A Genius for Mentorship: A Forum in Honor of Ben Wright on his 65th Birthday
~ presented by his students ~
Education as Demonstrated and Education as Discussed in the Letter of Aristeas
Jason M. Zurawski
In the summer of 2015, I organized a conference in Naples, Italy on education during the Second Temple period in order to bring together a diverse group of scholars, each an expert in some facet of the topic, who would approach the question from unique vantage points. When putting together the list of participants to invite to the meeting, Ben Wright was an obvious choice. Not only was Ben a veteran of the Enoch Seminar who had been actively involved since the very first meeting in Florence in 2001, but he was also, thanks to several articles and his recently published commentary, the leading expert on the Letter of Aristeas, a Jewish text written in Greek in Ptolemaic Alexandria. So, I asked Ben to offer a paper on education and Aristeas, letting him decide how best to approach the topic. The paper he offered for the meeting, “Greek Paideia and the Jewish Community of Alexandria in the Letter of Aristeas,” now published in the proceedings volume, Second Temple Jewish Paideia in Context, was, unsurprisingly, exceptionally insightful. Ben both added layers to our understanding of Aristeas and addressed many of the larger questions and themes of the conference. He did so by describing what I am calling the “education as demonstrated” by the author of the Letter, that is, what we can discern of the author’s own level of education based on the way that author crafts a text.
“Education as demonstrated” can be particularly useful in trying to understand not only the educational setting of a text but also questions of authorship and the social, cultural, and intellectual settings of a text. The education demonstrated by an author shows what was possible, in very real, concrete ways. An author would have had to have learned x, y, and z in order to perform x, y, and z in a text. This demonstration speaks to access to different forms of education, e.g. instruction in the Mosaic law, the Greek encyclical curricula, rhetoric, philosophy, etc. It does not necessarily tell us how or where an author would have been educated, but simply that they had acquired the skills necessary to compose the given piece.
My own recent research has centered on the question of Jewish education during the Second Temple period, but I have addressed the issue primarily looking at the “education as discussed” by a given author, attempting to see how the views of education described in a text speak to larger questions of Jewish identity. “Education as discussed” shows what an author desired, those things considered important or necessary in individual and/or communal education. Discussed education is necessarily ideal. It may reflect one’s own educational background, but it too may have developed in contraposition to one’s own experiences or the experiences of known others. The ideal nature of education as discussed can be seen in, for example, what kind of educational resources authors assumed were accessible. Philo may argue that Greek encyclical paideia is necessary for the majority of people, but he must have known that the majority of people had no access to this type of education. Education as discussed, then, is idealized and potentially (or purposefully) naïve. But, it is also telling of an author’s views on larger moral, ethical, political, and ideological concerns.
So, education as demonstrated and education as discussed offer two distinct perspectives from which to explore questions of ancient education, and we cannot assume that the practical image gained through an author’s demonstration of education perfectly matches the idealized picture of education discussed. My question here, then, is what can be gained by exploring both together, in conversation with one another? What insights about a text or an author might be revealed through such a comparison? My hope is that there is much to be gained, and I will use my remaining space here as a sort of initial experiment to test the potential of this line of inquiry. To do so, I will use the example of the Letter of Aristeas, a text which has a great deal to say (and to demonstrate!) about education.
In his paper, Ben pointed to three main areas where he sees evidence for the author’s engagement with Greek education: genre, rhetorical forms, and sources used. The genre of the text, which seems to be a mix of narrative historiography and epistolography, Ben sees as characteristic of other Greek literature of the period. Comparing the style and form of the text to the known handbooks of elementary rhetorical exercises—the progymnasmata—Ben finds the author expertly utilizing several standard techniques, including ekphrasis, the chreia, synkrisis, and others. He then notes the author’s knowledge of a wide variety of classical Greek literature and contemporary Hellenistic sources, which he adapts freely to his own purposes, another feature of standard rhetorical education. Finally, Ben does not fail to point out the author’s knowledge and use of Jewish literature in Greek, which he adapted and treated no differently than the Greek source materials.
All of this evidence gives the impression of an author with a fairly high level of Greek rhetorical training, certainly beyond the elementary encyclical curriculum. Thus, he was an intellectual of elite standing in Ptolemaic Alexandria, someone who had the means to acquire such an education and the time and determination to put it to use in this particular way. Ben draws the following conclusion from the author’s demonstrated education:
"The combination of all this evidence presents to us an Alexandrian Hellene who had acquired a decent level of education—one that likely exceeded that of most people in Egypt and that placed him in an elite group—and who happened to be a Jew. I have formulated this characterization as I have intentionally, since I think that Ps.-Aristeas’s literary product is first and foremost a Greek book, albeit one that has a Jewish content."
How does this demonstration of the author’s education compare to the education as explicitly discussed by the author?
The preface of the Letter situates the text explicitly in an educational context. The stated purpose for Aristeas’s writing his account to Philocrates is for the latter’s education, because Philocrates possessed that most noble disposition of philomatheia, a love of learning. The necessity of a love of learning becomes a common refrain in the text, with the most noble characters (those who possess kalokagathia) noted for their paideia and love of learning (Aristeas, Philocrates, Andreas, Eleazar, the translators, Ptolemy; see §§ 1-3, 43, 121, 286-290, 321-322), and a desire for knowledge led to the embassy to Eleazar in Jerusalem and the translation of the law into Greek (3).
