BMCR 2002.10.33

Diaspora: Jews amidst Greeks and Romans

, Diaspora : Jews amidst Greeks and Romans. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002. 1 online resource (ix, 386 pages). ISBN 9780674037991. $39.95.

The Jewish experience is largely a diaspora experience, a point that Gruen thinks most scholars, and the wider public generally, have failed to note, even those whose field is classical antiquity (vi). Gruen’s concern in this volume is to provide a “preponderantly positive” portrait of that Jewish diaspora. He believes the evidence challenges two widely held, conflicting hypotheses about diaspora Judaism, one that emphasizes assimilation and the other that emphasizes separation and isolation. Gruen’s view is that “for most Jews, retention of a Jewish identity and accommodation to the circumstances of diaspora were joint goals — and often successfully achieved” (vi). Diaspora Jews lived a comfortable life, unmolested and at ease in the society about them — a society in which they easily participated without compromising their Judaism, according to Gruen — and every aspect of his study attempts, with varying degrees of success, to support this conclusion.

First, Gruen looks at passages in ancient texts that have been interpreted as showing a negative side of Jews’ experience of the diaspora. In particular, he looks at situations in which Jews appear to have been expelled or lost their rights or seem to have had to defend their rights against efforts of cities to restrict or disregard such rights (chs. 1-3). Second, he looks the status of Jews in the diaspora. This involves entering the debate over the nature of citizenship in Greek cities and whether Jews, as a group, had such rights (ch. 4). Third, he looks at the “humor” that he finds in Jewish diaspora literature (chs. 5-6). Finally, he examines diaspora Jewish attitudes to the peoples and culture around them (chs. 7-8). These last two chapters appeared elsewhere in 2001.

The strength of Gruen’s work lies in the first section (chs. 1-4). In chapter one, Gruen examines the situation of Jews in Rome. He focuses on references to expulsion of Jews from Rome, passages that generally have been taken to demonstrate the precarious position of Jews in the diaspora. With balance and caution, Gruen sets the decrees of expulsion within the context of the political realities of the time. He cautions against taking every legislative act at face value; many were unenforceable; some reflected mere posturing. The simple issuing of an order of expulsion may have served its purpose; it may have neither needed nor intended a general expulsion of the Jewish population. Gruen’s interpretation makes better sense of Jewish residence in Rome, for shortly after orders of expulsion we find a significant Jewish community still resident there. Gruen then looks at the Roman suppression of collegia. Many think that the action against collegia would have included in its scope a crackdown on Jews through the suppression of their synagogues, which many argue had legal status as collegia. Gruen dismisses such association, a matter he takes up in chapter 4 as well.

Chapter 2 deals with Egypt, or more particularly with Alexandria. Again, Gruen focuses on the matters that usually have been taken to speak forcefully to the disadvantaged position of Jews in the diaspora. Indeed, most of this chapter deals with the event of 38 CE, made famous by two prominent opponents in the conflict, Philo and Flaccus. Gruen argues that the hostility to the Jews is not a Greek hostility, as has often been assumed, but an Egyptian one (63). The Greek attitude was considerably more positive, and Jews rose to high office in the society. Gruen then discusses the matter of Jewish citizenship in Alexandria. He admits, as most do, that Jews were not counted as citizens; he argues, as most don’t, that the situation for Jews was not disadvantageous: the rights Jews had were “perhaps preferable” (77). The incident of 38 is just that, an isolated incident that cannot be used to diminish the fact that Jews had a long and comfortable residence in Alexandria for four centuries.

