I did not begin as a scholar of Jewish studies. Far from it. Indeed it was not even on my radar screen at the outset. The trajectory of my career was a meandering one. And its direction is still a little wobbly. Some may find that to be worrisome, especially at my advanced age. But meandering among disciplines has its advantages.
I was trained as a classical historian, steeped in Greek and Latin, and entangled with texts like Cicero, Sallust, Livy, Polybius, and Plutarch. None of them had more than a passing interest in Jews - - if that. What stirred my interest was Roman politics, the rough and tumble of the turbulent public scene of the late Roman Republic, the era of the Gracchi, of Marius and Sulla, of Caesar and Pompey, of Antony and Octavian. I was introduced to that subject by some eminent authorities at Oxford where I spent formative years as an undergraduate, and pursued it avidly as a PhD student at Harvard. I found myself captivated by a methodology that was all the rage in those days, prosopography, the piecing together of political alliances by researching the connections among elite families and factions and their competitions for power and ascendancy on the public scene. The most telling influences on my initial forays into the field were Sir Ronald Syme, author of The Roman Revolution, and another figure, less well known in the Anglo-Saxon world, but even more pivotal as the father of prosopography, Friedrich Münzer, whom I never had the good fortune to meet. His career had ended tragically at the hands of the Nazis. When I first entered upon scholarly research in Roman prosopography, I had no idea that Münzer had perished in a Nazi concentration camp. Nor would that fact, I blush to say, have been at all relevant to me at the time.
My attention was focused upon gaining some foothold in the field of Roman political history. I composed my first two books under the spell of that subject, Roman Politics and the Criminal Courts and The Last Generation of the Roman Republic. The second of them made a bit of a splash because it took a highly controversial position, stressing not the conflicts that presaged the Republic’s demise but the continuities that held it together for so long. Not everybody was convinced, by a long shot, but the book stirred up plenty of dissent and discussion, and, remarkably, it still sells copies to this very day, more than forty years later.
Although that subject gave me some traction on the scholarly scene, I soon wandered away to a new area of interest. The Greeks began to take central place on the agenda. My next book, The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome, also took a controversial line. I evidently could not resist provoking opposition. The Hellenistic period, long the step-child of Greek history, and reckoned as an era of decline from the glories of classical Athens, enjoyed a resurgence in scholarly circles of the later 20th century. The thesis of my (over-long, two volume) book was that Hellenic institutions and traditions remained vital and strong even in a time of significant political change and even when the shadow of Rome gradually extended itself over the eastern Mediterranean. Indeed the book argued that diplomacy and inter-state relations remained fundamentally Hellenic in character and that Rome operated within Hellenic categories rather than the reverse. That proved persuasive to some, unpalatable to others.
The trajectory shifted more dramatically thereafter. After working for two decades in political and diplomatic history, I abandoned it and moved into cultural history. Two books followed, Greek Culture and Roman Policy, and Culture and National Identity in Republican Rome. Both of them explored the cultural interactions and mutual influences, in literature, philosophy, religion, and art, between the two societies. The general objective was to discern how Romans reshaped their own sense of themselves by engagement with and contrast to the established conventions, traditions, and artistic expressions of the Greeks.
Where were the Jews in all this? Nowhere to be found. I had visited Israel a couple of times and lectured on classical subjects (no one would have invited me for any other reason). Ancient Jews had not previously been on my research horizon. Then came the next and biggest shift. I plunged into the history of the Jews in the Greco-Roman era. Why the sudden switch? My friends and colleagues, of course, drew what seemed the obvious conclusion: I was going back to my roots. The wandering Jew had come home. I was, after all, the child of holocaust survivors from Vienna. It seemed perfectly logical that, after a brief detour, I returned to my authentic identity and pursued the path long marked out and only temporarily postponed. A “brief detour”? Of more than a quarter century? Not likely. The shift was a logical one all right. But not for that reason.
It grew out of the work in which I had been engaged in my immediately preceding scholarly incarnation. As I indicated, that work, focused, in various ways, upon the impact of Hellenism upon Roman culture and the corresponding reinterpretation by the Romans of their own sense of collective identity. A similar agenda motivated a turn to the Jews, toward an investigation of Jewish identity under the impact of Hellenism. In each case I approached the cultures not as passive entities, reacting to the imposition of Hellenism, but as adjusting to, exploiting, and appropriating the values of another society to frame their own self-image. The shift, in other words, was an intellectual evolution, not a reaching back to a long dormant family heritage now at last pulled to the surface. A semester at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with its rich resources and the wonderful roster of colleagues assembled there, gave an indispensable boost, even an electric charge, to the project of cultural identity of Second Temple Jews in the context of Greco-Roman society.
