Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.07.27 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.07.27

Krystyna Stebnicka, Identity of the Diaspora: Jews in Asia Minor in the Imperial Period. JJP Supplement, 26.   Warszawa:  Journal of Juristic Papyrology, 2015.  Pp. xi, 380.  ISBN 9788393842568.  €60.00.  

Reviewed by Søren Lund​ Sørensen​, Freie Universität Berlin​ (

Table of Contents

The book under review is a translation of Krystyna Stebnicka’s work published in Polish in 2011.

In the introduction (3-13) Stebnicka concisely addresses the issue of sources. No preserved literary texts can with certainty be said to have been written by Jews of Asia Minor, and the scholar is thus heavily reliant on non-literary texts, i.e. the many inscriptions collected in IJO II.1 Ameling’s corpus, Paul Trebilco’s monograph on Jews in Asia Minor 2 and more recent studies have shown how different the Jewish communities were in the various diasporas. This, then, serves to justify the present study, which seeks to ask questions concerning Jewish identity in the diaspora of Asia Minor.

Chapter 1, Jews in Asia Minor in the literary sources (15-42), assesses our knowledge of the Jews in Asia Minor on the basis of pagan literary sources. For the Hellenistic period our knowledge is scarce, and it is only somewhat better for the Roman period. The historian needs to turn to Josephus, the New Testament and later Christian sources for literary texts on Jews in Asia Minor. When attempting to describe the experience of the diaspora it is necessary to resort to analogies provided by Jews in other parts of the Roman empire. According to Stebnicka, the translators of the Hebrew Bible, Philo and Josephus present an image of the diaspora not as a place of exile but as a home in a colony originally sent out from a metropolis. Having established by analogy that this was also the case for Asia Minor Stebnicka can proceed to describe exactly this diaspora.

Chapter 2, Jewish institutions in the Greek cities of Asia Minor (43-108), commences with a discussion of the various terms used to describe the synagogue as a structure as well as a community. This is followed by an assessment of scholarly positions on the layout and purpose of the synagogue, which are to a large extent based on our knowledge of synagogues in Palestine. For Stebnicka none of this is, however, as important as the question of how Jews of antiquity perceived the synagogue building. On the basis of the prominent place of the Torah shrine in the building, Stebnicka infers that the users of the synagogue regarded the building as a sacred place (46). The question remains whether this idea only came into being after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Stebnicka goes on to discuss the various offices connected to the Jewish communities, e.g. archisynagogos, presbyteros, archon, providing a useful table of which offices are attested in which diasporas (61). While almost nothing can be known for sure about most of these offices, Stebnicka takes a firm stand for a political and liturgical function of the archisynagogos (62-67), drawing largely on the New Testament, thereby disagreeing with Noy and Rajak, who claimed that the archisynagogos was an honorary title given to a “patronal figure”.3 Even less is known about the female offices among the Jewish communities in the diaspora but Stebnicka devotes a large part (81-94) of chapter 2 to discussing these and the role of Jewish women in Asia Minor. The offices held by them should be seen as the female counterparts to those previously discussed. According to Stebnicka, the number of prominent women is relatively higher in Asia Minor than in other diasporas. This compares well with the many examples of women holding prominent civic and regional offices in Asia Minor. In general, the offices of the Jewish communities in Asia Minor are modelled on those of the polis and the provincial assemblies. The image of Jewish women in the diaspora is, thus, different from that found in the rabbinical writings (93-94). Next, Stebnicka addresses the so-called godfearers and argues that the φοβούμενοι τὸν θεόν and σεβόμενοι τὸν θεόν of the New Testament are identical to the θεοσεβεῖς, which referred to “pagans connected to the synagogue” (101). Apart from the New Testament the major source for this group remains the inscription from Aphrodisias = IJO II 14. Although θεοσεβεῖς was a technical term, Stebnicka cautions against seeing these as a homogenous group. All that can be stated with any certainty is that they were not members of the Jewish communities (107).

Chapter 3, Jewish identity in the diaspora of Asia Minor in the early imperial period (109-157), commences with a discussion of the meaning of Ἰουδαῖος. Stebnicka agrees with the work of Shaye Cohen4 that Ἰουδαῖος underwent a development from a word originally designating an ethnos to a term indicating membership of the Hasmonean commonwealth. Eventually, Ἰουδαῖος is used only as a marker for a religious relationship (109). Unfortunately, the important study of Steve Mason5 on the term Ἰουδαῖος is missing from the discussion as well as from the bibliography. The above-mentioned development can be discerned for the Jews of Asia Minor, and in the period before the destruction of the temple, relations with Palestine are reflected in the collection and sending of the temple tax as well as pilgrimage to Jerusalem. These ties to Palestine were, for Stebnicka, severed after 70, and the issue of the fiscus Iudaicus is instructive (129-131). The definition of who was liable to the tax changed over time, but according to Cassius Dio (66.7.2/37.16.5-17.1) it will only have pertained to those who followed the ancestral customs of the Jews. The fiscus Iudaicus now came to be connected with practices, and not necessarily identity, and perhaps Jews “could not leave their ethnos, but could leave their communities” (131). Henceforth, Ἰουδαῖος implied membership of the Jewish community, which included proselytes, and the plural Ἰουδαῖοι would designate the entire Jewish community within a city. Further proof of the non-ethnic meaning of Ἰουδαῖος is found in an inscription (IJO II 40) referring to οἱ ποτὲ Ἰουδαῖοι. According to Stebnicka, the words refer not so much to apostasy but rather to leaving the Jewish community (150).

