At the Cutting Edge of Jewish Studies . . .



Biblical Studies
Early Judaism
Jewish Thought
Jewish History
Gender Studies
Jewish Education
North American Studies
Modern Jewish Literature
Israel Studies

McGill Jewish Studies

Contact Us
Dept. of Jewish Studies
3438 rue McTavish
, Quebec
H3A 1X9

Tel: (514) 398-6543
Fax: (514) 398-5158
Email: (jewish)


vertical rule


Ancient Jews, Ancient Gentiles, and Modern Scholars: Current Issues in the Study of Early Judaism

Robert Goldenberg, State University of New York at Stony Brook

This lecture was delivered at McGill University on March 11, 1999; since the lecture was prepared for oral delivery I did not burden it with references or bibliography. I wish to thank Professor Gershon Hundert for giving me an opportunity to gather these thoughts and a setting in which to express them.

Ancient Jews ... Modern Scholars (McGill lecture)

The study of Jewish history proceeds along two dimensions: to understand any moment in Jewish history we must trace its roots in earlier Jewish history, but we must also examine its setting in a specific non-Jewish environment. This double requirement has caused a persistent instability in the field of Jewish Studies: some researchers have tended to focus on earlier Jewish history as the matrix out of which their selected topic emerged, as though similar developments might have taken place in just about any context, while other scholars have looked at each group of Jews as a reflection of their immediate environment, as though they had just dropped into that setting from another planet, without any earthly connection to previous events elsewhere. The study of Jewish history sometimes reminds me of the famous story about the elephant and the seven blind Sages: you would hardly know all these historians are talking about the same people. In this presentation I shall begin by concentrating on a specific matter--the question of ancient Jewish attitudes toward gentile religions--but since I've promised a more general discussion of "current issues in the study of Judaism" I'll broaden the perspective in my closing remarks and show how similar points could be made about almost any topic at all.

By the middle of the first century of the Common Era, the Jews were already a widely scattered nation. Several million Jews still lived in the Land of Israel, but these no longer constituted a majority of the Jewish people. At least a million Jews lived in Egypt, principally in Alexandria, tens of thousands more lived in the imperial capital at Rome, and considerable additional numbers lived in every major city of the eastern Mediterranean world. Along with these components of a steadily expanding diaspora within the Roman Empire, the already ancient exile community in Babylonia continued to thrive as it had done for centuries.

These Jews were united by a number of strongly held commitments. All of them, except for a small handful in Egypt, considered the Temple in Jerusalem the center of the world, indeed the universe. They traveled to Jerusalem on pilgrimage, they sang the Temple's praises in poetry and in philosophical tract, they conducted an annual fund-raising campaign on its behalf. Almost all Jews lived under the rule of the Roman Empire, and this loyalty to Jerusalem gained recognition in Roman law: at a time when the international shipment of gold and silver was strictly controlled by the imperial authorities, the annual collection of the half-shekel for the Jerusalem Temple generally went on unimpeded. Nevertheless, when war against Rome broke out in Judaea in the year 66 CE, the vast diaspora did not join and did not send much support. The Diaspora cared about the Temple, but hardly lifted a finger to save it when it was about to go up in flames. Clearly that other dimension mattered in this respect: Jews outside Judaea saw the world in the light of their own diaspora circumstances, and they acted accordingly when crisis broke out in their ancient homeland.

Other important Jewish loyalties were less politically complex. Jews kept the Sabbath everywhere. Greek and Roman authors reveal deep gentile interest in this Jewish custom, and considerable gentile ambivalence as well. Some (mainly Greeks) supposed that Jews keep the Sabbath because they are a philosophical race who understand the value of contemplation and refuse to spend their whole lives in a futile chase after material pleasure, while others (primarily Roman) tended to see those same Jews as just a lazy crowd eager for an excuse to waste fifteen per cent of their lives in idleness. No gentile writer suggests, as we might read today, that some Jews maintained this practice while others did not. With due allowance for individuals who quietly made their own rules, it appears that in the ancient world Jews maintained this observance everywhere: not some Jews or most Jews, but Jews. Similarly, Jews (not some Jews but Jews) did not eat pork, and Jewish males (not some but virtually all) were circumcised. This last is particularly interesting: Jews were not the only ancient people who practiced circumcision, yet circumcision was widely perceived as a distinctively Jewish practice.

Most important of all, Jews did not worship other people's divinities. Again, I do not mean to deny the known exceptions: a Jew here who left an inscription of gratitude in an Egyptian temple of the Greek god Pan, a Jew there who indulged his personal ambition and abandoned Jewish life altogether. I do mean, however, to stress that Jews by and large refused to take part in any ceremony or celebration that smacked of idol-worship; this was known, this was resented, but this too was recognized by Roman law. When the Emperors claimed to be divine and demanded that people worship them, everyone knew that an exception had to be made for the Jews and one was made. No equivalent was available to gentile Christians: the obligation to worship Caesar, and Christian refusal to fulfill that obligation, became the legal basis for the repeated persecution of Christians over the first several centuries CE.

