Jews and Their Roman Rivals: Pagan Rome’s Challenge to Israel, by Katell Berthelot

Reviewed by Henri Louis Goulet

The primary aim of this meticulously researched and finely nuanced study is to show the many ways in which the Roman Empire presented a unique challenge to Israel as a people—even perceptibly trying to usurp Israel’s place and role in God’s plan for the world.1 Following and expanding upon the work of historian Gerson Cohen, Katell Berthelot contends that the perception of usurpation held by some Jews was based on Rome’s claim to be a divinely chosen people destined for a unique history in which they would establish a universal benevolent law, rule, and peace by heaven’s design. Berthelot, a professor of the history of Judaism in the Hellenistic and Roman periods at Aix-Marseille University in France, has indeed given us a magisterial study of the Jews and their Roman rivals.

The opening observation of this monograph is that ancient Israel’s history may be characterized from one perspective as a series of encounters with the massive empires or kingdoms of the ancient Near East (that is, the Egyptian, Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, and Persian empires, as well as the Hellenistic kingdoms). Indeed, an important point that is made from the outset is that the impact of these encounters in shaping early Israelite and later Judahite culture and thought can hardly be overestimated.2 Hence, chapter one is devoted to a survey of how the earlier empires or kingdoms affected ancient Israel and her literary production, especially with regard to the writings that came to constitute the Tanakh. The remaining four chapters, which constitute approximately eighty percent of the monograph, specify the many ways in which the Roman Empire challenged and especially rivaled Israel. This comparative study covers a span of six centuries (from the second century BCE to the fourth century CE) in accord with French historian Fernand Braudel’s “longue durée” approach that focuses on the long-term historical perspective.

Throughout the entire study, Berthelot rightly draws our attention to the complexity of the “Israelite-Judaean-Jewish” responses toward empires. She clearly demonstrates that they cannot be reduced to a dichotomy between opposition and rejection on the one hand and imitation or mimesis on the other. In fact, she emphasizes that “even a superficial reading of the sources confirms that there was no such either-or paradigm.”3 To reflect the extreme diversity of responses to empire in Israel’s history, she chooses a wide variety of nuanced terms to fit the evidence. These include: “sincere ideological and political adhesion, opportunistic collaboration, adaptation, accommodation, acculturation, assimilation, imitation, mimesis, mimicry, (mimetic) rivalry, competition, the elaboration of countermodels, subversion, resistance, opposition, revolt, rebellion, and violent insurrection.”4

In presenting such a finely nuanced analysis of Israel’s responses to Roman imperial challenges and rivalry, Berthelot successfully proves that the Judeo-Roman encounter can never be reduced to sheer antagonism or a conflict between distinct and unchangeable peoples. Rather, the evidence shows that there were various ways of being Roman and Jewish that involved boundaries that could overlap or exhibit fluidity. In fact, because some Jews were granted Roman citizenship beginning no later than the first century BCE, Berthelot reminds us that the social categories of “Roman Jews” or “Jewish Romans” were established well before the Edict of Caracalla in 212 CE.5 That said, she emphatically adds that the “adoption” of Roman notions or practices by the Jewish people in Roman antiquity must be understood in terms of an active and inventive process of “adaptation” to rethink Jewish ancestral traditions.6 This, she notes, serves as a corrective to one of the core assumptions of “outmoded, top-down models of Romanization.”7

One of the central theses of this monograph is that the Roman Empire presented a qualitatively different challenge to Israel than the previous empires and kingdoms. Thus, Berthelot labors diligently in chapters two through five to elucidate and explicate the two key distinguishing factors that made the Roman Empire such a unique rival: (1) “the paradoxical similarities between Roman and Jewish self-definitions”; and (2) “Rome’s policy toward the Jews from the reign of Vespasian to that of Hadrian, which could be interpreted as an attempt to eradicate the Jewish [cultus] and replace Jerusalem with Rome.”8 She then highlights the fact that the ensuing sense of competition between Israel and Rome, which resulted from these paradoxical similarities in self-definitions and a fear that Rome intended to usurp the place of Israel, led the rabbis to equate Rome with Esau (Israel’s rivalrous twin brother).

