BMCR 2023.10.17

Ancient Jewish diaspora: essays on Hellenism

, Ancient Jewish diaspora: essays on Hellenism. Supplements to the Journal for the study of Judaism, 206. Boston; Leiden: Brill, 2022. Pp. xii, 373. ISBN 9789004521889.



For over a century, scholars of ancient Judaism have asked how diaspora Jews adapted to living as a minority population in towns and cities around the Mediterranean. To what degree did Jewish communities want to—or, conversely, to what degree were they permitted to—integrate into Greco-Roman civic and cultural life? How did their liturgical and textual practices compare to those in their homeland, and how central to their identity was that homeland? These questions remain unresolved, in large part due to the conflicting nature of the evidence. In cities like Alexandria and Rome, which boasted robust Jewish populations, ancient sources preserve misunderstandings, confusion, and prejudice-driven fears about Judaism that occasionally boiled over into violence. On the other hand, we also possess evidence for Jewish stability and success in the diaspora: synagogue buildings funded by wealthy community members (Sardis is the preeminent example), epigraphic evidence for non-Jewish patrons, and, of course, the writings of Philo of Alexandria, the beneficiary of a good Greek education who famously called Hellenistic Egypt his fatherland (patris). How, then, should we understand what it was like to live as an ancient Jew in diaspora?

The present volume takes up this big question, drawing much of its evidence from Hellenistic Alexandria. The volume collects sixteen of Bloch’s essays published between 1999 and 2022, dividing them into four thematic sections. Four essays appear here in English for the first time (chapters 2, 6, 12, and 14). Covering a range of topics, from Philo’s depiction of Moses to ancient Jewish tourism and theater-going, Bloch sheds light on the sophisticated negotiation necessitated by life in the diaspora. On the whole, Bloch argues that diaspora Jews, especially in Alexandria, were well integrated into their Hellenistic milieu. Rather than seeing their cultural negotiation as a symptom of outsiderness and discomfort, Bloch suggests instead that such negotiation was inherent to the Hellenistic Period. In an era of globalism, migration, and new religious movements, diaspora Jews “did not really differ from other peoples of the Hellenistic age, least of all from the Greeks” (3). As such, Bloch argues, those interested in any aspect of Hellenism will benefit from studying the experience of diaspora Jews in the Hellenistic world.

The volume opens with four chapters on “Moses and Exodus.” These chapters investigate how Philo’s depiction of Moses in De vita Mosis sheds light on Philo’s own life and the position of Alexandrian Jews, whom Bloch characterizes as “at times embracing and at other times resisting acculturation” (2). In “Alexandria in Pharaonic Egypt: Projections in De vita Mosis,” Bloch outlines the autobiographical parallels that Philo wrote into his story of Moses: both Philo and his Moses consider Egypt their fatherland, are philosophers, and reluctantly assume the role of political leader in times of trouble. On this basis, Bloch makes two arguments. First, Philo’s portrayal of Moses as a reluctant leader suggests that De vita Mosis was written near the time of the embassy to Rome in 38 CE, rather than at the beginning of Philo’s career. The second argument is vaguer. “I am not suggesting that Philo was presenting himself as a Moses redivivus,” Bloch says, but rather that Philo occasionally “slipped” into the role of Moses and used Moses to evaluate his own life. Thus, a study of Philo’s Moses should shed light on the character of Philo, about whom we know very little. Chapters 2–4 also focus on Philo’s Moses to make the case that Philo and his Alexandrian community had mixed feelings about their diasporic status. Like Moses, they were both Jewish and Egyptian, recipients of Greek education, and more concerned with local issues in Alexandria than distant Jerusalem. Few will disagree with this middle ground approach. Bloch does not push the envelope, but his close readings of Philo are insightful and employ a refreshing mix of rabbinic and Greco-Roman comparanda.

The three essays in part 2, “Places and Ruins,” center on issues of memory, or how Jews remembered their past and how they were described by others. One of the highlights is chapter 5, “Geography without Territory: Tacitus’s Digression on the Jews and Its Ethnographic Context,” in which Bloch makes an astute observation about Tacitus’s commentary on Jews and Judaism in book 5 of the Histories. Whereas Tacitus typically follows the tradition of Greek anthropogeography by attributing the ethos of a particular people to the physical environment of its homeland, he fails to mention many of the standard ethnographic topoi in his description of Judaism, including clothing, housing, and armor and customs of war. According to Bloch, Tacitus omitted these topoi because ancient Jews lived in many lands, not just their ethnic homeland of Judea, causing them to fall outside the standard dichotomy of Greek and barbarian. While some aspects of Judaism were consistent from place to place—abstaining from eating pork, observance of the Sabbath, circumcision—Tacitus could not cover the standard range of cultural topoi because of the diversity within diaspora Judaism.

