Page 169 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 40

Basic HTML Version

COHEN / ELIAS J . BICKERMAN
163
basis of this philological and historical research Bickerman was
able to authenticate many texts which had been widely regarded
as forgeries. Bickerman argued that ancient (and medieval)
scholars were frequently the best interpreters of ancient litera­
ture and history. In his discussion of biblical books he would
frequently cite patristic and rabbinic interpretations to show that
some problems raised by modern criticism were already treated in
another form in antiquity. He also enjoyed demonstrating that
some issues raised by modern criticism were not real issues at all,
but were the symptom of the retrojection of modern perspectives
upon ancient material.
In sum, the goal of Bickerman’s research was the establishment
of contexts: Political and institutional contexts for documents,
political and historiographical contexts for histories and
polemics, and literary and cultural contexts for literature. No­
thing was ever treated in isolation. Bickerman was always compar­
ing and contrasting, illuminating one aspect of antiquity with
another.
CONTRIBUTIONS TO JEW ISH STUDIES
These characteristics of Bickerman’s scholarship are clearly
exemplified by his studies in ancient Jewish history. First, his
great attention to documents. In their descriptions of the Macca-
bean era, First Maccabees, Second Maccabees, and Josephus
quote many documents of Seleucid kings, and these documents,
especially those favorable to the Jews, were often regarded by
scholars as Jewish forgeries. Bickerman demonstrated that the
vast majority of them adhere to the correct terminology and
form, and contain benefits which were regularly bestowed by
Hellenistic kings. Hence, he concluded, either the documents are
the work of very skillful forgers (a possibility to which, we must
admit, Bickerman gave insufficient attention), or else they are
authentic. Bickerman opted for the latter possibility and has led
modern scholarship after him. The most famous study of this
type is “A Seleucid Charter ofJerusalem,” a brilliant exposition of
a document quoted by Josephus in the name of Antiochus III. In
another brilliant article the same method was employed to vindi­
cate the decree of Cyrus quoted in the biblical book of Ezra.
Bickerman even studied documents which were indubitable
forgeries. He sought to date the Letter of Aristeas, which de­