In general, Roman law was ever-ready to excuse the Jews from its provisions: after bodily mutilation was banned throughout the Empire, a specific exception was provided so that Jews could circumcise their sons. Rome built an empire on the slogan "divide and conquer," but Jews could not be divided over such issues of religious practice, and Rome had to conquer them-¬repeatedly--by brute force. Eventually Rome learned to accept the Jews and the Jews learned to accept the Romans: the alternative would have been an endless war of extermination which neither side really wanted.

Given the Jews' remarkable tenacity when they chose to be tenacious, it is striking to consider the other side of the coin and examine Jewish diversity. I have already noted the dramatic variation in Jewish attitudes toward Rome itself. In addition, Jews everywhere spoke the language of the country where they lived: there was no "Jewish language" which all Jews strove to preserve. Nobody considered this a sign of "assimilation," as we might now say, indeed nobody expected anything else. The great Jewish writer Philo loved his people deeply enough that he risked his life on their behalf and went to Rome to argue with a mad Emperor, but he could not read Hebrew and wrote his Torah commentaries in Greek. Aramaic is a language not very different from Hebrew, but even Aramaic-speaking Jews could no longer follow the reading of the Torah in its original language; they created a whole new genre of Jewish religious literature, the so called Targums, and a whole new ritual of simultaneous translation which flourished for centuries.

As for the everyday appearance of ordinary Jews, ancient gentile writers know nothing of distinctive Jewish clothing or hair style. In Poland two hundred years ago, you could identify Jews on the basis of their clothing, but in Rome two thousand years ago you apparently could not: you had to wait till Jews (at least Jewish men) entered the bathhouse and took their clothing off. The Jews were thus broadly adaptable and stubbornly distinctive at the same time, and this surprising combination provides the background to the question I now intend to examine, the question of ancient Jewish attitudes toward the religions of other people.

If you shift your attention from Greek and Latin literature to books written by the Jews themselves, you cannot help noticing the wide range of viewpoints that Jewish authors expressed when they approached this issue. Some texts, for example, the fifth Sibylline Oracle, cannot find words harsh enough to express their outrage and their fury at the cruel, corrupt, and loathsome people who rule the world. Others, such as the ethical maxims known as the Sentences of Phocylides, imitated Greek style so well and so benignly (if I may put it so) that centuries passed before early modern scholars began even to suspect they had been written by a Jew. Philo himself was able to distinguish among gentile religions and assume a different stance in different cases: in his view native Egyptian worship practices were unspeakably barbaric, really not a religion at all, while Greek philosophical monotheism was a heritage he could not help admiring. Philo had to keep reminding his readers that Judaism was better even than that; it's not clear he was sure his readers could figure this out for themselves. The question thus arises: can we figure out why Jews maintained uniformity on some questions but allowed themselves wide-ranging diversity on others? How did Jewish pluralism in the ancient world actually work?

I believe the answer to this question begins to emerge from the two-dimensional grid that I mentioned at the beginning of my lecture. Jews everywhere based their lives on a common heritage. That heritage consisted of elements I have already mentioned--a set of practices, a common national origin, a refusal to engage in idolatry--and one more thing as well: a holy book. The Torah was translated into Greek less than a century after the Jews came under Greek rule. Historians have discussed why this was done. The Jews themselves claimed that King Ptolemy requested it for his famous library at Alexandria, and at least one great modern scholar (E. J. Bickerman) apparently accepted this claim, but I have my doubts. Other ancient translations of the Jewish Scriptures were prepared by the Jews themselves for their own use, and I do not see why we should imagine otherwise in this case. There is very little evidence that pagans ever bothered reading this translation (it is hardly ever quoted), and there is no particular reason to believe it was prepared for them in the first place. On the other hand, we know that most Greek-speaking Jews could understand no other language; if they wanted to continue learning the Torah, they would have to do this in a language they could read and speak. Now translation has consequences: words shift meaning, errors occur, traditional interpretations get lost. Jews everywhere sought to base their lives on Scripture, but they did this in diverse languages and under widely diverse social and political circumstances.

In addition, the Bible itself has no clear message on the question of gentile religions. Some biblical materials, most famously the latter portion of the Book of Isaiah, adopt a fiercely hostile stand: idolatry is so stupid it's hard to imagine anyone could take it seriously at all. Other passages, however, send a different message, and of these passages I would like briefly to examine two.

