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Collar Responds to Reviews of Her Book

December 8, 2015

(In previous postings, the recent book by Dr. Anna Collar, Religious Networks in the Roman Empire: The Spread of New Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), was the focus of comments by Dr. Margaret Williams here, and by me here.  Earlier this week, Dr. Collar emailed to indicate that she had read the postings, and she offered some comments in response.  I invited her to prepare a posting of her own in which she responds to the criticisms in the previous postings about her book.  Her posting appears below.  LWH)

I was recently pointed in the direction of Professor Hurtado’s very interesting blog, and was honoured to read the two reviews of my book that were published by such senior scholars there. Professor Hurtado has kindly offered me the space to say a few things in defence of the approaches and conclusions that I drew. I would do many things differently were I to have the opportunity again, but first of all, it should be understood that I am certainly far from being an expert with regards to ancient Judaism. The book was always intended to be an experiment in an innovative method, above all else. I hope to a degree, at least this aspect was successful; and this is the reason for the chapter which dealt with the use of networks as an analytical method in other fields. The topic is new in our field, and complicated, and in my eyes merited the consideration of how it has been used elsewhere.

I broadly agree with Margaret Williams’ points about the Jewish Diaspora evidence, and I think on reflection that I have pushed the interpretation perhaps a little too far. I agree that the use of Hebrew in the diaspora was superficial, and never intended to suggest that what we see in the inscriptions is the ‘tip of a Hebraic iceberg’ – in fact, rereading that passage of the book, I think I am decidedly circumspect about the depth of knowledge of Hebrew. The argument was rather that the attempt to use Hebrew (as Williams points out, often misspelled) on some inscriptions might indicate an increasing desire to be more involved in a ‘Jewish community heritage’ as it was (perhaps poorly?) understood. I overstated the rabbinic nature of these reasons for this increasing desire (and I take the point that there is a degree of post-hoc interpretation here too). But I do think that the epigraphic evidence bears witness to a change in the self-identification of the Jewish communities of the Diaspora in the second-fifth centuries AD, and the explanation that the relationship of Jewish communities both to the Roman state and to the Jewish homeland in Palestine was changing does seem to be reasonable. I do also pointedly say that we witness the ‘gradual spread’ of new ideas within the Jewish communities, and not ‘rapid’, as Williams says.

The restriction of my analysis of the Jewish Diaspora to epigraphic evidence is of course a problem, but one that had very simple and extremely necessary rationales behind it.  First, limitations of time and space – the gathering of the inscription data alone took me 6 months (I used 1,500 inscriptions), and the aim of the book was always methodologically experimental and comparative, rather than being a complete analysis of the Jewish Diaspora alone. My reasons for choosing to include Jewish diaspora data was as a complement to the Theos Hypsistos data, which I was originally employed to work on as part of Stephen Mitchell’s AHRC project on Pagan Monotheism – not from a position of expertise, rather, from a position of comparison. This also applies to the lack of discussion of early Christianity – there simply wasn’t space or time – and I have no doubt that thinking about the different kinds of networks at play with early Christian communities would be extremely interesting and potentially very rewarding.

My second reason for limiting the discussion to inscriptions was connected with the method I wanted to explore. Epigraphic data enables geographical location to be marked and considered, which is essential to both a geographical network analysis and to understanding the spread of ideas from the bottom up, from the perspectives of ordinary people. Of course, Philo and Josephus tell us much about Jewish life in the Diaspora – but their information is essentially an elite point of view, and is hugely different from that provided by inscriptions – I wanted to see what things looked like if we only considered the ‘on-the-ground’ evidence, untinted by what the highly educated were thinking and doing.

Third, the papyri I know would have added a huge amount of very important data, and I regret that I was not able to include it – but I felt that there was simply too much additional material to deal with in the time and space allowed me, and to a degree it might have skewed the evidence very heavily towards Egypt. By using what is essentially only funerary data, we get a particular picture of expressions of identity in specific locations and for specific reasons. A partial picture, to be sure, and I should perhaps have made that more clear. I look forward to future work using network analysis which could include this papyri data.

Finally, regarding the menorah – again, I overstated the interpretive point that this could be considered part of specifically ‘rabbinic’ influence. It should surely be understood, however, as a clear symbol of distinctive Jewishness, which had not previously been present, and which requires an explanation – I liked Williams’ suggestion that it could be about ‘reclaiming inheritance’ in Rome, but this is not the only place that we find the symbol, and perhaps we can push the argument further to allow for communities to be in communication about their identity, status, and leadership.

I have always known I am on difficult scholarly ground with regards to both the well-trodden fields of early Judaism and the use of epigraphy in the way I have used it, and have been taken to task a number of times by those who have devoted their careers to the close study of epigraphic data. I do believe, however, that there is (or should be) space for taking different approaches to archaeological material, which may yield at least thought-provoking discussions, even if the conclusions drawn are not agreed with. I very much welcome the discussion about (disagreement with!) what interpretations I have offered, but hope at least that by taking an approach that highlights the connections between communities and the information transfers that this might have allowed, we might be able to air new ideas about how the spread of information and factors in identity were enacted in the past. Networks as a method for exploring data in archaeology and ancient history are now being more common, and new studies offer formal social network analyses of inscriptions or papyri documents or formal network analyses of other kinds of archaeological material which are yielding exciting new interpretations.

As a final note, regarding the price, I agree that £60 is very expensive, but I had absolutely zero control over this! The book is available as an e-book for much less, and might eventually be made paperback. My thanks again to both Professors Hurtado and Williams for taking the time to read my thoughts.

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  1. What a wonderful response on all levels. It is a wonderful example of how to receive and respond to criticism. The study of social networks and how it influences beliefs and cultures is very interesting. I look forward to reading more about it in the future.

  2. I fully agree with Anna Collar’s statement: “I do believe, however, that there is (or should be) space for taking different approaches to archaeological material, which may yield at least thought-provoking discussions, even if the conclusions drawn are not agreed with.”

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