Edelman, Diana and Ehud Ben Zvi, editors. Remembering Biblical Figures in the Late Persian and Early Hellenistic Period: Social Memory and Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Remembering Biblical Figures in the Later Persian & Early Hellenistic Periods is a new edited volume examining the biblical texts through the theoretical lens of social or collective memory. Social memory suggests that groups form shared memories as part of their constitution of group identity. Thus, such shared memories of the past (in this case, the Biblical past) should be interrogated in order to see what they can tell us about the group that treats them as memories rather than what they can tell us about the Biblical period itself. Epistemologically, memory studies claims that while depictions of the past may not be true in a conventional historical sense, they were true for the people who remembered them. The book incorporates recent research on the neuroscience of memory in order to show that this theoretical lens is widely applicable, but also draws on the traditional canon of memory studies, including the influential scholars and theorists Maurice Halbwachs and Pierre Nora.
Diana Edelman’s Introduction establishes the basic premise of the book: the Hebrew Bible was edited and redacted by a small group of literati (scribes, priests, and others) in Jerusalem during the Persian period, a claim that draws on Ehud Ben Zvi’s identification of this group as crucial in the process of canonization. Edelman also notes that the contributors have their own theories of Biblical redaction and drew on different methodologies from the field of memory studies, intentionally providing a broad range of methods and opinions. Thus, the historical experience of this group of literati is crucial for understanding the formation of the Bible and its depiction of the past. Precisely because of the little testimony that remains about this group, Edelman argues that we can use the Bible to understand the historical experience these literati. Given that the social memory preserved in the Bible may be a bit too large a subject, the nineteen articles in the book each focus on a biblical figure (or in some cases, an aspect of a biblical figure).
The book explores the role of various figures as nodes in the commemorative landscape of the Judeans of Yehud, examining how their memories resonated in the context of the Persian period. Rather than providing a brief description of each piece in the collection, I will focus on a few exemplary representatives of the methodological and historical claims of the volume.
Ehud Ben Zvi’s piece, “The Memory of Abraham” examines how the memories of the figure of Abraham’s were made relevant and useful to the later Judeans. In the narratives of Abraham, the Judeans might see the powerlessness of the patriarchs, Abraham’s accommodation of the ‘others’ in the land, and his trials as reflective of their own later historical situation. Ben Zvi argues that Abraham’s attitude towards others in the land is tolerant and respectful, and he does not denigrate their religious practice. Yet at the same time, Abraham creates boundaries between himself and the other inhabitants, since he ultimately understands that all of the land will belong to his descendants, a view that Ben Zvi argues was prevalent among the Jerusalem literati. Similarly, Abraham’s Aramean connections and his emigration from Babylonia also played into the current identity of the individuals of Persian Yehud, since they too spoke Aramaic and had emigrated from Babylonia. Ben Zvi argues that Abraham’s portrayal in the Bible reflects the political, and historical interests of these Jerusalemite literati.
While Ben-Zvi’s piece is a bit general in its connections between Abraham and the literati, Yairah Amit’s contribution on Judah and Tamar roots the story in known conflicts from the Persian period. Amit argues that this story represents an anti-isolationist discourse emphasizing the importance of exogenous marriage, in opposition to the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah calling for the banishment of foreign wives (similar to the argument some make with regards to Ruth, which is traced back to this story!). The memory of Tamar the Canaanite was deployed as an argument that foreign wives could be integrated into the people Israel. Similarly, Philippe Guillaume’s examination of the memory of Aaron situates his conflicting facets and portrayals in the context of conflict between priests and the rest of Judean society, as well as between the competing priesthoods of Jerusalem and Gerizim. Several other pieces in the volume read the Bible through specific conflicts and negotiations of identity that played an important role in the Persian period.
These brief summaries provide a sense of the array of figures that it interrogates, ranging from patriarchs to kings to prophets to judges to women, as well as how the Bible was shaped by and, in turn, constructed, the worldview of the Persian Yehud literati. However, the focus on the Persian period is somewhat problematic. While the Bible may have been redacted during the Persian period, it indisputably incorporates earlier traditions, sources, and even texts, which may have already calcified by this point and were thus incorporated despite not having any clear referent to contemporary Persian society or life. Indeed, scholars of social memory, such as Barry Schwartz, have examined how and why some memories are preserved in their original form. Thus, to take one example, memories of Abraham had a long existence prior to the Persian period, and it is therefore important to comprehensively show which aspects of the Abraham narrative reflect the Persian period and which pre-date it. Although the literati of the Persian period were exceptionally important in the formation of the Bible, they were hardly the only agents involved in this process.
Despite this concern, the essays in this collection offer a variety of compelling readings, using the methods of social memory to examine the function of biblical figures in these scribal circles. In so doing, these essays enrich our knowledge of the history of Persian Yehud. Particularly given the suggestions of Brendan Breed (although not explicitly citing it), this collection problematizes the distinction between reception history and biblical formation, showing that these processes happened in the same circles. Readers of the book will be well served by its near comprehensive treatment of biblical figures, its emphasis on the methods of memory studies, and its treatment of even minor biblical figures such as Nabonidus, Tamar, Sennacherib, and Jezebel. Since social memory is primarily used in the field of Biblical Studies, this book also makes an important contribution to the study of ancient Judaism, demonstrating the utility of these methods for the history of the Persian period.
Nathan Schumer is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at Columbia University and an editor at AJR. He can be reached @nathanschumer.