BMCR 1999.07.21

The Beginnings of Jewishness; The City in Roman Palestine; The Jews Among the Greeks and Romans

, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties. Hellenistic Culture and Society; 31. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. xiii, 426 pages. ISBN 9780520926271
, The City in Roman Palestine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. viii, 200 pages. ISBN 9780197560914
, The Jews among the Greeks and Romans: A Diasporan Sourcebook. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. xii, 236 pages. ISBN 9780801859373

What has Jerusalem to do with Rome (or Athens, for that matter)?
Judaism, Classics and Ancient History

In an address at the centennial conference of the Society of Biblical Literature (1980), Arnaldo Momigliano suggested that classical and biblical studies are considerably more interrelated than either classicists or biblical scholars care to admit (Essays on Ancient and Modern Judaism, 3). This indeed may be the case but how many of us, mere mortal classicists and ancient historians, have been blessed from childhood with the knowledge of Hebrew (not to mention Aramaic), Greek and Latin as Momigliano had been, not to mention rabbinics and a host of classical authors? Indeed, it seems more common to find not only biblical scholars but also, and even more so, scholars of ancient Judaism, who are familiar with the Greek and Roman world. The three authors under consideration are examples that illustrate the case in point.

The study of the Jews, either in their ancestral land or in the diaspora, has never been an integral part of Roman history. Like Egypt, the province(s) of Palestine has been discussed in general terms with perfunctory references to its Jewish population. Very recently, readers of this journal must have become aware of the recent move to promote a new agenda for Roman Egypt, one that emphasizes the sameness, rather than the difference, of the province with other parts of the Roman Mediterranean. Perhaps the time has come to suggest that some awareness of Palestinian Jewish documents can similarly enrich the study of Roman history, including the meaning of Roman power, of becoming a Roman or of staying a Jew, of the relations between core and periphery, of problems of identity and self definition, the self and the other, and last, but not least, of women, family relations and marital strategies. Let us extricate the documents of ancient Judaism from theologians, papyrologists and rabbinic scholars and peruse them for the wealth they offer the historian of Rome.

Cohen’s studies reflect a unique phenomenon — the literature and self reflections of a marginal and marginalized minority that preserved and remolded its ancestral heritage in spite of its loss of political liberty. The Jews are the only people in Roman antiquity who recorded their sentiments about their conquerors. Those who have dealt with Greek or Roman views of the ‘other’ should appreciate this exception to the rule of recapturing the ‘other’ through Greco-Roman prisms. It can hardly be a coincidence that one of Cohen’s articles is subtitled “How do you know a Jew in Antiquity when you see one?”, a remote but striking echo of Walter Pohl’s “Telling the Difference: Signs of Ethnic Identity”, or how do you tell a barbarian if you see one (in Idem and H. Reimitz, Strategies of Distinction. The Construction of Ethnic Communities 300-800, Leiden 1998).

As mines of invaluable information, Jewish sources are second to none. But they are, admittedly, difficult to decipher. I am not talking about authors like Josephus or Philo, who are familiar to practically every ancient historian and classicist and readily available in good editions and good translations. Even the dramatist Ezekiel and a score of Hellenistic-Jewish authors have become accessible through editions, translations and studies (C. R. Holladay, Fragments from Hellenistic Jewish Authors, 3 vols, Scholars Press). But the vast literature of the sages (= rabbis), although translated, in part, into English, has been only intermittently used. Admittedly, its chief representatives, namely the Mishnah, Tosefta, and the Talmuds (Palestinian and Babylonian) are extraordinary difficult works. Hardly more accessible are the exegetical (midrashic) tales assembled in various forms, including extended commentaries on the first five books of the Bible. To reconstruct historical episodes or contemporary culture out of such sources is a hazardous occupation.

Shaye Cohen navigates all this with ease and elegance. His studies (mostly published but revised for this publication) are divided into three parts, the first addressing the question of ‘Who was a Jew’, a rather thorny issue that has received numerous answers. Cohen reexamines the issue through personalities (Herod) and verbal descriptions (the terms used to describe ‘Jews’), concluding that “Jewishness was a subjective identity” (p. 3) constructed both by the self and by the other. Here is a salutary reminder that the so-called normative, formative, or rabbinic Judaism with its definition of who belonged and who did not was not only slow in coming but was never left unchallenged. Whether or not it was possible to tell a Jew when one met one is answered in the negative by Cohen, but there must have been tell-tale signs, voluntarily adopted or rather acquired at birth and through specific upbringing. Here I may add that identity issues are invariably discussed without gender distinction. Yet, a Jewess was not exactly a Jew. Her identity was determined not so much through a series of prescriptive behavior but rather through a set of negative models.

