Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.09.36

Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E..   Princeton and Oxford:  Princeton University Press, 2002.  Pp. 336.  ISBN 0-691-08850-0.  $39.50.  

Reviewed by E. Leigh Gibson (
Word count: 3012 words

Documented by disparate and uneven evidence, Jewish history in Second Temple Judaea and Roman Palestine is a tough nut to crack. Of late, scholars have preferred targeted studies of circumscribed collections of evidence and, in many cases, have overturned long-standing interpretations. Rare, however, has been the attempt to write a new master narrative of the period. With Imperialism and Jewish Society Seth Schwartz ventures onto this rough terrain and has produced "a large scale synthetic revision" of this period neither infused with Christian triumphalism nor driven by reaction to it (5). While the broad scope of this book ensures that some will inevitably challenge Schwartz's readings of specific evidence or his overarching thesis, students of this period will remain indebted to Schwartz for his sweeping and masterful reconsideration of the literary, archaeological, and numismatic evidence from some eight centuries of Jewish history in ancient Palestine.

Schwartz forges a bold vision of ancient Jewish history from his conviction that Judaism in this period is largely shaped by the nature of imperial rule to which Jewish society was subject. With methods employing induction and deduction, indebted to structural functionalism and committed to a "moderately positivistic" and minimalist interpretation of evidence (2), Schwartz traces the complex effects imperial oversight worked on Judaism, including those aspects considered most distinctively Jewish. Emphasizing the generative force of imperialism, Schwartz divides his study into three parts, each reflecting an era of imperial oversight: the imposition of Persian rule through the first revolt, from the Bar Kokhba revolt through 350 and finally the period of Christian imperial domination, 350-640. The conclusions he draws at each stage are revisionary, but none is more provocative than Schwartz's views on Jewish society and Judaism under Christian Imperial rule: "quite a lot of Jewish culture was, to be vulgar about it, repackaged Christianity" (179).

Chapter 1 highlights three episodes in early Jewish history, the establishment of Persian rule in Judaea, the Maccabean revolt and Hasmonean expansion, and finally the activities of Herod the Great. In contrast to the standard historiography that stresses the pre-existing and eternal nature of "Judaism," Schwartz emphasizes the Persians' role in the making of a Jewish nation through their funding of the Second Temple and their institution of the Torah as the law of the land.

With respect to Hellenization, Schwartz distinguishes the cultural infusion that begins in the fifth century BCE from the imposition of Hellenic imperial rule in the wake of Alexander the Great's conquests. The former proceeded uneventfully, but the creation and refounding of cities in the model of the Greek city-states during the latter exerted new pressures on Jewish society. Jews in greatest contact with outsiders faced pressure not just to act Greek but to become fully Greek. As Schwartz suggests, "it was now not unthinkable that nations [including Judaea] might simply be willed out of existence by their upper classes' desire to be Greek, to reconstitute themselves as the citizen body of a Greek city" (27). Thus for Schwartz, the cultural force of Hellenization itself does not cause tension and fissures within Judaean society; rather, Hellenic imperial rule under the Seleucids ignites tensions that eventually lead to the Maccabean revolt. Schwartz demotes independent Hasmonean rule to a byproduct of imperial rule as Hasmonean royalty progressed "through the ranks as Seleucid courtiers" (33). In contrast, Herod's rule ultimately played a role more akin to the period of Persian rule, both periods in which foreign imperial powers transformed and furthered Judaism. Through his active patronage and especially his Mediterranean-wide building program, Herod was able "to turn Judaean institutions into Jewish ones by enhancing their attractiveness to non-Judaean Palestinian Jews and Jews of the Diaspora" (45) and by extending Jewish cultural homogeneity throughout Palestine, its environs and the Diaspora.

