Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.04.05

Steven Fine, Art & Judaism in the Greco-Roman World. Toward a New Jewish Archaeology.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2005.  Pp. 267.  ISBN 0-521-84491-6.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by Jodi Magness, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (
Word count: 2188 words

Table of Contents

The notion that ancient Jewish art does not exist is widespread and deeply rooted. Many scholars assume that Jews either did not produce works of art or at best, produced only "bad art." As recently as 1998, one prominent art historian described Judaism as "the most un-iconic (indeed anti-iconic) of religions" (J. Elsner, quoted by Fine, 47). Part of the reason why modern art historians have overlooked ancient Jewish art is that whereas the Greco-Roman world was filled with works of art by Classical masters the Jews produced no painted (figured) vases and almost no sculpture in the round.

In this dense, erudite study, Fine attempts to set the record straight, reviving the term "Jewish archaeology" as a parallel to "Christian archaeology." The monograph is divided into four unequal parts, each subdivided into chapters. In Part One Fine provides a fascinating and insightful account of the history of Jewish art in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, highlighting the contributions of early pioneers such as Nahum Slouschz and E. L. Sukenik. Fine shows that Jewish archaeology developed in Palestine between the two world wars as part of the Zionist attempt to found a nation-state with its own heritage, just like other modern countries. The Zionists sought to establish a concrete and visual link between the new Jewish settlements in Palestine and the ancient Jewish population. It was during this period that the first major "Jewish" sites were excavated, including the synagogues at Hammath Tiberias, Na'aran, and Beth Alpha, and the catacombs at Beth She'arim. Fine notes that despite clearly ideological motivations, the scholarship produced by the early Zionist school of archaeology (or, as Fine calls it, the "Jerusalem school") was relatively objective, following the traditional Wissenschaft des Judentums. The Zionist initiative was a response to the prevailing German Protestant view that Judaism was an aniconic religion with no art. This view stemmed from the Protestant claim that they were the true Israel (that is, the Protestants were the heirs to the Jewish tradition), as opposed to Catholicism with its wealth of icons. The remains uncovered by early Zionist archaeologists also served the needs of twentieth century American Jews, who saw in the ancient Hellenized yet Jewish culture a parallel to their own experience in the U.S. This view was taken to its extreme by E. R. Goodenough, a Protestant scholar and expert on Philo who produced a monumental 13-volume work entitled Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (1954-68). Goodenough associated the decorated synagogues, catacombs, and other remains with a mystical, Hellenized form of Judaism that stood in opposition to the aniconic and legalistic Judaism of the rabbis. Although Goodenough's interpretations never gained wide acceptance, his work was and remains highly influential, marking (as Fine notes) a paradigm shift in the field.

In Part Two, "Art and Identity in the Greco-Roman World," Fine examines Jewish attitudes towards "art" in different periods and places: the lost family tomb of the Hasmoneans at Modiin, the late antique synagogue at Na'aran outside Jericho, and the late antique Diaspora Jewish communities. Fine describes ancient Jewish art as "anti-idolic" rather than aniconic because it excluded images that could be worshiped as idols. He suggests that the Babylonian rabbis had a more tolerant attitude towards figured art than the Palestinian rabbis because the Sasanians did not worship sculpted human images and there was no Sasanid cult of the emperor. However, Fine's claim that Jews disliked standards whether decorated or not (75) is contradicted by the prominence of standards in the battle array of the sectarians described in the War Scroll from Qumran. Instead the author of the Pesher Habakkuk (another scroll from Qumran), in the passage cited by Fine, objected to the Roman worship of their standards and arms (at least as it appeared to the Jews). And in my opinion, Fine's discussion of rabbinic interpretations of Lev. 26:1 ("and figured stone you shall not place in your land to bow down upon it") (120-21) misses the main concern of the rabbis that Jews not prostrate themselves on or before figured images.

