Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.12.03

John R. Bartlett (ed.), Jews in the Hellenistic and Roman Cities.   London and New York:  Routledge, 2002.  Pp. xi, 249.  ISBN 0-415-18638-2.  $65.00.  

Contributors: Sean Freyne, Lester L. Grabbe, Tessa Rajak, Fearghus Ô Fearghail, Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley, Brian McGing, Sasha Stern, John Dillon, John Barclay, Jonathan Dyck, Gideon Bohak, and Eric M.Meyers

Reviewed by Thomas A. Robinson, Religious Studies, The University of Lethbridge (
Word count: 1665 words

This book is a collection of twelve essays delivered at a conference in 1997 under the auspices of the Consultative Committee for the Bible and the Ancient Near East in the Royal Irish Academy. The articles cover a considerable range of issues, and most focus on some aspect of the city, although not all the articles capture the editor's vision of the city as a "symbolic universe" (5). The book as a whole provides a feel for the state of flux on a number of questions regarding diaspora Judaism that, until a few years ago, were largely thought to be settled.

The somewhat informal chapter by Lester L. Grabbe, "The Hellenistic City of Jerusalem," looks at the "Hellenistic" reforms by Jason in Jerusalem in the early part of the Seleucid rule. Grabbe thinks in terms of the Greek polis in his description of Hellenistic cities and takes no note that this view has been challenged by John D. Grainger [The Cities of Seleukid Syria (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990)]. Grabbe challenges the portrait of this era in Jerusalem's history as it is described by the unsympathetic Jewish authors of the Maccabean literature. According to Grabbe, Jewish religion continued to function normally: Jason's reform was cultural and political. Calling for a closer reading of the Maccabean literature, Grabbe contends that these books tell us as much by their silences as by their stories. Jason's reforms become a far less explosive episode in the life of the population of Jerusalem than in the pen of the authors of the Maccabean literature.

Tessa Rajak's contribution, "Synagogue and Community in the Greco-Roman Diaspora," questions the widespread view of the diaspora synagogue as the center of Jewish life, an institution that supposedly brought into its orbit most dimensions of Jewish experience. First, Rajak explains why that common portrait of the synagogue became so popular: the influence of the portrait in Acts, the Christian structure of the ecclesia, the imbalance in the corpus of inscriptions, and the remains of excavated buildings. She then points out that, in spite of the considerable evidence, "the actual functioning of the Greco-Roman synagogue remains desperately elusive" (6). Rajak notes the surprising variety of terms that is used to identify the institution uniformly referred to in modern literature as the synagogue; this, she suggests, reveals the diverse developments and uses of the institution (26-32). As well, Rajak sees the transfer of the sanctity of the Temple to the synagogue as "gradual and diffuse" (31). The structure of Jewish diaspora communities is discussed, particularly the meaning of the politeuma. Rajak concludes that the evidence suggests "adaptation and experimentation" of the synagogue concept (37) and the ability of Jewish communities to creatively use types of association already familiar in the Greco-Roman environment.

In the first two-thirds of the chapter "The Jews in the Hellenistic Cities of Acts," Fearghus Ô Fearghail surveys the variety of situations of Jewish communities in the diaspora with which Christians had interaction. Then he offers a brief section on "Historical Questions." While agreeing that Luke paints a picture probably more consistent than it was, Fearghail treats the stories in Acts with a fair degree of respect. Particularly helpful is his description of the "god-fearers" and groups of other sympathizers on the fringe. He points out that the Acts evidence does not suggest that god-fearers flocked into the church in greater numbers than Jews did; also, he notes that some god-fearers were opponents of the Christian movement. Neither point has been adequately recognized in the frequent discussions of god-fearers.

Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley provides the chapter, "Synagogue Communities in the Graeco-Roman Cities." She discusses such matters as the variety of terms, architecture, and locations of synagogues, and she finds no consistency. The synagogue would have generally been viewed by outsiders as an immigrant club, not unlike the associations that other immigrants formed, and the Jewish associations would have been adapted to the features of such clubs, though there would have been differences between synagogues and other clubs too. The role of Jerusalem and the impact of the destruction of the temple on the life of the synagogue are discussed. While most groups gradually were absorbed into the surrounding culture and lost their distinctive identity, she thinks Jews were able to maintain their identity successfully. This is a common position, but it is challenged within this volume by Gideon Bohak.