Once Cohen has established the fuzzy frontiers of ancient Judaism he examines ways of becoming a Jew (part II: The boundary crossed). Here the discussion should be of great value to scholars interested in issues of ethnicity, openness to strangers, and processes of absorbing foreigners. And here, too, Cohen demonstrates how interpreters of the central sacred text, the Bible, had shown extraordinary elasticity in preserving the spirit of the ‘original’ as they understood it while transforming its essence. Cohen insists on progression from ethnicity to religion, a move that enabled gentiles to join the Jewish community, and suggests no less than seven modes of ‘conversion’. Ultimately, some order had to be introduced and this is precisely what the rabbis did as they outlined the ceremony of conversion.

In the third part of the book Cohen discusses infractions of boundaries (‘The Boundary violated: the union of diverse kinds’). The articles here are of exceptional interest. They include a much quoted one on the prohibition of intermarriage (see my ‘Rabbinics and Roman Law: Jewish-Christian Marriage in Late Antiquity’, Revue des études juives 1997), and critical reflections on the matrilineal principle.

I cannot begin to do justice to the nuances and wealth of information that these articles offer. Cohen possesses an enviable gift of being provocative and challenging even when he is wrong. He asserts, for example, that the prohibition on intermarriage is unbiblical and, rather, the product of the Hasmonean era (second-first century BCE). In an article entitled ‘Sex, Religion, and Politics: The Deuteronomist on Intermarriage’, G. N. Knoppers has shown that mixed marriages had constituted a problem already in the exilic diaspora after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE, if not before (Hebrew Annual Review 1994, 121-141). The biblical prohibitions had been taken seriously, according to Knoppers, long before the second century BCE. Already the redactors of the Bible regarded intermarriage as an arbiter of national fate.

Those interested in legal cultures and in the interaction between Roman law and local customs will find the discussion of the emergence of the so-called matrilineal principle fascinating. Clearly, and in spite of numerous strictures, marriage across the boundaries of faith did take place. What, then, was the status of the offspring? Here it is useful to remember that ‘mixed’ marriage in the ancient world was a varied and intricate concept. Like the Romans, the Jews had their own categories of acceptable and unacceptable spouses (Sivan, ‘Why not marry a barbarian? In Mathisen and Eadem, Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity, 1996). Disqualified partners became parents who engendered children with problematic status. Cohen detects the influence of Roman law on the formation of the matrilineal principle that made mothers, rather than fathers, the bearers of legitimate Jews. Yet, in Roman law a valid marriage between free born and equal citizens bequeathed the paternal rather than the maternal status to the children. I am certainly in agreement about the influence of Roman law on rabbinic legal culture and on the importance of examining the relations between Jewish and Roman law (Sivan, ‘Revealing the Concealed: Roman and Rabbinic Opinions on the Crime of Adultery in Late Antiquity’, ZSS.RA). But the adoption of the matrilineal principle may owe its naissance to rabbinic archaism or even antiquarianism rather than to classical Roman law.

Ultimately being and becoming a Jew remained a matter of some flexibility if not unclarity. It was also something between the self and God. For the founder of the Hasmonaean dynasty, a priest from a small town not far from Jerusalem, being a Jew in second century BCE Judaea was irreconcilable with certain practices such as public sacrifice to the wrong divinities at the behest of a gentile king (I Macc 2:15-25). A Jew was not a Hellene. For a Christian monk in the seventh century becoming a Jew was the end result of a series of dreams that led him from his monastery on Mount Sinai to Palestine and from celibacy to marriage (PG 89: 1689D-1692A with Cohen, 166-7).

In hindsight, it seems that a reflective Jew could have become terrified at the burden of being and remaining one. Born to a minority, the individual Jew was inexorably harnessed to a collective identity that deemed apostasy worse than death. To become a Jew was acceptable, up to a point. To apostatize was condemnable and apostates were regularly cursed in synagogues. A Jewish male blesses himself daily for not being born a woman or a gentile. No similar prayer is recorded for a Jewish woman.

Cohen’s human landscape of Judaism is complemented, to an extent, by Sperber’s study of the cities of Roman Palestine. Here it is necessary to state outright that this is just one of numerous explorations that Sperber had provided on the subject and that it must be read in conjunction with his important contributions to a better understanding of the social and economic fortunes of Roman Palestine. In recent years Israeli archaeologists have unearthed numerous settlements, rural and urban, that throw valuable light on the landscape of Palestine in antiquity. Sperber’s originality consists of his reliance, nearly exclusively, on literary sources, and primarily on a wide variety of Jewish rabbinic sources to survey the physical structure of the cityscape, from the market and pubs, to bathhouses, public buildings, roads, and walls.

