BOOK REVIEW Published in Volume 60, 2012
WILLIAM LOADER, Philo, Josephus, and the Testaments on Sexuality: Attitudes Towards Sexuality in Writings of Philo and Josephus and in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011). Pp. xii + 476. Paperback. $US65.00.
It would seem a fairly obvious point: contemporary debates about the appropriate Christian or Jewish perspective on issues of human sexuality should draw on the best biblical scholarship in relation to Christian and Jewish Scriptures, and, in turn, that scholarship must be informed by a comprehensive understanding of attitudes towards sexuality in the wider religious and cultural environments of late antiquity. These are strictures that are more honoured in the breach than in the observance, but there can be no excuse for scholars to neglect the latter task. With one eye clearly on a forthcoming and final volume on The New Testament on Sexuality, Bill Loader has put us all in his debt through his industrious analyses of “Attitudes to Sexuality in Jewish Texts from the Greco-Roman Era.” A review of Loader’s earlier study of The Septuagint, Sexuality and the New Testament (Eerdmans, 2004) can be found in ABR 54 (2006). However, none of the previous studies in the “Attitudes” series has been reviewed in this journal. Noting that the books are the result of a five-year Professorial Fellowship research project, funded by the Australian Research Council, it is worth mentioning the previous titles: Enoch, Levi, and Jubilees on Sexuality (Eerdmans, 2007), The Dead Sea Scrolls on Sexuality (Eerdmans, 2009); The Pseudepigrapha on Sexuality (Eerdmans, 2011). The current volume is therefore fourth in the series and the (oddly repetitious) title indicates the texts that are covered. Little explanation is needed for combining Philo and Josephus, but the inclusion of the Testaments here is due to a perceived similarity in philosophical perspective between these 2nd century texts, and the more familiar 1st century writers. The longest section, some 250 or so pages, is devoted to Philo, while Josephus and the Testaments receive 108 and 67 pages respectively. The focus throughout is on patient, careful analysis of the relevant texts. One of the contributions of the books is precisely that they comprise a kind of extended inventory of relevant texts, with the length and detail of the commentary dictated largely by the importance and/or complexity of the material under discussion. Helpfully, there are numerous summaries along the way.
Two things are especially noteworthy about Loader’s approach. First, he is committed to exploring the texts on their own terms, setting the material that relates to attitudes to sexuality in the context of the document’s or author’s overall purpose and theological, philosophical, and ethical commitments. Thus, Philo’s view of what constitute “natural” sexual relations derive from his understanding of creation, whereas his repeated calls for control of the passions should be seen not as an absolute rejection of bodily pleasures, but a rhetorical response to their potential abuse. Again, the negative portrayal of women in some of the Testaments is closely connected to the importance of the “sight” motif and the claim to angelic revelation made in these texts. As Loader notes, “it would be wrong to turn rhetoric into definition” (437). The sense throughout the book is of Loader as a careful guide, describing what is there in the text, locating the text within its wider historical, cultural, and religious context, and drawing attention to the ways that detailed exegesis makes possible some overall conclusions about the ways in which issues of marriage and divorce, the place and role of women, same sex intercourse, and other issues were understood by many Jews in antiquity. Loader has worked hard to engage with the latest significant secondary literature on the texts he studies, and whether discussing the minutiae of Philo’s treatment of bestiality, or the wider apologetic purpose of the Josephus material, one has the feeling of being in safe hands.
This leads to second point. Together with its companion volumes, this book is best seen as a reference work. To read through the section on Philo straight through is no easy task. With the emphasis on description, analysis and exegesis, there is little, if any, space given to drawing out the potential implications of Loader’s scholarship for New Testament interpretation or for contemporary understandings. The final volume may well take a further step in this direction, but the fact is that whatever one’s views on the issues, Loader’s careful contributions will be consulted by all who understand that ethical reflection with ancient texts requires critical and scholarly analysis of the source material.
SEAN F. WINTER
United Faculty of Theology, MCD University of Divinity