BMCR 2006.03.49

Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology

, Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman world : toward a new Jewish archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xvii, 267 pages : illustrations ; 28 cm. ISBN 9780521844918 $75.00.

Table of Contents

Jewish Studies, like classical ones, are interdisciplinary by nature. A scholar of Jewish art and archaeology, in theory, should be well-versed in monuments, objects, and texts. The traditional path for classical archaeologists has been Latin and Greek languages and literature first, followed by training with visual and material evidence. By the late 19th century, once “archaeology saps the authority of the text,” the relationship between words and things altered irreversibly.1 Today’s students of the Greco-Roman world, be they specialists in Pindar, Polybius or the Parthenon are expected to gain familiarity with classics “as a whole, in all its manifestations,” to quote Sir John Beazley.2 Via the American Academy in Rome, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and like institutions representing and located in other countries, the ideal classicist is introduced to sites, field archaeology techniques, conservation, and cataloguing. In an effort to produce both responsible and original research, theory and method are expected to find their place as well. With Steven Fine’s new book we confront Jewish archaeology in all its manifestations. The author writes “from the premise that Jewish art in antiquity was a ‘minority’ or ‘ethnic’ art,” (3) existing beneath a much larger, perhaps even daunting, Greco-Roman umbrella.

Readers should not be misled by the book’s title. This is not a standard presentation of ancient Jewish art or archaeology. In fact, art seems almost secondary in importance. It is not to be recommended as an introductory text, nor is it suitable for the uninitiated. We must look elsewhere for studies devoted to specific objects or structures, for chronological overviews, as well as to published catalogues (both raisonné and exhibition) — all of which continue to be produced with a certain amount of vigor and necessity in this discipline. Expectedly, there is also virtual access: the Center for Jewish Art located at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, hosts a database of all periods and types of Jewish art, including an exclusive ancient category. Fine’s book, by contrast, is a book of ideas, and, as we might expect from a scholar trained in rabbinic literature, a book of questions. At the same time, the relevant major artistic media — mosaic, painting, architecture, coins, relief and free-standing sculpture, gold glass — are allowed varying amounts of attention. The book is well-illustrated with maps, plans, art, artifacts, and archival photographs. The layout is basically thematic, if a little confusing and at times difficult to follow. A chapter-by-chapter reading may leave some with the impression that this is more a series of essays than a cohesive book-length project, and indeed several chapters derive from the author’s earlier publications.3

Fine opens with the unavoidable questions of what is Jewish art, what is Jewish about Jewish art, and ultimately who is qualified to study it. It is useful to learn that there is no Hebrew word for “art” per se until the 20th century, and readers are reminded of the same problem with both Greek ( techne) and Aramaic ( umanut) terminology (3). There is also the problem of “Jewish archaeology” and how to define such a category. Some may still hear Biblical (even Holy Land) archaeology, while others envision the material remains of Eretz Israel and the diaspora from Hellenistic to Islamic times. The book’s subtitle, “Toward a New Jewish Archaeology”, has little to do with the phrase “New Archaeology” as it is understood by many. However, Fine uses language carefully throughout, applying it to Jewish and non-Jewish contexts, as well as from Zionist and Christian perspectives. In its entirety, the book may be explained as a historiographical exploration of a sometimes misrepresented topic. This approach is anticipated already on page 5, where we are given quotations by three major contributors to the Jewish art field: Ludwig Blau, Cecil Roth, and Rachel Hachlili. A bit too much can be made of their different perspectives, which are reflections, at least in part, of the natural evolution of humanities scholarship across disciplines. A parallel example from Greek art might be in comparing the published works of Bernard Ashmole, Olga Palagia, and Nigel Spivey on Classical sculpture. Although Fine claims to have shifted his academic focus from modernist to postmodernist, his handling of both archaeological and textual sources is responsible and competent, his research aims carefully articulated and convincing.

Art and Judaism is divided into four parts: “Modern Constructions of Ancient Jewish Art,” “Art and Identity in the Greco-Roman World,” “Jewish ‘Symbols’ in the Greco-Roman World,” and “Art and Liturgy of Late Antique Synagogues.” Part One opens rather unexpectedly with a chapter devoted to Philadelphia’s Henry S. Frank Memorial Synagogue dedicated in 1901 by the architect Arnold W. Brunner. Fine argues that the building’s architecture was inspired by archaeological discoveries and remains. At the same time, he sets up his approach to both ancient and modern material, the importance he places on context, and themes such as awareness, identity, time, and space that permeate his book. The Frank Synagogue further encourages comparison with another group — the Antiochian Orthodox Christians who immigrated to America from the Middle East (Lebanon and Syria) around that date, but have only recently begun constructing churches in a traditional Byzantine style.4 The following chapters in this section have both methodological aims and a reflective quality. Each handles a different aspect of Jewish Archaeology’s past and present: the Zionist Narrative, the Search for Nonrabbinic Judaism, [Art History] Textbooks and the Rhetoric of Jewish Artlessness, and finally the author’s own New Jewish Archaeology. Of particular interest to many classical readers will be the fourth chapter, which explores the place of Jewish art in canonical Art History textbooks. The problem of place is further observable in many American institutions — namely, that Jewish art is mostly done in departments of Jewish Studies rather than in departments of Art History. As a result, the subject remains marginalized from the mainstream of art historical research and dialogue.5