The City in Roman Palestine covers three centuries (100-400 CE) which, in Roman terms, overlap with the early and late empire and in Jewish terms with the Mishnah and Talmud (Palestinian) periods. It is conveniently divided into chapters on the physical aspects of the market; the administration of the market; market control; pubs, bathhouses, public buildings, basilica (with a contribution by Z. Weiss on theatres, hippodromes, amphitheaters); roads and backstreets; city walls, water supply, sewage and drainage. At the end, a chapter on the archeology and the city with many diagrams by Joshua Schwartz offers an effective summary of the material surveyed.

Because historians of urbanism in antiquity are not likely to be familiar with rabbinic views of the city, Sperber’s book is, potentially, of great value as a comparative corrective and confirmative. Here, however, one has to remember that rabbinic tales cannot be dated for the most part, and hence they offer a somewhat timeless perspective of city life in antiquity. There are, therefore, obvious pitfalls. The picture that emerges from Jewish literature of late antiquity is monolithic and frozen in time. But reality was hardly likely to have been such. Centuries of Roman control, as well as two major Jewish revolts, had changed the urban landscape sometimes beyond recognition.

Naturally, the city Jewish sources depict somehow involved Jewish living. Thus, the passages quoted provide invaluable insights into one type of urban life, and show how Jews reconciled their lifestyle with that of the city in general. What did it mean to be an urban Jew? Was there a sense of urban solidarity among Jewish dwellers in the cities? How did the rabbis reconcile their notions of Jewishness with involvement in urban activities?

Strictly speaking, the majority of the cities in Roman Palestine were not even Jewish. From rabbinic and archaeological sources it seems that the bulk of the Jewish population lived in small towns, villages and farms. Sperber’s focus is on the visual and architectural aspects of city life. What type of civic consciousness emerges from a perusal of rabbinic writings remains outside the scope of his work. But readers can peruse the passages for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

The discussion raises several questions. Can the city be discussed without its rural hinterland? Is it possible to talk about cities as though they were wholly detached from a vast network of rural settlements that nurtured and were in turn nourished by them? How typical was Jewish urban life of the larger rhythms of urban life in Roman antiquity, and specifically in the non-Jewish areas of Palestine? Scholars interested in ancient urbanism and specifically in the spread of urban institutions, such as the market place, the pubs, bath houses, etc. throughout the Mediterranean, will find Sperber’s survey an extremely useful introduction to the subject and it will be perhaps, a refreshing novelty to those wholly unfamiliar with rabbinic sources. There are a wealth of rabbinic quotations relating to, for example, industrious women energetically throwing their garbage on the innocent heads of passers by and wonderful tales about the misadventures of drunkards and strangers in the city. As a compliment to Roman views on urban life, Sperber’s book offers unique Jewish perspectives. The erudition of the author is clearly reflected in the ample notes that accompany each chapter. The originality of the observations and stories found in Jewish sources has yet to be analyzed.

From my point of view, the book is ultimately too much ‘Greco-Roman’ and too little Jewish. Readers who may want to understand the impact of Judaism and of the Jewish inhabitants on the landscape of Roman Palestine will not find a single trace in this book. There is no discussion, for example, on population ratio in the area, or on the centrality of the land of Israel (= Palestine) in rabbinic thought (R. Yankelewitz, ‘The Ratio of the Jewish and Gentile Population in the Land of Israel in the Period of the Mishnah and the Talmud’, Cathedra 61 (1991), 156-175 (Heb.); T. Ilan, “Patriarchy, the Land of Israel and the Legal Position of Jewish Women in Rabbinic Literature’, Nashim 1 (1999), 42-50; Sivan, ‘Rabbinic Landscapes: Domestic Relations, City and Country in Late Ancient Palestine’, forthcoming). Nor are there excursions into the countryside, in spite of the fact that the vast majority of settlements in Palestine were rural in character (I. Hirschfeld, ‘Farms and Villages in Byzantine Palestine’, DOP 51 (1997), 33-72; Z. Safrai, ‘Early Rural Structures: The Village in Eretz Israel in the Roman Period’, Cathedra 89 (1998), 7-40 (Heb.). Sperber’s City is like any other city in the Roman empire. It certainly reflects the degree of hellenization and romanization of Palestine but leaves no room to judge its Jewishness. One hears of temples but will have no idea of synagogues (with the exception of Appendix 2 that insists on the paucity of archeological remains that can be securely identified and on the pagan character of the cities in Roman Palestine, p. 190). Readers interested in rural Palestine, however, can peruse with profit Sperber’s other books (the dusk jacket credits him with twenty books and over 250 articles).