Against the prevailing consensus that has emphasized the divisions within Judaism of this period, Schwartz posits in chapter 2 that under the heavy formative hand of imperial rule significant homogeneity existed in Jewish society. The "three pillars of ancient Judaism -- the one God, the one Torah and the one Temple" -- were dominant in concrete and symbolic terms and unified Jewish society. (49) Because sponsorship on the part of foreign ruling powers figured so prominently in the maintenance of these core values (for instance, Persian sponsorship of rebuilding the Temple and their support for Torah as constitution), "deviant" groups are by Schwartz's logic powerless and harmless or are less deviant than usually thought. Into the former category falls the Qumran community, whose texts recall a crucial (and successful) instance of persecution at an early stage of the community's formation. The majority of the much-discussed sects fall into the latter category. With respect to apocalyptic literature, Schwartz follows those who have stressed this literature's critical but not dismissive stance toward priestly matters and interprets its mythological dimensions as a complement to covenantal nomism, all of which supports the triad of God-Torah-Temple. And in commenting on the Sadducees and Pharisees, Schwartz argues that they emphasized their differences but they are relatively minor in the context of their shared commitment to Temple and Torah.

In the second part of the book, Schwartz tackles the history of the region following the Bar Kokhba revolt, a poorly-documented period documented. Rejecting a common impulse to use later documents to fill this void or to attribute the void to the vagaries of preservation, Schwartz stresses that the destruction of the Temple and the elimination of Torah as the local constitution, in Schwartz's analysis two of the three pillars of ancient Judaism, decimated Jewish life.

Chapter 3 traces the implications of this stance for the traditional (but increasingly discredited) historiography in which rabbinic authority rise from the ashes of failed revolts. Embracing a minimalist reading of evidence, Schwartz places the rabbis among a small minority of Jews who maintained a more active memory of Jewish life. The rabbis would ultimately prove to be the longest-lived and most successful of this group, but in the early second century they were largely peripheral and commanded little authority. As for the patriarchate, Schwartz thinks that "it was at most a thin terminological veneer imperfectly concealing in most places a basically self-regulating euergetistic structure," one borrowed from the pagan environment (127). And, in a reversal of traditional logic which explains the appeal of the patriarchs in the Diaspora as an outgrowth of their eminence in Palestine, Schwartz suggests they were powerful in Palestine because they had met with success in the Diaspora. After all, in the aftermath of the revolt it would have been in the Diaspora and not in Palestine where the patriarchs would have sought to raise money.

While accepting the revised historiography concerning the rabbis, Schwartz issues an important qualification. The history of the rabbis is not synonymous with the history of Jews and Judaism in the region, the topic for chapter 4. Instead Schwartz suggests that the bulk of Jews, in the wake of the withdrawal of their overlords' support for Jewish institutions, may have come to forget Judaism and either succumbed to or embrace pagan culture. A minority retained a fondness for the "disintegrated shards of Judaism, surviving as a non-exclusive religious option in a religious system that was basically pagan" (105). In support of this characterization, Schwartz offers rabbinic anecdotes as well as archaeological and numismatic evidence. Pivotal is Schwartz's contention, in part based on the hotly debated issue of synagogue dating, that those parts of the Galilee densely inhabited by Jews were bereft of Jewish iconography or sentiment in public spaces, on coins, or in funerary inscriptions, all of which were instead dominated by pagan iconography. Pagan iconography even dominated Beth Shearim, a burial complex favored by what Schwartz calls "Torah-oriented Jews." In short, so little remained Jewish about this region that Schwartz provocatively entitles the chapter: "Jews or Pagans? The Jews of the Greco-Roman Cities of Palestine."

Even though the rabbis and patriarchs represented a small minority of Jewish society in the aftermath of the revolts, Schwartz examines how they co-existed with "the Pentateuchal horror of paganism" in chapter 5. Rabbis found an ingenious solution according to Schwartz: in acts of "misprision" and "misinterpretation," they narrowly defined pagan religiosity as consisting exclusively of cultic activity (164). Following this reasoning, rabbis could co-exist with a plethora of pagan culture and images, recoiling only from active engagement in cultic worship. Analysis of M. Avodah Zarah 3:4 leads to the conclusion that the "meta-legal principles that underlie rabbinic legislation on avodah zarah as a whole in a way that highlights their contrast with the rigorist interpretation of the Pentateuch" (167).

