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“Re-Hebraization/Judaization” Among Roman-Era Jews

October 12, 2015

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.

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20 Comments
  1. Griffin G permalink

    As Richard seems to be noting in effect, It’s important to note the exact dates and places for each data base. Since the picture seems very different from place to place, time to time.

  2. Griffin G permalink

    Wouldn’t everyday data, like names, tend to favor the family, folk or ethnic side if the self, rather than the more contemporary “sophisticated” public self? My own name for instance reflects my rural ancestors. But not my new lifestyle.

    • Griffin: It’s when we see broad shifts in naming-practices across time that something is likely going on. For example, after the Protestant Reformation, saints names weren’t used as frequently as in pre-Reformation time, and, instead, biblical names came into greater usage. In that, we see a major religious change reflected.

      • Griffin G permalink

        I value documentary evidence. However, every historian should know one quality of some Literature: that sometimes people write things on paper, that are different from their substantive life. Sometimes our life in paper is divorced from our daily or real life. Sometimes in fact, it’s our fantasy or dream, our Walter Mitty wish, only.

        With the actual Jerusalem destroyed, rabbis and others would try to reconstruct it on paper, or in their imagination, or their words. But that would be a different reality than the physical one.

      • Griffin: I’m afraid that I can’t see what it is to which you’re speaking in your comment. I referred to “hard data,” such as inscriptions, marriage contracts, etc. as studied in the 3-vol work I mentioned. Likewise, Collar worked from epigraphical data, not particularly texts.

  3. Griffin G permalink

    I’m wondering how anti-Roman anyone could have been after 64 BCE, with Judah under Roman occupation.

    • Ah, quite a lot of anti-Roman evidence. E.g., the tax revolt in 6 CE, and continuing unrest thereafter, leading up to the explosion in 66 CE. There were several expressions of unrest among some Jews in Judaea.

      • Larry: Goodman in Rome and Jerusalem (page 400) says strangely that: “compared to the chaotic conditions in 4 BCE until Archelaus finally returned from Rome with a mandate from Augustus to rule, the next seventy years to 66 were to be a long period of stability and peace.” In his notes Goodman cites Tac. Hist.5.9 and Joseph. Ap.I. 34-5.

        Also on page 397, Goodman again rather strangely says that: “a long-lived Jerusalemite could have passed the whole period from 6 to 66 CE without ever witnessing the horrors of war.”

      • Geoff: Yes, no WARS during the period. But a number of conflicts and tensions, including, e.g., the 6AD tax revolt, and the other “bandit” figures described by Josephus and alluded to in Acts 5:33-37.

      • Larry: “Continuing unrest” seems a long way from “stability and peace.” One has to wonder why Goodman used the latter terms. Was he thinking out loud? Perhaps he was influenced by Kokkinos’s statement on page 193 of The Herodian Dynasty: “”However, is it possible that a royal court of such magnitude, a ruling centre for over half a century, with its established political, economic and military mechanisms, lost its well placed manpower in a spectacular overnight disintegration? Could the Romans have replaced all the people of experience, for example in local administration, with their own nominees, of which we hear nothing,”

      • Well, Geoff, I can’t account for what Goodman meant. All I can do is point to the evidence (as I have). As for the quote from Kokkinos, I don’t get any relevance. But, please, this thread has nothing to do with the posting. So, whatever angle it is you’re hinting at, let’s let it drop.

  4. I don’t think that argument about names in CPJ carries much weight. The evidence for an increasing use of Hebrew names seems to be the supposition that Jews bearing Greek names are invisible to us in the evidence. Maybe we just have more evidence of named Jews in the later period? Moreover, this papyrological evidence needs to be put together with the epigraphic evidence of Jewish names in Egypt (now collected in the volume by Horbury and Noy). Though I haven’t analysed that material by date, it looks to me as though there are plenty of cases of Jews with Greek names in the later period.
    Another key point is that Jewish naming practices varied considerably in different areas of the diaspora and in Palestine. Egyptian Jews were fond of names of persons in the Torah who had an Egyptian connexion – Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Miriam. But Abraham and Moses are hardly used at all at any period in other parts of the diaspora or in Palestine, while Joseph and Miriam were popular in Palestine for different reasons. In Palestine in the late second Temple period most of the most popular names were those of the Maccabees and later Hasmonean rulers, which doesn’t seem to have been the case in the diaspora (e.g. Mattathias [and variants], very popular in Palestine, doesn’t occur in Egypt). Generally it was the case that Palestinian Jews did not use names because of their biblical usage. Popular names were often popular because of their meaning, e.g. Ishmael was quite popular, obviously not because of the Ishmael of Genesis, but because of its meaning (“God has heard” i.e. heard our prayer for a child). In the diaspora many (most?) Jews did not think of Hebrew names in terms of their linguistic meaning.
    Another point to remember is that once a name is popular it gets used because it is popular. So the fact that several high priests in the late Second Temple period bore Maccabean names need not imply that their parents identified with the anti-Roman cause.
    So this whole topic needs much more nuanced and detailed study before we can conclude anything from names about “re-Hebraization” of Jews at any particular period.

