Jewish-Greek Literature in the Hellenistic and Roman Eras: Some Findings from a Study of Genre

The most basic finding of studies into Hellenistic Judaism is the recognition that some Jewish authors adopted Greek genres and were widely influenced by Greek literary culture. Writing in Greek does not automatically imply the adoption of Greek genres or substantial influence of Greek writing practices (e.g., Jewish apocalyptic). Nevertheless, many texts display awareness of Greek compositional practices and participate, to varying degrees, in recognizable Greek genres. This engagement was not accidental, nor was it done subconsciously.

See Also: Greek Genres and Jewish Authors: Negotiating Literary Culture in the Greco-Roman Era (Baylor University Press, 2020).

By Sean A. Adams
University of Glasgow, UK
October 2020

Jewish authors composed literary works in Greek primarily between the middle of the third century BCE and the end of the second century CE. Both before and after this period, we have little surviving evidence that Jews used Greek as a compositional language. This is not to say that Jews only used Greek; it is clear from collections found near Qumran (i.e., the Dead Sea Scrolls) that both Hebrew and Aramaic were still employed for composition. However, this time period provides a unique opportunity to see how one minority culture engaged with the dominant culture’s literature: adopting, adapting, and appropriating it. The discussion offered here evaluates how Jewish authors participated in Greek genres. What follows is a summary of some recent findings (Adams 2020) as well as some suggestions about the implications of the data, including what this period can tell us about cultural interaction and ancient education practices.

Following the work of genre scholars (e.g., Dubrow 1982, 31; Frow 2015, 6-31), I view genres as frameworks that establish expectations for the reader and signal appropriate ways of reading and/or distinguishing texts (sometimes referred to as “codes” or “contracts” between reader and author). Genre categories are a means of classification, but one should not make the mistake of thinking that they are well-defined, stable, or exhaustive. Scholars widely agree that both the idea of genre and the employment of genre labels are social constructs employed in communities as communicative shorthand. One of the challenges when discussing genre, both now and in antiquity, is that a genre is never static or permanently fixed but constantly changing (Marincola 1999; Fantuzzi and Hunter 2004). This inherent flexibility should not be considered a detriment, a flaw preventing scholars from creating perfectly neat and discrete categories. Rather, compositional plasticity is one of the remarkable features of literature, allowing for fresh and novel works, new literary expressions, and the inclusion of previously foreign material and formal features.

Some scholars, particularly those of previous generations, viewed the Jewish people as isolationists. Following the work of Martin Hengel (1974) and others (cf. Barclay 1996, 92-98), scholars have become more confident in the idea that during the Hellenistic and Roman eras “Judaism” and “Hellenism” were not isolated entities, completely disassociated from each other. One can no longer postulate a “pure” Judaism, one “uncontaminated” or “uninfected” by the plague of Hellenism: Jews were integrated members of the ancient world. Recognizing this integration is important for scholars as it allows us to posit close connections between ancient communities.

The most basic finding of studies into Hellenistic Judaism is the recognition that some Jewish authors adopted Greek genres and were widely influenced by Greek literary culture. Writing in Greek does not automatically imply the adoption of Greek genres or substantial influence of Greek writing practices (e.g., Jewish apocalyptic). Nevertheless, many texts display awareness of Greek compositional practices and participate, to varying degrees, in recognizable Greek genres. This engagement was not accidental, nor was it done subconsciously. From the larger corpora of Philo and Josephus to individual works, such as Letter of Aristeas, we gain a sense of the genre consciousness of certain Jewish authors, how they sorted genres and texts into categories often based on formal features and purpose, and how these categories related to each other to make a holistic system (cf. Adams 2020, 90-92, 229-39).

Although the full range of Greek genres was open to Jewish writers, we only have evidence for Jewish adoption of certain genres: epic/epyllion (Philo Epicus, Theodotus), tragedy (Ezekiel), gnomai (Ps.-Phocylides, Gospel of Thomas), oracula (Ps.-Orpheus), philosophy (Philo, 4 Maccabees, Letter of Aristeas, Paul), literary letters (Paul, 2 Baruch), commentary (Philo, Aristobulus), novel (Joseph and Aseneth, Artapanus), biography (Philo, gospel authors, Josephus), and different forms of history (Eupolemus, Ps.-Eupolemus, Ps.-Hecataeus, Demetrius the Chronographer, 2 Maccabees/Jason of Cyrene, 3 Maccabees, Justus of Tiberias, Josephus).

