Guest Blog by Tyler Huson: Jotham’s Fable or Aesop’s Fable? A Discussion of Textual Relations

I’ve been pretty busy teaching in the UC Irvine Humanities Core this academic quarter, and so I have been soliciting a number of guest blogs from friends and scholars, in order to keep up regular posting activity on Κέλσος. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, shoot me an email to let me know. I welcome posts on related topics in both history and philosophy, as well as book reviews.

Below is a guest blog by Tyler Huson (an alumnus of Claremont School of Theology), on the topic of literary inter-textuality between the Book of Judges and Aesop’s fables. Since my own dissertation topic deals with generic parallels between the NT Gospels and the Life of Aesop, Huson’s research is highly relevant to my own. I greatly appreciate Huson’s contribution, and hope that readers of this blog will find it interesting and informative.


First I must say I am very pleased to contribute to this blog! I came to know Matthew Ferguson while conducting research on Dennis R. MacDonald, my NT prof at Claremont School of Theology. When googling some reviews on MacDonald’s work, Matthew’s was one of the first names that google search showed me. Matthew’s blog invited people to add him on Facebook, so I did. I appreciate Ferguson’s critiques of MacDonald because of his background in classics and his work on Greco-Roman biographies.

Although my primary research interest is Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, I have a heart for Greek literature as well. MacDonald introduced me to the world of classical literature and showed me the importance of having a Greco-Roman lens when reading the Bible. This is commonly accepted and expected with the New Testament, but it is a much more controversial for the Old Testament since the narrative within the Old Testament ends during the Persian era and the original language of the OT is Hebrew and not Greek.

Today I would like to share with you a unique case where there are clear parallels between Judges 9 and one of Aesop’s fables called “The Trees and the Olive.”

The Trees and the Olive vs. Judges 9:8-15

Aesop’s Fable (Perry 262) [1] Judges 9:8-15 translation of MT
The trees once undertook to anoint a king over themselves and said to the olive, “Be our King.”

And the olive said to them, “Am I to give up my richness, which God and men admire in me, and rule over the trees?”

And the trees said to the fig, “Come, and be our king.” And the fig said to them, “Am I to give up my sweetness and my good fruit and undertake to be your king?”

 

 

 

 

And the trees said to the briar, “Come, be our King.” And the briar said to the trees, “If in truth you anoint me king over you, come and stand in my shade. And if you do not, may fire come from the briar and consume the cedars of Lebanon.”

8 The trees once went out to anoint a king over themselves. So they said to the olive tree, “Reign over us.”

9 The olive tree answered them, “Shall I stop producing my rich oil by which gods and mortals are honored, and go to sway over the trees?”

10 Then the trees said to the fig tree, “You come and reign over us.” 11 But the fig tree answered them, “Shall I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit, and go to sway over the trees?”

12 Then the trees said to the vine,” You come and reign over us.” 13 But the vine said to them, “Shall I stop producing my wine that cheers gods and mortals, and go to sway over the trees?”

14 So all the trees said to the bramble, “You come and reign over us.” 15 And the bramble said to the trees, “If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade, but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.”

The parallels are quite remarkable. From here I will discuss three possibilities for why these two texts are so similar: 1) Common Oral Tradition, 2) Judges 9 was added to Aesop’s Collection, 3) Judges 9 added Aesop’s Fable.

Possibility 1: Common Oral Tradition

Could the similarities be a result of oral tradition? This is possible, even Thomas Römer agrees it is a possibility (later we will see his conclusions are different). He writes,

“The redactor could have taken over a fable ascribed to Aesop either from a written collection of Aesopian texts, or from a well-known oral fable. Since the fable is short and simple, one should not rule out this possibility” [2].

While it is possible that the root of these texts is in oral tradition, I believe there is a better explanation. Despite it being a short passage, it is longer than a few words, even the vocabulary and word order are very similar throughout the fable. Typically, a sign of oral tradition would be a similar story in different wording and vocabulary, which is not the case here. Variety tends to indicate an oral nature of a tradition. Knierim discussing the performance of an oral tradition from a folkloric perspective writes,

“In its actual performance, and only there, it is composed into an oral text. This text never becomes normative. Only its pattern, the formulas, and the rhetorical devices are normative. An oral composition is, therefore, neither learned by memory nor recited. It is created ad hoc by the poet” [3].

Thus, even if this was an orally performed fable, at some point it became standardized to the texts we have today and the texts that were circulated. If it were a very commonly told story, one would expect there to be more variations in its textual representations if there was not a direct link between the textual witnesses.

