What was life like for Jews settled throughout the Mediterranean world of Classical antiquity--and what place did Jewish communities have in the diverse civilization dominated by Greeks and Romans? In a probing account of the Jewish diaspora in the four centuries from Alexander the Great's conquest of the Near East to the Roman destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 C.E., Erich Gruen reaches often surprising conclusions.
By the first century of our era, Jews living abroad far outnumbered those living in Palestine and had done so for generations. Substantial Jewish communities were found throughout the Greek mainland and Aegean islands, Asia Minor, the Tigris-Euphrates valley, Egypt, and Italy. Focusing especially on Alexandria, Greek cities in Asia Minor, and Rome, Gruen explores the lives of these Jews: the obstacles they encountered, the institutions they established, and their strategies for adjustment. He also delves into Jewish writing in this period, teasing out how Jews in the diaspora saw themselves. There emerges a picture of a Jewish minority that was at home in Greco-Roman cities: subject to only sporadic harassment; its intellectuals immersed in Greco-Roman culture while refashioning it for their own purposes; exhibiting little sign of insecurity in an alien society; and demonstrating both a respect for the Holy Land and a commitment to the local community and Gentile government. Gruen's innovative analysis of the historical and literary record alters our understanding of the way this vibrant minority culture engaged with the dominant Classical civilization.
Eloquently, learnedly, persuasively, Gruen invites the reader of his new book to consider familiar evidence from the Jewish past from a new—one might say a non-diaspora—perspective. His point is simple, but its historical implications are profound. As he observes, in the nearly four hundred years that stretch between Alexander the Great…and the emperor Nero…Jews could be found in large numbers, and in well-established communities, throughout the Mediterranean. Neither military compulsion nor the vicissitudes of captivity had brought most of them to those places. To state the point a little differently: the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 C.E. did not cause the second diaspora. Many ancient Jews—probably most ancient Jews—had by that point lived outside the land of Israel for centuries. They did so, evidently, because they wanted to do so.
[Gruen’s] book reminds us that, remarkably, there was a time in history when there was no anti-Semitism. Its virulent strain only broke out in the terrible race riot in Alexandria of 38 CE, when the Romans were already ruling the city and the Jews and the Egyptians were vying for their favor—and their jobs. Gruen’s fine book is obviously the labor of a lifetime.
Mr. Gruen, a specialist in the history of the Hellenistic period and author of the magisterial volume The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome, explores the complex and often ambiguous place of Jewish communities in the classical world and the ways in which Jewish literary culture grew and flourished in this diaspora. He argues forcefully that Greece and Rome were not the unrelenting oppressors that Jewish tradition makes them out to be.
Gruen’s greatest contribution is that he sees the events…of Jewish history and the literature produced by Hellenistic Jews against the backdrop of events of contemporary non-Jewish history and culture… I have seldom read a book on such a controversial topic that is so full of common sense—and so readable.
Gruen convincingly demolishes whatever remains of the polarized picture of Jews either faithful to their traditions and longing for Jerusalem or swallowed up in a hostile, alien culture… [A] learned and lively presentation of the evidence as well as the theme.
Rather than seeing Jews as passive or as mere victims of hostile forces, Gruen presents a complex picture of large and dynamic communities unafraid to assert their Jewish identity while interacting with other groups in Rome, Alexandria, and Asia Minor… This is a rich, novel, and accessible approach to the realities of one of history’s most important diasporas.
Erich Gruen is a fresh, creative, and arresting voice, whose work is truly paradigm-shifting. The prevailing scholarly paradigm has viewed the Jews as on the defensive, nervous in their cultural engagement with Hellenistic culture. This book powerfully challenges that scholarship: I expect it to be discussed for years to come. Gruen’s expertise shines through on every page. This is a major intellectual achievement.
- 400 pages
- 0-15/16 x 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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