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Reviewed by:
  • Palestine in Late Antiquity
  • David Hunt
Palestine in Late Antiquity Hagith Sivan Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. xv + 429. ISBN 978–0-19–928417–7

This book is largely the product of a year spent in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University's Institute for Advanced Study. From her first-hand experience of the region, the author sets herself a demanding objective: to document and comprehend the varied canvas of life in this critical area of the Roman Empire between the fourth and the seventh centuries, from Constantine to the Arab conquest. Sivan eschews the more linear and monochrome approaches (focusing predominantly on a single strand of the story, whether Jewish or Christian), which have with few exceptions—notably the work of Claudine Dauphin—held the field thus far; here we are promised a multifarious kaleidoscope of material, which seeks to do justice to the rich variety of literary evidence emanating from different religious communities, themselves far from monolithic in their separate identities, as well as the picture emerging from current archaeo-logical investigations on the ground. The common thread announced in the introduction, and supported by a bibliography drawn from modern social theory, is "conflict"—within and between local populations, and on the wider stage of international relations.

The book's first two chapters are predominantly topographical. Sivan takes the reader on an evocative tour of the urban landscape of Palestine at successive phases of its development, beginning from the dedication of the Holy Sepulcher church in 335 and an imaginary journey of Constantine from the Mediterranean coast to Jerusalem (what might the emperor have seen if he had traveled in person to the ceremony?), and ending with the dedication of another religious landmark, the Dome of the Rock, in 692. We are led from Tyre via the cities of coast and interior, ultimately to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, across a map characterized by fluid cultural and religious diversity, and framed by major political events. The journeying of the second chapter again begins in the mind, as Sivan deploys some quaint tales of influential dreams to change the scene to Mt. Sinai, and so to introduce a survey of the transformation of Palestine's desert regions in Late Antiquity: from Sinai the focus shifts to the Negev, thence to the Golan. Stories of monks and pilgrims are interwoven with the archaeological data of a rich material culture, including inscriptions and papyri (Nessana), and a landscape marked by continuing density [End Page 391] of Jewish settlement (as in areas of the Golan).

The theme of conflict is more explicit in the next pair of chapters, which bring the Samaritans to center stage. Giving pride of place to the Samaritans' own version of events (preserved in later chronicles not often on the agenda of historians of Late Antiquity), Sivan explores the background, and charts the course, of the succession of open confrontations with the Christian Roman authorities from Zeno to Justinian. These were the large-scale political flashpoints of a prevailing climate of conflict and violence swirling around the public spaces of late Roman Palestine, whether "ritualized" in communal festivals such as the pointedly anti-Christian feast of Purim—with its open mockery of the Crucifixion—or in episodic outbursts of destruction like that of the Mesopotamian monk Barsauma in the early fifth century.

Sivan's discussion of these "contests for the sacred" (to paraphrase one of her titles) leads to a chapter devoted solely to Jerusalem, perhaps the most straightforwardly linear and chronological in method, constructed around the successive imperial interventions of Constantine, Julian, Eudocia, and Justinian. Sivan charts the key phases of Jerusalem's reconfiguration as a holy city, the rabbinic "navel of the earth" which was later to become a battleground for rival claimants to Christian orthodoxy. From the city of Jerusalem itself the book broadens the Jewish/Christian "contest" to embrace both time and space: the calendrical clash (hardly coincidental) of 15 August as both the Jewish commemoration of the destruction of the Temple (9th of Av) and the Christian feast of Mary, and the "exegetical competitions" (p.273) that saw Christian and Jewish scholars contending over readings of the Old...


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