Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.03.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.03.03

Yair Furstenberg (ed.), Jewish and Christian Communal Identities in the Roman World. Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, 94.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2016.  Pp. xi, 286.  ISBN 9789004321212.  $149.00.  


Reviewed by Bradley J. Bitner, Oak Hill College (bradb@oakhill.ac.uk)

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

This volume examines Jewish and Christian groups in the Mediterranean from roughly the mid-third century BCE to the third century CE and the strategies they employed to develop complex communal identities. It comprises revised papers presented in Jerusalem in October 2013 at the Hebrew University’s Scholion Center for Interdisciplinary Research in the Humanities and Jewish Studies. Twelve contributions bring literary and documentary texts, as well as theoretical frameworks, to bear on the topic.

Furstenberg acknowledges the “great diversity among the local synagogai and ekklesiai” and, as regards the volume, the diverse source materials and theoretical perspectives among the contributors, but he also suggests lines of coherence running through the essays. Chief among these are patterns of response to external factors and the resultant discourses these civic minorities used to negotiate their identities. Each essay in its own way demonstrates the interplay between the contexts of communal development or survival (geographical, socio-political and religious) and the varieties of communal strategies deployed.

Four sections structure the volume, each with essays from distinct perspectives. The chapters themselves are models of both close interaction with primary evidence and a deftness of fitting that evidence into a coherent historical portrait that contributes to—and often refines—larger narrative questions concerning early Jewish and Christian identities. In what follows, four representative essays—one from each of the four parts—are reviewed.

Sylvie Honigman’s contribution, the longest of the collection, charts the change in ‘Jewish identity’ in Egypt across the Ptolemaic and Roman eras. She delineates two phases spanning the late second century BCE to the second century CE with a transitional period running from 27 BCE to 41 CE. First, in the Ptolemaic period, ‘Judean’ was a subset of ‘Greek’ identity; they were not mutually exclusive. ‘Jewish identity’ was made visible, for example, by various indicia, particularly labels and personal names. By comparison to groups such as Thracians, a qualitative difference emerges in the Judean onomastic habits. Honigman argues that Hebrew personal names in Ptolemaic papyri do not simply evoke a ‘Jewish heritage’ but manifest specific ‘identity markers’. The very popular Sabbatios (not common in Judea) may point to the differentiating importance of Sabbath practice for the Judean community in Ptolemaic Egypt. The rising popularity of patriarchal names also signals a strategy for identity, which evokes a communal history, especially when juxtaposed with a similar increase in Homeric names among other Ptolemaic Greeks. ‘Other Greeks’ is an important concept because it highlights shared characteristics among ‘sub-group’ identities. Naming patterns, legal definitions, and sites of worship all evince identifiable markers demonstrating that “various ethnic groups of foreigners who immigrated to Egypt could identify themselves simultaneously as Greeks and Judeans, Thracians, and Cyreneans” (p. 58). In view of the evidence and the notion of ‘nested’ identities, Honigman concludes that the Judeans, thought identifiable as a distinct sub-group, were not viewed as an ethnic minority in this period. Once Egypt became a Roman province in 27 BCE there followed several decades of transition. An increased move toward local administration and formalization of communal social structures resulted in a new urban context and a shifting legal and ethnic framework for the Judean communities. Honigman sees the Flaccus crisis in 38 CE as a stimulus for further ‘redefinition of the Judean politeuma’. Philo, for example, reaches for a ‘Ptolemaic social ideology’ in his in Flaccum but finds that Roman law and administration force him to adapt: he can’t easily distinguish between Judeans and Greeks but begins to draw on the pattern of the Roman colonia to frame the Judean diaspora community. In the end, however, the Claudian settlement of 41 CE left the Judeans of Alexandria not as a politeuma but as an authorized cult. Thus began the slide into ‘minority status’ that continued from the creation of the fiscus Iudaicus in 71 CE into the early 2nd century. During this period, Honigman argues, the Judeans gradually become Jews and their collective identity becomes, on balance, more religious than ethnic.

This is a densely argued and helpful piece, drawing on an excellent range of documentary and literary evidence. There is a slight slippage between ‘identity’ as an external categorization and as self-definition, but the layers of methodological reflection and the complex and changing narrative is richly textured.

