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Reconsidering Roman power

Katell Berthelot

The impact of Roman power upon Judaism

The Mishnah and the limits of Roman power

Seth Schwartz


The Mishnah (c. 200 CE) is without precedent in Jewish literature and without parallel in its historical context. It constitutes a very strong and elaborated form of cultural resistance to Roman rule, however "romanised" the environment in which the work took shape may have been, and however much the text itself is legible as an artifact of the High Imperial East. It is helpful to bring the Mishnah into dialogue with several other textual corpora often described as resistant: the Second Sophistic, early patristic literature, and the long Greek and Demotic papyri probably assembled by High Imperial Theban priests. The texts turn out to have a great deal in common but in some ways the most significant and consequential thing that they share is indication that their authors all exercised a surprising degree of cultural autonomy, though the Mishnah most of all. We are thus warned about the limits of Roman power: with or without state support or approval, in some places local high traditions not simply persisted but developed, in settings otherwise pervaded by Rome’s presence.

Texte intégral

  • 1 For some general characterizations and contextualizations of the Mishnah, see Cohen 2007; Simon-Sh (...)
  • 2 See Swain 1996, p. 1-2. For helpful recent introductory comments with much bibliographical citatio (...)
  • 3 See Schwartz 2001, p. 165-174.
  • 4 For comprehensive though problematic discussion, see Binder 2012.

1One reason the venerable debate about the genre of the Mishnah has been inconclusive is that the Mishnah is literally sui generis – unlike any other piece of ancient literature except its close relative, the Tosefta.1 The Mishnah to be sure was produced (if not yet written) in a not-especially-peripheral part of the Roman Empire at its height (northern Palestine, c. 200 CE). It shares a handful of characteristics with the loose collection of texts modern scholars, following a comment of Philostratos narrowly concerning a supposed revival of rhetoric in the High Empire (Vitae Sophistarum 481), have called "the Second Sophistic".2 The most striking resemblance is that, like many of the Greek texts, the Mishnah seems backward-looking. It too constructs, in its prescriptions and narratives, a primeval, culturally distinctive – if not quite culturally "pure" – world little affected by Roman intervention. A certain aversion to Rome, in the form of compartmentalized obliviousness, was thus, we may speculate, a property broadly shared across cultural and linguistic boundaries in the imperial East: plenty of people were happy to daydream about a world without Rome. Otherwise, though, the Mishnah also, like the Second Sophistic but more sporadically, situates itself amidst the burgeoning urbanism of the high imperial East; this is a feature primarily of Tractate ʿAvodah Zarah, which constitutes the rabbis’ attempt to legislate ways for Jews to behave in the god- and violence-filled environment of the imperial Greek city.3 ʿAvodah Zarah bears comparison to Tertullian’s treatise De Idololatria, which is precisely contemporaneous with the Mishnah (c. 200 CE). Indeed, the similarity in content demonstrates among other things the similarity of cities on both sides of the High Imperial linguistic-cultural divide.4 The Second Sophistic, too, often addressed aspects of life and politics in the Empire, though needless to say while Jews and Christians might conflate "Greek" and "Roman" into a basically continuous or even undifferentiated idolatrous entity, for Greek writers the distinction was essential.

  • 5 See Drijvers 1966; Merz – Tieleman 2012.
  • 6 See exhaustively Bar-Asher 2009; more digestibly, Saenz-Badillos 1993, p. 161-201.
  • 7 See Reed 2016, p. 151.
  • 8 Yadin et al. 1989-2002; Cotton – Yardeni 1997; Benoit – Milik – de Vaux 1961.

2There are, however, more differences than similarities. To begin with, the Mishnah is one of the very few surviving long texts from the core Roman Empire before 300 CE – as opposed to the Upper Euphrates borderlands, never permanently ruled by Rome – to have been composed in a language other than Latin or Greek. (And even in the northeastern borderlands pre-Constantinian Syriac texts are rare, and the ones that survive are brief,5 though more may have been written than we know – one thinks of Josephus’s lost Aramaic Jewish War, addressed to the inhabitants of the same borderlands.) Its length, among other things, distinguishes it from approximately contemporaneous Demotic Egyptian texts, which I will discuss below. It is written in a distinctive modulation of Hebrew. Unlike the Second Sophistic, the Mishnah’s language is markedly non-classicizing and non-archaic.6 Unlike many of the Dead Sea Scroll texts, written in a semblance of biblical Hebrew (and characterized, unlike the Mishnah, by a thorough avoidance of Greek loanwords),7 the Mishnah is written in what modern scholars call Middle Hebrew, and its closest relatives are administrative texts – the heavily aramaicized Hebrew contracts and documents preserved among the papers of the early 2nd century Jewish Arabian/southern Judaean woman Babatha and related material – the Hebrew, then, of clerks and scribes, not of the high elites.8 But it was Hebrew all the same and inaccessible, or barely accessible, to rank-and-file Palestinian Jews, whose normal languages were presumably Aramaic and Greek. So language marked the Mishnah off not only against its Roman but against its Jewish environment.

  • 9 For an important and exhaustive discussion of these and related discontinuities from the perspecti (...)
  • 10 Simon-Shoshan 2012; Cohn 2013; Tropper 2004.
  • 11 See Hezser 2007.

3The same dual discontinuity – with its eastern Roman literary environment, and with the Israelite and earlier Jewish literary tradition – marks the Mishnah’s content as well.9 Though it is in broad terms a legal text, it also contains homiletical passages and idealizing descriptions of pre-destruction life and institutions, leaving aside so-called minor tractates like Avot – in part a collection of wisdom sentences – whose relationship to the Mishnah remains unclear.10 Furthermore, much of the legal discussion concerns topics that had ceased to be relevant once it was clear that the Jerusalem temple would not be rebuilt. Comparisons with whatever survives of pre-Theodosian Roman legal literature have done little to illuminate the Mishnah beyond the occasional local detail.11

  • 12 See Schwartz 2001, p. 221-292.

4At the same time, no earlier Jewish text is comparable to the Mishnah either. The Mishnah is a massive compendium of laws (the descriptive or idealizing chapters constitute a small percentage of the whole), most of which ultimately have some basis in Pentateuchal law. Like those of the Pentateuch, many of the Mishnah’s laws concern issues of special concern to priests or those otherwise involved in the sacrificial cult – a fact that tends to surprise those who think that the rabbis constructed a radically new type of non-priestly Judaism. In fact, that development occurred over the course of centuries and, in effect, by default. And it was not an exclusively rabbinic development; indeed, it seems likely that the rabbis did not initiate but responded to the development. As time passed, rabbis and their students spent less and less time studying the priestly and cultic laws. Concurrently – in late antiquity – local, synagogue-based communal organizations spread through the Jewish world, independently of rabbinic influence, featuring a religious practice based on the local community, the Torah, and the home.12 Even this hardly effaced the memory of the Temple and sacrifice, which remained symbolically, psychically and ritually important until challenged by modernizing versions of Judaism starting in the 19th century.