Part Three, on "Jewish 'Symbols' in the Greco-Roman World," contains chapters on the date palm and menorah as Jewish symbols. Here (and elsewhere) Fine emphasizes the Roman context of Jewish symbols while arguing against Christian influence. Fine's argument is largely a response to recent suggestions that some developments in late antique Judaism (including the decline of the rabbis, the possible rise of priestly influence, and the emergence of monumental synagogue art and architecture) should be understood in relation to contemporary developments in Christianity. This view has been articulated most radically by Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E. (Princeton 2001), who suggests that after nearly disappearing in the second and third centuries, Jews regained their collective identity and religious distinctiveness in late antiquity as a result of pressure and competition from Christianity. Although Schwartz may have overstated his case, it is difficult to ignore Christianity's influence on late antique Judaism, especially in light of the fact that the construction of monumental synagogue buildings decorated with Temple-oriented imagery disappeared after the Muslim conquest (although some buildings remained in use for centuries afterwards). And as many scholars have noted, the same biblical (Old Testament) figures and episodes (such as Abraham's offering of Isaac and Daniel in the Lion's Den) were depicted by both Jews and Christians. In contrast, Fine attributes the selection of these motifs to the notion of zechut avot, the "merit of the fathers," a concept central to rabbinic Judaism. Fine's claim that "before the rise of exclusivist Christian power in Palestine and throughout the Empire, Jews used the menorah widely for their own purposes" (155) is disingenuous because the examples of menorahs he cites (from the catacombs at Beth She'arim and in Rome, and the oil lamps from Beit Nattif) all date to the third and fourth centuries -- precisely the period when Christian art and the use of the cross as a Christian symbol appeared. Depictions of menorahs were much rarer in the late Second Temple period. As Lee Levine observed, "The widespread symbolic significance of the menorah is thus a new development. Prior to the 3rd c. we have no clear indication that the menorah was so construed...We are suggesting that the appearance of the menorah as a widespread Jewish symbol cannot be divorced from the larger Byzantine-Christian context that was emerging. ...The use of the menorah, in part as a Jewish response to the cross, is not simply a theoretical possibility" (Levine, "The history and significance of the menorah in antiquity," in Levine and Z. Weiss [eds.], From Dura to Sepphoris: Studies in Jewish Art and Society in Late Antiquity [Portsmouth RI 2000] 147, 151). The menorah became the preferred Jewish symbol because it evoked the Temple cult, the focus of Jewish salvation (and the underlying theme connecting the decorative programs of ancient synagogue buildings) as opposed to the Christian cross, which symbolized Jesus's sacrifice.

Part Four, entitled "Reading Holistically: Art and the Liturgy of Late Antique Synagogues," builds upon Fine's earlier work on the liturgy of ancient synagogues, focusing especially on Dura Europos and Sepphoris. Fine argues that modern scholars have "distorted" the meaning of images in ancient synagogues by divorcing them from their original context and by arranging them into a linear narrative. Instead Fine advocates an "anthropos-centered approach" which focuses on the community that used these buildings. For Fine this means considering the art and architecture of ancient synagogues as a backdrop to the liturgical performances that took place within them. This chapter highlights the most glaring internal contradiction of Fine's work. On the one hand, Fine approaches his subject from an openly and consciously postmodern perspective, as expressed for example in the following sentence: "Constructed in three and not two dimensions, my current approach does not assume a consecutive and authoritative narrative but a flowing notion of sanctity that flexed across categories and was never static, even as it coagulated in different ways within the bounds of the generally shared common Judaism as it developed through the very long period covered in this study" (208). On the other hand, Fine's interpretation of ancient Jewish art is remarkably rabbinocentric and traditional. So, for example, he makes a great deal of a prayer (apparently related to the blessing after meals) that was found on a parchment fragment outside the Dura synagogue. Fine notes the relationship of the prayer to rabbinic texts from late antiquity (see also his discussion of an inscription from the Jericho synagogue on 185). However, this approach ignores the fact that rabbinic literature is our only source of information for Judaism (at least, for the interpretation of Jewish law) in this period. The practices of groups other than the rabbis are not preserved (as Goodenough emphasized). In other words, although this fragment could indicate rabbinic influence at Dura, Fine's argument is based on circular reasoning; he associates the prayer (which was found outside the synagogue) with rabbinic Judaism, and by way of extension the paintings inside the synagogue with rabbinic Judaism. However, non-rabbinic Jews presumably also pronounced blessings in connection with meals. In fact, many of the sectarian prayers and liturgies from Qumran display similarities and parallels with the rabbinic tradition (see L. H. Schiffman, Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls [Philadelphia 1994] 294-95). Fine states that, "The Dura parchment provides external support for those scholars who interpreted the Dura Europos synagogue paintings in light of rabbinic sources. Both the liturgical text (as much as we have of it) and the decoration of the synagogue reflect an amazing closeness to the world of the ancient rabbis" (177). Although rabbinic literature is crucial for understanding ancient Judaism, many scholars now believe that the rabbis were a relatively small and marginal group in late antiquity. Furthermore, before ancient synagogues came to light in the twentieth century, nothing in rabbinic literature hinted at the existence of their rich decorative programs filled with pagan images (including Helios and the zodiac cycle).

