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Recasting Moses

The Memory of Moses in Biographical and Autobiographical Narratives in Ancient Judaism and 4th-Century Christianity


Finn Damgaard

The political and social changes that occurred with the transformation of the Roman Empire into a Roman Christian Empire and with the bishops’ new social position as imperial bishops called for new literary representations of the ideal Christian leader. In this struggle, the figure of Moses turned up as a suitable figure intimately connected with questions of authority and power and, related to this, with the risk of dissension and discord. While the portrait of Moses as a political figure was hardly applicable in Christian discourses of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, it became the centre of interest during the 4th century. This new emphasis was, however, no more new than that it actually revived traditions of 1st-century Jewish biographical and autobiographical narratives.


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1. Introduction


1.1. A culture of imitation This study explores the way the Biblical figure of Moses was commemo- rated in Antiquity in some biographical and autobiographical Jewish and Christian writings for the purpose of constructing, revising or maintaining the collective identity of communities. As part of this, the study also focuses on the way the ancient texts use the Moses narratives and the relationship between Moses and the people to address the special relationship between the leader of a given community and the community itself. Ancient culture was a culture of imitation. Great men of the past were repeatedly presented as representative types of virtues or vices, and ancient authors often made use of comparison (σύγκρισις) as an important means of moral characterization. This practice features heavily in encomia (a genre meant to praise the subject) such as Isocrates’ Evagoras (37–39) and Xenophon’s Agesilaus (9.1–5), where the subjects are compared to their advantage with a past or contemporary Persian king; and both Aristotle, Quintilian and later Menander Rhetor recommended that σύγκρισις be used in encomia.1 Σύγκρισις was also normally included in the προγυμνάσματα, the Greek textbooks of rhetorical exercises.2 Biographical interest was, however, not restricted to encomia. It was found in many other types of writings: most noticeably in the βίοι of philosophers, kings, politicians and generals, but also in other genres such as funeral orations, historiography, martyrology and hagiography. In general, as Simon Swain has argued, Greek and Latin literature of the Roman Empire displayed “a marked biographical trend”:3 a great many...

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