The Medieval Review 15.02.15

Vehlow, Katja. Abraham Ibn Daud's Dorot ʿOlam (Generations of the Ages): A Critical Edition and Translation of Zikhron Divrey Romi, Divrey Malkhey Yisraʾel, and the Midrash on Zechariah. The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World, 50. Leiden: Brill, 2013. Pp. xviii, 401. $182.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9789004227903 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Daniel J. Lasker
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Abraham ibn Daud (fl. 1160) was a pioneering Iberian Jewish philosopher and historiographer. Although his Arabic-language philosophical work, Exalted Faith, was the first Jewish Aristotelian treatise, it was soon overtaken by the more sophisticated and comprehensive Guide of the Perplexed of Maimonides (1138-1204) and almost forgotten. His Hebrew-language historiographical text, the original name of which has been lost but whose conjectured name Dorot ʿOlam (Generations of the Ages) has been adopted by the editor of the present volume, has had greater success, especially the first and most original part, Sefer ha-Kabbalah (The Book of Tradition). This work, written among other reasons as a rebuttal of the attacks upon Rabbinic tradition by Karaite sectarians, became a standard resource for later Jewish historiographers and saw many editions. A modern, critical edition of the original with English translation, introductions and notes was produced by the late, eminent historian Gerson D. Cohen (1967). Until now, however, the last three sections of the work--"The Chronicle of Rome," "The History of the Kings of Israel," and "Midrash on Zechariah"--had not been available in a good edition with a translation into modern English. It is this lacuna which the present book is intended to fill.

It is easy to understand why Cohen did not bother editing these three sections of the larger historiographical treatise, none of which has the charm, breadth or influence of the Book of Tradition. "The Chronicle of Rome" recounts rather laconically the history of that empire and its kings, from the foundation by Romulus and Remus until the rise of Islam. Some have seen it in the context of anti-Christian polemic since one of its ostensible goals is to dispute traditional Christian chronology as to when exactly Jesus lived. In addition, the author distinguishes between the Jewish religion of Jesus himself and Christianity which is a religion innovated by Constantine, either 300 years (the Christian calculation) or 420 years (Ibn Daud's calculation) after Jesus. Others have pointed to its argument for Iberian-centered exceptionalism in light of the direct line which presumably led from the glories of the Roman Empire to the peninsula. "The History of the Kings of Israel" is more engaging, but it is almost exclusively a reworking of the tenth-century Sefer Yosippon, which itself is a reworking of Flavius Josephus' first-century Jewish Wars, and thus is doubly derivative. Vehlow provides the references to the relevant sections of Yosippon and points out the differences between Ibn Daud's History and his sources, but these changes are mostly minor, reflecting Ibn Daud's interests rather than any original research (29-30). This section of the work, like the Book of Tradition, was intended to be an answer to the Karaites but concentrates more on Second Temple history, in general, than on an account of Rabbinic tradition. The Midrash on Zechariah provides an analysis of the symbols employed in Zechariah 11:4-17, demonstrating how the prophet foretold the important events of the Second Temple period which were recounted in "The History of the Kings of Israel" and how the Christian interpretation of these symbols is untenable. Vehlow's introduction provides a fine overview of the texts which are edited and translated in this volume.

Vehlow's work, which began as an NYU dissertation, is based on all the available manuscript evidence. The editor acknowledges that the textual variants are not significant, and, indeed, the critical apparatus has little to offer the reader. To fill out the textual history, she provides passages from previous translations by early modern Christian Hebraists, although it is unclear the value of all the quotations from these works in Latin, German and English, many of which may be merely misinterpretations or interpolations of the translators. The Hebrew text has a critical apparatus of textual variants in the Hebrew manuscripts and editions, alternative readings attested by the early modern translations, and references to sources. The English translation is on the facing page, with the same notes identifying references and many of the identical Latin, German and English translations (causing needless repetition), in addition to explanatory notes. This format results in large blank spaces on the Hebrew pages; omission of repetitions and a more efficacious layout would have shortened the volume and presumably made it more affordable.

The English translation is readable and idiomatic, even if the orthography of the names is occasionally peculiar (the author is aware of this [95]). There are also intermittent inaccuracies, e.g., Herod built fortified cities, rather than he "laid siege to cities" (253). Translating "Philistia" (specifically Gaza and Ashkelon) as Palestine (187) is incorrect and misleading. "Flowers of the priesthood" (323) is a literal translation that does not reflect the idea of young priests in training.

The strengths of this book include the discussions of Ibn Daud's many sources, as well as placing his historiographical works in their cultural context. Vehlow demonstrates how the author was one of the first Jews to use Christian works extensively, mainly Isidore of Seville (d. 636) and Orosius of Braga (d. after 418), as part of his reconstruction of Jewish history, and how he reworked them for his own purposes (31-37). The discussion of earlier editions and translations is important for the reception history of these compositions as well. When reading Ibn Daud's treatises, it should be remembered that his method of historical narrative is more important for understanding twelfth-century Iberian Jewish concerns than it is for trying to reconstruct Jewish history itself. In sum, it is very helpful to have this volume which now completes the work done by Gerson D. Cohen almost fifty years ago.

Copyright (c) 2015 Daniel J. Lasker

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