Part III bears a heavy burden, namely to explain what revivified depleted post-revolt Judaism. Schwartz is at once true to his commitment to situate Jewish history in the context of imperial rule and at his most daring. According to Schwartz, Christian imperial administration presented the Jews of Palestine with two options: further integration with dominant (and now increasingly Christian) practices or withdrawal. Jews chose the later but even in adopting this response, Judaism benefited from Christianity's presence, a presence that formally recognized the Jewish community and their leaders and also provided models of religious life from which the Jewish community borrowed. According to Schwartz, much of the reinvigorated Judaism of this period was "repackaged Christianity" (179).

In Chapter 6, Schwartz begins to build his argument on opposing scholarly interpretations of the period, integrating them as a stage for new conclusions. Here Schwartz concedes that each of the two main positions on late imperial period Palestinian Judaism include compelling elements. With Heinrich Graetz, Schwartz believes that imperial legislation reveals an increasing hostility to Jews. Yet, along with more contemporary scholars, he recognizes that Judaism experienced a revival in this period, as marked by increased synagogue construction, Jewish iconography and a renewed literary tradition, developments which are often explained as a pay-off for friendly relations between Jews and non-Jews. But Schwartz declines to follow either camp and instead suggests a more complex explanation, one that incorporates aspects of each.

On the one hand, Judaism formed a "unique category of humanity, like neither the orthodox Christians nor pagan nor heretics, who were gradually outlawed" (192) and as such won legal recognition, an innovation over the earlier period in which "Judaism is only legal in the sense that no one has ever bothered to declare it illegal, unlike Christianity" (190). On the other hand, from the perspective of Christian imperialism's emphasis on "religious uniformity," (194) Judaism posed a considerable challenge: "to be eclectically Jewish and pagan marked you as a successful accommodationist; but to be eclectically both Jewish and Christian marked you as a heretic" (192). And so imperial legislation also increasingly marginalized Jews. But this isolation was not a prelude to collapse. Rather, responding to the same social forces that shaped Christianity and indeed borrowing from Christian examples, Judaism emerged from late antiquity revitalized.

In chapter 7, Schwartz explains the emergence of synagogues and churches in the small villages of Palestine of the fifth and sixth centuries as the result of the arrival "Greco-Roman urban culture of euergetism" in the countryside (202). At the same time local communities developed a sense of their own religious significance. Local communities, of course, had always existed, but in religious terms they had considered themselves part of the people of Israel. In late antiquity, however, he sees "the emergence of the local community as a full-blown social institution...something freighted with religious significance in its own right" (200).

Because the growth in synagogue construction is a crucial piece of evidence for the process of rejudaization and because the origins and dating of Palestinian synagogues has been such a fiercely contested question, in chapter 8 Schwartz analyzes this debate in detail. Dating the growth in synagogue construction to the fourth and fifth centuries (208-212), he argues that synagogues took on new significance in this period, namely as essential part of village life, "a miniature Israel" (238). The way that communities refer to themselves in extant inscriptions (200, but explored at greater length in chapter 10), and early rabbinic literature's reluctant recognition of the village as significant unit are evidence for his claim. Rabbis, Schwartz contends, preferred to retain Biblical emphasis on "the individual Jew as a member of the nation of Israel" (228) and worried that villagers mistakenly understood their synagogues as replacement temples (237). Thus the early rejudaization of Palestine occurred without rabbinic support or guidance.

Having established the synagogue as an important locus of rejudaization, in chapter 9 Schwartz considers the nature of this revival with respect to the place of Torah, the development of a Jewish iconography and the production of liturgical poetry. While rabbis had continued to cherish the Torah, the bulk of Jews did not share this sentiment. Reverence for Torah scrolls as expressed in synagogue architecture increased during this period, with synagogues retrofitted and eventually designed to incorporate permanent Torah enclosures. The increased importance of the scroll also resulted in ritual changes. The emergence of targumim, improvised oral translation of the Torah into Aramaic, is traced to this period as well as piyyutim "complex and allusive manipulation of the week's Torah lection" (243).

