Gepost door: Paul | november 7, 2006

“Iudaea capta” as public transcript

Iudaea CaptaAs I wrote last week, according to Seth Schwartz “for most Jews [in Late Empire Palestine], 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” (Imperialism and Jewish Society). One might say that the formula IUDEA CAPTA of some 1st century coins (image source) became valid beyond its technical sense. However, I don’t believe that this process of Greco/Romanization is the whole story. I will today present the first, weak steps of the counter argument I’m trying to develop.

The main shortcoming of Imperialism is that it declares the marginal rabbis irrelevant for the functioning of the system as a whole. This is partly because of the method Schwartz chooses: structural functionalism (in his own words: “a tendency (…) which assumes that there are such things as societies as usually complex, organism-like systems that can be understood by analyzing the relations of their component parts”). He falls into the trap he himself recognizes as one of the main criticisms of the model, namely that it “misleadingly ignore[s] agency, the complex ways in which people constantly negotiate with each other and with normative ideologies (…)”.

The 2nd and 3rd Century rabbis didn’t have much formal power (if any!). Thus, when describing the relations between the component parts of the organism, Schwartz comes to the conclusion that they were not representative for the Jewish population as a whole. Again cum Schwartz: “most Jews seem to have lived mainly as pagans and looked primarily to the Roman state and the city councils as their legal authorities and cultural ideal.” He sketches an uneven scale, of which the rabbis’ (and their followers’) end was marginal.

It is just possible that Schwartz’ model and the nature of the archaeological evidence (read this post for a very basic characterization) conspire to distort the picture. The telescopic, component-based perspective pays hardly any regard to social complexities, and the archaeological evidence (mainly coins, larger buildings, inscriptions) only represents the top layer of society (to make this argument convincing, I probably shouldn’t mention all the attention Schwartz gives to the nature of the objects of daily use…). This leads to a ruling culture/class focused analysis of “Jewish” Society.

Here I would like to bring in another social theory, namely James C. Scott’s theory of Hidden Transcripts (Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Hidden Transcripts). Scott says that (I paraphrase) the public transcript, i.e. the open interaction between subordinates (in our case the population of Syria Palaestina) and those who dominant (the Roman Empire and its magistrates), is unlikely to tell the whole story about power relations – can even be positively misleading! And it is exactly this public transcript which Schwartz sees when he looks at city coins, bathhouses, inscriptions! Such images represent what the powerful want to believe – or what the weak think they want to believe. Like the IUDEA CAPTA coins, which were distributed somewhat prematurely as it took seventy more years, lots of troubles and the smashing of a violent revolt to really subdue Judaea, the 2nd and 3rd century public transcript probably show a much too rosy picture. Rosy from the Roman point of view, of course.

Following Scott, if we wish to get an impression of the impact of domination (or imperialism?), we should assess the discrepancy between the public transcript and the hidden transcript – the “discourse that takes place ‘offstage,’ beyond direct observation by powerholders.” Schwartz doesn’t do this, and thus misses the opportunity to fathom the subordinate side of society. Namely, as Daniel Boyarin recognized (Dying for God), “the talmudic discourse (…) gives us direct access to the ‘hidden transcript’ ” (he doesn’t develop this beyond its consequences for the discourse of martyrdom – still, I am highly indebted to him for the observation).

The hypothesis that rabbinic literature reflects the hidden transcript of at least part of Jewish Society, and therefore can tell us something not only about power relations in the Roman Province of Judae Palestina, but also about the role that the ‘vestigial identity’ of Judaism still played in those, will be the guiding force of my thesis research.

You don’t agree? Great! Please comment! I am going to need a lot of feedback, positive and negative, to get this argument anywhere!


  1. > what the powerful want to believe – or what the
    > weak think they want to believe

    what about: what the powerful want the weak to believe?

  2. Hi – I don’t know how these blog things work, and I don’t know if this is automatically posted as soon as I write it, or if it first goes to the Master’s student developing a thesis on Scott’s theory of hidden transcripts applied to second- and third-century rabbinic Judaism. However it works, I would love to speak to you (Paul, I assume?) more directly. I am currently mid-way through a comparative PhD program in Canada, looking at the relationships between writing and literacy and social authority, in oral-traditional and emerging literate cultures. I am applying Scott’s ideas to texts from three cultures, one of which is that of the early rabbinic period.

    It would be great to discuss ideas with another graduate student working in the same area. I can’t do Dutch, though.


  3. I’m a Schwartz student @ JTS. I don’t have time to engage here, but I thought I would direct you to Fergus Millar’s lengthy review of Schwartz’s book just published in JJS.

  4. @ Jillian, I’ll contact you in the old fashioned way, by email…

    @ Justin, thanks a lot for the reference, I’ll look it up at the library next week!

  5. Paul, why don’t you email me at the above address. You’re headed in a potentially interesting direction: 2 very brief caveats, though. There is a sentimental aspect to Scott’s thesis which needs to be acknowledged. Second, (and not unrelated to the first comment) in effect your argument can be read as a theoretically-aware updating of Gedalyah Alon’s, something you should also think about very carefully.

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