Virtue, human behaviour regarded as morally valuable, was a widely discussed and debated topic in Mediterranean antiquity. But what did virtue mean for Jews? How did they discuss and practise virtue? This project fills a research gap by analysing conceptions of virtue in early Jewish literature (ca. 350 BCE – 150 CE).
This project sheds new light on the diversity of ancient Mediterranean ethical reflection by exposing a set of Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek Jewish writings from the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, the pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Philo of Alexandria’s corpus. This selection of materials deconstructs later canonical boundaries and boundaries between sub-areas of biblical studies, as well as highlighting the variety of literary contexts in which the topic of virtue is relevant.
Virtue has been a neglected topic in early Jewish studies, which may be partially due to the lack of a specific term designating virtue (cf. aretē in Greek; virtus in Latin) in Semitic languages. Yet the lack of a separate term does not prove the lack of virtue discourse in Semitic writings. Rather, this project argues that is part of the scholarly challenge to recognize and analyse the occurrence of such discourse. Moreover, much of Hellenistic Jewish literature was composed in or translated into Greek, which shows that the Greek term aretē became part of Jewish moral vocabulary early on. This corpus is significant because most Jews lived in Greek and Roman cities at the turn of the era.
Scholars of philosophy and theology have typically sought for the historical roots of virtue discourse in Greek philosophical sources before moving on to the Christian thinkers of late antiquity and beyond. Ancient Jewish sources can no longer be ignored, however, if the diversity of the Mediterranean virtue discourses is taken seriously. In fact, this research project demonstrates the cultural variety of such discourses in the Mediterranean antiquity, thus enabling dialogue between biblical, religious, and Greco-Roman studies.