Chapter one opens with a concise yet insightful discussion about the intensely debated concept of empire. Following suit with recent studies that avoid proffering a theoretical definition of empire, Berthelot presents some of the general conclusions from select studies of empire that she rightly asserts can be considered accepted. She then discusses the classical and Jewish lists of empires in antiquity, showing that the Jewish lists generally reflect the inclusions of the Greek and Roman authors. She then quickly moves to the important topic of the comparison of ancient empires in order to discern their similarities and differences. Here she cites two ancient Roman authors to show that from the second century BCE, Rome began to be viewed as the final empire that would conclude the translatio imperii (transfer of government) in the world.9

Thereafter, in this opening chapter, the author provides a concise but sweeping survey of Israel’s encounters with the Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, and Persian empires of the Ancient Near East, as well as the Hellenistic kingdoms. In each instance, she summarizes the legacy of the encounter for Israel and its impact on a host of topics from the notion of a universal God; to God’s kingdom and divine kingship; to specific laws of God’s covenant with Israel; to human kingship; to the emergence of monotheism and the perception of foreign gods as idols; to the election and salvific role of the people of Israel; to local cults and imperial propaganda; to universalism, dualism, and soteriological mission; to further monotheistic developments and the rejection of dualism; to the Creator God; to the rise of Torah (the articulation of the Judean way of life in terms of the ancestral laws derived from Moses) as the most distinctive development in Second Temple Judaism; to the development of an apocalyptic worldview and literature; to eschatology and ethics; to territory and Israel’s relationship to the promised land in legal-historical terms; to time, history, power, and the foretelling of the end of empire; to empires, theology, and angelology. Chapter one closes with a fourfold summary of the impact that these empires and kingdoms had on Jewish thought, which provides the background for analyzing precedents for various Jewish responses to Roman imperialism.

Chapter two focuses on the unique challenge of the Roman Empire to Israel in creating a rivalry between two peoples. While the concept of Israel as a people is rather common knowledge, Berthelot devotes considerable space to the explication of the Roman Empire as the first empire Israel encountered that was established in the name of a people (i.e., the imperium of the populus Romanus) rather than that of a king or dynasty. She provides a rich sampling of literary, epigraphic, numismatic, and related visual evidence to establish this fact. She then relates the personification of Roma, who eventually became a goddess, to the Roman people as a collective identity. This readily segues into an insightful discussion of the divine “election” of the Roman people, with Italy in general and Rome in particular to become the “single fatherland” and “home of excellence” of all the nations of the world in an empire without end. This in turn segues into an explanation of Roman virtus (understood as manliness, courage, military valor, excellence, and virtue) and pietas (understood as the meticulous observance of religious rites and duties owed to the gods) that the Romans boastfully claimed was divinely granted to them, thereby making them worthy to command other nations.

Chapter two continues with a rich discussion of the “vocation” of the Romans as that of a universal and eternal rule, in which Rome would eventually be referred to as lux orbis terrarum (the light of the world), caput orbis (the head of the world), and columen orbis (the summit or elevated pillar of the world). This section includes an important and insightful discussion of the Roman notion of a “messianic” vocation to bring peace, prosperity, and legal order via a universal law to the world. Chapter two then closes with a critical analysis of the Roman victories over the Jews that took place in a span of seventy years (i.e., the Great Revolt or Jewish War of 66–73, the Diaspora Revolt of 115–117, and the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132–135). Berthelot emphasizes that these victories were strategically intended to obliterate and replace the Jewish people.

She further observes that this strategic intent is evidenced in the rivalrous “game of temples” that existed between Jerusalem and Rome. For, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE and the Leontopolis Temple in 73 CE (the latter of which had been erected by the Jewish people in response to the conflict with Antiochus IV Theos Epiphanes in the second century bce), Vespasian created the fiscus Iudaicus. This was a “special treasury for the collection of a tax of two denarii or didrachmon to be paid every year by all Jews, men and women alike, apparently from the ages of three to sixty-two for women and perhaps until death for men.”10 Moreover, “according to Josephus (B.J. 7.218), this replaced the tax of the half-shekel that Jewish men over the age of twenty used to pay annually to the Jerusalem Temple.”11 Thus, Berthelot rightly draws our attention to the point that money which was formerly dedicated to the cultus of the God of Israel was thereafter used by Rome to strengthen its rule and perhaps even rebuild its Capitoline Temple of Jupiter in Rome that had burned down in 69 CE during the civil war between the Vitellians and Vespasian’s partisans. The final summational point of the chapter is that it is precisely because of all of this that Rome eventually became described as Israel’s twin brother and rival, Esau.