5Be this as it may, the Mishnah also contains much non-cultic prescription, and all its laws, cultic or not, are characterized by a remarkably high degree of focus and elaboration. Though not entirely discontinuous with pentateuchal law either in emphasis or in detail, mishnaic laws frequently extend biblical laws by many logical steps. To return to tractate ʿAvodah Zarah for an example: the Torah and the Bible as a whole needless to say take a very dim view of idolatry and require Israelites to keep their distance. But the Mishnah describes in tremendous detail what such distance entails in practice (no business with idolaters three days before their festivals, lest they give thanks to their gods for commercial success; no derivation of any financial benefit from anything even remotely or only potentially connected to idolatry; precise descriptions of what sorts of images are prohibited and what permitted; accounts of activities characteristic of the Roman city which may or may not be specifically idolatrous but are prohibited in any case, usually due to their violence; very extensive rules about wine belonging to or having had contact with idolaters; and so on). None of this corresponds to specific biblical rules. By contrast, nowhere does the Mishnah ever prohibit simply worshiping idols, presumably because the prohibition is so fundamental to all the Mishnah’s extrapolated legislation that it required no articulation. Or, to take another striking example, the Pentateuch prohibits "work" and enjoins "rest" on the Sabbath but provides little indication about the specifics, beyond prohibitions of lighting fires, gathering food and "leaving one’s place" – presumably, starting trips. Tractate Shabbat, by contrast, is the longest in the Mishnah, listing thirty-nine categories of prohibited activity and commenting at least briefly on each one, however little basis they have in biblical laws. The Mishnah spends chapter after chapter detailing prohibitions concerning cooking, and carrying items from private to public property, or vice versa. One chapter concerns the substances appropriate for lighting the Sabbath lamp – a practice nowhere mentioned in the Bible or in any Second Temple period text. Elsewhere, the Mishnah itself (Ḥagigah 1:8) characterizes rabbinic Sabbath law as a "mountain suspended [from biblical law] by a hair".

  • 13 For general introduction and characterization see Strack – Stemberger 1996, p. 108-148.

6Other distinctions between mishnaic and pentateuchal law are formal: while each biblical legal pericope may be rationally organized, the collection as a whole has a random quality, to some extent because the editors who joined the component documents left them largely unaltered and did not delete duplications. Thus, three widely scattered pericopae discuss the laws of the "Hebrew slave" (a debt bondsman), with marked differences in detail (Exod 21:2-11; Lev 25:39-46; Deut 15:12-18). The Mishnah moves towards the organization of this chaos, dividing its laws into "Orders" (six in number) with each order divided into "tractates". Within tractates, though, an associative principle of organization occasionally prevails, so digressions are common, topics may be dropped in the middle and resumed only later, and so on.13

  • 14 See discussion in Cohen 2007 and especially Hayes 2015.

7Another difference is rhetorical: biblical laws are phrased as divine command. Though the "Thou shalt not" mode is not the only one used, and the deuteronomic code in particular frequently offers rationalizations for its rules and makes extensive use of affective language, the Mishnah goes further in softening the rhetoric of command, most often expressing laws in language which is on the surface descriptive ("From what time do they recite the Shema in the evenings? From the time that […]"; "They do not purchase heave-offering with money of the tithe"), though whose intention is manifestly (or at least presumably) prescriptive. This points towards an apparent ambiguity hard-wired in rabbinic law – one that would provide much fodder for Christian polemicists through the ages: Does the Mishnah count as Torah and if so, in what sense? Is it divine or human? What is the precise nature of its claims of authority, if any?14 This is largely left unstated, perhaps because the Mishnah could not, in generic terms, readily accommodate self-conscious theoretical musings. If it was meant as an instructional handbook for the training of judges, then the theory would be left unstated. But many scholars are convinced that the Mishnah was meant to be more than this, in which case we would have to regard the ambiguity or unclarity as intentional.

  • 15 Qimron – Strugnell 1994; Kampen – Bernstein 1996; von Weissenberg 2009, especially useful for bibl (...)
  • 16 Crawford 2000.
  • 17 See the survey of this material in Piatelli – Jackson 1996.

8It is impossible to explain the Mishnah as an evolutionary development from the Pentateuch on the basis of surviving evidence. There is only a handful of texts from the intervening period (let us say 400 BCE to 200 CE) which provide any insight at all into how the Mishnah might have developed. The anachronistically named "halakhic letter" from Qumran (4QMMT/Miqsat Ma‘ase Ha-Torah), ostensibly written by a Qumran sectarian to a religious authority outside the sect, shows that some priestly circles were beginning (c. 100 BCE) to elaborate cultic purity laws in ways formally similar to those found in the Mishnah, with disagreement over the details contributing to sectarian debates.15 The very few non-polemical legal texts are very different: the Temple Scroll, for example, simply re-writes, with additions, deletions and harmonizations, Pentateuchal laws.16 Similarly, the author of the Book of Jubilees incorporates non-Pentateuchal laws, which in a handful of cases resemble mishnaic laws, into an expansive rewriting of the largely non-legal patriarchal narratives of Genesis. Though such texts are not explicitly polemical, unlike MMT, they were formed in an environment probably pervaded by sectarian debate.17 We may learn from this that the initial movement towards the high elaboration of biblical law – but not only law, given the importance of cosmological and wisdom texts in the same circles – took place in the hotbed environment of the late second temple period Jerusalem-based, largely priestly, Jewish clerisy.

9And yet these earlier texts do not engage at all with civil or criminal laws, and have little to say about Sabbath laws or food prohibitions; except for the very brief MMT, and a handful of other texts, none of the longer texts focuses primarily on legal detail; indeed, I do not want to give the impression that legal discussion is common in the earlier texts. Even the Dead Sea scrolls contain only vanishing traces of legal material.

  • 18 Baumgarten 1987 (including references to older scholarship); Goodman 1999.

10The Mishnah is thus unprecedented. To be sure, caution is in order: little Jewish literature of the later Second Temple period survives. (The rabbis themselves preserved almost none of it.) We cannot know what a presumably extensive lost literature might have contained. Furthermore, the current scholarly consensus holds that the Mishnah was not committed to writing until long after its "publication" c. 200 CE, perhaps not until the early Middle Ages. Josephus states that the Pharisees transmitted something he calls "the ancestral tradition" (paradosis tōn paterōn) orally, and older scholarship assumed that this was a primitive form of the Mishnah, or at any rate was identical with the "oral Torah" which was the fountainhead of Mishnaic tradition.18 This is no longer a common view but it is not completely impossible in some limited way. At any rate, it invites us to consider the possibility that the evolutionary antecedents of the Mishnah have disappeared because they were oral.

  • 19 A concept elaborated in Sanders 1992.

11But it is more likely that the Pharisaic oral traditions never constituted an organized corpus and that, as Neusner long ago argued, the Mishnah is a text produced by its late 2nd century editors out of material from very different types of sources. Some of these sources may have owed something to priests like those who were the interlocutors of the sectarian teacher who wrote MMT. Some rules about purity and tithing may – if we follow the implications of such polemical statements as Matt 23:23-24 – have a Pharisaic background. The implications of P. Yadin and some of the P. Murabbaat (see above, n.8) documents may be that working scribes, immersed in the details of contracts and civil law, also contributed importantly to the Mishnaic amalgam. In this case, then, the Mishnah may be understood as a testament to corporate creativity. Its rabbinic formulators produced a monumental, rationalized, compendious, simultaneously backwards-looking (in that so much of the law concerns the long destroyed Temple) and strongly engaged handbook of Jewish law, in a style and language, and with content, that mark it off as both unique in its contemporary setting and unprecedented as a Jewish text, yet at the fountainhead of what constituted in the aggregate a revolutionary re-conception of Judaism, even if the Mishnah itself does not already constitute such a re-conception (and arguably it does, anyway, in that it suggests that Judaism can be seen as a system of laws, which is quite different both from E.P. Sanders’ "covenantal nomism"19 – in which law is a corollary of covenant, the terms of the contractual friendship of God and Israel – and from conceptions of Judaism which while not neglecting covenant place enhanced emphasis on cosmology).

Historical background

  • 20 So for example Levine 1989; Lapin (2012) argued that the rabbinic movement on the whole was drawn (...)
  • 21 This was the revolutionary insight of Neusner (1970).

