BMCR 2000.11.15

The Cambridge History of Judaism III. The early Roman period

, , , The Cambridge history of Judaism vol. 3: The Early Roman Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 1346 pages. ISBN 9780521218801. $140.00.

Let me begin with a personal admission — I have not read every word of this hefty 1254 page volume. To own the truth, I have no desire to. I have, however, perused most articles in search of logic, either in the sequence of presentation or in general principles of organization. After many hours of browsing and of careful reading and re-reading of, at least, one third of the assembled 32 articles, I am still at a loss.

This said, the volume provides a rich, if uneven, synthesis of many important issues relating to Jewish history in antiquity. It also has the potential of serving classicists and ancient historians in need of comparative material. For example, any course on women in antiquity or on rituals and sacred space can benefit from Horbury’s article on women in the synagogue. And, of course, anyone interested in the provinces of the Roman empire, in communal structures, in magic, and early Christianity, to mention but few of the subjects included in the various contributions, may profitably peruse the volume with caution.

At the heart of the volume stands “the early Roman period,” as the front title page proclaims. The brief introduction elaborates the denomination applied to the period between 63 BCE (Pompey’s conquest of Judaea) and 70 CE, the storming and destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem by Titus. What comes later is “late antiquity.” Accordingly, most articles cover either “the early Roman period” or “late antiquity,” here defined as 70 CE to 235 CE. That such appellations have not won universal consensus is revealed already on the very first page of the very first contribution in which Broshi declares that from the archaeological point of view ‘the Herodian period’ describes “the early Roman period” more appropriately. This tribute to Herod, the Edumean-Jewish favorite of the emperor Augustus, is due to the indelible impressions that the energetic Herod left on the Judaean-Palestinian landscape during his rule (37-4 BCE). The 140 years under focus further represent the last span of the so-called Second Temple period.

But the main question is what is meant by ‘Judaism’? Is the history of Judaism synonymous with the history of the Jews? The volume appears to suggest that this is not the case since, besides generous space to the much, if not over-discussed ‘philosophical’ schools (the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes) of the Second Temple era, there is an article on the Samaritans (who certainly deserve inclusion in any history of Judaism) and, several times in fact, on the Qumran sect (the Essenes?). Furthermore, just who was a Jew in that period? This crucial question is only briefly touched upon by the contributions.

Of individuals whose lives may have provoked a discussion of such issues only four receive separate chapters: Jesus, Paul, Philo and Josephus. And although many articles feature Herod ‘the Great’ prominently, there is no single study devoted to this towering and controversial figure. Nor is there a chapter on Hillel and Shamai, two sages whose contributions, or rather attributed contributions, in rabbinic writings shaped the face of the Judaism that emerged from the smoldering flames of the Temple in 70 CE.

The chronological table that conveniently precedes the individual studies is divided into three columns. It ends with the reign of Alexander Severus (222-235 CE, in the column devoted to “Rome and Italy”); with the arrival of Vologese V in Parthia (in the “foreign affairs” column); and with a 202 CE rescript of (Septimius) Severus “against Jewish and Christian conversions” (in the “Jewish affairs” column). I have sought, in vain, some illumination regarding this intriguing rescript. The index refers neither to Severus nor to any rescripts. Nor does Amnon Linder in his standard The Jews in Roman Imperial Legislation (Detroit 1987) include any rescript dating to 202 CE. Septimius Severus did indeed issue an important law (cited by Ulpian, Dig. 50:2.3.3, Linder p. 104) allowing those declaring themselves Jewish to enter office. Christians do not appear in this context at all.

While there is nothing wrong about ending a comparative chronological table with Roman law, the CHJ III does not boast a single study devoted to the all-important topic of Jewish rights in the Roman world (see now Marina (Miriam Ben Zeev) Pucci, Jewish Rights in the Roman World, 1998). Synchronizing events in an attempt to integrate Jewish history into a larger political, geographical and social context is highly commendable. I am uncertain, however, why the titles of the chronological tables shift midway from “Palestine” to “Jewish affairs,” as though ‘Palestine’ ended and “Judaism” began in 70 CE. Nor am I clear about the shift from “provinces and client-kingdoms except Palestine” to “foreign affairs” around the same time, as though the incorporation of Sardinia in 66/7 BCE and the appointment of Mucianus as governor of Syria signal critical events for better understanding of Judaeo-Roman history.

