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Reviewed by:
  • Imperialism and Jewish Society 200 B.C.E. TO 640 C.E.
  • Philip R. Davies
Imperialism and Jewish Society 200 B.C.E. TO 640 C.E., by Seth Schwarz. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. 320 pp. $39.50.

Not too infrequently a scholar reads a book that both delights and informs; less often one that changes the way he or she thinks about a subject. Here is a marvellous book that achieves all of this. It combines knowledge of a wide range of data, an exact degree of methodological awareness, duly translated into practice, and a challenging synthesis that yet seems the inevitable conclusion of the evidence presented.

To summarize first the challenging thesis: during the Second Temple period, Palestinian Judaism developed a solidarity built around temple and law, though its regularity of practice was offset by the widespread embrace of a destabilizing myth about the origin and persistence of evil in the world. Furthermore, the vast increase in the "Jewish" population of Palestine under the Hasmoneans created social and religious patterns that frayed what cultural unity had preceded. After the loss of temple, then land, in two wars against Rome, Judaism virtually disintegrated. It had no center, no cohesion; and increasingly Jewish "society" (this is the only way Schwarz finds to describe what existed) assimilated to the cultural practices of late antique Roman civilization. Judaism was in fact recovered and its future secured secured through the conquest by Christianity of the Roman empire, which retrieved it from near-invisibility and bestowed upon it a distinctive place of its own. The growing power of the patriarchate and the rabbis (institutions by no means to be automatically associated) also contributed to the emergence of the Jewish religion as it has been known since.

To put this thesis even more boldly (e.g. "Christianity saved Judaism") would convey the sort of irony in which professional historians often delight, but would be unnecessarily mischievous as well as untrue to the spirit and argument of a book that is nuanced, sophisticated, and deployed with as much detachment as any modern historian can muster. The reader ought to approach it without prejudice, though not necessarily without some reservation now and then, for the argument is stronger in some places than in others.

The book neatly divides into ten sections, making up three parts: to 70 C.E., from 135 to 350; and from 350 to 640. The treatment is not comprehensive, and the book gives the impression of being ultimately derived from discrete essays. But these cohere remarkably well as a set of case-studies embraced by a clear overall thesis and rounded by an introduction and conclusion. The book also has a clear theme: in each epoch the context of the Roman empire played a dominant role in determining the fate of Judaism.

In Part I we have a chapter on the politic and social transformation of Palestinian Judaism through the Hasmonean expansion, the pro-Roman regimes of the Herodian dynasty, and the destruction of Judea once the local elite, through whom the Romans typically preferred to rule, showed itself incapable of orderly control and administration. A second chapter analyzes the formation of a reasonably coherent Jewish society through adherence to temple and Torah (following Sanders's "common Judaism" to a [End Page 154] large extent rather than Neusner's "Judaisms"), but also identified is the embrace of a contradictory "apocalyptic" myth by elites and sub-elites. In this opening section, then, both integrative and centrifugal forces are well noted, and although Schwarz does not emphasize the point, their tension sets a pattern for the subsequent history of Judaism.

In Part II we are given a chapter, focusing on Galilee, that demonstrates how the patriarchate and rabbinate existed on the margins, both ideologically and geographically, and not at the centre, of Jewish life. The next chapter, on the cities, shows that the evidence for distinctive Jewish cultural practice is attenuated; bluntly, Jews seem to have behaved much as non-Jews did in most respects. The ideology of the Greco-Roman city exerted a much larger force on Jews than did rabbis. The following chapter explores the tensions between rabbinic and urban...


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