Seth Schwartz

Imperialism and Jewish Society

200 BCE to 640 CE

(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001)

DS121.7 .S39 2001, 315 pp.

by Ruth Langer

In recent decades, scholars have increasingly questioned the use of ancient literature as a source of historical information. These texts, they claim, represent only the viewpoint of the text's redactor; any attempt to generalize from the text's statement to the redactor's wider society or to accept as factual the history remembered in the text is inherently fraught with danger. Rather, it is necessary to corroborate any information derived from this literature with outside and non-literary evidence. Seth Schwartz's Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 BCE to 640 CE employs this methodology, offering minimalist readings of the Jewish literary and material records and reading these within the context of their larger Greco-Roman world. His resulting social history undercuts many standard assumptions about the Judaisms of the late-Second Temple and rabbinic periods. The implications of his reading are vast; this review will focus only on areas of significance to our understandings of the interactions of Christianity and Judaism.

Instead of accepting the rabbis own narrative of Jewish resistance to Greek culture, Schwartz begins with the thesis that Palestinian Jews in antiquity and late antiquity were deeply shaped by the imperial powers under which they lived. Changing relations with their Greco-Roman overlords influenced internal Jewish social structures and Jewish identity in each of the three periods that Cohen examines:

1.    the late Second Temple world and its intersections with Hellenism;

2.    pagan Roman direct governance after the failed Jewish revolts of 70 and 135 CE

3.    Christian Roman governance.

Following Levine, Goodman, and others, but in many ways going beyond them, he argues compellingly that rabbinic Judaism only emerged as a force with the ability to shape society in the last of these periods.

Schwartz's first period ends with the failed Jewish revolts against Rome, identical to the period of the historical lives of Jesus, the apostles, and Paul. Contrary to many, he downplays the sectarian divisions of this period, arguing that all Jews participated in a common ideological core that centered around God, Torah and Temple. The emergence of this triad lay in the Persian imperial policy, perpetuated by the Greeks and early Romans, of establishing local rule according to local law codes administered from local religious centers. In the Judean case, the code was the Torah and the religious center, Jerusalem and its Temple. With the expansion of Judaea under the Hasmoneans and later Herod, large numbers of non-Judaeans were brought into Judaism by their loose acceptance of this symbolic system, initially as the symbols of imperial power, but by the first century, also as a widely accepted religious ideology. However, in a warning that reoccurs throughout the book, Schwartz insists that we cannot generalize from elite ideology to actual popular practice. Even if people accepted the symbolic centrality of Torah (which can be more or less demonstrated), we know neither to what extent they lived their lives by its dictates, or whether, in doing so, they interpreted the text's teachings uniformly.

Schwartz suggests that the covenantal law code of Torah did not adequately fulfill all necessary social functions; apocalyptic mythic structures better explained, for example, the existence of evil. Different groups privileged different aspects of these two theological structures, resulting in a diverse society. The major institutionalized sects of the period, recorded by Josephus and others, all unquestioningly accepted the major symbols of Temple and Torah and participated in the traditional mediations of power. Marginal groups tended to call on single elements of the ideological complex and crystallize around individual experts, meaning that in movements like those of John the Baptist or Jesus, elements of the apocalyptic myth could take precedence over Torah (pp. 90-91). Schwartz questions the degree to which sectarian disagreements filtered down to the populace at large; he also suggests that without a strong central authority, such disagreements were natural and were part of people's participation in the fundamental ideological structure of Judaism, not of deviance from it. To focus on sectarian divisions in this period, then, is to miss the fundamental ideological unity that characterized Jewish Palestinian society in the first century and that formed the backbone of Jewish identity. Schwartz does not develop his discussion of Christianity in this period, but extrapolation from his general argument suggests that he would stress that the earliest Christians and Jesus himself were very much a part of the Jewish world of their time, including their engagements with the Temple and Torah (and its applications) and their apocalyptic messianism. However, he would disagree both with the tendency to see this world as ideologically and politically fragmented and, as we shall see, with the placement of first-century Christianity against a background of rabbinic Judaism.