Brian McGing addresses the still largely unsettled question of the size of the Jewish population in the ancient world in his chapter "Population and Proselytism: How many Jews were there in the ancient world?" The article does a useful service in providing a balanced survey of the efforts to establish population figures for the ancient world; the article does an essential service by challenging the methodology and evidence employed in most population studies. Typical of McGing's assessment and tone is the comment: "The ancient sources are so tendentious and unreliable as to be virtually without value, in much the same way as Baron's patriotic guess of 8 million" (105). McGing offers a realistic approach to the issue.

Sacha Stern's "Jewish Calendar Reckoning in the Graeco-Roman Cities" deals with whether Jewish calendar reckoning contributed to Jewish distinctiveness in the ancient world. Most calendars in the Near East had been lunar, as was the Jewish. The exception was the solar calendar of the Egyptians, which Jews may have used while retaining a lunar calendar for religious purposes. With the advance of the Roman Empire, the solar calendar came to be more and more adopted, and in so far as the Jews resisted this advance, they would have become more distinctive.

In the chapter "The Essenes in Greek Sources: Some reflections," John Dillon considers the evidence from Philo and Josephus in an effort to establish a link between the Essenes and the Qumran community. He dismisses those who contend that there were two distinctive groups. Discrepancies between the descriptions can be accounted for by recognizing that neither author had first-hand knowledge of his subject. Such discrepancies are typical when authors treat foreign subjects -- indeed, such differences can appear even when an author has closer familiarity with the subject.

John Barclay takes on the issue of "Apologetics in the Jewish Diaspora." He discusses the debate provoked by Martin Goodman's analysis of Jewish apologetic literature and Goodman's qualification of Jewish proselytizing interests. In general, the rethinking of Jewish apologetic literature stems largely from a reconsideration of the audience, whether Gentile (thus the literature serves a defensive and missionary purpose, which was the older view) or Jewish (thus the literature is primarily edifying). In the latter case, the literature is considered "apologetic" only by expanding the definition of apologetic, as has widely been done in recent scholarship. Barclay argues for a middle ground: while apologetic literature was not designed primarily as a tool for proselytizing purposes, such literature evoked a range of positive responses to Judaism, of which conversion to Judaism was occasionally the outcome.

Jonathan Dyck, in an article on "Philo, Alexandria and Empire," examines ideas about the role of allegory in Alexandrian and imperial politics, using the theories of David Dawson and Daniel Boyarin as the backdrop. Much of the discussion relates to theories of language and the play between literal and allegorical interpretation of texts. To some extent, the debate reflects similar concerns in the debate over the purpose of apologetic literature, addressed in other articles of this volume: is the audience primarily Gentile or Jewish? The key question around which the debate has its usefulness is the status of Jews in Alexandria and the nature of Jewish rights there.

Gideon Bohak's article on "Ethnic continuity in the Jewish Diaspora in antiquity" confronts head-on the common assumption that diaspora Judaism was characteristically and successfully fixed on the preservation of its ancient heritage in the midst of temptations to assimilate into the culture of the larger society. Bohak dismisses that view of diaspora Judaism as accurate only of medieval Judaism and thus challenges the position of some of the contributors to this volume. Bohak offers a variety of observations about the character of diasporas in general and sets the Jewish diaspora within that discussion. Bohak's primary query is whether it is more likely that the Jewish diaspora was atypical of diasporas in general, for he finds that diasporas typically assimilated. The Phoenicians are offered as an example. There the tendency of immigrants was either towards assimilation or a return to the homeland. Bohak offers brief comments on the process of naturalization and how, in spite of efforts of immigrant communities to maintain traditional features of their native culture, these efforts were largely unsuccessful. He then considers whether the Jewish diaspora should be treated as a diaspora of a special kind, examining particularly the Jewish experience in the Egyptian chora. Not everyone will be convinced by his interpretation of the evidence, and Bohak himself recognizes the provisional nature of his reconstruction, but he raises enough questions about diasporas in general and about specific aspects of the Jewish diaspora to make the received view of the Jewish diaspora slightly less convincing.

Eric Meyers examines the evidence for the Jewish practice of ritual washing in Galilee in his chapter "Aspects of Everyday Life in Roman Palestine." He looks particularly at examples of domestic architecture in Sepphoris, examining the variety of evidence that might demonstrate attention to ritual washing, and he supplies numerous photographs to illustrate a variety of ritual pools. Meyers' challenge to Hengel's thesis of the clash between Hellenism and traditional Jewish piety, however, seems to add little to his overall examination.

What we have in this volume is not intended as a summary of the current scholarly consensus on matters related to diaspora Judaism. There is, clearly, no such consensus out there. This volume offers, rather, a glimpse of how unsettled many of the matters are that were once considered firmly established and how unexplored many of the issues of the Jewish diaspora remain.

The book contains an 18-page bibliography and a 10-page index.

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