Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.03.09

Judith Lieu, John North, and Tessa Rajak (edd.), The Jews among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire. London and New York: Routledge, 1992. Pp. xvii, 198. $39.95. ISBN 0-415-04972-5.

Reviewed by Seth Schwartz, University of Rhode Island and King's College, Cambridge.

The object of this collection of essays is to combat the "conflict model" of the history of late Imperial religion. According to this model, between the 1st and 4th centuries Christianity and paganism did battle and the better religion, inevitably, won; Judaism had already been reduced to wretched irrelevancy -- Augustine's notorious testimony to the truth of Christianity. As a (partial?) corrective, the editors propose to emphasize the continuing vitality and attractiveness of Judaism, especially in the "Diaspora", down to the 4th century and beyond, and to suggest through this emphasis that urban religious life of the high and later Empire was far more complex, varied, and contingent than the old triumphalist model allowed. There are two obvious questions: how valid is the book's purpose, and does it succeed?

As to the first question, it depends. The book is not pitched high: there are few notes and no untranslated Greek or Hebrew words, and some of the essays have a summary quality. Surely part of the book's intended audience -- interested lay-people, undergraduate students of ancient history and religion, and members of the clergy -- will benefit from the information that Christian triumphalism is not an adequate way of understanding the history of the high and late Empire, and even (who knows?) that Judaism failed to disappear after Passover, 30 CE. Whether the other, academic, part of the book's intended audience, or indeed anyone with more than a casual interest in history or religion, needs to be reminded of the obvious is (I hope) doubtful. Admittedly, an attenuated Christian triumphalism still occasionally pokes through the cracks in some recent scholarship, even, unfortunately, in one of the contributions to this book. This is not unexpected: many scholars of the period have powerful and not completely suppressed religious convictions about the issue. Still, the need to suppress or compartmentalize such convictions is at least almost universally acknowledged.

The replacement of the old model with a new one, as promised in the editors' introduction, is obviously desirable. But it is unlikely that exclusive attention to the ostensibly still significant role of Judaism in Imperial religious life can generate such a model. For it promises to generate only a three-way conflict model to replace the old two-way model -- scarcely an improvement. Furthermore, one wonders about the claim that "Diaspora" Judaism remained "vital and attractive". How, precisely, is vitality gauged? Presumably, it is mostly a matter of numbers, an issue never discussed.1 "Attractiveness" refers to the Jews' ability to gain gentile adherents and sympathizers. This the Jews certainly had, but exactly how significant a factor was pagan and Christian attraction to Jewish practice in high Imperial urban life? In short, by isolating the Jews, one runs the risk of exaggerating their social importance. We need to be reminded that identifiably Jewish epigraphical and archaeological remains from the Roman Empire outside Palestine constitute a tiny percentage of the whole; that Jews may have been numerous and conspicuous in Antioch and Sardis, but what about Erythrae, or Argos, or Nola? That is, we need a sense of balance and proportion.

So it is perhaps fortunate that the essays do not succed in carrying out the book's announced program. Indeed, they cohere only in that they all have something to do with ancient Jews. Some, but not all, concern Jews' interactions with other groups; some, but not all, concern Jews in the Diaspora;2 some of the essays actually contradict the editors' intentions in various ways. And some will seem to the informed reader to creak ever so slightly as they tilt at opponents moribund or dead. Perhaps, though, this is a pardonable consequence of the editorial decision to draw as many readers as possible: a "general" audience may, as suggested above, still believe discredited ideas.

What we are left with is a grab-bag of stuff of mixed quality which I will now briefly survey. Tessa Rajak, after a simultaneously discursive and excessively schematic description of Jewish life in the urban Greek-speaking Diaspora eventually focusses on one peculiarity of these communities (but surely also of non-urban, Palestinian, and non-Greek-speaking Jewish communities!), the permeability of their boundaries: there were proselytes and theosebeis (pagans who practiced some Jewish customs, and were close to the Jewish community, but did not convert. Oddly, Rajak does not mention the boundaries' permeability in the opposite direction). Why? Rajak suggests that the structure of the communities mirrored that of the cities: as in the larger entity, the key to power and prestige in the smaller was euergetism. In cities where Jews were prominent, patrons will naturally often have come from outside the community, providing "a powerful force for keeping the boundaries open" (p.24). I am glad Rajak used the indefinite article here; nevertheless, her larger observation about the structure of urban Jewish communities is an original one which deserves serious consideration.3

Less satisfactory is Martin Hengel's essay on Paul before his conversion. The article is a summary of a book which has just appeared and seems to present the book's main outline without argumentation. Since many of Hengel's assumptions and conclusions fly in the face of current trends in the field (e.g., Hengel believes that Acts is a basically dependable source for Paul's life; that all Palestinian synagogues before 70 CE were controlled by the Pharisees; that a more or less discrete, entirely Greek-speaking community of Jews lived in Jerusalem), the article has an archaic feel which the book may lack. In keeping with this (and typical of Hengel's work) are occasional hiccoughs of just the sort of theologizing the book was written to counteract (most egregiously, the third paragraph on p.41). Hengel's ultimate conclusion that Paul's intellectual formation was almost entirely Palestinian is of some interest; but it might be best to wait for the book.

