- Series: Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World
- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Princeton University Press (February 1, 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0691117810
- ISBN-13: 978-0691117812
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.8 x 9.1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 9 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,115,355 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Imperialism and Jewish Society: 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E. (Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World)
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Winner of the National Scholarly Jewish Book Award, Jewish Book Council
"Schwartz has presented nothing less than a learned and bold bombshell with this important, groundbreaking book. His thesis is that to make sense of the remains of ancient Judaism, one must consider the effects of shifting types of imperial domination and that there is a direct connection between the rise of the synagogue and the religious ideology that justified its construction and the rise of Christianity. This is the most original and the most provocative book on this period that has appeared in many years. It will, and deservedly, be the subject of debate for a long time to come."--Louis H. Feldman, The Forward
"Important. . . . Schwartz challenges many long-held ideas about Jews in antiquity. . . . This work is recommended as fascinating reading for anyone interested in the history of the Jews and Judaism."--James E. Seaver, History: Reviews of New Books
"Schwartz is a leading expert on the Jews in the Roman Empire. Using scholarly publications, he has produced a new synthesis that will provoke much debate among scholars. . . . [His] carefully argued positions must be taken seriously."--Choice
"A bold feat of reinterpretation that is certain to stir up controversy in scholarly circles."--Stuart Schoffman, Jerusalem Report
"This is a brilliant and provocative book, which will undoubtedly stimulate much debate among historians of Judaism and of the ancient world. But it deserves, as well, a wide audience among all those interested in the impact of imperial power on regional cultures."--J. B. Rives, International History Review
"Schwartz's study is wide-ranging, rich, well-informed, polemical, creative, unconventional."--Jonathan J. Price, Religious Studies Review
"An invaluable piece of current scholarship on ancient Judaism. . . . This book represents a fresh and unique look at a familiar subject, and it should be required reading for any serious scholar of ancient Judaism, early Christianity, or ancient Mediterranean religions."--Daniel Bernard, Journal of Religion and Culture
From the Inside Flap
"Seth Schwartz's work is a much more complex assessment of ancient Jewish society and culture than that which the one-sided traditional accounts present: it is the first consistent and comprehensive attempt to view Jewish society of Hellenistic and Roman-Byzantine times in the context of the broader socio-political, economic, and religious developments of the ancient eastern Mediterranean world. This allows him to interpret the sparse evidence from Roman Palestine in a much more convincing way than has formerly been done."--Catherine Hezser, Trinity College, Dublin
"Imperialism and Jewish Society comprises a highly ambitious discussion of a very wide sweep of Jewish history, with novel insights into major issues of the general interpretation of that history and into numerous minor matters of a widely disparate nature. There are interesting observations on every page. Nothing quite like it has ever been attempted before."--Martin Goodman, Oxford University --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.
The book is extensively footnoted and the bibliography is 23 pages long. But most of this consists of the extensive secondary literature. The actual primary evidence which exists is unavoidably scarce. Much of Schwartz's strongest evidence consists of archaeological evidence, which, however, he does not reproduce in the book. But much of Schwartz's case is based on negative evidence, the absence of support. Schwartz has written well in the past in criticizing nationalist misinterpretations of the Jewish past. One recalls his article in Past and Present emphasizing the increasing marginality of Hebrew in post-exile Judea. And his work coincides with the "minimalist" school of archaeological interpretation which is extremely critical of the accuracy of the Tanakh not just up to Moses, but to the kings of a united Israel.
This general mindset has some major problems. The most important one is that if Jewish monotheism was such a late development that it was essentially imposed by Ezra and Nehemiah, why did it succeed? Why didn't the defeated Jews simply view the Babylonian captivity as proof of the strength of Babylonian and Persian gods and abandon their old rituals like their now forgotten neighbors? The same problem arises with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. Schwartz's discovery of pagan symbols and motifs in the ruins of overwhelmingly Jewish Tiberias is certainly peculiar. Yet why did Judaism survive at all, why would the Romans tolerate it since one could argue that it was the most "monotheist" Jews who were most likely to be "seditious?" Moreover, if most Jews accepted Paganism why does this not appear in Christian-Jewish polemic? If Jews renounced their faith, why is there so little record of their support for their new beliefs, or critiques of the old? Much of Schwartz's archaeological evidence and his discussion of rabbinic commentary of it (he suggests that it was evasive in complying with it) comes close to arguing that since pagan religiosity was so ubiquitious that any orthodox presence could not have existed. Yet Christians faced the same challenges of pagan idolatory, yet they eventually survived and triumphed.
The limitations of the evidence are quite severe. Schwartz himself acknowledges we have little on the economic background of post-revolt Palestine. We also have few sources on the extent and compliance of the Jewish common people (though the absence of pig bones in the Maccabean and Herodian period suggests that most people kept kosher). Surprisingly there is little on the diaspora, though Keith Hopkins has suggested that more than 80% of Jews lived outside modern Israel. At one point Schwartz suggests that literacy was very small in Jewish communities, 10% is a generous estimate, with only 1% being able to read the holy scriptures. Perhaps, but when one considers that the early Christian apostles were not of a social class likely to be literate, and that their many argument was trying to show, not very successfully, that Jesus fufilled prophecies from the scriptures, one suspects that something was wrong. At another point Schwartz argues that the Maccabeans did not really resist Hellenization because they followed the Hellenic process of coining. One might equally argue that Reformation Europe was becoming more like China because it used compasses and gunpowder. Ultimatley this is not a fully convincing book.
Far more problematic is that while Schwartz marshals a great deal of material in this volume, he admits many times that we simply do not have enough unequivocal evidence about the day to day lives of Jews in Palestine at this time. This waffling has its effect on the book, which lacks punch and drive. Overall, Schwartz tries to argue from silence, which in historical studies is a dangerous thing to do. Generally, it is better to say nothing at all.