Since we are not able to access oral traditions, the argument for oral tradition, while perhaps valid, can appear to be a deus ex machina, type of solution, since it can neither be proven nor disproven. As my professor Dennis MacDonald often said in class, “play me the recordings.” For these reasons, I lean towards literary dependency.

Is there a common, independent oral tradition? No, probably not, at least not the texts available today.

Possibility 2: Judges 9 was added to Aesop’s collection

It is possible that Judges 9 was later added to Aesop’s collection. Scholars such as Barry G. Webb, Barnabas Lindars, argue that the fable in Judges 9 is a very early Canaanite fable that was later inserted into the book of Judges [4]. This possible early dating would naturally lead to the conclusion that this fable was later added to the Aesop collection. Another set of evidence to consider are the manuscript witnesses, the oldest being the LXX. Laura Gibbs writes,

“This fable comes from the Hebrew Bible, Judges 9:8 and it became part of the Aesopic tradition only in the Middle Ages… the fable of the trees is found in a Byzantine collection which probably dates to the fifteenth century” [5].

It seems that the rationale behind this explanation is the manuscript evidence. Ben Edwin Perry and Gibbs appear to assume, perhaps correctly, that since there are much older manuscripts of Judges 9, then Judges 9 has priority, i.e. is older. This type of argument runs the risk of being an argumentum ex silentio, ie., argument from silence. There is always the possibility (and reality) that a paper trail can get lost, one cannot simply assume that the latest edition is the first edition.

Going a step further, a possible witness to Aesop’s edition of this fable is St. Augustine. He writes in against lying 13.28,

“Nor is it only in authors of secular letters, as in Horace, that mouse speaks to mouse, and weasel to fox, that through a fictitious narration a true signification may be referred to the matter in hand; whence the like fables of Aesop being referred to the same end, there is no man so untaught as to think they ought to be called lies: but in Holy Writ also, as in the book of Judges, the trees seek them a king, and speak to the olive, to the fig and to the vine and to the bramble” [6].

In my opinion, the probability of Aesop having an identical parable and Augustine accidentally mentioning the two within a few words of each other without Augustine knowing of this parallel is extremely low. It is much easier to suggest that Augustine knew the particular fable as a part of Aesop’s collection. I understand that the wording of this passage alone cannot prove this. If Augustine is indeed comparing Judges 9 with the fable in question, then this stands as evidence that the fable goes back further than the 15th C. Byzantine manuscripts, n.b. Augustine is from the 5th century, one thousand years earlier.

Another way of possibly arguing for an early Hebrew versions is through textual comparisons. If you compare the Greek of the LXX with the Greek of the fable found in Chambry 253, you will find that the LXX edition is more Hebraic in style.

MT = hālôk hālǝkû hāʿēṣîm

LXX = πορευομενα επορευθη τα ξυλα

Chambry 253 = Ξυλα ποτε επορευθη

Notice that the LXX is very similar to the MT edition in that it translates it nearly word for word, preserving the common Hebrew verb compound, infinitive + finite verb (in the Greek it is a participle + finite verb), to show intensity and it follows the common Hebrew syntax of verb before subject.

The Aesop edition has a different syntax and uses the adverb ποτε which seems to form a nice opening to a story, “the trees once…”. One thing seems to be certain is that the Hebrew edition precedes the LXX. However, it remains a possibility that the Hebrew text translated some form of the Aesop edition into a more Hebraic version. Also, the Judges edition in both Hebrew and Greek is longer than the Aesop edition. Usually shorter editions of texts are seen as primary/older; however, in this case, it is not that large of an addition and perhaps Aesop wanted to stick to three candidates instead of four, viz., olive tree, fig tree, bramble.

Was Judges 9 added to Aesop’s collection? Possibly, there were fables in the ANE and the LXX is the oldest edition of this fable.

Possibility 3: Judges 9 added Aesop’s Fable

A third possibility is that the redactor of Judges 9 added Aesop’s Fable. Contrary to the above classicists, there are biblical scholars who argue for the literary dependency in the opposite.

Thomas Römer argues that it is best to conclude Judges 9 added Aesop’s fable because 1) this would be the only fable in the whole OT; 2) there are more examples of Greek parallels in the book of Judges; and 3) it makes sense from a redaction critical perspective that the fable was added later.

1) Even though there is only one fable in the OT, it does not mean that there were not fables in the Hebrew speaking world outside the OT. It is somewhat difficult to make such a decision on genre alone. We know that there were fables in the ANE [7] so it is possible that there were fables in the Hebrew speaking world.

