BMCR 2005.09.03

Remains of the Jews: The Holy Land and Christian Empire in Late Antiquity

, Remains of the Jews : the holy land and Christian empire in late antiquity. Divinations. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004. xiv, 249 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0804747059. $55.00.

In 1925, the Jewish theologian Leo Baeck observed that Christian engagement with Judaism insured the existence of Jewish ideas: “the history of the dogmas of the Church is actually a history of Judaism within the Church….Judaism has an indestructible life by reason of its ideas; it can be fought against, and it can be forced to give ground, and yet it always becomes reanimated.”1

Despite his several problematic assumptions — the totalizing discourse, reducing the history of religions to the history of ideas, and defining Judaism as practice and Christianity as faith — two insights of Baeck merit attention. 1) He distinguishes Judaism from a Christian conception of Judaism. 2) This distinction enables Baeck to understand Christian theology as a persistent engagement with Judaism. Similarly, Andrew Jacobs differentiates between actual Jews of Late Antiquity and their discursive representation in Christian literature. Also like Baeck, Jacobs explains how the concept of Jews defined Christian identity. Unlike Baeck, however, Jacobs concentrates on people rather than ideas. According to Jacobs, post-Constantinian Christian dominance of the Roman Empire necessitated a redefinition of Christian identity from an oppressed minority to an imperial authority. The holy land became the discursive locus for mapping an imperial Rome on to an imperial Christianity. Jacobs avoids historical claims about real encounters between Jews and Christians. Such concentration on the rhetoric of dominance naturally leads Jacobs to the unique feature of his work: the application of postcolonial criticism. I found Jacobs’ use of postcolonial criticism both illuminating and problematic.

Revising his Duke University doctoral dissertation, Jacobs divides Remains of the Jews into four parts: “Introduction,” “Knowledge,” “Power,” and “Conclusion.” In the “Introduction,” Jacobs describes his difference from current scholarly trends, his unique methodology, and the paradigm-shifting character of his conclusions. Since the fourth century marks the merger of Roman and Christian imperial interests against the backdrop of a rhetorical culture, the period experienced the constant renegotiation of imperial power. Therefore, rather than explore Late Antique multiculturalism, Jacobs reasonably applies postcolonial criticism in order to investigate the relationship between language and power (p.7). The constant renegotiation of power produces an inherent instability. Postcolonial studies provides an advantageous theoretical model by emphasizing both the “instability and materiality of colonialist identities” (p.9). Following Mary Louise Pratt, Jacobs calls the holy land a “contact zone” where cultures meet and clash, an ideal place for plotting asymmetrical power relations. In the holy land theological and intellectual assumptions interact with the material, economic, and actual appropriation of the “‘other’s space” (p.10).

Part two includes two chapters dealing with knowledge. Drawing on Said, Spivak, and Bhabha, Jacobs argues that the colonizer exercises control through “knowing” the other, but this discourse of knowing paradoxically empowers the colonized subject. In Chapter Two, “‘Full Knowledge’: Jews and the Totality of Christian Empire”, J. asserts that after Constantine, Christians controlled inferiors as objects to be known (p.24) and that a primary object to be controlled was Jews (p.25). We perceive this supersession of Jews by Christians articulated through the “epistemic totality” of Eusebius’s Praeparatio Evangelica and Onomastikon, Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catecheses, and Epiphanius’s Panarion. Although explicitly distinguishing between pre-Mosaic Hebrews and post-Mosaic Jews, Eusebius does not apply the terminology consistently. The blurring of Jews with Hebrews in Christian discourse underscores the historical continuum of Hebrews evolving into Christians rather than the reality of Jews coexisting with Christians (pp.29-34). Cyril’s Jews, however, are not ancient Hebrew ghosts but the threatening unbelievers of the New Testament. Cyril, seeking to inculcate a universal Church in his catechumens, presents Jews as bogeymen to be disarmed by trinitarian doctrine (pp.38-40). Jews (as well as catechumens) becoming Christians also reflects imperial Christian ideology. Thus, Jacobs insightfully shows how Epiphanius’s account of Joseph of Tiberias establishes the holy land as a “frontier zone” where the Jew is the object to be known and controlled (p.48-49). Applying postcolonial criticism to Epiphanius makes eminent sense because he explicitly describes the Panarion as a totalizing discourse that controls and defeat these heresies through knowledge (pp.44-45).

