The author’s objective is to demonstrate how changes in Jewish society through some 800 years can be related to the policies of and developments within the empires to which it was subject. It is an attempt to place Israel within the context of the different ethnicities and nationalities of the eastern mediterranean, to understand how it was subject to the same empire-wide influences as these others, and to identify in what way – and why – the developments in Jewish society converged on or diverged from those of the other societies.
The book divides the period into three parts – 200 BCE through the two major Jewish revolts ending in 135 CE, the high imperial period between 135 and 350 CE, and late antiquity 350 to 640 CE.
In the early period, his main point is that all the empires that ruled Judea – Persian, Macedonian and Roman until 70 CE – implicitly or explicitly regarded the Jews’ “ancient practices” – including both the Temple rites and the exclusivity of the Jewish God – as the “constitution” of the Judean or Jewish people. The policies of Antiochus IV Epiphanes should be seen as an exception to this rule, and were not an inevitable result of Hellenization. The latter was – more than a cultural hegemony imposed by the Macedonian conquerors – a process in which, by adopting Greek/Macedonian lifestyles – including their deities – local elite groups sought to increase their prestige and influence. It was natural therefore that this trend would be most evident among the elite of the Jewish people too, the priesthood. The exclusivity of Jewish worship however set a barrier to Jews integrating more thoroughly into the political organization of the Greco-Roman empires. The author points out that Judah Maccabee and his brothers were not fighting the Hellenizing trend as such, so much as Antiochus’ atypical interference in Jewish religious practice. Once their point had been made, the Hellenization of Judean elites proceeded apace with the Maccabeans’ Hasmonean successors.
To the extent that God, Torah, and Temple were regarded as the “constitution” of Judea, the author points out that these in fact defined the permissible limits of Jewish belief and practice under the early Roman empire. He therefore argues that there was a much greater religious conformity than the emphasis on different Jewish sects would lead one to expect. He speculates that adherence to a sect may have been much more widespread – as much as 30% of the male population – than is generally believed. The effect of this argumentation is to reduce the significance of sects to that of alternative country clubs.
Following the destruction of the Temple, direct Roman rule of Palestine – which had started effectively with death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE – became even more direct, as there was no longer a Judean aristocratic or priestly class to act as mediators. Although not triggered by the trauma of a rebellion, this trend – of the elimination of local rulers and “client kings” and their replacement by Roman procurators or governors – was completed in most other parts of the empire by the end of the first century CE. The second and third centuries saw the increasing homogenization of all parts of the empire – culturally and religiously. Without any national leadership and without the central religious focus of temple worship, most Jews too – although they may have felt a degree of separateness that the author does not define – would have been undifferentiated from other inhabitants (and from, the 220’s citizens) of the Roman empire. What this means, according to the author, is that – particularly in the cities – Jews led their lives at least as much in accordance to the dictates of Roman law and urban culture as in accordance to Torah precepts. In particular, participating in rites of pagan worship may have been a necessary accomodation to living life as a citizen in the empire. Torah law was the concern only of the rabbis and their immediate following, who were marginal to and had no authority over the bulk of the Jewish population. The author’s assertion of the virtual assimilation of the bulk of the Jewish population in the pagan population seems to owe more to the absence of evidence for Torah observance– for example, the absence of practical legislation in the Mishnah – rather than any more positive proof of alienation from Torah .
From the beginning of the 4th century, the diffusion of Christianity and its adoption as the official religion of the empire created a “sea change” throughout the empire, namely the separation of religion as a discrete category of experience (i.e. no longer embedded seamlessly in everyday life) and the growing identification of the population with specific religious communities. It was this that brought about the renewal of Jewish communal life, rather than any rabbinic influence. In fact the rabbis did not participate in this renewal until the 5th century; rather it was the patriarchate – alienated from the rabbis since the 3rd century – who were seen by the imperial authorities as the religious hierarchy for the Jews, much as bishops were for the Christian communities. As the empire became increasing identified with the orthodox church, it became more “officially” hostile to Judaism – although the effects of this hostility may have been somewhat mitigated in practice (for example the 4th-6th centuries was the great age of synagogue building, in spite of this having been severely curtailed and eventually proscribed in the Theodosian code). The consequent marginalization of those who opted to stay Jewish – unlike with paganism, it was not possible to make an accomodation with Christianity – had the effect of making Jews draw together in self-sufficient communities.
The author pursues a thesis of the parallel development, in late antiquity, of Christian and Jewish community life, and seeks to draw many similarities between them; the proliferation of rural communities/villages each of which had its monumental house of worship, the similar attitude towards the church and synagogue as “sacred space”, supposed similarities in the style of worship, and even the growth of iconoclasm in both during the 6th and 7th centuries. The general point – that the Christianization of the empire was the trigger for the renewal of Jewish communal life, not the beginning of its end – has much merit. However, many of the parallels are tendentious, and seem to depend on a degree of speculation about things which, in the author’s words are “not recoverable”. He supports his argument about the decidedly non-rabbinic view of the sanctity of the synagogue and the significance of the liturgy (about which all we know is from rabbinic sources, which he has dismissed as irrelevant at this point) with a very contrarian interpretation of the Sepphoris and similar mosaics. It is only toward the end of the period that he sees more differentiation from Christian worship, which he attributes to the “rabbinization” of the communities and their “judification” of Jewish worship and liturgy.
Although the author makes a good case for the marginal role of the rabbis until the 5th century, in relation to the bulk of the Jewish population – and S.J. Cohen differs on this only to a degree – he does not satisfactorily account for the continued vitality of this small group through at least 200 years and more of apparent isolation, until they emerge as the leaders and shapers of the Jewish religion in the 5th and 6th centuries. Maybe this is not in his purview, as it does not relate to either empire or society, but it leaves a big hole in the picture.
This is no doubt an outstanding work of scholarship, but the academic language and style make it a difficult book for the general reader (this reviewer had to read the book twice from beginning to end, and some sections three or four times). It also assumes a detailed knowledge of the history , and at least a passing acquaintance with the archaeology and literary sources of the period. The author is wont to preface his analyses with what seems like a complete denial of any possibility of knowing anything certain about what he is about to discuss. This is however just a thorough covering of the academic posterior before he launches into what are often very radical historical interpretations. Many of the author’s theses – informed by his macro-imperial rather than micro-Jewish perspective – are often challenging to traditional Jewish narratives – particularly of the 2nd through 5th centuries CE. However, when you are able to stand back and embrace the new perspective, it is a refreshing experience – both at the detailed level and overall.