RES 2012.09.04 The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine (Hezser)

The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine

Catherine Hezser
Place of Publication: 
Oxford University Press

The topic of Jewish daily life—and indeed, daily life studies as such—is relatively young in the discipline of ancient history. Particularly in the wake of the French Annales school, which initiated a shift in focus from major political and institutional histories to the “history of the ordinary” (p. 2), historians have increasingly concentrated on a much broader range of human experience in the ancient world. The present volume, edited by Catherine Hezser (who also contributes several essays), aims to contribute to this fascinating arena of scholarship, enlisting an impressive array of specialists in Jewish antiquity who cover an equally impressive, though not entirely comprehensive, assortment of daily life issues and activities. As such, this book represents a crucial entry point into current research on Jewish life in Greco-Roman antiquity.

This collection of essays, of course, is not the first attempt to provide an extensive examination of Jewish daily life in antiquity. A century earlier, Samuel Krauss published his three volume Talmudische Archäologie (Leipzig, 1910–1912), with Gustav Dalman’s eight volume Arbeit und Sitte in Palästina (Gütersloh, 1928–1942) emerging a few decades later. As useful as these volumes were (and, in some respects, still are), the last century has witnessed several crucial developments in the study of Jewish antiquity, not least of which is a considerable increase in extant textual, archaeological, and epigraphical sources, combined with more sophisticated methodological approaches to these ancient witnesses. Indeed, Krauss’s title—Talmudische Archäologie—underscores one of fundamental flaws of these earlier works, namely a pervasive rabbinocentrism that filters all of Jewish life through the rather narrow lens of the Rabbinic corpus. Not only does the present volume aim to engage a much fuller range of extant data (literary, archaeological, and epigraphical), but it strives to view this vast and diverse “Jewish phenomena in the context of the broader Hellenistic and Roman cultural developments” (p. 3). Hezser’s Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine thus fills a gaping void in the study of Jews in antiquity.

The geographical and chronological scope of this volume is restricted to Roman Palestine between its conquest by Pompey Magnus (63 B.C.E.) and the Islamic conquest in the early seventh century C.E. The thirty-four essays cover a broad and variegated range of subjects, all organized topically into eight major sections. The organization of the individual essays is fairly consistent across the volume: following the analysis, each contributor highlights key scholarly contributions for the topic in question with a brief discussion of suggested readings followed by a select bibliography; additionally, many of the essays, with only a handful of exceptions, also briefly outline possible trajectories for future research. The latter is a particularly useful feature for graduate students interested in probing possible dissertation topics. Thankfully, the book concludes with a subject-name-place index and an index of primary source references, providing researchers a particularly useful tool for navigating the volume’s various discussions of key sources and issues. My aim in the ensuing survey is to briefly outline the various issues and topics addressed in the volume, though space limitations—and perhaps the patience of the reader—prohibits a detailed discussion of each contribution.

The first section (“Methodological Issues”) deals with several overarching theoretical and methodological considerations, most of which resurface throughout the volume in more narrowly focused contributions. Hezser in particular contributes two insightful essays here (“Correlating Literary, Epigraphic, and Archaeological Sources” and “The Graeco-Roman Context of Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine”; chs. 1–2), with an emphasis on integrative and interdisciplinary approaches to the ancient sources, approaches necessitated by the complex interplay between Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts. Tal Ilan concludes the discussion of methodology with a consideration of “Gender Issues and Daily Life” (ch. 3), outlining several possible lines of inquiry focused on the daily life of women with respect to most of the topics discussed in the ensuing chapters.

The second (“Life in a Roman Province”) and third (“City and Countryside”) sections are closely related insofar as they both address various political, administrative, linguistic, and geographical contexts that bear directly on Jewish life in Roman Palestine. Rudolf Haensch provides a useful overview of epigraphic and literary sources attesting to the various administrative phases of Roman Judea (“The Roman Provincial Administration”; ch. 4), and Jill Harries follows up with a discussion of the “Courts and the Judicial System” (ch. 5), placing into conversation Roman and Rabbinic sources. David Goodblatt examines the question of Roman Palestine’s demography and the ever complex issue of group identity, offering a particularly insightful discussion of the status quaestionis (“Population Structure and Jewish Identity”; ch. 6). Of note in particular in the second section is Willem Smelik’s contribution, “The Languages of Roman Palestine” (ch. 7), which nicely models the integrative methods discussed by Hezser in chapter 1—Smelik interacts not only with epigraphic sources, but critically probes the possible uses of the Rabbinic corpus to address the question of Hebrew in early Roman Palestine—and includes a sophisticated engagement with recent sociolinguistic theoretical trends. The third section includes chapters addressing the development of roads, military and water installations within Roman Palestine (Benjamin Isaac, “Infrastructure”; ch. 8), urban culture (Jürgen K. Zangenberg and Dianne van de Zande, “Urbanization”; ch. 9), rural Jewish life (Ann E. Killebrew, “Village and Countryside”; ch. 10), and “Travel and Mobility” (Catherine Hezser; ch. 11).

The fourth section (“Labour and Trade”) examines various aspects of the economy in Roman Palestine, ranging from domestic contexts (Alexei Sivertsev, “The Household Economy”; ch. 12) to various commercial contexts, and including insightful discussions of the role of agriculture (Zeev Safrai, “Agriculture and Farming”; ch. 13), manufacture/production industries (Uzi Leibner, “Arts and Crafts, Manufacture and Production”; ch. 14), trade (Jack Pastor, “Trade, Commerce, and Consumption”; ch. 15), and “Poverty and Charity” (Gildas Hamel; ch. 16) within the region.

