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Jews in a Graeco-Roman World

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Jews in a Graeco-Roman World
Edited by Martin Goodman. (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press - Oxford, 1999. Pp. ix, 293.) ISBN: 0-19-815078-4.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - June 30, 2000

The history of the Roman empire covers a vast span of time. Throughout its existence, the Romans came into contact with numerous culturally distinct peoples. Many groups were simply destroyed or absorbed into the fabric of the Roman empire. Other groups, which were not completely assimilated, tended to incorporate various practices and traits of the Roman's culture into their own, which had the effect of radically altering their cultural base. Very few groups managed to maintain a distinct identity while living in the very midst of the Roman empire. One group that was able to resist the encroachment of Roman ideas, and maintain their own unique cultural and religious identity, was the Jews.

Unlike other minority groups which became intertwined with the Roman apparatus, the Jews not only maintained their own cultural identity and practices, but they also left behind written and archeological records of their existence and life under Roman rule. This record gives historians a phenomenal resource. Most minority groups did not leave behind any written documentary evidence of their life. Therefore they can only be studied from the Roman perspective and through Roman documentation of their existence. The Jews, however, can be studied from both their own, and the Roman perspective, giving them a three-dimensional character from which a more accurate accounting of their history can be surmised.

Despite the existence of this evidence, the study of the Jews in the Graeco-Roman world has taken a back seat to more momentous events, and the study of the dominant culture, namely the Romans. Granted, much has been written about the Jewish wars and the occupation of Roman Judea, but little attention has been given as to how the Jews lived outside of Judea, especially in Rome itself. In Jews in a Graeco-Roman World, Martin Goodman, a Professor of Jewish Studies and a Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, has brought together a series of essays on the topic of Jewish life in the Graeco-Roman world. The papers presented in this work included: Each essay is authored by an expert in Jewish History or Classical Studies and each represents a formal paper complete with detailed footnotes and bibliographic information. The essays themselves, can be read independently of each other. However to enhance the reading experience they have been organized into four thematic categories dealing with Throughout, this text presents a detailed analysis of specific topics related to Jewish history within the context of the Graeco-Roman world. More important, great pains have been taken to differentiate between information garnered from Jewish sources and those from gentile sources. The juxtaposition of these two informational sources is indispensable in enabling the reader to get a feel for how the Jews felt about themselves and their experiences and how they were viewed by others - and how outside groups often misinterpreted Jewish practices. These essays do not represent a complete overview of ongoing research in the field of Jewish social, cultural and religious history in the classical world. They do, however, serve to show the range of research opportunities available in this often overlooked field.

The only real fault that I found with this text was that all the works referred to in the text were lumped together in one section. I would have preferred that each essay been followed by its own bibliography. This is a minor fault in an otherwise excellent book. I must warn my readers, however, that this is a book geared to a scholarly audience and I would not recommend it for the general reader. The text assumes that the reader has a thorough acquaintance with the topics discussed. Based on this assumption, the authors have elected not to include many essential facts, as they expect their audience to already be familiar with them. The essays were also written under the assumption that the reader would be familiar with many of the reference works cited. Therefore, they have given sketchy information in some areas, as they have taken it for granted that the reader has already read these reference works, or at least has access to them. The general reader may also find some of the essays to be stilted in tone. Nonetheless, this is a phenomenal reference work, one which will hopefully encourage more interest and research into Jewish life in the Graeco-Roman World.

Related Reviews:

The Roman-Jewish Wars and Hebrew Cultural Nationalism, By Moshe Aberbach and David Aberbach.
This book covers two interrelated subjects - the Roman-Jewish wars and the development of Hebrew cultural nationalism. This is accomplished via a discussion the short and long term causes of the three revolts that erupted between the Jews and the Graeco-Romans, which occurred in 66-70, 115-17, and 132-35 C.E.

Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora: From Alexander to Trajan, By John M. G. Barclay.
Academic study of Jewish history during the Graeco-Roman period is usually focused on Jewish life in Judea. Often overlooked are the far flung and substantial Jewish communities that were scattered around the Mediterranean. Until recently, if a reader had a desire to study this period of the Jewish diaspora, they quickly found that a basic text on this subject did not exist. This oversight has been corrected with the publication of Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora.

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