Chapter three focuses on the challenge of Roman power. One of the most important insights of this chapter, which finds its source in the work of Clifford Ando, is that the longevity and stability of the Roman Empire was not solely related to her military power, but more profoundly to the slowly perceived consensus of her right to maintain social order and establish a normative political culture. Another noteworthy insight of this chapter is that there was a connection between military power and Roman “manliness.” In fact, I contend that this is something that must be studied by NT scholars in order to determine its potential bearing on the understanding of Paul’s dialectical negation of “male and female” in Gal. 3:28.12 Chapter three closes with significant sections about the Jewish critique and redefining of bravery, manliness, and power; the redefining of courage as self-control and the ability to face suffering and death; the redefining of power in relation to the virtuous mind; the redefining of strength as Torah and Torah study; and the redefining of God’s power.

Chapter four is devoted to the challenge that Roman law and jurisdiction (i.e., the authority to make legal decisions) presented. The opening observation of this chapter is that Roman power was not merely military, but exceptionally administrative and judicial when it came to the consensual adhesion to Roman rule of provincial populations. The three primary aims of this chapter are to (1) explicate the nature of the challenge that Rome’s legal system presented to the Jewish people, both ideologically and practically; (2) analyze the similarities between Roman and rabbinic law and determine whether there was a partly shared legal culture; and (3) examine the ideological13 discourses of Jews living in the Roman period regarding Israel’s law and the law of other peoples.

Most of the chapter is devoted to analyzing the evidence confirming a sense of rivalry between Jews and Romans regarding the issue of law and jurisdiction, with particular emphasis on the dialectic between opposition and imitation discussed in earlier chapters. This large portion of the chapter includes sections that closely examine the following: (1) the Torah versus Roman jurisdiction; (2) the Torah as the most perfect and ancient law; (3) whether Roman admiration for Jewish law existed; (4) the laws of Israel versus the laws of the nations; (5) how Roman rivalry led the majority of rabbis to define Torah as the exclusive law of Israel rather than the most perfect expression of the universal law of nature; (6) whether there was a universal promulgation of the Torah in rabbinic sources; and (7) the significance of the Noahide Laws.

Chapter five, the final chapter of this luminous tome, is devoted to the challenge of Roman citizenship. It opens with a comparative juxtaposition of two epigraphs (Cicero, The Republic 1.39.1 and Deuteronomy 29:9–12) which sets the stage for this painstakingly detailed and finely nuanced comparison of Roman and Jewish peoplehood. At the outset of this comparison, the author informs readers that they must recall chapter two’s discussion of the rivalry between Israel and Rome from a Jewish perspective, and the perception of some Jews that the Roman people were attempting to usurp Israel’s place in the world, in order to understand the impact of the granting of Roman citizenship to Jews. Berthelot then notes that it was the Constitutio Antoniniana or Edict of Caracalla of 212 that first transformed most free Jews in the Roman empire into Roman citizens.

In this necessarily lengthy chapter, Berthelot carefully explores Roman and Jewish constructs of peoplehood and how they relate to civic definitions of membership on the one hand, and ethnicity and common ancestry on the other. Her cautious and detailed approach reflects the complexity of, and difference between, Roman and Jewish definitions of peoplehood, and the fact that to be a Roman meant first and foremost to be a citizen. In light of this, Berthelot intentionally avoids a focus on Roman identity, instead rightly focusing on Roman citizenship as a political tool of enfranchisement in an imperial context.14 The level of finely nuanced detail in this chapter is commendable as it brings greater clarity to our understanding of Roman and Jewish peoplehood in the time period, and its relationship to citizenship. This is particularly so when it comes to Berthelot’s discussion of the use and translation of terms such as the Latin populus, the Hebrew ‘am (or ummah), the Latin natio and gens, and the Greek ethnos.

To further clarify the ways in which concepts of citizenship could be relevant to Jews in antiquity, the author reminds us of the importance of two models in biblical texts that defined Israel as a people: (1) the family or clan with common ancestors (i.e., the model of the Abrahamic covenant); and (2) the group united by common laws (i.e., the model of the Sinaitic covenant). Later in the chapter, she shows that the definition of Israel as a people coupled with their commitment to God’s commandments, in accordance with the legal realm, led to the use of civic terminology in Jewish literature composed in Greek to talk about membership in the people of Israel, and to present proselytes as having received a new citizenship. Thus, one of Berthelot’s greatest contributions to this study is to bring greater clarity to the potential integration of Greek and Roman concepts of citizenship into Jewish thought. Moreover, the level of detail in this chapter is so fine as to include a discussion of that which is socially real, metaphorically real, felt, or the result of one’s adhesion to or participation in the imperial context, thereby going well beyond that which was merely a matter of legal status. In analyzing Greek, Roman, and Jewish legal concepts, citizenship, and adoption, and their possible integration, Berthelot ultimately demonstrates that it was more specifically the Roman concepts of citizenship and adoption that impacted the Jewish people.15

