BMCR 2004.06.42

The Jewish Dialogue with Greece and Rome. Studies in Cultural and Social Interaction

, The Jewish dialogue with Greece and Rome : studies in cultural and social interaction. Arbeiten zur Geschichte des antiken Judentums und des Urchristentums, Bd. 48. Leiden: Brill, 2001. xix, 579 pages cm.. ISBN 9004112855. $53.00 (pb).

This collection of 27 essays (most of them previously published) spans nearly three decades of a prodigious scholarly career. As the title intimates, the unifying thread of these studies is their concern with documenting the impact of Hellenic culture and Roman rule on the Jews of Palestine and of the Mediterranean Diaspora (with one foray into Parthian territory). Throughout, Rajak is committed not only to exploring how these encounters shaped Jewish society and self-perception, but also with the ramifications of this process for our own understanding of the nature and potentialities of “Hellenism” — a neologism which, we must remember, was itself coined by a Jewish author condemning (in polished literary Greek!) his countrymen’s embrace of Greek institutions.

The collection is arranged into four parts, proceeding more or less chronologically and geographically across the terrain of Second Temple and Late Antique Judaism. The contents are as follows. PART ONE: “Judaism and Hellenism Revisited,” “The Sense of History in Jewish Intertestamental Literature,” “Hasmonean Kingship and the Invention of Tradition,” “The Hasmoneans and the Uses of Hellenism,” “Roman Intervention in a Seleucid Siege of Jerusalem?,” “Dying For the Law: The Martyr’s Portrait in Jewish-Greek Literature;” PART TWO: “Ethnic Identities in Josephus,” “Friends, Romans, Subjects: Agrippa II’s Speech in Josephus’ Jewish War,” “Justus of Tiberius as a Jewish Historian,” ” Josephus and Justus of Tiberius,” ” The Against Apion and the Continuities in Josephus’ Political Thought,” “Ciò Che Flavio Giuseppe Vide: Josephus and the Essenes,” “Josephus and the ‘Archaeology’ of the Jews,” “Moses in Ethiopia: Legend and Literature,” “The Parthians in Josephus;” PART THREE: “Was There a Roman Charter for the Jews?,” “The Jewish Community and its Boundaries,” “Jews and Christians as Groups in a Pagan World,” “Benefactors in the Greco-Jewish Diaspora,” ” Archisynagogoi : Office, Title and Social Status in the Greco-Jewish Synagogue,” “Inscription and Context: Reading the Jewish Catacombs of Rome,” “Jews, Pagans and Christians in Late Antique Sardis: Models of Interaction,” “The Synagogue in the Greco-Roman City,” “The Rabbinic Dead and the Diaspora Dead as Beth She’arim;” PART FOUR: “Jews, Semites and their Cultures in Fergus Millar’s Roman Near East,” “Talking at Trypho: Christian Apologetic as Anti-Judaism in Justin’s Dialogue,” “Jews and Greeks: The Invention and Exploitation of Polarities in the Nineteenth Century.”

Inasmuch as these essays may be taken to share an overarching thesis or starting point, it is their author’s unswerving conviction that the “Hellenization” of groups or individuals cannot be measured by any externally derived, monolithic scale. Ethnic identity, as Jonathan Hall has pointed out, consists not primarily of indicia, but resides rather in self-definition, in categories and constellations generated by the actors themselves. To this paradigm shift Rajak adds the further methodological distinction that the study of Jewish identity in relation to Greek culture must differentiate between incipient acculturation (which need not even be conscious) and the deliberate use of Greek institutions or conventions as a tool of policy. “Hellenism” Rajak reserves for the latter. These two processes are separable, she argues, because the actors who encounter and engage them perceive them to be so. The topical and evidential diversity of Rajak’s research in this volume reflects the challenges created by this agenda.

Rajak wastes no time in tackling head-on the Hasmonean dynasty, whose career has traditionally been treated as the archetype of “Hellenism vs. Judaism as a zero-sum game.” In her incisive analysis of the rise of the Maccabees under Seleucid patronage, Rajak powerfully demonstrates that interdependence with Macedonian hegemony increased in direct — rather than inverse — proportion to Hasmonean efforts to present themselves in terms of traditional Israelite models of leadership: in coinage, literary production, and public pronouncements. The successors of Judas Maccabee, Rajak suggests, neither categorized their own actions, nor were categorized by others, in terms of degrees of “Greekness.” Rajak spends less time exploring the other side of this equation: to what extent the policies of the Hasmoneans (such as their forced circumcision of neighboring peoples) affected how “Jewishness” was conceived. Her suggestion (following Doron Mendels), that this novel tool of expansionism may have had more to do with a concept of territoriality than with a conversionist ethos, is a thought worth pursuing further.

