Monday, July 12, 2010


Scholars are always in danger of projecting their own images onto their research subjects. Erich Gruen, for example, is a great scholar; I have learned a ton from every one of his books and articles that I've read, and enjoyed them, too. His The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome is my go-to book for the expansion of Roman power in the Mediterranean, and his Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition was intensely influential in getting me to study what I'm writing a dissertation on: Hellenistic and Roman Judaism.

However, this latter book in particular may suffer from the fault of projection. Gruen deals with all the major Jewish writers, and the minor ones, too: from Josephus and Philo to Demetrius the Chronographer and Ezekiel the Tragedian. And, almost to a man, they come off startlingly like Gruen: Witty, intelligent, cosmopolitan, faithful without being dogmatic, even funny.

I've got two problems with this. First, I claim false advertising! I went to grad school expecting, on Gruen's analyses, to be reading the ancient equivalent of Noel Coward, and I'm stuck with…Andrew Lloyd Webber. I find these guys pedantic without learning, melodramatic without sympathy, and heavy-handed without relief. Josephus, I'm finding, has all the flaws of an absolutely terrible scholar: he fudges when he can't ascertain a fact, he relies too heavily on a few weak primary sources, he seems blissfully unaware of the secondary literature, and he's unclear even on his own methods, not to mention the methodologies of his peers and predecessors.

Which brings me to the second problem: what does this analysis say about me?

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