These are not mere quibbles. They inspire the reader, myself in this case, with uneasiness from the very start. A look at the table of contents reveals the absence of small conveniences such as sub-divisions or sub-headings. All 32 articles are listed without a pause or indication of a larger category of belonging. Worse, the names of individual contributors appear once only throughout the entire volume, solely in the table of contents. I am truly mystified at the CUP logic that dictated such anonymity.

William Horbury, an exceptional scholar of ancient Judaism, undertook the task of editing this volume after the death of its previous editor in 1996. Just how difficult the task must have been is hinted at in the decade that elapsed between the publication of the second and the third volumes in this ambitious series and in the fact that nearly all the contributions were composed in the late 1980s. Some have been published since in other places. This is a familiar phenomenon in the publish/perish academic microcosm. In the meantime, as can be expected, several important studies have appeared, each providing extensive coverage of crucial topics (including a comprehensive survey of the ancient synagogue by Lee Levine, one of the contributors, the studies of Tal Ilan on Jewish women in the Graeco-Roman world, and, above all, the work of Catherine Hezser on rabbinic society and writings; the collected articles of Shaye Cohen, another contributor to this volume, The Beginnings of Jewishness, must also be mentioned).

CHJ III is launched with archaeology (below). Readers are treated to a straightforward conventional historical survey of the period (63 BCE-70 CE) in the fifth contribution (Emilio Gabba, “The social, economic and political history of Palestine 63 BCE-CE 70”, pp. 94-167). Ironically, the Roman period in Judaea begins with the overtures to Pompey of a Jewish contender to the Hasmonaean throne and ends with a general Jewish dissatisfaction with Roman rule in Palestine. What has changed? Not much. Foreign rulers were never universally popular among the Jews, at least not since Cyrus issued a decree allowing Jewish exiles to return to Judaea (Yehud). Unfortunately for either Pompey or for Herod, neither acquired endorsement to lend their policies divine approbation. Gabba usefully embeds the history of Judaea-Palestine in a larger context of Roman provincial policies. He concludes by showing how the great revolt of 66-70 ushered in structural changes in the patterns of Roman control over the territory. It may also be timely to reflect on the fact that the same revolt brought to the imperial throne a family intimately familiar with Jews and with Judaea-Palestine.

Closely linked and often overlapping with Gabba’s contribution is Morton Smith’s article (ch. 7: “The Gentiles in Judaism 125 BCE-CE 66,” pp. 192-249). Smith begins with a survey of Hasmonaean conquests and policies of forced conversion (to Judaism) in the pre-Roman period, thus touching on the all-important question of Jewish proselytism and Jewish identity in antiquity. Whether the Hasmonaean conquests also extinguished the Hellenistic character of the urban landscape is also discussed. The reign of Herod and, above all, the pitfalls of Josephus’ account of Herod’s relations with the Jewish population of his territory provide the core of the article. Underlying the historical analysis is an attempt to sort out just who was a ‘Jew’ through an analysis of terminology and of the web of relationships between Jews and non-Jews in Judaea-Palestine during this period.

Between Gabba and Smith stands Mary Smallwood with “The Diaspora in the Roman period before 70 CE” (pp. 168-191), an informative chapter briefly reviewing imperial legislation on Jewish rights and focusing, predictably, on well-attested Jewish communities such as those in Rome, Egypt, especially Alexandria, and Antioch. What is striking in this survey is the relative paucity of information regarding the pre-70 Jewish diaspora. Indeed, without Philo (the subject of contribution no. 27 by C. Mondesert) we would have known very little about the Diaspora communities in the time of Jesus. Our meager information is barely supplemented by archaeological remains of structures identified as synagogues (article no. 7, with only three pre-70). A similar unevenness between the volume of literary-historical sources and that of non-literary sources is reflected in Jewish epigraphy (Williams, below).