Early on, during the period of the judges, the Israelite tribes got into a nasty border dispute with the people of Ammon. The issue apparently concerned a parcel of Ammonite territory previously seized by the Amorites; the Israelites had in turn seized it from the Amorites when they entered the Promised Land, and now the Ammonites wanted it back. (These names sound more different in Hebrew: "Amorite" is Emori with an aleph, while "Ammonite" is Ammoni with an ayin. The Israelite leader was Jephthah, most famous now on account of his unfortunate daughter, and he answered with plain common sense: Look, he said, we've held the land without challenge for 300 years, and we didn't take it from you in the first place; what do you want from us now?

Jephthah might have left things at that, but he then added a remarkable religious justification to this plainspoken diplomacy: Do you not [he asked] hold what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So we will hold on to everything that the LORD our God has given us to possess. (Judges 11:24)

In the Hebrew text, Jephthah refers to Israel's god not by the ancient circumlocution "the Lord" but by his actual personal name, and thus his argument is fully symmetrical: "You have a god [this is his name], and you live in land received from him; we have a god as well [this is his name], and we live in land received from him."

How is the modern reader to understand this? Is the Israelite merely speaking in terms his adversary can understand, or is this how he too actually sees the world? I don't think we can tell. I think this text provides a basis on which later generations of Jews could take the religions of others with unfeigned respect and full seriousness, if that was what they were inclined to do.

A better-known example of the same problem can be found in the famous story of Ruth and her so-called conversion. An Israelite widow named Naomi, returning home after ten years in the nearby land of Moab, urged her two Moabite daughters-in-law, also both widowed, to remain in their native country and rebuild their lives. The story tells us that Orpah agreed to return "to her people and to her gods," but Ruth insisted on traveling to Bethlehem together with Naomi. Her words are often quoted: "Do not urge me to leave you. . . . Your people will be my people and your god(s) will be my god(s)" (Ruth 1:15-16).

If I may be allowed to ask such a question about a character in a story, how many gods did Ruth have in mind? Virtually every English translation of these verses ascribes plural deities to Orpah ("her people and her gods") and only one divinity to Naomi and Ruth (normally "God" with a capital ├ ├G─ ─), but nothing in the Hebrew text justifies this distinction. The Hebrew word elohim, used in both cases, is plural in form; it is often translated as singular when Israelite monotheism is presumed to lie behind a particular occurrence, but in the present case that common presumption is uncommonly weak. There is no hint that any of the three women, Ruth, Orpah, or Naomi, believed that becoming an Israelite required one to adopt monotheism, or indeed that Israelite religion was in any way closer to monotheism than its Moabite counterpart. The issue between Orpah, Ruth and Naomi was not the truth or falsity of various religious beliefs but the religious and ethnic loyalty that would shape the rest of their lives. Their conversation presumes that every nation has its own god (or gods), and Ruth's declaration means only that she has willingly exchanged her native identity--land, people, and god(s)--for that of her deceased husband and his family. Ruth's real loyalty is to Naomi and her family, not to any theological abstraction.

Looking ahead several centuries, we can therefore say that Jews under Greek and Roman rule were driven by two distinct factors to adopt diverse attitudes toward paganism: their own Scriptures gave them an ambiguous teaching on the subject, and then they had to apply that teaching under circumstances which themselves were highly varied. No wonder some Jews hated pagans while others sought to be their friends!

The ancient Jews themselves spent remarkably little energy debating among one another over the right attitude toward gentiles and their religions. It is possible they were simply unaware of their diversity on this important issue, but I am inclined to think they just accepted it as natural and not very problematic. Modern scholars, however, have been unable to reach agreement on the proper approach to such questions, and I think this inability springs from the two-dimensional character of my grid.

Consider a different question: to what degree were the style and substance of ancient rabbinic teachings influenced by the hellenized Roman environment? If you emphasize the internal dimension of the grid, then of course the Greco-Roman environment becomes almost invisible. The Torah, like any book, demands an interpretive mechanism, so you simply posit that Jews always employed such a mechanism, and then you assert that the Talmuds and the various collections of midrash contain the fruit of Jewish Bible-study over centuries.

If, however, you start out on the other dimension, then other questions come into play: how does rabbinic midrash resemble Hellenistic techniques for interpreting the epics of Homer, and how is it different? The English scholar David Daube, who recently died at the age of 90, first suggested over fifty years ago that even the technical terminology of rabbinic midrash, for example the thirteen hermeneutical rules of Rabbi Ishmael still found in many prayer-books, have their exact counterpart in ancient interpretations of Homer: technical phrases like gezera shava or qal va-omer make no sense in Hebrew but excellent sense if translated into Greek.

On American shores, Professor Saul Lieberman published a similar proposal at about the same time.'Nothing would seem closer to the distinctive heart of rabbinic Judaism than the way rabbis derived halakha from the Torah, but what if they did this through procedures they had learned from the Greeks? What then?

