Commentary Magazine

The Blessedness of the Scholar:
Sources of the Tradition

Scholars, like women, are deviations from the norm Man; and just as the position of women can serve as a criterion for a culture, so can the position of scholars also. Sometimes women and scholars alike are regarded as inferior if necessary; sometimes they are raised to a mystic pedestal, which may conceal an actual contempt; in what we are pleased to look upon as high cultures they are regarded as equal but different, and the difference is respected. Among the unlettered this respect for scholars is sometimes debased to reverence, and when they are on the defensive (as humanists are in an age of scientists and vice versa) scholars tend to claim a kind of reverence as their due. Various peoples at various conjunctures of their history have recognized the superiority of the scholar as an article of faith, and the superiority has even included assurance of blessedness in a future existence. For longer or shorter periods each of the two civilizations whose contacts in the Hellenistic age determined the contours of European civilization bestowed this high privilege upon the scholar, and it is not unlikely that one was influenced by the other in this regard. An examination of possible relationships here may provide an illuminating example of the process of cultural fusion in, general as it operated in the Hellenistic age.

Among Jews the prestige of scholarship has been notably high and persistent. The ignorant stood in awe of the learned, and the rich exerted themselves to find scholarly though indigent husbands for their daughters. Scholarship meant primarily study of the Talmud, and at the conclusion of each tractate, even though the subject may have been torts or testaments, there is a formula for the student to recite:

I thank thee my God and God of my fathers that thou hast set my lot among those that sit in the house of study and hast not set my lot among those that sit at the street corners: for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early for things of study and they rise early for things of vanity; I toil and they toil, but I toil and receive reward and they toil and do not receive reward; I hasten and they hasten, but they hasten to the pit of destruction and I hasten to life in the world to come.

Here is authoritative recognition that learning confers a special status, and it was doubtless because the conviction was thus formalized that Jews esteemed learning so highly and for so long. But the Jews were not the only people, nor even the first, to exalt learning and assign extraordinary privileges to the teacher.

The Greek teacher whom we know best is of course Socrates; a subsidiary objective in many of Plato’s dialogues is to create a particular image of him. Our point of departure here is the death of Socrates as described in Plato’s Phaedo. Critical readers may be dubious of Socrates’ proofs of immortality but no reader can be unmoved by his spiritual stature and the impact of his passion. Never before in paganism had the personality and career of the teacher become so central a force in his teaching. In the Hellenistic age the example of Socrates became a model. Extraordinary qualities and capacities were claimed by or for a number of individual teachers in certain religious or quasi-religious groups, and not least among the Stoics. The careers of such men were often made into tracts in order to propagate their teaching; much of the biographical matter in Diogenes Laertius’ later doxography derives from edifying Lives of this kind. Even the Epicureans cherished portrait statues of their founder and observed his birthday with solemn ceremony. Neo-Pythagoreans created an edifying biography of their presumed founder almost if not entirely of whole cloth.



Such “biographies” constituted a special genre, under the name of aretalogy, which means “a telling of virtues.” The components of the word appear in the Septuagint for “proclaiming the wonders” of the Lord. The three synoptic Gospels are in effect aretalogies, for they communicate their teaching in biographical form. So, it may be, is the book of Jonah. There was a prophet named Jonah son of Amittai (II Kings 14:25) under Jeroboam II (786-746 B.C.E.) and our book of Jonah is placed beside those of the 8th-century prophets. But unlike the others it is not a series of discourses but the career of a man, and it belongs to the Hellenistic age. The satirist Lucian, himself a Syrian of the 2nd century C.E. with a romantic nostalgia for the supposed rationalism of 5th-century-B.C.E. Athens, speaks of a number of wonder-working itinerant missionaries whose marvelous careers and ultimate transfiguration he recounts, of course, with utter skepticism. Most were doubtless charlatans and impostors; one, Apollonius of Tyana, who lived in the first half of the 1st century C.E., appears to have been a truly good man.

The extant Life of Apollonius of Tyana was written by Philostratus at the instance of Septimius Severus’ empress Julia Domna, who was of Syrian birth and interested in religious revival; it was she who reorganized the institution of Vestal Virgins. According to the Life, Apollonius’ career was in brief as follows. His birth, at Tyana in Cappadocia, was attended by miracles and portents. At the age of sixteen he set himself to observe the Pythagorean discipline and abstained from wine, meat, marriage, leather or woolen clothing, and shaving. At the town of Aegae he established himself in the temple of Asclepius, where his reputation for sanctity brought crowds of sick to be healed. At the death of his parents he gave the greater part of his patrimony to his elder brother and the rest to poor relations. He then observed five years of complete silence, and traveled through Asia Minor. His reputation for holiness was such that warring factions in Cilicia and Pamphylia made peace upon his appearance. He knew languages without having learned them, perceived the inmost thoughts of men, understood the speech of birds and beasts, and was able to predict the future. He was arrested by the Roman emperor but miraculously liberated. According to popular tradition he ascended bodily to heaven upon his death, and afterwards appeared to certain persons who had entertained doubts about a future life.

Apollonius differs from other personages of his kind in having a Philostratus to write his Life, and this illustrates the process by which popular, subliterary cults were raised to respectability. At the beginning of his book Philostratus tells us that a memoir of his hero had already been written by one of his own Oriental disciples, but that this was a crude work which needed to be recast. By putting it into elegant form Philostratus was, as it were, putting Father Divine in the Atlantic Monthly. It was only by such a process that the humble cults of the East could be made acceptable to the educated.

