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Margaret Williams on Collar’s Recent Book

November 10, 2015

(Dr. Margaret Williams is an internationally recognized epigrapher working in the Roman period.  She is also a colleague here in Edinburgh, and I was keen to know what she made of Anna Collar’s recent book that I mentioned briefly in a previous posting here.  At my invitation, she agreed to review the book for this blog site. LWH)

Anna Collar, Religious Networks in the Roman Empire: The Spread of New Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

I found the methodology of this study interesting and I think that the network approach (most notably the use of Proximal Point Analysis/PPA) is useful in interpreting the epigraphic material relating to the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus. However, I feel that with the Jews and the Theos Hypsistos cult (cults?) C.’s discussion is far less convincing. The main problem in these areas, I think, is that instead of dispassionately reviewing the source material to see what comes out of it, C. is striving all the time to fit the source material (unnecessarily restricted in the case of the Jews to inscriptions alone) to a pre-conceived structure.

C. takes it pretty much for granted that the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE was a watershed moment in Jewish history, that the Jewish leadership (assumed without discussion to be rabbinical) immediately concluded that Temple-worship had disappeared for ever and so embarked at once upon the codification of the oral law (in Hebrew) and its rapid dissemination throughout the Jewish world, even its western half where Hebrew had pretty well dropped out of use. The effect of this, so C. repeatedly claims, was Jewry everywhere turning inwards, rapidly re-Hebraising and in consequence effectively shutting the synagogue-door to the Theosebeis (Greek = “God fearers”). By way of compensation the latter (always conceived in this work purely in cultic terms) then turned to the worship of Theos Hypsistos. Hence the apparent rise in popularity of that cult in the second century.

I find all this deeply unconvincing (a) because of the lack of hard contemporary evidence for rabbinical activity in the decades after 70 CE (many scholars question the historicity of the activities ascribed to the rabbis at Yavneh in the years after 70 CE; (b) the fact that the first rabbinical compilation, the Mishnah, wasn’t published until around 200 CE and (c) because this hypothesis so clearly smacks of anachronism. Jews in 70 CE could not have known that Temple-worship had effectively gone for ever. Given the relatively short interval between the First and the Second Temple, why should the possibility/likelihood  of a Third Temple not have been envisaged?  It seems that the Temple cult was restored briefly by Bar Kochba in the 130s CE and in the 360s CE the Jews almost did get their Temple back.  So why should the Jewish leadership have given up immediately in 70 CE on the idea of a future restoration of Temple-worship? After all, even today there are Jews who fervently believe that one day the Temple in Jerusalem will be restored.

However, C.’s discussion is marked by no doubts about a sea-change in Jewish attitudes in the period immediately after the destruction of the Temple. Excluding from the discussion papyri as well as literary evidence (both of which would have revealed immediately the flawed nature of the main hypothesis, especially the postulated post-70 CE change in Jewish attitudes towards the Law), she proceeds to present the epigraphic evidence that she claims supports her case. I find this presentation far from convincing.  A major problem with this approach is that it is virtually impossible, using epigraphic evidence alone, to compare Jewish attitudes before and after 70 CE since there is not a single community for which epigraphic evidence exists both before the destruction of the Temple and afterwards. Either the evidence runs out around 70 CE (e.g. Leontopolis; Cyrenaika) or (this, far more common) the evidence does not start until well after 70. Examples of this are provided by Hierapolis (about two dozen epitaphs, most of them documents recording tomb ownership, dated mostly to the third century), Rome (around 600 inscriptions/epitaphs, most of them from catacombs, conventionally dated to the 3/4th centuries), Sardis (about 80 donor texts from the synagogue probably dating from the fourth to the sixth centuries),  Aphrodisias (Jews and Godfearers inscriptions, provenance unknown, now dated to Late Antiquity – i.e. 4th/5th or even the early 6th century). Most of the evidence from Venusia in southern Italy (between 70 and 80 epitaphs from the Jewish catacomb there) is similarly late. Another problem is that there is hardly any Jewish epigraphic evidence that can be dated with any confidence either to the late first century or to the whole of the second. This makes it virtually impossible, using inscriptions alone, to illustrate developments in the Diaspora during that very period when, according to C., Diaspora communities were rapidly re-Hebraized and rabbinised as a result of a veritable “information cascade” (C’s term for a kind of critical-mass effect of the spread of an idea through a social network).