2) No one doubts that some parts of Judges sound familiar to classicists. Jephthah sacrificing his daughter sounds a lot like Iphigenia at Aulis and Samson, the strong man, sounds like Heracles. European scholars especially have been positing a hellenistic era redaction of the book of Judges, even as late as the 2nd century BC. Ernst Axel Knauf argues for a hellenistic redaction of the book of Judges as late as the 2nd century BCE, saying that the Torah alone was not enough to legitimize the Hasmonean dynasty, note how the book of Judges presents the need for a king, especially at the end of the book. He calls this the Torah-Prophets redaction [8]. While Knauf is silent (as far as I’ve read) on the Aesop fable, a 2nd century date is late enough for the redactors to know some of Aesop’s fables.

3) Redaction critically speaking, the fable is not a necessary element in the narrative and could easily jump from v6 to v22.

6 All the men of Shechem and all Beth-millo assembled together, and they went and made Abimelech king, by the oak of the pillar which was in Shechem. (Insert Jotham’s Fable here) 22 Now Abimelech ruled over Israel three years.

This makes the fable eligible for a later insertion. Thomas Römer sees this insertion as a way of balancing the apparent reluctancy for the monarchy in 1 Samuel and the appeal for monarchy in the book of Judges [9]. This could work, it could not. Römer concludes that Judges 9 receives Aesop’s fable based on a lack of fables in the Hebrew Bible.

The struggle with such arguments is that it is hard to prove redactional phases of books because of a lack of manuscript evidence, however there is precedence for continued scribal activity among such works.

Did Judges 9 add Aesop’s fable? Possibly. The unusual fable in Judges along with other hellenistic parallels leads one to leave this consideration open.

Conclusion and Suggestions

The lack of manuscript evidence neither solves nor disproves anything in regards to literary dependence. One thing that seems certain is that the LXX has a Hebrew vorlage. The question then becomes whether or not there is a Greek vorlage for the Hebrew text in Judges 9.

In light of this discussion, we need to seriously rethink the way that we draw the line between the Greek and Hebrew worlds. Scholars jump to compare the OT with other ANE cultures (and rightfully so, especially for linguistic purposes), perhaps it is time to include Greece more often in the discussion of the ANE. Alexander’s conquests in 333 are typically seen as the beginning of Greek involvement in OT studies or earlier among scribes in the 400’s during the Persian period, but perhaps we should suggest earlier points of contact between Greeks and Hebrews. I believe we should take seriously Römer’s suggestion that, “the Hebrew Bible is not only the daughter of the Ancient Near East, she also owes some of her features to the Greek world” [10]. This is a topic that needs to be explored; however, with much caution.

-Tyler Huson

[1] Ben Edwin Perry (translator), Babrius and Phaedrus. Fables (Loeb Classical Library 436; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), 475.

[2] Thomas Römer, “The Hebrew Bible and Greek Philosophy and Mythology – Some Case Studies,” Semitica 57 (2015): 202.

[3] Rolf P. Knierim, “Old Testament Form Criticism Reconsidered,” Interpretation 27 (October 1973): 435-48. In “Old Testament Form Criticism Reconsidered,” Reading the Hebrew Bible for a New Millennium: Form Concept, and Theological Perspective (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000), 49.

[4] Barry G. Webb, The Book of Judges (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament; iBooks), p. 1777. Barnabas Lindars, “Jotham’s Fable – A New Form Critical Analysis,” JTS 24 [1973].

[5] http://mythfolklore.net/aesopica/oxford/26.htm.

[6] http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1313.htm.

[7] Francisco Rodríguez Adrados, History of the Graeco-Latin Fable: Introduction and from the Origins to Hellenistic Age, vol. 1 (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 293-96.

[8] Ernst Axel Knauf, Richter (Zürcher Bibelkommentar 7; Theologische Verlag Zürich: Zürich, 2016), 25-26. See also a book review of Knauf’s Joshua commentary at http://www.jhsonline.org/cocoon/JHS/r346.html.

[9] Thomas Römer, “The Hebrew Bible and Greek Philosophy and Mythology – Some Case Studies,” Semitica 57 (2015): 201-202.

[10] Thomas Römer, “The Hebrew Bible and Greek Philosophy and Mythology – Some Case Studies,” Semitica 57 (2015): 203.

This entry was posted in Classics, Guest Blogs, Old Testament, Reception, Religious Studies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Guest Blog by Tyler Huson: Jotham’s Fable or Aesop’s Fable? A Discussion of Textual Relations

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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