Judaism and Hellenism Reconsidered
- Series: Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism
- Author: Louis H. Feldman
- Publisher: Publisher (2005)
- Language: English
- Pages: 972
- ISBN-10: 9004149066
- ISBN-13: 9789004149069
- Format: PDF
This book is a collection of 26 previously published articles, with a number of additions and corrections, and with a long new introduction on “The Influence of Hellenism on Jews in Palestine in the Hellenistic Period.” The articles deal with such subjects as “Homer and the Near East,” “The Septuagint,” “Hatred and Attraction to the Jews in Classical Antiquity,” “Conversion to Judaism in Classical Antiquity,” “Philo, Pseudo-Philo, Josephus, and Theodotus on the Rape of Dinah,” “The Influence of the Greek Tragedians on Josephus,” “Josephus’ Biblical Paraphrase as a Commentary on Contemporary Issues,” “Parallel Lives of Two Lawgivers: Josephus’ Moses and Plutarch’s Lycurgus,” “Rabbinic Insights on the Decline and Forthcoming Fall of the Roman Empire.”
THE INFLUENCE OF HELLENISM ON JEWS IN PALESTINE IN THE HELLENISTIC PERIOD
The State of the Question
During the past half century the monumental works by Goodenough (1953-68) and Hengel (1969, English trans. 1974) deserve special mention in seeking to break down the cultural barrier between Palestine and the Diaspora in the Hellenistic period. But how convincing is the case that they have presented? Moreover, in a way, even though he disagreed fundamentally with Goodenough in his evaluation of Philo, Wolfson (1948) likewise saw a fundamental bridge between Philo and the Palestinian rabbis when he postulated that Philo was a bilateral branch of Pharisaic Judaism, though it is fair to say that this particular view of Wolfson has not gained general acceptance in the scholarly world.
Since the appearance of Martin Hengel’s Judentum und Hellenismus in 1969 and especially since the publication of the English version in 1974, this monumental work has been the subject of a tremendous amount of scholarly attention. It is fair to say that the majority of scholars have accepted Hengel’s thesis that Jews and Judaism in Palestine were already significantly influenced by Hellenism in the third and second centuries b.c.e. before the Maccabean revolt as seen in Jewish books of that era and archaeological evidence, and that the distinction between Diaspora and Palestinian Judaism, so far as Hellenization is concerned, is blurred.
Indeed, two conferences, one at Bar Ilan University in 1998, entitled “Shem in the Tents of Japhet: I: Jewish Writings in Second Temple Times” and another at Harvard University in 1999 entitled “Shem in the Tents of Japhet II: A Conference on Hellenism and Judaism,” resulted in the publication of a volume of essays edited by James Kugel. Another symposium co-sponsored by the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame in 1999 resulted in the publication of a volume of essays edited by John Collins and Gregory Sterling. Both supported Hengel’s thesis and carried it even further.
However, before Alexander in the fourth century b.c.e. opened up much of the Mediterranean world and beyond to Greek thought, ancient travelers, such as Hecataeus of Miletus and Herodotus, as Momigliano has pointed out, did not find it easy to go into the interior of countries; and hence we must not expect that Greeks might have attempted to go up to Jerusalem to view the way Jews celebrated their festivals. Moreover, Greeks were generally monolingual and hence would have had difficulty in speaking to Jews. Furthermore, the Greeks disturbed the peace of the Persian Empire at the very time that Jerusalem was being rebuilt under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah and would hardly have been welcomed.
To be sure, as Momigliano5 has noted, there are a number of developments in Judaea in the fifth and fourth centuries that parallel contemporary developments in Greece. Thus Nehemiah in some sense is a tyrant similar to Histiaeus and others who had been imposed as tyrants over Greek cities in Asia Minor by the Persians. Other parallels are the remission of debts and the law against intermarriages.
Furthermore, the autobiographies of Ezra and Nehemiah remind one of the Epidemiai (“Visits”) of their contemporary, the fifth-century b.c.e. Ion of Chios, who recounts meetings with such famous political and literary figures as Cimon, Aeschylus, and Sophocles.
