Who Exactly Were the Ancient Jews? At least according to Seth Schwartz?

Recently Cambridge University Press released its newest publication in the expansive “Key Themes in Ancient History” series by the prominent historian Seth Schwartz, amorphously entitled The Ancient Jews from Alexander to Muhammad.

Those with even a peripheral knowledge of ancient history will know that such a task is ambiguous, which even Schwartz explicitly states: “to write in a synoptic and summary way about the ancient Jews is to tread through a minefield” (5). For one, there is no synonymous “Jewish” identity throughout antiquity. Rather, the development of ethnic separatism, the primacy of Torat Moshe, and the prevalence of distinctly Jewish cultural practices follow a complicated trajectory, a trajectory Schwartz endeavors to trace with care. Further, a long lineage of positivistic historiography driven by theological and political motivations generated, what Schwartz deems repeatedly, irresponsible uses of the textual sources.  The task of this book is to defamiliarize the material and to restore its antique context, sifting our sources through “precise analytic scrutiny” (152).

In a more condensed and perhaps more self-reflective form of his earlier chronology in Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 BCE to 640 CE, Schwartz produces a succinct minimalist historical narrative, heavily nuanced by archeological evidence and Neusnarian skepticism.

From the Macedonian conquest until the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE, Schwartz recognizes a strong group identity practically served by the possession of a country and an acknowledged religious center, which facilitated the commerce of donation and pilgrimage. 70 CE, for Schwartz, is a turning point not to be neglected for it “marked transformations of demography, politics, Jewish civil status, Palestinian and more general Jewish economic and social structures, Jewish religious life beyond the sacrificial cult, and even Roman politics and the topography of the city of Rome itself” (86). These transformations contributed to the cessation of Judaism as a set of normative religious customs and as a component of public life (117). From this dormancy a remnant of Judean clerisy emerged forming a small rabbinic professional class in competition with Roman urban localism, only attaining substantive recognition in the later third and fourth centuries.

This narrative, produced under what could be called “the Schwartzian method,” reflects Schwartz’ attempt to be responsible with ancient texts by allowing them their gaps and insufficiencies, competently recognizing that which we cannot know. He resists the impulse toward categorical abstraction and instead calls us to consider the multivocalic evidence we possess about antique life.

For example, when describing the status of Jewish communities under the newly Christianized Roman state, Schwartz writes:

Instead, we should imagine a more fluid landscape of communities rising and failing, coalescing and scattering, and we should regard compromise, tension and instability as more typical than calm, prosperous respectability, though some communities may occasionally have attained that happy state (130).

To state his analysis in Facebookian terms, the relationship between Jews and Christians in the fourth century…it’s complicated.

And this neologism is perhaps indicative of the schwartzian model as a whole. While the impulse to speak of the abstract—the Christianity and Judaism of our modern mind—is enticing, Schwartz thrusts these categories into the mire of details. “Real life was messier than legal principle,” he writes (134), and this reminder should serve as the pin that pricks our ideological impulses and theoretical categorization. If we are to speak of late antique religions responsibly, we must embrace the ambiguity of the textual sources for ourselves.

The imperative from The Ancient Jews may very well be: “Let us have nuance and evidence!” 

Informal review of Seth Schwartz, The Ancient Jews from Alexander to Muhammad (Key Themes in Ancient History) Cambridge Press: Cambridge, 2014, xi+ 190 pp.