In chapter 4, Hebraioi: Jews in the diaspora of Asia Minor in late antiquity (159-214), Stebnicka examines the emergence from the end of the third century of Biblical terminology in the epigraphy of Asia Minor. One of these terms, Hebraios, is never used pejoratively in the literary sources and will therefore have been chosen for inscriptions, since it was a broader term not expressing affiliation with any local institutionalised religious community (162-3). It is, however, not quite certain whether Stebnicka thinks that Hebraios was also used in opposition to Christians. Together with the emergence of the word Hebraios one encounters markedly Jewish symbols, e.g. the menorah, particularly but not exclusively in funerary inscriptions (163-9). The rising number of Hebrew phrases added to the epitaphs in the same period should, however, not necessarily be seen as indicating a renewed knowledge of Hebrew as a spoken language. In a discussion of the long list of Jewish names in the inscription from Aphrodisias, Stebnicka notes an increasing tendency towards Biblical names from the third/fourth centuries on. This leads her to provide a list of Biblical names in the epigraphy of the various diasporas commenting on the use of these names in the Septuagint, Josephus, Philo and other sources. In addition, Stebnicka provides a useful list in chronological order of names given to children by their fathers, which indicates that fathers carrying Semitic names would in turn give Semitic names to their children. A number of epitaphs from Asia Minor carry incantations from the Bible (Deuteronomy). Although not many, this phenomenon is seen by Stebnicka to indicate an increased interest in the (later) translation(s) of the Hebrew Bible and may even be connected to renewed contacts with Palestine.

In chapter 5, Palestine and the Diaspora in late antiquity – ‘The turning point’ of the fourth century (215-264), Stebnicka documents the increasing influence of the Jewish patriarch (nasi) that may be observed in the diaspora among other things through Roman decrees and laws issued in the fourth and early fifth centuries concerning the collection of taxes in the diaspora. A further indication of the improved relations between the diaspora and Palestine is the desire of Jews of the diaspora to be buried (or reburied) in Palestine, most notably in Beth She’arim (247-248). Once more Stebnicka returns to the inscription from Aphrodisias in order to elucidate rabbinical influences. What follows is a long and very detailed discussion of the words patella and plethos (250-263), culminating in the supposition that the acts of charity mentioned in the inscription were inspired by the rabbinical movement in Palestine.

Stebnicka commences the concluding part of her book (265-281) by vaguely stating that on the basis of the “[v]ariety and relative abundance of sources concerning the life of the Jewish communities in Asia Minor” we can infer that the communities underwent changes, and the identity of their members may have changed accordingly (265). Rather than summing up the results of her book she proceeds to discuss possible Jewish involvement in civic institutions and Jewish influence on the cities, e.g. in the cases of Apamea Kibotos and the synagogue of Iulia Severa in Akmonia. These are isolated examples, and Stebnicka concludes by declaring that “[t]he Jewish communities, synagogai ton Ioudaion, did not take part in the life of their poleis and did not give money for the public benefit” (279).

In two appendices Stebnicka provides lists of the synagogue buildings in Asia Minor known to us (283-317) as well as all references to Samaritans in Asia Minor (319-323). The former list is highly useful with its bibliography and commentary, while the latter is somewhat odd taking into consideration that the Samaritans play no part in Stebnicka’s book.

Stebnicka’s thorough study is interesting and her conclusions are mostly convincing. No doubt chapter 3, arguing that in the Roman period Ἰουδαῖος indicated little more than membership in a Jewish community, is provocative, though Stebnicka is not the only scholar to propose this idea. In general, Stebnicka’s arguments are well presented and based on a thorough knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew as well as the secondary literature in numerous languages. The chapters are not all equally linked, and especially chapter 1 is left hanging in the air.

For a book carrying the title Identity of the Diaspora it is surprisingly poor in theoretical literature. References are given to, e.g. Hall’s and Barclay’s studies on the ancient world and Jews in particular,6 but apart from these only Anthony Smith and the omnipresent “imagined communities” of Benedict Anderson are mentioned (112-114). While this may seem disappointing to some, especially those engaged with such theoretical literature, it will be a relief to others. Although Stebnicka does not pay much attention to theoretical literature, she has no difficulty in successfully discussing Jewish identity in the diaspora.

Stebnicka’s book includes no references to secondary literature after 2011, but it is nonetheless an important work, which should be read by everyone interested in the Jewish communities of Asia Minor. We are fortunate that this work has been translated into English so as to become available to a larger readership, and only minor details obstruct the English of the book (at least 25 redundant uses of the definite article: e.g. the antiquity, the Judaism, the Nero and one example of Polish left untranslated (49 note 12).


1.   Ameling, W. Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis II: Kleinasien. Tübingen 2004.
2.   Trebilco, P. Jewish communities in Asia Minor. Cambridge 1991.
3.   Rajak, T. and D. Noy. “Archisynagogoi: Office, title and social status in the Greco-Jewish synagogue.” JRS 83 (1993): 88-89.
4.   Cohen, S.D.J. The beginnings of Jewishness.. Berkeley 1999.
5.   Mason, S. “Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of categorization in ancient history.” JSJ 38 (2007): 457-512.
6.   Hall, J.M. Ethnic identity in Greek Antiquity. Cambridge 1997; Barclay, J.M.G. Jews in the Mediterranean diaspora. Berkeley 1996. ​

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