Friday, March 12, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Seth Schwartz, Were the Jews a Mediterranean Society?: Reciprocity and Solidarity in Ancient Judaism. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010. Pp. x, 212. ISBN 9780691140544. $29.95.
Reviewed by Benedikt Eckhardt, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster


In this monograph, Seth Schwartz attempts to give one answer to what may well be the two questions most discussed by scholars who study the history of the Jews in Second Temple times and Late Antiquity: 1. What was the relationship between "Judaism and Hellenism"?; and 2. Why did the Roman Empire fail to integrate the Jews? As could be expected by any reader familiar with his last book Imperialism and Jewish Society,1 Schwartz covers a very broad range of time (ca. 200 BCE until ca. 370 CE), follows a complex methodological approach (see below), makes up the lack of evidence by in-depth readings of the texts we do have, and never wastes a word. The analysis is confined to 177 pages of text. As with Imperialism and Jewish Society, the result may well be one of the most thought-provoking books written on the period in recent years.

Schwartz starts with stating his aims (p. 1-20). He seeks to uncover in what respect the Jews were "in their social relations, discourse, imagination, and even cultural practice, 'normal' inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean world" (p. 5). He therefore focuses on the way social relations are conceptualized in a given society. The dichotomy used is called "Reciprocity and Solidarity". Taken as ideal-types, the two concepts describe different approaches to gift-giving and exchange. While the first concept demands that a gift is reciprocated, thereby establishing relations of social domination and dependence (vassalage, debt bondage, patronage), the second does not. Solidarity-based societies would describe themselves as standing in opposition to reciprocity-based societies: The gift should not establish dependencies, in fact, should not actually be seen as a gift in the way the reciprocity-theory would demand. In contrast, an ideal of "corporate solidarity" would obligate the members of a given society to love (and support) all its members, not just patrons, clients, "friends". While charity is obligatory, charity should not turn into a "dependency-generating gift" (p. 18). Such counter-models Schwartz finds in Classical Athens and in the Torah, while he attributes to the ancient Mediterranean world in general a culture of "institutionalized reciprocity". He does, however, acknowledge that both concepts cannot exist in purest form and need each other to be effective.

The second chapter defines more clearly what is meant by "Mediterranean". Contrary to anthropological claims, "Mediterranean culture" (thought to be marked by institutional reciprocity, honour-shame mentality, female sexuality perceived as dangerous, and more) is not a cultural reality, but a heuristic model. As such, it is useful despite its shortcomings. This is mainly because, although there may not have been an actual "Mediterranean culture", the Torah still reads like describing a "Mediterranean counterculture", denying the validity of exactly the values and institutions anthropologists have defined as typically Mediterranean. Thus, honour only resides with God, not with men. An Israelite cannot be in a position of dependence on anyone; therefore, even the family is not imagined as an entity creating social dependency (Schwartz mentions the lack of a concept of legitimate vendetta). The Torah knows no real aristocracy. Land is to be returned to the original owners every 50 years (Lev. 25.8-12). "Connectivity" is expressly forbidden: Israelites shall avoid even small-scale contacts with other peoples. These prescriptions react to widespread practices and constitute a (partly utopian) "counterculture". This is of some relevance for the Jews' integration into the Roman Empire, because Schwartz argues that Roman rule depended largely on exactly those aspects of reciprocity-based societies which the Torah regarded as illegitimate. By co-opting local systems of dependency and extending the patron-client relationship to include the emperor as the greatest benefactor, Rome managed to make use of the widespread praxis of institutionalized reciprocity. Schwartz therefore sees a structural problem in Roman-Jewish relations, because Jewish traditions did not allow this strategy to function (p. 33-42).

After having stated his general argument, Schwartz turns to three textual corpora in order to examine Jewish attitudes towards reciprocity and solidarity: The apocryphal (deuterocanonical) book of Ben Sira, the works of Flavius Josephus, and the Palestinian Talmud. Schwartz attributes to Ben Sira (ca. 190 BCE) a theory according to which there exist three types of law given by God, one for nature, one for mankind, one for Israel. This is based on a controversial reading of Sir 16:24-17:23 and would provide a solution for the curious fact that Ben Sira does, on the one hand, identify Torah and wisdom, and on the other hand gives (wisdom-based) advice how successfully to prevail in social contexts the Torah does not regard as legitimate. That Ben Sira does give much advice about how to behave in situations which may generate social dependency or shame shows that his wisdom aims at providing a method for dominating without being dominated. What others have regarded as mere expressions of piety is read by Schwartz in the light of his model. Charity is a social strategy (the poor won't hurt the one who gives); piety is a condition for social domination. In Schwartz's reading, Ben Sira tries to do justice both to the anti-reciprocal ideology of the Torah and to the fact that it is impossible to avoid the situations banned by this ideology. His aim is "to provide a Jewish, Torah-based justification for a set of social and cultural norms that in reality were radically at odds with the norms and ethos of the Torah" (p. 78).