Chapter five winds down with meticulously researched discussions of the characteristics of Roman citizenship, ideological aspects of Roman grants of citizenship, Judaism as “citizenship” in the Hellenistic period, Judaism as “citizenship” in the non-rabbinic Jewish sources of the Roman period, the Hellenistic and Roman impact on Judaism as “citizenship,” and Judaism as “citizenship” in rabbinic literature. It then culminates in an illuminating exploration (beyond citizenship) of the enduring significance of lineage and the legal fiction of adoption.

In conclusion, it must be said that while this monograph is a demanding read that borders on being a reference work, it is a landmark study that is more than worthy of the investment for the innumerous insights that it provides. The newly revised understanding of Jewish responses to the impact of the Roman Empire that results from a deep reading of this monograph has serious intellectual, social, and practical ramifications for both our understanding and appropriation of the Scriptures, and how we choose to respond to the empires in which we live today.

1 Katell Berthelot, Jews and Their Roman Rivals: Pagan Rome’s Challenge to Israel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021).

2 In the concise but excellent section of the introduction entitled “Responses to Empire: Theory, Terminology, and Method,” Berthelot explicitly states that she strategically chose the term “impact”’ in reference to the Roman empire’s role in the history of Judaism. She rightly justifies this choice by asserting that in her understanding “impact” has a broader scope than “influence” and better conveys the way in which an impact serves as a trigger or catalyst in an encounter (see Berthelot, 25).

3 Berthelot, 25.

4 Berthelot, 21. Immediately following this list, on the very same page, the author correctly contends the following: “An analysis of specific historical cases and sources reveals the shortcomings of clear-cut theoretical concepts, for the tangible realities are far more complex than our discursive categories. Group and individual responses to empire can be multifaceted, comprising complementary and contradictory aspects, and they often evolve over time. Josephus perfectly illustrates this intricacy, which brings us to the specific case of Jewish experiences of Roman rule.”

5 Berthelot, 7. The edict of Caracalla (the nickname of the emperor Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus) was an official grant of Roman citizenship to most free inhabitants of the Roman Empire in 212 ce.

6 Berthelot, 25.

7 Berthelot, 25.

8 Berthelot, 3.

9 Berthelot rightly emphasizes the fact that “there was clearly a Roman empire even before there was a princeps or an emperor” (see Berthelot, 89).

10 Berthelot, 155.

11 Berthelot, 155.

12 For a profoundly insightful discussion of “dialectical negation,” see Andrew H. Bartelt, “Dialectical Negation: An Exegetical Both/And,” in “Hear the Word of Yahweh”: Essays on Scripture and Archaeology in Honor of Horace D. Hummel (St. Louis: Concordia Academic, 2002), 58, 59, 60, 66; cf. Heinz Kruse, “Die ‘Dialektische Negation’ als semitisches Idiom,” VT IV (1954): 385–400. For an example of scholarship on how the Roman concept of power as “manliness” might bear on Paul’s dialectical negation of “male and female” in Gal 3:28, see Davina C. Lopez, Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008). While Lopez’s monograph is laudable, Berthelot’s monograph provides a more finely nuanced treatment of the topic of Roman power as “manliness.”

13 It cannot be overemphasized that Westerners will have to resist their inherent tendency to see or hear the word “ideological” and immediately interpret it negatively. For a holistic corrective that is a deliberately uncomplicated attempt to proffer a new, critical, integrated theory of ideology that is grounded in the dynamic, triadic relationship between cognition, society, and discourse, see Teun A. van Dijk, Ideology: A Multidisciplinary Approach (London: Sage, 1998).

14 One of her other justifications for not focusing on Roman “identity” is that, prior to the past two decades, too many scholars had understood Roman “identity” in exclusively legal and political terms without an adequate assessment of ethnicity—something which has now been reassessed (see Berthelot, 342).

15 This is akin to Harrill’s finding that it was specifically Roman slavery ideologies that impacted Paul’s conceptions of slavery in Romans 6–8 (see J. Albert Harrill, Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006]).