Later we are told that the Jewish scholars who were picked to translate the Jewish law were chosen by Eleazar because of their nobility and their high level of paideia, learned in both Greek and Hebrew literature (121). The superiority of their paideia is later put on display at a series of symposia, where the Jewish delegates consistently best the Greek philosophers because they make God the starting point of their arguments (235).
The banquet scenes are not the only place where Jewish education is depicted as special or superior. Earlier we are told that Jewish education is particularly beneficial because the Jews have Moses as their teacher and his laws as their textbook, their entire way of life, then, transformed into a continual, daily education (131-143). The example of allegory with the Jewish dietary laws reveals that Moses did not lay down regulations drawn up at random, but instituted requirements designed to instruct those who followed them in righteousness and virtue (144), because Moses crafted his laws with the stamp or impression of orthos logos, “right reason,” the term often equated with the universal law of nature in early Stoicism (161).
The author ends his text with Aristeas closing his correspondence to Philocrates, recalling several points first mentioned in the preface, namely Philocrates’s love of learning and Aristeas’s educational purpose in writing (322). The author deftly closes his story by again reinforcing the supreme virtue of knowledge and situating his text within an educational framework.
If we take this clearly idealized discussion of education in the text and compare it to the education the author demonstrates throughout, we find a great deal of correspondence but also a telling incongruity. Overall, the author’s demonstration of such a high level of Greek and Jewish education matches well his discussion of the utmost value of education and what that sort of education should entail. This education feels international: the Judean translators are noted for their Hebrew and Greek education. Philocrates and the other Greeks in the text are noted for their desire to learn, not just about Greek things, but about all things, and, in particular, about Jewish things. This seems to coincide with the author’s own international education.
What about the value of the different types of education? From his demonstration, the author seems to craft, as Wright argued, “a Greek book” with Jewish content. I think this is an apt description, but it may, inadvertently, downplay the emphasis on Jewish education discussed in the text. We might expect to find this author putting Jewish and Greek education on a comparative level, both equally valid ways to become kalokagathos. Yet, there are times when the author seems to push education via the Jewish law beyond this level. Moses was unique in crafting a law code that not only ordained a code of conduct but one that was designed to continually educate. This education was not in simple, parochial matters, but rather universal matters of righteousness and virtue, things that connect to the universal law of nature. The discussion reminds of, at least inchoately, Philo of Alexandria’s connection between the written law of Moses and the unwritten law of nature, which also had a paideutic purpose behind it.
Not to draw too much from a very preliminary and brief sketch, but perhaps the author of Aristeas had a similar view of education in the Jewish law as did Philo. Philo put education in the law into conversation with other forms. It was superior, not in the ends it could achieve, but rather in the means to achieve similar ends. All paideia, for Philo, could lead to the acquisition of virtue and wisdom, the management of passion and irrationality, and, ultimately, the soul’s earned immortality. Yet, the Jewish law was a superior educational resource because of, one, the unique nature of the lawgiver, Moses, and, two, the connection to the unwritten law of nature. While certain special gentiles have been able to follow the universal law without external guidance, it is extremely difficult and rare. The law of Moses, then, is an enormous help and gift to the Jewish people, allowing them to follow the law of nature by simply following the written commandments of Moses (even if one is not intelligent enough to understand the underlying allegorical lessons!). However, despite the fact that the Jews had this amazing textbook and teacher, Philo portrays Greek encyclical paideia and education in philosophy as indispensable to the vast majority of people, Jews included. The common scholarly distinction made between a superior “Jewish education” and an inferior “Greek education” is completely lacking in Philo’s own system. While from our viewpoint, what else could the Mosaic law be but Jewish or the encyclical preliminary curriculum be but Greek, Philo, tellingly, does not delineate according to such a simplistic ethnic dichotomy. The Mosaic law is indeed a superior form of education but not because of any sort of proprietary Jewish provenance.
Now, can we draw so much out of Aristeas? That is doubtful. The author had neither the space nor the desire to discuss education in the way that Philo did. Drawing conclusions from Philo’s mountain of texts which discuss education is certainly easier, or at least less speculative. Nevertheless, I think that comparing the education as demonstrated to the education as discussed in the Letter of Aristeas offers a great deal of potential payoff, certainly more than looking at one or the other alone. Doing so can get at some of the big questions about the text which have long consumed scholars, issues such as the “particular” vs. “universal” view of the text or the text’s portrayal of the Greek Septuagint translation—not the origins of said translation, but rather the intended status of the text and its use. It may not be a coincidence that the one real, glaring incongruity between the education demonstrated and that discussed in the text is the author’s apparent lack of Hebrew education compared to that of the translators. This is an interesting discrepancy, but one that I think may end up being telling to the author’s motivations.
This all too brief experiment has demonstrated—to me at least—the potential of comparing these two aspects of ancient education, not only with the Letter of Aristeas but with several Second Temple texts. Philo is an obvious candidate, but other texts like 4 Maccabees would benefit greatly from this sort of comparison and reveal unexpected results. I want to thank Ben for inspiring me with his own work and support, not only for this small idea but for setting an example for us young scholars that doing close, critical work can and should go hand-in-hand with thinking about larger historical questions and that doing good scholarship means doing it with a spirit of collegiality and openness.
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Jason Zurawski received his Ph.D. in Second Temple Judaism from the University of Michigan in 2016. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Qumran Institute, University of Groningen. Jason’s research centers on Jewish education and identity during the Second Temple period. His first monograph, Jewish Paideia: Education, Enculturation, and the Discourse of Identity in the Hellenistic Diaspora, will be out next year. Jason is also the Secretary of the Enoch Seminar.