Scholia Reviews ns 6 (1997) 21.

Leonard Victor Rutgers, The Jews in Late Ancient Rome: Evidence of Cultural Interaction in the Roman Diaspora. Leiden: Brill, 1995. Pp. xx + 283. ISBN 90-04-10269-8. UK£43.60.

Grant Parker
Department of Classics, Princeton University

Since its first appearance 36 years ago, Harry Leon's The Jews in Ancient Rome has been one of the standard works in its field, and to some extent remains so -- at the very least with regard to the nearly 600 inscriptions found in the city's Jewish catacombs.[[1]] The coincidence of its republication in the same year as the appearance Rutgers' monograph, in part a critique of Leon, affords the opportunity to consider both books in relation to one another and to other recent scholarship in Jewish studies.

As is apparent from the subtitle, the theme running through Rutgers' analysis is that of cultural exchange. Self-evidently, this is a difficult and sensitive topic to investigate at the best of times, and debate about it can easily enough become a question of whether the glass is half full or half empty. The largely negative critical reaction to meet Louis Feldman's Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World, another recent work that addresses the broader question, is a reminder of the methodological and indeed ideological traps awaiting anyone tackling such issues in Jewish history.[[2]] But Rutgers presses his case creatively, all the while making careful use of evidence, both material and literary. His strongest suit is his analysis of the archaeology of catacombs, and to this he devotes the heart of the book in chapters 3-5, (pp. 100-209). Given the many problems implicit in such an enterprise, Rutgers' high degree of methodological awareness is very much in order and may be regarded as one of the strengths of his book. On the other hand, his summary dismissal of Edward Said's Orientalism and Martin Bernal's Black Athena strikes a less felicitous note, controversial as those works have been; his engagement with them is limited to asserting that their authors too have their own axes to grind (pp. xv-xvi).

A survey of the history of scholarship on the catacombs, stretching from the late antique cult of the saints and its itineraria right up to the present is the focus of the first chapter, 'The study of Jewish History and Archaeology in historical perspective: the example of the Jewish catacombs of Rome' (pp. 1-49). As emerges here clearly, the history of research into the Jewish catacombs has been closely linked with that of the Christian catacombs. For one, Antonio Bosio (1575-1629), their first great explorer, had a specifically Christian agenda within the theological politics of the Counter-reformation; he was little interested in Judaica and in fact his discovery of the Monteverde catacombs in 1602 had little impact. The fascination with collecting antiquities in the late 17th and early 18th centuries brought to light not only many Jewish inscriptions but also lamps, gold glasses and the like -- items that often served the function of adding variety to collections of Christian antiquities.

So much for the history of scholarship on the catacombs. The broader cultural question of 'isolation' of the Jews is traced back to the origins of modern Jewish historiography: in his seminal Die Konstruktion der jüdischen Geschichte (1846), H. Graetz under Hegel's influence 'proposed a very rigid view of Jewish history according to which Jewish culture could relate to other cultures only by fighting and conquering them' (p. 46). [[3]] In a sense Feldman's book is a striking recent case of the enduring influence of such views, despite that author's claimed wish to undermine 'the lachrymose theory of Jewish history' (p. 445).

It is here that Rutgers validates the comparative approach which is so important for his book. 'If one studies Jewish inscriptions and Jewish catacombs without taking into account contemporary non-Jewish materials, a picture will emerge that must by definition be one of isolation.' (p. 48, original emphasis) Rutgers' criticism of Leon here has a certain resonance, not made explicit in the body of the text, with Rutgers' introductory mention of Hayden White's (in)famous thesis, that 'facts' do not have an independent and objective existence but are 'shaped by the account into which they have been fitted' (p. xv).[[4]] An important part of Rutgers' project is close scrutiny of the very concept of 'isolation', including such questions as volition, extent, and its representation.

Chapter 2, 'The archaeology of Jewish Rome: a case-study in the interaction between Jews and non-Jews in late antiquity' (pp. 50-99), is mainly a formal description of the Jewish catacombs and its finds, compared with non-Jewish funerary architecture. The thrust of this chapter is to assert the importance of a common workshop- identity, (Werkstattgleichheit) as an explanation for the common features shared by artefacts. Yet the period beginning in the fourth century reveals preference for some distinctively Jewish iconographic motifs, none more so than the menorah. Rutgers concludes that 'In Roman Palestine, as in Rome, the material culture of the Jews thus reflects quite reliably what artefacts were available to the population of the later Roman Empire at large. It is not correct to see in this phenomenon aspects of assimilation or to view it as a manifestation of syncretism.' (p. 91) Anteriority and influence have, inevitably, long been at the centre of discussions comparing Christian and Jewish burial practices. But Rutgers sees the development of the catacombs as a gradual process; Jews and Christians simultaneously began to excavate underground tombs, so much so that it cannot be claimed that one group copied the practices of the other (p. 92)

Chapter 3, 'References to age of death in the Jewish funerary inscriptions from Rome: problems and perspectives' (pp. 100-138) confronts the question: how can the fact that only 145 out of 594 Jewish inscriptions from Rome refer to the age of the dead be explained? Given that very few (late) Jewish inscriptions from Roman Palestine show this feature, Rutgers sees this as essentially a Graeco-Roman custom, borrowed by Jews in the Near East perhaps under the influence of the Roman military (pp. 103-4). This is the most technical and statistical part of the book. Rutgers negotiates the evidentiary problem of age-rounding by having recourse to modern techniques of population research.

