- Jews, Christians, and the Roman Empire: The Poetics of Power in Late Antiquity ed. by Natalie B. Dohrmann and Annette Yoshiko Reed
This set of thirteen papers on Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire assesses how Jews and Christians functioned as “Romans.” All but one or two of the contributors are specialists in Judaism in late antiquity, and Jewish topics and materials are the major focus of the collection. The papers treat a wide variety of literary genres, and archaeological and artistic evidence, over a broad expanse of space (from Gaul and Spain to Mesopotamia) and time (from the third century to the early Middle Ages). The unifying theme is Judaism’s and Christianity’s experience of and response to Romanization, both before and after Constantine’s conversion, when Christianization further complicated Romanization. Rather than seeing Jews and Christians as stuck between the stark alternatives of assimilation or resistance, however, the papers approach them as subgroups carrying on their lives in what to them was “normalcy,” both subject to and at the same time exploiting the particular legal, social, and cultural conditions attached to “being Roman.” The perspective thus owes something to postcolonial theorizing, but most of the contributions are mercifully sparing in their use of fashionable terminology.
Space limitations only permit comments on a few especially noteworthy papers. William Adler’s “The Kingdom of Edessa and the Creation of a Christian Aristocracy” studies the third-century Eastern Christians Bardaisan of Edessa and Julius Africanus, who illustrate the book’s theme of creative and self-serving provincial accommodation to Western invasion, first via Greek paideia, then via Roman imperium. Readers unfamiliar with the swashbuckling figure of Africanus should read this well-informed portrait of a cultural entrepreneur, whose Christianity sat easily with his cultural pluralism and service to pagan royalty, first in Edessa and then in Rome.
Natalie B. Dohrmann’s “Law and Imperial Idioms: Rabbinic Legalism in a Roman World” asks why rabbinic legality triumphed so totally as to eliminate any surviving mention of the many other types of authority and literary genre that prevailed in pre-1970s Judaism. She identifies three Roman aspects that the rabbis might have been inspired to imitate in their devotion to scholastic jurisprudence: Roman imperial administration, which offered a model of efficient governance and social order that invited and needed local cooperation; the second-century emergence both of scholastic jurists and Greek rhetors, whose prestige grew rapidly (providing [End Page 800] a model of “meritocratic cultural dualism,” p. 74); and Roman law’s success as political propaganda, which convinced the locals to seek out Roman justice and thus provided the rabbis “a galling competitor” (p. 75) with which they had to work.
Joshua Levinson’s “There Is No Place Like Home: Rabbinic Responses to the Christianization of Palestine” denies that rabbinic texts ignored the rapid Christianization of Palestine after Constantine and identifies strategies such as imitating Christian pilgrimage to sacred graves; “de-territorializing the sacred” (God is everywhere, p. 110); and “relocating” God’s Presence such as from the Temple to the Mount of Olives and then to heaven. Note the “comic burlesque” (p. 118) in Sifre on Deuteronomy, in which imperial commissioners are miraculously led on a wild-goose chase for the grave of Moses that undermines Christian triumphalist narratives about marvelous sites in Palestine.
Oded Irshai’s “Christian Historiographers’ Reflections on Jewish-Christian Violence in Fifth-Century Alexandria” analyzes the account by church historian Socrates of a violent action by Alexandrian Jews against local Christians. Irshai proposes that recent changes in imperial law and policy, along with newly elected patriarch Cyril of Alexandria’s aggressive posture, pushed Jews to fear that a tipping point had been reached in interreligious relations and that they needed to defend themselves while they could still expect support from the local administration, Christian though it was. He suggests that Socrates used Cyril’s high-handedness (with which he...