12Much has been written about the identity of the rabbinic group that produced the Mishnah, but very little is actually known. The names of the earliest post-Destruction rabbis feature almost no overlap with the names of Judeans identified by Josephus as prominent shortly before and during the Great Revolt – a blow to older characterizations of the emergent "rabbinic class" as an elite.20 The Mishnah itself identifies some rabbis as priests but provides very little information about its formulators otherwise. Later rabbinic texts provide more information about the earlier rabbis, but the fact that the stories are most abundant in the latest texts indicates that the Talmudim and midrashim testify primarily to the growth of narrative traditions and cannot be assumed to provide reliable information about the stories’ protagonists.21

13Some historical mise-en-scène will help clarify things. The coalescence of a rabbinic movement is contemporaneous with the transformation of Judaea into a standard imperial province. Before the outbreak of the Great Revolt in 66 CE the province of Judaea was anomalous even by the standards of the East, still an administrative patchwork in the 1st century. In Judaea, an equestrian Roman governor shared power – most uneasily – with complex and competing native hierarchies including a large and variegated priesthood, whose leading members were also wealthy landowners, and lay aristocrats dominated by but not restricted to the Herodian family and its retainers. The Herodian entourage was interethnic, containing as it did Jews, Samaritans and Greek and "Syrian" pagans. But otherwise, local religious and national/ethnic ideologies had become under Roman rule increasingly exclusivist and conflict-prone. The governor had only a few cohorts of troops at his disposal, but the Herodian client kings commanded about a legion’s worth (c. 5,000) of troops, and the ultimate authority in the province was the governor of Syria, whose three legions were concentrated along the distant Euphrates frontier.

  • 22 See Harris 2016, p. 36.
  • 23 For more detail on the contents of this paragraph, see Schwartz 2014, p. 59-81.

14Exactly how authority, financial and fiscal control, and legal jurisdiction were organized in pre-66 Judaea is unclear. Jewish law required large payments of tax in kind to the temple staff, its treasury, and also to the poor. There is evidence that some of these taxes were indeed collected but the mechanisms for collection are almost completely inscrutable. It is also certain that money and goods poured into Jerusalem and its temple as a result of the rising popularity of pilgrimage in the course of the 1st century. Thus, even under relatively direct imperial rule, many factors contributed to a heightened sense of Jewish solidarity and even self-enclosure. The nature of Roman rule itself – its relative intrusiveness combined with its chaotic and improvisatory character (not to be sure how we usually think of Roman rule but certainly the case in the earliest stages of its rule over the "far east" of the Empire: cf. Strabo, Geography 17.24, C 839, writing near the beginning of the Principate)22 – probably contributed importantly to the tendency to radicalization legible in the sources for the final decades before the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70.23

  • 24 Lapin (2012) provides a detailed reconstruction of the history of the rabbinic movement, supplemen (...)

15It seems tolerably certain that before 70, there was no rabbinic group or class.24 Subsequently we know that rabbis, called "sages" (hakhamim) or "elders" (zeqenim) in rabbinic parlance, were men who after a long apprenticeship/discipleship with a "sage"/teacher, were formally authorized to teach and serve as judges with respect to Jewish law. In addition, they might serve other communal functions – thus, rabbis became a professional class of Torah-experts who imagined themselves to be the natural authorities over Jewish religious life in general, even if they were not always accepted as such by potential constituents. There is no evidence for anything of the sort before 70. There is some documentary evidence that civil law sometimes had behind it rather evolved traditions combining Torah expertise and hands-on legal engagement: village clerks for some purposes might use relatively standardized documents – most notably, in the scrappy surviving evidence, marriage contracts – of some sophistication, influenced not only by micro-local Judaean, partly Torah-derived, legal traditions, but also traditions circulating in the Greco-Roman Near East more generally. One must assume that cultic, priestly, and purity law was the province of the priesthood, which dominated the famous 1st-century sectarian organizations of Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes (a large group one of whose splinters may have produced the Dead Sea scrolls). Thus, the pre-destruction Jewish clerisy was large, complex, diverse and ramified. It also enjoyed some authority and prestige.

16The violence associated with the Great Revolt and its suppression was not much more than sporadic, away from the center, but in Judaea proper and especially in Jerusalem, it was devastating. Not only was the Jerusalem temple destroyed, but the entire economy and society that it had come to sustain were swept away. Much of the old clergy and clerisy, the groups that had generated the religious and political ferment, lively and doomed as it was, were decimated or simply wiped out – surely they were disproportionately victims of the Revolt: the impact of the Roman armies was literally nuclear, concentrated in the center, home of the priesthood and broader temple-associated clerisy.

  • 25 Abbreviating the following papers: Schwartz 2013; Schwartz 2016.

17Furthermore, whatever legal and judicial authority the Roman state had once ceded to Jewish institutions now necessarily reverted to the state. This was partly because the Jewish institutions no longer existed and partly because their surviving representatives could not claim an authorized role in the new Provincia Judaea: the Revolt had massively simplified – standardized – the constitution of the province. There would be no more messy confusion of powers and jurisdictions. Rome was what remained in the aftermath and for the time being it claimed sole authority in the province. Jewish legal experts, if anyone cared to solicit their services, could provide no more than informal advice and arbitration, and the latter role is poorly attested for civil cases before the 3rd century.25

  • 26 Smith 1978, p. 67-87.

18It was in this unpromising environment that the earliest rabbis began to coalesce into a very small group, of probably not more than several dozen men, and the Mishnah began to take shape. Jonathan Z. Smith long ago argued that apocalyptical literature – in particular the Jewish apocalyptical literature of the Hellenistic period, with its strongly scribal ethos – was produced by disenfranchised bureaucrats.26 To the extent that the Mishnah can be read as a utopian legal text, one might make a similar suggestion: the remnant of the clerks and priests, deprived of their anchorage in the institutional life of the pre-70 Jewish quasi-state, produced a baroque, sophisticatedly rationalized, fantasy of a corporate Jewish life controlled by the laws of the Torah to the nth degree of logical elaboration (no more vague injunction not to work on the Sabbath, for instance, but a list of thirty-nine categories of prohibited activity, each category in turn divided into ramified stemmata of subordinate prohibitions).

  • 27 On these passages, and on the rabbinic attitude to Rome more generally, see Schwartz 2010, p. 112- (...)
  • 28 For an exhaustive treatment from a legal historical perspective, see Shilo 1974.

19The Mishnah constitutes a strong expression of resistance to Rome. But it was resistance whose level of risk is difficult to assess. It might be useful to think of it as a "great tradition" version of James Scott’s somewhat sentimental notion of the hidden transcript, but of a fantastically ambitious type. It was, according to the consensus, not written but committed to memory. Even if the consensus were wrong, we would still have to consider the Mishnah a hermetic text, not only because of its Hebrew language, but also because the content was not comprehensible to many people outside rabbinic circles. But its resistance was not merely cultural: few texts produced under Roman rule went quite as far in delegitimizing the state. The Mishnah’s discussion of the status of what is apparently land confiscated under the lex cornelia de sicariis et veneficis (Digest 48.8) clearly implies that the rabbis did not recognize the right of the Roman state to alienate property (m. Giṭṭin 5:6; cf. t. Giṭṭin 3[4]:10). (Likewise, the Mishnah’s prohibition of Jewish builders from working on Roman courthouses and gallows – most likely on the grounds that such construction work abets murder – suggests that the rabbis theoretically delegitimized the state’s jurisdiction in criminal cases: m. ʿAvodah Zarah 1:8. The rabbis would have been unsurprised by Weber’s definition of the state.)27 It thus goes much farther than the Gospels, which report Jesus’s acquiescence, however grudging, to the authority of the emperor to collect taxes, and goes much farther than even the Babylonian Talmud, whose oft-repeated principle, dina de-malkhuta dina (b. Baba Batra 55b ; b. Baba Qamma 113b), acknowledges precisely the Sasanian state’s right to alienate property through both confiscation and taxation. (This rule, detached from its late antique Persian context, in turn set the stage for Jewish law’s subsequent modus vivendi with non-Jewish states in general.)28

The spectrum of resistance lengthened

  • 29 Harris 1979; Hopkins 1978.

