Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity: An Interdisciplinary Research Initiative
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Under Roman rule, the vast majority of Jews lived outside of Palestine-in the regions of Cyrenaica (modern day Libya), Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and beyond. This fact is not particularly surprising or revelatory. Strabo, writing at the end of the first century B.C.E., observed that "Jews have taken up residence in every city, and it is not easy to find a place in the habitable world that has not welcomed this race of people." Jewish existence was by and large lived out in the urban centers of the Roman world—cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome, to name a few. This observation applies equally to the emergence of Christian communities in the early centuries of the Common Era. The Acts of the Apostles, written toward the end of the first or beginning of the second century C.E., bears witness to the spread of "Jesus followers" throughout the Mediterranean, originating primarily from within the urban synagogues of the so-called Jewish Diaspora.
The common perception of a Jewish Diaspora—Jews living outside the motherland—more often than not conjures up images of displacement, marginalization and struggle for survival. The Jews in classical antiquity, so it is thought, were forced into exile—whether during the Babylonian conquests of the sixth century B.C.E., the invasion of Pompey in 63 B.C.E., or the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.—and consequently compelled to eek out an existence in an overwhelmingly hostile and alien context, all the while cherishing within a deep and abiding longing for "home." The motherland, in this case Palestine and Jerusalem, represents a haven, a refuge from alien forces, cultural or otherwise, that threaten to obliterate Jewish identity.
Such a notion of Diaspora, profoundly influential on Jewish historiography and firmly entrenched in Jewish consciousness, is rooted in part in the common perception of a hostile struggle between the forces of "Hebraism" and "Hellenism." This binary opposition of Jew and Greek is a permanent fixture in the history of western thought. Tertullian's well-known quip—"What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?"—typifies the long-held assumption of an ongoing, interminable conflict between Jews and Greeks, Judaism and Hellenism. Within this conceptual framework, assimilation with Graeco-Roman culture and authentic, normative Jewish identity are mutually exclusive, so that the more assimilated one becomes, the less Jewish one is. As a consequence, a clear distinction exists in the mind of some between Jews in antiquity who remained faithful to traditional, "orthodox" Judaism and Jews who in some sense compromised their Jewish identity, succumbing to the influences of an alien culture. The former were often identified with Jews who either lived in or longed for Palestine, the latter with Jews who accommodated to life in the Diaspora. The end result is a bifurcation of Jewish society in classical antiquity—the Judaism characterized by assimilation with Graeco-Roman culture was labeled "Hellenistic Judaism" and the Judaism that resisted such assimilation and maintained a cultural and religious purity "Palestinian Judaism."
Recent research has questioned this polarization of Jewish society, demonstrating both the fallacy of a normative, so-called "orthodox" Judaism and the likelihood that exposure to Hellenistic influences was not a phenomenon limited only to a Diaspora context. Jewish society was far more complex than this conventional model allows. Moreover, the notion of an external cultural force—Hellenism—is itself an oversimplification of the amalgamation of cultural forces that made up the Graeco-Roman world. Hellenism should not be viewed as a single, monolithic cultural entity; rather, it consisted of many variegated cultural expressions, including Judaism, in all of its diverse manifestations. In other words, Jews, whether in Palestine or the Diaspora, comprised not one cultural entity struggling against another, but an integral part of the cultural melting pot of the Roman Empire.
This socio-cultural complexity calls into question many of the traditional categories employed to describe the ancient world, both in popular parlance and scholarly discourse. Society in Late Antiquity is often neatly divided into Jews, Christians, and Pagans, three hermetically sealed entities in constant conflict with each other. Yet a close examination of the literary sources suggests that the borders between these groups were not as apparent or absolute as is typically assumed. So for example, when John Chrysostum, famed Christian preacher and Bishop of Constantinople in the late fourth to early fifth centuries C.E., denounced Christians who worshiped in synagogues on Saturday and churches on Sunday, the implication is that there were many Christians in antiquity, and presumably Jews as well, who assumed a measure of compatibility between these two religious entities. In other words, although the rhetoric of many literary sources may boldly demarcate the boundaries of Jew, Christian, and Pagan, the faint whisper of a quiet majority often blurs such distinctions.