The view that inner knowledge of Judaism enables its defeat naturally draws attention to Origen and Jerome who constantly utilize Jewish knowledge. In chapter three “‘Captive Judaea’: The Production of Jewish Knowledge,” Jacobs addresses in postcolonial terms the conundrum of Jerome’s severe critique of Judaism coexisting with his painstakingly acquired and constantly applied Hebrew erudition. Jerome’s knowledge reflects an attempt to master the Jewish threat by exerting authority over Jews through extensive knowledge of Judaism (p.60). Origen, in contrast, uses Jewish knowledge apologetically to defend Christianity against the pagan and Jewish critique (p.61). The difference can be explained chronologically: in Origen’s time Christians lacked political power (p.66). Exploiting knowledge about Jews in order to form Christian identity is inherently unstable, however, because it ascribes a sweetness to Hebrew erudition (p.98). Knowing the heretical ideology can have a formative effect.

With the increasing popularity of pilgrimage to the holy land, ignorance was not an option. In chapter four, “‘A Province like Paradise’: Jews in Christian Travel Writing, Jacobs classifies the Bordeaux Pilgrim, Egeria, and the Piacenza Pilgrim under four rubrics of imperializing discourse: historicization, textualization, aestheticization, and ritualization (p.108). Describing only dead Jews from the biblical past, like Eusebius, the Bordeaux pilgrim historicizes the Jew as an object to be viewed, not encountered (p.112). Egeria covers similar ground, but relegates Jews to the ancient scriptural text, not historical space. Egeria implies that actual Christians have replaced textual Jews (pp.119-121). Aestheticization is defined as generating a value judgement on a sacred place through the sensory experience of the pilgrims (p.124). Thus, the reference to good-looking Jewesses of Nazareth by the Piacenza Pilgrim represents a veiled discourse of imperial Christian power. The Jewesses merely exist as objects of Christian sensory enjoyment. Ritualization differs from the other three rubrics because it performs, rather than discursively creates, hierarchy. For example, following the Bordeaux pilgrim, the Christian would receive baptism in Constantine’s basilica on Golgotha after passing Jews mourning on the Temple mount. The contrast in rituals explicitly represents the triumph of imperial Christianity over the politically and religiously dispossessed Jews (pp.133-134).

In chapter five, “The Exalted City: Christian Jerusalem and the Jews,” Jerusalem emerges as the locus for “reimagining imperial religious and cultural identity” (p.141). Jacobs demonstrates how imperial monuments, empresses, and monastic life associated with Jerusalem construct an imperial Christian identity against a Jewish background. In his Hegelian “Conclusion: Reconsidering Jewish-Christian Relations,” (pp.200-209), Jacobs situates his work between Harnack’s Jews who function as rhetorical straw men in Christian disputation literature and Marcel Simon’s Jews who posed a real threat to Christianity. For Jacobs, Jews are a rhetorical construct, but a substantive construct made (and constantly) remade of bricks, not straw. Here, Jacobs ambitiously argues for a new paradigm governing the understanding of Christian-Jewish relations. Refusing to separate rhetoric from reality, Jacobs asserts that rhetoric about Jews had real implications: discourse established Christian identity based on Christian power. The ideology “to be Christian means to dominate Jews” inevitably translates into real actualization of this dominance, i.e., into “colonizing” the holy land.

Applying a theoretical model to familiar material raises two questions. Does Jacobs present a new or nuanced understanding of the evidence, and does theory control the evidence or does evidence control the theory?

In order to demonstrate how he reorients our thinking about Jewish-Christian relations (p.8), Jacobs asserts that scholars characterize Late Antiquity as a model of multiculturalism (p.6). Utilizing postcolonial studies, Jacobs, in contrast, takes seriously the fact of Christian power, the mechanics of forming Christian identity, and the instability of an identity that requires constant renegotiation. Here Jacobs overdetermines the multicultural emphasis of current scholarship. Recent work on Late Antiquity exposes the permeability of boundaries between pagans, Jews, and Christians without denying very real tensions and attempts to reinscribe these boundaries.2 Thus, Jacobs’s focus on the re-formation of permeable boundaries should be view as a nuanced extension, not a new understanding, of contemporary research. The section on Jerome exemplifies how theory provides a new vocabulary that clarifies rather than fundamentally alters our thinking. Without using postcolonial terminology, scholars have long recognized the “instability” of Jerome’s identity. For example, Harald Hagendahl takes the dream of Epistle 22 as a starting point to explore whether Jerome was a Ciceronian or a Christian and argues that he gradually increased his use of Classical authors.3 What is gained by postcolonial criticism then would not be a new way of reading the evidence but rather painting the evidence into the canvas of a larger imperial project.