There is no word either on Jews or on Christians, yet neither falls outside the period under discussion (as claimed on p. 190). In fact, the impact of Christianity on the cityscape of fourth century Palestine must be taken into account. Otherwise, we surely cannot understand either the account of the Bordeaux pilgrim in 333, that of Egeria in the 380s, Eusebius’s Onomasticon (290s?), to mention but a few works that reflect the urban scenery and Christianity. Nor can the impact of monasticism on the landscape be neglected (Sivan, in The Blessings of Pilgrimage).

Of the three books under discussion here I found Margaret Williams’ the most puzzling. Source books have become a hot commodity. Now that Jewish Studies programs proliferate, there is certainly room for this sort of textbook, all the more since Stern’s magnificently annotated collection (Greek and Roman Authors on Jews and Judaism) has not, I think, appeared in paperback. His, at any rate, is a hard act to follow. Williams covers seven hundred and fifty years with a huge array of sources, each presented with a minimal (and at time no) introduction and with hardly any commentary. No evaluation of the nature of the sources used is given and hardly any bibliography. Such critical omissions, however, may have been due not so much to the collector’s own preference as to her editor and publisher.

The collection of sources is divided into seven sections, the Jewish diaspora in the Hellenistic and early Roman imperial periods; life inside the Jewish diasporan community; diasporan Jews and the Jewish homeland; Jewish interaction with Greek and Roman authorities; the Jews among the Greeks; and Jews among the Romans; and pagans and Judaism, academic and real-life responses. But the sources themselves do not yield so easily to such categorization. Jews, like pagans and Christians, led a more complex existence than the aspects captured by modern scholarly categories.

The fascinating and critically important topic of Jewish-Christian relations, for example, appears twice, one in the section on the “Jews among the Greeks” and once in the section entitled ‘The Jews among the Romans’. There is actually some sense in this division. The nature of the relations between the government’s legal rhetoric and communal realities did differ between the east and the west in late antiquity. And, at any rate, we are much better informed about the Jews of the east, and primarily about Palestinian (and Babylonian?) Jewry, than about any other Jewish community in antiquity. In both cases Williams attempts to “show the different kinds of interaction, peaceful and otherwise, that might take place” (p. 137), assuming that with the accession of Theodosius I in 379 (and not 378) “a distinct change for the worse” occurred (ibid).

Acts of mutual hostility in the east are illustrated through excerpts from the Martyrdom of Polycarp, Ambrose (the latter clearly echoing rumors), Socrates’ Ecclesiastical History, the Theodosian Code, canons of Laodicea, and Chrysostom. In the west, Hippolytus, Ambrose yet again, Severus of Majorca (without a reference to Bradbury’s recent edition, translation and ample commentary) and once more the Theodosian code illustrate conflict while the canons of Elvira, Carthage, Augustine and Jerome provide hints of “cooperation between Jews and Christians”. I must admit that the taking of Jewish mistresses in Spain is a curious fit but so are the other sources used. More seriously, can the west really be described as an area of both harmony and discord between Jews and Christians while the east seemingly bristled with enmity? (See, recently, W. Horbury, Jews and Christians in Contact and Controversy, Edinburgh 1998, for a nuanced and well informed discussion). And how different were the sets of relationships between Jews and Christians from those established between Jews and pagans?

There are, however, many tantalizing and important hints of the varied nature of Jewish-Christian relations in late antiquity. Williams includes three inscriptions, two Italian, one north African, to draw attention to Jewish apostasy, a phenomenon that modern scholars have preferred to skip over in silence. They show no such reticence about proselytism.

For scholars and students wholly unfamiliar with Jewish history in antiquity Williams’ book provides glimpses of the complexity of Jewish communal life in areas where Judaism remained a marginal if legal creed. It would be difficult, however, to use it in a classroom. Here the publishers may have undermined their own purpose by not allowing Williams more room for ample introductions and comments. Those equipped with patience may want, for example, to make a sub-compilation of the numerous inscriptions that Williams has gathered in the book. It would be interesting and possibly rewarding to compare the evidence of Jewish epigraphy with that of, say, the urban environment in which they lived.

What, then, does Jerusalem have to do with either Rome or Athens? That depends on the onlooker. Williams’ compilation hints at the rich variety of source material that pertains to Jewish life in the Greco-Roman world. Sperber provides a hint of the wealth of rabbinic sources and their contribution to a better understanding of the urban landscape in one Roman province. Cohen opens the door to the rewarding realm of the internal life of one community. And as unrepresentative as this community may, at first, appear, no scholar interested in issues of identity, self-definition, core and periphery, community and law, family, class and gender in antiquity can afford to give Cohen a miss.