A Genius for Mentorship: A Forum in Honor of Ben Wright on his 65th Birthday
~ presented by his students ~
Edited by Francis Borchardt and Eva Mroczek
The great rabbinicist Solomon Schecter—the first to recognize the Hebrew text of Ben Sira from the Cairo Genizah—was described by his wife as having a “genius for friendship.” We might describe this generation’s foremost scholar of Ben Sira, and early Jewish literature and culture more broadly, in a similar way. Benjamin G. Wright III, University Distinguished Professor at Lehigh University, has made a mark on the field of early Judaism. Whether through his key contributions to the study of translation from Hebrew to Greek, early Jewish education and rhetoric, and questions Jewish identity in the Hellenistic world, he is rightly recognized as an authority. But just as important as his scholarly acumen is his genius for friendship, collaboration, and mentorship.
This forum celebrates both of these aspects of Ben’s lifetime of scholarship by bringing together a group of younger scholars, all of whom consider themselves students of Ben’s. None of the contributors or editors have had Ben Wright as a formal advisor—but all think of him as a teacher and mentor. This is notable: no institutional relationship bound Ben to any of us. He did not have a formal obligation to pay attention to us or take any responsibility for our formation. And yet, both through his work and through his extraordinary “genius for mentorship,” he has fundamentally shaped all of us as scholars.
We offer this collection of essays as a tribute to Ben on the occasion of his 65th birthday, which falls on January 19. Ben has been a teacher to us not out of institutional obligation, but out of a genuine interest in younger scholars and a true pedagogical gift. Ben has taught all of us how to think better about early Jewish languages and culture, but he has also modeled a way of being a scholar that goes deeper: a look at his CV, with its many co-written and co-edited works, shows that our scholarship is better when it is collaborative. And despite the intimidating length of that CV, Ben has also boldly modeled that an openness to new ideas and methods can continue apace throughout a distinguished career. Ben defies the stereotypes we might associate with some senior scholars: he actively seeks out ways to interact with—and to shape--emerging ideas in the field. This enterprising openness to new ideas throughout a long career is also modeled by Ben’s own graduate mentor, Robert Kraft. Kraft not only pioneered an approach to early Judaism and Christianity beyond canonical boundaries--helping us overthrow “the tyranny of canonical assumptions”—but was also on the forefront of developing new tools and methods for biblical studies in the digital age.
Ben’s graduate training began with this very subject: as a doctoral student, he worked on Robert Kraft and Emanuel Tov’s NEH-funded project, Computer Assisted Tools for Septuagint Studies, both at the University of Pennsylvania and in Jerusalem. An interest in how such tools might help us analyze translation strategies led to a dissertation and then a first book. No Small Difference: Sirach’s Relationship to Its Hebrew Parent Text (SBLSCS 26; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989) investigates the translation of the Hebrew book of Ben Sira into Greek by his grandson.
This constellation of interests—the Septuagint, the book of Ben Sira, Greek-speaking Judaism, and the practice of translation—has shaped Ben’s scholarship ever since. He co-edited the New English Translation of the Septuagint with Albert Pietersma [http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/], and has served as President of the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies (IOSOCS). Ben has also helped fundamentally shape the field of early Judaism through his work as editor of the eminent monograph series Journal for the Study of Judaism Supplements. One of the most prominent scholars working today on ancient translation through the lens of modern translation theory, Ben has also published widely on the Letter of Aristeas, a legendized account of the translation of the Septuagint. This work culminated in his monumental 2015 commentary, The Letter of Aristeas: ‘Aristeas to Philocrates’ or ‘On the Translation of the Law of the Jews’ (Commentaries on Early Jewish Literature; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter) (https://www.degruyter.com/view/product/458305). He is currently at work on another commentary, this time on Ben Sira (perhaps there, he will reveal his secret theory about what made Ben Sira so bitter). Ben has had a distinguished career at Lehigh University, where he has not only taught classes on the Bible and Ancient Judaism--but also spent many years coaching the hockey team. A beloved colleague and sought-after speaker, Ben has lectured and held fellowships all over the world; most recently, he held the Dirk Smilde Fellowship for research at the Qumran Institute of the University of Groningen.
