BMCR 1998.01.08

98.1.08, Land and Economy in Ancient Palestine

, Land and economy in ancient Palestine. London: Routledge, 1997. 1 online resource (xv, 281 pages). ISBN 9780203319536. $69.96.

The jacket announces that this is “a very thorough, intelligent and controlled study of a long and difficult period of history”. This verdict, pronounced by no less an authority than Peter Garnsey, is not open to doubt. What is, however, is just how this book can be “of interest not only to students of Jewish and biblical history, but also to economic and social historians of other periods” as the jacket continues to announce. In this review, since most readers are likely to be classicists, I would like to focus on how this book can be of use to scholars and students of classical antiquity.

A few clarifications to begin with. Under its vague title the book covers a vast period known among scholar of Judaica as the Second Temple era. Its chronological marks are determined by the existence of a central sanctuary, namely the Temple in Jerusalem. It stretches from the end of the sixth century BCE (c. 515, when the foundations for the second Temple were laid, as it seems, by the exilic group that came with Zerubbabel in the wake of the famed decree of Cyrus), till the great revolt of CE 66 against Rome and the destruction of the Temple (68/70). Whatever the merits of periodization according to religious structures may be, there is hardly a doubt that the Temple played a crucial role in Jewish history in antiquity.

The period thus covered in this book is vast, overlapping, in terms of its more general framework, the Achaemenid (Persian) period, Hellenistic and Roman centuries in Yehud/Judaea/Palestine. It thus has direct relevance to those interested not only in these periods but also in those who may want to use comparative material for their study of classical Greece. The biblical Nehemiah, for example, has been often compared to Solon in Jewish studies, but I have yet to see Solon compared to Nehemiah in Athenian studies. While such comparisons may be open to questions (not the least on account of the different time frame), Jewish sources offer a rich and hitherto mostly unqueried mine for classicists.

One basic problem with covering so vast a period is the structure of the analysis. Pastor has, correctly to my mind, to assume his readers’ general familiarity with the period or their access to basic narratives of the period. He, therefore, focuses on specific anecdotes in order to explore the problems that interest him (primarily issues of land tenure and problems relating to scarcity of natural resources).

To do justice to readers who are not familiar with Hebrew and/or Aramaic Pastor quotes the original and provides a translation. This is highly satisfactory and much preferred to transliteration.

In his search for patterns of land tenure and the origins and effects of crises such as famine Pastor uses a wide variety of source material ranging from the familiar Josephus (for the Hellenistic and Roman era, but also useful for alternative versions of biblical events) to the less familiar biblical and post-biblical Hebrew literature and Hebrew inscriptions.

The division of the book is conventional enough in terms of Jewish studies and each chapter is entitled according to the period it covers (Persian, early Hellenistic, late Hellenistic, Hasmonaean, early Roman, Herodean, Roman rule, and an epilogue which concludes with the Bar Kokhba rebellion in 132 CE. The major conclusions of the book hardly occasion surprise. These maintain that throughout these centuries the royal or controlling body held substantial lands in Palestine. Such conclusions, here reached after a meticulous analysis of a relatively small region, also highlight the fragility of the small individual landowners who were prey to powerful and wealthy neighbors in times of scarcity (again a familiar picture to any classicist).

Even more interesting is the interplay between population groups in the territory under examination and how patterns of land holding shaped these relations and vice versa. The analysis of Jewish-gentile relations in “Palestine” is invaluable for anyone interested in regional studies. No less significant are the insights which a study like Paston’s provides into the effects of Hellenization. Again, because the Hasmonaean period (early second to mid first century BCE) has been primarily the domain of scholars of Judaica, its significance for an understanding of the critical process of the expansion of Hellenic culture into the Near East has not been fully appreciated by classicists. By focusing on the problem of the possession of land and on the phenomenon of famine Pastor highlights an important aspect of the interrelations between Hellenistic rulers and local cultures, and between local aristocracies in an area where local traditions came into clash with imported cultures.

Although not an easy reading the book is ultimately rewarding and it has excellent bibliography. I have only two minor complaints, each of which has to do more with the publisher than with the writer. The index is hardly comprehensive and omits a significant number of entries that should have been included. At $69.95 the book is also very expensive.