Monday, November 30, 2015


Vasily Rudich, Religious Dissent in the Roman Empire: Violence in Judaea at the Time of Nero. Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies. London; New York: Routledge, 2015. Pp. xxiv, 350. ISBN 9780415161060. $160.00.

Reviewed by William den Hollander, Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (

Version at BMCR home site


The monograph under review is in more than one way a bold one. While his expertise as a Roman historian certainly provided Rudich with a valuable foundation for the present study, and his earlier examinations of dissident psychology led naturally to this analysis of violent religious dissent,1 his focus on Roman Judea necessitated a brave plunge into unfamiliar territory, a virtual quagmire of scholarly literature that he admits to having underestimated initially (xi-xii). The high degree to which he immersed himself in the ancient texts and modern scholarship is, however, a credit to his industry and a direct benefit to the depth of his contributions—although it should be noted that he closed his 'dossier' by the end of 2011, so that the book does not necessarily reflect the latest trends in scholarship.

Despite his position as a relative newcomer, Rudich is also unflinching in engaging in the dizzying number of debates within the field. While some of this takes place in the body of the book, much of it happens behind the scenes in the footnotes, which are extensive to a fault. Rudich wades in on virtually every scholarly disagreement, including those that are marginal to his overall argument (e.g., the Essene-Qumran hypothesis). The result is that the scholarly apparatus, which appears only online (a questionable trend), is massive and unwieldy. That being said, the notes are thankfully not essential to the overall flow of the argument. This was by design, since the volume is aimed not only at experts in the field, but also 'lay educated and interested readers'.

Rudich is also refreshingly forthcoming with regard to his methodological approach and even the degree to which his Weltanschauung affects his craft as historian. He is openly critical of present trends within the guild, demonstrating clearly the extent to which postmodernism, especially through language studies, has (negatively, in his view) affected historical methodology. He is self-conscious throughout regarding his own attempts to sidestep the logical and methodological traps that exist (41). He places great emphasis on the existence of contemporaries who would be able to corroborate or falsify details, suggesting that they operated as a control over the extent to which historians could fictionalize their narratives. This approach has its merits but, apart from a clear understanding of the actual audience, can become rather arbitrary. In addition, he brings to the table a greater openness to the dynamics of religious experience, which tend to be rationalized in modern secular scholarship. This is essential to his overall aim to explore violent dissent in Judea, since much of it is incomprehensible without appreciation for the very real religious sentiments of those involved.

After his opening preface and introduction, which set the parameters of his analysis and provide the most focused discussion of methodology, Rudich includes a chapter ("The Vibrant Faith") that sets the broader scene for his more concentrated interest, the role of the violent form of religious dissent in Second Temple Judea. In this chapter he takes aim at the current trend to speak of 'Judaisms', which he dismisses as unduly influenced by "relativist cultural anthropology and postmodernist argumentative procedures" (11). He argues, in contrast, for the existence of an essential unity to Judaism that can be described as the religious establishment, while acknowledging the existence of variety within that group (e.g. Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes).

The second significant part of this opening chapter is devoted to tackling the source problems for Second Temple Judaism. Here Rudich is most critical of recent trends in scholarship. He observes, "The amount of modern scholarship on Josephus is virtually beyond grasp and is fraught with irreconcilable contradictions" (41). He is especially critical of 'composition- criticism', suggesting that it "privileges the literary aspects of the narrative at the expense of their historical value" (47). While Rudich is certainly correct in pushing back against radical historical skepticism, he does not do justice to the insights that have been achieved, regarding, for example, Josephus' literary aims, which are equally historical concerns. In any case, it is when Rudich turns his attention to his own area of expertise, psychological history, that his most valuable contributions are made.

The following chapter ("The Breaking Point") marks the real beginning of Rudich's analysis. The focal point is the cessation of sacrifices on behalf of the emperor, which served as the casus belli for the Romans. Rudich takes seriously the religious motivations of those involved, especially their conviction that their justifiable actions would engender divine support. Also covered are the disputes between the Jews and gentiles in cities such as Caesarea, and the disastrous relations between the Jews and the procurator Gessius Florus, whose disastrous actions Rudich identifies as qualitatively different from those of his predecessors. While this chapter does less to advance Rudich's main concern, violent religious dissent, than to present a thorough psychological investigation of Florus' behaviour, it does advance the overall profile of the revolt.

The subsequent chapter ("The Conquered Land") is somewhat oddly placed in that it provides an historical outline of Rome's involvement in the affairs of Palaestina up until the revolt. A more natural placement would have been before the foregoing analysis of the opening scenes of the revolt. Of particular importance is Rudich's discussion of Pompey's desecration of the Temple by his entry into the Holy of Holies. He observes that our modern sensibilities, our loss of a sense of the 'sacred', may cause us to miss the significance of this act for the Jews in terms of inspiration and propaganda. In terms of religious dissent, however, these earlier periods were not particularly noteworthy. Quirinius' controversial census of AD 6 forms the first significant manifestation of the religious dissent movement, since it gave rise to the so-called 'fourth philosophy' begun by Judas the Galilean. But Rudich devotes an entire later chapter to this episode. For the rest, then, he focuses on further moments of breakdown in the relationship between Jews and Romans (e.g. Pontius Pilate, Caligula), although he cautions against the impression that Roman Judea was in perpetual turmoil. He suggests that throughout this period there were those who practiced religious dissent, but their influence waxed and waned.