    • Richard: You wrote: ” In Palestine in the late second Temple period most of the most popular names were those of the Maccabees and later Hasmonean rulers,” Do you have any data to justify this statement. If it is correct, I have to ask why?

      • Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, Part I, p 56.
        I also set out the statistics in order of popularity in my book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
        The statistics are based on c. 3000 names of individuals from this period from all sources.
        The most popular male names are: Simon, Joseph, Judah, Eleazar, John, Joshua, Hananiah, Jonathan, Mattathias. 5 of these are the names of Mattathias and his five sons. Joseph, Hananiah and Joshua are exceptions (though Ilan argues for a sixth Maccabee brother Joseph).
        The most popular female names are Mariam and Salome – female names of the Hasmonean royal house.
        They were popular because patriotic. These are the names of the rulers of Israel in the most recent period of Jewish independence, prior to the Roman conquest.
        Other factors: Simon was especially popular because it is both a Greek name (Simon) and a Hebrew one (Simeon) – virtually indistinguishable in pronunciation.
        Jews in this period evidently liked names beginning with Y, even if not the full Yeho (= divine name). So here: Yehosef (not the biblical spelling but the usual one in this period), Yehudah, Yehohanan, Yehoshua/Yeshua, Yehonatan.

      • Geoff Hudson, if you look at Bauckham’s book “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospel As Eyewitness Testimony” (Eerdmans, 2006), chapters 3 and 4, you will find a listing of his data sources.

    • Richard: Your post appears to show, broadly speaking, differences between diaspora Jews and Palestinian Jews of the late second Temple period. Diaspora Jews were interested in the Torah, but not interested in the meaning of their names, and presumably not in naming their children using Maccabean and Hasmonean names. Palestinian Jews were not so interested in Torah, very interested in the meaning of their names from a Godly point of view, and were supporters of their Maccabean and Hasmonean rulers. Would this interpretation be correct?

      For Palestinian Jews In the late Second Temple period, if most of the most popular names were those of the Maccabees and later Hasmonean rulers, to what extent did this naming practice continue into the first century?

      Why should someone in the late second Temple period with a Maccabean name be thought to have anti-Roman parents?

      • I certainly wouldn’t want to conclude that Palestinian Jews were not interested in Torah. It’s just that they didn’t usually name their children after characters in the Bible, whereas some diaspora Jews did. The data I have used to establish the most common names is from the period 200 BCE – 200 CE. The way that the material is presented in Ilan’s book means that it is very difficult to get statistics for shorter periods within that time frame. However, there is actually much more evidence for the period 50 BCE – 135 CE than for the other parts of the period 200 BCE – 200 CE, and so I think it is fairly safe to use the general statistics to illuminate the New Testament period. It would be very interesting to know whether the use of Maccabean/Hasmonean names declined after 70 or after 135, but at the moment we can’t tell whether they did. The reason the use of Maccabean/Hasmonean names could be understood as anti-Roman is that these were the names of those who fought successfully for Jewish independence in the 2nd century BCE and then [ca. 142-63 BCE] ruled an independent Jewish state.

      • Richard: I don’t believe that the Maccabean/Hasmonean names could be understood as anti-Roman. Anti-Greek yes. Also I think that Hyrcanus was helped to remain king by Pompey. The state of Judea remained independent under the Roman wing.

  5. Chris Porter permalink

    Thanks for raising CPJ. Unfortunately in many areas it can be difficult to source, for example in Australia there are no copies in Melbourne whatsoever. Nevertheless, it is on my list for a future library trip.
    I note that you recommend the first 110 pages, but is there any other section of the work that is important if one is time limited with the volumes?

    • The remainder of the three volumes is an item-by-item catalogue and discussion of the data. There are also valuable appendices, such as Vol. 3, Appendix 2, “Prosopography of the Jews in Egypt,” a study of the names of Jews used in that place and time.

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