The fifth section (“Family Life”) is devoted to social—from childhood to death—and material aspects of the private sphere, covering topics ranging from life stages in Jewish antiquity (Jonathan Schofer, “The Different Life-Stages: From Childhood to Old Age”; ch. 17) through marriage and divorce (Michael Satlow; ch. 18) to dining habits (David Kraemer, “Food, Eating, and Meals”; ch. 22), death rituals and notions of the afterlife (Steven Fine, “Death, Burial, and Afterlife”; ch. 24). However, three chapters within this section, though valuable in their own right, seem a bit misplaced: a chapter on clothing (Dana Shlezinger-Katsman; ch. 19) and two chapters on jewelry, one concentrating on literary evidence (Tziona Grossmark; ch. 20) and one on archaeological evidence (Katharina Galor; ch. 21). The inclusion of these topics within a study of daily life is more than justified, and each author presents an illuminating analysis of these oft overlooked objects. Yet given the fact that such objects are integral facets of both domestic and public contexts and, moreover, are valuable witnesses to the, in the words of Galor, “socio-economic status” and “the relations between the Jewish population of Roman and Byzantine Palestine and their Gentile and Christian neighbours” (p. 393), perhaps placement within the previous section—“Labour and Trade”—would have been more appropriate.

The sixth (“Education and Literacy”) and seventh (“Religion and Magic”) sections turn to intellectual and cultic contexts. Hezser contributes an exemplary analysis of Jewish education (“Private and Public Educaton”; ch. 25), displaying a judicious use of sources and a keen sensitivity to situating this material within a Greco-Roman context. Carol Bakhos’ study of orality and writing (ch. 26) likewise situates her discussion within the larger context of the ancient Mediterranean, and furthermore, in a final note on “Future Directions,” points to the benefits of an even wider contextual lens, suggesting that attention to the transitions from Greco-Roman to Islamic culture could potentially refine and nuance our understanding of Judaism as a “book religion” (p. 496). The treatment of religion includes chapters on the synagogue (Lee I. Levine; ch. 28), prayer and liturgy (Stefan C. Reif; ch. 29), Sabbath and festivals (Lutz Doering; ch. 30), and magic and healing (Giuseppe Veltri; ch. 31), all preceded by a general discussion of Pagan and Christian influences on Judaism (Günter Stemberger; ch. 27). Stemberger’s analysis rightly calls attention to the complex verschmelzung of ideologies, customs, and practices within the ancient Mediterranean religious landscape, rendering problematic the long-held notion of Judaism as an isolated enclave devoid of foreign influence. Yet this chapter fails to engage, even critically, the recent flurry of studies interrogating the language (e.g., the use of terms such as Paganism, Hellenism, and Judaism) and theoretical categories (e.g., Influence/Reception) conventionally used to describe the boundaries of, and interplay between, ancient Mediterranean religions.*

The eighth and final section (“Entertainment and Leisure-Time Activities”) considers a selection of topics often considered outside the domain of Jewish culture: Yaron Z. Eliav’s study of Jews and the Roman bathhouse (ch. 32), Zeev Weiss’s analysis of classically Roman venues of public spectacle, such as (amphi)theaters and hippodromes (ch. 33), and Joshua Schwartz analysis of various “leisure-time activities” (“Play and Games”; ch. 34). What these studies persuasively demonstrate is that these entertainment industries and activities permeated all layers of Greco-Roman society, Jews included.

The value of this volume to the study of Jewish antiquity should be apparent in this survey of contents. Hezser has produced a remarkably cohesive volume that mostly delivers what she promises in the introduction: “a new comprehensive volume that provides an overview of the state of scholarship into ancient Jewish everyday life” (p. 1). I say “mostly,” however, to qualify her use of the term “comprehensive.” It is perhaps unreasonable to expect a thoroughly comprehensive treatment of such a vast, multi-faceted issue, and Hezser does make note of several omissions (p. 5): e.g., slavery, a topic Hezser has recently examined in her monograph Jewish Slavery in Antiquity (Oxford, 2005); Jewish childhood, for which a specialist could not be found; and three chapters addressing landscape, climate, and geography, whose commissioned authors failed to submit their contributions. That said, Hezser does not mention one rather conspicuous omission, a chapter dealing with the Temple in the section on religion. Given the chronological parameters set out in the introduction (Pompey to Islam), surely an extensive treatment of that which clearly played a rather prominent role in the daily lives of many Jews living in the first century of Roman Palestine is warranted in a volume like this. This omission seems to reflect a larger tendency in the volume—evident in many of the individual contributions—to conceptualize Roman Palestine through the lens of Late Antiquity; i.e., what is sometimes referred to as the Rabbinic period. Indeed, one wonders if perhaps this tendency underscores just how difficult it is to completely avoid the imposing shadow of Krauss’s rabbinocentrism.

Notwithstanding this criticism, Hezser’s Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine should unquestionably find its way onto the book shelves of scholars and students working in the fields of Jewish and Christian antiquity. Collectively these contributions offer an accessible, stimulating, and methodologically sophisticated treatment of an impressive range of topics, providing the reader a necessary first step into this captivating field of research.

*Here I have in mind Michael Satlow’s stimulating critique of the “influence model” (“Beyond Influence: Toward a New Historiographic Paradigm,” in Jewish Literatures and Cultures: Context and Intertext [ed. Anita Norich and Yaron Eliav; Providence: Brown Judaic Studies, 2008], 37–53), as well as recent scholarship on the parting of the ways, most notably Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press) and Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed, eds., The Ways that Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007). To these studies should be added the stimulating collection of review essays in a recent issue of The Jewish Quarterly Review (vol. 99; Winter 2009), all of which critically reflect on the use of terms and categories in recent descriptions of Jewish and Christian antiquity.

Jason von Ehrenkrook, University of Pittsburgh, USA