Moreover, Momigliano cites the parallel between the biblical Book of Chronicles as a rewritten version of the Book of Kings and the works of the historians Ephorus and Theopompus in, to some degree, rewriting the works of Herodotus and Thucydides. Finally, he notes the parallel between the Book of Job and Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound in their treatment of the problem of theodicy. However, the crucial point of difference in these parallel accounts is that no Greek mentions or attacks the Jewish parallel, and no Jew mentions or attacks the Greek parallel, and hence there is no reason to assume that either was aware of the other.
The Bible in the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:3-5 and Deut. 5:7-9) seems to be very explicit and very inclusive in prohibiting the making of “a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” And yet, excavations at such places as Bet Alpha, Hammat Gader, Gerasa, Huseifa, Estemoa, Jericho, and Bet She’arim have revealed an extensive Jewish art and architecture. How can we explain the paintings and statues and mosaics, containing human, animal, and mythological figures found by archaeologists in Palestine in synagogues and cemeteries and even in private homes?
How can we explain, for example, the frieze in the synagogue of Chorazin showing vintage scenes of the sort traditionally associated with the cult of none other than the Greek god Dionysus? In his magnum opus Goodenough has presented the thesis that this artwork represents a common language of live symbols centering on a hope for mystical salvation through no less than participation in the life of a self-giving deity. His theory is that the Jews took these symbols, which are subconscious, and gave Jewish interpretations to the values that they represent. He further claims that these interpretations are akin to those found in the Jewish philosopher Philo. This art, he postulates, represents popular mystic Judaism in contrast to the Judaism of the Talmudic rabbis.
However, as Morton Smith8 has pointed out, Goodenough’s assumption that the value of a symbol remains essentially the same is simply not true. A red light means “stop” as a traffic signal, but in a red-light district it means “come.” To say that the Jews of Palestine, who, so far as we can tell, never heard of Plato, would have the same interpretation as the philosopher Philo, who refers to Plato as “most sacred” (Prob. 13), seems unlikely. Moreover, Philo is mentioned by no one, other than Josephus (who does not discuss Philo’s approach to philosophy), who lived in Palestine during this period, and indeed by no Jew until Azariah dei Rossi in Italy in the sixteenth century.
Moreover, to assume that Philo best preserves Jewish interpretation of the period is begging the question. There is no evidence that Philo was the leader of a popular school that preserved the mainstream of mystic theological thought of that period. Philo’s admiration for Plato was hardly shared by the Jewish masses. In short, he may have preserved merely the mainstream of his own theology. Furthermore, to generalize about the Judaism of the Talmudic rabbis is unwarranted in view of the fact that they are constantly disagreeing with one another. Indeed, whereas earlier in his work Goodenough had generalized and claimed that all rabbis were rabbinic Jews, he later9 conceded that there were differences among them in their attitude toward images.
Similarly, to equate “popular” Judaism with mystic Judaism and to equate them with the attitude of Philo is likewise to oversimplify, as we see in the differences between such a work as De Vita Mosis and Philo’s allegorical treatises. Moreover, Philo’s works were apparently little read, if we may judge from the fact that, aside from Josephus, only Heliodorus (9.9.3), a non-Jew, in the fourth century, of known writers cites him, and in his case only once and in a novel and to quote Philo’s remark (Mos. 2.195) that the Egyptians deify the Nile and regard it as a counterpart of heaven. He gives no indication that he or anyone else was fundamentally influenced by Philo’s ideas or method. For such influence we must turn to Christian Church Fathers, notably Clement of Alexandria and Origen in the third century and Eusebius in the fourth century.
If we define Hellenization as the process of acculturation by which behavior, manners, culture (literature, philosophy, art), religious belief, ethical, social, political, economic, and material norms, etc., of a person or a group might be affected by the kind of Greek culture that spread in the lands that came under the rule of Alexander the Great,11 we may ask how much importance we should assign to archaeological discoveries that have come to light, especially in most recent years, and that seems to indicate that the material culture of the Jews, even in Israel, “was heavily indebted to, and in many cases totally dependent on, that of the regnant contemporary culture.” But this may simply indicate that the Jews, because they were not deeply influenced by the prevalent culture, lacked an architectural and artistic tradition of their own and had to turn so often to non-Jews for the design of buildings and of monuments. This does not, however, necessarily mean that, after these buildings had been constructed, the Jews became interested in, let alone adopted, the ideas of the architects and builders. If archaeologists have found in Palestine Greek gods and heroes depicted on seals and bronzes from the Persian period (fifth and fourth centuries b.c.e.), we must not forget that there were many non-Jews living in the land. In any case, there is no indication that any Jew ever worshipped a Greek god during the two centuries before Alexander; and except for the brief period of Jason and Menelaus (175-162 b.c.e.) we have very little evidence of Jews who worshipped Greek gods thereafter.
