BMCR 2022.09.13

Jews and their Roman rivals: pagan Rome’s challenge to Israel

, Jews and their Roman rivals: pagan Rome's challenge to Israel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021. Pp. 552. ISBN 9780691199290. $45.00.


Rabbi Levi said: when Solomon married [the daughter of] Pharaoh Necho the king of Egypt [see 1 Kgs 3:1], [the angel] Michael came down and placed a reed in the sea, and the sediment accumulated [around it] and became a great wood, and that is the great city of Rome. On the day that Jeroboam set up two calves of gold [see 1 Kgs 12:28], Romulus and Remus built two huts in Rome. On the day that Elijah was taken away [see 2 Kings 1:11], a king was set up in Rome, [and until that time] “There was no king in Edom, a deputy was king” [1 Kgs 22:47]. (Palestinian Talmud, Avoda Zara 1:3, ed. Venice 39c)

In this passage from the Palestinian Talmud, written in the Roman empire, under Roman power, there is alternative history of Rome. This fourth-century text explicitly links events in Rome’s past—from its geological formation to its founding as a political entity—to events in Israel’s biblical past. Rome, the city whose empire destroyed the Jerusalem temple, occupied earth that was created by Israel’s ancient sins and misdeeds. In far-off Italy, unbeknownst to the biblical Israelites, Rome was made great because of Israel’s sins, which ultimately came back to haunt them when, centuries later, the Jews fell under Roman dominion.

This text is one of many discussed by Katell Berthelot in Jews and Their Roman Rivals, a work that offers a broad argument regarding the cultural heritage of ancient Judaism: the encounter of ancient Jews with Romans was substantively different than any earlier encounters Jews (or Judaeans) had with other imperial powers. Ancient Jews read the Roman people, and its imperium, as similar in structure and form to the Jewish people, its city, and its Torah. This reading led to Jews viewing Rome and Romans as especially and differently challenging, on the one hand, and especially and differently worthy of emulation, on the other.

The book is laid out in five chapters: the first sets the stage by surveying the ways in which Jews “coped” with empires before Rome. This chapter is a repository of scholarship and synthesis on the various ways in which ancient Jews developed and innovated in cultural dialogue with the various cultures which wielded imperial power over them. Starting from the Neo-Assyrians, through the Neo-Babylonians and Achaemenids, and culminating with Seleucids (interestingly skipping over the Ptolemies), Berthelot points to the marks left on ancient Jewish literature, thought, and practice, by each empire.

The next chapter explains how the Romans were different: they were not a kingdom but a people. They were elected to rule the world through their virtue, piety, and superior laws. Their gods granted them victories and peace. Jews took a while to place the Romans into the biblical family of nations, and their choices of identification, which Berthelot discusses in this chapter, are instructive. In the first stage, Jews identified Romans with the Kittim of Genesis 10:4 and Daniel 11:30. The Kittim are, like the Greeks, sons of Noah’s son Japheth. This identification is found in the Greek version of Daniel and in the Qumran library (for example, in the War Scroll and Pesher Habbakuk). Then they identified Rome with Babylon, as in the New Testament books of Peter (5:13) and Revelation (17), and in the work known as Fourth Ezra. Then, notably in rabbinic literature, Rome began to be identified with Jacob’s brother Esau. Jacob and Esau are twins, and their fates are linked: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen 25:23). This identification was the culmination of a process of Jews sizing up Rome as an equal to Israel, with a special affinity and similarity on the one hand—and a special antagonism and rivalry, on the other.

The final three chapters are dedicated to the central challenges that Rome posed to Israel: military power and manliness (chapter 3); Roman law and jurisdiction (chapter 4); Roman citizenship (chapter 5). In each of these chapters, Berthelot surveys and synthesizes Roman ideas about the topic (“the nature of the challenge”), and then offers readings of Jewish sources that respond to this challenge, adapt to it, assimilate it, or resist it.