Since the bulk of the evidence used by C. to make her case consists of inscriptions from the catacombs of Rome, material with which I am particularly familiar, I will restrict my comments to this evidence. C.’s case for the rapid re-Hebraisation of the Roman Jewish community rests on inscriptions relating to four topics – (i) the use of Hebrew itself; (ii) the (allegedly) increased emphasis on the Law as a way of advertising Jewish identity; (iii) the (allegedly) greater use of Hebraic names, especially by community (synagogal) officials; (iv) the increased prevalence of the menorah as tomb-decoration. In each of these areas, the evidence is far less compelling than C. claims.

Take the use of Hebrew, for a start. This is found in only a dozen texts out of approximately 600 (i.e. a mere 2%). Mostly the Hebrew amounts to no more than a single word Shalom, frequently mis-spelled (JIWE II no. 183).[1]  On occasion the lettering is so bad that there is debate as to whether it is even Hebrew (JIWE II nos. 161 and 203(xviii). In two (or possibly three) epitaphs, we come across the three-word phrase – Shalom al Yisrael (JIWE II nos. 193, 529 and possibly 92). And that is the extent of Hebrew found in Romano-Jewish inscriptions. For C., this Hebrew is but the tip of a large (assumed) Hebraic iceberg. I am more convinced by those scholars (e.g. Nicholas de Lange) who believe that knowledge of Hebrew among the Jews of Rome was at best superficial, that the Hebrew in these inscriptions may simply have been copied and “it is not necessary to suppose that the authors of all these inscriptions knew some Hebrew.” (quoted by C. at p. 194) Indeed, we should no more assume on the basis of this evidence a community au fait with Hebrew than we would assume a deep knowledge of Latin from the occasional RIP on a British tombstone.

References to the Law (supposedly revealing that reverence for it became, through rabbinic influence, a more significant element in expressing a Jewish identity) are equally limited – again around a dozen cases and so amounting to about 2% of the evidence. These references consist largely of honorific epithets such as philonomos (“law lover,” 2 cases); philentolos (“commandment lover,” 4 cases); nomomathes (“learned in law,” 3 cases).  Given the scores of honorific epithets to be found in the epitaphs of the Jews of Rome, this haul is pitifully small. Most of the epithets, as Rutgers’ careful analysis has shown, are those used in the wider, non-Jewish community – in Latin epitaphs, benemerens (“well deserving”), dulcissimus (“sweetest”); in Greek texts, glykytatos (“sweetest”).[2] Had evidence other than inscriptions been considered by C. – e.g. the writings of Philo, Josephus and NT texts – then it would have immediately become apparent that observance of the Law was a constant element in Romano-Jewish identity throughout antiquity. [3]

Nor is the onomastic evidence as revealing of rabbinic influence as C. seems to think. From her discussion, it would be concluded that the use of Hebrew names was widespread, especially among synagogal officers. Close analysis of the evidence shows quite clearly that that was not the case. Rutger’s analysis in Jews in Late Ancient Rome (the most thorough that I know) shows that “Semitic, Greek, and Latin names all seem to have been used freely by the Jewish community in third- and fourth-century Rome” (p. 148) and “Jewish ancestral names did not enjoy a higher degree of popularity among Jewish community officials than less conventional names.” (p. 150) In the Jewish community at large and among synagogal office-holders the take-up of Semitic names (they include Aramaic as well as Hebrew ones) was roughly the same – between 13 and 14%. (ibid.) As with epithets, the personal names used by Roman Jews are largely those popular in the wider community –  among male Jews, most notably the name Alexander. You do not get the feeling of a community shutting itself off and deliberately stressing its differences with the host community.

Finally, there is the widespread (and incontestible) use of the menorah as a symbol on tombs. Unusually (uniquely?) C. takes this to be a sign of rabbinic influence. I do not think that     this can be right.  If this image was indeed rabbinic, you would expect it to figure widely in that most rabbinic of burial places – viz. Catacomb 14 at Beth She’arim, believed by many to be the burial ground of the family of Judah I, the Patriarch. But its use there is very limited indeed  – a single instance. Where the menorah does occur at Beth She’arim, it is found mostly on graves clearly belonging to Diaspora Jews, an occurrence that has prompted Avigad to suggest that  “these Jews, Greek speaking and bearing Greek names, doubtlessly (sic) wanted to stress their national affiliation by appending a distinctively Jewish symbol to their tombstones.”[4] (An analogous case is the use of the identifier, Ioudaios, by Jews at Rome. Those found using this term in their epitaphs tend to be either immigrants or proselytes.[5])