But are representations, for example, of the Greek god Helios in synagogues merely decorative, like those of Cupid in Italian Renaissance ketubot, or are they meaningful? The rabbis (b. Yoma 69b, b. Sanh. 64a) agree that already at the time of Ezra in the fifth century b.c.e. the Jews as a group were successful in resisting the temptation of idolatry. Hecataeus of Abdera (ap. Diod. 40.3.4), who is clearly describing the practices of the Jews in his day (ca. 300 b.c.e.), says that Moses permitted no divine images, being of the opinion that G-d is not in human form. That the impulse to idolatry had been eradicated is manifest from the book of Judith (8:18), probably dating from the second century b.c.e.: “For never in our generation, nor in these present days, has there been any tribe or family or people or city of ours which worshiped gods made with hands, as was done in days gone by.” Varro (ap. Augustine, De Civitate Dei 4.31) in the first century b.c.e. asserts that the ancient Romans worshipped the gods without an image and cites, in support of this, that the Jews do likewise, clearly referring to their practice in his own time, remarking that “those who first set up images of the gods for the people diminished reverence in their cities as they added to error, for he [Varro] wisely judged that gods in the shape of sensesless images might easily inspire contempt.” Strabo (16.2.35), in the first century b.c.e. and first century c.e., likewise praises Moses for forbidding the representation of G-d in the form of an image and declaring that “people should leave off all image-carving, and, setting apart a sacred precinct and a worthy sanctuary, should worship G-d without an image.” He clearly implies that Moses’ teaching on this subject was still being followed by the Jews. His contemporary Livy (ap. Scholia in Lucanum 2.593) is likewise impressed by the fact that there is no image to be found in the Temple in Jerusalem and generalizes that “they [the Jews] do not think that G-d partakes of any figure.” Tacitus (Hist. 5.5.4), who, though prejudiced against the Jews, is relatively well informed about their customs and is clearly reflecting their practices in his own day, the early second century, states categorically that “they set up no statues in their cities, still less in their temples.” In the third century Cassius Dio (37.17.2), who generally seems well informed about the Jews and their history and practices, states that the Jews never had any statue of G-d and do not honor any of the usual gods. Indeed, we find that, according to Josephus (War 2.195), when Petronius, the Roman governor of Syria, came to place the image of the emperor Caligula in the Temple, the Jews, in a mass demonstration, protested that the setting up of a statue of a mortal man was forbidden not only in the Temple but everywhere else in the land also.
To judge from the example of Rabban Gamaliel (m. #Abod. Zar. 3:4), the rabbis had no fear that seeing a statue of a pagan goddess, such as Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, would attract Jews to pagan worship. When he was chided for going into a bathhouse that had a statue of Aphrodite, he explained that the bathhouse was not an ornament for Aphrodite but, rather, that Aphrodite was an ornament for the bathhouse. Hence the third-century Rabbi JoÈanan did not oppose mosaics with figures on them. The rabbis apparently realized that there was no danger of actual worship of pagan gods or symbols; hence they did not object to those Jews who earned their livelihood by making and marketing idols. Therefore, the proper interpretation of the appearance of such symbols or objects in Jewish homes and synagogues and cemeteries is not that they show how deeply hellenized they were but rather how confident the rabbis were that the possession of such objects would not lead to idol worship.