Chapter 7 offers a thought experiment: “What If the Temple of Jerusalem Had Not Been Destroyed by the Romans?” Bloch argues that if Titus had spared the Temple, the practice of animal sacrifice would nevertheless have petered out on its own within a few centuries (136). Citing critiques of sacrifice in Isaiah 1:11–17 and Matthew 9:13 (quoting Hosea 6:6), Bloch argues that Second Temple Judaism was already moving away from animal sacrifice before 70 CE. Furthermore, diaspora Jews had operated without access to the Temple for generations, illustrating the waning importance of the sacrificial cult. Thus, the chapter’s title is somewhat misleading. It is really about the decline of the sacrificial cult over the course of the late Second Temple period, not about the decreasing importance of the Temple in general (which held significance for ancient Jews beyond the sacrificial cult), nor the historical circumstances in the first to fourth centuries CE that would have impacted how long the Temple cult could actually have continued to function. Setting aside whether or not Hadrian would have taken control of the Temple when he rebuilt Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina, once Jerusalem came under Christian rule, it is reasonable to assume that Christians would have seized the Temple and put an end to the sacrificial cult. As Bloch points out, the destruction of the Temple was critical for Christians, who viewed it as confirmation that God had abandoned the Jews. This would be sufficient reason to capture and/or destroy the Temple in the fourth century, if not earlier. Bloch also raises the possibility that the survival of the Temple after 70 would have suppressed the growth of the rabbinic movement, a fascinating hypothetical worthy of further discussion.

Part 3, “Theater and Myth,” contains chapters on Philo’s reconciling of Jewish myth and allegorical interpretation, Jewish attendance of and participation in the theater, and Egyptian-Jewish relations in Joseph and Aseneth. As in part 1, Bloch characterizes diaspora as a state of constant cultural negotiation. In chapter 8, he argues that Philo struggled to reconcile widespread belief in the historicity of Jewish mythological stories, such as the transformation of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:26), with his method of allegorical interpretation. Such struggle, according to Bloch, makes Philo “part of a common and widespread intellectual discourse” among Hellenistic writers, who likewise doubted the historicity of Greek myths but accepted that myths had some heuristic value, especially for the common person. Likewise, chapter 9 argues for a spectrum of Jewish responses to the theater, from rabbinic prohibitions on entering theaters except in dire circumstances to evidence for Jewish actors and reserved seating for Jews in public theaters. Finally, in chapter 10, Bloch outlines the similarities between Joseph and Aseneth and early Greek novels: an initially reluctant couple eventually falls in love; the occasional erotic moment; suffering and longing; and final resolution. Bloch argues that Joseph and Aseneth has been unjustly singled out as a “Jewish novel” despite its clear embeddedness in Greek literary tradition. “It is not a Jewish reaction to the literary genre of the Greek novel,” Bloch argues, but rather a very early example—perhaps even the earliest—of what came to be known as the Greek novel. Moreover, Aseneth’s shift from frenetic and preoccupied to tranquil and poised after her conversion to Judaism suggests to Bloch “a confident Diaspora Judaism that is less interested in a confrontation with the Egyptians than in highlighting Jewish presence and competence” (215).

Part 4, “Antisemitism and Reception,” is truly the highlight of the book and will be of great interest to scholars of diaspora Judaism in all periods, ancient or modern. Chapter 11, “Antisemitism and Early Scholarship on Ancient Antisemitism,” surveys the efforts of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholars to understand the origins of antisemitism—a quest that was inspired by their desire to know whether Jews had a place in the modern nation-states of Europe, especially Germany. Bloch identifies two major discourses on the origins of antisemitism among scholars from this period. First, following Wellhausen, scholars divided Jewish history into two phases: the “early Judaism” of the Hebrew Bible, characterized by revolutionary monotheism, and the ossified, legalistic “late Judaism” of the rabbis. Early understandings of diaspora Judaism emerged in parallel to this model: the formation of the diaspora was initially a positive development because it exposed Judaism to Hellenistic philosophy, but, after 70, the diaspora came to symbolize Judaism’s ossification and the triumph of Christianity. Second, antisemitism developed in response to the perceived qualities of “late Judaism”: misanthropy, legalism, and superstition. Chapters 13–15 examine historiographies of specific topics related to Hellenistic Judaism: the Philo-Lexikon, reception of Tacitus’s excursus on the Jews and Judea in the Histories, and Jan Assman’s thesis on monotheism in Moses the Egyptian. The volume concludes with the fascinating investigation of a Roman bust of a young, bearded man on display in the Glyptotek Museum in Copenhagen that was—and continues to be—erroneously identified as Flavius Josephus on the basis of antisemitic physiognomic tropes.

This volume serves two audiences. On their own, parts 1–3 will be of greatest interest to those who study Philo and the Alexandrian Jewish community. Bloch’s depiction of the Alexandrian diaspora is fairly standard: Alexandrian Jews had a hybrid identity and carefully negotiated their place within the city’s Hellenistic milieu. His secondary argument—that such negotiation really characterized all of the Hellenistic world, not just diaspora Jews—is compelling but unfortunately does not feature heavily in the case studies. Research on identity and hybridity in the Greco-Roman world—evidenced by language use, naming styles, and visual and material culture—has boomed in recent decades. Bloch’s essays on Philo will be of interest to those who study these dynamics in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt.

For those interested in diaspora Judaism beyond Hellenistic Alexandria, or ancient Judaism in general, the essays in part 4 will be of great interest. Bloch’s familiarity with German scholarship makes the analysis particularly insightful, and English readers will appreciate his engagement with (and translation of long quotations from) both familiar and lesser-known German, French, and Italian scholars of the early modern and modern periods. The scope of the essays in this volume—ranging from close readings of Philo to the twenty-first–century misuse of a Roman bust of identified as Josephus—is a credit to the author. Bloch reminds us that the complex negotiation that defines life in diaspora continues to this day, making close study of ancient evidence and careful detangling of historiography equally critical.