The seventeen fragments of Ezekiel’s Exagoge, a Hellenistic tragedy written by a Jewish author whose plot is lifted from the translated Book of Exodus, present several problems with respect to the play’s performance. Scholars have long pointed to its supposed deficiencies from Attic tragedy — the surviving fragments situate the plot in widely disparate locations in Egypt and Israel at many points in time, it is unclear whether it has a chorus or whether it falls into five acts, and it famously features a scene in which the protagonist, Moses, speaks to God at the burning bush — a live performance of which would have risked breaking sacred Jewish law by portraying God. For these and many other reasons, a majority of scholars have concluded that the Exagoge was received principally, if not exclusively, as a text in more restricted literary circles (see, e.g., Wieneke 1931, 119; Gruen 1988, 35, and Rozik 2013, 63-66)
Against this skepticism, however, we can say with reasonable certainty that Jews did indeed write and perform plays that incorporated plots from the translated Septuagint. The existence of such productions explains why the Letter of Aristeas warns against adaptations of sacred scripture with the story of a Jewish poet, Theodectes, who was punished with cataracts after incorporating the septuagint into one of his works (Ep. Arist. 316) and Clement of Alexandria cites Ezekiel as an author of multiple Ιουδαίων τραγῳδίων, suggesting his mastery of a particular sub-genre (Clem. Al. Strom. 1.23.155). Furthermore, it is clear both from epigraphical evidence and from the language of Jewish authors such as Philo that Jews regularly attended theatrical performances and incorporated the language and images of performed tragedy into their works (Kotlinska-Toma 2014, 201-2).
Attempts to reconcile the corroborating evidence for performed Jewish tragedies with the Exagoge’s apparent departures from classical antecedents and the defining features of tragedy in Aristotle’s Poetics have yielded several creative and compelling suggestions in recent scholarship. Most notably, Kohn suggests that the fragments come from a tetralogy rather than a single play, which would resolve the work’s apparent violation of Aristotle’s unities of time and place (2003). More recently, scholars attempt to resolve these apparent problems in the play’s performability by situating its performance in a distinctly Jewish ritual setting (such as proseuchai during Passover celebrations) rather than a Greek theater (see, e.g., Lanfranchi 2006, 52-72 and Davies 2008, 415).
This paper reexamines the question of the Exagoge’s potential performance first by arguing against the strict use of classical antecedents and Aristotle’s Poetics as a measure of the later work’s performability. Such a narrow and anachronistic scope risks overlooking the potential ingenuity of Ezekiel’s work, which would explain many of the supposed deficiencies in its fragmentary plot. The paper then argues for the play’s multivalent resonance to a diverse audience of Jews and Greeks (rather than a culturally exclusive and homogenous setting) by examining scenes with polysemic language and imagery, including Sepphora’s description of Libya (Kotlinska-Toma 2014 F4), Moses’ throne vision (ibid. F6) and its interpretation by Raguel (ibid. F7), and the description of a phoenix by an unnamed character (ibid. F17). The paper then concludes by reviewing some potential venues for the Exagoge’s performance in Ptolemaic Egypt, including the pentaeteric Ptolemaieia at Alexandria and the local Dionysia festivals organized in the Egyptian chora.
Performing Problem Plays