Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 BCE. to 640 C.E

Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 BCE. to 640 C.E

Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 BCE. to 640 C.E

Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 BCE. to 640 C.E


This provocative new history of Palestinian Jewish society in antiquity marks the first comprehensive effort to gauge the effects of imperial domination on this people. Probing more than eight centuries of Persian, Greek, and Roman rule, Seth Schwartz reaches some startling conclusions--foremost among them that the Christianization of the Roman Empire generated the most fundamental features of medieval and modern Jewish life. Schwartz begins by arguing that the distinctiveness of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and early Roman periods was the product of generally prevailing imperial tolerance. From around 70 C. E. to the mid-fourth century, with failed revolts and the alluring cultural norms of the High Roman Empire, Judaism all but disintegrated. However, late in the Roman Empire, the Christianized state played a decisive role in "re-Judaizing" the Jews. The state gradually excluded them from society while supporting their leaders and recognizing their local communities. It was thus in Late Antiquity that the synagogue-centered community became prevalent among the Jews, that there re-emerged a distinctively Jewish art and literature--laying the foundations for Judaism as we know it today. Through masterful scholarship set in rich detail, this book challenges traditional views rooted in romantic notions about Jewish fortitude. Integrating material relics and literature while setting the Jews in their eastern Mediterranean context, it addresses the complex and varied consequences of imperialism on this vast period of Jewish history more ambitiously than ever before. Imperialism in Jewish Society will be widely read and much debated.


IMPERIALISM AND JEWISH SOCIETY traces the impact of different types of foreign domination on the inner structure of ancient Jewish society, primarily in Palestine. It argues that a loosely centralized, ideologically complex society came into existence by the second century B.C.E., collapsed in the wake of the Destruction and the imposition of direct Roman rule after 70 C.E., and reformed starting in the fourth century, centered now on the synagogue and the local religious community, in part as a response to the christianization of the Roman Empire.

This book thus covers a longer period and has a broader scope than is conventional for books on ancient Judaism, aside from the not uncommon handbooks, which are characterized by varying degrees of comprehensiveness but the absence of an explicit argument. One reason I chose to treat a broad topic is the character of the evidentiary basis of ancient Jewish history. In brief, it is slender. This fact has paradoxically contributed to, though it is certainly not the only cause of, the common tendency to produce monographic studies of extremely limited issues, on the assumption that only minute study of small selections of material can yield reliable results. Clearly such work has its place, but, as I will argue in more detail below, hypotheses about the society that produced the artifacts must necessarily accompany their interpretation, and the evidence as a whole must be used to construct these hypotheses. Thus it seems worthwhile to get a sense of the entire system before, or while, examining its parts.

Swallowing the evidence whole is necessary but not sufficient for this task. It is intuitively obvious that the ancient Jews (assuming that they behaved like a recognizably human group) were profoundly affected by the imperial powers under which they were constrained to live. It is equally obvious that the effects of imperialism were not limited to reaction—to the impulse to “circle the wagons” that has so often been attributed to the Jews by historians and others. Nor can the effects of domination by Hellenistic kingdoms and the Roman Empire all usefully be crowded under the rubric of “hellenization.” The effects of domination were complex, pervasive, and varied, and we cannot begin to apprehend the structure of the system without paying careful attention to them. This consideration explains the importance of power and its

Though the Greco-Roman Diaspora is frequently mentioned, I have omitted all discussion of the Jews in the Parthian and Sassanian empires, due to the nearly complete absence of information outside the Babylonian Talmud.

See T. Endelman, “Introduction: Comparing Jewish Societies,” in Comparing Jewish Societies (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), pp. 1–21, especially 10–13.

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