Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.04.06

Klaus Bringmann, Geschichte der Juden im Altertum: Vom babylonischen Exil bis zur arabischen Eroberung.   Stuttgart:  Klett-Cotta, 2005.  Pp. 365.  ISBN 3-608-94138-X.  €32.00.  

Reviewed by Linda Zollschan (
Word count: 2176 words

Bringmann (henceforth B.) has produced an ambitious narrative history for the general reader or undergraduate student that covers the history of the Jews from the sixth century BCE to the seventh century CE. For German-speaking readers, this volume is welcome, as the 1983 work by Peter Schäfer, Geschichte der Juden in der Antike: Die Juden Palästinas von Alexander dem Grossen bis zur arabischen Eroberung is by the author's own admission out of date.1 In writing a new treatment, B's work differs from the former on two accounts. Firstly, B. believes that Jewish history should begin not with the Hellenistic period but with the Persian period. Secondly, B. weaves into his narrative a discussion of the origins of anti-Judaism that differs from that of Schäfer.2

In his foreword, B. explains the title of his work. The history of the Jews in antiquity is not the same as the history of ancient Israel. The latter covers the period until the end of the First Temple period, while the former starts in 538 BC with the return from exile in Babylonia (p. 7).

In a work of this scope the historian faces several challenges: how to deal with areas that have generated controversy as well as much scholarship over three centuries, in some cases, and how to compile a bibliography that will guide the novice but interested reader. In his preface (p. 9) B. is quite frank about his approach. He states that he does not deal with a "critical overview of the endless oceans of research problems that would lock up" his narrative. He refers his reader to the bibliography. The reader should be forewarned that this book contains no footnotes.

In the introduction, (pp. 11-17) B. gives a pocket history of Israel down to 582 BCE. Here he introduces a key concept that runs through the book: he suggests that the autonomy the Jews enjoyed under the Persians which permitted the preservation of their identity and religious way of life was a "vertikale Bündnis," a term used in modern European politics that he does not define (pp. 12-13). By "vertikale Bündnis" I presume he refers to an alliance that is not a confederation but a relationship of interdependence in a decentralized structure that guarantees independence. This is an unusual term for referring to relationships with a central power in antiquity. B. considers that there were two crises in Jewish history that resulted from the breakdown of this "vertikale Bündnis," namely, the Maccabaean revolt and the First Jewish Revolt of 66 CE. (pp. 13-14) B. contends that Rome was generous in recognizing Jewish autonomy and the Romans repeatedly forced Greek communities to respect Jewish privileges. The relationship broke down because the Romans misunderstood the religious way of life of the Jews and because of the rise of Jewish Messianism (pp. 14-15).

Chapter 1, "The Establishment of Religious Way of Life under Persian Rule (538-332 BC)," describes the establishment of religious autonomy under the Persian Kings with B.'s use of Peter Frei's work; but, without footnotes, unless one is familiar with Frei's thesis one would not know.3 In essence, the Persians authorized local law and upheld it and for the Jews their local law was the Torah (pp. 41-42). In this chapter, B. makes his first reference to anti-Judaism, which he blames on the exclusivity of Judaism (p.47).

In Chapter 2, "The Encounter with the Greeks (332-163 BC)," B. discusses Greek writers' perceptions of Jews and the Greek view that Moses was a lawgiver similar to Lycurgus (pp. 66-68). He treats the importance of Judaea for the Ptolemaic economy (pp. 76-77) and the privileged position of the Jews in Alexandria. Continuing his theme of the recognition of local law, B. explains that Jewish autonomy was based on the Ptolemies' codification and recognition of Jewish Law through the translation into Greek of the Torah, known as the Septuagint (p. 91). These ideas are best known through the work of Modrzejewski, who is not mentioned in the bibliography.4 When Jerusalem was captured by Antiochus III, religious privileges for the Temple were granted (Joseph., AJ 12.138-144, which B. quotes in a German translation). B. describes how the burden of tribute payments demanded by the treaty of Apamea fell to Seleucus IV who resorted to plundering the Temple in Jerusalem (pp. 102-103). This view is disputed by S. Sherwin-White and A. Kuhrt who consider that the wealth of the Seleucid empire was able to withstand the demands of the Treaty of Apamea.5 B. then treats the rise of Antiochus IV, the Hellenistic reforms in Jerusalem and the causes of the Maccabaean revolt.

