BMCR 2006.01.50

Religion and Society in Roman Palestine. Old Questions, New Approaches

, Religion and society in Roman Palestine : old questions, new approaches. London/New York: Routledge, 2004. 1 online resource (xix, 194 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780203409565 $87.50.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Since the work done by Meyers,1 to whom the volume is dedicated, the region of Galilee has been at the forefront of archaeological research. The area and its environs have begun to play a substantial role in the reconstruction of Roman Palestine. This volume comprises a collection of thirteen papers that combine important archaeological and textual evidence for religion and society in Roman Palestine. The essays are written by a range of international experts (a full list of contributors is supplied at the end of the review).

In his foreword to the volume, Goodman says that many of the issues raised concerning the role played by the Jews in maintaining their own material culture, whilst at the same time seeming to adopt external gentile influences, “receive further attention here and go to the heart of the difficult issues about assimilation, acculturation, and the preservation of differences in a multi-cultural society”. Key themes in this volume include the nature of ethnicity and ritual, the character of public and private space in Jewish society, the role of gender and space, the role of peasants, the impact of Roman rule, and ritual and the regional framework of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In the Introduction Edwards (DE) provides the reader with a general appraisal of the contents of the volume and the rationale behind the work. Many contributors bring a wealth of archaeological expertise to their analysis as many have directed excavations in Palestine. As Edwards says, “Some of the most recent archaeological evidence is incorporated into their essays which give them an important and often unique archaeological slant”. The aim of the work is to present the latest findings on Roman Palestine using a multi-faceted approach combining archaeology and text to discern often complex aspects of religion and society in this province.

In the first essay (Chapter 2), Mordechai Aviam uses pottery, GCW ware (Galilean coarse ware), to locate an unknown Gentile population, which if correct offers a unique glimpse of a non-Jewish group about whom we have little information at present. His work also investigates further the demarcation of boundaries that existed between Jews and non-Jews. From the evidence MA makes a valid case for the urban transformation of the region in the days of Herod Antipas, when the region became a small but prosperous Jewish kingdom. Antipas’s building programme saw the restoration of older settlements such as Sepphoris and established the new cities, notably Tiberias, which grew and developed as the ‘Roman style’ cities of Jewish Galilee. One important point MA makes is that the walled cities of Josephus’s accounts have proven archaeologically to be inaccurate. The evidence also reveals that Josephus’s acts of fortification during his operations in Galilee indicate a kind of social organization, order and arrangement during troubled times. The town of Yodefat also contained a mansion with frescoes and is one of the first and best pieces of evidence for the existence of an upper class stratum of the society, only encountered through written accounts.

There is an interesting inscription on the base of a bronze figurine of Apis, found at Beer Sheba of Galilee. The inscription is in three languages, Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphs (the place where the object had most probably originated), and Aramaic. The Aramaic inscription reads ‘korban’, translated by MA as ‘sacrifice’. However, its exact meaning is ‘taboo’ or ‘dedicated to God,’ which gives a slightly different connotation. It is interesting to note that in the Old Testament ‘korban’ is used only in reference to Yahweh (i.e. a southern tradition) and never with Elohim (a northern tradition). The implications of this find could throw further light on the origin and use of the word amongst Jews, especially given the use of the word in the gospels of Matthew and Mark in connection with Jesus’ concern over its abuse.2

Avshalom-Gorni and Shaked also use pottery to present an intriguing look at the region of Galilee, initially under the control of Herod Philip, through an analysis of stone vessels and ceramics unearthed during the course of archaeological surveys in the region (Chapter 3). They demarcate boundaries between Jews and non-Jews and help to make clearer the cultural distinction between first-century Galilee and its environs and non-Jewish territory.

In Chapter 4 Morland addresses the village character of Galilee, drawing heavily on the work of the anthropologist James Scott. He considers how peasants in Galilee would have re-acted to the radical dictates of the Jesus movement associated by some scholars with the hypothetical Q document(s). He argues against the popular perception that Q portrays Jesus as a peasant, concluding that the message of Q would have had no impact with the agrarian-based peasants who did in fact reject the movement.

In chapter 5 Eshel and Edwards (EE & DE) investigate the importance of the language of Galilee in the Early Roman period. Constructions of a language field come from analysis of texts and large number of manuscripts found in Judaea and the surrounding areas.3 New findings from Yodefat, Jalame and Khibet Qana reveal the use of Aramaic by the lower classes. In 2000 a fragment of a cooking pot was unearthed at Khirbet Qana. The shard was dated by paleographic analysis to the end of the 1st century / beginning of 2nd century CE and was incised with letters of the alphabet (abecedary). This is the first abecedary to be found in a Jewish village of Galilee, and EE & DE suggest that it adds to a small corpus of evidence from Palestine as a whole that Aramaic, and perhaps Hebrew, was part of the lingua franca of the common people in the Early Roman period. They also suggest that artisans in this region had a modicum of literacy or at least showed a desire to acquire some rudimentary knowledge.4

