Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.12.20

Alexei Sivertsev, Judaism and Imperial Ideology in Late Antiquity.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. viii, 247.  ISBN 9781107009080.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, Utrecht, The Netherlands (

This fascinating book explores the influence of Roman imperial ideology on the development of messianic themes in Judaism of the fifth through the eighth centuries C.E.

Chapter 1 explores conceptual affinities between Byzantine imperial eschatology and eschatological motifs in rabbinic literature. The author shows that Jews developed their own supersessionist narrative that both internalized and inverted a traditional Christian Roman supersessionism (i.e., ‘the Church has replaced Israel’). “Jews were merely taking back what was originally theirs. The messianic kingdom of Israel was the restoration of the original Davidic kingdom that alone could be the true holder of sacred statehood" (13). However, the Jewish texts do not envision this messianic kingdom as a renovatio imperii Romani (as the Christians did), but rather as its replacement. Israel takes the place of Rome as the last world empire destined to rule forever. In this way, Byzantine Judaism actively engaged the supersessionist narrative of contemporaneous Byzantine Christianity. The idea that the messianic kingdom would grow out of the Roman Empire enjoyed popularity among Jews, as it is attested not only in rabbinical Bible commentaries but also in synagogal liturgical poetry.

In chapter 2, Sivertsev focuses on a particular eschatological scenario preserved in a seventh-century rabbinic work entitled ‘The Signs of the Messiah’ and analyzes its Byzantine ideological context. He argues that there are obvious similarities between the Christian and the Jewish legend of the last Roman emperor: “In both versions of the legend, the last Roman emperor establishes his headquarters in Jerusalem and spends some time there before carrying out the ritualized act of relinquishing his royal powers. In both cases, he relinquishes them by taking a royal diadem off his head and placing it either on the cross on Golgotha where Jesus was crucified or on the foundation stone in the Temple” (55). As a result, in the Jewish version the Messiah thus becomes the legitimate successor of the last Roman emperor.

Chapter 3 focuses on the motif of the mother of the Messiah, Hephzibah, as she is called in the seventh-century ‘Book of Zerubabel’, in comparison with the role of the virgin Mary in Byzantine imperial ideology. Among other things, Hephzibah is part of a narrative that portrays Jerusalem as the true Constantinople that realizes and fulfills the sacred destiny of its predecessor. Sivertsev argues, e.g., that Hephzibah is depicted as the Tyche of Jerusalem just as the Theotokos was that of Constantinople, and that the role of the staff of Moses, from which Hephzibah derives her supernatural power, is similar to and patterned upon that of the relics, especially the remains of the ‘True Cross,’ in contemporaneous Byzantine literature. Hephzibah armed with the staff of Moses and protecting the gates of Jerusalem is the Jewish version of the protective image of the remains of the True Cross and the icons of the Theotokos which were perceived as palladia that together guaranteed the safety of Constantinople. The lack of precedent for the figure of Hephzibah in earlier Jewish literature can be explained by a search for its roots in Byzantine literature.

Chapter 4 traces the applications of the renovatio imperii theme in Byzantine Jewish literature and argues, among other things, that in the story of the recovery of the Temple vessels, which envisions the messianic restoration of Jerusalem, the Messiah acts in a way that closely resembles the imperial promotion of Byzantium as the New Rome. “The Rebuilt Jerusalem, just like the New Rome, forms its identity around the relics of the past” (132). This Jewish narrative attributes political significance to the Temple relics. And for that reason the Messiah also claims for Jerusalem the status of the imperial center previously enjoyed by Rome/Byzantium.

Finally, in chapter 5 Sivertsev discusses the impact of early Byzantine ‘emperor mystique’ on the representations of the Messiah in Jewish eschatological writings. It is a long and complicated chapter of which I can highlight here only a few elements. In Byzantine imperial art, the enthroned emperor was an ageless, haloed figure exercising universal dominion that assimilated the imperial office to a divine prototype. Unlike most earlier Jewish literature, some Byzantine Jewish texts imagine the office of the Messiah in a very similar way. Functionally, both the office of the Messiah and that of the Emperor “reflected the same type of religio-political theory that emphasized the icon-like properties of earthly kingship and its exercise of power by participation in the divine archetype of universal rule” (173). It is for that reason that in Jewish liturgical poetry one finds a rather consistent application of biblical verses originally intended to describe the universal rule of God to the universal rule of the Davidic Messiah. In this framework Sivertsev offers a fascinating discussion of the mirror-like semblance of imperial churches and imperial palaces. The Messiah’s enthronement inside the Jerusalem Temple conveyed the same message as the Emperor’s enthronement inside the palace: "In both instances, the personality of the ruler was conjoined with the personality of his Creator to the effect that the two served to project joint presence and joint action that was both human and divine” (181). So the Messiah’s status as God’s eschatological co-ruler reenacts Byzantine court rituals. The book concludes with a bibliography and a (meager) index of subjects.

The author has provided us with a rich study of both early Byzantine imperial culture and early medieval Jewish messianism and eschatology. He is well at home in both fields and that combination yields fascinating cross-cultural insights. Even though some of his conclusions are bound to remain somewhat in the realm of speculation, the overall argumentative force of the book is impressive. The author might have taken more into account that not every classical philologist or Byzantologist is at home in Jewish literature. Terms like piyyut (liturgical poetry) and names such as Kebra Nagast are not familiar to everyone outside that field. And of course, Origen did not live in ‘the late third century’ (p. 14; he died around 250 CE)! But these quibbles aside, Sivertsen’s book is a very welcome addition to the slowly growing body of scholarly work on Byzantine Jewry.

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