Provocateur

Glen Bowersock

  • Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilisations by Martin Goodman
    Allen Lane, 638 pp, £25.00, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 7139 9447 6

One of the most famous questions in the vast literature of the Fathers of the Early Christian Church is Tertullian’s ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ The fusion of Greek philosophy with Jewish scripture in the formation of Christian theology was a problem for the new religion, which emerged in the Greek language through the gospel narratives and the letters of Paul. Christians had access to the Jewish Bible through the Greek translation known as the Septuagint – so called because it was said to have had 70 translators. A Christian who was also an eloquent Latin rhetorician, as Tertullian was, would have felt obliged to confront the primacy of Greek in the construction of Christianity, particularly at a time when Platonic language and ideas had begun to infect the thinking and the prose of such writers as Justin and Clement. Tertullian consoled himself by replying to his own question: ‘Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon.’ So much for Athens.

Martin Goodman’s book, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Civilisations, turns Tertullian’s problem on its head. The Christian sophist, as T.D. Barnes called him, posed his question about Jerusalem in Rome’s own language. But Goodman is not really trying to explore Christian origins, although early Christianity contributes inevitably to the story of the contact between Rome and the Jews. What Goodman does is describe Jewish-Roman relations before the calamitous war that led to the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70; he then suggests what caused this and what happened in its wake. It is in his final section that those renegade Jews who became Christians begin to complicate the relations of Rome with the Jews as a whole, and Goodman gives a searching account of the deterioration of Roman-Jewish relations. We become increasingly aware that all this was happening precisely when Christianity was beginning to establish itself in a Graeco-Roman Mediterranean world that was slow to comprehend it.

The subtitle curiously evokes Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilisations, although Goodman nowhere mentions it. Perhaps the phrase was simply a marketing device, but it is off-putting and inappropriate. Rome and Jerusalem were no more clashing civilisations than Athens and Jerusalem. A Huntingtonian might argue that Rome and Persia clashed, but Jerusalem, Athens and Rome all inhabited the same, culturally diverse world. A Jew, a Greek and a Roman could watch the gladiators together, applaud the pantomimes, appreciate a well-crafted mosaic of the sun, savour a learned disputation – philosophical, rhetorical or theological.

Goodman demonstrates that before revolt broke out in Jerusalem in 66 the position of Jews in the Roman Empire was relatively comfortable, even privileged. They were exempt from celebrating Roman cults, including the cult of the emperor. Caligula’s insane decision to have his statue installed in the Jewish Temple only underscores the general acceptance of Jewish exceptionalism within the empire. Romans took note of the oddities of the Jewish diet, especially the avoidance of pork, and made jokes about cut penises and Jewish credulity. In the teeming capital the large population of Jewish aliens was relatively visible. When Cicero linked Syrians and Jews together as ‘nations born to slavery’ he was doubtless reflecting his experience of the slaves brought back to Rome after Pompey’s conquests. Horace also probably conveyed Italian prejudice about immigrants when he said laughingly of a patent absurdity: ‘Let the Jew Apella believe it, not me.’

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