Jewish and Other Imperial Cultures in Late Antiquity: Literary, Social, and Material Histories (200–750 C.E.)

A Proposal for a Year-Long Seminar at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania


It is a vibrant and vital time in the study of Late Antiquity. In the last decade substantial paradigmatic and methodological shifts have altered the fundamental historiographic framework of the late Roman period, revising standard accounts of the emergence of Christianity and its protracted integration with Roman imperial structures. In fact there is still no agreement whether Late Antiquity should be seen as a period of steady transformation or dramatic decline.1 Concomitantly, the last twenty years have seen great upheaval in all areas of the study of classical Judaism—from scholarly approaches to rabbinic texts, to definitions of the most basic contours of the social world from which Jewish evidence is understood to have emerged. Yet most classicists continue to map and define Roman culture during the empire with minimal reference to copious Jewish data. Jewish evidence ought to have a more prominent place in the telling of Roman history, and, if brought in from the sidelines, promises to alter regnant narratives. Reading the Jews back into the broader history of Late Antiquity is thus an obvious desideratum. Conversely, while it has become a truism that Jewish literary, social, and material data register their historical contexts, Jewish studies scholars have too often merely paid lip service to the production of contextually aware accounts of late antique Jewish history and culture. If Late Antiquity, the rabbinic era, is indeed Judaism’s formative period, then a full appreciation of the conditions and conversations implicit in its making are of paramount importance, not just to specialists of the period, but to all students of Jewish studies.

We propose that the theme of “Jewish and Imperial Cultures in Late Antiquity” will enable scholars from a wide range of institutional-disciplinary backgrounds within Jewish studies (midrashic and talmudic literature, liturgy and piyyut, archaeology and art history, social history, legal studies, history of religions, and rhetorical and cultural studies) to engage in productive conversation with an equally wide variety of scholars in neighboring or complementary fields (Patristics, Christian liturgy, Church history, classics, and the various branches of late Roman history). A survey of the impressive resources collected by the Society for Late Antiquity, for example, and a perusal of their conferences, shows up only the slimmest reference to Jewish data from this period, or to Jewish scholarship—despite their relative abundance. While conferences and workshops have brought scholars of different disciplines together for theme-specific investigations, and Princeton’s and Oxford’s seminars on Judaism in the Greco-Roman world, for example, have focused on this era with rigor, there has to date been no concentrated collocation of classicists, scholars of the church and early Christianity, and of Jewish studies in sustained cooperative exploration of the period of the type that can be convened by CAJS. It will take such a diverse group of scholars, working in concert, to tackle effectively the underlying socio-cultural factors that drove the creation of novel cultural forms and institutions. Moreover, this analytical framework promises to illuminate not only the conditions under which certain individuals, groups, and institutions acquired “legitimate” authority, but also the closely related processes through which the assorted literary-legal sources, ritual practices, and representational forms that circulated in this period were variously canonized, marginalized, or obliterated.


In addition to integrating the particular dynamics of Jewish history and culture into the larger historiographic framework of Late Antiquity, there are also compelling internal reasons for undertaking a contextually aware examination of late antique Jewish history and culture. In this respect, too, scholarly assessment of late antique Judaism has experienced a series of profound shifts over the past three decades. Among the most important developments is the revised portrait that has emerged of the structures of Jewish communal authority in the High and Later Roman Imperial periods. Until recently it was generally thought that the priestly leadership of Second Temple period Jewish society vanished in 70 CE. According to this narrative the priests gave way to an emergent rabbinic elite, which already in the second century assumed more or less uncontested control over Jewish social and religious institutions.

Many scholars have now rejected, even reversed, this picture. They have been busy producing new narratives and proposing many compelling—and competing—theses. Priests have reappeared as mystics, apocalyptists, prayer leaders, powerful citizens and rivals of the parvenu rabbis. Heretofore neglected groups of Greek-speaking Jews have populated cities throughout the Roman Empire and filled the benches of non-rabbinic synagogues. What had been thought of as enduring oral (Pharisaic) traditions have been redescribed as timely polemical interventions generated at the seams between Judaism and Christianity. In some accounts, the rabbis themselves have been transformed into tiny, quasi-sectarian, study groups, their arguments and rules important only within the group. The hegemonic rabbinism of older accounts has been replaced by a story of perpetual rabbinic marginality.

But the old narrative retains its adherents, who often dismiss the newer theories as rash and untested (as some of them manifestly are). How then might we come to a nuanced account, attuned to local detail but still systematic, of late antique Jewish culture and society?