20Political, social and economic historians, including those of the Roman Empire, tend to give culture short shrift: to their hard heads it does not seem substantial enough ever to provide the solutions to big historical problems, except when understood instrumentally – as for example in the case of Moses Finley’s ascription of the primitivity of the "ancient economy" to broadly pre-modern cultural norms, William Harris’s adducing a more specific culture to get the Roman imperialist ball rolling in the early Republic, or Keith Hopkins’s adducing some of the same warlike cultural features as exemplified in gladiatorial games as useful in instilling fear of the state in potentially discontented High Imperial subjects.29 One might ask, then, what problems hypotheses about cultural resistance are meant to solve. An answer begins by loosening the functionalist straitjacket. Once we acknowledge that culture is not invariably a simple reflex of economic/social "infrastructure" (though often enough it is), then it has room for a measure of agency on its own. Cultural resistance may be mere noise but it also may be highly significant to its constituents and highly consequential in historical terms: two forms of resistance to the High Empire, imperial Hellenism and early Christianity, were the primary shapers of the Late Empire and Byzantium, not to mention, in the case of Christianity, of Rome’s successor-states in Europe. Furthermore, though the political content of cultural resistance may be tenuous or paradoxical in cases where it neutralizes political resistance, it never totally lacks political content; culture may always be available for mobilization. So even rigid structural functionalists must keep one eye on it. One may also adopt a Braudelian approach to culture – which may attenuate without eliminating the need/wish to ascribe to culture a causative role: history should as far as possible be total: without sufficient attention to culture we cannot understand the object of our study. In the present case, I think the Mishnah and its successor texts can help us understand things about both the Jews and Roman power we might otherwise have missed.

  • 30 I am not discussing a now to some extent superseded idealist tradition in scholarship that happily (...)
  • 31 Whitmarsh 2001, p. 3.

21To be sure, other scholars, frequently those with literary and archaeological interests, have embraced culture, but they may err in ascribing to it too much agency. Such scholars have sometimes framed the question of cultural resistance to Rome as a binary: a text or a corpus of texts either constitutes, or features, resistance or it doesn’t.30 Archaeologists, by contrast, tend to scrutinize material culture for signs of accommodation, or Romanization. There are compelling reasons for these preferences. Resistance can be a highly complex and subtle mode, and is easier to detect in the complexities of discourse than, for the most part, in material culture.31 But on reflection the binary dissolves. One may think rather in terms of a spectrum of resistance, which is not quite the same as the archaeologists’ spectrum of accommodation since accommodation is by definition a process, whereas resistance may be an act or even a state. To be sure, there is a danger of reductionism if one loses sight of the fact that all artifacts, literary and material-cultural, have richer stories to tell than this one alone.

22I would like to suggest, staying with the metaphor of the spectrum, a multiplex comparison, with four components: 1) Second Sophistic, broadly construed; 2) Greco-Demotic priestly/magical texts; 3) 2nd-century Christian texts; 4) Mishnah.

23It is immediately evident that if we start by positing a hegemonic culture reflecting hegemonic politics, each item on the list opts out culturally more than the preceding item. Admittedly, an argument could be made for reversing the position of the second and third items on the list, since it is unclear which texts are "stranger" vis-à-vis the hegemonic cultures of Rome, the Egyptian or the Christian. Even beyond this, the list not unsurprisingly does not perfectly reflect the political standing of the various groups that produced the texts, though it may reflect their progressive social marginality. Christian texts indubitably complicate matters in that Gospels and some apostolic fathers seem quite proximate to the rabbis, in their social marginality, cultural non-normativity and political aversion to Rome, but as Christianity rose through the social ranks the texts regress towards the classical mean and often profess – with ambivalence and even intentional misdirection – an ideal of political accommodation while their authors remained marginalized. But now, they were marginalized because, as educated urban pagan converts to Christianity, they had opted for marginality, rather than because they had been born to it or had it imposed on them by the state, like at least some of the authors of earlier Christian texts, who had been born as Jews or lower-status pagans. In other words, cultural resistance, social marginality and political opposition map onto one another very imperfectly. The list, and the metaphor of the spectrum it illustrates, is thus merely a rough heuristic, an imperfect aid to a necessarily simplifying analysis.

"The Second Sophistic"

  • 32 To offer a very brief and partial summary of Swain 1996.
  • 33 Bowersock 1969.
  • 34 Harker 2008.

24The literature of the imperial east was obviously not limited to the artificial category of "Second Sophistic", even in its broad sense of classicizing Greek literature written in the 1st through 3rd centuries CE. But the Second Sophistic does after all have a claim to being a meaningful corpus of texts, as much as Christian literature does. The collective decision or general tendency of a long-enduring group of Greek-speaking elites to use classicizing and archaizing language in their writing marks the texts off as distinctive and invites consideration of the phenomenon as a whole. It would be uncontroversial to say that the elites in question were embracing a strong but very specific form of Greek culture and that this embrace drew its urgency and poignancy from the fact of Roman rule. Simon Swain argued compellingly that the peculiar poetics of the Second Sophistic was intended not only against Rome – as it indubitably was – but also and even primarily against non-elite Roman Greeks, whose own language was far from the backwards-looking style of the canonical authors. But embrace of paideia was politically complex, consistent as it was with both strong support for Roman rule and its chief instrument of control in the East, the Greek city, and with some measure of hostility to – or, perhaps more plausibly, contempt for – Rome, especially in the 1st century CE, but even sporadically in later writers like Pausanias and Galen.32 The strength of an empiricistic analysis like that of Swain is that it resists treating imperial Greek literature as a single, simple political phenomenon, and so effectively problematizes the relationship between the literature’s "cultural poetics" and its politics. We can learn from Swain, following in the footsteps of Bowersock,33 that even a quite fanatical dedication to archaic paideia might become not merely not oppositional, but precisely an expression of a completely collaborationist politics. (Swain does not, to be sure engage with the politicized anti-Jewish and, less plausibly, anti-Roman Hellenism of 1st-century Alexandria.34 Philo [In Flaccum; Legatio ad Gaium], at least, characterizes this movement as highly demagogic and so not really consistent with Swain’s neo-oligarchic cult of classical purism.)

  • 35 Most importantly, Bowie 1970; Bowie 1982.
  • 36 Woolf 1994.
  • 37 In particular Whitmarsh 2001; Whitmarsh 2013.
  • 38 Whitmarsh 2001, p. 3.

25But there is another line of political/historical interpretation of the Second Sophistic in Anglophone scholarship, which begins with Ewen Bowie,35 proceeds through Woolf36 and culminates in Whitmarsh.37 This work emphasizes, even celebrates, the complexity of literature, its "ludic, self-ironizing, and/or irresponsible" qualities, its "ambivalences, contradictions, and gaps". What this means is that the project of extracting an author’s "true feelings" about Rome – a project which can be ascribed, though not quite fairly, to Swain – is doomed a priori, or rather, the author’s feelings are constituted in the ambivalences and contradictions of his particular discursive performance38. When such an approach is taken up by a historian, like Woolf, the result is a rather lachrymose reading of the texts: whereas Bowersock took outbreaks of encomium at face value and did not worry too much about the psychic turmoil and political ambiguities subtending them, Woolf (and a fortiori Whitmarsh) was inclined to read it all, perhaps precisely the encomium, as a symptom of defeat and an expression, however veiled, of defiantly Greek otherness. Woolf embeds this account in an acute and compelling analysis of the quite drastic extent to which the life of the imperial Greek city was Romanized, something he designates a feature of material culture, but we can admit, and he would not deny, has a political aspect as well.