In the section on Eusebius, theory almost constructs newness. The idea that Eusebius fashions a totalizing discourse expresses in postcolonial terms a basic premise of Walter Bauer’s work — namely, that the idea of orthodoxy beginning from the time of Jesus was a construct imposed on history by Eusebius.4 Reading the Praeparatio and Onomastikon as an imperial attempt to impose a comprehensive understanding of Christianity represents not a radical new approach but an extension of a well-established view of Nicene and Eusebian ideology.5 In order to establish his reading of Eusebius as new, Jacobs tends to prefer the influence of imperial Christianity to Classical literature in his discourse about criminals, heretics, and pagans (p.25). Yet the work of Momigliano, among others, clearly indicates that Eusebius used the Classical tradition of ethnography to understand otherness. Moreover, Momigliano anticipated postcolonial theory by arguing that Romans sought to know others in order to conquer them.6

Similarly, Jacobs insightfully claims that, imbued with ambivalence and anxiety, Jerusalem is a place where “the Jewish ‘other’ was at once expelled and internalized, erased and appropriated, the signifier of Christian difference that could never be totally eradicated but must always leave traces for the imperial Christian to master” (p.142). How much different, however, is Augustine’s supersessionist notion that Jews are to be preserved as a degraded reminder of Christian superiority? In a sense, Augustine preserves the Jews so that the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Mt. 21:33-46) can be continually reenacted. Christians should always experience the transfer of the kingdom from the Jews to themselves.7 The encoding of Augustinian theology into the decrees of Gregory the Great, and the resulting paradoxical relationship between Jews and Christians in the Medieval period, confirms Jacob’s claim that this Late Antique discourse of Jews could engender real consequences.8

Thus, it is unclear to me how the “reading of Christian texts on Jews as documents of colonial power” fundamentally changes our perspective on Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire (p.17). The idea that Christians sought to dominate Jews and Judaism would not be new. The idea that Christian texts should be read as a discursive strategy to “colonize” Jews may nuance our understanding about these texts, but it is hardly radical to suggest that Christians sought to dominate Jews (theoretically or actually) or that Late Antique literature can be read as discourses of domination. Moreover, we have already seen how Baeck anticipates the view that Christian opposition paradoxically animates Judaism.

In addition to overdetermining the newness of the general thesis, theory can obscure the reading of the evidence. In order to distinguish between Christians as colonized and as colonist, Jacobs overdraws the chronological distinctions between 2nd/3rd and 4th/5th century Christianity. Thus, the fact that martyrdom texts and cults became increasingly popular after Constantine make it difficult to accept Jacobs’s claim that Christians moved from understanding themselves as “suffering” subjects to an authoritative identity (p.23).9 Similarly, Jacobs attributes the differences between Origen and Jerome to their dates, not their Greek and Latin backgrounds (p.61). In fact, Jacobs tends to discount the significance of an author’s Classical influences. For Jacobs, Jerome’s singing Jewish ploughman evokes the Judaeus biblicus (p.74), although a Vergilian pastoral image is no less plausible. Even an author’s Christian background can receive short shrift. The Jewish threat exploited by Cyril derives, it would seem, from the Jews inhabiting the holy land (pp.37-44), not, say, the Gospel of John, which also portrays Jews as the stubborn opponents of Christianity. Jacobs’s scheme also produces some rather odd descriptions of Christian literature. Jacobs not only categorizes Jerome’s Book of Hebrew Names and Book of Hebrew Questions on Genesis as similar works, but also as demonstrating that Jewish knowledge is restricted to geography (pp.74-76). While this may accurately describe the Book of Names, it hardly reflects the Hebrew Questions.10 Among such numerous disputable readings of the evidence that seem to reflect the predominance of theory, one instance stands out. Jacobs has a tendency to translate “Hebrews” as “Jews” (e.g., pp.56, 82, and 129). Such a translation supports the notion that Christians relegated contemporary Jews to a hoary biblical past. However, I am not certain that the blurring of the Eusebian distinction applies universally enough to justify equating “Jew” and “Hebrew”. Moreover, Jacobs constantly refers to biblical characters as Jews, even when the text does not inscribe them as such. Even Job appears as Jew (p.119), although patristic exegetes unanimously viewed him as a gentile.11

