Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient ­Civilizations

by Martin Goodman

Knopf, 624 pages, $35

When I first saw the title of this book, I thought of Tertullian’s famous question: What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? But Goodman did not have Tertullian in mind when he chose his title. He was thinking instead of Moses Hess, a Jewish writer born in Germany in the early nineteenth century who wrote a once famous book called The Revival of Israel: Rome and Jerusalem, the Last Nationalist ­Question .

Moses Hess grew up in the orthodox Jewish home of his grandfather, from whom he received a solid formation in Jewish religious texts. As a young man, however, when he took up the study of philosophy he came under the influence of Hegel and turned against his upbringing. He believed that religion was a thing of the past and that the Jewish people would eventually disappear. But more than two decades later, when he was fifty years old, he wrote The Revival of Israel and announced that he had returned to the “House of Israel.” In the book he argued that the Jews could never live a normal life without a home of their own, and that home could only be the Land of Israel, with Jerusalem as its capital.

The Revival of Israel was inspired in part by the revolution taking place under Garibaldi. Hess saw the establishment of an Italian state as a model for the future of the Jewish people. The “Rome” of his title does not refer to ancient Rome, but to Italian Rome freed from the shackles of the papacy. Though Hess identified with the Jewish people, their customs and traditions, his Jewishness was not religious. For him the religion of the Jews was their national identity”their “patriotism,” as he called it.

With all this in mind, I was puzzled as I read through Goodman’s Rome and Jerusalem , a masterful account of the decades leading up to the war with the Romans, the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and Temple in a.d. 70, and his illuminating description of the aftermath, particularly the years leading up to the revolt of Simon bar Kokhba in 132. The story is usually told within the framework of ancient Jewish history, but Goodman appears to have a contemporary agenda as well. The final paragraphs of the book take up, however briefly, Hess’ “visionary tract” suggesting that the future of the Jewish people today is a piece with their fortunes in the Roman Empire of old. How ancient history relates to the present is neither developed nor explained, yet the plot of the book seems informed by Hess’ essay.

Goodman, a historian at Oxford, has served as editor of the Journal of Roman Studies and also of the ­ Journal of Jewish Studies , and he moves effortlessly between both worlds, drawing on Josephus the Jewish historian on one page and Tacitus the Roman historian on another. Though his subject is Jewish history, he gives as much attention to events in Rome as he does to what was happening in Judea and Jerusalem”all of which makes for stimulating and rewarding reading.

Goodman shows that, before the onset of the war, Jews in the cities of the empire went about their lives and the practice of their religion without interference and enjoyed good relations with their neighbors; and in Judea and Jerusalem, with a few exceptions, a modus vivendi had been worked out with Roman authorities.

Through alliances, friendships, and patronage, Jerusalem had been brought into Rome’s political orbit, with advantages for both the rulers in Rome and their Jewish subjects in Palestine. Romans were puzzled as to why Jews refused to eat pork (which the Romans loved) and why they circumcised infant boys. They could not understand that there was no image of their God in the Temple and thought the Sabbath rest was a sign of lassitude, yet their attitude toward the Jews was not hostile. Random comments about Jews by Roman writers stem more in the way of amusement or indifference and, on occasion, admiration.

There were, however, differences of another sort. The centrality of the city of Rome within the empire rested on its political power and military strength, while the city of Jerusalem was the work of religion. Rome had many temples to many gods; the Jews, one Temple. Romans had a different sense of time and history. For Virgil, “time flies and cannot be repaired,” like a river flowing unceasingly; for the Jews, history was marked by paradigmatic events that reverberate down the centuries.

Romans and Jews had different conceptions of what the state is for. For the Romans, the state was res publica, public business, a coming together of people united for the common good, with freedom for political activity. But, for the Jews, “neither individual liberty nor the popular mandate of a majority vote carried the same weight” as it did for the Greeks and Romans. The Jews had no formal public assemblies to match those of Rome. “Our lawgiver,” wrote Josephus, was “not attracted to these forms of polity” but “places all sovereignty and authority in the hands of God.”