In chapter 4, 'The onomasticon of the Jewish community of Rome: Jewish vis-à-vis non- Jewish onomastic practices in late antiquity' (pp. 139-175), the fund of names arising from the inscriptions is examined. Leon saw the use by Jews of non-Jewish names as an index of Hellenisation or Romanisation; the correlation was unproblematic. Rutgers shows that the presence of Roman names reveals the influence of Roman practices, though Semitic names never disappear completely. He concludes that most of the names used were typically late antique rather than specifically Jewish.

In the fifth chapter, 'The Jewish funerary inscriptions from Rome: linguistic features and content' (pp. 176-209), Jewish use of inscriptions emerges as being in many ways similar to non- Jewish practices. For Leon, on the other hand, those buried in the Via Appia catacombs 'represented the more Romanised and perhaps more liberalised elements of Roman Jewry' (p. 124). There is an element of appropriation in this in so far as Creek and Latin are used as a means of conveying Jewish ideas (note the proliferation of compound adjectives beginning with philo- ). By Rutgers' reckoning, Rome of the 3rd- 4th centuries resembles 1st-century Palestine in having a 'common Judaism' (a defined set of ritual practices).

In chapter 6, 'The literary production of the Jewish community of Rome in late antiquity' (pp. 210-259), Rutgers considers two very different documents, the Collatio legum Mosaicarum et Romanarum (a comparison of the Pentateuch with the Twelve Tables) and the recently discovered Letter of Annas to Seneca.[[5]] He shows that both of these works make the most sense when considered against the background of Jewish thinking, and asserts Jewish authorship in each case. Comparison with Christian sources suggests that the Pentateuch is unlikely to have had great significance for a non-Jewish writer; he places it in the fourth- century world of Christian-Jewish polemic. If the two works are indeed by Jews, it presents a picture of Jews that is far from passive and isolated.

The ideas in the mysterious letter of Annas are closely comparable with those expressed in the Wisdom of Solomon and the Sibylline Oracles.[[6]] Though there are no direct quotations from biblical materials, many passages seem close to the Hebrew Bible. Rutgers views the work as being in the first instance 'a treatise designed to curry the sympathy and favour of a pagan audience' (p. 247). Bischoff's notion that the work was in fact intended to win converts should, however, not be too quickly discarded on the grounds that there is no mention of conversion -- we are, after all, dealing with a text which is incomplete in its present textual state.[[7]]

The conclusions reached in chapter 7 (pp. 260-268) are a clear synthesis of the material discussed and arguments made in the body of the book. On the key issue of isolation Rutgers holds firm to the dynamic, nuanced view already exhibited in the individual chapters. 'Instead of living in splendid isolation or longing to assimilate, the Roman Jews . . . appear as actively and, above all, self-consciously responding to developments in contemporary non-Jewish society. Interacting with non-Jews, Roman Jews did not give up their own identity. Rather, they freely borrowed elements from Roman culture, and in doing so they adapted such elements to their own needs.' (p. 263) This type of argument is in line with the views of Bowersock, for example.[[8]] There the author suggested that rather than imagining an imposed 'Hellenisation', the more dynamic concept of 'Hellenism' could be used to describe the principle whereby local cultures actually used Greek culture, notably its language, often in a superficial way, as a means of attaining self-expression. The nature of Rutgers' conclusions are very much a product of the period he has chosen to study -- so many of the features described are seen as late Roman rather than specifically Jewish. By concentrating on Rome of the third and fourth centuries, he focuses on the centre of a teetering empire -- on a world characterised by flux in power-relations on the broadest scale, on a city whose population may well have dropped from 800,000 to 100,000 in the course of the fifth century (p. 1). Clearly, this is a world in which we must be especially sensitised to cultural exchange. Rutgers' contribution has been to sketch one set of such interactions, those of the Jews in Rome, in dynamic terms; his comparative perspective allows for a breadth of perspective which are notably lacking in Leon's Jews of Ancient Rome and Feldman's Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World.


[[1]] Harry J. Leon, The Jews of Ancient Rome (Philadelphia 1960); an updated edition, with a new introduction by Carolyn A. Osiek was published by Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody 1995).

[[2]] Louis H. Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World: Attitudes and interactions from Alexander to Justinian (Princeton 1993). Note, for example, the reviews by Martha Himmelfarb, Judaism 43 (1994) 328- 334, and Fergus Millar, CR 45 (1995) 117-119.

[[3]] I. Schorsch (tr.), The Structure of Jewish History and Other Essays (New York 1975).

[[4]] H. White, Metahistory: the Historical Imagination of Nineteenth Century Europe (Baltimore 1975).

[[5]] The collatio may be consulted in the edition of T. Mommsen, Collectio Librorum Iuris Anteiustinianae III (Berlin 1890) 136-98, or B. Kuebler, Iurisprudentiae Anteiustinianae Reliquiae II.2 (Leipzig 1927[6]) 329-94. For a text of the letter of Anna(s) with commentary see Bernhard Bischoff, 'Der Brief des Höhenpriesters Annas an den Philosophen Seneca -- eine jüdisch- apologetische Missionschrift (IV Jahrhundert?), in Anecdota Novissima: Texte des vierten bis sechzehnsten Jahrhunderts (Stuttgart 1984) 1-9.

[[6]] The best available text of the Sibylline oracles is still J. Geffcken, Oracula Sybyllina (Leipzig 1902), though A. Kurfess, Sibyllinische Weissagungen (Berlin 1951) may be more easily accessible. See Emil Schürer's contribution to G. Vermes et al. (edd.), The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 BC - AD 135) Vol. III.1 (Edinburgh 1986) 618-54 (the Sibylline Oracles); 568-79 (the Wisdom of Solomon).

[[7]] Bischoff (1984) above n. 5.

[[8]] Glen Bowersock, Hellenism in Late Antiquity (Ann Arbor 1990).