In chapter 3, Gruen looks at the various decrees involving cities in Asia Minor that have been taken as clear evidence of the suppression of Jewish rights by Greek cities and the intervention of Rome to restore and protect these rights. On the surface, such decrees suggest a less than positive environment for Jews in the diaspora. Gruen qualifies what appears to be a need for protection of Jews rights in three ways. First, he argues that the restrictions arose because of an economic boom and the desire by the locals to protect these gains for themselves — not from some long-standing hostility. Second, Gruen argues that restrictions were not meant only for the Jews; various other groups found it necessary to defend their rights too. Third, Gruen notes that most of the decrees are from a limited time and place — from Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon to the middle of Augustus’ reign and in the province of Asia (102). Such restricted evidence (from one province over a few decades) should not be used to portray the typical situation of Jews in the much larger diaspora over many centuries. Whether Gruen’s explanations for the decrees are convincing will be a matter of some debate. Unless Gruen can mute the negative environment suggested by these decress, his sunny portrait of Jewish diaspora experience becomes less convincing.

Chapter 4 discusses Jewish forms of “civic and sacral institutions.” The chapter is rich in detail on the diverse structure of the diaspora synagogue, both in terms of function and form. Even the term by which this institution is called has no consistency: “synagogue” is but one of several terms used. Gruen raises questions about the debate over the “origin” of the synagogue. He examines whether the synagogue copied pagan models, and he soundly dismisses the identification of the synagogue with the Greco-Roman collegia. (His dismissal here might well teach scholars of early Christianity a thing or two: they have jumped, probably too quickly, onto the ” collegia” bandwagon in an effort to understand the political and social position of the early church.) Gruen also argues that the synagogue was not the sole focus of Jewish life in the diaspora. He shows that Jews participated comfortably in a wide range of civic and political life, and the pagan religious context of many of the aspects of life in the Greco-Roman world did not prevent Jews from participating in the rich cultural life of the diaspora.

The middle part of Gruen’s book (a third of the work) deals with Jewish humor (chs. 5-6). Gruen wishes to show that popular literature of the Jewish diaspora (whether written there or read there) is marked by humor, comic intent and playfulness. Gruen then uses the comic features of this literature as further support for his positive reconstruction of the situation of Jews in the diaspora. He offers detailed analysis of the comic features in eight Jewish stories. Five are considered in chapter 5, “Historical Fiction”: Esther (10 pp.), Tobit (11 pp.), Judith (pp. 12), Susanna (5 pp.) and 2 Maccabees (6 pp.) In chapter six, “Biblical Recreations,” he deals with three stories: Testament of Abraham (11 pp.), Testament of Job (8 pp.) and Artapanus (11 pp.). He focuses on what he considers to be “comic” or “playful” features of these stories, and from this he concludes that diaspora literature is marked by “witty touches and upbeat quality” (135).

This part of Gruen’s work is the weakest. With regard to Jewish humor, Gruen fails to convince me that what strikes him as funny — historical blunders, exaggerations, irony and a range of other quirks — should strike me in the same way. More important, Gruen fails to show that what strikes him as funny would have been as humorous to a Jew in the diaspora. Humor is not a universal language, without need of translation, especially the nuanced kind of humor that Gruen contends he finds in these texts. Indeed, what is seriously deficient in Gruen’s work, which relies heavily on the supposed humor in popular diaspora texts, is any serious examination or convincing argument of what would have constituted Jewish humor. Far too often, Gruen simply appeals to exaggeration of detail or action as proof of the comic character or intention of the passage. Exaggeration can be funny, but what Gruen fails to address at all is that exaggeration need not be funny. It can be sobering and frightening, or it can be reassuring and comforting. Further, Gruen takes any historical “error” in a story to be “mischievous” and “comic.” It could be, but it could be simply a historical error, unintentional or careless—and unimportant. And Gruen reads comic intent into almost every detail of the stories (172), and he reads comic intent even into the silences (173).

Even if Gruen could establish that these texts convey humor, he would have yet to establish that the presence of humor provides a solid base for his conclusion about the comfortable nature of Jewish life in the diaspora. Gruen repeatedly rejects the more traditional explanation that sees Jewish humor as a “release of social aggression by the powerless” (137) or a “smiling through tears” (181). Gruen needs a far more cautious and nuanced treatment of Jewish humor if he is to dismiss the traditional explanation. Humor may well be a mechanism of release for the powerless or the disadvantaged. Such an explanation of the character of Jewish humor would paint an entirely more strained portrait of Jewish life in the diaspora.