Schwartz claims that the situation in his second period, from the failure of the second revolt against Rome in 135 until the effective imposition of Christian Roman power in the mid-fourth century, is radically different. After the revolts, the Romans imposed direct unmediated rule on the province, not officially recognizing any Jewish religious or secular authority. With the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70, Jews lost not only their cult center but the imperial recognition of Torah as their law code. Schwartz insists that in this period, the core ideology of Torah and Temple ceased to function; only a sense of a shared past and, perhaps, non-Jews identification of Jews as "Jews" preserved a sense of Jewish identity. The rabbis, counter to their self-presentation, were a tiny, socio-politically marginal elite with no influence until at least the third or fourth centuries. Most significantly, they were not competing for leadership with any one else, because, according to Schwartz, there was no one to be led. Palestinian society in this period participated fully in the pagan Greco-Roman culture that had already been a significant cultural force before the revolts. The wealthy elites, for whom this non-Jewish culture had already been significant, were the effective local leaders, and their material remains show consistent use of (almost) exclusively pagan iconography. "Whether or not large numbers of Jews regularly worshiped the Greek gods, their ubiquity as symbols is profoundly important as an indication of the post-revolt collapse of any normatively Jewish ideological system." (p. 159)

In the context of the more influential, authoritative, and religiously compelling ideology of the Greco-Roman city with its openness to ethnic variety, the rabbinic movement slowly grew and gained influence, operating as an alternative, Torah-centered ideology. Until at least the very end of the third century, Schwartz finds no evidence for a re-emergence of conscious and public Judaism as a major force shaping Palestinian society. Schwartz again does not discuss emerging Christianity in this section, but the obvious implication is that Christian interactions with rabbinic culture were likely not significant factors in the shaping of Christianity or of Judaism in this period. Both were marginal groups, more concerned with the overwhelming Greco-Roman mainstream culture than with each other. The more significant question, which Schwartz does not address, is why Christianity did not make greater inroads into this marginally Jewish society in this period – or did it? He also fails to explain the adversus judaeos tradition that emerges in this period in Christian literature, suggesting that a significant part of emerging Christian self-definition was in polemical contrast with Judaism and with a Judaism of greater vibrancy than he posits. While Schwartz's arguments for the Hellenization of Judaism during this period are impressive, his explanation for the persistence of the Judaism under such conditions is unsatisfying, even to him.

Judaism reemerges, he suggests, under Christian Roman rule. There, on the one hand, religion becomes a socially defining factor, and on the other hand, imperial structures increasingly marginalize Jews, forcing them either to convert (as did the Jews of Minorca in 418) or to turn inwards. Schwartz's demonstration of this point focuses heavily on the findings of synagogue archaeology. He suggests that the deliberate destruction of pagan architecture and its transformation into or replacement with monumental churches influenced a similar move within Jewish communities, resulting in the transformation of the synagogue from an occasional feature of larger cities into the architectural focal point of every village. With this, the synagogue was transformed from a peripheral to a central institution. A revised common ideology now emerges, in which the Torah in the synagogue becomes the local locus of holiness and the gathered community the local representation of the people Israel. Architectural changes mark this increased sense of holiness: dedicated niches and arks for the storage of the Torah scroll, platforms for its reading, and chancel screens separating the ark from the congregation. Similarly, the iconography in the buildings becomes increasingly Jewish, although explicitly pagan motifs still appear (as they continue to appear in contemporaneous churches). Inscriptions also point to a strong sense of the holiness of the local community itself as well as its building. Schwartz contrasts the conceptions of holiness suggested by synagogue remains with those of rabbinic literature, suggesting that the synagogue only begins to admit significant rabbinic influence in the sixth century. Then, iconoclastic trends in synagogue decoration, possibly, and more definitely the emergence of liturgical poetry with unquestionably rabbinic content point to more powerful rabbinic leadership.

Schwartz's argument in this section, after his introduction, relies almost exclusively on synagogue evidence, and indeed, many of his long excurses on elements of synagogue history, however important, seem to contribute only peripherally to the overall argument of this book. His breadth of discussion does not match the earlier sections; one misses here particularly some comparison with the increasingly significant Jewish community in Sassanian Babylonia and its Judaism. Most critically, his central question about the impact on Judaism of the Christian empire's development of religion into the fundamental category of cultural conformity deserves sustained and broader treatment both for understanding the Judaism of the period and for understanding Christianity and its relationship to this Judaism.

In sum, Schwartz's ambitious book raises critical and challenging questions of immense implications for our understanding the world in which Christianity came to maturity. In this wide-ranging book, he offers a credible revision of the history of the Judaism of this period, one which topples many basic assumptions on which understandings of both the Jewish and the Christian realities of this the period have rested. If we are to understand correctly the relationships between these two communities in their formative centuries, we need to assess Schwartz's theories and integrate them into our picture of the period. Historians now need to take up his gauntlet, re-examine the evidence, and evaluate his claims.