The works of Josephus are very different; therefore Schwartz focuses on different aspects: Euergetism and memorialization (understood as the normal way of reciprocating benefactions in the Graeco-Roman world). Josephus does not present euergetism as a part of Jewish social life. Jews have their own way of life based in all respects on piety; charity is an obligation, which leaves little room for euergetism. While Schwartz is careful not to generalize (thus, Moses and Josephus himself appear as models of good euergetism), he emphasizes that Josephus regards monumental tombs and other forms of thankfulness as alien to Judaism. Even Herod's temple causes the people to thank not him, but God. In contrast, Jews do memorialize their benefactors (marked primarily not by deeds, but by arete) by inscribing them into texts (whether orally recited or written). Schwartz here incorporates archaeological findings from Jerusalem. While Josephus' claim that Jews never have monumental tombs does not stand the test, his general argument is judged to be correct: Where tombs are to be found, they are private buildings, and it is indeed remarkable that there are no inscriptions from Jerusalem commemorating the deeds of benefactors, quite in contrast to Greek cities or, for that matter, to Rome.

Turning to (Palestinian) Rabbinic texts, Schwartz presupposes the theory for which he argued in Imperialism and Jewish Society and which has caused considerable debate: That the Rabbis were a marginal group who sometimes claimed in their texts, but did not possess in reality authority over a majority of Jews. He does not, however, engage in polemics2 and occupies himself instead with the Rabbis' rejection of Roman values. He often finds them exploiting the values of reciprocity and memorialization for their own, Jewish purposes. Thus, while for the Rabbis memorializing honours conveyed by humans are void, they may be used to convince non-rabbinic Jews to practice charity. Schwartz further investigates how honour is treated in inner-Rabbinic debates. Discussions about pupils citing their teachers (is it because they have to convey honour to them?) and rising for elders or those higher in rank (is someone higher in rank necessarily worth rising for?) show that the Rabbis asked some of the same questions as Ben Sira and Josephus. In sum, they do acknowledge the importance of honour, but regard the Roman way of achieving it as alien to Judaism.

In the end, Schwartz argues for a general adaptability of his model for scholars working on the history of (especially) pre-modern Judaism. He even sees a continuity of some anti-Mediterranean elements today (p. 171). In two appendices, relevant texts of Ben Sira and Josephus are printed in translation. While in the latter case the translations are adapted from LCL, for Ben Sira Schwartz gives his own. As he acknowledges early on, Ben Sira is most difficult to translate, partly because of considerably different versions (Hebrew, Greek, Syriac), partly because the parts of the text which have come down to us in Hebrew are not well preserved and sometimes incomprehensible. Not surprisingly, some decisions taken by Schwartz may be debated. In 7:18 he understands "Do not exchange a friend for money or a dependent [?] brother for the gold of Ophir", noting that talui ("dependent") "makes little sense here". He does not mention Ginzberg's solution which relates the verse to the praxis of weighing gold ("ausgewogen"); it is accepted in the most recent commentary by Sauer, which has also escaped the notion of Schwartz.3 10:28 is given by Schwartz as "my son, in modesty honor yourself and He will give you political power as you deserve", but the reference to God is not necessary; it is based solely on MS A (wjtn), while both MS B (wtn) and the Greek (dós) leave the son in control. There will be other instances where different decisions are possible, but in general, this reviewer has found the translations to be helpful and accurate.

This is a great scholarly work, exemplary for the methodological caution and theoretical proficiency applied to texts often studied in the most conservative of ways. It is what Schwartz once says about Bickerman: "refreshingly nontheological" (p. 77 note 75). Often this reviewer has found himself admiring the originality and complexity of Schwartz's thought. Some observation, however, do seem in order.