Nowhere through the mammoth CHJ III is there a discussion of the vast and powerful Jewish communities of “Babylon” (Persia/Parthia). This is just one glaring general omission of the “early Roman period,” particularly when stretched to the third century. One wonders how legitimate is any discussion aspiring to provide a “widely valued” history (to quote the blurb on the jacket) of Judaism without the (Babylonian) Judaism that ultimately shaped the contours of Jewish life for centuries to come and still does.

To understand fully the problems relating to reconstructing Jewish life, Jews and Judaism in the Diaspora, the refreshing survey of the epigraphical evidence by Margaret Williams comes in handy. (“The Contribution of Jewish Inscriptions to the Study of Judaism,” pp. 75-93). I hazard to propose that this, as well as the articles on Philo and Josephus (nos. 27, 28 respectively) and on Qumran (nos. 24 and 25) might have been best placed at the start of the volume. All five highlight the nature of the evidence and its limitations. According to Williams there are over 2000 “Jewish” inscriptions, mostly from the 3rd century onward and from Roman-Byzantine Palestine. Adherence, therefore, to guidelines that attempt to sharply distinguish between ‘early’ and ‘late’ Roman prove problematic. Williams divides her discussion into the conventional Diaspora and Palestinian subdivisions.

Her most important contribution consists, to my mind, in providing several correctives to “canonized” modern scholarship. Particularly significant is her comment on Bernadette Brooten’s much-quoted Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogues (1982). “Epigraphy,” writes Williams, “does not substantiate Brootens’ claims that women, no less than men, held executive office in the Diasporan synagogue (p. 79).” Thus the much-cherished image of women in prominent and visible positions in various Jewish communities, strikingly contrasting with rabbinic constructs of women, for example, is evaporating. On the whole the epigraphical picture reflects greater (Diasporic) or lesser (Palestinian) degrees of interactions of Jews in their immediate environment, perhaps not wholly unpredictably.

The CHJ III brief editorial preface specifies that “special notice is given to newly-discovered material…less readily accessible through works of general introduction and evaluation.” This means, of course, archaeology. Accordingly, the volume opens with three “archaeological” articles (nos. 1, 2, 3), but the fourth “archaeological” one (no. 30), on the Hellenistic-Roman diaspora between 70 and 235 CE, appears nearly one thousand pages later.

A well-known Israeli archaeologist, Magen Broshi, introduces “The Archaeology of Palestine 63 BCE-70 CE” (pp. 1-37). It can be immediately seen that the chronological strait jacket of CHJ III results, as already suggested, in serious problems. Broshi feels more comfortable with the ‘Herodian’ rather than the ‘Roman’ period. His criteria for inclusion and exclusion of specific archaeological categories and sites are less obvious. Broshi focuses on urban sites (Jerusalem, primarily, and Caesarea), but also includes fortresses, synagogues and, surprisingly in this context, the controversial Qumran. Nothing is said on the economy or on the countryside with its Jewish aristocrats (Jack Pastor, Land and Economy in Ancient Palestine, 1997; Daniel Sperber, The City in Roman Palestine, 1998, for useful surveys). Broshi cannot dwell on the fate of his cities beyond 70. Caesarea, for example, was only beginning its heyday in the “early Roman period.” Its greatest extent and prosperity belong to the Byzantine period.

Broshi’s list is selective and lacks thematic unity beyond a reference to Herod’s guiding hand. I would have liked to see a discussion of the modifications that the great revolt inflicted on the landscape. Iotapata is one example—a town in the Galilee that the Romans completely destroyed and left in ruins. Recent archaeological surveys have unearthed finds relating to its siege, such as numerous arrowheads and ballistrae and a pile of human bones, evidently a common burial and a poignant reminder of the slaughter that the Roman siege and conquest entailed (Aviam/Adan — Bayewitz, JRA 1997).

