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Goodenough, Erwin R.


GOODENOUGH, ERWIN R. (18931965), was an American historian of religions. After studying for the Methodist ministry at Drew Theological Seminary and Garrett Biblical Institute, Goodenough spent three years in New Testament and Jewish Studies at Harvard University, chiefly with George Foot Moore, before proceeding to Oxford University and earning a D. Phil. in 1923. Little influence of Oxford is discernible in his work, except perhaps in the sketch of Middle Platonism provided in his dissertation on Justin Martyr. In the published version (Jena, 1923) he mentions none of his teachers. The book does, however, foreshadow his later studies of Philo Judaeus, for in it Goodenough discovered the influence of Philo to be pervasive in early Christian theology.

Goodenough began teaching at Yale University in 1923 and remained there until his retirement, steadily producing articles and books to demonstrate that many sectors of Judaism had been receptive to Greco-Roman influence, not only in the realm of philosophical ideas but also in those of mystical intuition and artistic representation. His By Light Light, subtitled The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism (1935), was not universally accepted by students either of the Hellenistic world or of Judaism, but like all his works it stimulated interest in his hero, Philo.

In 1953 began the publication of Goodenough's major work, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, which was posthumously completed in 1968 in thirteen volumes (including a volume of valuable indexes and maps). The genesis of this remarkable combination of fact and analysis was a visit Goodenough made to Rome during his time at Oxford. In Rome he saw catacomb frescoes and intuitively concluded that the depictions of Old Testament scenes must have had Jewish models. Excavations in the early 1930s at Dura-Europos (in which Yale participated) seemed to confirm his theory, for a third-century synagogue with bold and mysterious frescoes of biblical themes (now preserved at Damascus) was found.

Such paintings, prohibited by rabbinic teaching, required explanation, and Goodenough took two primary lines of approach. First, he went back to the Jewish catacombs at Rome and to many museums elsewhere, searching for the symbols present at Dura and working out their meanings for members of the Jewish communities. Then, influenced by psychoanalytic methods, he proceeded to explain their "basic" (usually Freudian) significance. Another principle he employed had to do with his division of the paintings into "left" and "right" on the basis of Pythagorean and gnostic notions, although the scenes themselves seem to be arranged "up" and "down."

The possibility or even likelihood that Goodenough was overinterpreting naturally occurred to him as well as to others, but he preferred to take this course rather than to retreat into agnosticism. As an "ex-Christian," as he called himself, he found mystical theories especially attractive. His tendency to say what he thought, and to point out what he did not believe, aroused the ire of the youthful William F. Buckley, Jr., whose God and Man at Yale (1951) included an attack on Goodenough's lack of orthodoxy in teaching college students.

During a year at Brandeis University (19621963) Goodenough moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he contemplated writing a study of early Christianity based on his Hellenistic Jewish model. In a commemorative essay, Goodenough's friend and sometime student Samuel Sandmel raised questions about the possibility of such a work, in view of Goodenough's lack of knowledge of the history of scholarship, especially in the New Testament field, but he concluded that what Goodenough considered "prolegomena" to this proposed final work were probably more valuable than any book on Christian origins would have been.

Goodenough was active in learned societies, serving as editor of the Journal of Biblical Literature from 1934 to 1942 and as president of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences from 1947 to 1958. He took an active part in the American Council of Learned Societies from 1953 to 1965 and was a member of its Committee on the History of Religions. In this setting especially he was highly influential because of his learning, common sense, and personal charm.


Goodenough's studies of Philo Judaeus also include The Politics of Philo Judaeus (1938; reprint, Hildesheim, 1967) and Introduction to Philo Judaeus (Oxford, 1940). Goodenough set forth some of his own religious ideas in Toward a Mature Faith (New York, 1955). Samuel Sandmel's essay in memory of Goodenough appears in a volume of other such essays, entitled Religions in Antiquity, edited by Jacob Neusner (Leiden, 1968). Other contributors of personal reminiscences to this volume include Morton Smith and Alan Mendelson.

New Sources

Goodenough, E. R. The Jurisprudence of the Jewish Courts in Egypt: Legal Administration by the Jews under the Early Roman Empire as Described by Philo Judaeus. Union, N.J., 2002

Goodenough, E. R., and A.T. Kraabel, Goodenough on the Beginnings of Christianity. Atlanta, 1990

Goodenough, E. R., and J. Neusner, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period. Princeton, 1988.

Robert M. Grant (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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