Despite this wide engagement, a number of genres were not adopted by Jewish authors (e.g., lyric poetry [Sappho, Alcaeus, Pindar] and erotica [Anacreontea]). Although the genre of geography was popular in the Hellenistic era (e.g., Eratosthenes, Agatharchides, Strabo), we have no evidence that Jewish authors engaged in such production in Greek. This is not to say that Jewish authors refrained from geographic discussions, but that we have no surviving example of a Jewish-Greek geography (although one possible example could be Philo Epicus’ poem on Jerusalem). Rather, discussion of place, geology, and natural features are embedded within a larger narrative, especially history. Another genre broadly avoided by Jewish authors, so far as we know, is comedy. This is not to claim that Jewish authors did not write with humor (see Gruen 2002, 135-212), but that they did not adopt Greek models of comedy writing.

Two Jewish texts could be viewed as participating in the genre of satire. The first is Bel and the Dragon and the author’s humorous critique of idols (Bel 1-22) and the worship of a living dragon (Bel 23-42). The second text is Ps.-Clement, Hom. 4.7-6.25, in which the author defends Jewish thought and thoroughly critiques the anti-Semite Apion and Greek intellectuals who justified the impiety of the gods through allegorical interpretation (e.g., Hom. 4.16; “Encomium of Adultery” 5.9-19; cf. Paget 2010, 427-92). Satire was not a genre in which Greek authors regularly participated but was considered a Latin genre by the ancients: Satira quidem tota nostra est (Quintilian, Inst. 10.1.93-95). Jewish participation in satire could evidence the adoption of Latin (i.e., non-Greek) literary models, although there is little evidence of Latin composition or engagement with Latin genres by Jewish authors. It could also imply that the genre of satire was more widely participated in by Greek authors than is generally considered.

In light of the perceived preferences for certain genres, it is possible to provide a generalized genre hierarchy of Greek genres for Jewish authors, with the recognition that this hierarchy is not static but changed over time and differed among communities and individuals (Adams 2013, 49-53). First, at the most basic level, Jewish authors appeared to prefer prose over poetic composition. Second, within prose genres, history stands as the most important for Jewish authors writing in Greek. Not only do we have the most examples, but these texts stretch almost fully across our period of evaluation. Following history, philosophical/theological compositions appear to have been next in importance.

The above discussion of adopted genres is not intended to imply a sustained engagement with Greek genres. Jewish adoption of genres changed throughout the Hellenistic and Roman eras, paralleling the fluctuation, development, and popularity of Greek genres more broadly. Poetic composition by Jews (i.e., epic/epyllion and tragedy) appears almost exclusively at the beginning of the Hellenistic era. If Theodotus—a Jew, who likely lived in the second century BCE and is credited with writing a poem titled “Concerning the Jews” on the conflict at Shechem following the rape of Diana—did compose an epyllion, then he would be an early adopter of this genre and part of a growing literary movement. This grouping could indicate a preference for epic among Jewish authors and readers during this time that waned over the centuries. The use of Greek poetic genres could also indicate the type of education these authors received, namely one grounded in Homer and the tragedians. Metrical works, such as the Sentences of Ps.-Phocylides and Sibylline Oracles, were written in the first centuries BCE/CE; therefore, it is clear that some Jewish authors still had the capability to write in dactylic hexameter late in this era.

Jewish biographies written in the first century CE (e.g., the Gospels and Philo) also exhibit temporal clustering. This participation parallels the rise in the production of Greek and Latin biographies in the Roman Empire, suggesting that the literary tastes and preferences of Jewish authors and readers were influenced by changes in the wider reading population. The same could be said about Josephus’ Vita and the rise in examples of autobiography in the first centuries BCE/CE.

As stated above, history is by far the most important Greek genre for Jewish authors. It was one of the first Greek genres adopted by Jewish writers, and engagement with it continued throughout the Hellenistic era and into the second century CE. However, Jewish writers showed mixed engagement with historiographical trends. Demetrius the Chronographer, a Jewish historian who likely wrote in Alexandria during the third century BCE, composed a chronology on the kings of Judah around the time that major Greeks authors were similarly engaged with this subgenre (e.g., Eratosthenes). On the other hand, a major historical work tracing the origin and development of the Jewish people was not accomplished until late in the first century CE (i.e., Josephus’ Antiquities), when authors from neighboring ethnic groups, such as the Egyptian Manetho and the Babylonian Berossus, had crafted their texts centuries earlier. This could suggest that the Jewish people were late adopters of this form of historiography, although it is clear that such works continued to be produced in the first century CE (e.g., Apion’s Aigyptiaka).