In the following chapter ("The Fragile Balance"), Rudich turns his attention to the opening stages of the revolt, particularly the emergence of a leadership core in Jerusalem, 'the first regime', and the conduct of the war in Galilee. Throughout the chapter Rudich is forced to wrestle with the difficulties inherent in using Josephus' inconsistent, contradictory, and even deceptive narratives. Rudich effectively maintains in view his concern with the psychological profile of those involved in the revolt. Regarding the members of the Jewish establishment and initial leaders of the revolution, he emphasizes that they were motivated more by pragmatic considerations than religious feelings. This made them political dissidents practicing dissimulatio more than religious dissenters motivated by wishful thinking. One of the more intriguing and novel parts of this chapter is the discussion of Josephus' famous dreams and subsequent prediction that Vespasian would become emperor. Rudich takes Josephus' claim seriously and judges it "an authentic psychological experience" (195), explainable by common psychological phenomena manifesting themselves in times of extreme tension.

Rudich is at his best when he turns to describing the zealot movement ("The Zealous Storm"). As he observes, this disparate collection of groups and individuals, subsumed under the term 'zealots' but displaying varying levels of solidarity, comes closer to the category of religious dissenters. His sensitivity to psychological motivations makes this chapter a worthwhile contribution to understanding the rationale behind the revolutionaries' actions. Ultimately, they privileged their 'zealous' interpretation of God's will above all else, including even desecration of the Temple. For Rudich there are, therefore, lessons to be learned and he calls modern Western liberal scholars to task for romanticizing such efforts and thereby failing to acknowledge the terror and mayhem that 'zealots' advance in pursuit of their 'higher' goals.

In his penultimate chapter, "The Dagger Men", Rudich focuses on the clearest example of religious dissenters, namely the revolutionary group called the sicarii, so-named for the dagger (sica) they used to carry out high profile killings in broad daylight. Rudich links this 'sect' to the 'fourth philosophy' and so this chapter includes the analysis of that earlier group of violent dissenters. These objected in particular to having any master apart from God, but felt no compunction against sacrificing their compatriots or themselves, all in the name of God. The sicarii, for their part, eventually rejected the religious establishment entirely, retreating to the desert fortress of Masada rather than continuing the revolt alongside their fellow countrymen. The final tragic mass self-destruction, Rudich suggests, is only explainable by the psychology of religious dissent.

The final chapter ("The Fateful Siege") takes Rudich beyond the chronological scope of his project, but for the sake of completeness he considers the impact of the psychology of religious dissent on the last stage of the revolt. The most creative contribution concerns Simon b. Giora's spectacular surrender to the Romans, which Rudich suggests is explained best by a certain belief on the part of the rebel leader in his special destiny—perhaps a 'Messianic complex'—and by the power of wishful thinking. Further to his main aim is the discussion of the disastrous destruction of food provisions, which he suggests may have been motivated by an urge to hasten the longed-for eschatological event. An excursus on the intriguing figure of Johanan b. Zakkai, who appears only in the rabbinic literature, reveals for Rudich a foil to the radical religious dissidents of Masada and provides also a demonstration of his common-sense hermeneutic, which he pits against postmodernist historiography. Finally, Rudich explains the unique fervour with which the last defenders undertook to preserve their temple as rooted in their deep-seated conviction that they were championing God's cause and would, therefore, inherit eternal reward.

Rudich closes his monograph with a brief conclusion that usefully summarizes the thrust of his argumentation regarding the significance of militant religious dissent. He argues for the importance of recognizing this as a factor in the historical process and, even more so, the necessity of indicting such violent dissenters. As is the case throughout his study, there is a persistent consciousness of the relevance of his suppositions for an understanding of the world in which we live, including our more recent history(-ies). He ends, therefore, with an appeal to address the present problem of militant religious dissent in Islamic groups by a return to an understanding of the meaning and importance of the 'sacred' and by a greater effort to convince extremists of the contradictory nature of their attitudes to their own spiritual framework, which had been the (unsuccessful) approach of Jews like Josephus.

This contemporaneity of Rudich's analysis marks one of the more valuable aspects of this book. In addition, his willingness to speak critically to current historical methodology and his advocacy of a less secularist approach to understanding religious mentality—and his demonstration of its value—make this worthwhile reading for a broad audience. While not everyone will agree with his suppositions, his bold criticism is thought-provoking and cannot be ignored. At the same time, he also provides a valuable contribution in the narrower field of scholarship dealing with the Jewish revolt. It is unfortunate, however, that it is necessary to wade through significant background material that is only marginally relevant to his main thesis before one gets to Rudich's novel and worthwhile observations and conclusions. Perhaps he felt the need to establish his credentials in this contested field. If that is the case, he has succeeded admirably all around.


1.   Vasily Rudich. Dissidence and Literature under Nero: The Price of Rhetoricization. London: Routledge, 1997; Political Dissidence under Nero: The Price of Dissimulation. London: Routledge, 2005.

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