Broshi barely touches on the internal organization of the communities surveyed, on the relationships between rural settlements and major Jewish centers, on the links between the Jewish and non-Jewish population in areas like the Galilee as seen in the material evidence, on either urban or rural industries, and on the material cultures of Galilean and Judaean settlements. How is the “Jewishness” of a given settlement determined? Given the minuscule number of identifiable synagogues prior to 70 CE this may not be an idle question. Did Jewish rituals in Judaea-Palestine focus exclusively on the Jerusalamite Temple? How, then, can one explain the ostensibly smooth transition from Temple to synagogue in “late antiquity”? Broshi concludes that “Palestinian” material culture does not reflect religious affiliations or divisions within the Jewish communities but that, as far as it is possible to tell, there was general adherence to the second commandment (“no graven images”). He may be right here.

May I add a personal note? As a veteran of two seasons of the Maryland-Haifa Caesarea excavation I am bemused at the singling out of one (Israeli) excavator of the site (p. 16). The Caesarea excavation is not only based on collaboration between the University of Haifa and the University of Maryland (College Park) but the majority of the participants come from many other campuses, mostly in the US, and there are a significant number of volunteers from all over the world. Several other digs in the area have been supervised by other Israelis and executed by local workers.

The centrality of the Temple in Jerusalem in Jewish life is reflected in Dan Bahat’s article dealing, primarily, with measurements. I assume that the third archaeological article (Meyers’) was meant to compliment Broshi’s survey. Eric Meyers, “Recent Archaeology in Palestine: achievements and future goals,” ostensibly focuses on the post-70 period. To say the least, it is very lively and rather personal. Meyers uses the opportunity to lecture on methodology, on the inefficiency of Israeli archaeologists, and on his own political credos. The Golan Heights, for example, are described as “the temporary acquisition of new lands.” To the best of my knowledge, and admittedly I am not close to either the younger Assad or Barak, the fate of this region has yet to be determined.

Meyers recommends bookshops and university libraries in the US where one can obtain information relating to recent digs in Israel. Speaking from experience I have never found these sufficient. Nor have I, as yet, discovered an alternative to a trip to the area in which I am interested and to direct communications with the local archaeologists. Meyers complains, bitterly, of the gap between the actual digging and the publication, calling moreover for the Israeli authorities of antiquities to coerce their members to publish. But this is hardly a new phenomenon. I have yet to meet a true archaeologist who prefers her pen (or rather computer) to her trowel.

Whether or not putative readers of CHJ III are familiar with the peculiar terminology that distinguishes Jewish from Roman history remains a moot question. Without ado Meyers discusses “early Judaism” (meaning, rabbinic or post-70 CE), the Second Temple period (the term ordinarily used to describe Jewish history between Ezra-Nehemiah and 70 CE) and “Late Antiquity” (70 CE to 235? 337?). The peculiar periodization of Judaeo-Roman history is not explained, I think, anywhere in the volume.

Turning to biblical archaeology, Meyers extols his biblical colleagues for their model “interdisciplinary” approach. Whether or not it is worthy of emulation is another question. Classical archaeologists are not entirely dependent on a single and highly problematic text such as the Hebrew Bible. Patriotic pride is evident in the sub-section on “The rise of the American School” (p. 65) which I, at first, innocently took to relate to the history of the American School in Jerusalem (i.e., Albright Institute). But here, too, Meyers uses the opportunity to lash out at his Israeli colleagues by elaborating on the important digs that are run (and financed, I should add) by US scholars (and students), not the least the one that he had commanded. Perhaps these are a model of their kind. Opinions may vary greatly on this score.

Here an aside to unwary readers of either the CHJ III or of my review may be appropriate. Between minimal budget and maximum resurgence of orthodoxy, Israeli archaeology has fallen on hard times. In this light, the number and extent of the excavations that do take place is astonishing. There is also a tendency now to turn sites into on-site museums. All this takes time and money. Both are scarce commodities in Israel.

