“Re-Hebraization/Judaization” Among Roman-Era Jews
In an earlier posting I referred to Anna Collar’s recent book, Religious Networks in the Roman Empire (2013), and I return to it to mention something that puzzled me in her chapter on epigraphic evidence of Judaism. She posits an escalation of evidence of Jews emphasizing their Jewish identity across the second to fourth century CE, and ascribes this in part to the success of “rabbinic” Judaism. But I recall an earlier study focused on papyrological evidence that posited a noteworthy “re-Hebraization” and renewed emphasis on Jewish particularly already in the early Roman period: Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum, by Victor A. Tcherikover, Alexander Fuks and Menahem Stern, eds. (3 vols; Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 1957-1964. (Hereafter, CPJ.)
This work draws on papyrological data about Jews and Judaism across the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, which means lots of attention to “everyday” data, such as marriage contracts, etc.
The 110-page analysis of the data that commences volume 1 should be required reading for anyone wishing to work on Roman-era Judaism, or any other religious development of that time (including, notably, Christian origins). Yet, in conversations with fellow scholars (including some senior ones), I’ve been surprised to find how few are acquainted with this work. I also noted, with surprise, that there is no mention of it in Collar’s book. Now, of course, she was concerned with inscriptions mainly, but her rather bold thesis about Judaism could and (to my mind) should have required her to engage with CPJ. It may be another unfortunate instance of a “canalization” of scholarly work, in this case focused on epigraphic data (and a focus is necessary for a PhD thesis, from which her book emerged), to the neglect of other data relevant for a larger historical view of things.
The CPJ posits that in the post-Ptolemaic period “there was an increasingly vigorous tendency in the diaspora in Egypt to discard hellenization and return to Jewish traditions” (1:27), and “a spirit of national regeneration in Palestine” as well in the Roman period (1:47). They judge that a “steady increase in the use of Hebrew names from the Ptolemaic to the Roman period is the best evidence of the gradual increase of national spirit among the Egyptian Jews” in that period (1:84).
In short, the analysis in the CPJ suggests strongly that an increasing expression of Jewish ethnic and religious particularly began much earlier than Collar proposes. Even the increased emphasis on Torah and observing its commandments that she highlights in later Roman Jewish inscriptions is surely reflected already in developments such as the emergence of the Pharisees, a party particularly concerned to promote observance of Torah among Jews.
It’s in light of this renewed emphasis on Jewish particularly/identity that we might view both the initially hostile actions of Saul the Pharisee against Jewish members of the Jesus-movement, and also, then, his struggles for his “Gentile mission” against others in the young Jesus-movement concerned to maintain the religious integrity of their ancestral faith, and so concerned about the influx of Gentiles.