Saturday, January 20, 2007

Seth Schwartz's Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 B.C.E to 640 C.E.

I have been reading Schwartz's two chapters on pre-70 Palestinian Jews and have found them very stimulating and informative. He provides a very good and brief summary of the history of the period from the arrival of the Persian Empire to the division of Herod’s Kingdom among his sons (539BCE - 4BCE) (chapter one) and then an insightful dicussion of religion and society (chapter two). Among the important points he argues are the following:

1. Hellenism. Hellenism defined as taking up some Greek culture, “acting Greek”,without abandoning one’s own culture was not the enemy against which much of the energy of Palestinian Jews was directed. In fact, the evidence both literarily and materially suggests that Hellenism was a commonly embraced experience among Palestinian Jews even before the coming of Alexander the Great. Schwartz comments, “Indeed, the new literature demonstrates that the search [by modern scholars] in Jewish sources for Greek influence and native resistance in the form of opposition to Hellenism is largely misguided” (31).

2. Herod the Great. Herod’s policies turned the Jewish Palestine into a single state, a state closely tied to the Jewish Diaspora. Schwartz sees this as the enduring significance of his reign. While his sordid personal life is what tends to get the spotlight, perhaps understandably, Herod’s ambitious consolidating of his kingdom and his massive building projects made Palestine and Jerusalem its capital central to the life of Jews throughout the Roman Empire. Schwartz writes, “It was now the metropolis of all the world’s Jews, whether they were Judaean or hailed from the annexed districts of Palestine or the Roman or Parthian Diaspora. Jerusalem had perhaps long been the symbolic or sentimental Jewish center, but now it was so in reality, as well” (47).

3. God-Torah-Temple. Schwartz argues that this complex formed the ideological center of Judaism. This notwithstanding, he believes that this idea is not necessarily self-evident and doesn’t tell us anything about what was actually done in practice by Palestinian Jews. Given the diversity of Palestine and the Diaspora, it is likely that while the ideology was promoted and paid lip service the situation on the ground so to speak was likely varying depending on local custom and practice.

4. The Ideal Israelite Society. Schwartz makes an important point about Israelite society in its “ideal form”. He says that the ideological system embodied in the Torah has a vision of society that is “characterized by a mild tension between hierarchical and egalitarian principles . . . egalitarian in that all adult males share the obligation to know and observe God’s laws but hierarchical in that a hereditary priesthood is assigned a special role in maintaining God’s favor toward Israel” (64). I find this to be an important insight into the first-century Jewish worldview. In view of the recent presentation of an egalitarian Jesus (e.g. W. Carter), one needs to keep in mind that central to Jesus’ Judaism was a tension. Now it is possible that Jesus repudiated the hierarchical aspects of his tradition, but the Gospel evidence seems to point in the direction of congruity with the mild tension observable in Judaism. Perhaps Carter and others have been right to emphasize the egalitarian aspects of Jesus mission and message, but it seems to me to be inappropriate to conclude that Jesus endorsed an exclusively egalitarian message (cf. Matt 16).

5. Jewish Sects. Schwartz argues that the sects while inconsequential in the affairs of Palestinian Judaism, were not marginal as most assume. They were numberous especially in Judea. He takes Josephus's numbers as largely accurate and suggests that sectarians compromised 15 to 30 percent of the adult male population of Judea. He believes this view is plausible in view of the large amount of well-off, well-educated priestly Jews in first-century Judea.

I commend this work to those interested in studying Judaism of the Second Temple period.

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