Nowadays there’s a lot of controversy among believers as to what if anything the latest trends in historical scholarship, literary theory, and the social sciences can teach us about how to read holy books. That isn’t new; Professor Maren Niehoff of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has written a book called Jewish Exegesis and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria about evidence that sheds light on how the Jews of Alexandria read the Bible in the years from 322 BC to AD 50.
The ethnically Greek residents of Alexandria had developed the study of Homer’s poems in directions that sometimes seem unsettlingly modern, and some Jewish Alexandrians had applied their techniques to the study of the Bible. People who think it’s anachronism to hear about Mikhail Bakhtin or Judith Butler or Wolfgang Iser or Wendy Doniger in a study of the Bible might sympathize with ancients like Aristeas and Philo of Alexandria who were incensed with their fellows who seemed to think that you had to read Aristotle and other cutting-edge intellectuals to understand the scriptures.
I haven’t seen Professor Niehoff’s book yet. I’ve read a review of it by Bruce Louden that was sent to a mailing list I’m on. Here’s an interesting paragraph from Professor Louden’s review:
Part II, “Critical Homeric Scholarship in the Fragments of Philo’s Anonymous Colleagues,” situates Philo by demonstrating his differences with his contemporaries. Some anonymous contemporary exegetes, for instance, apply something close to the techniques of comparative mythology to analyze the Tower of Babel episode (comparing it to the myth of the Aloeidae), which he rejects. In their analysis of biblical texts they evidence the influence of Aristotle, and Alexandrian Homeric text-critics, seeing parallels between Homeric epic and the Bible. They place the story of Isaac in a context of actual narratives of child sacrifice, resolving interpretive issues by arguing for historical distance, as Aristotle does in the fragments of the Aporemata Homerica. They thus argue that the Bible, and its religion, has developed and evolved over time. Philo himself espouses a strongly conservative perspective, that Moses has written “eternal, unchanging truth” (95). His contemporaries, in strong contrast, criticize some of God’s acts, such as the confusing of languages in Genesis, as making matters worse for humanity. The section concludes with discussion of how the biblical exegetes, applying Alexandrian Homeric text-critical methods to passages with grammatical problems or flaws in the Greek text, were willing to correct words or phrases. While neither Philo nor his anonymous colleagues know Hebrew (they only know the Old Testament in the LXX), Philo nonetheless argues that the “flaws” could be explained by finding deeper meaning of some sort.