Greek family values: a mother has killed her husband and believes that her lover has killed her son. She rushes forward to see the dead body, but the bloody remains turn out to be her lover. Supreme irony, because the audience of the Electra already knows that Orestes has killed Aegisthus and knows which shocking discovery Clytaemnestra is about to make. No one will deny that Sophocles is one of the greatest playwrights ever.
It is easy to understand why classicists, time and again, return to Sophocles and his two Athenian colleagues, Aeschylus and Euripides. Already in Antiquity, people believed that no playwright could possibly surpass these men. There was a scholarly edition of their works of which a part survives (all Euripidean tragedies starting with an E). We also know that there used to be an annotated school edition of three times seven tragedies, a kind of “the best of”, chosen by a very good scholar. His selection is, from an educational point of view, excellent: with three tragedies about Electra, we learn a lot about the personal approach of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
Perhaps our scholar did his work a bit too well, because his school edition became so popular that all other plays were lost. It was quite a sensation when in 2007 substantial parts of Euripides’ Phaethon were discovered. Yet, there have been many more ancient playwrights. They are all lost, except for one: Ezekiel, a Jewish author of the second century BCE. His work is not lost. Classicists just ignore it.
The Exagoge is one of the most fascinating pieces of ancient poetry, because the author uses a Greek genre, tragedy, to tell a Jewish story: the Exodus. About a quarter of it survives, and there are some brilliant lines, like Ezekiel’s description of the phoenix, of which our Athenians would not feel ashamed.
Another living creature we saw,
full wondrous, such as man has never seen;
’twas near in scope to twice the eagle’s size,
with plumage iridescent, rainbow-hued.
Its breast appeared deep-dyed with purple’s shade,
its legs were red like ochre, and its neck
was furnished round with tresses saffron-hued;
like a coxcomb did its crest appear,
with amber-tinted eye it gazed about,
the pupil like some pomegranate seed.
Exceeding all, its voice pre-eminent;
of every wing’d thing, the king,
it did appear. For all the birds, as one,
in fear did haste to follow after him,
and he before, like some triumphant bull
went striding forth with rapid step apace.
[Tr. R.G. Robertson]
And now we hear that hitherto unknown fragments have been discovered, from which Oxford classicist Dirk Obbink deduces that the Exagoge was widely read. This is interesting in itself, because we usually don’t know a thing about who read what. It is also interesting because Greek Judaism, which must have been very important, is not as well understood as its Rabbinical counterpart. Still, many Jews disagreed with the Maccabees that Judaism and Hellenism were incompatible, and did not follow the Pharisees in their use of Hebrew. Ezekiel belongs to this “other Judaism”, which did not make it.
And finally, the Exagoge shows that people who would no doubt be called ‘barbarians’ by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, appreciated at least one aspect of Greek civilization: the theater. The writing of tragedies was not just a Greek specialism, and classicists should, in future publications, devote a chapter to Jewish tragedy too.