Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.11.42

Görge K. Hasselhoff, Meret Strothmann (ed.), "Religio licita?": Rom und die Juden. Studia Judaica, 84.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2017.  Pp. viii, 230.  ISBN 9783110406559.  $126.00.  

Reviewed by Arco den Heijer, Theological University Kampen (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume results from two conferences held in Bochum in 2012 and 2013 on, respectively, the thesis of a split Jewish diaspora posited by Doron Mendels and Arye Edrei, and the privileges accorded to the Jews/Judeans by the Romans. The list of contributions included below shows, however, the wide range of themes discussed in the book, which is better covered by the book’s subtitle (Rome and the Jews, broadly understood) than by its title. Indeed, the term religio licita is discussed only in the introductory first chapter by the editors, who point out that the term is an ad hoc coinage of Tertullian (Apologeticum 21,1) without any legal status. Nevertheless, the term is used uncritically in several essays, in one case even in reference to a decree from the Codex Theodosianus that turns out not to use the term at all (p. 68, referring to Cod. Theod. 16.8.9).

The introductory chapter situates the book within a number of scholarly debates: the debate on Jewish or Judean identity within the Mediterranean world (is it primarily ethnic or primarily religious, or does it evolve from the one into the other?), the debate on the legal status of the Judeans within the Roman empire and the question how conflictual the relationship between Judeans and other inhabitants of the Roman empire was on a social level. Scholars generally acknowledge the relatively large degree of freedom accorded in a number of decrees to Judeans to live according to their ancestral customs,1 but disagree about the extent to which they could actually participate in Greco-Roman society without getting involved in various kinds of cultural conflict.2

This volume contributes to these debates by collecting a number of essays by leading scholars in the field. The strengths of the book are its detailed attention to the ancient sources and its wide chronological and geographical scope, ranging from the speeches of Cicero to the Judean community of Cologne in the fourth century. However, the book as a whole fails to move forward on the debates mentioned above, both because a number of the contributors have already presented their views in more detail in earlier publications and because the book lacks a concluding chapter that could bring the various contributions together to answer the questions posed in the introduction. Still, the quality of the individual papers is generally high in its argumentative strength and adequate use of the evidence. I cannot discuss all papers in detail, but will highlight some of them.

After the short introductory chapter, the book opens with an excellent contribution by Benedikt Eckhardt. Eckhardt positions his contribution within the ongoing debate on the meaning of Ἰουδαῖος / Iudaeus and asks whether the privileges that the Romans granted to the Ἰουδαῖοι were given to them as a people (‘Judeans’) or as a religion (‘Jews’). He begins by emphasizing the regional connotations of ἔθνος (to be distinguished from the modern concept of ethnicity) and the connection between ‘ancestral customs’ (πάτρια ἔθη) and the idea of a home country (πατρίς). Wherever Romans allow Judeans in the cities of the Roman empire to live according to these customs, this does not imply an interest in their religion, but grants them the right to live and gather as diaspora communities according to the rules of their homeland, including the observance of their ancestral cult. Still, Eckhardt points out that the privileges of Judeans were unusual in comparison with other diaspora communities in view of their wide-ranging consequences. Thus, the groups of Judeans were a challenge to the customary understanding of diaspora communities, but did not lead the Romans to consider them in a different framework. The diaspora groups were organized as associations that can be compared with associations of Syrian or Phoenician diaspora communities. Romans categorized Iudaei essentially on an ethnic basis, even if Eckhardt is keen to emphasize that ethnic groups could be identified to a large extent by their religious practices. Only in the second and third centuries did they begin to be conceptualized more as a religion. Daniel Boyarin and Steve Mason have explained this as due to the influence of Christianity and the ‘invention’ of religion by the Christian apologists, but Eckhardt rightly regards this as only one factor among others. Eckhardt’s position in the debate on Jewishness/Judeanness stands out for its nuance and precision. Moreover, he makes clear that the dichotomy ‘people’ or ‘religion’ can have heuristic value even if the two are in reality always connected and ‘religion’ as a separate cultural domain did not exist in antiquity.

Less convincing is the argument of Ernst Baltrusch, who invokes the concept of the “arts of the weak” from postcolonial theory to argue that Josephus' historiographical project was a response to the destruction of the temple and a plea for an equal status of Jews in the Roman empire. He pictures Judaism after the destruction of the temple as being on the verge of extinction and in need of strategies for survival, and argues that Josephus utilizes the historiographical discourse of the dominant power to assert the cultural superiority of the Jews, extolling the beauty of the temple and taking pride in his Jewish education. However, although Josephus is unmistakably fond of his cultural background, his apologetic historiography continues a long tradition of Hellenistic Jewish literature and cannot, therefore, be explained purely as a response to the allegedly desperate situation of Judaism after 70 CE.