That favored teachers should win reverent esteem and an assurance of immortality is not surprising in Apollonius’ age, but what of the man who is not so singled out but who merely knows his books? For this further and less probable step we also have evidence from the non-Jewish environment. A remarkable number of inscriptions and tomb decorations of the Hellenistic age represent the deceased as a mousikos anêr, a protégé of the Muses, and the contexts suggest that acquaintance with the Muses, which is to say education, entitles a man to special consideration. The notion may be very old, and inspired by Orphic doctrine. Sappho, who was almost certainly connected with Orphism, has a poem addressed to “a woman of no education” which reads:

When you are dead you will lie unremembered for evermore, for you have no part in the roses that come from Pieria [the haunt of the Muses]; nay, obscure here, you will move obscure in the house of Death, and flit to and fro among such of the dead as have no fame.

Perhaps a more pertinent commentary on mousikos anêr is a line in Plutarch’s On Educating Children: “Of all our qualities learning alone is immortal and divine.” This is evidently no hyperbole. All of this fits in with and is corroborated by a new picture of how the blessed entertain themselves in the Elysian Fields. In the more familiar descriptions, as for example in the sixth Aeneid, the heroes amuse themselves with strenuous athletic sports. In the pseudo-Platonic Axiochus, which is to be dated to about the 1st century B.C.E., there are “discourses of philosophers and readings of poets and recitals of music”—all pursuits of the mousikos anêr.

Before Rabbinic Judaism purposefully dissociated itself from Greek attitudes we find the exalted status assigned to scholarship among the Greeks echoed in a Jewish work. Ben Sirah or Ecclesiasticus, written in Hebrew in Palestine at the beginning of the 2nd century B.C.E. and translated into Greek in Alexandria toward the middle of the century, contains a section on the various occupations of men (38:24-39:11). The passage starts with a picturesque and detailed description of the work of the ploughman, the carpenter, the graver, the smith, and the potter, and praises their skill and usefulness. “Without these cannot a city be inhabited; and they shall not dwell where they will nor go up and down. . . . They will maintain the state of the world.” But the scholar seeks out the wisdom of all the ancients and searches out the secrets of grave sentences. “Many shall commend his understanding; and so long as the world endureth it shall not be blotted out; his memorial shall not depart away, and his name shall live from generation to generation. Nations shall show forth his wisdom and the congregation shall declare his praise.”

For our present purposes Ben Sirah is a particularly useful witness, for he wrote long before the barrier between tradition and humanism was erected and when tradition could freely adopt attractive aspects of humanism without a sense that it was thereby compromising its own values. And having itself become a part of the tradition, the conviction of the durability of the scholar’s work and reputation could be elaborated to include personal immortality when (probably also through Greek influence) beliefs in personal immortality came to be crystallized.

Actually there is no reason why Greeks and Jews should not have independently developed similar attitudes on these and kindred matters. Each group was seeking to protect itself against the danger of absorption by cultivating its canonical or quasi-canonical literature, and it was natural for the guardians of the literatures to receive special status. The first thing any handful of Greeks did upon settling anywhere in the Hellenistic world was to establish a gymnasion where the ancient classics—Homer and tragedy and Plato—were taught; it was this sharing of a common cultural heritage that enabled the scattered minority of Greeks to maintain their unity and identity. The remoter they were from older settlements the more determined were the Greeks to maintain their Greekhood; intermarriage was common in the older settlements but avoided where cultural survival was precarious. Gymnasion training was prerequisite to any position of authority in the community, and therefore a privilege highly prized by upper-class natives; that is why humanist ideas spread so rapidly among the upper classes in the East. The parallel to the establishment of Talmud Torahs in new Jewish settlements, ancient or modern, is inescapable.

In the Hellenistic experience the Greek diaspora came before the Jewish diaspora, and it is natural to assume that the one learned from the other. It is of course entirely possible that each hit upon the one correct response to the same challenge independently, and we should believe that that was the case if a barrier had been fixed between the two; but until the end of the 1st century C.E. cultural interchange was easy and natural. Hence, even if influence was present it was not simply as between donor and recipient but rather, as in other aspects of cultural interchange, reciprocal. In analogous areas it can be demonstrated that the usual course was for the East to accept some novelty and then return it to the West with altered or enhanced significance.

So long as the Jewish state was in being, Greek modes could be accepted without endangering survival. It was only when the extinction of the state made loyalty to religious tradition the sole means of survival that Greek modes were abjured, in order to insure the integrity of the tradition. But the core that was thus protected already contained a considerable Greek ingredient, and though cultural interchange was discountenanced it could not in the nature of the case cease. If the Septuagint had become suspect because it was exploited by Christians, a Greek version of Scripture was nevertheless indispensable, and Aquila produced one less susceptible to abuse. Pietists cannot surround their conventicles with walls high and thick enough to insulate them from the dominant environment; indeed the very thickness of the walls, and the earlocks and broad black hats which proclaim their denizens’ exclusiveness, are plain evidence of the effectiveness of the environment. But the majority, in antiquity as today, did not wear earlocks; the view that the walls had always been and must always continue to be impermeable is a creation of those who did.



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