This forum celebrates a distinguished scholar’s career the way a traditional Festschrift might, but we mean it to be a different kind of tribute. The Festschrift genre is well-worn: a thick volume or two, published by a European press, with long essays (of sometimes stale scholarship) by everyone who has ever known the honoree. Contributions from senior scholars give such volumes authority, but they rarely become widely read, partly because their prohibitive cost usually makes them affordable only to libraries. Our alternative Festschrift takes the opposite approach. It deliberately highlights the work of junior scholars, from graduate students to those who have earned their PhDs in the last 5-7 years. It contains only short essays, not full-length technical articles. And it is free and accessible online to anyone. We are particularly proud that it has found a home on Ancient Jew Review, a website started and run by graduate students who have fostered unexpected collaborations, amplified new voices, and breathed life into our field. These features of our “alternative Festschrift” align exactly with the things we appreciate about Ben as a scholar.
The forum is divided into three sections, which will be published over the three days preceding Ben’s 65th birthday on Friday, January 19. Our nine contributors consider many facets of Ben’s scholarship on translation, authorial personae and voice, concepts of text and transmission, wisdom and the sage, and Jewish identity in the Hellenistic world.
Our first trio of essays begins in a surprising place: not with Greek materials, but with Hebrew, Aramaic, and even Arabic texts. As their starting point, our contributors take Ben’s work on the book of Ben Sira, particularly his analysis of authorial voice and ancient ideas about text production and transmission, and place it in conversation with other sources. Jacqueline Vayntrub (“Voice and Presence in the Genesis Apocryphon”) considers how the voice and agency of Sarai in the Genesis Apocryphon, an Aramaic text from Qumran, complicates our ideas about the authoritative first person voice in Second Temple Jewish texts. Jillian Stinchcomb (“Ben Sira as a Baby: The Alphabet of Ben Sira and Authorial Personae”) shows how the persona of the sage and “author” we see in the early Jewish book of Ben Sira takes surprising--and sometimes shocking--turns in Ben Sira’s medieval afterlife. And James Tucker (“The Role of Wisdom for the Scribe and Scholar”) considers how our understanding of the Qumran Community Rule and the Damascus Document might be informed by critiques of traditional philological concepts of “original text” and “work,” considerations familiar from Ben’s work on the complicated textual history of Ben Sira.
Day two of the forum returns us to Greek-speaking Judaism. These three essays consider the relationship between Jewish and Hellenistic cultures, building on Ben’s studies of Jewish ethnicity and his powerful critique of the tendency to think of Judaism and Hellenism in distinction or opposition from one another. Stewart Moore (“The Translation of the Torah in Alexandria and the Relevance of the Rosetta Stone”) engages Ben’s scholarship on the purpose of the Septuagint translation, highlighting its possible implications for the ethnic identity of Judeans in Egypt. Next, Elisa Uusimäki’s essay (“Emulation in Ben Sira and its Hellenistic Context”) shows how the idea of the sage might be better understood by reading Jewish texts like Ben Sira together with non-Jewish Greek philosophical writing on how to learn virtue. Finally, Francis Borchardt (“Erasing the Hyphen from the Study of Early Judaism”) builds on Ben’s work on Hellenistic Jewish ethnicity to discuss how to think about Jewish self-definition in the Hellenistic period, in light of the great diversity of the sources, practices, and communities we call Jewish.
Our final set of essays shares an interest in a methodological question that runs through much of Ben Wright’s scholarship: how we categorize and interpret our textual sources, and how our definition of their genre might help or hinder our reading. Jason M. Zurawski (“Education as Demonstrated and Education as Discussed in the Letter of Aristeas”) shows how we might enrich our understanding of ancient education by reading both for a text’s ideology and rhetoric, and for its unwittingly revealed social context, while knowing the difference between these two kinds of evidence. James Nati (“Solomon, the Septuagint, and Second Temple Studies”) illustrates how crossing generic and canonical boundaries--in his case study, reading Ben Sira and the Septuagint side by side--can reveal new insights about how early Jewish traditions developed. In the final essay in our forum, Sean Adams (“On Ben Wright and the Modeling of Scholarship”) engages Ben’s work on genre theory to consider how the Letter of Aristeas might be read alongside Greek symposia, and offers a retrospective on the work and example of an inspiring teacher.
Happy birthday, Ben - your students thank you for your scholarship and generous mentorship!