While the popularity of the menorah as a grave-symbol from the 3rd/4th century onwards cannot be disputed, I see no reason at all to see this as rabbinic. Reasons for this development continue to be disputed. I suspect that several factors, differing according to time and place, may be at work. In the case of the Jews of Rome, where the actual Temple menorah was on display in the Temple of Peace as part of the loot from the First Jewish War (66-72 CE) and the image of the seven-branched candlestick prominently depicted on the Arch of Titus, a powerful reason for putting its likeness on their tombstones may have been a desire to reclaim their inheritance.

From the foregoing, it will have become clear that I regard the epigraphic evidence presented by C. in support of her thesis as inadequate. In my opinion, the evidence does not support the idea that there was a widespread Hebraisation of the western Diaspora in the wake of the destruction of the Temple or that it became rabbinised at such an early date. In fact, the first unambiguous epigraphic reference to rabbis occurs only in the early sixth century – a bilingual Latin/Hebrew inscription from Venusia.[6] Although one can trace in that community an increasing use of Hebrew in Late Antiquity (i.e. during the 5th and sixth centuries), that process took several generations as can be seen from my analysis of the data relating to the family of Faustinus the Father.[7] (Personal names remain largely Latin – e.g. Faustinus/a; Pretiosa, Asella (Little Ass!), Vitus, Bonus, Rosa.)  It’s only in the ninth-century inscriptions from that town that you get epitaphs written completely in Hebrew and an onomastikon that is entirely Hebraic.

A final word on the Theos Hypsistos cult. Here, C.’s case rests on accepting her hypothesis about the nature of post-70 CE Jewry:  Because the Jews had become rabbinical (and therefore Hebraised and inward-looking), the Theosebeis (“God fearers”) were forced to turn elsewhere for their cultic needs. Hence the popularity of the Theos Hypsistos cult (cults?) in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. There is, of course, not a shred of evidence for what is essentially an argument from silence – namely, the absence of inscriptions relating to Theosebeis in the second/third centuries. Given the overall thinness of the Jewish epigraphic record in that period, noted above, the absence of texts referring to Theosebeis is entirely unsurprising.

[1] JIWE II = D. Noy, Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1995).

[2] See L. V. Rutgers, The Jews in Late Ancient Rome, Leiden: Brill 1995, chapter 5.

[3] M. H. Williams, “The Shaping of the Identity of the Jewish Community in Rome in Antiquity” in J. Zangenberg and M. Labahn (eds), Christians as a Religious Minority in a Multicultural City, London/New York: T&T Clark International 2004, chapter 3.

[4] N. Avigad, Beth She’arim III: Catacombs 12-23 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press 1976), p. 270.

[5] See M. H. Williams,  Jews in a Graeco-Roman Environment (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), chapter 17.

[6]  D. Noy, Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe I [= JIWE I] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1993), no. 86 – duo rebbites.

[7] M. Williams, “The Jews of Early Byzantine Venusia: The Family of Faustinus I, the Father,” Journal of Jewish Studies 50, 1999, 38-52.

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  1. Possibly there is just too little information about Jews right after 70 AD. In part because there were far fewer Jews themselves.

    When Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, it was during Passover. The city was filled with the most devout Jews. Perhaps upwards of 100,000 or more were killed.

    So the core cadre of Judaism, and it’s temple too, were gone. Henceforth, Jewish statements might well be fewer.

    It is interesting to speculate what the attitudes of the survivors might be however. One might expect two main camps. One would consist in 1) still loyal Jews, who now more than ever wanted to kill Romans, and retake the city.

    But perhaps the larger class would consist of 2) many Jews who felt Judaism had been largely discredited. And in slavery to Romans particularly, they would forget their Jewish beliefs soon enough. To be assimilated into the Greco Roman empire. And its religions.

    This is to be sure, speculative. But it seems reasonable. Though perhaps our original author made a mistake in assuming a Rabbic character in the early survivors.

    • Yes, Brettongarcia, pure speculation, unsupported by any of the extant data. We know that the temple/Jerusalem destruction was a trauma for most Jews, but all evidence indicates that there was no mass apostasy.

  2. Ulrich B. Schmid permalink

    First class burial, it seems. Thanks for a very thorough review.

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