Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Schwartz on Ancient Jews

Cambridge is about to publish a new book by Seth Schwartz on ancient Judaism, Ancient Jews from Alexander to Muhammad. You have to wait another few weeks for the print book (scheduled for July), but Amazon will sell you the Kindle version now. That's the one I'm reading, and so far I've gotten through the introduction. Though the book is designed to be an introduction "for students and scholars" (from the book's description), I can tell I'm going to learn a lot. Schwartz says in the preface that this is designed to be "an abbreviation, rethinking, updating and re-orientation of Schwartz 2001" (Kindle loc. 59). Since I haven't gotten all the way through that earlier book, I'm glad to have this abbreviation and updating of it.

By the way, once again this book on Kindle does not include page numbers, at least not at this point. (Maybe they will magically appear at some point?) So, I'll be citing Kindle location numbers. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Here are some notes Schwartz' Introduction:

Schwartz sets himself the task of describing ancient Jews "from the Battle of Issus, 333 BCE, to the Arab conquest of Syria and Palestine, 638 CE, with an inevitable focus, due to the nature of the sources, on what may be called the long first century, from the accession of King Herod in 40 BCE to the end of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 135 CE, and on the relatively well-attested fourth century CE" (loc. 424).

He wants to investigate "how to account for the emergence of the Jews as a distinct and enduringly distinctive group, their impact on their social and political environment and its impact on them" (loc. 187).

Schwartz discusses in this introduction the issue of how to categorize ancient Jews. Did they form a distinct group? What does that mean? What categories should we use to describe them? He wants to avoid anachronism.
One of my goals in this book is to produce an account of the ancient Jews which resonates oddly because so much of it (like so much of classical antiquity in general) is simultaneously uncannily familiar and completely unrecognizable. (loc. 248)
Schwartz then raises the question of whether we can or should use modern categories for understanding an ancient people, categories that might not have made complete sense to those ancient people. Schwartz argues in favor of this.
To take as an example a concept especially relevant to this book, it has been argued that the term 'religion' as we now use it is shaped by the concerns of the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, and so is invalid if applied to earlier cultural practice, or outside areas that are part of the European cultural sphere. This is because the word is too freighted with modern baggage to use without misleading, but also because the abstract concept 'religion' allegedly did not exist in any meaningful way before the Enlightenment. Now this second point is inaccurate, since medieval Christians--and Muslims and Jews--indubitably had the term, and it indubitably had a meaning related, though not identical, to its post-Enlightenment meaning. (loc. 254-60)
Schwartz goes on to say that the term 'religion' can be misleading, and that our modern concept 'religion' has no precisely equivalent ancient term, and not all varieties of modern Judaism can be thought of as 'religions' (Reform--yes; Zionism--no), and even to term 'Jew' doesn't necessarily correspond to an ancient reality.
But 'religion', if understood to refer simply to practices, social and cognitive, which embody people's relationships with their god(s), is too useful a term to discard, even if it admittedly has a dangerous tendency to mislead. Those who advocate the abolition of such terms, as opposed to their cautiously sceptical and self-aware analytical deployment, are forgetting that historians' primary job is translation or explanation, and that we can begint o make sense of worlds which are different from our own only by using concepts familiar to us with all due caution and self-consciousness. (loc. 277)
He cites his article in this journal issue for more.

Do we know a Jew when we see one?

This is the title of a helpful section in which Schwartz discusses whether ancient Judaism was recognizable as a distinct entity, whether anything bound ancient Jews together as one group. Some forms of modern Judaism do not distinguish its members from outsiders in any perceptible way, but medieval and early modern Jews were separated by their adherence to specific laws.
To be Jewish meant to belong to a distinct legal category and to live your life according to a well-defined (if not always and everywhere uniform) set of rules. It required at the very least conformity with the laws of the Torah as refracted through the Talmud and interpreted by contemporary rabbinic legal experts. (loc. 299)
What about ancient Jews? Shaye Cohen's answer is no (mentioned by Schwartz in a note at the beginning of the section; see ch. 2 of this book). Schwartz begins (at loc. 317) with previous answers. He says that it used to be assumed that ancient Jews were like medieval Jews, and outliers like Philo were regarded as non-typical and possibly heretical. The 1960s brought a reversal, as scholars began to think of ancient Judaism more in terms of the diversity of modern varieties of Judaism rather than in terms of the near-homogeneity of medieval Judaism. Schwartz praises this move, but also criticizes it, because "the new scholarship, for all its vigilance and caution, was not infrequently blind to its own ideological motivations, or at least it avoided revealing them" (loc. 369). Neusner's project of analyzing the various "Judaisms" revealed in the different rabbinic writings comes in for some critique, as do the theories of J.Z. Smith (esp. as articulated in this 1978 essay) which influenced Neusner (loc. 397).
There is some validity to this after all [i.e., Smith's insistence on multiple Judaisms with little in common], but Smith's illustration [= varying Jewish explanations for the practice of circumcision] actually proves two things, neither of them intended by Smith. The first is the danger mentioned above of understanding ancient Judaism through concepts like 'religion'. Smith strikingly, embarrassingly and presumably unconsciously, christianized: the idea that theology is what mainly matters about a religion, rather than ritual behaviour, is after all a peculiarly Christian one, and it is a categorical error to describe other religions, including Judaism, by emphasizing theology over practice, as Smith did, by privileging the divergent ancient explanations of circumcision over its shared practice. So it emerges that the texts prove (my second point) that at least in this case one can tentatively speak of a normative centre in ancient Judaism. All Smiths texts endorse the practice of male circumcision, which is why they are so keen to discern its meaning, and none opposes it or regards it as optional. (loc. 408-13)
Schwartz says that ancient Judaism should not be thought of either as equivalent to modern Judaism or to medieval Judaism, but perhaps somewhat in between--not as homogenous as medieval Judaism, not as diverse as modern Judaism.

One further note:

From the preface: "John [Ma] sent me [...] some not yet published papers which contain the most original ideas about the background of the Maccabean Revolt since Bickerman's" (loc. 70). High praise. For an online essay by Ma on this topic, see MRB. In that piece, Ma mentions a forthcoming book by Sylvie Honigman, now scheduled for August release.

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