Virtue in Biblical and Cognate Literature


What did virtue (i.e. human activity perceived as exemplary and thus desirable) mean for ancient Jews and early Christians? How did they discuss it? This research unit analyses conceptions of virtue and vice in ancient Judaism and early Christianity in the ancient Mediterranean context (ca. 500 BCE – 300 CE).

Scholars have typically searched for the roots of western virtue ethics in Greek philosophy, considering Jewish and Christian sources to be, at best, of secondary importance. Admittedly, the Semitic languages lack a specific term designating virtue, but this does not prove that texts written in those languages could not be interested in, or familiar with, conceptions of virtue. Moreover, the Greek term ἀρετή is adopted early on in Jewish and Christian literature composed in Greek.

Today, as the diversity and interrelatedness of Mediterranean cultures are recognized, ancient conceptions of virtue must be reassessed. The unit invites scholars to reflect critically on early Jewish and Christian ideas of virtue/vice. The Greek culture is not given a primacy in defining what virtue is; rather, the aim is to acknowledge the variety of ancient discursive practices concerning morally valuable life.


Virtue, Character Formation, Wisdom, Ancient Judaism, Early Christianity


Elisa Uusimäki University of Helsinki

Anna-Liisa Tolonen
University of Helsinki

Member Area 

Warsaw 2019 Call for Papers

What did virtue/vice mean for Jews and Christians who lived in the ancient Mediterranean region? How did they discuss and practise virtue? What constituted their “moral vocabularies”? This research unit analyses conceptions of virtue (i.e. human activity regarded as good and thus desirable) in ancient Judaism and early Christianity (ca. 500 BCE – 300 CE). While scholars have typically searched for the roots of western virtue ethics in Greek philosophy, ancient Jewish and Christian sources cannot be ignored if the diversity of the Mediterranean virtue discourses is taken seriously. We will organize two sessions in Warsaw 2019. One of them welcomes papers on any topic related to virtue/vice in Jewish and Christian antiquity. The other is a theme session titled “Virtues/Vices and Emotions”, co-organized with the research unit “Emotions in the Biblical World”.This joint session will explore the intersection of emotions and virtues (and vices) in the biblical world and its broad context—including Hellenistic and Roman literature. Potential questions include: Are some terms sometimes treated as emotions, and sometimes as virtues/vices? Are emotions sometimes reshaped into virtues, and vice-versa? How can we explain this fluidity between emotions and virtues/vices? Papers presented in this session may also explore the intermingling of virtue/vice discourses and the discussion on emotions in various literary contexts. Do texts concerned with virtue/vice shape the emotional life of the intended audience, or do they prompt particular emotional responses?We welcome papers that explore these questions or any other topic that focuses on the crossroads of emotion and virtue/vice discourses.

The Annual Conference 2021
takes place 2-5 August
in Wuppertal. Read more.