Bloch, review of Schwartz, 2 Maccabees

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Daniel R. Schwartz, 2 Maccabees (Commentaries on Early Jewish Literature [CEJL] Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008). Pp. x + 617. Hardcover, €128.00 US$158.00. ISBN 978-3-11-019118-9

With the much awaited commentary on 2 Maccabees by Daniel R. Schwartz, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the de Gruyter's series “Commentaries on Early Jewish Literature” (CEJL) now includes a study on this important (and rare) example of Hellenistic historiography which in most respects surpasses earlier works on 2 Macc.

The book shares the formal strengths and weaknesses of the series: Each section of the text is followed first by some general comments and then by detailed and very helpful notes. The usability of the series, however, is surely compromised by the fact that the Greek original is not included. I would also have preferred the more readable, “classic” structure of a commentary providing an uninterrupted translation first, followed by comments and notes.

These editorial questions put aside, Schwartz - who is also the author of a Hebrew translation and commentary on 2 Macc. (2004) - impresses the reader time and again with insightful comments as much on philological as on historiographical and theological questions. Schwartz convincingly shows that the common distinction between 1 Macc. as a book written in the tradition of biblical historiography and 2 Macc. as an example of Greek literature is an over-simplification: With God ruling history, 2 Macc. is as “biblical” as 1 Macc. (p. 65). Dating 2 Macc. is not easy: Schwartz dates the book in its final form to the 140s BCE (some 20 years earlier than others), rightly pointing to the very positive portrayal of the high priest Onias (pp. 12-14). This text could hardly have been written before the Oniad “revolution” later in the second century BCE. If Schwartz dates the book correctly, then 2 Macc. was written not too long after the events it recounts.

Given that 1 Macc. was written in Palestine, 2 Macc. also invites the question of whether and to what extent this text reflects a Diasporan “mentality”. Schwartz has earlier pondered the question of “how at home were the Jews of the Hellenistic Diaspora” (so the title of his article in Classical Philology 95 (2000) 349-357). Schwartz reads the recurrent theme in 2 Macc. that Gentiles and their rulers were usually benevolent toward the Jews as typical of a Diaspora author (and the comparison with the attack against Gentile rulers at the beginning of 1 Macc. is indeed striking). On the other hand, one may wonder whether Schwartz is not relying too much on his own understanding of modern Jewish Diaspora when he reads the unwillingness of the heroes in 2 Macc. to fight as another “expression of diaspora-ism” (p. 50).

Schwartz's translation relies on Robert Hanhart's edition from 1976. The translation is very readable and often mirrors the style of the Greek really well, as in 13,22-24 (the Beth-Zur campaign) where the “staccato” style of the Greek is reflected: “The king again addressed those in Beth-Zur; he gave the right hand; took it; departed; attacked Judas' men; had the worst of it; received notice that Philip, who had been left behind in Antioch as head of state, had taken leave of his senses; was disconcerted; called the Jews together; conceded and swore according to all that is just; came to an agreement and offered a sacrifice; honored the Temple and displayed humane love for the place.” Schwartz also provides many helpful notes on philological questions, some of which are expanded in the 11 appendices at the end of the book. The book ends with some 60 pages of exemplary indices.

This is a very rich commentary, even if one sometimes regrets that important statements or questions are delegated to brief footnotes. P. 67 n. 167 is such an example; there Schwartz notes that “our book and Polybius' are the longest works of Greek historiography that survive from the Hellenistic period.” Similarly, the question where in the Jewish Diaspora this book might have been written should have received more attention than the footnote on p. 45 (Schwartz suspects that 2 Macc. was written in Alexandria). But this critique, in fact, only shows that Schwartz' commentary leaves the reader hungry for more.

René Bloch, University of Bern