The discovery of the Sepphoris mosaic in 19875 was certainly a significant one. As DE says, “Sepphoris serves as a starting point for addressing a difficult and provocative issue, the third century CE appearance and influence of pagan elements in a part of the city generally considered Jewish”. In Chapter 6 Freyne (SF) discusses the mosaic’s representations of a cultic scene with Dionysos as the central figure and a drunken Herakles participating in a Bacchic revelry. The mosaic is dated to the Severan period (3rd century CE) and has been thought to provide clear evidence for a pagan presence and possible practice here, while astonishingly only 40 metres away the rabbis were holding court. SF contends that the mosaic depictions were an effort made by one or more of the local elite to seek out favour with the Severans (who were closely associated with both cults).5 SF argues that the scene does not provide support for pagan practices for which no direct evidence has been found in Sepphoris at this period. He suggests that the mosaic is merely a vehicle with which to negotiate with Roman power. He cites the inscription from Kaisun in upper Galilee that offers prayers from the Jews for the safety of the emperor Septimius Severus and his sons. The inscription was found in the remains of a building, possibly a synagogue but more probably a pagan temple, which would make mention of the Jews all the more remarkable. Nonetheless, the inscription highlights the special relationship between the Jews and the Severans. Certainly more than one such mosaic can be found in the Syro-Palestinian area to lend credence to SF’s contention.

This theme of intersection of Roman, local and regional power is continued in Chapter 8 in which Chancey examines the changing depictions on coinage. He demonstrates that the coins show the decreasing autonomy of Jewish rulers as Roman portraiture becomes increasingly integral on Herod Agrippa II’s presentations, exemplifying the increasing role taken by Roman officials in the government of this province.

Sandwiched between these two chapters is Levine’s (LL) article on the evidence for, and character of, first century synagogues throughout Palestine (Chapter 7). L sets out his agenda which is to address some of more controversial issues relating to [or “regarding”] the vast amount of material for first century synagogues in Palestine. LL discusses some of the fundamental methodological issues and suggests a different approach to understanding the first century synagogue. He begins with the theory that the synagogue had Egyptian origins, and after a brief overview of the evidence concludes that this was not the case. Next he examines the theory that Graeco-Roman institutions were models for the synagogue. In particular he discusses the work done by Flesher.6 LL then argues that Kee’s claims “that a distinctive synagogue building never existed in Palestine until the third century”7 overlooks important evidence for first century synagogues written about by Josephus. LL also demonstrates that Kee’s treatment of the Theodotos inscription leaves much to be desired.

The relationship between the first-century synagogue and the Jerusalem Temple is another issue where new theories are being advanced. Recent studies by Kasher and also by Strange8 suggest that there was no inherent tension between the two establishments. However, the Temple had a significant degree of influence over the synagogue. These theories are nonetheless problematic and the most comprehensive presentation of this line of argument has come from Binder in his detailed survey of first century synagogues.9 The evidence for the establishment of synagogues in the first century comes from the unearthing of a number of pre-70 Judaean sites, at Qiryat Sefer, Modi’in, Jericho, Horvat Etri and Ostia (which although excavated some forty years ago still leaves many issues unresolved, and the final report still awaits publication).

As LL notes, despite the flourishing state of studies of the Second Temple synagogue there are still many challenging methodological issues to be addressed. First, there is a paucity of evidence; second, how do we define the term synagogue? Other questions arise. For example, what was the nature of the institution? How did they originate? What are its origins? How reliable are the historical resources? What were the challenges of parallelism? And finally, there are questions pertaining to the synagogue and the Temple society. LL suggests a theory that is at variance with most of the arguments advanced so far. He contends that the implications of the synagogue’s communal dimension were far-reaching, affecting most of issues discussed. The character of the synagogue evolved on a local level without close ties to any central structure and became a physical presence for local communities and not simply a literary construct for later periods. His theory has much value and progresses the idea of communal activity, as evidenced in the number of Late Antique inscriptions from Palestine.

The issue of public space is addressed in a different way by Baker (Chapter 9). She does not accept the theory that women stayed at home while only men performed public acts. She cites rabbinic discourses and architectural remains to argue that many of these ‘private’ activities were in fact public in character. Peskowitz (Chapter 10) gives an alternative view, namely, that gendered activity existed, especially with regard to weaving. Women had to use the old style loom, while men could use the newer version as well as the old one. Rabbinic comments suggest that the old weaving style had continued much longer than suggested by the archaeological evidence.

