Were the Jews a Mediterranean Society? Reciprocity and Solidarity in Ancient Judaism

Were the Jews a Mediterranean Society? Reciprocity and Solidarity in Ancient Judaism

Were the Jews a Mediterranean Society? Reciprocity and Solidarity in Ancient Judaism

Were the Jews a Mediterranean Society? Reciprocity and Solidarity in Ancient Judaism


How well integrated were Jews in the Mediterranean society controlled by ancient Rome? The Torah's laws seem to constitute a rejection of the reciprocity-based social dependency and emphasis on honor that were customary in the ancient Mediterranean world. But were Jews really a people apart, and outside of this broadly shared culture? Were the Jews a Mediterranean Society? argues that Jewish social relations in antiquity were animated by a core tension between biblical solidarity and exchange-based social values such as patronage, vassalage, formal friendship, and debt slavery.

Seth Schwartz's examinations of the Wisdom of Ben Sira, the writings of Josephus, and the Palestinian Talmud reveal that Jews were more deeply implicated in Roman and Mediterranean bonds of reciprocity and honor than is commonly assumed. Schwartz demonstrates how Ben Sira juxtaposes exhortations to biblical piety with hard-headed and seemingly contradictory advice about coping with the dangers of social relations with non-Jews; how Josephus describes Jews as essentially countercultural; yet how the Talmudic rabbis assume Jews have completely internalized Roman norms at the same time as the rabbis seek to arouse resistance to those norms, even if it is only symbolic.

Were the Jews a Mediterranean Society? is the first comprehensive exploration of Jewish social integration in the Roman world, one that poses challenging new questions about the very nature of Mediterranean culture.


How should we picture an average Jewish man in antiquity? What sort of person was he? How did he express feelings of love, affection, anger, jealousy, pity, and fear? What was his life like? To whom did he feel connected, why, and how? How did he stand when he talked to you, and what language or languages could he talk to you in? Could he read, and if he could, did he bother? Was he free in using his fists, or was he proud of his restraint? Given that he was in all likelihood a small farmer, perhaps on land owned by someone else, did he regard the landlord—or his wealthy neighbor—with fear, react to him with deference, with cheerful bonhomie or chutzpah, with veiled hatred and resentment? Should we imagine him—to set out two extreme stereotypes, neither meant to be taken absolutely literally—as the kind of southern Italian or Greek villager that modern ethnographers, among others, have acquainted us with, shrewd, irascible, zealous for his honor, concerned about his family above all, hostile to or suspicious of authority, prone to think the worst of outsiders and to act on such thoughts—in sum, as a “typical Mediterranean”? Or should

I say “man” intentionally, not to foreshadow any neglect of issues of gender in the book
that follows but to make the questions posed in this introductory chapter even remotely answer
able. Let me add here a note on terminology and coverage: my focus is on Palestine but does not
exclude the major diasporic communities in the Roman Empire (Parthian and Sasanian Meso
potamia are excluded); my chronological range is 200 bce to some time in late antiquity (a
term I use in its ancient historical sense to mean roughly 284–700 ce, and not in its history of
religions sense, according to which it begins in the Iron Age). the country roughly correspond
ing to the contemporary state of Israel, plus the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights, plus
the strip of land on the east bank of the River Jordan called in antiquity Peraea I refer to as Pal
estine. Judaea designates the district of Jerusalem, whose northern border was approximately
the modern city of Ramallah and whose southern border was near Beth Zur, just southwest of
Bethlehem. To the north lies Samaria and to the south, Idumaea. When I wish to write of the
Roman province of Judaea (which existed from 70 to 135 ce and was subsequently renamed
Syria Palaestina), I will call it Provincia Judaea.

the scare quotes are meant seriously here. For a critique of the idea of Mediterranean cul
ture, see the next chapter.

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