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.’

Occasional expulsions from the city, as under Tiberius in 19 and Claudius in 49, were restricted in scope. Tiberius had been concerned, at a time of instability after the death of Germanicus, to rid the capital of potentially subversive Jews who practised Egyptian rites, and Claudius was responding to disturbances from a group of Jews associated with a provocateur called Chrestus. Goodman is right to emphasise that this urban rabble-rouser, with a common name, could have had nothing to do with Christ, an obscure figure long since dead. Generally, as Goodman observes, ‘Roman comments about Jews were rarely hostile before the outbreak of war in 66. Far more common were amusement, indifference, acceptance, admiration and emulation.’

Romans in the early empire seem to have looked on the Jews as odd but, most of the time, harmless, much as they viewed Scythians, Nubians or Gauls. Occasionally, the government intervened, as with Claudius’ interdict on the druids’ practice of human sacrifice, his expulsion of the vexatious followers of Chrestus, or his interference when the Jewish community in Alexandria became demanding. If the Jews received any special treatment, it was in the privilege they alone enjoyed in abstaining from the worship of Roman gods.

In his excursus on the Jewish people at the opening of the fifth book of his Histories, written in anticipation of his now lost account of the destruction of the Temple, Tacitus was at a loss to uncover any deep cause for the war that broke out in 66. He had some knowledge of Jewish customs and believed that Jews nourished a ‘hostile hatred’ (hostile odium) towards all other peoples. But, writing only thirty years after it, he saw no ominous antecedents of the war. He knew that Pompey had once entered the Temple, and that Augustus had favoured Herod. He also knew that Caligula had wanted his image placed inside the Temple. But in the reign of Tiberius, according to Tacitus, nothing happened: sub Tiberio quies (‘under Tiberius, calm’). Yet it was under Tiberius that Jesus had been crucified in the days of Pontius Pilate. It was not until Tacitus wrote his Annals some twenty years later that he seems to have discovered this portentous historical nugget, which he introduced into his account of Nero’s blaming the great fire at Rome on the Christians.

Goodman presents the war, which culminated in Titus’ destruction of the Temple in 70, as a series of unfortunate accidents. Rome had left the administration of Judaea in the hands of incompetent and venial freedmen and procurators (an assessment that echoes the opinion of Tacitus). Internecine struggles among the Jews (a topic on which Goodman has made important contributions) allowed the exploitation of Roman malfeasance and led to the revolt of the young Jewish priest Eleazar son of Ananias, who was captain of the Temple. In Goodman’s words, ‘a series of incidents, none particularly serious in itself, had escalated into national violence through the inability or unwillingness of the governor to take matters in hand.’ The Romans brought in masses of troops to address the crisis, but as the decade of the 60s came to a close, the Julio-Claudian dynasty collapsed, Nero took his own life, civil war ensued, three unrelated emperors followed in short succession until finally Vespasian, who had originally been charged to handle the Jewish revolt, emerged as victor in the struggle for power. When Vespasian was finally secure in possession of the throne, vexed that the Jews were still in revolt, he entrusted his son Titus with the task of ending the uprising.

Tacitus knew that Titus had authorised the destruction of the Temple, although the Jewish turncoat Josephus would have us believe that it was all a mistake. Holy vessels from the Temple were paraded in the streets of Rome and depicted on arches in honour of Titus. Spoils from Jerusalem were used to pay for the construction of the Colosseum at the end of Vespasian’s reign. The reduction of Judaea was proclaimed on Vespasian’s coinage by the legend Judaea Capta, and these triumphalist coins were still being issued 15 years after the Temple had fallen, in the reign of Domitian.

Centuries later, the Christian chronographer Sulpicius Severus claimed that Titus had decided to bring down the Temple in order to wipe out the religions of the Jews and the Christians, particularly since the Christians had originally been Jews. But this is a late antique perspective. For Titus and his generation, the Jews were a diverse people with internal rivalries, and the Christians no more than a minuscule part of their number.

It was during this period of deteriorating relations between the victorious Romans and the defeated Jews that the Christians began to assert themselves. In the generation after Peter and Paul met their deaths in Rome under Nero, the gospel narratives and the Book of Acts took shape and found readers. By the end of the reign of Domitian, John had composed the Book of Revelation and targeted the Whore of Babylon. The Flavian house of Vespasian made serious efforts to counteract the disastrous impact of Titus’ victory on relations with Jews, not least by setting up Josephus safely in Rome as he wrote his Greek account of the Jewish War, and then, more grandly still, of the entire ancient history of the Jews. Vespasian did for Josephus what Augustus had done for Nicolaus of Damascus a century before. Nicolaus had written the emperor’s biography and joined Herod of Judaea in winning the Near East to the cause of Augustus (after its earlier, ill-judged preference for Antony). Josephus was not successful in the same way.

Domitian, as Goodman emphasises, continued the anti-Jewish triumphalism of Vespasian and Titus, not only through his coinage but through the well publicised expulsion of Roman aristocrats suspected of Jewish sympathies. Vespasian had imposed a tax on Jews, the fiscus Iudaicus, which meant that their contributions of two drachmas, which had previously gone to the Temple, were now paid to the restored Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome, which had accidentally burned down the year before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. When Nerva, Domitian’s aged successor, took over from the murdered emperor in 96, he tried nobly to reverse this trend, at least in Goodman’s plausible account, by abrogating the Jewish tax. Nerva’s coinage proclaimed that the slander it represented – either the tax itself or abuses of it – had been removed (Fisci Iudaici Calumnia Sublata).

