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Reviewed by:
  • Jewish Marriage in Antiquity
  • Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert
Jewish Marriage in Antiquity, by Michael L. Satlow. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001. 431 pp. $55.00.

With this book, the title of which is succinct and to the point, Michael Satlow offers a comprehensive study of Jewish marriage in antiquity, ranging from biblical texts to rabbinic texts and intermittently even post-talmudic texts. At the same time rabbinic and especially talmudic texts surely are treated most thoroughly in this book, while Second Temple literature is mostly made reference to rather than being discussed in its own right. As the author himself is quick to point out in his preface, the first two critical terms in the title—Jewish and marriage—are fluid and context-dependent, and this is exactly what the book sets out to explore. That is, one of the central questions of the book is the question how "Jewish" Jewish marriage really is. Hence, antiquity here is to be understood in the broadest cultural sense and not merely as a chronological term. Indeed, one of the great merits of the book is that in trying to answer this question, Satlow does not only analyze texts and epigraphic material from what is generally recognized as Jewish material from the ancient world, but he draws amply on Greek, hellenistic, and Roman literature, as well as at times on Zoroastrian material in order to provide a context for what Jewish authors thought and wrote. By doing so, Satlow demonstrates the two central arguments of his book, namely first that there is nothing essentially Jewish about "Jewish" marriage in antiquity, and that often enough Jewish authors merely "Judaize" (pp. 59, 66) prevalent notions or ideologies of marriage. Second, the various Jewish groups in antiquity had fundamentally different understandings of the goals and functions of marriage, depending on chronological and cultural context. This, according to Satlow, does not only hold true for authors of differently located texts, whether that is the people at Qumran, Philo, Josephus or Paul, but also and especially accounts for intra-rabbinic differences, namely between Palestinian and Babylonian rabbis. The latter point seems to be most important for Satlow, partially due to the dominant focus of the book on rabbinic texts. Further, however, this particular point is important, even though Satlow is not the first to make it, but often enough "rabbinic Judaism" is still represented as a homogeneous culture. Accordingly, Satlow emphasizes the differences between various Jewish subcultures much more than pointing out similarities and continuities. Indeed, he can at times go as far as stating that the respective Jewish subcultures are much more similar to their respective cultural environments than to their respective Jewish colleagues. To overstate the point, Palestinian rabbis are Stoics and Babylonian rabbis are Zoroastrians, respectively.

But let me backtrack and briefly provide a description of the book before I critically engage those points. In order to provide a comprehensive study of the particular topic of marriage, Satlow provides a clear structure of three parts, each of which throws light on different aspects of the institution. In the first part he analyzes the ideology of marriage, its underlying theology and the legal framework. In the second part, he [End Page 173] presents material about the actual process of marrying, beginning with actual marriage contracts from Egypt and the Judaean desert (what he calls "shreds" of real marriage), and going through the various stages of tying the knots (including the age at the time of marriage, issues of intermarriage, customs and rituals of marriage, and biblical/ rabbinic peculiarities such as levirate marriage and polygyny).

The last part finally focuses on the nature of the relationship between the spouses, both in economic terms and in qualitative terms. Each of the chapters walks the reader through a number of texts relevant to the argument presented, with the goal of providing what Satlow calls a "thick" description of the contours of Jewish marriage in antiquity. He proves to be a careful and critical reader particularly of his rabbinic sources and does not merely read his texts as transparent towards the historical reality behind them. Rather, he regards these texts often as cultural artifacts in their own...


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pp. 173-175
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