  • 39 Much information here is from Josephus and concerns competition between Greeks and Jews in Alexand (...)
  • 40 Though Schmitz’s structural-functionalist argument about the socio-political role of upper class H (...)

26I am happy to endorse this analysis up to point: before the very late imperial period, when Greek and Roman identities in the east began to be more or less merged, the Greeks always remained other, however Romanized in some aspects of their behavior. But Woolf’s analysis falls short in neglecting the fact that not everyone living in the "Greek East" was Greek. Indeed, outside Greece proper and the coastal strip of Asia Minor, soi-disant Greeks must have constituted a minority of the population. To understand what Hellenism meant in the High Empire we must also consider what it meant outside the lands of old Greece: while old Greek accommodation to Rome may well be thought to have taken primarily a material cultural form, with the political content of the change remaining ambiguous, other Greeks lived in areas where they had competition. There – even in such "mainstream" areas as the Asian interior, Syria, Palestine, Arabia and Egypt – Rome had a very strong tendency to support Greeks against their neighbors and competitors. Here, the fact that the Greek city was the foundation of Roman rule was not merely an administrative convenience but a political and cultural fact, too, and occasionally a contentious one. From the perspective of the non-Greek parts of the "Greek east", then, Roman rule and Hellenism were strongly identified from the start and the identification was presumably fundamentally complete by the 2nd century.39 This is not to say that Greeks and their neighbors were always in competition – sometimes the relationship was merely exploitative, as in many parts of interior Asia and Syria, and sometimes Greekness was stretched to its limits to accommodate the non-Greek elements of the local environment, as, arguably, at Palmyra. Be this as it may, the status Rome granted Greeks, either because of aristocratic Romans’ own philhellenic cultural anxieties, or because Greek settlements in the eastern Mediterranean and Near East had been de facto privileged since the age of the Diadochoi, places the travails of their elites in a broader perspective than those provided by Woolf and Whitmarsh (at any rate old Whitmarsh). For all their otherness, elite Greeks were cogs in the wheel in ways that no one else in the eastern Empire was after the decline of the client kings – whose cultural co-optation was limited and political co-optation was contingent – in the course of the 1st century.40 Roman subjects more marginalized than Greeks might look precisely to Hellenism as a means of advancement in the Roman system, or alternatively they might regard it as the enemy and focus their resistance there.

Greco-Demotic magical texts

  • 41 Roger Bagnall has pointed out to me in private correspondence that one problem with the consensus (...)
  • 42 Dieleman 2005, p. 40-44.
  • 43 Dieleman 2005, p. 285-294.
  • 44 Moyer 2011, p. 250-254.

27A corpus of texts with many points of comparison with both Second Sophistic and the Mishnah is one which few scholars of either literature have bothered to notice, not that the texts have been neglected by scholars outside these fields. The emerging consensus of the experts (which is not unchallengeable41) views the large scrolls containing magical spells and related material, in both Greek and Demotic Egyptian, as, to a large extent, a project of the Egyptian priesthoods of the High Empire. Some of the longer texts were sold in the earlier 19th century to the British Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale, and several other institutions, by one Jean d’Anastasi (or Giovanni Anastasi), an Armenian merchant who purportedly represented various European interests at the court of the pasha in Alexandria. Anastasi claimed to have found this large collection of texts at Thebes, and scholars take the claim seriously. A minute linguistic analysis of the Demotic texts in the collection situates their origin in the region of Thebes in the 1st century CE.42 In the aggregate, the texts point to a significant effort to collect and probably standardize and rationalize a widely scattered and diverse body of spells, and liturgical and cosmological material.43 These collections were not merely functional but also ideological, constituting a strong assertion of identity and authority by their (presumably) priestly editors. In these respects, the Anastasi collection (and one may assume that there were other such libraries associated with other traditional Egyptian temple complexes, though Thebes enjoyed a special reputation as a native literary and intellectual center),44 most of whose texts were copied in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, is directly comparable to the Mishnah. It is also comparable to the Mishnah and to the Second Sophistic in turning its back on Rome. The magical papyri are famously syncretistic, containing elements readily identifiable as Greek, Egyptian, Jewish and Mesopotamian, but there is scarcely a trace of Rome in the texts. Thus these too participated in the obliviousness of Rome characteristic of literate elites and sub elites of the high imperial East. Like its congeners it is also a scholarly literature, which at least implicitly claims to preserve traditional material but actually is innovative in substantive ways.

  • 45 Thorough discussion in Harari 2010, p. 200-225; somewhat less detail: Bohak 2008, p. 165-179; also (...)

28But it is worth contemplating the differences. The Egyptian texts are among other things long recipe books meant at least in part for the use of practitioners, though surely these were expert practitioners who knew how to interpret and apply the spells correctly. Magical practice in Egypt – which contained not just ritual acts but also mythology and cosmology and philosophy with affinities to the later Platonic tradition – had strong priestly associations. But it is noteworthy that Jewish clerisies, who were certainly aware of magic though clearly not as dedicated to it as their Egyptian colleagues, preferred to keep it out of the more formally authorized collections. Though PGM 1-style texts could well have existed in Jewish versions earlier, the earliest their existence can be confidently inferred is the 6th century, when Aramaic amulets discovered in Palestinian synagogues have enough in common (and indeed, enough in common with some Greco-Egyptian texts) to suggest their reliance on lost recipe books. It may also be the century in which the sophisticated and highly literate Hebrew Sefer Ha-Razim, painstakingly reconstructed by Mordechai Margalioth, was composed. The earliest actual manuscript evidence for large recipe collections comes from the Cairo Genizah and the high Middle Ages.45 The Mishnah and the papyri share a scholarly ethos and deep but very different piety but even when the Mishnah focuses on ritual it conceptualizes it as law, not as hieratic praxis, and so can juxtapose it to collections of civil and criminal laws. The Egyptian texts reflect – aspirationally to be sure – a priest-and-ritual dominated society, and the Mishnah – equally aspirationally – a society dominated by godly lawyers.

29The syncretism of the papyri (exuberantly present in the Greek texts, present but less prominent in the Demotic) also distinguishes them sharply from both the Second Sophistic and the Mishnah, both corpora which aspire to, and attain, a high degree of cultural self-enclosure. This extends to language. The Anastasi texts are more than bilingual, though the most common languages are Greek and Demotic: they feature traces of Hieratic and of Old Coptic. The texts all draw heavily on older Egyptian sources, among other things, but it is unlikely that their authors read hieroglyphics with any facility, though their command of Hieratic is a crucial demonstration of the priestly identity of some of the formulators of the magical tradition. Traditional material has also been transformed, subordinated to a strongly Hellenized cosmology and set of religious assumptions in a way somewhat reminiscent of Philo of Alexandria’s treatment of the Pentateuch, or of Herennius Philo’s treatment of Phoenician/Canaanite myths (though unlike the Philos the priestly editors/collectors of the Egyptian texts could still read and write a version of their traditional language).

  • 46 Moyer 2011, p. 255-261.

30The magical papyri frequently claim that their content was meant to be kept secret,46 and were assembled and in part written by a priestly class that had in the past zealously curated an often particularistic ritual and religious tradition. Even in their High Imperial decline priests constituted what remained of a native elite. The intensive creativity of the Greek writers of the Second Sophistic and of their Palestinian rabbinic contemporaries was expressed in backward- and inward-looking, often particularistic idioms. How then to explain the cultural capaciousness and outward-looking nature of the Egyptian texts, including the fact that some of the Demotic texts appear to be translations of Greek originals? Do they count as resistance despite these features?