The first book that emerged, Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition, grappled with the longstanding issue of the relation between Hellenism and Judaism. It probed the degree to which the latter was compromised or diluted by the former or indeed the degree to which the latter could even be disentangled from the former. The argument sought to steer a path between assimilation and separatism, an artificial choice that never actually faced the Jews of antiquity. They did not agonize over the question of how much Hellenism was desirable or dangerous. For those outside Palestine (the vast majority), exposure to Greek language and culture was automatic, an integral part of their experience. Yet the distinctiveness of their own traditions remained fundamental.
The book explored a range of Jewish sources written in Greek, many of them fragmentary and little known, illustrating the embrace of Greek forms and genres, like epic poetry, tragic drama, history, and philosophy by Jewish intellectuals. It did not provide yet another study of the influence wielded by Hellenic institutions, literature, and traditions upon the Jews - - an old story. Such an approach wrongly suggested passive receptivity or compliant adjustment by the Jews. Heritage and Hellenism went in a different direction. It emphasized the active engagement by Jews with the traditions of Hellas, adapting genres and transforming stories to enrich the sense of their own past and expand the meaning of their own identity. Rewriting of biblical legends as epic, tragedy, or imaginative fiction, as with Ezekiel’s Exagoge, the Letter of Aristeas, the Greek additions to Daniel, Esther, and Jeremiah, and the fictive concoctions of the book of Judith or the book of Tobit gave ample scope for creativity, ingenuity and imagination. In a world where Hellenic culture held an ascendant position, Jews developed their own cultural self-definition and one that would give them a place within the broader Mediterranean world, while establishing their distinctiveness. Jewish embellishments on scriptural stories and the introduction of novel narratives gave new significance to Jewish self-consciousness in pagan societies. Inventive Jewish authors created scenarios in which Greek philosophers like Pythagoras and Plato drew their ideas from the laws of Moses, where Orpheus sang of monotheism, where Homer and Hesiod honored the Sabbath, and where the Sibylline Oracles became the mouthpieces of Jewish prophetic pronouncements. Greek literary models were refashioned to underscore Jewish ethical and intellectual superiority over the gentiles in whose midst they dwelled.
After the publication of that book, I received a most welcome but quite inadvertent compliment by a senior scholar in Jewish studies whose works I knew but whom I had never met. Since I was new to his field and my name altogether unknown to him, he quite naturally concluded that I was a young junior researcher, still wet behind the ears. (I was in fact in my sixties). And he commented (so it was reported to me) that he was surprised to see the work of a young person written in such a mature style. That was quite amusing - - but also reassuring. So I stayed in the field.
That is not to say that everybody bought my ideas. That had never been my experience and never would be. A preeminent scholar on the subject brought out a new edition of his very influential work, in part to challenge a number of propositions that I had pout forth. (At least I was not ignored). Several critics charged me with presenting too rosy a picture of Jewish experience in antiquity, preferring instead the old “lachrymose version of Jewish history.” One Israeli scholar commented that my picture was only be expected, coming as it did from the skewed perspective of a liberal, secular, diaspora Jew. For good or ill, that was indeed the perspective.
The next book only reinforced that message. Diaspora: Jews amidst Greeks and Romans extended the positive portrait of Jews adjusting to a world dominated by Greek culture and Roman power. The book called attention to the fact that the diaspora, often thought (at least by non-professionals) to have been caused by the destruction of the Temple, actually began centuries before, and was consequence not of expulsion, but largely of voluntary migration. (The publisher and translator of the work in Hebrew unfortunately rendered “diaspora” as “galut,” thus undermining a principal thesis of the book). The study drew on literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence to examine Jewish life primarily in Asia Minor, Alexandria, and Rome, whence comes most of the testimony. It attempted to overturn the general impression that Jews suffered repeated oppression and persecution wherever they dwelled as a minority. In fact, the episodes regularly and repeatedly cited, expulsions of Jews from Rome, the “pogrom” in Alexandria, and the destruction of the Temple, were highly exceptional events, caused by unusual circumstances, and in no way representative of the Jewish experience in the Mediterranean world. Jews on the whole entered the civic life of communities everywhere, built synagogues freely and ubiquitously, enrolled in gymnasia, and participated in a wide range of occupations and activities, without losing a sense of their own identity. They maintained ritual practices, like circumcision, dietary laws, and the Sabbath, and they retained connection to the Temple, even at a distance, through pilgrimage and annual tithes. Adherence to Jerusalem was in no way inconsistent with commitment to local community and allegiance to gentile governance.