In contrast to the rabbinic focus on Torah, which was only slowly adopted by synagogue communities, local communities placed great value on synagogue decorative art to mark the sacredness of the synagogue. Synagogue art, especially zodiac-inspired mosaics, has been a hot topic of late and Schwartz engages in a detailed debate with Ze'ev Weiss, a prominent interpreter of the synagogue mosaic discovered at Sepphoris. In Schwartz' reading of the Sepphoris synagogue mosaic, self-described as "a kind of minimalistic programmatic interpretation" (252), the art is "a kind of reflection of the heavens or microcosm" (257) or a "reflection of a heavenly temple" (259), an interpretation that would put this sort of decoration at odds with rabbinic concerns but would indicate no less a devotion to Judaism. Yet, just as Schwartz traced the increasing rabbinization of the place of the Torah in synagogues and their liturgy, so too does he suggest the same trend with respect to decorative arts. In many synagogues, a circular zodiac mosaic incorporating anthropomorphic images dominates the nave; in the synagogue at En Geddi, a geometric design dominates and an ark and menorot appear on the apse floor. The floor is not, however, completely rid of zodiac-inspired motifs. The quadripartite schema of zodiac mosaics appears in an aisle and "most remarkably of all, it is not pictorial, but verbal, an inscription" (261).

Schwartz's final chapter expands on a claim introduced in the early chapters of part III, namely that a distinctive terminology preserved in synagogue dedicatory inscriptions demonstrates that late antique synagogues regarded themselves as distinct religious communities. Language like laos, qahal, and 'am suggest that communities came to claim "the special religious status, the obligations and the promises that God granted to and imposed on Jews as a whole, according to the Bible" (276). In fleshing out this claim, Schwartz points to both pagan and Christian parallels. The former tend to highlight the individual's gift, in contrast to the Jewish inscriptions' stress on the corporation. Similar dedications in church contexts stand between the pagan and Jewish examples in that they, like the former, emphasize the individual donor's generosity and, like the latter, enjoy prominent placement in the sanctuary. In addition, church inscriptions often recognized their larger place in an ecclesial hierarchy, a feature absent in synagogue inscriptions. According to Schwartz, this "practically sectarian" stance of rural synagogues was at odds with the social and economic realities of the rural settlements: Jews "were participating in a general late antique process, itself a consequence of Christianization" (288, 289). In the synagogue context, the Greco-Roman traditions of euergetism had been modified by an egalitarian impulse.

This study is a great accomplishment, and we are all indebted to Schwartz for rethinking the narrative of Jewish history in this period. At the same time, this study also leaves some questions in need of further investigation and others unanswered.

A striking aspect of the book is Schwartz's shunning of the discussion of what is a Jew, specifically a direct engagement with the sort of questions that Shaye Cohen addressed in The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties (1999). There, Cohen attempted to unravel the complex use of the term Ioudaioi as a geographic, ethnic and religious marker. A similar analysis in Imperialism and Jewish Society would have connected Schwartz's study to existing scholarship and likely would have yielded fascinating results. For instance, perhaps Schwartz is positing that "Judaism" was at first an ethnic or geographic marker, transformed under the Persians, Hasmoneans, and Herod into a religion (a term in itself upon which Schwartz's comments would have also been welcome). After the revolts, perhaps "Judaism" was reduced to an ethnic status or geographic marker, but, under the influence of and borrowings from Christianity, ethnic Jews revived Jewish religion. We can only wish Schwartz had explicitly stated his own take on these issues.

In need of further investigation, too, is the place of the Diaspora during Palestinian Judaism's transformation. Scholars have cautioned against invoking conceptual divides between Palestinian and Diaspora Judaism and it is a hard habit to break for many of us, including Schwartz. In this case, Schwartz's isolation of Palestinian Jewish society, understandable as it is to keep his project manageable, is ultimately disappointing. After all, he undoes the usefulness of this divide in his discussions of the Patriarchs' efforts in the Diaspora and the origins of the synagogue. Ideally this study would have integrated both regions and would have examined questions such as did the Diaspora hold to the same three pillars of Jewish identity -- one God, one Torah, one Temple? If not, what substitution if any was made for the Jerusalem Temple. Were the smaller and dispersed communities of the Diaspora as influenced by imperial rule as was Palestine? Did Diaspora Judaism provide any kind of model for the rejudaization of late antique Judaism? In spite of these queries, Schwartz must be commended for his impressive rethinking of the master narrative of Palestinian Jewish society.

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