Monday, September 26, 2022

a shamelessly subjective recollection with scholarly implications

The arrival of Rosh Hashanah put me in mind of the time, very long ago, when my freshly arrived in graduate school self discovered not only Elie Wiesel's novel The Gates of the Forest from which the above Hasidic tale is taken, but some of the most beautiful and astonishing books that the Bollingen Foundation ever published in its Bollingen Series. The twelve volumes of Erwin Ramsdell Goodenough's Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period were no more than a prolegomenon to the research he had contemplated on the relationship between early Christianity and the mystical Judaism exemplified by Philo of Alexandria, but that grand finale never got beyond a single essay on Justin Martyr. The dozen volumes, however, contained an evocative array of subjects, such as "Pagan Symbols in Judaism," "Fish, Bread, and Wine," and above all, "Symbolism in the Dura Synagogue." Dura-Europos was a strategically important outpost garrison town on the border of the Eastern Roman Empire. When it fell to invaders, an accident of the defensive wall that had been hastily reinforced preserved the wall drawings from the world's oldest known Christian house church, and elsewhere along the wall, a Jewish synagogue that contained a spectacular array of floor-to-ceiling narrative paintings of key moments in stories from scripture. Goodenough interpreted these in terms based on his earlier hypotheses about Jewish hellenistic mysticism of which the philosopher Philo was only the most prominent interpreter. I found it all emotionally intoxicating, especially when I paged through the illustrations in volume 11 without realizing that the synagogue art was mostly reproduced in the color illustrations while the bulk of the black and white ones were examples of parallel models from what Goodenough and most other folks called Greco-Roman paganism. Here, without further commentary, is some of the stuff that set me on my ear back when I was suffused with excitement without much accompanying understanding. It still gives me an emotional rush, even if I have intermittently revisited the topic over the years and have a slightly more nuanced set of opinions about the whole topic. (There have been a host of other archaeological discoveries to render the picture even more complex than Goodenough thought it was.)

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