Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology

By Friedland, Elise A. | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, October-December 2007 | Go to article overview

Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology


Friedland, Elise A., The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology. By STEVEN FINE. Cambridge: CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2005. Pp. xvii + 267, illus. $75.

Steven Fine's Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World is an impressive, interdisciplinary study that, from the perspective of a classical art historian and archaeologist, fills a major gap. While catalogues of "ancient Jewish art" have been written, no historiographic and theoretical discussion of Jewish art in the classical world exists. The introduction makes clear the author's goals: "to lay to rest the last vestiges of the insidious (and often anti-Semitic or anti-Rabbinic) trope of Jewish 'aniconism' in antiquity by exposing its roots as it pertains to the Greco-Roman period" (p. 2), to "discuss the relationship between 'art' and 'Judaism'" from the Second Temple period through the rise of Islam (p. 3), and to "focus on the flesh-and-blood Jews who made, used, and sometimes avoided and destroyed 'art' in the Greco-Roman world" (p. 4). Throughout the book's four main sections, Fine interprets texts and material culture in tandem and uses a case-study approach.

In the first section, "The 'Most Unmonumental People' of the World: Modern Constructions of Ancient Jewish Art," Fine presents a history of the study of ancient Jewish art. After sketching a brief historical background of the Jewish experience in nineteenth -and twentieth-century Europe and America, Fine traces a "paradigm shift" from an apologetic scholarship, which he dubs "Jews Do Art Too! literature" (p. 8), to a body of literature that critically examines Western constructions of Jewish art. In chapter one, Fine documents several trends in scholarship on Jewish art and architecture prevalent during the early twentieth century (pp. 17-21): studies of rabbinic literature that incorporate archaeological remains; a German Protestant model of Jewish artlessness; and a French Catholic positive attitude toward Jewish art. Then Fine discusses the Frank Memorial Synagogue constructed in Philadelphia in 1901, since it represents a physical manifestation of an important aesthetic and intellectual trend in this era: the beginning of a recognition of Jewish art.

In chapter two, Fine traces the founding of "Jewish archaeology" through the work of Nahum Slouschz and his 1920/1921 excavations at Hammat Tiberias; the life's work of E. L. Sukenik, father of the archaeology of ancient synagogues; and the role of Hebrew University and its president, Judah L. Magnes. Fine also discusses Jewish archaeology as a necessary foundation for the Zionist movement. Chapter three focuses largely on a historiographic study of E. R. Goodenough and his thirteen-volume Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, published between 1954 and 1968. Fine argues that Goodenough's work "sparked two generations of scholars to actively seek out alternate voices" (p. 45) in both the textual and the artifactual records that would reveal distinctions between the views of the rabbis and those of other, "nonrabbinic" Jews. Fine takes issue with Goodenough's model that Jewish art was nonrabbinic art and that "rabbinic 'normative' Judaism ... was aniconic to the core" (p. 45).

In chapter four, Fine assesses the presentation of ancient Jewish art in standard textbooks used in survey courses on the history of art. His discussion of Gardner's Art Through the Ages (by Fred S. Kleiner) and Marilyn Stokstad's Art History are particularly relevant, and Stokstad's text is heralded as "a major step away from the methodological dead end that art history had hit in its understanding of all things Jewish" (p. 51).

In part two, "Art and Identity in the Greco-Roman World," Fine sets out to examine "the ways that art served in the construction of Jewish identity (identities)" (p. 211) during the Greco-Roman period through three case studies: the Hasmonean tombs at Modi' in, the Na'aran synagogue mosaic, and art of the Jewish diaspora. …

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