lectures 2014 (Leiden: Brill, 2014); Benjamin G. Wright III, “The Problem of the Hyphen and Jewish/Judean Ethnic Identity: The Letter of Aristeas, the Septuagint, and Cultural Interactions,” in Strength to Strength: Essays in Appreciation of Shaye J. D. Cohen, ed. Michael L. Satlow (Providence: Brown Judaic Studies, 2018), 115–36.

[5] Among the numerous publications in the academic lineage of Sibylline studies, some important references are David S. Potter, “Sibyls in the Greek and Roman World,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 3 (1990): 471–83; David S. Potter, Prophets and Emperors: Human and Divine Authority from Augustus to Theodosius, Revealing Antiquity 7 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994); Erich Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); John J. Collins, Seers, Sibyls and Sages in Hellenistic-Roman Judaism (Leiden: Brill, 2021).

[6] Bacchi uses “the term expropriation to indicate the simultaneous representation of appropriation and subversion” (34, n. 27).

[7] Sarah E. Bond, “Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color,” Hyperallergic, June 7, 2017, http://hyperallergic.com/383776/why-we-need-to-start-seeing-the-classical-world-in-color/; Sarah E. Bond, “Whitewashing Ancient Statues: Whiteness, Racism and Color In The Ancient World,” Forbes, April 27, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/drsarahbond/2017/04/27/whitewashing-ancient-statues-whiteness-racism-and-color-in-the-ancient-world/. Bacchi does not cite Graybill. I include her here as another example of how we can engage with these sources: Rhiannon Graybill, Texts after Terror: Rape, Sexual Violence, and the Hebrew Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).

[8] See, in particular: “Methodology: Deconstructing Binaries and a Hermeneutic of Suspicion” in the introduction (2–12).

Discussion

1. On page 74, you write, “The evidence of strong female leadership in the Hellenistic Mediterranean has implications for how scholars should approach evidence of female representation and power at other levels of nicety. If the masses accepted and supported their queens, there is no reason automatically to assume that they would shun the concept of female leadership on smaller scales as alien to the prevailing mores.” How far can we push the idea that women’s power on small scales was acceptable because women in monarchy and aristocracy held authority? Aristocracy and monarchy are often the exception, not the rule. To take an admittedly much later example, Queen Victoria in England was against women’s voting rights because she felt that most women were not able to handle such responsibility, and women across all classes agreed with her.

This is one of the reasons that the Hellenistic period is so exciting to me. When we think of the word “queen,” the image that shapes many is shaped by England and other European monarchies. From an ancient Mediterranean perspective, the term basilissa, which gets translated as “queen,” emerged in 306 BCE, and it took time for there to be set expectations of what a royal woman did or did not do and how that impacted wider cultural perceptions of women’s abilities and rights. In my discussion of women’s right to divorce and own and manage property on pp. 75–76, I forgot to include an important point to n. 81. Although I discuss the most clear and prominent example from the Elephantine papyri, we also have examples of “documents of wifehood” from enslaved women and daughters of enslaved women, and they are given the same rights to divorce and compensation as elite women. We also have evidence of Hellenistic queens having funds that were used to pay for the dowries of women in lower classes. The NYU Gallatin School hosted a virtual symposium, Queen: Reimagining Power from Antiquity to the Present, in September of 2021, and it brought together a wide range of historical and current visions of what a queen is that exemplified the diversity of positions that have been held across time and space. I think this is an area of comparison that could yield exciting examples of how historical, political, and cultural context shapes how agency and support is negotiated across social kyriarchies.

2. Have you looked at or considered looking at methodologies and approaches from Creole literature studies or Diaspora Criticism Literary Theory to analyse the Sibylline Oracles?

I have not considered Creole literature studies, but I think you are right to point to them as a great methodological conversation partner. I have seen multiple potential paths by which Diaspora Criticism Literary Theory could further support and expand the framework of cultural hybridity I utilize from Homi K. Bhabha (see esp. p. 39). My hope is that the Sibylline Oracles will attract scholars rooted in many different methods to come together as dialogue partners and create a space for interdisciplinary collaborations that become an example of the benefits of breaking disciplinary boundaries.

3. What new questions or projects has this book elicited for you? I’m excited by the questions of women’s representation and Jewish reception/expropriation of Hellenic storytelling, and I was wondering what you are planning next.

I have brought this work to a wider audience through public talks, as well as an adult education course for a Reformed synagogue in northern California. We delved into the impact of a female prophetic voice within a male-dominated prophetic tradition, questioned traditional gender narratives, and discussed the possibilities that reclaiming Hellenistic Judaism may open up for Jewish communities today as well as for women in leadership across faith communities. The material has been extremely popular because it broadens people’s understanding of what it meant to be Jewish in the ancient world and how women were viewed in the ancient world, which helps people today feel an unexpected connection to the past. In the Sibylline Oracles, I have found a concern for what we would categorize today as social justice and equity issues framed against an apocalyptic backdrop. I think my book’s realignment onto gender allows for the whole Sibylline corpus to be re-evaluated for fresh insights that could speak to the anxiety and fear that we are all grappling with right now, as well as how to envision possibilities for hope. I had to pick and choose what to focus on in this book to lay the groundwork that I hope will lead to the Sibylline Oracles gaining more attention for the insight they still have to offer for reinforcing that gender and identity is not static, natural, or timeless, but is dynamic and constructed to fit particular communities. I think that the Sibyl has the potential to be claimed as an intersectional feminist symbol that could inspire new connections with the past and I plan to eventually write a book that would introduce the Sibyl to a wider audience to help facilitate that.

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