Imperialism And Jewish Society, 200 B.C.E. To 640 C.E. by Seth Schwartz

(Princeton University Press © 2001 Princeton, NJ.) In Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E., Seth Schwartz, the Gerson D. Cohen Professor of Rabbinic Culture and Professor of History at Jewish Theological Seminary, offers a challenging blow to regnant reconstructions of Judaism and Jewish life in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Schwartz’s compelling sweep of Jewish history from 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E. “traces the impact of different types of foreign domination on the inner struc­ture of ancient Jewish society, primarily in Palestine.” (1) Schwartz argues that from the 2ND century B.C.E. Jewish society in Eretz-Yisrael developed as “a loosely centralized” but “ideological complex society” which collapsed in 70 C.E. and “reformed” and reemerged in the fourth century in response to the establishment of Christianity in the Roman Empire. (Ibid.) As a social historian, his primary concern is “how societies work.” (2) He “assumes that there are such things as societies and regards societies as usually complex, organism-like systems that can be understood by analyz­ing the relations of their component parts.” (3) Pervious works on this period such as Martin Jaffe’s Early Judaism1 or Shaye Cohen’s From the Maccabees to the Mishnah2 have endeavored to locate the development of Judaism in the wider socio-historical context of the Mediterranean world. Schwartz departs from such a one-dimensional analysis of religious development to explore the impact of imperial culture on Jewish society of which religion (Judaism) is but one constituent part.

Before beginning his analysis of the data, Schwartz explores the key methodological issues important for charting the social history of his period. First, Schwartz rejects the utopian harmonization of the Talmud by Zionist historiographers. These disciples of the late Gedalyahu Alon tend to treat the Talmud as a mere factual recount­ing of the social history of Jewry in the Land.3 In rejecting this approach, Schwartz follows Jacob Neusner’s programmatic caution that rabbinic literature is not without biases. Rather, Schwartz treats the entire rabbinic corpus as ideologically conditioned and having little influence on Jewish life until after the redaction of the Talmud Bavli. Second, Schwartz shies away from the overly defined movement analyses of this period such as in works by Cohen, Jaffe, and Gabriele Boccaccini.4 These works tend to envision numerous, complex sects thriving in the second temple period which eventu­ally coalesce in the 2ND century into Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Schwartz argues for a more nuanced reading of the Judaism of these centuries. He writes, “In this book I assume that ancient Judaism was complex, capacious, and rather frayed at the edges … In doing so, I reject the characterization of Judaism of mul­tiple, as well as the atomistic reading of the sources that justifies it.” 5 (9) Third, Schwartz discards the differentiation of Hellenism and Judaism which has been fundamental to analyses of this period

(e.g. Gedalyahu Alon & John J. Collins6). He argues instead that “hellenization … was so pervasive and fundamental that it has little utility as an analytical category” and in a related way “democratiza­tion [of Jewish life in this period] … is in [his] view a mirage.” (12)

In the first part of his work, Schwartz provides a broad sweep of Jewish life in Eretz-Yisrael from the Persian period to the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E. In chapter one, he examines the political developments in Judaea during this period. He argues (somewhat problematically given the current discussion of this material by scholars of the Persian period7) that Persian sponsorship or the Temple and the Torah of Moses laid the foundation for the Judaism of this period. The next major historical development in this period was the expansion of Hellenism in the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. The subsequent negative reaction against Hellenization during the Maccabean period ultimately led to the expansion of Jewish influence beyond Judaea through the conquest of neighboring territories such as Idumea (the area around modern day Petra), Samaria, the Galilee, and Peraea. This was followed during the reign of Herod the Great (a child of an Idumean convert) by a reform of Jewish society which transformed the central organs of society from being under the con­trol of Judaean elites to serving the broader interests of Jews throughout the Roman Empire. (45) Jewish society was no longer localized to the geographical borders of Persian Yehud.

In chapter two, following the lead of E.P. Sanders, Schwartz argues against the radical diversity of Ancient Judaism, instead positing a common thread of one God, one Temple, and one Torah in religious thought before 70 C.E. Schwartz, however, departs from Sanders’ tendency to use the commonalities of this period as a predictive schema for categorizing the various local groups of this period. He writes, “To sum up, the functioning of the simple ideo­logical scheme outlined earlier was complex, and its effects on social realities are not easy to predict.” (74) Schwartz, however, does not completely reject the sectarian analysis of this period argu­ing that the number of these groups was “remarkably high” and largely concentrated among the upper classes (94). For him, “the importance of sectarianism demonstrates the anomalous character of the economy and society of first-century Judaea, which had

Recent scholarship has begun to abandon the wholesale acceptance of the theory that the Persian Empire “authorized” the compilation of the Torah establishing the written text as legally binding for Jewish life in the Persian Period and following; see James W. Watts, ed., Persia and Torah: The Theory of Imperial Authorization of the Pentateuch, SBLSymp 17 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001).

produced an unusually large class of well-to-do, pious, educated, and idle young men.” (98)

In part two of his work, Schwartz examines the social and reli­gious developments of the Jews of Eretz-Yisrael from immediately after the upheaval of the Bar Kokhba revolt through the mid-fourth century. (350 C.E.) In chapter three, Schwartz positions the rabbis and patriarchs as marginal figures amidst the social disintegration of Jewish society in the post-destruction era. He contends that both groups had little impact beyond their own circles in Jewry in the Land. The rabbis may have been accorded some privilege as Torah experts but held no social prominence during this period. The patri­archs were “mainly concerned with raising money” and sustaining ties with the Galut. (125, 128) Schwartz’s contention sharply departs from regnant constructions of Jewish history which accord the Tanaaim, the Amoraim, and the patriarachs more prominence and influence in the first three centuries of the Common Era.