The most common means of adaptation is an author’s blending of genres, which is achieved primarily by two means: 1) the author takes a recognizable feature from one genre and incorporates it into another, or 2) the author combines two or more genres to form an original work. The latter often requires that the blended genres be related (i.e., have some overlap in formal features or similar function), whereas the former can be accomplished with very distinct genres. Jewish authors actively blended Greek genres to create a work that resists stereotypical categorization. Demetrius employs standard Greek chronological practices in his Chronology and incorporates answers to questions that are not temporal focused. Both the quaestiones genre and chronological history find their apex in Alexandrian scholastic tradition and embody similar approaches to text that make them compatible with generic blending. The embedding of responses to questions and the employment of Greek scholastic methodology is distinct from other chronologies and allows for the possibility that Demetrius was adapting a Greek genre to better align with his intended purpose and the expectations of his readers.

            More complex genre blending is evident in 4 Maccabees. In this work, the author adeptly brings together philosophical, rhetorical, and narrative elements to create a literary work that mixes forms and crosses perceived genre boundaries. Unlike Demetrius’ history, in which the blending of genres is more subtle, the seams of genre boundaries are pronounced in 4 Maccabees (esp. 3:19). Some have argued that this “roughness” indicates a lack of compositional awareness, but this would be in tension with the rhetorical sophistication exhibited elsewhere. As a result, we must view the seams as intentional and possibly as evidence of a literary practice that has not been well preserved. Artapanus, a Jewish author who wrote between 250 and 50 BCE, composed a work, recounting Jewish leaders in Egypt, that includes elements from novel, biography, and history, thus providing another example of blending of prose genres into one text. A similar blending of philosophy and narrative is witnessed in Letter of Aristeas. Here, the author uses an epistolary frame to recount a narrative in which philosophical and cultural questions are asked by non-Jews and answers are provided by Jewish characters. Prioritizing the narrative frame has led scholars to emphasize specific genres. However, a more holistic reading of the work recognizes a sophisticated blend of genres and rhetorical components that resists neat classifications (cf. Wright 2015, 51; Honigman 2019).

In the examples presented above, Jewish authors adapted Greek genres in a variety of ways. Depending on their individual needs and circumstances, each author made changes to known genres, blending them and/or incorporating additional features as required. Although the language of “change” and “adaptation” might be appropriate, caution must be used as the variations exhibited might not have been viewed as adaptations by ancient readers but as part of the inherent flexibility of the genres. Such an understanding does not minimize the literary creativity of our Jewish authors but rather redirects our understanding, allowing us to claim that their knowledge of Greek genres was sufficiently advanced to allow them to explore the full range of genre expressions.

One variation by Jewish authors from established Graeco-Roman writing practice is anonymity. The expenditure of energy in the creation of a literary work by Greek and Latin authors was predominantly for personal gain and glory. This gain was not (necessarily) financial, but of reputation and prestige, both for the author and his/her patron(s). In some genres, Jewish authorial attribution is found, especially in Jewish epics and tragedies (Philo Epicus, Theodotus, Ezekiel, etc.). Similarly, authors who appear to be most integrated within the wider Graeco-Roman world (e.g., Philo of Alexandria and Josephus) also shun anonymity and actively take ownership of their work. In contrast, the Jewish practice of anonymity is seen in all four Gospels and a number of historical works (e.g., 2 and 4 Maccabees). This anonymity would have been viewed as problematic for Greek and Latin readers as one of the primary claims for the importance of a history is the experience, connectedness, participation, and knowledge of its author. This practice, therefore, is almost certainly of Jewish origin and undermines one of the core elements of Greek and Roman historiography.

The value of studying Jewish engagement with Greek literature is not limited to determining authorial or communal preferences. I argue that it provides insight into the education systems in antiquity and how Jewish authors learned to compose in Greek and exploit Greek genres. All of the authors mentioned above had some level of Greek education, although we do not know the specific nature. Some authors hint at their Greek education through personal discussion (e.g., Josephus, Ant. 20.262-263; Vita 8-12; Philo, Congr. 14-18, 74-80), but these declarative statements are rare and do not provide a clear picture of the depth, methods, texts, and intensity of the training. The lack of explicit discussion by the authors forces us to infer from their texts what level of training each author attained. This approach has inherent problems: the most obvious is that one (sometimes fragmentary) work may not accurately represent the author’s writing ability and/or level of education. Authors can write in different registers and tailor their work to fit specific models. In the case of Jewish authors, this model could be the Septuagint, the imitation of which would not showcase their level of education in Homer or classical authors. 