The rabbis apparently were not fearful that if a Jewish craftsman produced idols he might be tempted to worship them; hence, they declared (b. #Abod. Zar. 19b, 52a) that an idol made by a gentile craftsman is immediately forbidden, since he must have worshipped it, whereas an idol produced by a Jewish craftsman is not forbidden, since we are confident that he has not worshipped it, and hence that it may be sold—to a gentile, of course. Indeed, the rabbis (b. B. Bat.110a) quote a tradition embodied in a saying: “Earn your living by making idols and don’t be dependent on charity.” The same rabbis who were so liberal with regard to artistic representation were stringent, however, in insisting on social separation from non-Jews, especially with regard to wine and certain objects of food.
Seth Schwartz suggests that the religious behavior and thought of the Jews who lived in the cities may have differed in no way from the life-style of the pagans in whose midst they lived. The rabbis, he suggests, who needed to take the Pentateuchal horror of paganism seriously in formulating their own views, also needed to develop a mechanism to allow them to live in the cities and to participate in some of the cities’ public activities. Hence, he says, the rabbis defined pagan religiosity as consisting exclusively of cultic activity. This, he concludes, will explain why the rabbis permitted statues and mosaics and the like with pagan motifs. But if so, we may ask, why would the rabbis make a sweeping statement that idolatry was no longer a problem in their day? Saul Lieberman makes the significant observation that though the Talmudic tractate b. #Abod. Zar. Deals with idol worship, it does not attempt to refute the principles of idol worship, whereas the Church Fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras, Theophilus of Antioch, Tertullian, Arnobius, and Lactantius, who were seeking to impress pagans, constantly engaged in polemics against idol worship; and the polemics against idol worship so often found in the Church Fathers are almost not found in rabbinic literature. As Urbach has pointed out, in all the sayings of the rabbis there is scarce evidence of the view commonly found in the Church Fathers that idols are the work of demonic powers acting through the medium of images and statues. Moreover, even though the name of Homer is mentioned by the rabbis (m. Yad. 4:6), they do not mention any of the stories about the gods found throughout the writings of Homer.
The assumption that a Jewish craftsman who produced idols would not himself worship idols would seem to be in line with the traditional saying b. B. Bat. 110a) that one should rather hire himself out to idolworship than be in need of the help of his fellow creatures. A Cairo Genizah text (y.#Abod. Zar. 42b), declaring that “In the days of Rabbi JoÈanan [the most prominent rabbi in the third century b.c.e.] they began to paint on walls, and he did not prevent them” and that “in the days of Rabbi Abun [fourth century] they began to make designs on mosaics, and he did not prevent them” confirms that the rabbis were apparently not worried by such infractions. Another incident establishing this view reports (ibid.) that Rabbi JoÈanan permitted his disciple Rabbi \iyyah bar Abba to retain a pitcher having the image of the Roman goddess Fortuna, on the grounds that it was for mere decoration and was not intended for religious use. Indeed, Lieberman19 notes that the rabbis are certainly knowledgeable about mystery cults and, indeed, use the Greek word μυστ_ριον in connection with them (m. Ned. 2:1, m. #Abod. Zar. 2:3); and yet, there is no indication in rabbinic literature of the symbols of the mysteries.
If archaeologists have found numerous instances of pagan figures in synagogues, the rabbis did not regard these infractions as being very serious, though apparently, to judge from the damage inflicted by iconoclasts, there was some dispute on the matter, and that while some Jews regarded them as innocent adornment, others disapproved of them and physically removed them. As Blidstein21 remarks, “The evidence so impeccably marshalled does not warrant a radical revision of the generalization that the artistic object was always peripheral to the religious experience. In language most familiar to those who created it, art was hiddur mitzvah (“adorning a commandment”), not more. Quite possibly, moreover, this peripheral character derives from biblical Judaism’s vigorous rejection of the mythic world-view and the subsequent demurral at absorption by an incarnational faith.”
