- Diaspora: Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans
Erich Gruen's published research demonstrates a seamless transition from his early scholarship in Hellenistic and early Roman historiography to his current well-established role as a leading specialist on Jews in antiquity. This breadth of study adds persistent illumination to the present book's argument that Diaspora Jews in the period before 70 CE usually did not sense any conflict between living in the Diaspora and Jewish identity. The book serves as an important new installment in Gruen's ongoing effort to dismantle paradigms of ancient Jewish history derived from exile, antisemitism, and other negative experiences.
After a brief preface, the introduction makes two programmatic observations: (1) Diaspora Jews seem to have preferred to live in the Diaspora rather than Palestine; (2) Diaspora Jews never developed a "philosophy of diaspora" to justify or explain life in the Diaspora. Chapter 1, "The Jews in Rome," argues that Roman policy toward Jews was characterized primarily by indifference. Rare instances of negative Roman actions toward Jews occurred when the Roman state made a show of maintaining its traditions against a wide variety of foreign elements, not just Jews. Chapter 2, "The Jews in Alexandria," breaks with a long tradition of previous research by suggesting that Jews in Alexandria were not engaged in a struggle over civic rights that climaxed in the violence of 38. This violence was instead a brief interruption in generally positive relations between Greeks and Jews occasioned by temporary circumstances and indigenous Egyptian hostility. Chapter 3, "Jews in the Province of Asia," argues that conflicts between Jews and Greeks in Asia Minor were rare. Gruen emphasizes that Roman policies toward Jews in Asia Minor were motivated by Rome's broader imperial concerns, not favoritism of or hostility toward Jews. Chapter 4, "Civic and Sacral Institutions in the Diaspora," suggests that Jews were integrated into the civic life and political institutions of the Greco-Roman world but still maintained their own unique communal identity in the synagogue. Chapters 5 and 6 focus on "Diaspora Humor" as it is expressed in Esther, Tobit, Testament of Abraham, and other texts in which Gruen finds evidence of a comic element. This comic element demonstrates that Diaspora Jews were quite at home in the Gentile world. Chapter 7, "Jewish Constructs of Greeks and Hellenism," argues that both negative and positive views toward Greek culture can be found even in the same Jewish texts. Gruen suggests that Jewish authors adopted and appropriated Greek culture, but did so in a way that emphasized the superiority of Jewish culture. Chapter 8, "Diaspora and Homeland," unites various threads traced in the preceding chapters. Gruen boldly affirms that Diaspora Jews developed no theory explaining or justifying their ongoing presence in the Diaspora because they quite simply felt no need to do so. The exile had ended with the restoration of the temple in the Persian period. Subsequent Jews did not view their own choice to leave or remain outside of Palestine in a negative fashion. They maintained a loyalty to Jerusalem as [End Page 176] their mother city while viewing themselves as colonists living in other lands that they were proud to call their fatherlands. They identified so deeply with these homelands that they did not even consider themselves to be part of a diaspora (p. 243). The book concludes with a list of abbreviations, endnotes, a bibliography, and a topical index.
One of the most valuable contributions of this book is the correction that it offers to anachronistic views of Jewish life in the Diaspora in the Hellenistic and early Roman periods. Gruen has successfully demonstrated that at least before 70, Diaspora Jews generally did not lament their geographical situation or seek to change it. This challenges deeply entrenched ideas that are well known from the work of Victor Tcherikover and other historians of these periods who found it difficult to escape paradigms of Diaspora as exile in an alien land or as a misguided choice that would guarantee exploitation by hostile Gentile powers. Readers who have a more...