Fine criticizes scholars who do not allow for the possibility that these images could have had multiple meanings, depending on the viewer and the type of activity or liturgy that took place within the building. It seems to me that he wants to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand, Fine understands synagogue art in light of the liturgy performed within the buildings, thereby giving priority to a liturgical interpretation (which has been suggested by some scholars, including Gideon Foerster and Carl Kraeling) and not allowing for other possible interpretations. On the other hand, Fine's explanation of Helios and the zodiac cycle -- the most enigmatic and poorly understood motif in ancient synagogue art -- is so fuzzy that it is meaningless: "Zodiac images were projections of the 'dome of heaven' into the synagogue building. This dome contained within it a plethora of associations and meanings. Some were related to the proximity between the Divine and human realms that is expressed in prayer, others to astrological prognostication, others to the calendar, and still others to the generic significance of time within Jewish culture" (204). Fine does not add to our understanding of Helios and the zodiac cycle and provides no explanation of why six ancient Jewish communities chose to place this motif in the center of their synagogue buildings.

Although cloaked in postmodern jargon, Fine presents a traditional interpretation of ancient Jewish art viewed through the lens of rabbinic Judaism: "the synagogue in the Land of Israel became the primary institutional locus for the Rabbinic revitalization of Judaism after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. ... For the Rabbinic sages the synagogue became the sacred institution of zeman ha-zeh, the time between the Temple's destruction and its ultimate messianic reconstruction" (207). If we turn the postmodern lens on the author, perhaps we should not be surprised that an observant Jew from a yeshiva background has such a traditional understanding of ancient Judaism and Jewish art. Although I prefer a less rabbinocentric view, Fine's ability to use rabbinic literature and art historical data and methodology in an authoritative and critical manner is one of the great strengths of this volume. On the other hand, contrary to the volume's subtitle, there is no archaeology in this book. By this I mean there is no presentation or evaluation of primary archaeological evidence, no analysis of excavation reports, and no consideration of Jewish settlements and domestic remains (as opposed to monumental buildings, especially synagogues, and decorated objects). Fine focuses on art, not archaeology. He implicitly accepts the dating of monumental synagogue buildings in Palestine to the Byzantine period (fourth to sixth centuries, based largely on my work), but does not mention the controversies surrounding this chronology.

Despite my points of disagreement and criticism, this is a rich and important work that will be central to all future discussions of ancient Jewish art and Judaism. Fine demonstrates that ancient Jewish art must be understood within the context of the Greco-Roman world as well as from the perspective of the history of art, and not marginalized as it has been in the past.

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