  • 47 Rives 2003.
  • 48 Cassius Dio, Roman History 72.4. The episode is murky: Frankfurter 2000, p. 207-208.

31I would argue that the answer to the second question is yes. First of all, on the most elementary level, many of the activities prescribed in the papyri were violations of Roman law, and practitioners, even if they could hide behind Egyptian tradition and were presumably normally left alone, were still – like Christians before Constantine – living on the edge of the law.47 Furthermore, one of the main themes of the papyri is the power of the (priestly) practitioner, in a cosmos in which the divine and the human are not fully differentiated. The practitioners seek to solve workaday human problems – illness, relationships, even dog bites and scorpion stings. The priests constantly invoke the favor and help of a broad and unusual divine dramatis personae, including but not limited to standard Greek and Egyptian deities and the Jewish god. PGM 1 begins with rituals for the acquisition of a daimon, and continues with rituals to receive revelations, the power of foretelling the future, and for establishing relationships with gods, before getting down to the "pastoral" business of solving peoples’ problems. Priestly "magicians" sought power both from the gods above and from the villagers below. Like rabbis, Egyptian priests in their role as reduced by the Roman state, flew under the radar in some of their activities, yet there is little doubt of their aspirations to serve as a non- or para-state nexus of power. There is a tantalizing echo of this in Cassius Dio’s excessively abbreviated account of the kinēsis (disturbance or turbulence) of the boukoloi (herdsmen) in the Nile Delta under the leadership of the priest Isidoros (170s CE).48 Why then are the magical/priestly texts so different from the rabbinic texts?

  • 49 On which see Monson 2012, p. 212-218. According to Monson, Augustus’s much-discussed confiscation (...)
  • 50 Bagnall 1988. I agree with the implications of Bagnall’s analysis that Frankfurter’s assessment (F (...)
  • 51 Contra Frankfurter 2000.
  • 52 Bussi 2005.
  • 53 I do not consider here the inconsistency of Frankfurter’s argument: on the one hand the magical te (...)

32The traditional Egyptian priesthoods were not fully disenfranchised. The state sought to control them and limit their authority, and deprived them of many of their traditional privileges49; imperial patronage of temple complexes declined in the 1st century and disappeared in the 2nd.50 But simultaneously Rome continued to support the priests after a fashion, and their role as religious experts was not effectively challenged until the spread of Christianity in the 4th century, even as their institutional infrastructure crumbled, a fact whose significance should not be minimized.51 So the priesthood as a whole was co-opted to some extent, with far less agency and prestige (and presumably wealth) than the Greek elites of the same period, but co-opted all the same, in a way that the rabbis were not, before the 4th century.52 The priests had lost much but still had much to lose. Frankfurter argued that this pushed them into something of an entrepreneurial position: caught between the Romanizing Greek upper classes and their devotees in the villages, they gave their diverse constituents what they thought they wanted: orientalist exotica – necessarily Greek in ideation and in much of its content – for the rulers, grittier native lore for the locals, all to some extent already hybridized because the most influential priesthoods, like those of Thebes, had found it in their interests to Hellenize as early as the 3rd century BCE.53

Christian literature: Justin Martyr

  • 54 Not even the invented genre of apologetic historiography, populated otherwise mainly by Josephus’s (...)
  • 55 Carleton Paget 1994.

33By the middle of the 2nd century many of the Christian writings known to us were the product of Christianity’s expansion into what passed for a high imperial educated bourgeoisie. The New Testament writers and for the most part the "apostolic fathers" – who lived mainly, except for Paul, a contemporary of Philo of Alexandria, around the turn of the 2nd century – were by contrast a diverse group whose many eccentricities as writers make them difficult to situate socially, but presumably mark them as non-elite. Paul may have approximated the later group in social background but his authentic writings offer little evidence of classical learning, beyond some acquaintance with popular philosophy not necessarily acquired through formal study. This is true a fortiori of the evangelists: despite a few vague gestures, and the arguments of some modern scholars, Luke-Acts does not strongly resemble imperial Greek historiography.54 The Gospel of John is perhaps more informed by the language of mysteries than that of Plato. The author of Barnabas certainly had some exposure to middle Platonism in its Philonic form,55 but "Clement of Rome" and the Potters Oracle lie so far from the classical literary tradition that they sound, much like Matthew, as if they had been translated into Greek. The cultural frame of reference of such writers was either Jewish or specialized non-normative religion (like Isis- or Mithras-worship).

34By contrast, Justin Martyr, on whom I focus here, though of obscure origins, clearly saw himself as a recognizably Greek, and highly educated, component of the urban world of the Roman east, and eventually of the city of Rome. The information he provides about himself raises questions: he claims to have been born in Flavia Neapolis, a Roman colony founded on the outskirts of the Samaritan center of Shechem, in 72 CE. He is unlikely to have been born long after 100, yet at the very beginning of the Apology identifies his family as pagan. Were they immigrants? Yet in Trypho he claims that his ethnos is that of the Samareis. Though Josephus generally uses this term to refer to (Greek) inhabitants of the city of Samaria and its environs, and calls Samaritans Samaritai, Justin says his ethnos was the one that followed Simon Magos, so probably Samaritan. Since he uses the claim to assert independent knowledge of Simon it may be best not to take it literally (much like Lucian of Samosata’s "Assyrianness"). He certainly had no special access to "Israelite" culture, in either its Jewish or Samaritan version. Nor, however, should we take too literally the implicit assertion of "Romanness" by both citizenship – in a Roman colony which Justin intentionally and significantly calls by its full name – and descent in the opening of the Apology, likewise a rhetorical pose. Methodological caution leaves us in the dark about Justin’s background.

  • 56 On what this might have meant, see Löhr 2017.
  • 57 Rajak 1999.
  • 58 Laura Nasrallah (2005) makes this point somewhat too emphatically, but note her point that even th (...)
  • 59 Chadwick 1982; Bobichon 2003, p. 3.

35Justin regarded himself as a philosopher,56 and it is clear that he had acquired an excellent classical education. In Trypho, he aims at the combination of lightness and seriousness characteristic of the Platonic dialogues, though the work is mainly hectoring, long-winded and vituperative, not to mention haphazardly organized.57 The Apology would not have convinced the emperors to whom it was addressed but quite compellingly demonstrates Justin’s situation at the edge of the classical mainstream. In fact, both works are well within the bounds of the cultural norms of the high Roman urban east.58 Justin was by background an educated urban pagan who had opted out. His Apology was dedicated to proving that Christianity was a version – the best version – of classical culture, and his Trypho participated in the widespread educated Roman contempt for the Jews, a tricky move given Christians’ enduring connections to the Jews, and the Christian philosopher’s own dogmatism. Justin is one of the few contemporary writers – perhaps the only one – to mention the Bar-Kokhba Revolt, but he does so in ways that make clear his instinctual revulsion from its barbarism. In sum, Justin opted for a resistant position and embraced values significantly at odds with those of the mainstream, while arguing for their philosophical legitimacy. It took centuries before Roman authorities were convinced that Christianity was an admirable distillation of the best philosophical values Greece had to offer. Later traditions, widely regarded as reliable, knew of his martyrdom, the strongest possible indication of Justin’s alienation from the state.59 What Justin and other Christian writers of the 2nd through 4th centuries illustrate is the long-standing effort by literate elite Christians to create a distinctively Christian culture, an effort complicated by Christians’ quasi-imperial embrace of unlimited expansion as an ideal. Expansionism drew Christian writers and bishops inexorably back into the cultural mainstream and demanded dilution or concealment of hostility to the state. It also presented an implicit threat to the state. Writers like Justin and Tertullian stand at the very beginning of this process.

Cultural resistance to Rome

36The metaphor of a spectrum proves to be too simple. Some of the writers of the Second Sophistic blocked Rome out in their writing and in any case certainly created for members of their class a distinctive, strongly non-Roman, culture that nevertheless was embedded in a Roman political environment and a Romanizing physical environment. Though the authors themselves did not through their writing achieve wealth, distinction or clout, their literary and intellectual culture became in effect that of the Roman East, and for non-Greek easterners not meaningfully distinct from the culture of the rulers, for better or for worse. By the later 1st century if not earlier, it was difficult for non-Greek easterners to Romanize without simultaneously Hellenizing, to engage in vulgar simplification. It would be a stretch to regard the backwards-looking Atticism of the imperial Greek writers as a meaningful act of political resistance, given the extent of its political authorization, or, to put it differently, the extent to which it was embedded in Roman or thoroughly co-opted political institutions. But it is worth remembering, first, that the authors themselves were not necessarily unresistant, and second, that rarely (as far as we can tell), under sufficiently fraught circumstances, local, politicized versions of Hellenism might actually construct themselves as resistant. Whoever wrote and collected the so-called Acta Alexandrinorum at the very least fantasized about a Greek identity not merely separate from but hostile to the Roman, a Greekness that aspired to fully realized "governmentality" separate from Rome.

37Still more ambiguous is the case of the Egyptian priestly composers and editors of the long high imperial Greek and Demotic magical and liturgical papyri. These texts testify to an effort to collect and systematize a body of lore that is complicatedly related to its cultural antecedents. The work of Dieleman demonstrates just how indebted even the Greek texts are to Egyptian traditions, but also the limits of the debt. The texts are noteworthy above all for their syncretism. Whatever generated this feature, it distinguishes the Egyptian texts sharply from both the Second Sophistic and from the Mishnah, though not, arguably, from Christian texts. In the Egyptian case, David Frankfurter has argued – and Dieleman has largely agreed – that the syncretism reflects among other things an effort at ingratiation: priests whose power and institutional authority were in decline were trying to be entrepreneurial, in effect marketing their wares both to their traditional constituency in the villages and to Hellenized townspeople. Be this as it may, it is worth remembering that though the texts reflect a rather compromised construction of group identity, the priest-magicians still aspired to – often seem to have been obsessed with the acquisition of – power, still offered services that had in some cases to be concealed from imperial officials. Like the rabbis, they dreamed of restoration: their efforts to collect and systematize their lore may similarly reflect a feeling of progressive exclusion or marginalization. And like both the rabbis and the "sophists", they constructed in their writing a world without Rome.

38If we can detect an implicit apologetic strain in the Egyptian texts, in Justin’s work the apologetics are on the surface. Yet the ideas underlying the soothing surface of the Apologies and the jaunty frame of the Trypho are starkly counter-cultural. Justin was in good pagan – and philosophical – company in his haughty dismissal of the Jews, but the reasons turn out not to be high-mindedness or snobbery but theological dogma which an actual philosophical outsider – not a Christian or christianizer – might have regarded as nitpicking or, to put it in non-ancient language, the narcissism of small differences. Justin might have seemed to be just a kind of Jew. The same reader may likewise have been unconvinced by the Apologies’ argument that the peculiar prescriptive system derived from a combination of the Jewish scriptures and the Christian myth was nevertheless a distillation of the highest ideals of Greek philosophy.

The stakes of resistance

  • 60 Espionage presumably lies behind the oft-repeated story of the Roman officials who studied Torah w (...)

39No one could reasonably suppose that the Romans might succeed in imposing cultural uniformity or standardization on their empire, or even that they tried to. The prevalence of spies (but where? When?) – a fact of which the rabbis, at least, were well aware60 – demonstrates the emperors’ squeamishness about opposition, even far down the social ladder, but the very fact of Christianity’s spread, and still more strikingly, the failure of the state to respond until the middle of the 3rd century, point to limitations. What, then, does the hypothesis of a spectrum of resistance add to what we already knew about Roman power?

40I would argue that the implications of the real outlier of the group, the Mishnah, may be that a Rome-centered approach to the cultural production of the Empire is inadequate, and that this has implications for histories of subjection to Rome in general. It may compel us to re-think the theory-driven hypothesis that resistance must take the form of mimesis, since the Mishnah is not mimetic of any Roman or Greco-Roman text or complex of ideas. To be sure, the Mishnah was written in much the same context as that in which Justin, Lucian and the Theban priest-magicians worked, and provides ample evidence of the fact. Furthermore, the hypothesis of the spectrum of resistance can further the project of bringing these contemporaneous works into meaningful dialogue with one another – not precisely a new project, but one rarely subjected to much systematic thought. Some of the other writing on the list, as I observed above, demonstrates that cultural resistance even in an anodyne form, from the political perspective, might have a long-standing and transformative impact, as imperial Greek did on the Hellenism of the Late Empire and Byzantium. This is true a fortiori for the higher-stakes resistance of Christianity.

  • 61 See Ando 2017. "Infrastructural Power" comes from the work of the political theorist Michael Mann.
  • 62 Contra Ando 2017, p. 118.

41But what the Mishnah teaches us is that provincials could carve out for themselves significant measures of cultural agency that might be politicized at the first sign of a crack in imperial power. Thus, instead of seeing only the smooth surface of the Roman Empire, a mirage enabled by partial survival of evidence and transformed into positivist narrative by the traditions and conventions of imperial history, which haunt the field even now, we should see a landscape of tectonic plates, in the aggregate, to be sure, possessing meaningful structure, but in a constant state of a mobility often producing profound stress. In this metaphor, the Mishnah may seem a distant peak, an outlier. But the landscape as a whole now inevitably looks different. Like the Second Sophistic in Woolf’s account, the Mishnah too was the product of an environment in which the material culture – though also the political culture – was profoundly Romanized: Rome’s "infrastructural power", as Ando would put it, was diffused to all corners.61 But the inhabitants even of such a world proved capable of significant acts of agency, that is, episodes of cultural production that were indubitably reactive or mimetic but were not simply that. They were creative too – innovative expressions of local "great traditions". Furthermore, in three of the four cases, resistance was embedded in institutions that existed in at best highly fraught relationships with the Roman state, or in fundamental opposition to it. The writers of the Second Sophistic to be sure were a normative part of the social and political landscape of the Greco-Roman city (though they may have wanted the Roman part to disappear and perhaps believed that the Greek city could survive the Roman state), and Rome both supported and oppressed but in any case did not fully naturalize the Egyptian temples. But both Church fathers and rabbis aspired and labored to construct an institutional infrastructure meant to work outside the scrutiny of the state (to be sure in both cases co-optation ensued, starting in the 4th century). For this reason, though these artifacts of resistance were initially cultural, they had serious social and political implications and outcomes. They cannot simply be "bracketed" in a discussion of Roman power.62 Everything was always changing but those changes cannot be understood in terms of the rise and fall of Roman institutions alone. Resistant subjects were not necessarily in a state of abjection, not necessarily Sartrean others, degraded mirror-images of the state. They lived under heavy constraints and even the early rabbis were Romanized in ways of which they were scarcely aware. The surface of the imperial state seems solid, but ancient historians ignore the play beneath it at their own risk.


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1 For some general characterizations and contextualizations of the Mishnah, see Cohen 2007; Simon-Shoshan 2008; Halbertal 2013; Schwartz 2017. The emphasis most of these papers share, on the novelty of the Mishnah, can be traced back to Neusner 1981. The question of the Mishnah’s genre has been frequently surveyed; see for example Elman 2004.