Notwithstanding these recent trends in research, however, the disciplinary boundaries of modern academia still largely support, or at least unwittingly accept, such polarizations. Judaism in the Graeco-Roman world is typically taught (and researched) in departments of religion or isolated programs of Jewish studies, far removed from the esteemed halls of Classical Studies and Ancient History. Scholars of early Imperial Rome know their Plutarch and Tacitus, but are largely ignorant of the Jewish historian Josephus, despite his extensive treatment of Rome's presence in the east and his Flavian connections. Likewise, experts in the Mishnah and Talmud rarely delve into the Greek and Latin sources of Late Antiquity, despite the important connections between the two. If Jews in antiquity were an important component of the cultural environment of the Roman Empire, and indeed they were, then the study of this dynamic, diverse and multi-faceted milieu demands an integrative and interdisciplinary methodology that brings together sources, archaeology, and research traditionally categorized as belonging either to Classics or Jewish Studies.
In the summer of 2003, the Program for the Study of Judaism and Christianity in the Graeco-Roman World, housed in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan, launched an important research initiative—"Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity"—intended in part to address this need. Professors Gabriele Boccaccini and Yaron Eliav, in cooperation with the Department of Classical Studies, the Interdepartmental Program in Greek and Roman History, and the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, instituted an international research project designed to integrate the work of scholars and graduate students from a variety of countries, institutions, and academic departments. Although the primary focus of research is the evidence for Jewish and Christian communities living around the Mediterranean, participants in the project investigate the full range of archaeological and literary data that offer a window into the broader social, political, and religious context of the Graeco-Roman world.
The project is organized regionally, and participants convene every two years at key archaeological sites (in Europe or the Middle East) in order to analyze and discuss the full spectrum of available historical data for a given location. Each seminar includes an intensive on-site survey of the archaeological record facilitated by international specialists in Greek and Roman archaeology, followed by an evening lecture/discussion centered on important topics related to the social, political, cultural, and religious context of the region under investigation. Thus far, the project has devoted its attention to the Italian peninsula, specifically Rome (2003) and the Bay of Naples (2005). However, in the summer of 2007, the program will move east to investigate Roman Palestine.
The value of this project is manifest in its tangible research results, which in general support the notion of a much more complex and diverse society in Late Antiquity. The evidence analyzed confirms that there existed throughout the Mediterranean thriving Jewish and Christian communities that bear little resemblance to the popular image of insecurity and oppression in the shadow of an evil Empire. Although there were sporadic, localized moments of oppression and persecution, the data suggests that many Jews and Christians were able to adjust and flourish in the Roman world without compromising their beliefs or masking their ethnic and/or religious identity. Furthermore, there are indications in the archaeological record that confirm the aforementioned suggestion that the boundaries between Jews, Christians, and Pagans were not always clearly delineated in antiquity. The funerary architecture and artistic production evident in the catacombs of Rome suggests a common Late Antique burial technique and shared iconographic language, making it all the more difficult to determine what constitutes a distinctly Jewish, Christian, or Pagan burial site.
Additionally, this project has facilitated an interdisciplinary conversation that is both professionally rewarding and intellectually stimulating. Graduate students and professors from around the world, whose research interests range from classical archaeology to Christian origins to Jewish literature, are provided an opportunity to discuss issues, research methods, and archaeological and literary data from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Such a collaborative effort inevitably sharpens the investigative skills of the various participants and ultimately advances the research of Late Antique history.
Jason von Ehrenkrook is a Ph.D. student in the Program for the Study of Judaism and Christianity in the Graeco-Roman World at U-M. He is currently working on his dissertation, a study of Jewish and Christian attitudes towards the sculptural environment of the Roman world.