Martin Goodman argues that Jews in the first century did not proselytize (Matthew 23.15, the best evidence for the contrary view, refers to intra-Jewish public relations by the Pharisees). This is entirely convincing; it also combats a view which is no longer common, though some of the argumentation is novel. It is best read in conjunction with Goodman's original contention that there was some Jewish missionary activity in the third century (in Journal of Jewish Studies 38 [1989] 175-85).

Judith Lieu provides an intelligent discussion of what the Church Fathers called "judaizing", an issue immeasurably complicated by the fact that the Fathers' conception of "Judaism" and "Christianity" as discrete and opposed entities corresponded so imprecisely to social realities.

In under 25 pages Fergus Millar surveys a large portion of the evidence about Jews in the Greco-Roman Diaspora after 312, and provides valuable comments about the various types of evidence. He also touches on the main historical issues; in particular, Jews' relations with pagans and Christians (coexistence, but tension, especially with the latter; the tension occasionally exploded, especially during and after the reign of Julian; Christian mob violence against Jews and pagans became still more common starting in the 380s and increasingly resulted in the forced conversion of entire communities to Christianity, and the corresponding conversion of synagogues and temples into churches. Millar correctly warns against exaggerating the extent of the persecution. It would be, in my view, surprising if all cases of Jewish conversion to Christianity in this period were the result of violent pressure). He also discusses the revival among Jews of the prestige of the Hebrew language: Hebrew, or rather attempted Hebrew (but also Latin!) appears on inscriptions with increasing frequency (the best indication of this revival -- not mentioned by Millar -- is Corpus Inscriptionum Judaicarum 595, an epitaph from Venusia written in Greek transliterated in Hebrew letters: this family knew they wanted Hebrew on their relatives' tombstone but could not find anyone to compose a Hebrew text. Conversely, the Aramaic papyrus of 417 CE from Antinoopolis, discussed by Millar, may not be relevant); and the possibly related issue of the spread of Rabbinic Judaism in the Diaspora. Millar's discussion of this last is generally excellent, but it may be a mistake to assume that the type of Judaism, if any, promoted by the apostoloi of the Palestinian Patriarchs was Rabbinic.

A welcome aspect of the book is that two articles concern Edessa. H.J.W. Drijvers' is in part a simplification and in part a revision of Journal of Jewish Studies 36 (1985) 88-102. After a long (and useful) introduction on 3d and 4th century Syrian Christianity, Drijvers proceeds to argue that although some Christian commonfolk were attracted to Jewish practices, the leaders of the Christian groups were hostile to Jews and Judaism. Syrian orthodoxy, which became dominant in the early 5th century, developed largely free of Jewish influence. This conclusion is implicitly rejected by Michael Weitzman, who argues that a central canonical text of Syrian orthodoxy, the Peshitta (the Syriac translation of the Old Testament), was composed by a group of non-Rabbinic Jews. This idea is far from absurd; but it is in the nature of arguments about the identity of unknown authors of a work composed at an unknown date in a city about which little is known that they are easy to disbelieve.

By far the most stimulating essay in the collection is the last. John North argues that the crucial development in the religious history of the hellenistic and Roman Mediterranean world is the disembedding of the gods from political structures. That is, there is a shift from a situation in which cultic activity is mainly an aspect of ethnic or civic identity, to one in which "religion" has been problematized; the path then opens for group identification on the basis of shared religion, and in general people have and make religious choices. In a way, it is a shame North's essay appears here; it would have made a brilliant introduction to the book that should have been written.

So the collection fails to fulfil its promise. But it remains valuable, in part because it does finally succeed in showing that no complete account of high and late Imperial religious life can ignore Judaism -- not only as praeparatio evangelica and patristic theological abstraction, but as an actual part of the scene (if only the book had made the point better!). In addition, some of the essays (Lieu, Millar, Drijvers) will serve as useful introductions to complicated topics, while others (Goodman, Rajak, Weitzman) will be appreciated by specialists.


  • [1] Except in the case of Edessa (p.138): H.J.W. Drijvers suggests that 12% of the city's population was Jewish. He knows this because four of 50 (sic!) extant funerary inscriptions commemorate Jews!
  • [2] "The Diaspora" is by the way a theological idea utterly devoid of social, economic or political content and even surprisingly fuzzy as a geographical term. Functionally, the editors use it to mean "Jewish communities in Greek and Roman cities outside Palestine". It is surely reasonable to consider urban Jews as a meaningful group, but to exclude from the group Jews in cities like Caesarea Maritima and Scythopolis is arbitrary and illustrates, ecumenically, the way good scholars do not always succeed in suppressing their Jewish theological convictions.
  • [3] Which it has now in fact received: see L. Michael White, Building God's House in the Roman World, Baltimore-London: Johns Hopkins University, 1990, 60-101.