A Genius for Mentorship: A Forum in Honor of Ben Wright on his 65th Birthday
~ presented by his students ~
On Ben Wright and the Modeling of Scholarship
Sean A. Adams
It is an honor to have been invited to make a small contribution to this tribute to Benjamin G. Wright III on the occasion of his 65th birthday. The proposal of a forum in which scholars highlight the ways that Wright’s research has influenced and shaped current thinking with an eye towards the future is an excellent idea and rightfully goes to the heart of what makes Ben Wright a worthy recipient of such treatment.
Looking at all of Wright’s contributions to the fields of Hellenistic Judaism, Second Temple literature, and beyond, it is difficult for me to select a personal favourite. His recent commentary on Letter of Aristeas will be a standard resource and go-to book on the subject for the next generation of scholars. His work on Sirach has made ‘no small difference’ to the way authors have approached translated Jewish texts, and his articles and translation work on the LXX (especially NETS) have nuanced the ways that scholars approach this subject and have made these texts much more widely available than ever before.
However, the article that Wright penned that was instrumental for my work, and what would lead to us eventually becoming colleagues, was ‘The Epistle of Jeremiah: Translation or Composition?’. This is not a particularly long work, nor do I think it will be one of Wright’s most recognized contributions. Nevertheless, it was formative for my thinking on the topic. I stumbled across this article when I was collecting bibliographic material for my commentary on Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah (SEPT; Brill, 2014). The standard scholarly position on the original language of Epistle of Jeremiah was that it was composed in Hebrew and that the surviving Greek text was a subsequent translation. However, as the mandate of Brill’s Septuagint commentary series is to commentate on the Greek text of Epistle of Jeremiah, and not its translated status, I was finding few conversation partners. That is, until I found Wright’s article.
This article attempted to re-evaluate the seemingly settled question as to the compositional language of Epistle of Jeremiah. Here Wright challenges the preconceptions and propositions of scholars who argue for a Hebrew original, urging that the Greek text be taken seriously by investigating the features of the text that do not sit comfortably with what we typically expect of texts that are translated from Hebrew (e.g., lack of parataxis, verbal adjective, interpositional words or phrases). In so doing Wright challenges a number of assumptions held by previous scholars, although he does agree that there are a couple of places where a misreading of a Hebrew Vorlage would make good explanatory sense. Ultimately, Wright does not argue that EpJer was originally written in Greek; however, he successfully reopens the question and challenged scholars to think about this issue with greater nuance.
This article represents the essence of Wright’s larger contribution to the guild: to ask seemingly simple questions, to examine an issue from a new perspective, and to pursue one’s line of reasoning with thoroughness and creativity. For me, this was a breath of fresh air as Wright thoroughly canvassed the data within the work and sought to read it on its own terms before coming to the pre-existing debate. In doing so, Wright modeled an important scholarly practice, one that I have sought to emulate in my own work.
Another refreshing element of Wright’s scholarship is his willingness to explore challenging questions from new, creative perspectives, applying scholarly imagination and drawing on different fields to gain fresh insight. A good example of this practice is Wright’s engagement with prototype genre theory, a methodology from cognitive science that moves away from the listing of necessary genre features and focuses on the ways that humans categorize and construct genres through the use of prototypical exemplars (cf. Wright, ‘Joining the Club’). My current research focuses primarily on the ways that Jewish authors of the Hellenistic era adopted and adapted Greek literary forms. In this endeavor, prototype theory provides an important avenue forward in bypassing some of the protracted debates of genre-specific features. This is not to say that proponents of prototype theory do not look at formal features of the text, but that the adoption of this methodological approach allows for much greater nuance and for the blending of genre categories that were once thought to be contradictory.
To take an example that both Wright and I have written/are writing on, we find in Letter of Aristeas a work that relates both to Hellenistic historiography and to certain technical treatises, including specific types of letters (so Doering). Prototype genre theory supports a flexible and malleable understanding of genre that allows for a creativity and ingenuity in the ancient author that is not possible in traditional approaches to genre. In this way, Wright is correct to resist some of the traditional categories for Aristeas and is at the cutting edge of scholarship in seeking to incorporate elements of other disciplines to gain further insight into ancient texts.
Following in this vein, and engaging with the theories of Wright and others, I would argue that the literary form of symposia, and philosophical texts more broadly, also influence the construction of Aristeas, particularly some important parallels. These include the blurring of narrator and participant, the theme of learning, the importance of piety, and, most importantly, the asking and answering of questions.