Romans and Jews also had different understandings of the human person. Romans took birthday celebrations seriously, and the anniversary of the emperor’s birth was an occasion for public celebrations. Jews had no ritual to mark birthdays. The only birthday mentioned in the Jewish Bible is that of Pharaoh in Egypt. For Romans, religion played a small part in moral matters, but Jews lived by a system of laws given by God and formed by notions of sin, mercy, and forgiveness.

As the Roman Empire expanded around the Mediterranean basin and incorporated new regions and peoples, Roman officials and soldiers became familiar with many different beliefs and learned to tolerate alien ways. Only the Jews retained a distinctive communal identity. And what is more remarkable, the Romans accepted the Jewish self-understanding and allowed them to be exempt from the religious obligations that were imposed on other inhabitants of the cities. Jews did not have to worship the Roman gods, and they responded with gratitude by offering sacrifices and prayers for the emperor in the Temple in Jerusalem.

After this sweeping and finely textured depiction of Roman and Jewish institutions, mores, and beliefs, Goodman returns to his question. Why did the Roman occupation of Jerusalem in 37 b.c. end in the destruction of the city and Temple a century later? Although after the death of Herod in 4 b.c., when the vacuum of authority in Judea encouraged insurrection in some quarters, the decades before a.d. 66, when the war broke out, were relatively quiet. But in 66 a priest in Jerusalem, Eleazar, the captain of the Temple, persuaded his fellow priests to cease offering sacrifices on behalf of the emperor. When Roman forces lost control of the situation with heavy losses, war became inevitable. What was not inevitable, according to Goodman, was that the Temple, the central religious institution of the Jews, would be destroyed.

The conflagration came about by accident, but once it happened Titus, son of the emperor Vespasian and commander of the Roman forces, had no choice but to celebrate its destruction as a great victory. And in the decades that followed the war, Roman attitudes toward Jews hardened: They instituted direct Roman rule in Jerusalem, would not allow Jews to live in the city, made certain the Temple would not be rebuilt, and eventually founded a new Roman colony in Jerusalem.

For the Jews, the consequences were dire: “Jews could never again realistically hope to live in the Roman Empire with the same freedom as other minorities to practice their ancestral customs and worship their God in their own land,” Goodman writes.

At this point, Rome and Jerusalem turns to Christianity with a chapter entitled “The Growth of the Church.” In contrast to his presentation of the Jews and Romans, Goodman’s treatment of Christianity is superficial and tendentious. His initial argument is that, in the wake of the Bar Kokhba revolt in the early second century, Christians presented themselves to the Roman world as unrelated to the Jews, whose “alienation from mainstream Roman society had been sealed by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.”

He has little evidence to support this assertion. There is no question that Christians had a quarrel with the Jews. Early Christian writings are filled with arguments against Jewish interpretations of the Scriptures. But they did not keep their distance from Jews because of postbellum Roman hostility. By the end of the first century, Christians had formed their own communities, made up largely of Gentiles and distinct from neighboring Jewish communities. They did not observe the Jewish laws and, with some notable exceptions, saw Jewish observance as a challenge to the truth of Christianity. Though circumcision and keeping the Sabbath were clearly prescribed in the Torah, Christians ignored these prescriptions. The existence of law-observing Jewish communities alongside those of Christian communities seemed to question the truth of Christian claims. For that reason, Christian statements on the Jews focused on theological, exegetical, and ritual matters, independent of what Romans thought about the Jews.

As Goodman goes further into Christian history, his account becomes even less convincing. He argues, for example, that Christianity would not have become the dominant religion in the Roman Empire without the intervention of Constantine and his successors. But Constantine’s conversion is evidence of the rapid growth of Christianity in the late third century and the influence of its leaders. Constantine broke with the policy of his predecessors, who had persecuted Christianity, because he had the prescience to see that the future lay with Christianity. By embracing Christianity and taking bishops as advisers, he was seeking not only a new god to believe in but also a new public policy.

The difficulties of Goodman’s account of early Christian history lie not so much in the details as in the overall conception. His final chapter is entitled “The Origins of Antisemitism.” Again he poses a question: “Why then had the Roman world in the time of Constantine become so much more hostile to Jews and Judaism than it had been in the time of Jesus three centuries earlier?” His answer is that Christians, seeking to gain credibility in the Roman world, “needed not only to deny their own Jewishness but to attack Judaism altogether.” As the pagan Roman Empire became the Byzantine Christian Empire, the merger of Roman hostility and the Christian critique of Judaism created a new toxic potion. And, in a concluding sentence, Goodman says that the assumption that the Jews were to be “despised and shunned” inherited from the Roman Empire via medieval Christendom “has by no means wholly faded away in the modern world.”

Now there can be no doubt that the war with the Romans devastated Jewish life as it had existed in the previous two centuries. The Jews not only lost their central religious institution; they were also prohibited from living in the new Roman city. And the triumph of Christianity, coupled with harsh statements on Jews in sermons and theological treatises, adversely affected Jewish life within the new Christian society that was being built. But Christian anti-Judaism is theological, not racial, and it is not possible to draw a direct line from antiquity to the virulent anti-Semitism of the twentieth century.

There is, however, another story here, and it is not simply one of oppression and persecution. As the historical scholarship of the past two generations has shown, the centuries after the war with the Romans were a time of renewal and rebuilding of Jewish life and the establishment of new institutions that endure to this day. Before the war, the Jews were a people living in their own land, with Jerusalem as the central city, the Temple and its priests, and Jewish rulers (often appointed by imperial officials) with political power. In the centuries that followed, the Jews gradually constituted themselves as religious communities oriented not to the Temple but to the synagogue.

Seth Schwartz, a historian at ­Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, has even highlighted the role of Christianity in the “rejudaization” of the Jews in late antiquity. He notes, for example, that the great period of synagogue construction in Palestine took place in the fifth and sixth centuries under Christian rule. This was in part due to the prosperity brought by the influx of Christian pilgrims. But it was also that the laws increasingly saw Judaism as a religious community with its own clergy (not unlike the Christian communities); and Jews were seen as distinct from others by their practices and beliefs, not their racial identity.

By bending his account toward Christianity in the final chapters and offering only bits of Jewish life after the Bar Kokhba revolt, Goodman perpetuates a traditional stereotype that once dominated the writing of Western history”the notion that once Christianity comes on the scene the Jews are moved to the margins. Gavin Langmuir, the noted historian of anti-Semitism, once observed: “Before the first century the Hebrews were of great historical importance, . . . but after the emergence of Christianity a reprobation falls on the Jews, and a dark night of ignorance conceals their activities from the historical consciousness of most Western society until Dreyfus, the Balfour Declaration, or Hitler once more draws historical attention to the Jews.”

The final chapters of Rome and Jerusalem come very close to reviving that lachrymose conception of Jewish history, which brings me again to Moses Hess and Goodman’s concluding comments. Goodman asks: “Can prejudices so firmly rooted in the soil of antiquity ever be eradicated? Can Jews ever be treated in a Christian world as a nation like any other?” Hess believed that, just as other nations in the nineteenth century had achieved their independence, so “Jerusalem’s orphaned children” will also be able to participate in this great movement of liberation. But, says Goodman, two thousand years after the Temple was destroyed, two hundred years after Hess’ birth, and sixty years after the establishment of the state of Israel, “it is too early yet to say whether Hess’ optimism was justified, and the legacy of prejudice created and entrenched as a result of the political ambitions of a series of Roman emperors” will be “finally expunged.”

Reading this strange conclusion, I wondered whether Goodman had spent so much time reading ancient documents that he had stopped reading newspapers. He seems oblivious to the profound transformation in Christian thinking about Judaism and the Jewish people over the past fifty years, nor does he acknowledge that the strongest support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel came from the Christian nations of the West.

It is misleading to trace current forms of anti-Semitism to Roman and Christian antiquity. They arise more from recent historical and cultural developments in secular Europe and the Middle East. In recent decades, Christian scholars have mounted a critique of their own history, and Pope John Paul II expressed profound regret at the sins of Christians against Jews in the past. Though Christian anti-Judaism was one factor in shaping attitudes that helped prepare the way for Western anti-Semitism, the Christian relation to Judaism is much more complicated than Goodman will allow. Christians have shown that they have not only the spiritual and intellectual resources to understand Judaism sympathetically but also a wellspring of affection to respect and even love the Jews. As we look to the future, it may be that Christians are the only reliable friends the Jews have in the world.

Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.

Articles by Robert Louis Wilken

Loading...