Confronted by this question, we quickly see how a matter that appears to involve the academic study of ancient history in fact opens into the heart of modern Jewish life. Everyone wants to invoke the rabbis as precedent, but what were the early Sages really like, and where did their teachings really lead? Were the rabbis of late antiquity models of Jewish cultural separatism, or did they move comfortably in the wider intellectual environment of their time? It's easy to say that the truth probably lies somewhere between those two extremes: it's easy to say that, but not helpful. The real question is how we can take responsibility for our own contemporary leanings and prevent them from controlling our scholarship in ways we do not even notice.

Let me briefly examine two more examples of this problem, one specific, one broadly general. Consider the role of women in ancient synagogue worship. Ancient synagogues do not appear to have contained a major architectural partition inside the room dedicated to worship: does this mean that women sat together with men, or in a balcony as they later did in Europe, or that they simply remained at home? Ancient synagogues, of course, now exist only in the form of ruins. We have floors, we sometimes have walls, when we have pillars they are often collapsed, but we never have ceilings, at least not ceilings in place. Adding all those pieces together, can we determine what the pillars that now lie on the ground once held up?

One can easily list several possible answers to this question. Perhaps they held up the roof of the building: ancient architecture was heavily dependent on the use of pillars and columns for exactly this purpose. Perhaps they were merely decorative and didn't really support anything. Perhaps, however, just perhaps, they did support a women's balcony. There is, of course, no way to know. In a similar vein, we know of Jewish women buried in ancient Rome who bore the title archisynagogos, head of the congregation. Again, did they earn this title by election or through service, or were they merely the spouse or the daughter of some man who really did run the synagogue and whose women (if I may put it that way) used the title as a courtesy? We can't tell. The fact that some appear to have died in childhood makes it clear the title could be simply honorary: how can we tell when it was an empty courtesy and when it designated real leadership? Again, we shall probably never know.

And finally my concluding example, far broader in its scope: how many Judaisms were there anyway? It has recently become fashionable to refer to Judaisms (in the plural) in late antiquity, as though there was no one religion, to be called Judaism, that all ancient Jews practiced. Such a usage, needless to say, lays heavier stress on the dimensions of Jewish diversity that I described earlier than on the equally numerous dimensions of Jewish solidarity that might be emphasized in their place. Those who resist this trend, those who continue to speak of a singular Judaism in the ancient world, do so while recognizing that Jews were sometimes deeply at odds, even to the point of chronic violence, over religious differences; the question is whether those differences reflected the internal diversity of a single recognizable heritage or amounted to the fracture of one religion into several. When you consider that the earliest Christians were Jews, you gain respect for the difficulty of this question. It isn't easy to determine when so-called "Christians" were still practicing a particular form of Judaism and at what point one would have to say their religion wasn't Judaism at all. Consider as well how this question would look when applied to the differing forms of Judaism, and of Christianity, in the modern world. What does the Pope have in common with Jerry Falwell or with Ian Paisley? What does the Satmar Rebbe have in common with Mordecai Kaplan, or with the Women at the Wall?

Once again, I would submit that modern scholars' answers to a question that appears to concern historical terminology actually reflect their conceptions of modern Jewish life. Is there a recognizable Jewish religion today? Who speaks in its name? What is to be done with other people who speak differently in its name? If there is no such singular "Judaism" any more, then what do we mean by Jewish unity (we talk about Jewish unity all the time), and how do we expect that unity to find expression? Not far below the surface of an esoteric scholarly debate, we encounter the full fury of Israeli politics and the politics of North American Judaism.

In these remarks I have concentrated on scholarly issues that reflect the issues of modern Jewish life: among these I have included the question of the proper attitude toward the outside world, the issue of gender-roles in Jewish life, and the issue of unity and pluralism in Jewish religion. There are, of course, any other more purely academic investigations currently going on; recent years have witnessed spectacular progress in uncovering the early literary development of the Mishnah and the Talmuds, the publication after much excitement of the full set of Dead Sea Scrolls, and continuing archeological discoveries in both the Land of Israel and the Mediterranean diaspora. In all those areas there are "current issues" as well, but I have chosen to draw your attention to scholarly issues that reverberate throughout our own Jewish lives, however much or little we live those lives within the academy. The academic world, after all, is like the Jews, and lives in two dimensions. You cannot join its discussions unless you know how those discussions have evolved within the academy, but every professor (well, almost every professor) goes home after class and then brings a piece of the outside world back into class the next day. The university, like the synagogue, exists in a context that was not of its own making; scholars, like Jews, forget this at their peril.

Please send us your comments and questions!


McGill University

ę MCMXCIX Department of Jewish Studies of McGill University.  All Rights Reserved.
Contact Jewish Studies I About this Page I Disclaimer