The third section consists of two chapters, published elsewhere in 2001. Chapter seven, “Jewish Constructs of Greeks and Hellenism,” attempts to show that Jews were both appreciative and critical of aspects of the Greco-Roman world, and they had no hesitation at borrowing elements they admired. Chapter eight, “Diaspora and Homeland,” attempts to mute the significance of the diaspora in Jewish consciousness. There is no “homeland” over “diaspora” mentality that would have made the diaspora experience deficient in the minds of Jews who lived in that world and thrived in that experience, according to Gruen.

As a book on Jews in the diaspora, Gruen’s scope is restricted in two main ways: by chronological periods examined and by geographical areas selected. That does not necessarily mean that Gruen’s book is poorer than what it could have been. It does mean that one may well have a number of unanswered — and unaddressed — questions about the Jewish diaspora after reading this book.

First to chronology: Gruen deals with the Jewish experience in the diaspora from the time of Alexander the Great to Nero, a span of 400 years. The starting date is easy to understand. Although the diaspora started with the Babylonian exile, it is not until the Greek kingdoms some 250 years later that there is much evidence for the Jewish diaspora. The terminal date for the study is a little more puzzling. Gruen argues that the Jewish War and destruction of the Second Temple marks a significant shift in the experience of diaspora Jews, and he contends that this justifies his study of the diaspora that focuses only on the Second Temple period (6-7). But Gruen draws the line too sharply here. For one thing, the war in Palestine does not seem to have affected Jews of the diaspora adversely, and no change in Roman policy seems to have been implemented. Further, the hostile incidents that diaspora Jews experienced after the war stand in line with similar incidents before the war, and the immediate reactions directly stemming from the war often suggest a latent hostility to Jews that must have been there for some time. Such hostility would have affected the situation of Jews in the diaspora before the war. The war gives greater opportunity for anti-Jewish action; it does not create the hostility. By drawing the line at the war, Gruen protects his positive portrait from some incidents of severe repression of Judaism in the diaspora, but unless he shows convincingly that the war radically changed the situation for Jews in the diaspora (which he does not), he has made his portrait less convincing by these chronological boundaries.

Geographically, Gruen limits his study to Jews in Rome, Alexandria, and the province of Asia (chapters 1-3). Chapter four deals with civic and social institutions in the diaspora, and here some areas outside the scope of chapters 1 to 3 are mentioned when they illuminate Gruen’s interests. That certainly encompasses many of the Jews of the Greek and Roman diaspora, and it focuses on diaspora Jews for which literary evidence is most extensive. But Gruen’s selection leaves gaps, particularly for Antioch and Syria, which Gruen admits was the area of the largest Jewish diaspora (106). Granted, for a city of Antioch’s size, the literary evidence is disappointing for almost any question we wish to ask, whether about Jews, Greeks, Romans or Syrian natives. Yet the limited information we have about Antioch raises questions about the comfortableness of Jewish residents in the diaspora settings. In Josephus’ account, various plots were formed and actions were taken against Jews by anti-Jewish forces in the city. Such anti-Jewish sentiment does not seem to have arisen over night nor can it be attributed simply to the aftermath of the Jewish War.

Gruen admits from the outset that many readers will judge his portrait of Jews in the diaspora as “too sunny or upbeat, even counterintuitive and implausible” (viii). I am one of those readers. One wonders whether Gruen is himself convinced of some aspects of the portrait he presents. The book will have served its purpose, he says, “if it can stimulate a spirited discussion” (viii). Actually, the work can do more than that. It can offer a solid, coherent, and balancing contribution to the debate about the character of the Jewish diaspora — provided the two chapters on humor are dismissed.