Art-Historical Writing and Aesthetics in Hellenistic Judaism (15 min)


Kristen Seaman, University of Oregon


Since T.B.L. Webster’s Hellenistic Poetry and Art, scholars have paid much attention to the relationship of art and literature in the Hellenistic world, but they have all but ignored Jewish aesthetics. Yet many Jews spoke Greek, wrote literature in Greek, and were active participants in the Greek intellectual life of the Hellenistic world that followed Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire in the late fourth century B.C.E. Moreover, Jewish art and architecture constituted a noteworthy part of Hellenistic visual culture, Hellenistic Jewish authors wrote art history and criticism, and Hellenistic Jewish literature is generally attentive to visuality. Therefore in this paper, through close analyses of artworks, sites, and texts, I explore Hellenistic Jewish writing that deals with art and visuality, from Alexander’s death in 323 B.C.E. to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., with the goal of developing a more inclusive and complete understanding of Hellenistic aesthetics. I begin by determining how Hellenistic Jewish authors learned art appreciation. Next, I turn to an exploration of art history and art-criticism in Hellenistic Jewish authors. Most notably, I find that Philo, an Alexandrian intellectual, is especially familiar with art-making and viewing as well as with the aesthetic discourses about them that we find in other extant Hellenistic literature. Finally, I investigate visuality in Hellenistic Jewish literature such as Ezekiel’s Exagoge, Joseph and Aseneth, and the Letter of Aristeas. I discover that Jewish intellectuals have the same interests in the relationship of word and image as other Hellenistic authors, but their writing primarily concerns Jewish art and architecture, figures from the Hebrew Bible, and other Jewish subjects. Thus I argue that Hellenistic Jewish authors employ Greek rhetorical techniques and construct visuality in their Greek literature as ways of asserting both their Jewish and their Greek cultural identities.