Discussing “the Hellenization process,” a surprising term to describe the landscape of “late ancient” Jewish Palestine, Meyers concludes that “the extent of the hellenization in Palestine in the third century CE is greater than heretofore believed.” There is no reason to doubt this, particularly when the evidence is supplied by the beautiful mosaics of Galilean Sepphoris (Meyers’ well-advertised dig). But when did Hellenization wane in the first place? Under the Hasmonaeans? Herod? The Roman procurators? Rabbinic influence?

In his survey of diaspora communities (“The Hellenistic-Roman Diaspora 70-235 CE: The archaeological evidence,” pp. 991-1024) Lee Levine focuses on synagogues, the most typical of all Jewish communal(?) structures, and on the eastern provinces including Egypt, Delos, Asia Minor, and Dura Europos, Cyrene and the Bosporan kingdom on the Black Sea. The Jewish communities of the western provinces are represented by Ostia and Rome. Those beyond the Euphrates, by far the mightiest and the wealthiest of all the Jews, do not enter the picture at all.

Of the inscriptions surveyed those from the Black Sea are particularly intriguing. Several inscriptions deal with manumission processes and cast valuable light on the Jewish assembly in the role of guardians of freedmen. They also reveal the ways in which the community sought to integrate manumitted slaves into its social fabric by stipulating regular attendance at the synagogue after manumission. (Recent discussions include J. Andrew Overman, “Jews, Slaves and the Synagogue on the Black sea. The Bosporan Manumission Inscriptions and their Significance for Diaspora Judaism,” and Douglas R. Edwards, “Jews and Christians at Ancient Chersonesus: The Transformation of Jewish Public Space,” both in Evolution of the Synagogue. Problems and Progress, eds. Howard Clark Kee and Lynn H. Cohick, Harrisburg 1999.)

As a work of synthesis, especially of scholarship up to the late 1980s, the CHJ III is a useful volume. The contributors are all leaders in their respective fields, perhaps a shade too well-known and too familiar. It is difficult to envisage precisely the CHJ III’s targeted audience. Too much is taken for granted. The two maps that accompany the introduction are very basic, complemented, to an extent, by the one provided in Broshi’s article . There are several plans and a few photographs spread throughout the volume, perhaps too few for a volume of this size. The index is far from comprehensive. The bibliography is given article by article. I find this annoying but this may be a matter of personal taste.

By way of an additional conclusion, I wish to reflect, briefly, on the terminus ante quem of CHJ III. Why 235 CE? The Dura Europos synagogue, perhaps the most important synagogue of antiquity, was abandoned in 256 CE. It features, of course, in several articles. I do not see any clear connection between Judaism and the death of Alexander Severus in 235, other than an attempt to correlate “conventional” understanding of “Late Antiquity” with Jewish history. Perhaps, then, the CHJ III should have remained firmly planted in the pre-70 era. Or, to echo Cohen’s preference, it could have started with the later Maccabbees and gone down to the Mishnah.

Periodization can be useful but also problematic. And it can be purely conventional. In Jewish history the year 70 CE has become what Adrianople of 378 has been for generations of military historians who gleefully describe the latter as one of the crucial battles in world history (a sentiment echoed forcefully by the most charming military historian of all, Captain Terzo, the Prince of the Clouds [Gianni Riotta]). Some Jews in antiquity dated personal events, such as death in the family, using 68 CE (rather than 70 CE) as a point of chronological departure.

Perhaps, however, in spite of the trauma of the revolt, so artfully described by Josephus, the destruction of the Temple and the Roman (re)conquest of Jerusalem were less catastrophic than modern scholars have assumed. Judaism did not die. On the contrary, it acquired a new vigor. Some Jewish settlements were destroyed. Yet, by the fourth and fifth centuries, to judge by the number and ornamentation of synagogues in Palestine, the Jewish community of Roman/Byzantine Palestine enjoyed unparalleled prosperity. Even the destroyed Temple obtained a new lease on life through the Mishnah and the Talmuds. Jewish liturgy shifted, noiselessly, into the synagogue, an institution that had co-existed with the Temple for centuries. There was even another attempt to regain autonomy in 132-5 CE, perhaps an appropriate point of concluding the “early Roman period” in Judaism.