In each chapter, Berthelot offers a broad survey of the secondary literature, coupled by close readings of individual dicta and excerpts of primary literature. She combines historical overviews with the close reading methods favored by scholars of rabbinic literature. She avoids jargon and explains her intentions quite clearly, after presenting a scholarly debate on each issue.

The main thrust, however, is clear: Rome influenced ancient Jews, especially rabbinic Jews, in substantive ways, and it did so not only by its hard power of political domination but also by the soft power of its cultural imperialism. Rabbinic Jewish identity and Jewish law are direct descendants of Jewish adaptations and adoptions of Roman citizenship and Roman law. Jewish notions of belonging and practice are, in Berthelot’s view, essentially Roman, created either using Roman categories or in opposition to Roman notions. Without Rome and its influence and impact—Berthelot uses both terms often—being Jewish would have been a very different thing.

All of this, Berthelot contends, has nothing or little to do with the Christian Roman empire of later antiquity. Christianity did not create Jewish antagonism to Rome, nor the sense of rivalry with Rome; by the time the empire became predominately Christian, all the pieces of this puzzle were firmly in place: Rome was already Esau, the great antagonist to Jacob, i.e., the Jews.

This is a broad and ambitious book. Even without accepting all of its readings, or even the broadest version of its thesis, it will be an important reference point for years to come. Berthelot’s Jewish corpus spans four centuries, from the books of Maccabees to the middle stratum of rabbinic literature, known as amoraic literature. She reads Maccabees with Josephus and Philo and contrasts them with dicta excerpted in rabbinic literature, reading them all together as part of a broad multivocal Jewish narrative. It also includes material artifacts, including inscriptions, coins, and papyri. This inclusive corpus is useful and highlights both changes as well as long term trends.

In this attempt at synthesizing the Jewish evidence, two corpora are mostly left out: the first is the Qumran corpus, which features relatively early discussions of Roman military power in the War Scroll and Pesher Habbakuk, for example. The Qumran group also created works on norms and practice, such as the Damascus Document, Miktsat ma‘ase ha-torah and the Community Rule, which might have featured more prominently in the chapter on Roman law. The second is early Christian works. Defining the social border between the creators of these works and those who created contemporary Jewish literature is famously complicated. Early Christians are perhaps just as antagonistic to Rome as the rabbis, and they were actively persecuted by Rome. These works were created in dialogue with the same scriptural canon as ancient Jewish literature, using similar reading methods, and are legitimate representatives of attitudes toward Rome in a provincial community of ethnic Jews and those close to them. Additionally, post-Constantine, there began a process of reading Roman law as Christian law, placing it in a nonadversarial relationship with the Law of Moses. This would have been an interesting comparandum for the Jews and their laws. Both omissions are an interesting methodological choice, leaving a field for other scholars to till.

The book is the final product of an ERC consolidator project, Judaism and Rome, which ran from 2014 to 2019. The impressive array of sources in the book, primary and secondary, was assembled and analyzed with intensive teamwork. The team—Caroline Barron, Aitor Blanco Pérez, Kimberley Fowler, Marie Roux, and Yael Wilfand—created a large archive of scholarship on literary sources, papyri, inscriptions, coins, and other artistic images, currently posted on the password-protected website Judaism and Rome.

As the culmination of such a project, this book has something for everyone. For scholars of ancient Jews, this book helps think through the modes in which empire insinuated itself in the Jews’ ways of being, and the various strategies of adaptation, mimicry, and resistance to Rome that various Jewish authors and communities adopted. For scholars of later Jews, down to the present, the book offers justification for the abiding fascination of Jews with Rome and its afterlife. For scholars of the Roman empire, it offers an account of the relations between the empire and arguably the best-documented and longest-documented provincial group under its power. For scholars of post-colonial studies and empires it offers the ancient Jews as an example of a self-conscious and verbose subaltern community which left behind a complex record of its thoughts on empire. Finally, this book is important for the information and primary sources it lucidly makes accessible to scholars and students in all of these fields.