The very fact that the word “Hellenism” (Ελληνισμ_ς) takes on a new meaning in late antiquity, in that Ελληνες sometimes means “Greeks” and sometimes means “pagans,” is surely significant, as Bowersock has remarked, since for a Jew to use the word Ελληνες would clearly convey a highly negative connotation. The fact that the patriarch Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel (m. Meg. 1:8, y. Shab. 16.15c) permitted the translation of the Scriptures into Greek alone would appear to indicate that he felt secure that permitting this would not lead to apostasy. Gerson Cohen goes so far as to say that even when there was a Hebrew equivalent the Jews used Greek, citing as an example the fact that the coffers used for the contribution of the annual half-shekel to the Temple were marked not with Hebrew but with Greek letters, asserting that this was so in order to make those coffers intelligible to all Temple personnel, and concluding that if in so insulated an area as the Temple Greek had made inroads, this is surely an indication that in more open areas of society it had triumphed over all rivals; but we may suggest that this was so since most of the half-shekels came from the Diaspora, where Greek was the majority language.
Since Jews are forbidden not merely to practice idolatry but also to have physical contact with idolatrous objects, for example to be under a roof in the building that contains an idolatrous object (m. #Abod. Zar. 3:8, m. Shab. 9:1), as well as to derive benefit or enjoyment from such objects (m. #Abod. Zar. 3:1-9), this would certainly, as Blidstein remarks, restrict the Jew’s freedom of movement, especially in cities where statues were numerous. Indeed, Jews found themselves in a situation where they might feel themselves obliged to deny themselves public services that were superficially at least connected with idolatry, such as the public water supply. Hence, Rabbi JoÈanan (b.#Abod. Zar. 58b-59a), apparently confident that Jews would not actually worship such idols, excluded such public services from the stigma of idolatry.
In any case, as Friedman has noted, when a practice or concept is to be found in both Greek and Rabbinic cultures, there is no way of tracing a direct line of influence, since many items—crossroads as places of potential danger, an open door while a feast is in progress, seeing a guest on his way, gilding the horns of an animal to be sacrificed, and gilding the horns of a sacrificial animal—that he discusses are also found in places far from the Mediterranean world.
Moreover, as Hachlili and Levine26 have remarked, the intensive use of Jewish symbols, such as the Torah shrine, menorah, shofar, lulav, ethrog, and incense shovel on the mosaic floors of synagogues at \ammath Tiberias, Beth Alpha, Huseifa, Naaran, and Susiya, is much more marked in synagogues in Palestine than in those in the Diaspora. Levine finds it amazing that Diaspora synagogues, far from being more syncretistic and Hellenized than their Palestinian counterparts, show a lesser proclivity than their Palestinian counterparts to featuring figural representatations with distinctly pagan motifs. To explain this he suggests that the Jews felt more secure in their land where they were the majority. We may also add that the rabbis, being numerous and strong and watchful in their land, could afford to be more lenient in their interpretation of Jewish law.
Moreover, there can be no doubt that in the third century such a city as Sepphoris in Galilee, where the patriarch resided and theMishnah was codified and to which the seat of the Sanhedrin was transferred, attracted many rabbinic leaders and their students and was a stronghold of Jewish studies and values. In speaking of the impact of Hellenism we must also draw a distinction among the various areas of Palestine, since the impact appears to be considerably less in such areas as Upper Galilee and the Golan, whereas Hengel levels Hellenized Palestine into a single homogeneous geographical and social entity, as Harrison remarks.
But how then can we explain the fact that the Palestinian synagogues, much more than those in the Diaspora, feature representations with distinctly pagan motifs? It was Goodenough’s theory that in the days of the later Hasmoneans, of Herod, and Herod Agrippa, the Pharisees and the Sages wielded an almost absolute spiritual domination over the people. On the other hand, he notes, after the destruction of the Temple, the Patriarchs and Sages had no authority at all, and this extended even to the period of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch at the beginning of the third century. In a recent book, Schwartz has argued that in the period before the destruction of the Temple the authority of the Torah rested not so much on the consensus of the Jews as on the might of the imperial and native rulers of Palestine. But, we may reply, the fact that masses ofJews demonstrated against the introduction of the bust of Caligula into Jerusalem (War 2.184-203, Ant. 18.240-308) and threatened the Roman governor with an uprising unless he punished the Roman soldier who had cut up a Torah scroll (War 2.228-31, Ant. 20.113-17) shows that it was popular feeling and not the act of the authorities that insisted on the authority of the Torah. Schwartz notes that there is remarkably little representational decoration in post-Maccabean Judea and explains this as due to the intolerance by the authorities of radical dissent, but we must respond by noting that there is little indication that the authorities issued decrees prohibiting it.