John Kloppenborg’s significant and nuanced contribution turns from Jews to Christians and from an ‘imperial’ to a ‘civic’ perspective. He wants to place 1st and 2nd century Christ groups within civic ‘landscapes’ by probing literary and epigraphical constructions of identity. Drawing on the ‘aliens and strangers’ motif which constructs the self or group as other, Kloppenborg wants to know whether this refers to legal status or whether these function as metaphors. He wonders what ‘political’ behaviour this designation suggests. Diognetus, in a well-known passage (Diognetus 5.1-6), connects the language of paroikoi and politai with distinctively Christian ethical practices (e.g., shunning child exposure). Kloppenborg sees this as a ‘posture toward life ... rather than [reflective of] one’s legal status” in a civic context (p. 95). Similarly, Hermas suggests a “social posture” as well as “certain concrete practices” (e.g., rejecting greed; benevolence to the poor). Paroikoi in 1 Peter signifies not ‘rural folk’ (per Elliott) but the ‘non-citizen status’ of freeborn or freedman. Kloppenborg corroborates this claim convincingly with epigraphical evidence, noting that in the inscriptions, although paroikoi were often part of public life, they were in a ‘tenuous’ or ‘estranged’ position and were distinct from douloi. When 1 Peter employs the language of paroikoi and parepidēmoi, there is a resultant irony because this discourse of alterity draws on mimetic modes of public participation. Kloppenborg contends that the forms of participation in public life displayed by these Christ groups differed to a degree from the larger population but that their discourse and practice was similar in important ways to civic associations and other groups participating in civic politeia.

Jörg Frey offers a methodological reflection related to both early Jewish and Christian communities. He revisits in summary fashion the fraught issues of reconstructing historical communities on the basis of literary texts. Mirror reading is a constant challenge and danger. The Pauline Corinthian correspondence highlights the importance of interpretively locating the available prosopographical data of 1–2 Corinthians and Romans 16. Reconstructing ‘factions’ and Paul’s back and forth with the community require caution. The Epistle of Jude offers new challenges: Frey takes Jude to be a re- working of the Epistle of James, targeting a single community. But the lineaments of that community, and particularly the specific identities and character of the ‘opponents’, remain elusive. Most difficult of all, Frey argues, is the so-called ‘Johannine community’ question. In the end, our knowledge of early Christian communities must remain “quite hypothetical” (p.184). While Frey does not put forward any new evidence or argument, his essay is nonetheless a useful summary of relevant issues. New avenues of investigation may appear, especially, if Frey’s essay is read together with the following piece by Cilliers Breytenbach, which does adduce new material, particularly epigraphical.

Lutz Doering’s treatment of the ‘Israel epithets’ aimed at the readers (implied and actual) of 1 Peter is a valuable and close reading of that epistle. Doering dates the epistle to c. 70-110 CE and argues for an implied audience of ‘native Gentiles’. Strikingly, 1 Peter does not employ ekklesiai, choosing instead the language of ‘people of God’. Doering thinks this is because a networked “totality of Christ-believers” are in view (see 5:9) rather than a single church or even localized group of individual churches. The epithets that are employed—chosen stock, royal priesthood, holy nation, people for possession—work to construct an ‘Israel’-identity for the early Christians, yet without evoking the name ‘Israel’. These Israel epithets are linked with the language of ‘rebirthing’ or ‘rebegetting’ when applied to the addressees. There are further significant ways in which 1 Peter, like many other NT and Qumran texts, taps into the ‘building’ or ‘temple’ topos (2:4-5, 9-10). Altogether, this “Israel-formity”, especially when added to terms such as genos, ethnos, and laos (2:9), contributes with “exceptional intensity” to an ethnic dimension to early Christian identity which would only be developed in the second and third centuries. 1 Peter itself does not fully resolve the question of the relation between the Gentile-elect of the epistle and ethnic Israel. Doering suggests, however, that ultimately “Israel is appropriated without being expropriated” (p. 276).

This is a stimulating, well-edited volume and will be useful to a wide range of ancient historians and scholars of Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. The range of methods, sources and macro-/micro-historical perspectives employed is admirably wide. An ancient sources index would have been most welcome alongside the author and general indexes.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Shared Dimensions of Jewish and Christian Communal Identities, Yair Furstenberg 1

Part I: Imperial Perspectives
The Ptolemaic and Roman Definitions of Social Categories and the Evolution of Judean Communal Identity in Egypt, Sylvie Honigman 25
The Roman State and Jewish Diaspora Communities in the Antonine Age, Martin Goodman 75

Part II: Community and the City
Civic Identity and Christ Groups, John S. Kloppenborg 87
Organized Charity and the Ancient World: Pagan, Jewish, Christian, Pieter W. van der Horst 116
The Fourth Book of Maccabees in a Multi-Cultural City, Tessa Rajak 134

Part III: Varieties of Communal Identities
Rome and Alexandria: Why was there no Jewish Politeuma in Rome?, Daniel R. Schwartz 153
From Text to Community: Methodological Problems of Reconstructing Communities behind Texts, Jörg Frey 167
Lycaonian Christianity under Roman Rule and their Jewish-Christian Tradition, Cilliers Breytenbach 185

Part IV: Community and Continuity
The Jewish Community in Egypt before and after 117 CE in Light of Old and New Papyri, Tal Ilan 203
Jewish Communities in the Roman Diaspora: Why Salo Baron Still Matters?, Seth Schwartz 225
“You are a Chosen Stock ...”: The Use of Israel Epithets for the Addressees in First Peter, Lutz Doering 243
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