The ever continuing debate over ritual and the appropriate use of archaeological and textual material for the Dead Sea Scrolls is dealt with in the final three articles on Qumran and its relation to these scrolls. Magness (Chapter 11) examines the ritual character of the Essene sect. JM’s essay builds on the association of text with site by examining the ritual character of jars used to house the scrolls. JM contends that the jars were created for the purpose of purity and were the most appropriate containers to hold these sacred texts.

Eshel and Broshi (Chapter 12) also maintain that the Qumran community comprised Essenes. HE & MB examine the various views on the subject and conclude that the Essene hypothesis remains the most viable. Zangenburg (Chapter 13) argues that constructs that associate the texts and the site before establishing the regional character of the site misunderstand the character of both. Using Meyers, JZ argues that a regional approach is a vital starting point. The authors conclude that the community may well have been Essene, but the evidence of trading associations and ceramics clearly show a settlement integrated into the regional trade network, making its location not especially suitable for a secret, monastic style community so often postulated for the Essenes. JZ’s position is that, “the common ground between settlement and those who brought the Scrolls was a concern for Jewish practice and a desire to protect the Scrolls from the Romans”.

Although it is difficult to single out specific contributions for special comment, those of Levine and Zangenberg in particular will, I believe, stimulate fresh debate concerning first-century Palestine and its institutions. Overall the purpose of the work is achieved: the issues discussed in this volume provide an unprecedented overview of acculturation, assimilation and the preservation of difference in the multicultural climate of Palestine in the Roman period. Individually the essays provide a range of new source material for those interested in the complex relationship between religious symbols and ideologies, and the everyday world in which they operated.


1. Constructing the world of Roman Palestine: an introduction, D.R. Edwards;

2. First century Jewish Galilee: an archaeological perspective, M. Aviam;

3. Jewish settlement in the southeastern Hula Valley in the first century CE, I. Shaked & D. Avshalom-Gorni;

4. The Galilean response to earliest Christianity: a cross-cultural study of the subsistence ethic, M. Moreland;

5. Language and writing in early Roman Galilee: social location of a potter’s abecedary from Khirbet Qana, E. Eshel & D. Edwards;

6. Dionysos and Herakles in Galilee: The Sepphoris mosaic in context, S.Freyne;

7.The first century synagogue: critical reassessments and assessments of the critical, L.I. Levine;

8. City coins and Roman power in Palestine: from Pompey to the Great Revolt, M. Chancey;

9. Imagined households, C. Baker;

10. Gender, difference, and everyday life: the case of weaving and its tools, M. Peskowitz;

11. Why scroll jars? J. Magness;

12. Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls: the contention of twelve theories, M. Broshi & H. Eshel;

13. Opening up your view: Khirbet Qumran in a regional perspective, J. Zangenberg.


1. Meyers, E.M. (1977) ‘The Cultural Setting of Galilee: A Case for Regionalism and Early Judaism’, in W. Haase & H. Temporini (eds.) ANRW II 19/1, (Berlin: de Gruyter) pp. 687-702.

2. The biblical references to ‘korban’ can be found in Lev. 1.2; Mark 7.11-13; Matt. 15.5. Another use of the word in an inscription can be seen in Fitzmyer, J. A. ‘The Aramaic Qorban Inscription from Jebel Hallet et Turi’ JBL 78 (1959) pp.60-5.

3. Millard, A.P. 2000 Reading and Writing in the time of Jesus, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press).

4. Harris, W. 1989 Ancient Literacy (Cambridge MA:Harvard University Press).

5. According to Leah di Segni the idea of a founder cult in some cities is especially associated with the second and third centuries, usually with Imperial intervention. See Di Segni, L. 1977 ‘A Dated Inscription from Beth Shean and the cult of Dionysos Kristes in Roman Scythopolis’ SCI 16: pp.139-161.

6. Flesher, P.V.M 2001 ‘Prolegomenon to a Theory of Early Synagogue Development’, in A.J.Avery-Peck & J. Neusner (eds.) Judaism in Late Antiquity, pt 3, vol. 4 (Leiden: Brill) pp.121-53.

7. Kee, H. 1990 ‘The Transformation of the Synagogue after 70 CE: Its Import for Early Christianity’, NTS 36: 1-24.

8. Kasher, A. 1995 ‘Synagogues as Houses of ‘Prayer’ and ‘Holy Places’ in the Jewish Communities of Hellenistic and Roman Egypt’, in D. Urman & P. Flesher (eds.) Ancient Synagogue: Historical Analysis and Archaeological Discovery, 2 vols, (Leiden: Brill). I, pp.205-20; Strange, J.F. 1999 ‘Ancient Texts., Archaeology as Text, and the Problem of the First Century Synagogue’, in H. Kee & L. Cohick (eds.) Evolution of the Synagogue: Problems and Progress (Harrisberg, PA: Trinity Press International) pp.27-45.

9. Binder, D. 1999 Into the Temple Courts: The Place of the Synagogues in the Second Temple Period (Atlanta GA: Scholars Press).