In chapter four, Schwartz examines how the rabbis, as socially marginal figures, who preserved and altered “the core ideology of Judaism,” coped with life as residents of the Greco-Roman cities of this period. (129) While the rabbis generally rejected the Hellenistic iconography and mores of the time, Jews in both cities and towns in this period tended to embrace these cultural features as is evidenced by the wide-spread presence of pagan iconography in Jewish homes and communal institutions. Scwartz sees the begin­nings of a transition to the use of Jewish iconography only in the century when evidence emerges for the beginnings of “strong public affirmation of group” identity if initially only by “strongly ‘Jewish’ Jews.” (154-55) In chapter five, Schwartz traces the interaction of the rabbis with urban culture. He contends that, though the rabbis held a firm intellectual stance against idolatry, their lives as city dwellers indicates at least a modicum of accom­modation to the presence of idolatrous practices in their quest to “acquir[e] the authority that they believed the Torah had granted them.” (173-74) He further holds that rabbis of this time probably had “a few followers and probably slightly larger numbers of occa­sional supporters.” (175)

In part three, Schwartz traces the development of synagogue and community from 350-640 C.E. In chapter six, he argues that the Christianization of the Roman Empire in the fourth century had widespread effects on Jewish life. First, Christianization marginalized Jews as it “excluded [them] from the networks of patronage that held the empire together.” (179) Second, it disembedded religion into “a discrete category of human experience.” (Ibid.) These social shifts forced Jews into a new category of existence and elevated the rabbis to a position of authority. “The emperors now explicitly recognized the Jews as a legitimate religious organization, with a clergy whose authority and privileges approximated those of the Christian clergy, and with the right to police their own membership without state interference.” (192) As a major part of Christianization, both syna­gogue and church expanded their influence beyond cities and large towns and became important components of village life of which euergetism (private liberality for public benefit) was increasingly a central component. (202)

In chapter seven, Schwartz describes in detail the archaeological evidence for this social transformation. He argues that a boom in the economy in late antiquity in Syria and Eretz-Yisrael, combined with this transformation in religious life, led to the construction of wide­spread monumental synagogue architecture in both cities and vil­lages. (214) In chapter eight, Schwartz traces the origin and diffusion of the synagogue as a social institution which arose in Egypt as an organ of the Jewish ethnic corporation (220), gradually became wide­spread in the Jewish community, and was taken over by the rabbis in Late Antiquity (interestingly Alon argues a similar point although putting the date much earlier). Despite these transformations in its prominence and role in the community, the synagogue continued to function throughout this period as “sacred space in a manner that enabled the group to function without a single center.” (238) During the 4TH and 5TH centuries, synagogue life took on an increasingly Jewish character, which Schwartz argues in chapter nine, is shown in the growing rise of Jewish decorative iconography and the emergence of piyyut (liturgical poems) as a central component of synagogue life. In chapter ten, he explores how the similarities between synagogues in both cities and towns evince a common, emerging ideology about the nature of community.

Schwartz’s treatment of the effect of imperial domination, par­ticularly the rise of Christendom, on Jewish life represents a pro­found shift in the study of Jewish history. On a methodological level, his contributions are numerous; most prominent among them is his embrace of a socio-historical approach which accounts for the effects of imperial domination on Jewish society. This approach shifts the emphasis from internal religious development to a dynamic account of the interrelationship of Jewish society with imperial culture. Schwartz’s approach allows him to deal effective­ly with the nagging question of what led to the widespread expan­sion of synagogue life in the 4TH century. In response, he shifts the date of the rise of rabbinic prominence in Jewish and synagogue life from the 2ND to the 4TH century. His answer will have profound implications in the years to come on how we understand the devel­opment of both Christianity and Judaism in the first few centuries of the Common Era. Perhaps the boundaries beyond these two communities were more porous during this period than we have thought. Perhaps we cannot speak of Judaism and Christianity as fully distinct religious systems until the fourth century. Schwartz’s construal invites historians of Christianity to examine the early his­tory of their tradition with more attention to its frayed and fractious character as well as to the implications of Christendom on its final delineation from Judaism in the fourth century.

  1. Martin S. Jaffe, Early Judaism (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997).
  2. Shaye J.D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Library of Early Christianity 7(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987).
  3. The founder of this school was the late Gedalyahu Alon of Hebrew University whose lectures werecompiled and published posthumously under the title The Jews in Their Land in the Talmudic Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).
  4. Gabriele Boccaccini, Roots of Rabbinic Judaism: An Intellectual History, From Ezekiel to Daniel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).
  5. Observant readers will note that this shift in approach is titanic given the importance of the church-sect approach to this period for a number of related disciplines beyond Jewish Studies, including text criticism of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament Studies; e.g. Frank Moore Cross, “The Fixation of the Text of the Hebrew Bible,” pp. 205-218 in From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1998).
  6. John J. Collins, Between Athens and Jerusalem: Jewish Identity in the Hellenistic Diaspora. 2ND Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).
  7. Recent scholarship has begun to abandon the wholesale acceptance of the theory that the Persian Empire “authorized” the compilation of the Torah establishing the written text as legally binding for Jewish life in the Persian Period and following; see James W. Watts, ed., Persia and Torah: The Theory of Imperial Authorization of the Pentateuch, SBLSymp 17 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001).


Jonathan Kaplan, M.Div., M.A., is scholar-in-residence at Congregation Avodat Yisrael, Philadelphia, PA. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible.