Fall 2015 Report on the Jewish Wars
The Fourth R 29-2
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This past November, the Christianity Seminar met in Atlanta in conjunction with the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting. Our goal was to deepen our understanding of the impact the two Roman-Jewish wars, in the late first and early second centuries, might have had on the texts of the New Testament and the landscape of what we call “early Christianity.”
While there are no definitive answers about the precise causes of these wars to be found in our (relatively few) sources, both the first in 66–73 ce and the second in 132–135 ce (also called the Bar Kokhba Revolt) developed out of the pressured conditions of Roman colonization, and out of the desire on the part of some Judeans for more political and cultural autonomy. Certainly class tensions within Judea and Roman interventions into major symbols and centers of Jewish life (including the temple leadership) also contributed to the years of violent eruptions that, in the first war, culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, which would never be rebuilt.
As the Christianity Seminar has emphasized, the texts, figures, and phenomena typically associated with “early Christianity” were fully part of—in fact indistinguishable from—Judean culture and traditions. So the Roman-Jewish wars were of no small or incidental importance for New Testament literature and the people who wrote it. This is especially true of the first Roman-Jewish war. Not only did it occur before anyone had even uttered the term “Christian” (a term likely coined around 115–120 ce), but references to and imaginations of this event and its possible meanings are peppered throughout the New Testament. While the second war occurred after some people began understanding themselves as Christians, most if not all of these people considered themselves to have some relationship to Judean culture, texts, or history, if not to belong fully to the larger historical entity of Israel.
To make things a bit more tricky, since so much of the Jewish population was spread across the Mediterranean, some for many generations, not all people who understood themselves as “Judean” (belonging in some way to Israel) had the same relationship to the temple and Jerusalem, or even to the territory of Judea. Jerusalem and its temple might have been significant but distant symbols to some, marginal but idealized in their imagination. Judeans living outside of Judea might have travelled to Jerusalem for an annual pilgrimage, or they might have only heard stories about Jerusalem and its temple, either about its grandeur or about its corruption by Rome. Those close by would have been more affected by the violence of the wars, but that may have given them a more nuanced or realistic picture of the complexity of relationships between the Romans and Judea as territory. So even though the people we call “early Christians” were thoroughly embedded in Judean culture and traditions, that does not necessarily mean the effects of the wars on them were obvious or straightforward.
The Christianity Seminar grappled both with very intricate historical questions about the wars and their ripple effects among people with a wide variety of relationships to Judea, and with broader questions about how people respond to colonial or imperial violence. In the case of the latter, Westar Fellows Lane McGaughy and Arthur Dewey proposed ways to understand “apocalyptic” texts and conceptualities in the first century. Is the vengeful violence of apocalyptic texts, as ideologically troubling as it is, a kind of consolation for people who have just experienced brutality? This is the suggestion of Lane McGaughy in his paper, “God, Retaliation, and the Apocalyptic Scenario.” He also placed the rise of apocalyptic literature, during the Hellenistic and early Roman periods, within a larger history of creation/destruction narratives in the ancient Middle East. On the other hand, as Arthur Dewey claims in his paper, “Switchback Codes: Paul, Apocalyptic, and the Art of Resistance,” perhaps apocalyptic language might be more of a statement of political resistance, an imagination of a new world order, that interrupts the relentlessness of Roman dominance. Through Dewey’s reading of Paul’s apocalyptic passages, the Seminar considered to what extent such bombastic language about a new world order should be taken seriously as a political program. Is such language really a subversive intervention? Is it the hailing of a new age or new way of being? Or is it does it act more as a murmur of discontent, flying under the radar rather than in the face of the powers-that-be? Whatever the case, these papers together provoked conversation about why so many images and experiences of Roman violence get incorporated into New Testament literature not (just) as the unsparing work of the Romans, but as the righteous works of God.
John Marshall (University of Toronto) and Heidi Wendt (Wright State University in Ohio) explored the possible impacts of the Jewish wars on and in concrete dimensions of social life around the ancient Mediterranean. Marshall’s “Judean Diaspora, Judean War: Class and Networks” borrows from Martin Goodman’s thesis, in his book The Ruling Class of Judaea, that the first Jewish war was a result of tensions between the lower classes and an exploitative ruling class that could not control resistant portions of the population. Marshall pushes back against the idea proposed by some scholars that those living outside of Judea were untouched by the wars. He points to Revelation and 6 Ezra (a work outside the biblical canon) as texts, emerging from locales other than the territory of Judea, that critique the social networks and alliances some Jews formed with Rome and wealthy Roman benefactors.
Heidi Wendt’s “From the Herodians to Hadrian: The Shifting Status of Judean Religion in Post-Flavian Rome” offered a number of startling and productive historical proposals. For one, she suggests that despite the clear damage to Judean traditions, symbols, and social structures, the wars also increased the profile of Judean traditions and won new audiences for Judean scriptures/traditions and the freelance teachers and experts who interpreted them. There was of course an increasing diffusion and decentralization of Judean culture and tradition after the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, and the field of self-proclaimed experts on Judean traditions suddenly became quite crowded. Not only crowded, but rife with disagreement about what constituted authenticity and authority relative to these traditions. And yet there was still a certain suspicion around Judean-ness, perhaps even shame, especially following the wars. As Wendt points out, this is why we see increasingly heated rhetoric around authenticity and authority relative to Judean traditions, coupled with a fear of being too closely associated with Judean-ness, in New Testament and other literature of the late first and early second centuries.
All of the seminar papers illustrated how unpredictable the effects of violence can be. They also illustrated how felt attachments to, or disillusionment with, Judeanness in the late first and early second century were not at all about “Judaism” as a monolithic category or “religion” as we know it. These responses are better understood as responses to concrete social, political, and geographic factors.