BMCR 2002.06.11

Die Juden im christlichen Imperium Romanum (4.-6. Jahrhundert)

, Die Juden im christlichen Imperium Romanum (4.-6. Jahrhundert). Studienbücher Geschichte und Kultur der Alten Welt. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2001. 271 pages : illustrations, maps ; 22 cm.. ISBN 3050034319. EUR 19.80 (pb).

In 1996 Noethlichs, professor of ancient history at the Technische Hochschule in Aachen, published his book Das Judentum und der römische Staat, in which he dealt with the relationship between Judaism and the Roman authorities in terms of Roman ‘Minderheitenpolitik’ throughout antiquity. In his new book N. presents a wide array of documents pertaining to the position of the Jews in the period from Constantine to Justinian, in German translation with explanatory notes added and preceded by a more than 80-page introduction called ‘Darstellung,’ in which he sketches, first chronologically and thereafter systematically, what can be gleaned from the documents he selected. This is a very useful book. Much has been written and speculated about the gradually deteriorating position of the Jews in the Roman Empire after Constantine’s conversion. Here for the first time we are presented with a large and judicious selection of the evidence that should form the basis of theories about this intricate subject.

The first section of the ‘Materialteil’ consists of no less than 70 imperial legal rulings (actually there are more because many items are subdivided into a, b, etc.) from the Codex Theodosianus, the Codex Justinianus, the Constitutiones Sirmondianae etc. Here the increasing deprivation of Jewish rights is most clearly visible (see, e.g., the exclusions from public service in their progressive severity from Theodosius to Justinian), but Noethlichs emphasizes repeatedly, and rightly, that it should not be overlooked that many of the measures taken are not directed specifically against the Jews but against heretics, especially Manichees, pagans, Jews, Samaritans and others. Only rarely are Jews singled out, and if they are, it is usually rather to protect them against further infringements of their rights by churches or municipalities. Quite often heretics are more severely curbed in their freedom than Jews. Then follows a chapter with some 16 decrees by ecclesiastical coucils or synods (‘Konzilsbestimmungen’), which by the sheer repetition of their prohibitions of Christian contacts with Jews prove time and again the vitality and attractiveness of Judaism for many Christians of the 4th through 6th centuries. The other chapters deal respectively with texts containing “theologische Auseinandersetzung” of Christian scholars with Jews (e.g., John Chrysostom, Caesarius of Arles); Jewish texts from late antiquity (the enigmatic Mosaicarum et Romanarum Legum Collatio; the Epistula Annae ad Senecam); a selection of Jewish inscriptions (including the famous inscription from Aphrodisias); some documents pertaining to daily contact between Jews and Christians in the cities (Jerome, Leontius of Neapolis); and finally some pagan views (Libanius, Synesius). The last chapter deals with some of the iconographical material.

This is a rich book from which much is to be learnt. N. states in his summary of the ‘Darstellung:’ “In den Quellen, die in diesem Buch präsentiert werden, stellen sich die Juden als keineswegs hilflos der christlichen Gesellschaft ausgeliefert dar” (95). That is certainly true, and it could be even further confirmed from archaeological material (e.g., the monumental synagogue of Sardis). He also points out that the theological defamation of the Jews by the Church leadership played a larger and more influential role in the deterioration of the position of the Jewish communities than the imperial measures. But Noethlich’s concern to steer away from what has been termed the lachrymose historiography of ancient Judaism sometimes makes him succumb to an inclination to present the position of the Jews as too rosy. Even though the loss of earlier privileges and rights may have developed more slowly and in a more nuanced way than has often been assumed, there is no way of denying that at the end of this process, by the close of the sixth century, the rights of the Jews to live a normal life and to practise their religion had been curtailed to an almost intolerable degree by the Christian authorities. True though it may be that often Christian heretics were dealt with more harshly than the Jews, that should not make us blind to the fact that the coincidence of secular and ecclesiastical power in this period has brought about a situation that had lasting and nefarious consequences for the Jewish communities in Europe. But one of the merits of N.’s book is that his own collection of primary sources enables the reader to make exactly this kind of correction to his interpretation.

This is a sourcebook that deserves to be widely used in courses and is also a must for anyone interested in religious and social developments in late antiquity, especially for those many Judaic scholars who so easily tend to neglect anything that was not penned by rabbis. Some minor points of criticism are the following: It is strange to see that N. repeatedly lists Synesius among the ‘pagan’ sources (pp. 81, 222). Even though Synesius is often hard to recognize as a Christian, he was in fact the bishop of Cyrene. At p. 126 N. follows H. Graetz in assuming the existence of a patriarch called Judah IV, but this shadowy figure, mentioned only in a late and unreliable medieval Jewish chronicle, most probably never existed (see my book Japheth in the Tents of Shem, Leuven: Peeters, 2002, 34-35). N. could have made more of early rabbinic literature. The early rabbis had little historical interest, but even so the Talmuds and the midrashic works do contain information that sheds light upon their attitude towards Christians in the Roman Empire. But it is understandable that a classical philologist does not have easy access to the abstruse writings of the Babylonian and Palestinian rabbis. These critical remarks definitely not detract from the value of this thorough work, which displays mastery of a wide variety of aspects of a very problematic field. It can help many students to get the problematic situation of the Jews in the later Roman Empire sharper into focus, and for that reason an English translation would be most welcome.