These considerations, in addition to those already mentioned, make it an excellent time to put scholars from adjacent disciplines into conversation, and comprehensively and corporately reassess the state of the field. By analyzing the processes through which political, religious and social authority and culture were constituted and contested, this group will cast new light on the specific transformations that shaped Jewish identities, practices and idioms in Late Antiquity. Indeed, at its most ambitious, this year could help redescribe this period—the formative era in Jewish history and culture—for the next century.

Below we list some key focus areas that warrant further exploration. Each of these thematic or methodological questions requires the cooperative endeavor of disciplines too rarely in dialogue, and the breaching of methodological boundaries—most prevalently, the need to nuance the relationship between literary and social histories.

A) Offices and People

We envision a rich exploration of the complex relationships among the various institutionalized positions of authority that operated in Jewish, Greco-Roman and Christian societies. But beyond merely mapping this landscape of authority, we must also ask what types of people filled these positions. How did various institutions and disciplinary practices produce such people? What criteria—genealogical, performative—regulated this process, and how and by whom were such criteria applied? And how does leadership, real and imagined, central and marginalized, take shape in relation to adjacent models? The evidence of Judaism has been disproportionately sidelined in the study of Roman provincialization, in part because of disciplinary and linguistic obstacles, and in part because of a facile rejection of the usefulness or relevance of Jewish evidence (especially rabbinic literature) for any depiction of Late Antiquity. This year will aim to better integrate Jewish evidence into Roman intellectual legal and imperial history.

Rabbinization: The Shifting Scope of Rabbinic Authority and Culture

Central to the year’s work must be the open question of rabbis and rabbinization. It has emerged as a consensus, especially among scholars outside Israel, that the Judaism of the rabbis as reflected in classical rabbinic literature, was not the only—or even the primary—form of Judaism practiced in Late Antiquity. On the other hand, Erwin R. Goodenough’s view that a wholly distinct and uniform non-rabbinic Judaism prevailed instead has found few adherents. In fact, considerable disagreement remains concerning the place of the rabbis in Jewish society and the course, causes, and timing of their move from periphery to center. At the same time as some historians are emphasizing the heterogeneity internal to rabbinic Judaism, they are also finding numerous cases in which apparently rabbinic traditions have been adopted and adapted in other forms of Jewish literary culture, such as liturgy and magical texts, often to surprising ends. This group aims to investigate the shifting and variegated—indeed, still much controverted—scope of rabbinic authority within Jewish society. This not only changes our picture of Judaism in this period, but will forward the reassessment of rabbinic literature in particular, as evidence, and theology. A text thought to be hegemonic will read quite differently when understood to be marginal or even sectarian. So too the evidence of rabbis themselves as a movement and as historical presence stands to gain a great deal from comparative analysis.

B) Locating Jewish Life

Scholars have long sought to grasp the relationship between the two presumably primary Jewish communal institutions of Late Antiquity, the synagogue and the study-house. However, little progress has been made. This group seeks new approaches to help illuminate how such factors as architecture (space), the calendar (time), performance practice (body) and texts (liturgy) shaped the cultural production carried out in these institutions. What were other significant sites of Jewish life (e.g., the marketplace, the home, the workshop)? Who produced the artifacts used in synagogues, and where? Given that the Jews shared space with pagans and increasingly as time went on with Christians, in what ways did all these groups share a culture, too, and how did they seek to distinguish themselves from the others? How, for example, did synagogues resemble churches and temples, and how can we account for the differences between them? What was the religious and social impact on Jews and Christians of the emerging conception of Palestine as holy land—a conception, once again, shared by the two groups, and subtly different?

C) Methods and Disciplines: Literature, Archaeology, & History

Part of the work of this group as we envision it will be to explore the production and function of material culture by and for Jews in Late Antiquity. The results of recent and ongoing archaeological exploration have not yet been fully integrated into the historiography on late antique Jewish society and culture. These new data promise to illuminate both the structural modes and the concrete performances of Jewish authority in Late Antiquity, especially as these interacted with Imperial and Christian demonstrations of power. Especially ripe for investigation is the relationship between Jewish art and iconography and its Greco-Roman and Christian counterparts. Beyond situating Jewish material culture in its historical context, the group will consider Jewish attitudes toward representation against the backdrop of the discourses and practices of representation in late Roman, and early Islamic, culture.