One of Schwartz’s most striking theories is that a rabbinocentric account of the first four centuries centuries c.e. is inadequate, that the rabbis did not have any officially recognized legal authority until the end of the fourth century, and that the patriarchs, such as Rabbi Judah the Prince, acquired much of their influence precisely by relaxing their ties to the rabbis and by allying themelves with the Palestinian city counsellors, wealthy Diaspora Jews, and prominent gentiles. The Jewish world, he says, was ruled by the patriarchs as a sort of empire in miniature. He argues that Jewish Palestine between 100 and 350 scarcely differed from any other high imperial provincial society. But if there is any truth to the large numbers of students that individual rabbis, notably Rabbi Akiva (Ned. 50a), had, their influence must have been great.
Schwartz asserts that “probably everywhere…the failure of the revolts [of 66-70, 115-117, and 132-135] had led to disaffection with and attrition from Judaism.” But, we may remark, 4 Ezra, which he cites, reflects the gloom felt by the Jews but does not indicate that it led to defection from Judaism. Schwartz comments that the book cannot have satisfied everyone and that “those whom it failed to satisfy will have reacted with panic, despair, and finally abandonment of Judaism.” Perhaps Schwartz is thinking of the reaction of some modern Jews to the Holocaust; but if we examine the writings of pagans (e.g., Dio Cassius), Christians, and the rabbis, we find no such mass defection. We may remark that the fact that apparently so few Jews converted to Christianity (so Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 53, writing in the second century) would indicate that Jews did keep their separate identity strong. Even after the conversion of the Roman emperors to Christianity in the fourth century it was paradoxically the Roman government that protected the Jews and their institutions. Yet, Schwartz admits that cities with predominantly Jewish populations in the second and third centuries issued coins with pagan gods and symbols. He explains this as due to the fact that the rabbis had a weak hold, if any, on the rest of the Jews. Goodenough posits that in the days of the later Hasmoneans and of Herod, the Pharisees and Sages wielded an almost absolute spiritual domination over the people, but that in the period of the second and third centuries, when Yavneh and Usha were the centers of Jewish life, the patriarchs and sages had no authority at all. However, as Urbach contends, this fly in the face of all that we know about the authority of the sages in this period.
As to the coins with pagan symbols, why not say that these cities contained pagans also, that the people who governed these cities were most likely non-Jews, and that the coins were intended for circulation not only in the cities but also in surrounding areas that did contain pagans? Schwartz argues that pagan art used by the Jews had a specifically pagan religious meaning and that this indicates a post-revolt collapse of any normatively Jewish ideological system; but if so we would have expected a tremendous outcry on the part of the rabbis of this period. Yet, even though the rabbis felt free to disagree with one another constantly, there is no such outcry. Indeed, as Sukenik remarks: “Is it conceivable that there should have been at that time such a violent deviation from traditional Judaism in Galilee, the principal center of Palestinian Jewry after the destruction of the Second Temple, the residence of the Patriarchate and the seat of the Sanhedrin?”
Schwartz contends that the patriarchs had little impact upon the lives of Palestinian Jews, that their main interest, especially in the fourth century, was in maintaining their ties with the Diaspora, and that this enhanced their fund-raising potential there. He argues that since the rabbis had so little influence, the constitutional role of the Torah was assumed by the Roman government and that in important and surprising respects Jewish Palestine was hardly distinguishable from other eastern provinces. We may remark, however, that the government protected the Jews and apparently did not interfere with them; and the fact, as we have noted, that apparently so few Jews converted to Christianity even after Christianity became the state religion would indicate that Jews did keep their separate identity strong.
Schwartz suggests that the rabbis’ disregard of compromises with idol worship allowed them to live and work in the cities, the very places where they could most easily accumulate wealth, social ties, and influence. But, we may respond, the main reason why the rabbis lived in the cities was that this was where their places of study attracted the largest number of students.