In Chapter 3, "The Hasmonaeans," B. writes of the revolt as a struggle for "Selbstbehauptung" (self-determination). Judas Maccabaeus' initiative in turning to Rome for help resulted in a "Bündnisvertrag" or "treaty of alliance," according to B. (p. 125). One must question B's use of terminology in the field of Roman international relations (Völkerrecht). First, the Romans did not use the term "treaty of alliance;" there was a treaty (foedus) or alliance (societas) with or without a treaty.6 Whether the Jews received a treaty from Rome has been a subject of much controversy since the seventeenth century. (For the history of scholarship on this subject, see M. Stern, "The Treaty between Judaea and Rome in 161 BCE" Zion 51, 1986, pp. 3-28 [in Hebrew].) B. rather hedges his bets on this question. On p. 125 he refers to the agreement with Rome as a Bündnisvertrag, on p. 124 as a Vertrag (treaty, foedus) and on p. 125 as a Bundesgenossenschaft (mutual defense league, societas). B. does not present a resolution between these three different concepts. Different types of relations with Rome carried different obligations so it is important to distinguish precisely between a treaty and some other type of diplomatic instrument. The proper identification of the type of diplomacy formed in 161 BCE is crucial to our understanding of the subsequent treatment of the Jews at the hands of the Romans.7 B. correctly interprets Demetrius' military action against Timarchus in Media and Judas Maccabaeus in Judaea (both allies of Rome) as a test to see whether the Romans were ready to make war on the Seleucids (p. 125). He believes that the Romans only acted when their own interests were at stake and that to them Judaea was insignificant. On p. 137, B. returns to his discussion of anti-Judaism, which he attributes to the Hasmonaean expansion of Israel's borders and the inclusion in the Hasmonaean state of pagans who were forced to convert to Judaism or were expelled from Israel.

In Chapter 4, "The Jews under Roman Rule (63 BC-AD 135)" B. deals with the end of independence (Unabhängigkeit). Here I must mention the loose terminology used by B. Although B. uses several terms (independence, autonomy, and self-determination), he nowhere defines each one or explains the crucial difference between them. In antiquity the words "freedom" and "autonomy" had differing meanings in different periods.8 In his narrative of the conquest of Judaea by Pompey and its incorporation into the province of Syria, B. weaves details from Roman history which as the author of many books on Roman history he is well qualified to do and this is one of the strengths of the book.9 After an account of Hyrcanus and Herod, B. inserts an excursus on the life of Jesus and the birth of Christianity (pp. 210-215). His discussion of the revolt in the Diaspora under Trajan (pp.265-272) follows Eusebius' account too closely; more recent research places the start of the revolt in Mesopotamia in 116 CE and not in Egypt in 115 CE.10 The section on the Bar Kochva revolt (for which Cassius Dio is the only literary account) is richly illustrated with coins and papyri that form the bulk of our evidence (pp. 272-274).

In Chapter 5, "New Beginnings and New Challenges (135-640 CE)," B. treats the dilemma of the Jews as a people without a state and the status of the Jews and their privileges in the cities of Antioch and Alexandria (pp. 293-294). Within Israel, he discusses the position of synagogue and Sanhedrin as well as the situation in the Galilee; in particular, Beit Shearim and Tiberias (pp. 295-297). The synagogue at Dura Europos on the Euphrates is mentioned on p. 297 but it is a puzzle why all six of the colour illustrations in the book are devoted to this synagogue. B. notes the changes in status for the Jews when all members of the Roman Empire were granted Roman citizenship in 212 CE (p. 299). With the adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire came the rise of Christian anti-Semitism in the form of the charge of "Gottesmörder" (murder of god) (p. 303) and replacement theology. This chapter is written from the Roman point of view and B. cites Roman legal codes to show the status of the Jews in the late Roman Empire (pp. 305-310). B., the author of a book on Julian, devotes pp. 316-317 to an important episode that, but for the death of the emperor, could have changed the direction of Jewish history if Julian's decision to permit the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem had been implemented.11 For this period of Jewish history it is difficult to write because of the lack of evidence and source material for the Rabbinic period. B. closes this chapter with the rise of Islam and the Arab conquest of Israel.

In Chapter 6, entitled, "An Assessment and Prospects for the Future," B. has unwisely, in my view, included an essay on the rise of the modern state of Israel which he sees as a response to the failure of emancipation, the absorption of the Diaspora in the nation states formed after the French revolution and the rise of racist anti-Semitism in the nineteenth century to "the attempt of the complete physical annihilation of Judaism" (p. 325). This is a strange mode of expression for the deaths of millions of Jewish people in the Nazi concentration camps. B. ends on a pessimistic note hoping that the state of Israel today will not perish in a catastrophe as did the Israel of the Second Temple.

This volume assembles an impressive amount of detail between its covers in what proves to be a very depressing read. B's narrative moves from one catastrophe to another. The Jews are seldom portrayed as the only people to have resisted the military might of Rome and its temptation to assimilate. B's decision to give a history from the point of view of the non-Jews has robbed Jewish history of its unique character. Moreover, with the inclusion of a history of anti-Semitism, a history of Jesus, and references to debates on Christian theology this volume speaks to a European audience. This perspective may be seen also in the use of "vertikale Bündnis" to characterize the relationship of the Jews with imperial powers as well as his pessimistic outlook on the prospects of the state of Israel today.