By now it has become clear that this project will involve an ongoing exploration of the complex and often contradictory relationship between literary evidence and its material counterparts. Under the twin banners of the “linguistic turn” and “New Historicism,” new approaches to language and representation have, in the past several decades, brought about a veritable sea-change in scholarly accounts of late antique Jewish history and culture. In particular, widespread reappraisal of traditional methods of reading rabbinic literature has opened up interpretative possibilities for understanding the nature and development of rabbinic authority. Just as historians and archaeologist have become ever more attuned to the rhetorical and formal dynamics of literary documents, literary experts are increasingly engaged with the important task of situating and reading the various forms of late antique Jewish literary discourse—most notably, midrash, Talmud, and piyyut—within their proper socio-cultural and institutional horizons. The interdisciplinary character of this group will ensure that literary experts, historians, archaeologists remain in constant and open dialogue.


The last twenty-five years have witnessed far-reaching shifts not only in the ways that the data of early Judaism are approached and explicated, but also in the quantity, range, and nature of the data themselves. New archaeological finds, new inscriptional evidence, and new editorial and interpretative approaches to literary sources have produced a very different empirical landscape than the one that had comfortably filled the horizon in previous decades. Still, the most important work of the last few decades has dismantled ill-fitting pieties. The agenda now is reconstruction.

Submitted by Seth Schwartz (JTSA), Oded Irshai (Hebrew University), Ra‘anan Boustan (University of Minnesota), and Natalie B. Dohrmann (University of Pennsylvania)

North America

William Adler, Susan E. Alcock, Adam H. Becker, Beth Berkowitz, Glen Bowersock, Daniel Boyarin, David Brakke, Marc Bregman, Peter Brown, Shaye J. D. Cohen, Nathaniel Deutsch, Eliezer Diamond, Elisheva Fonrobert, Steven Fraade, David Frankfurter, Paula Fredriksen, Cam Grey, Erich Gruen, Susan A. Harvey, Christine Hayes, Martha Himmelfarb, Kenneth G. Holum, Andrew S. Jacobs, Martin Jaffee, Richard Kalmin, Naomi Koltun-Fromm, Robert Kraft, Matthew Kraus, Derek Krueger, Hayim Lapin, Blake Leyerle, Jody Magness, Jeremy McInerney, David M. Olster, David S. Potter, Claudia Rapp, Annette Y Reed, John C. Reeves, James B. Rives, Jeffery Rubenstein, Michele R. Salzman, Michael Satlow, Peter Schäfer, Hagith Sivan, David Stern, Peter T. Struck, Michael Swartz, Lieve Teugels, Burton Visotzky, Annabelle Wharton, Megan Williams, Azzan Yadin,


Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra, Gideon Bohak, Bruria Bitton-Ashkeloni, Hannah Cotton, Jacob Elbaum, Rachel Elior, Shulamit Elizur, Gideon Foerster, Isaiah Gafni, David Weiss Halivni, Yuval Harari, Galit Hasan-Rokem, Menahem Hirshman, Ranan Katzoff, Ariye Kofsky, Lee I. Levine, Joshua Levinson, Ora Limor Shlomo Naeh, Hillel Newman, Elhanan Reiner, Elisheva Revel-Neher, David Satran, Joshua Schwartz, Shaul Shaked, Aharon Shemesh, Avigdor Shinan, Guy Stroumsa, Rina Talgam, Zeev Weiss, Joseph Yahalom, Israel Yuval, Yaakov Zussman,


Averil Cameron, Nicolas de Lange, Philip Alexander, Martin Goodman, Jill Harries, Catherine Hezser, William Horbury, Judith Lieu, Winrich Loehr, Fergus Millar, Nicholas Purcell, Tessa Rajak, Stephan Reif, Leonard Rutgers, Sacha Stern, Gunter Stemberger, Greg Woolf

1 The former is given its strongest voice by Peter Brown’s work, starting from The World of Late Antiquity (London, 1971), who was working against historiographical presumptions of decline ingrained since the publication of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776. A more Gibbon-like perspective has recently reappeared in H. W. G. Liebeschuetz’s monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman City (Oxford, 2001). Under Liebescheutz’s analytical gaze, the mirage of late antique florition largely evaporates. Scholars of Jewish studies must consider the impact of such ongoing debate on their work. But we also believe that Jewish literary and material artifacts have something important to contribute to general assessments of the broad trends that shaped late antique culture and society. On the most basic level, this is a matter of setting the record straight. Both Brown and Liebeschuetz stand in for a tradition of late antique historiography that has omitted the Jews from its accounts. In Brown we find the quotation of the occasional poignant midrash, in Liebescheutz only the periodic appearance of the Jews as victims of prejudicial late imperial legislation and hooliganism. The scholarly attitude towards the Jewish data would seem to emanate at least in some scholars' minds from a general assumption that Jewish sources of the period given their intricate literary form and extremely problematic dating, fall short of being historically relevant and thus are unsuitable to serve scholarship.