Josephus is rarely absent from Rajak’s deliberations. His own multiple identities as native aristocrat, Flavian client, and expositor of Judaism to a Greek world renders him a natural centerpiece for the collection. Josephus’ substantial literary production adds important historiographic and rhetorical dimensions to Rajak’s account. Rejecting simplistic caricatures of Josephus as a mere Flavian apologist or facile purveyor of interpretatio Graecae, Rajak undertakes close readings of Herod Agrippa’s pre-revolt speech in Book 2 of the Jewish War, and of Josephus’ descriptions of the Essenes in relation to the literature of Qumran, in order to produce a nuanced view of the complex interface between historical veracity, authorial voice, and audience expectations. In the case of Agrippa, she concludes that, while the speech is a literary artifact of Josephus, it nonetheless plausibly reproduces attitudes Agrippa is likely to have held. Agrippa’s representation of Roman rule, though himself a beneficiary of it, falls well short of a benign view of empire (and hence should not be regarded as a mere cipher for Flavian ideology).

In the case of the Essenes, Rajak persuasively demonstrates that, while Josephus based his depiction of the Essenes in Book 2 of the Jewish War on first-hand knowledge, the sequence of rubrics he deploys to arrange this information has been modeled upon the categories of Greek ethnographic writing and, less directly, on Plato and Aristotle’s discussion of constitutional forms. This accounts not only for what details Josephus includes for his Greek audience but also which aspects of Essene life (derived from our knowledge of the Dead Sea Scrolls) he chooses to leave out. Rajak’s analysis operates on the premise that Qumran was, in fact, an Essene community (a matter of continued scholarly debate). While she makes a good case for this, it does not necessarily follow that the Qumranites were foremost in Josephus’ mind when he produced his description. Qumran may well have been Essene, but it need not have been representative of all Essenes. We should remain wary of Josephus’ simplification of Judaism into a triad of “philosophies” with unitary identities and mutually exclusive boundaries.

Part Three of this collection (the Mediterranean Diaspora) fittingly begins with Rajak’s groundbreaking — and still provocative — essay on Jewish civic status in the Roman world, which effectively demolishes the long-held notion that the Hellenistic polis was an ethnically bounded entity from which Jews were necessarily excluded, such that they required explicit legislation to make their standing secure. Rajak’s arguments need not be rehearsed here. What is significant about the essay’s inclusion in this collection is that the articles which follow it provide ample corroboration for its thesis on the basis of epigraphic evidence — not for Jewish privileges, but for the integration of Jewish communities into Greek cities through the informal ties of private benefaction. This is seen not only in the “donor inscriptions” of Aphrodisias and Acmonia, but equally by the honorary character of titles pertaining to “offices” of the Jewish community, most notably that of archisynagogos.

The counterpoint to Rajak’s emphasis on the synagogue is her questioning of the degree of rabbinic (i.e., Palestinian) influence on the forms of Jewish life in the Diaspora. Rajak’s assessment of this matter is largely negative, not with a view to minimizing the importance of the rabbinic movement to late antique Judaism but rather to emphasize the time it took for such influence to be exercised and felt abroad. Even in the holy land itself, as her critical appraisal of the tomb inscriptions of Beth She’arim indicates, the rabbis did not yet dominate social and religious life.

Rajak’s concluding essay is an exercise in modern intellectual and cultural history, rather than an analysis of ancient evidence; yet its relevance for the latter is obvious. As Rajak observes, the Romantic elevation of Hellenism to a cultural ideal by Herder, Renan and others set the terms in which Jewish history would be conceptualized in scholarly discourse as well as popular imagination during the 19th and into the 20th centuries. “Greekness” came to be defined by what it was not, and that was Judaism (or “Hebraism,” as the participants of that debate would have dubbed it). This legacy of oppositionally defined cultures is still with us today, and it is that which endows Rajak’s reorientation of the subject with enduring value.