The book is generally well illustrated but there is a mistake in the placement of a coin from 222-235 CE on page 94 in the midst of a discussion of Antiochus II in 222 BCE. Also a picture on p. 286 of the Western Wall (the "Wailing Wall" is a term not in use today in Israel) really should be labeled with the date, since it is from the 19th century and could give the reader the mistaken impression that this depicts Jewish worship at the Western Wall today.

B. provides an annotated bibliography which is very limited and, in some cases, is dependent upon a single work that does not reflect the most recent scholarship. By contrast the bibliography in Schäfer's history covers 26 pages. Some surprising omissions are:

S. Japp, Die Baupolitik Herodes des Grossen: die Bedeutung der Architektur für die Herrschaftslegitimation eines römischen Klientelkönigs, 2000.

A.M. Berlin and J.A. Overmann, eds., The First Jewish Revolt, Routledge, London, 2002.

M. Goodman, "Trajan and the Origins of the Bar Kokhba War" in The Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered; New Perspectives on the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome, ed. P. Schäfer, Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2003, pp. 23-29.

J.R. Bartlett, ed., Jews in the Hellenistic and Roman Cities, Routledge, New York, 2002.

E.S. Gruen, Diaspora: Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2002.

A. Oppenheimer et al., eds., Jews and Gentiles in the Holy Land in the Days of the Second Temple, the Mishna and the Talmud, Jerusalem, Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2003.

If I had to recommend a single volume for the general reader, this would not be my choice. The tone and philosophy behind B's treatment create a misleading impression of Jewish history. For undergraduates, I would recommend two or more works rather than a one volume history. B's work was written for the European market and does not travel well, for example, to the USA. A more serious deficiency is that B. does not appear to have made use of the most recent research and especially of research coming out of Israel.


1.   P. Schäfer, The History of the Jews in the Greco-Roman World: The Jews of Palestine from Alexander the Great to the Arab Conquest, rev. ed., Routledge, London 2003, p. xv.
2.   P. Schäfer, Judeophobia: Attitudes Towards the Jews in the Ancient World, Harvard University Press, 1998.
3.   P. Frei, "Zentralgewalt und Lokal-autonomie im Achämenidreich" in Reichsidee und reichsorganisation im Perserreich, eds. P. Frei and K. Koch, Göttingen 1984. English translation in Persia and Torah: The Theory of Imperial Authorization of the Pentateuch, ed. J.W. Watts,, Atlanta GA 2001 (a volume which contains contributions from supporters and opponents of Frei's thesis).
4.   J.M. Modrzejewski, The Jews of Egypt from Ramses II to Emperor Hadrian, Trans. R. Cornman, Jewish Publication Society, 1995; and more particularly J.M. Modrzejewski, "Law and Justice in Ptolemaic Egypt" in Legal Documents of the Hellenistic World, ed. M.J. Geller and H. Maehler, The Warburg Institute, University of London, 1995, pp. 1-11 and J.M. Modrzejewski. "Jewish Law and Hellenistic Legal Practice in the Light of Greek Papyri from Egypt" in An Introduction to the History and Sources of Jewish Law, eds. N.S. Hecht et al., Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996, pp. 75-99.
5.  Susan Sherwin-White and Amélie Kuhrt, From Samarkhand to Sardis: A New Approach to the Seleucid Empire, University of California Press, 1993.
6.   That there could be societas without a treaty was the contribution of D. Kienast in his "Entstehung und Aufbau des römischen Reiches" Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte. Romanistische Abteilung 85, 1968, pp. 330-367.
7.   See L.T. Zollschan, "Roman Diplomacy and the Jewish Embassy of 161 BCE," Ph.D. Diss., Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beersheva, 2005 and "Justinus 36.3.9 and Roman-Judaean Diplomatic Relations in 161 BCE" forthcoming in Athenaeum.
8.   A small sample of the literature would include: C.B. Welles, "Greek Liberty," Journal of Juristic Papyrology 15, 1965, pp. 29-47; M. Ostwald, Autonomia: Its Genesis and Early History, Scholars Press, 1982; E. Levy, "Autonomia et Eleutheria au Ve siecle," Rev. Ph. 57, 1983, pp. 249-270; M.H. Hansen, "The 'Autonomous City-State': Ancient fact or modern fiction?" in Studies in the Ancient Greek Polis, Stuttgart, 1995, pp. 21-43.
9.   Römische Geschichte, Beck, München 1998; Krise und Ende der römischen Republik (133-42 v. Chr.), Berlin, 2003; Geschichte der römischen Republik, Beck, München 2002; Augustus und die Begründung des römischen Kaisertums, Berlin, 2002.
10.   B's only reference in the bibliography is to A. Fuks, "Aspects of the Jewish Revolt in A.D. 115-117", JRS 51, 1961, 98-104. See M. Pucci Ben Zeev, Diaspora Judaism in Turmoil, 116/117 CE: Ancient Sources and Modern Insights, Peeters, Leuven, 2005; also M. Pucci, La rivolta Ebraica al tempo di Traiano, Pisa, 1981.
11.   Kaiser Julian, Darmstadt, 2004.

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