The Hidden Heritage of Diaspora Judaism

By Barclay, John | Journal of Biblical Literature, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

The Hidden Heritage of Diaspora Judaism


Barclay, John, Journal of Biblical Literature


The Hidden Heritage of Diaspora Judaism, by Leonard V. Rutgers. CBET 20. Leuven: Peeters,1998. Pp. 320. N.P.

Leonard Rutgers has established a formidable reputation for expertise in Jewish Diaspora archaeology through his monograph The jews in Late Ancient Rome (1995). Here he offers a collection of essays that complement his earlier work, some previously published in journals (the last, surprisingly, is a reprint of a chapter of the monograph), but some unpublished, and all welcome, in this assembly, in advancing the discussion of Diaspora Judaism. An introductory chapter orients the reader to significant new developments in the field, while the essays that follow focus particularly on archaeological material (synagogues, tombs, and inscriptions) and on selected sites (notably Rome and Sicily), from the first to the fourth centuries cE. One or two essays are highly technical and of interest chiefly to specialists in the field (e.g., chapter 2, on dating the Jewish catacombs in Rome), but others are of wider appeal. Many readers will be grateful, for instance, for Rutgers's excellent survey of evidence for Diaspora synagogues (chapter 4) and for his illuminating analysis of Jewish epitaphs (chapter 7) and of the treatment of Jews in first-century Rome (chapter 8).

The "hiddenness" of the ancient Jewish Diaspora is due partly to the fact that so much remains unexcavated (Rutgers laments the lack of new archaeological fieldwork, p. 41), but partly to the circumstance that what evidence we have is so often fragmentary. Rutgers hails the recent upsurge of interest in Diaspora archaeology, fostered by the discovery of the synagogue in Sardis and improved editions of Jewish inscriptions; but he also, rightly, challenges the premature conclusions sometimes drawn from this partial evidence. Thus, he finds the current emphasis on the size and success of Jewish communities in the Diaspora as one-sided as the previously lachrymose" portrayals: the evidence suggests, rather, communities of very different degrees of local importance, with fluctuating fortunes in the pagan, and then Christian, Roman empire (pp. 22-23). On the other hand, he challenges the fashionable assertion of such religious diversity in the Diaspora as to justify talk of several "Judaisms": in fact, it is the commonality of synagogue styles and functions that impresses Rutgers, far more than their constructional differences (pp. 24-28, 122-23). These are valuable correctives, supported by the authority of a scholar who is not only a reliable archaeologist, but also thoroughly familiar with current scholarship in many languages, and shrewdly conscious of its various agendas.

The most important theme running through these essays is the extent and character of interaction between Jews and non-Jews. In line with his special expertise, Rutgers pursues this question with primary reference to the archaeological evidence. This angle of approach is potentially very fruitful, but also often frustrating since, as Rutgers often warns, the bulk of our present material was poorly excavated (by today's standards), and in general our knowledge is perforated by such gaps as to render connections, let alone generalizations, extremely hazardous. Rutgers's caution is admirable and prevents us from expecting too much from too little: for instance, his proper insistence (chapter 7) that epitaphs were primarily designed to describe the earthly life of the deceased, not project their afterlife, rules out hasty conclusions from the fact that only 3 percent of Jewish epitaphs in Rome explicitly refer to the afterlife-and disqualifies wild generalizations on the basis of those that do.

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