Let me make clear that we should not eschew theory. Jacobs makes some important contributions. For example, he cautions us against assuming that the vitality of Judaism necessarily entailed the vitality of Christian-Jewish relations (pp.205-206). In addition, some readings are quite insightful. On pp. 48-50 there is an excellent interpretation of the Joseph of Tiberias story in Epiphanius: the liminality of Joseph as convert appears in combination with a connection between Joseph’s knowledge and his defeat of the Jews. Here, the postcolonial reading of the Joseph story as a folktale highlights its ideology of powerful dominance of the other through knowledge. Similarly, when Jacobs identifies the structure of the inventio story — knowledgeable Jew who conceals Christian secrets retrieved by imperial hand through trickery or force (p. 190) — the colonialist thinking becomes clear.

Despite these substantive criticisms of the work, Jacobs is to be commended for a comprehensive, engaging, and thoughtful analysis of Late Antique Christian literature. I also found the writing excellent, even beautiful in spots, and this made the work a pleasure to read. I am grateful to the author for teaching me a great deal about postcolonial theory in addition to stimulating my thinking about Late Antiquity. It should be a must read for anyone interested in Late Antique Christian literature. I look forward to future contributions from this fine scholar.


1. Leo Baeck, “Judaism in the Church,” Hebrew Union College Annual, 2 (1925) 125-144, reprinted in Jewish Perspectives on Christianity, edited by Fritz Rothschild, New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1990, pp. 101, 107-108.

2. See, for example, Garth Fowden, “Religious Communities” in Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, Glen Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar, edd., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, pp.82-106; Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E., Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001; Peter Brown Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992; Glen Bowersock, Hellenism in Late Antiquity, Jerome Lectures, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990; Daniel Boyarin, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999; and Averil Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

3. Harald Hagendahl, Latin Fathers and the Classics: A Study of the Apologists, Jerome, and Other Christian Writers, Göteborg/Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1958. Similarly, Adam Kamesar, Jerome, Greek Scholarship and the Hebrew Bible, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993 essentially seeks to define Jerome’s identity as a scholar (a recentiores-rabbinic philologist). Neil Adkin “Some Features of Jerome’s Compositional Technique in the Libellus de Virginitate Servanda (Epist. 22),” Philologus 136 (1992) 234-255, has argued that Jerome exploits his Hebrew and Classical knowledge to create an authoritative persona. That Rufinus criticizes Jerome’s affinity to paganism and Judaism indicates that he sensed the instability of Jerome’s identity.

4. Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, eds. Robert A. Kraft and Gerhard Krodel, trans. by Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins, appendices by Georg Strecker, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971. See also, Thomas A. Robinson, The Bauer Thesis Examined: The Geography of Heresy in the Early Christian Church, Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988, pp.4-5.

5.See, for example, Timothy Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981, pp.211, 265-271. To be sure, Jacobs differs substantially from Barnes in numerous details, but they share the general view that Eusebius’s writings reflect a Constantinian ideology that combines Christianity and Roman imperialism. The Council of Nicea also exemplifies how constructing unity is implicated in negotiating an imperial Christianity.

6.Arnaldo Momigliano, Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975, especially pp.50-73. Momigliano argues that Roman sought genuine knowledge about others in order to conquer them in fact, while postcolonialists argue that knowledge itself is a form of conquest with a real effect, although not necessarily actualized in concrete institutional structures.

7.See Christopher Leighton, “Christian Theology After the Shoah,” in Christianity in Jewish Terms, edited by Tikva Frymer-Kensky, et al., Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2000, p.38.

8.See Kenneth Stow, Alienated Minority: The Jews of Medieval Europe, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992, pp.18, 23-24.

9. See, for example, Judith Perkins, The Suffering Self: Pain and Narrative Representation in the Early Christian Era, London: Routledge, 1995, pp.200-214. Suffering, including martyrdom, remained a part of Christian identity.

10. Hillel Newman, “Jerome and the Jews,” Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 1997, [Hebrew] has shown that Jerome derives a wide variety of information from his Jewish informants besides geography.

11. Judith R. Baskin, Pharaoh’s Counsellors. Job, Jethro, and Balaam in Rabbinic and Patristic Tradition, Chico, Ca., 1983, pp.32-43.