In fact, the structure of Aristeas is based on the asking and answering of questions, which are not just limited to the symposium scene (e.g., §§10, 11, 15, 91, 51, 129, 176, 306, 312). In these sections, the author’s use of gentile ‘ignorance’ in the form of a question is a standard platform for an extended discussion on a specific topic in Aristeas, a structural feature that is strongly associated with philosophical texts. This dinner event, and indeed the whole of Aristeas, fulfills an earlier declaration by Eleazar that the authority of the text could only be fully understood through oral instruction (ἀκρόασις): ‘The Good life, [Eleazar] said, consisted in obeying the laws, and this aim was achieved by hearing much more than by reading’ (§127). This passage is near the middle of the work and fits well with both the structure of the work and the symposia, as here the King will see and hear deep wisdom in action; a model that he would not get from reading alone (cf. §§286, 294). The symposium and other didactic sections, therefore, further reinforce a central theme of Aristeas, namely the value of learning and the importance of applying that learning to life by engaging with those who embody teaching. The questions by Ptolemy and the presence of Eleazar and the Jewish translators, therefore, are not secondary to the narrative, but integral to it. The translation of the Law is important, but for Ps.-Aristeas it is not to be separated from oral instruction; indeed, for Ps.-Aristeas both are required for the establishment of the Greek translation as a sacred text and to adequately educate those who would seek to learn. This perspective resonates with the view of Plato (Ep. 7.341c-e), who claims that the deepest doctrines do not allow for written expression, but must be acquired through models and extensive study. ‘Serious ideas’ (τῶν ὄντων σπουδαίων), moreover, should not be made freely available to the public in writing, but need to be provided through a mediator/teacher (344c-345c), emphasizing the need for personal tutelage in order to provide a space to ask questions, receive explanations, and control ideas.
The role of asking questions, therefore, is essential for advancing the plot in Aristeas. In many philosophical works, including symposia (e.g., those by Plato, Xenophon, Plutarch, etc.), questions form the backbone of the text and the progression of the narrative. Unlike these symposia, Aristeas does not have a strong narrative thread in the symposium proper, nor are the pithy answers given by the Jewish sages akin to the lengthy and learned quibbles in some later symposia. The absence of narrative structure in Aristeas’ symposium, however, does not stretch to the remainder of the text which clearly shows that the intention of the author is to educate his reader through the presentation of a series of questions. Rather, the symposia section is an important component within the larger narrative. As a result, the asking and answering of questions is an incredibly significant structuring element of Aristeas and one that is not seen to be a literary component of either ancient historiography or epistolography. Accordingly, the previous genre discussions that did not take the center portion of the work into account overlooked an important element that challenges the genre categories that have as yet been proposed.
As a final note, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect briefly on my personal experiences with Ben Wright, as I think these encounters, more than anything else, are the reason why I am writing this piece. I have a deep respect for Wright’s character and the way that he engages with people, especially early career scholars, in respectful and gracious ways, which I think is more important than the contributions of his scholarly work. I first made contact with Wright in 2012 over email regarding his article on Epistle of Jeremiah. From this brief, unsolicited email from an unknown, freshly minted post-doc, Wright agreed to find time in his busy SBL schedule to meet. We have met at every subsequent SBL meeting and during these times Wright has been a great mentor, one who is not only generous with his time and in sharing his academic expertise, but someone who also takes interest in the person; who they are outwith their academic identity. Overall, I believe that Wright’s lasting contribution to the field will not only be his scholarship, impressive as it is, but will also be the way that he inspired others, especially early career scholars, by modeling good scholarly and personal practice for the next generation.
Pietersma, A. and B.G. Wright (eds.), 2007. A New English Translation of the Septuagint. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wright, B.G. 1989. No Small Difference: Sirach’s Relationship to Its Hebrew Parent Text. Society for Biblical Literature Septuagint and Cognate Studies 26. Atlanta: Scholars Press.
_____. 2010. “The Epistle of Jeremiah: Translation or Composition?” Pp. 126–142 in Deuterocanonical Additions of the Old Testament Books: Selected Studies, edited by G.G. Xeravits and J. Zsengellér. Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature Studies 5. Berlin: De Gruyter.
_____. 2010. “Joining the Club: A Suggestion about Genre in Early Jewish Texts,” Dead Sea Discoveries 17: 289–314.
_____. 2015. The Letter of Aristeas: ‘Aristeas to Philocrates’ or ‘On the Translation of the Law of the Jews’. Commentaries on Early Jewish Literature; Berlin: de Gruyter.
Sean A. Adams is lecturer in New Testament and Ancient Culture at the University of Glasgow. He is the author of The Genre of Acts and Collected Biography (SNTSMS; CUP, 2013), Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah (SEPT; Brill, 2014), and has edited volumes on epistolography, Luke-Acts, composite citations, and ancient scholarship.
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