From the Visigoths to the Bible
I grew up in an entirely secular home and environment. My mother was educated in an English-speaking school in Jerusalem, and throughout her working life and in retirement she tenaciously pursued courses, at the Open University and at Bar Ilan University, on topics ranging from the contemporary Middle East to Second Temple history. Consequently, our tiny apartment boasted a library attesting to her extraordinary intellect, from Thomas Hardy to Levinas’ Lectures on the Talmud and from Thomas Mann to studies on Qumran.
I am not primarily a Bible scholar. I trained in classics and ancient history (Greek and Roman), and my focus has long been Late Antiquity (c. 200-800 C.E.), the period that witnessed the legalization of Christianity and its rise to Mediterranean dominance, the rise of rabbinic Judaism, and the crumbling of the Roman Empire under the weight of countless invasions.
I was also interested in rabbinic literature, which cut against the grain, since, in my early years, it was unusual for classical scholars, whose expertise lies in Greek and Latin texts, to deal with texts composed by minorities in the Roman Empire (though there are notable exceptions). Partly this was an issue of language—minority texts are written in Syriac, Coptic, Aramaic, Armenian, Hebrew, Arabic, Gothic, etc.—but it also reflected a mindset of academic specialization among classicists. This thinking is foreign to Bible scholars who have been steeped in ancient Near Eastern texts since the early 20th century. Nowadays, however, these artificial boundaries are coming down.
The foundations of my winding road to biblical exegesis were laid by two remarkable teachers. I studied Latin at Tel Aviv University with a cheerful Dutch-Israeli classicist, Marc Rozelaar (1908–1991), a Holocaust survivor and cello player. I was, at the time, already deep into the study of my favorite barbarian invaders, the Visigoths. When I mentioned to him, perhaps rashly, my fondness for this group, he looked at me, gently smiling, and then said: “What does a nice Jewish girl have to do with the Visigoths?”
Little did Prof. Rozelaar know that another colleague of his, Ze’evic Rubin (1942–2009), an outstanding historian of Late Antiquity, was the one who got me hooked on the Visigoths with his passionate lectures on his namesake, Ulfilas, the apostle of the Goths. Ze’evic, whose class “Oedipus: From the Greek Myth to Freud and Beyond” was eye-opening, symbolized for me the exceptional range of interests that can be explored by an agile and open mind.
While I have remained loyal to my barbarians, I delight in putting them aside for long periods in order to explore other avenues in Late Antiquity, especially the reclamation of women’s voices and stories. For example, a woman named Egeria, who spent three years as a religious pilgrim in Jerusalem in the early 380s C.E., left a detailed diary of her journey.
When I was working on the diary, I noticed that Egeria makes no mention of Jews or Jewish communities in Palestine (Eretz Israel). The silence puzzled me. How could countless Christian pilgrims ignore the Jewish presence in spite of their association with the Hebrew Bible? This led me to explore the Jewish presence in Roman Palestine, so richly depicted in rabbinic writings.
Another female writing in this period that stood out to me was that of the noble Proba who composed a versified version of biblical passages. This work, plus Egeria’s journal—both from Christian women—forced me to notice the contrast with the Jewish community of the time, from which we have not a single word preserved written by a Jewish woman. Yet, the Bible itself is full of colorful female characters. How can one account for the gap? To understand the silencing of women I turned to feminist biblical scholarship.
For a long time, Bible scholarship left me unmoved, but around this time I discovered Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel, which drew me irresistibly. It was everything that a scholarly book should be—original, challenging, provocative, wide ranging, well written, and profoundly text-based.
Over time, I combined my growing interest in this field with my work on women in ancient times, and this led me to several projects having to do with women in the Bible, including a re-reading of the Decalogue in conjunction with biblical narratives featuring women, a project I took on after being encouraged by Athalya Brenner.
One of my current projects deals with the reception of Sarah in striking reformulation of the biblical narrative of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt (Gen 12), which captured the attention of paytanim, of darshanim (poets and homilists), and of Christian hymnographers, most of whom were more interested in Sarah’s role in the story than in Abraham’s.
Over the last few years, I have grown concerned about the disconnect between the public and the academy—between town and gown, as academics call it. The success of the TheTorah.com, for instance, demonstrates what I have long suspected, that many lay people would be interested in academic biblical studies if it could be presented in an accessible manner.
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July 6, 2021
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Prof. Hagith Sivan is Professor Emerita of History in the University of Kansas’ Center for Global and International Studies. She holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University, and among her many books are, Jewish Childhood in the Roman World (2018), Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress (2011), Between Woman, Man and God: A New Interpretation of the Ten Commandments (2004), and Dinah‘s Daughters: Gender and Judaism from the Hebrew Bible To Late Antiquity (Philadephia 2002).
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