But the drumbeat of hostility, together with the Jewish tax, returned with Trajan in 98, and soon led to the next great confrontations of Jews and Romans. Trajan’s annexation of Transjordan as the Province of Arabia in 106, followed in less than a decade by his march into Mesopotamia and annexation of the land beyond the Euphrates, must have looked like a tightening of the imperial noose. In 115, the diaspora Jews of Cyrene, Egypt and Cyprus rebelled. Although they were suppressed within two years, this was the first major signal that Jews outside Jerusalem were prepared to sacrifice themselves in the cause of independence.

The dénouement came in the mighty assertion of Jewish freedom under Hadrian through the revolt led by Bar Kokhba. Goodman argues strongly and convincingly that the revolt was sparked by Hadrian’s attempt to found the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina – named for himself and Juppiter – on the site of Jerusalem. This massive miscalculation by an emperor known for his intellectual prowess can be explained only by his failure to recognise the terrible legacy of the first Jewish war. Hadrian went to Judaea on an official visit in 130, and was received, as he was in other provinces, with a public display of loyalty in the form of inscriptions, arches and statuary. In most provinces the emperor’s bestowal of colonial status ranked as a high honour, and was regularly advertised on coins and inscriptions. But Jerusalem without its Temple was not like other large provincial cities. The revolt of Bar Kokhba spread across the whole region, probably even to the other side of the Jordan.

Goodman’s account of Hadrian’s response to the revolt is subtle and sensitive. He takes account of the late but plausible testimony that Hadrian at some point in this period issued a ban on circumcision, possibly on aesthetic grounds. But this must have been a provocation, as the emperor Antoninus Pius later acknowledged by excepting the Jews. Goodman seems right in his insistence that Hadrian sought no glory from winning the war against Bar Kokhba:

Hadrian did not present himself as conqueror of Judaea as Vespasian and Titus had done, nor did he trumpet his achievements as Trajan had done after his campaigns in Dacia and Parthia. The iconography of the regime made no reference at all to the Jews. No coins celebrated the successful end of the campaign. It was a war that should not have happened.

Hadrian accepted an imperial acclamation in 136, but ‘his motivation for accepting the honour was probably the need to encourage military morale after a bruising encounter.’

This was the last time the Jews rose up against Rome. But Goodman, to his credit, does not leave his readers at this point. He knows that for more than four centuries a remarkable peace now settled on Judaea, or Palestine, as it was known after Hadrian. The rabbinic schools gathered strength in the north, the Jewish patriarch was installed at Sepphoris, and Christianity parted definitively from its Jewish origins. This last development entailed a virulent anti-Judaism that the early Christian martyr texts expose with merciless clarity. Already in the second century the Jews of Smyrna were said to have vied with each other in heaping burning logs on the pyre of the Christian martyr Polycarp. In the following century the Romans persecuted the Christians more systematically, worried that their numbers were growing. The polemic of Pionius against the Jews before he was martyred in Smyrna has suggested to some historians that ex-Jews among the Christians may have been returning to the Jewish fold to escape this worsening persecution.

The rise of Christian communities, the sensational stories of their martyrs, and their hostility to Jews reflected, to some extent, the awkwardness of a new religion so deeply dependent on the scripture of another. The Jews profited from their exclusivity and separatism. Although they had their own martyr in Rabbi Akiva from the days of Bar Kokhba, they devoted themselves increasingly to their own synagogues. Rome persecuted the Christians, without always wanting to do so. C. Arrius Antoninus, governor of Asia under Commodus, could not understand why people who were so anxious to die did not simply throw themselves off cliffs or string themselves up, instead of forcing the Romans to do the unwelcome job for them. The growth and activism of anti-Jewish Christians contrasted with the piety and quiescence of the Jews themselves, to their conspicuous advantage.

With the conversion of Constantine in the early fourth century came the creation of a new Rome on the Bosporus. Goodman’s chapter on the new Rome (Constantinople) and the new Jerusalem (the Christian city) makes clear the dissonance that had been inherent in the relations between the old cities. But now Rome was Greek, and so was Jerusalem. The centres of Jewish learning and the Aramaic language lay to the north in Tiberias and Sepphoris, and yet, as excavations have shown, these cities thrived in an atmosphere of Greek culture that would have seemed utterly astonishing to us only a century ago. In those late centuries of antiquity, the Jews quarrelled on occasion with their traditional enemies, the Samaritans, but not with the paladins of the new (and Christian) Rome or with its culture.

Goodman concludes his book by claiming that the most significant development in the century after 70 was a ‘by-product of the hostility of Rome to the Jews’. It was the emergence of a Christian anti-semitism, which became increasingly shrill as the Christians sought to distance themselves from their historical origins. ‘In the eyes of some Christians,’ Goodman writes, ‘Judaism has been a religion that ought to have ceased to exist in the first century CE: the Old Testament had been wholly superseded by the New.’ Some scholars have tried in recent years to obscure or even deny ‘the parting of the ways’, but this is the worst kind of politically motivated revisionism. As Goodman says, ‘the impetus to the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity had come less from the Jewish side than from the Christian.’ The first persecutors of Christians were other Jews, and early Roman persecutors, such as Nero, may well have thought of the Christians as an exotic Jewish sect. In the second century, however, the increasing number of gentile converts began to alter the demography of Christian communities. It was in this context that the separation of Christians and Jews developed, as the new religion tried to establish a distinct identity. Christian anti-semitism was the bitter fruit of this process.