While it is of course impossible to cover every possible aspect of the topic on 177 pages, an obvious weakness of the argument is the general limitation of the evidence. Arguments from silence (as in the case of the non-existence of certain inscriptions) do have some force. But the fact remains that Schwartz can hardly do more than to read texts and deduce culture from them. This is, to be sure, much more fruitful than the "materialist" approach which draws up inventories, mistaking artefacts for "culture".4 Schwartz has grown ever more sceptical about this concept of "Hellenization", which is indeed too simple. But if, as this reviewer believes, the only reasonable definition of "culture" takes it to be a mode of observation, which allows to treat perceived differences as information,5 even Schwartz might sometimes not be radical enough. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that he can show for Josephus and the Rabbis that they are actually observing matters alongside the lines Schwartz's theory requires; thus his model is certainly a powerful one. It also helps to read Ben Sira in an entirely new light, which has its merits. One wonders, however, if the same model would have been applicable to other texts. While Schwartz's claim that the family is not a prominent social network in the Pentateuch is counterintuitive but possibly correct, it is hard to see how a text like the book of Tobit (usually thought to be contemporary with Ben Sira) would fit in here. What is more, the advantage of analyzing Ben Sira and Josephus (and not, say, Tobit, Judit, the Books of the Maccabees) is that we know at least something about the people who wrote these texts; this, however, raises the problem of how representative they are. Josephus is certainly an unusual man in many regards. The fact that, compared to archaeological findings, his statements about Jewish memorialization are "not completely wrong" (p. 106) provides a rather unstable basis for explaining the lack of Jewish integration into the Roman Empire. And although Schwartz has expressed caution against comparing Jewish ideals with Roman praxis6, one sometimes wonders what else it is when he compares Ben Sira's advice or Rabbinic discussions with the euergetic praxis of the Graeco-Roman world.

There are also some omissions which might affect the argument. For example, Herod (p. 99-102) could have received a more extensive treatment (apart from the question what Josephus thinks about him); it does not become clear why his attempts to integrate Judea into the Roman oikumene were not successfully continued by his successors, and why his euergetism seems to have functioned better than theirs (after all, Josephus claims the opposite). The discussion of different views on money (p. 70-74) could have been extended - Ben Sira does not provide a negative perspective on money; is this because the impersonal character of money stands against the dependency-generating personality of the gift? One could have incorporated the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QS v 14-20: All contact with outsiders is to be avoided, except where money is involved). More serious is the lack of reference to the Hasmoneans. Schwartz creates the impression that the Roman conquest brought about confrontation with euergetism, a praxis formerly alien to the Jews. But the Hasmoneans actually posed as benefactors already in the second century BCE. 1 Maccabees 14 transmits the honorary decree for Simon, which shares many characteristics with the kind of honorary decrees Schwartz did not find in Jerusalem. Note also that the Hasmoneans did build monumental tombs and may have influenced broader parts of the Judean aristocracy to do the same.7 Hasmonean propaganda at least seems to anticipate developments Schwartz sees at work only later. Also problematic is the sharp differentiation between mneme achieved through texts or through monuments. Certainly Romans were also keen on being inscribed into texts; suffice it to point to Pliny's correspondence with Tacitus.

Despite these objections, there can be no doubt that Schwartz's book is essential reading for anyone working in the field. The attempt to answer two big questions at once is laudable, the analysis is carefully done, and the conclusions are complex. We need more studies operating on such a high level of abstraction. I only fear that there are not too many scholars able to write them.


1.   S. Schwartz: Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E., Princeton/Oxford 2001.
2.   Note the conservative reactions labelling him a "fundamentalist": H. I. Newman: The Normativity of Rabbinic Judaism: Obstacles on the Path to a New Consensus, in: L. I. Levine, D. R. Schwartz (ed.): Jewish Identities in Antiquity. Studies in Memory of Menahem Stern, Tübingen 2009, 165-171; M. D. Herr: The Identity of the Jewish People Before and After the Destruction of the Second Temple: Continuity or Change?, 211-236 in the same volume.
3.   L. Ginzberg: Randglossen zum hebräischen Ben Sira, in: C. Bezold (ed.): Orientalische Studien. Theodor Nöldeke zum 70. Geburtstag (2.3.06) gewidmet, Giessen 1906, 2:609-625, at 617; G. Sauer: Jesus Sirach / Ben Sira, Göttingen 2000, 90. Sauer's commentary clearly falls into the category of "pietistic, theologically oriented scholarship" justly criticized by Schwartz, 77.
4.   As in the magisterial study by M. Hengel: Judentum und Hellenismus. Judentum und Hellenismus. Studien zu ihrer Begegnung unter besonderer Berücksichtigung Palästinas bis zur Mitte des 2. Jahrhunderts v. Chr., 3rd ed. Tübingen 1988.
5.   Along the lines of N. Luhmann: Kultur als historischer Begriff, in: id.: Gesellschaftsstruktur und Semantik. Studien zur Wissenssoziologie der modernen Gesellschaft, vol. 4, Frankfurt am Main 1995, 31-54.
6.   Forcefully argued in his review of Goodman, see S. Schwartz: Sunt Lachrymae Rerum, Jewish Quarterly Review 99 (2009), 56-64, at 62.
7.   Cf. O. Tal: Hellenism in Transition from Empire to Kingdom: Changes in the Material Culture of Hellenistic Palestine, 55-73 in the volume cited above, no. 2.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.