In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister
When I presented the rough outlines of my plans for MA Thesis on social (and/or cultural) interaction between Rome and Jews in 2nd and 3rd Century Syria Palaestina at my department’s ‘Thesis Seminar’, both teachers and pupils tried to lure me into extending the project: I got proposals ranging from “what about the Diaspora?” via “of course the Essenes will be of interest for your research” and “you should take the Christian Empire into the equation” up to “I believe under Antioch IV the Jews fought against a statue of a god in the temple in Jerusalem.” All very interesting indeed, and the thought of investigating all those landscapes of interaction is extremely alluring to me. But I am warned by the tercet preceding Goethe’s famous quote:
So ist’s mit aller Bildung auch beschaffen:
Vergebens werden ungebundne Geister
Nach der Vollendung reiner Hoehe streben.
(source: Goethe, “Das Sonnett”, as quoted by the Humanist Discussion Group)
Having seen quite some fellow students stumble over much to extensive thesis plans, I will try to bind my Geist. Here I will propose some boundaries.
First of all, I will confine my research to a very small geographical area: the Roman province of Syria Palaestina, and within this province I will concentrate mostly on the rural backwaters of Galilee, and the poleis in and surrounding that province, such as Joppa, Sephoris and Caesarea. In effect the base of the rabbinic movement. The geographical boundary is fluid, however, as I will present the region as the scenery for the interaction I intend to investigate. Where archaeological, epigraphical and numismatical evidence from this area doesn’t suffice to provide that scenery, I might use evidence from other, comparable(?) regions in the Roman Empire. But no, I won’t take the Jews of the Alexandrian or Asian diaspora communities into consideration.
Another important boundary will be that of Time. Both my time and their time is limited: I plan to complete a first draft in May or June, and I will only consider the interaction of Jews and Romans from after the Bar Kokhba Revolt – excluding the revolt itself, but including the transmission and recension of the revolt’s legend in later centuries – until the Christianization of the Empire’s government in the East, thus roughly from 135 to 323 A.C. As such, I will exclude both early sources like Josephus and the New Testament, and the complications of the rabbi’s attitude towards the Empire becoming muddled with their attitude towards that suddenly all-important sect, Christianity. These two centuries form politically a very silent age in Palestine, after the Roman reaction to Bar Kokhba’s revolt subsides we see neither uprisings nor persecutions.
But socially and culturally it is a very interesting period. If we look casually, we see Syria Palaestine fully integrating into the structure and culture of the Roman Empire like all other former client kingdoms in the East in this period. As Fergus Millar (1993) and Seth Schwartz (2001) convincingly show, for this period the archaeological record presents a very ‘normal’ Roman province. Poleis promoted their alliance with the empire, artifacts of daily life are decorated with standard pagan themes. Schwartz concludes that “for most Jews, Judaism may have been little more than a vestigial identity, bits and pieces of which they were happy to incorporate into a religious and cultural system that was essentially Greco-Roman and pagan.” However, this same age and region features the birth of a very idiosyncratic literary tradition – the rabbinical writings, most well-known of which are the Mishnah and the Talmud. Not only are they written not in Greek, but in local languages (Hebrew and Aramaic), they also present a very different Weltanschauung. The paradox of this seemingly integrated society producing such literature intrigues me.
The rabbinical literature (together with the above-mentioned archaeological and epigraphical data) will be the primary source of my investigation. This in itself raises some major methodological issues, not in the least by the volume of the literature. The Babylonian Talmud alone would take seven years to read if one would read a page a day… But I will consider the problems of using this literature for historical research in a future post. Here I will only state that I believe that the rabbinical literature, although highly idiosyncratic and probably written by a marginal movement, can give us insight in 2nd and 3rd century provincial society if carefully studied.
I will not be the first to write about the rabbis’ attitude towards Roman government or pagan society. However, most studies have been compilations of sayings and legends, without much historical analysis. Moreover, most such writings don’t look beyond the rabbis to the wider society of Syria Palaestina (or superimpose the Talmudic social utopia on that society). I hope to step beyond a mere compilation, and steer free from generalizing rabbinic ideas, by applying social theory to the data. To be more specific, I hope that James C. Scott’s theory of public and hidden transcripts will shed some light on the nature of the interaction between Rome and Palaestinian society.
That’s all for now, next week I hope to sketch a rough outline of my thesis. Dear reader, I might as well warn you: this blog will move beyond mere escapism, to serious academics…😉