Certain authors, based on their compositions, likely attained the highest levels of education, among whom we would include Jewish epic writers (Philo Epicus, Theodorus), authors who wrote larger works under a Greek pseudonym (Aristeas, Ps.-Phocylides, Ps.-Orpheus), Ezekiel the Tragedian, Philo of Alexandria, and Josephus. Other Jewish authors—such as Paul, Eupolemus, Demetrius, the authors of the gospels, Joseph and Aseneth, and 2-4 Maccabees—also likely had substantial Greek education, although their level of attainment is debated (Adams 2016; Schellenberg 2013). Higher levels of education are expected from ancient authors whose work has survived, presumably because inferior works were not considered worth the effort to preserve. As a result, the evidence base for discussing Greek education undertaken by Jews is skewed.

The author’s location feeds into the broader discussion of Greek education and geography. Education settings were not equal; quality and opportunities differed among locations (rural/urban) and also within locations due to differences in social class and wealth. Pedagogical practices also changed over time, following the trends and demands of society and local preferences. Scholars who study education in antiquity have rightly highlighted the importance of Homer and other pinnacle authors as exemplars for students (e.g., Marrou 1956, 161-63; Morgan 1999, 67-73; Cribiore 2005, 194-97). Less consideration has been given to the types of texts and literary models that would have been employed within Jewish communities in their Greek education. No doubt, for some communities, there would have been little or no difference from “standard” Greek education, and Jewish students would have learned Homer alongside their non-Jewish classmates. This would almost certainly be the case at the beginning of the Hellenistic era when only Greek literary works would have been available. Over the centuries, however, a growing diversity of Greek language literary works, especially from Jewish authors and those from other minority cultures, would have afforded the possibility of alternate models from which to learn.

Some surviving Jewish texts imply a school setting, and the Sentences of Ps.-Phocylides provides a strong example. The use of gnomologies and similar collections of aphorisms were common in Greek philosophical and literary education and, therefore, would have been known to the author. Although specific Jewish cultural markers are absent, Ps.-Phocylides’ gnomologia provide strong moral advice using the linguistic features that would have been appropriate for a sixth-century BCE author (e.g., dactylic hexameter and Ionic morphology). This work not only indicates that its Jewish author had sufficient mastery of sixth-century language in order to create this document, but also that other Jews were interested in and actively learned this style of Greek. Some of the surviving treatises of Philo of Alexandria are also thought to be educationally orientated (Adams 2017). Each series (Exposition, Allegorical Commentary, Questions and Answers) has a specific intended audience in mind and is written for different levels of expertise (Sterling 2017). Unlike gnomologia, which were given to students even at the lower level, Philo’s treatises are not elementary but presume a knowledgeable reader, one familiar with grammar and philosophy.

The widespread knowledge of Scripture evidenced by Jewish authors could also be viewed as evidence for the use of the Septuagint as a school text. I do not argue for the view that the Greek text was used as a crib to understand Hebrew or that it would have been used exclusively, but that Jewish teachers may have presented the Septuagint as a literary model from which to learn alternate genres and different registers of Greek. Such a situation could explain the prominence of the Septuagint in Jewish compositions, both in terms of content and language. Also relevant is the author’s wider community. Knowledge of the Septuagint is not limited to the classroom but is provided in the synagogue or home. Both of these locations need to be considered when asserting the possibility of the Septuagint as a school text.

Overall, the study of Jewish literature in the Hellenistic and Roman eras provides substantial insight into the strategies some members of minority cultures adopted with regard to the dominant culture’s literature. More study is needed, especially about other approaches (both Jewish and from other subjected cultures). The insight into literary composition and education practices, however, is substantial and can provide a historical model by which we can understand cultural interactions today.




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______. 2017. “Philo’s Questions and the Adaptation of Greek Literary Curriculum.” Pages 167-84 in Second Temple Jewish “Paideia” in Context. Edited by Jason M. Zurawski and Gabriele Boccaccini. BZNW 228. Berlin: De Gruyter.

______. 2016. “Luke and Progymnasmata: Rhetorical Handbooks, Rhetorical Sophistication, and Genre Selection.” Pages 137-54 in Ancient Education and Early Christianity. LNTS 533. Edited by Mathew Ryan Hauge and Andrew W. Pitts. London: Bloomsbury.

______. 2013. The Genre of Acts and Collected Biography. SNTSMS 156. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Article Comments

Submitted by Niels Peter Lemche on Mon, 10/19/2020 - 03:16


It is probably one of the most promising studies I have read for long. Will definitely get the book and watch the development over the next years.

Niels Peter Lemche

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