Part Two comprises three chapters united by the common theme of identity. Fine examines Jewish attitudes toward art in antiquity, drawing on monuments, literature, and theories of acculturation. This is a particularly timely addition to the publication, as the topic is of general current interest. He quotes extensively from Jonathan Hall on the subject of ethnicity in ancient Greece, and believes Hall’s categories to be applicable to the Greco-Roman Jewish situation (58). Illustrating these points with attention to both geography and chronology, the primary subjects are the Hasmonean Royal Tombs at Modi’in (latter Second Temple Judaea), the Na’aran Synagogue (late antique Palestine), and “From Nehardea to Rome” (later antique diaspora). Idolatry, Josephus, hiddur mitzvah (“beautification of the commandment”), and the Sardis Synagogue each make their appearance in this section as well. In the conclusion to this part of the book the author is unambiguous: “Jews participated fully in the visual culture of their times” (134).

Readers reared on E.R. Goodenough’s multi-volume Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period will naturally be drawn to Part Three. Identification, description, and meaning are addressed in relation to two chosen “Jewish symbols”: the date palm and the menorah. The palm’s popularity is well-attested on ancient coinage minted by both Romans and Jews. Our author shuns over-interpretation with the example of past numismatists either mistaking the image for a fig or orange tree or believing it to be a symbol of the menorah. Fine himself offers a typically archaeological, indeed common sense explanation — Judaea was famous in antiquity for its dates. The menorah, by contrast is “the Jewish symbol par excellence … signifying Jews and Judaism from the Roman period until the present” (139). It was produced as both a freestanding object and as a decorative motif in a variety of artistic media. Issues of influence and reception are implied once the Christian context is introduced. As for Goodenough, we learn much earlier in the book about his overall contribution to the field, the impact of his writings, and the criticisms of his approach. It seems Goodenough did not read Hebrew, and knew rabbinic literature only from translations. That being said, his work remains highly accessible to classicists, who can easily appreciate it despite some dated views.

The final part of Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World best represents Fine’s personal scholarly touch. One of the book’s overarching themes — art and liturgy — is explicitly stated in the title of Part Four. The focus of the three chapters therein is the architecture and adornment of late antique synagogues. Fine reinserts the human element by encouraging readers to imagine the ancient space of the synagogue as a “stage” for liturgical performance. His call for a more “holistic interpretation” is demonstrated in the chapter on Dura Europos; here his ancient “actor” would have experienced the famous wall-paintings during moments of Jewish prayer. To answer the question of how the synagogue functioned as a religious space, he turns specifically to a fragmentary Hebrew prayer parchment discovered on the west side of the synagogue in 1932. Fine analyzes the text philologically, and thankfully includes the text in Hebrew and in English translation. He goes on to incorporate the building and the paintings into the discussion and, as a result, adds a fresh perspective to the readings of this sacred space. Similarly, the chapter on mosaics combines standard interpretations of some well-known scenes with “literary” material (e.g., Qaddish prayer, Cairo Genizah, piyyutim) less familiar to many classicists.

In the final analysis, readers will detect two large themes in this book. The first, just mentioned, is the relationship, sometimes uneasy and not always obvious, between image and text. The second, to quote the author himself is that “context is everything” (157), be it ancient or modern, Jewish or Greco-Roman. While claims to “get into the ‘heads’ and ‘bodies'” of any ancient peoples should be met with a certain amount of skepticism (213), Fine’s clever interweaving of a number of individual threads produces a reasonable model for contemporary classicists to follow.


1. C. Stray, Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England, 1830-1960 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 149.

2. “Training of Archaeologists, University Training”, in Greek Vases: Lectures by J.D. Beazley, ed. D.C. Kurtz (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 99.

3. See xv, n. 3.

4. P.M. Kayal, “So, Who are We? Who am I?”, in A Community of Many Worlds: Arab Americans in New York City, ed. K. Benson and P.M. Kayal (New York: The Museum of the City of New York, 2002), 90-106.

5. D. Summers, Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism (London: Phaidon Press, 2003), 140-52, is stepping in the right direction.