Here again reaction to the book, at least by some, found it too positive and inadequately lachrymose. A good portion of the book strained the patience of certain critics. It explored a wide range of writings by late Second Temple and Hellenistic Jewish authors and extracted from them a remarkably frequent resort to humor, wit, and parody. I found such levity in numerous texts, like Esther, Tobit, Judith, 3 Maccabees, Susanna, the Testament of Abraham, the Testament of Job, and the highly idiosyncratic Artapanus who was so off-beat that some do not even consider him a Jew. Difference of opinion on such matters, of course, comes with the territory. Humor rests in the eye of the beholder. A joke for one reader may fall flat with another.. And the equation of one’s own reaction with an author’s intention is fraught with hazard, at best a suggestive proposal rather than a confident assertion, especially when dealing with the society and culture of so distant an era. Nevertheless, wry humor and clever parody occur so commonly in these texts that one cannot ascribe them to pure projection. Whether one should conclude from them, as I did, that they exhibit a sense of assurance and confidence among diaspora Jews in an environment where they could level barbed wit and even self-parody may be (and has been) disputed. Others conceive such texts as “laughter through tears.” Perhaps so. But I still prefer the proposition that they exhibit amused observation, sardonic detachment, and the freedom of self-expression by diaspora Jews.
My forays into Jewish studies have now occupied much of the past twenty years. They have been absorbing and rewarding, indeed more productive than I ever anticipated. A few years ago, a publisher asked me to assemble my essays on the subject and put them together as a book. They came to twenty three articles, including one new one written for the purpose, a collection published as Constructs of Identity in Hellenistic Judaism. I must say that I surprised myself that the individual pieces had reached such a number. They may not (certainly have not) transformed the field. But perhaps they have shaken it up a little.
Jewish matters continue to play a part in my current research. But it has moved well beyond those borders. I have been engaged in questions of ethnicity and identity more broadly in the ancient Mediterranean. This carries on a project adumbrated long ago. I nibbled around the edges of it when I treated the effects of Hellenism on Roman cultural identity and then on Jewish self-perception. But I entered the fray more directly by confronting the widespread notion that societies tended to define themselves by “othering” those unlike them and by demonizing those from whom they wished to distance and distinguish themselves. The classic statement of that approach rang loud and clear in Edward Said’s powerfully influential Orientalism. And it seeped deeply into studies of the ancient world. Negative images, misrepresentations, and stereotypes, it was regularly argued, justified marginalization and exclusion, a tendency to divide the world into the acceptable and the unacceptable, whether Greek and Persian, Roman and barbarian, Jew and Gentile, in short, the invention of the “Other.” The dichotomy was stark but simplistic. I was never comfortable with it, and eventually decided to write a book with an alternative vision. Rethinking the Other in Antiquity presented that dissenting viewpoint. It attempted to show that Greeks, Romans, and Jews (whence comes the bulk of our evidence) had far more mixed, nuanced, shifting, and complex opinions about other peoples and did not simply propagate derogatory images to enhance their own self-image. There was more going on than ethnocentrism or xenophobia. The objective of the study was to point out that ancient societies, while certainly acknowledging differences among peoples and occasionally emphasizing them, could also visualize themselves as part of a broader cultural heritage, and couch their own historical memories in terms of a borrowed or appropriated past. The “other” serves not so much for rejection or distancing as for appropriation, a more circuitous and more creative mode of fashioning a collective self-consciousness.
The Jews played their part in this. The book explores a variety of ways in which Jewish writers underscored their connectedness rather than their separatism, as in the stories of Tamar and of Ruth, and in the manipulation of traditions that implied kinship between Jews and Greeks, such as turning Abraham into a forefather of the Spartans or inventing a marriage alliance between Abraham and Heracles, as well as a number of tales that linked Jewish sages to Greek philosophers. These intertwinings, however fictitious, reveal a mindset that did not retreat into isolation and xenophobia. Nor did Greek and Roman writers view Jews as beyond the pale. They might mock their customs and badly misconstrue their practices. But that was due more to ignorance or dismissal than to animosity or malice. Even the notorious tirade by the Roman historian Tacitus, normally seen as the chief purveyor of anti-semitism, had a very different agenda. Tacitus’ penchant for irony and sardonic reversal twisted the image of the Jews largely to skewer his own countrymen. Jews were not simply “othered.”
If a consistent thread runs through my studies of Jewish history in the context of classical antiquity, it can be found in resistance to the common portrayal of Jews as victims. Such a characterization considerably skews the portrait. It misses the rich experiences that many of them enjoyed as participants in the life of Greco-Roman cities and communities, the creative literature they produced that both embraced and finessed classical traditions, and the engagement with the pagan world that enhanced their own collective consciousness.
Erich Stephen Gruen is an American classicist and ancient historian. He was the Gladys Rehard Wood Professor of History and Classics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught full-time from 1966 until 2008.