Two essays focus on the Flavian emperors and the fiscus Iudaicus. Christopher Weikert highlights the role of the Judean war as “Gründungsmythos der flavischen Dynastie” (p. 174) but also emphasizes that the Flavian emperors continued the policy of the Julio-Claudian dynasty with regard to Jewish privileges. He interprets the fiscus Iudaicus in the context of Vespasian’s desperate need of financial resources. As for Domitian, Weikert argues plausibly that he used the victory over Judea in his propaganda mainly in order to emphasize his dynastic connection to Vespasian and Titus.

Rather more problematic is the next essay, by Sven Günther, which is dedicated entirely to the fiscus Iudaicus and sets out to replace earlier “hypothetical constructs” in scholarship with a “new, source-based view” (p. 175). He states that the Jewish Tax (the two denarii of the Jews collected by Vespasian in rededication of the former temple tax) should not be equated with the fiscus Iudaicus. According to Günther, the fiscus Iudaicus was instituted by Vespasian in connection with the constitution of Judaea as an independent province around 70 CE, and the two denarii of the former temple tax were made to flow into this new treasury. This is, indeed, clarifying. However, when Günther concludes that “most likely, the fiscus Iudaicus was a department of the imperatorial financial administration led by the a rationibus to coordinate and administrate the Jewish Tax” (p. 189), he leaves me confused. fiscus as an administrative department is, at best, another hypothetical construct, and at worst, in clear conflict with the sources; when Suetonius writes, Iudaicus fiscus acerbissime actus est (Suet. Dom. 12.2), fiscus can only refer to revenues which are collected, not to a department which collects.

Finally, Werner Eck directs the focus to the northwestern corner of the empire with an investigation of the position of Jews in Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (Cologne). From a Constantinian decree (Codex Theodosianus 16.8.3) that allows the decuriones of Cologne to summon Jews to a function in the curia, he deduces through detailed contextualization that there must have been a considerable Jewish community in Cologne and that some of its members were rich enough to fulfill a function in the city council. Until the date of the decree (321 CE) Jews were apparently exempted from this duty because it would necessitate their involvement in pagan rituals. With Constantine’s endorsement of Christianity, both Christians and Jews were no longer requested to perform these rituals as part of a public office. The decree provides an interesting window into Jewish life in an area of the Roman empire for which there are otherwise no indications of Jewish presence.

In sum, the book brings together a number of good essays on Jewish-Roman interaction in various regions and periods, but lacks both interaction among contributions and a clearly defined theme or conclusion that would have added significantly to existing scholarship. Moreover, the book has a number of typos which should not be allowed at this price. Still, anyone working on any of the topics discussed in the book might want to consult it in their library.

Authors and Titles

Religio licita – Rom und die Juden (Görge K. Hasselhoff and Meret Strothmann)
Rom und die Juden – ein Kategorienfehler? Zur römischen Sicht auf die Iudaei in später Republik und frühem Prinzipat (Benedikt Eckhardt)
Der rechtliche Status der Juden im römischen Reich. Tradition und Wandel in der römischen Judengesetzgebung vom 2. Jahrhundert v.u.Z. bis zum 6. Jahrhundert u.Z. Mit einem Exkurs zur These von Doron Mendels und Arye Edrei über „Zweierlei Diaspora“ (Karl Leo Noethlichs)
Vertragen sich Sonne und Mond? Überlegungen zum Kalender als politisches Instrumentarium bei Römern und Juden (Mereth Strothmann)
The Myth of Cicero’s Anti-Judaism (Miriam Ben Zeev)
„Kein Stein auf dem anderen“ (Mk 13, 2). Josephus, der Tempel und das historiographische Konzept (Ernst Baltrusch)
Nach der Tempelzerstörung. Die gens Flavia und die Juden (Christopher Weikert)
The Fiscus Iudaicus. A Hypothetical Scholarly Construct (Sven Günther)
Wie zuverlässig ist Euseb, Kirchengeschichte IV, 1-6? (Görge K. Hasselhoff)
Die Teilnahme von Juden am politisch-administrativem Leben der Selbstverwaltungsgemeinden im Westen des römischen Reiches und der Konstantinische Erlass von 321 für die CCAA (= Köln) (Werner Eck)


1.   See especially Miriam Pucci Ben Zeev,Jewish Rights in the Roman World: The Greek and Roman Documents Quoted by Josephus Flavius, (Tübingen 1998) and Erich S. Gruen, Diaspora. Jews amidst Greeks and Romans, (Cambridge 2002).
2.   E.g., Philip A. Harland, Associations, synagogues, and congregations: claiming a place in ancient Mediterranean society, (Minneapolis 2013) emphasizes the integration of Judean diaspora communities within the structure of Mediterranean society, whereas Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem. The Clash of Ancient Civilizations, (London 2007) emphasizes the role of Rome’s victory over Judaea in imperial propaganda and its negative implications for the social position of Judean culture after 70 CE.

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