2 See Swain 1996, p. 1-2. For helpful recent introductory comments with much bibliographical citation, see Lapin 2012, p. 38-45. The classic argument for the Mishnah as "oral text" is Sussman 2005.

3 See Schwartz 2001, p. 165-174.

4 For comprehensive though problematic discussion, see Binder 2012.

5 See Drijvers 1966; Merz – Tieleman 2012.

6 See exhaustively Bar-Asher 2009; more digestibly, Saenz-Badillos 1993, p. 161-201.

7 See Reed 2016, p. 151.

8 Yadin et al. 1989-2002; Cotton – Yardeni 1997; Benoit – Milik – de Vaux 1961.

9 For an important and exhaustive discussion of these and related discontinuities from the perspectives of legal theory and philosophy of law, see Hayes 2015.

10 Simon-Shoshan 2012; Cohn 2013; Tropper 2004.

11 See Hezser 2007.

12 See Schwartz 2001, p. 221-292.

13 For general introduction and characterization see Strack – Stemberger 1996, p. 108-148.

14 See discussion in Cohen 2007 and especially Hayes 2015.

15 Qimron – Strugnell 1994; Kampen – Bernstein 1996; von Weissenberg 2009, especially useful for bibliography.

16 Crawford 2000.

17 See the survey of this material in Piatelli – Jackson 1996.

18 Baumgarten 1987 (including references to older scholarship); Goodman 1999.

19 A concept elaborated in Sanders 1992.

20 So for example Levine 1989; Lapin (2012) argued that the rabbinic movement on the whole was drawn from the wealthier class (p. 70-76), but was noncommittal about the elite status of the first post-Destruction figures we call rabbis.

21 This was the revolutionary insight of Neusner (1970).

22 See Harris 2016, p. 36.

23 For more detail on the contents of this paragraph, see Schwartz 2014, p. 59-81.

24 Lapin (2012) provides a detailed reconstruction of the history of the rabbinic movement, supplementing and correcting Hezser 1997.

25 Abbreviating the following papers: Schwartz 2013; Schwartz 2016.

26 Smith 1978, p. 67-87.

27 On these passages, and on the rabbinic attitude to Rome more generally, see Schwartz 2010, p. 112-129. Lapin’s account (Lapin 2012, p. 126-150) stresses the "Romanness" of the rabbis. By contrast, Ishay Rosen-Zvi (2017) argues, more convincingly, for the non-Romanness of the rabbis and in particular for the Mishnah’s differences from the Second Sophistic.

28 For an exhaustive treatment from a legal historical perspective, see Shilo 1974.

29 Harris 1979; Hopkins 1978.

30 I am not discussing a now to some extent superseded idealist tradition in scholarship that happily assigned agency to such abstractions as "Hellenism" or "Judaism". In ancient Judaic studies perhaps the most important and influential example of this mode is Hengel 1974. Such an approach was par for the course for theologians.

31 Whitmarsh 2001, p. 3.

32 To offer a very brief and partial summary of Swain 1996.

33 Bowersock 1969.

34 Harker 2008.

35 Most importantly, Bowie 1970; Bowie 1982.

36 Woolf 1994.

37 In particular Whitmarsh 2001; Whitmarsh 2013.

38 Whitmarsh 2001, p. 3.

39 Much information here is from Josephus and concerns competition between Greeks and Jews in Alexandria (so also in more detail but no more reliably Philo), Cyrene, the cities of the Syro-Palestinian coast including the Herodian foundation of Caesarea Maritima – a city of overwhelmingly Roman material culture and toxic and enduring tension between Jews and Greeks – and Antioch, and even the little inland cities of Tiberias and Sepphoris, partly Greek by constitution and mainly Jewish by demography. Needless to say there is a mass of Egyptian information on this subject, too. For discussion mainly of Syria, Palestine and points east, see Millar 1993; Andrade 2013. But Ameling (2003) provides a warning with respect to Alexandria, but perhaps applicable to all these cases, that Rome at the very least fanned the flames, though presumably unintentionally. But he gives the Greeks excessively short shrift: that, as one says nowadays, "weaponized" Hellenism played a role in all these events – and probably in outbreaks of intercommunal violence in coastal Palestine and Syria in the 50s and 60s – as Andrade argues – acknowledging that the warheads were provided by Rome – seems clear.

40 Though Schmitz’s structural-functionalist argument about the socio-political role of upper class Hellenism is, not surprisingly, excessively rigid (Schmitz 1997).

41 Roger Bagnall has pointed out to me in private correspondence that one problem with the consensus is that some of the long magical collections were assembled in the later 3rd and 4th centuries, when the temples and priesthoods were in headlong decline, so these were presumably not the work of Egyptian priests, a fact which at least casts doubt on the priestly character of the earlier collections, such as those analyzed by Dieleman (2005; see next note).

42 Dieleman 2005, p. 40-44.

43 Dieleman 2005, p. 285-294.

44 Moyer 2011, p. 250-254.

45 Thorough discussion in Harari 2010, p. 200-225; somewhat less detail: Bohak 2008, p. 165-179; also, Margalioth 1966.

46 Moyer 2011, p. 255-261.

47 Rives 2003.

48 Cassius Dio, Roman History 72.4. The episode is murky: Frankfurter 2000, p. 207-208.

49 On which see Monson 2012, p. 212-218. According to Monson, Augustus’s much-discussed confiscation of temple lands was never complete, and in some respects benefitted individual priests (p. 219). But it remains the case that Roman legislation and policy tended to impoverish the temples and restrict the priests.

50 Bagnall 1988. I agree with the implications of Bagnall’s analysis that Frankfurter’s assessment (Frankfurter 2000, p. 27-30) is unrealistically optimistic, or at any rate that he and Bagnall have very different types of power in mind. Bagnall 1993, p. 261-275, implicitly rejects the association between Egyptian priests and magic, already suggested by Betz 1986, p. xlvi-xlvii. See also Moyer 2011, p. 270-273.

51 Contra Frankfurter 2000.

52 Bussi 2005.

53 I do not consider here the inconsistency of Frankfurter’s argument: on the one hand the magical texts testify directly to the "little tradition" of the lector priests and their rural Egyptian constituents, on the other hand they are written mainly in Greek and use the international language of quasi-Egyptian magic, in part to appeal to a metropolitan Hellenized audience. Dieleman’s refinements of Frankfurter’s position, less specific about the precise social location and function of the texts, may be preferable. Arguably, the long magical-ritual texts belong precisely to the great tradition. Frankfurter draws on Redfield’s scheme but in downplaying the importance of the great tradition neglects Redfield’s insistence that great and little traditions are defined by their interactions and reciprocal exchanges. See Bohak 2000.

54 Not even the invented genre of apologetic historiography, populated otherwise mainly by Josephus’s works, which are however, far closer to the imperial Greek mainstream: Sterling 1992; Josephus’s own position in the canon is debatable: Swoboda 2014.

55 Carleton Paget 1994.

56 On what this might have meant, see Löhr 2017.

57 Rajak 1999.

58 Laura Nasrallah (2005) makes this point somewhat too emphatically, but note her point that even the most irascible 2nd-century Christian writers – she discusses Tatian but one could add Tertullian – were working from within the classical tradition. Nasrallah is anticipated in the comparison of Justin and Lucian by Chadwick (1966, p. 20-21); the treatment of Justin in general, p. 4-22, is still valuable.

59 Chadwick 1982; Bobichon 2003, p. 3.

60 Espionage presumably lies behind the oft-repeated story of the Roman officials who studied Torah with Rabban Gamliel: y. Baba Qamma 4:3 [4], 4b. See Schwartz 2010, p. 123-125.

61 See Ando 2017. "Infrastructural Power" comes from the work of the political theorist Michael Mann.

62 Contra Ando 2017, p. 118.


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