From Alexander to Jesus. By ORY AMITAY. Hellenistic Culture and Society, vol. 52. Berkeley and Los Angeles: UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, 2010. Pp. xii + 246. $49.95.
The title of this volume suggests another history of Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple-Roman eras. Rather, Amitay presents a frequently stimulating, textually informed, but methodologically problematic meditation on the traditions of Alexander the Great as son of the Greek hero Herakles (Hercules) and, almost as an afterthought, the impact those traditions might have had on early accounts of Jesus and claims that Jesus was of divine descent. (See also the concise review by Thomas M. Banchich, at AHB Online Reviews 1 : 120-22.)
Amitay's tool of analysis is "meme theory." That is, Richard Dawkins' famous (or notorious) hypothesis of the meme (cf. gene): shared beliefs, traditions, knowledge in given societies are passed along (as is genetic information) almost as parasites to new generations, who then spread (infect?) the meme (perhaps modified/evolved) to other contemporaries and generations. "Meme complex" has come to be used to describe, especially, the tenets of a religious "system." These definitions are mine; for more detailed discussion, see Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), esp. 192, reprinted with a new introduction and additional materials, Oxford, 2006; S. Blackmore, The Meme Machine (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999). Amitay employs the concept of a meme as a means of analyzing reports, vaguely contemporary and otherwise, of Alexander's claim to be the son of the Greek hero Herakles and the possible impacts of belief and acceptance of those claims (the relevant meme) on the formation of the notion of Jesus as divine son.
Chapters 1-6 thoroughly review Alexander's career and the traditions his actions engendered, especially anything explicitly or implicitly connecting Alexander to Herakles. There is much valuable analysis here. I note (minima inter plura) solely Amitay's discussion (pp. 27-30, 174-76) of Alexander's visit to the "cave of Prometheus" in the Hindu Kush and the relationship of this event to Mesopotamian and Iranian mythologies, as well as (possibly) Chinese accounts. Also of fresh value are Amitay's discussion of the "colony of the Siboi" (pp. 45-51) and his dissection of the accounts of Alexander at Tyre and in Egypt (pp. 60-66).
Amitay's methodology prompts concerns. First, he cites diligently and thoroughly the...