According to Schwartz, “A citizen of Caesarea might be a proud Roman citizen, too, but also a Jew, a Samaritan, a Christian, or a Syrian, in addition to thinking of himself as being in some sense Greek. If he took his municipal responsibilities seriously, though, his Jewishness or Christianity would necessarily have been attentuated, for the public life of the city was pagan to the core.” This might have been true of Sardis in Asia Minor in the third century, where we have evidence of Jewish members of the city council, but what evidence is there that this was also true in Palestine, so holy to the Christians, after Christianity became the religion of the Empire? Schwartz himself acknowledges that the emperors explicitly recognized the Jews as a legitimate religious organization, with a clergy whose authority and privileges approximated those of the Christian clergy; but this does not mean that Jews held positions in civic life.
The greatest paradox of all in Schwartz’s work is his theory that one of the main causes of the “rejudaization” of the Jews in 350-640 was the Christianization of the Roman Empire and that a great deal of the distinctive Jewish culture was nothing less than repackaged Christianity! The fourth to the sixth centuries is the period when the synagogue was reaching its maximal diffusion in the Palestinian countryside, precisely the period of maximal church construction.
Schwartz’s explanation of this coincidence is that both point to the growing importance of religion in the self-understanding of the villagers. This may well be an important factor, but we may also suggest that the building boom was accelerated by the economic prosperity and by the security fostered by the Empire, as well as by the rivalry between the emperor and the Church.
It is the rabbis, Schwartz contends, who rejected the widespread conception of the synagogue as a holy place. Schwartz’s chief evidence is from archaeology, which, he claims, shows that the Jews, starting in the third century, especially in Palestine, experienced a period of unprecedented prosperity and demographic growth, despite the fact, we may add, that this was the century that is often thought to have been the key period in the decline of the Roman Empire. The Jews, he contends, engaged in extensive cultural borrowing from their pagan and Christian neighbors, even to the point that, he suggests, many synagogues were built with apses, a feature borrowed from the basilical church but adapted for use as a niche for Torah scrolls, and that many had chancel screens in front of the apses—another borrowing, he says, from church design. But, we may suggest, all that this last point may indicate is that the architects of the synagogues were sometimes or often the same as the architects of the churches. Schwartz contrasts the attitude of the rabbis and of the congregants to the synagogue: the former regarded it as primarily a place of Torah and the study of Torah, whereas the latter looked upon it as a reflection of the heavenly temple and as an inherently sacred space, which is very close to the Christian conception of the sacred.
However, if we examine the rules (m. Meg. 3:1-3 and the Gemara that follows) concerning the sale of a synagogue building one sees that the rabbis viewed it as an inherently sacred space.
Schwartz stresses that the ideology of the late antique community was characterized by tension between the hierarchy of the rabbis and the egalitarianism of the populace. While the Torah and the rabbis granted special status to priests and scholars, there is little evidence for these groups in the synagogue inscriptions. But, we may counter, this may indicate not tension between scholars and laypeople but merely that the inscriptions memorialize those who gave the money. One is reminded of the story of the person who asked the tourist guide in Tel Aviv: “After whom is the Mann Auditorium named—Horace Mann or Thomas Mann?” His answer was: “Neither. It is named after the man who wrote the check.”
Again, as Levine admits, one cannot assume the same measure of acculturation in the lower classes as in the upper, wealthier strata of society. The upper class could travel more readily for business or political purposes, could purchase goods from foreign countries, and could afford to build more lavishly. Moreover, cities were meeting places for various peoples and ideas, more so than in isolated and insulated villages. But apparently the great majority of Jews lived in small towns, such as the 204 villages in Galilee mentioned by Josephus (Life 235), none of which, he says (and which he had to be in some position to know, even if he may well be exaggerating, since he was the general in Galilee at the beginning of the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66), had fewer than 15,000 inhabitants.
Levine assumes that the degree of Hellenization increased in the course of time, from the first to the fourth century; but he admits that in certain places, notably Egypt, we find more use of Hebrew names and of the Hebrew language as time went on. He explains this by suggesting that this was the result of severe political, social, and economic setbacks that it suffered in the first centuries. But, we may ask, why might this not also have been true in Palestine, where there were three wars with tremendous losses in lives and economic setbacks within a period of less than seventy years, coupled with successes in winning converts and “sympathizers” to Judaism?