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Imperialism and Jewish Society: 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E. [Paperback]

Seth Schwartz
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 1 2004 Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World

This provocative new history of Palestinian Jewish society in antiquity marks the first comprehensive effort to gauge the effects of imperial domination on this people. Probing more than eight centuries of Persian, Greek, and Roman rule, Seth Schwartz reaches some startling conclusions--foremost among them that the Christianization of the Roman Empire generated the most fundamental features of medieval and modern Jewish life.

Schwartz begins by arguing that the distinctiveness of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and early Roman periods was the product of generally prevailing imperial tolerance. From around 70 C.E. to the mid-fourth century, with failed revolts and the alluring cultural norms of the High Roman Empire, Judaism all but disintegrated. However, late in the Roman Empire, the Christianized state played a decisive role in ''re-Judaizing'' the Jews. The state gradually excluded them from society while supporting their leaders and recognizing their local communities. It was thus in Late Antiquity that the synagogue-centered community became prevalent among the Jews, that there re-emerged a distinctively Jewish art and literature--laying the foundations for Judaism as we know it today.

Through masterful scholarship set in rich detail, this book challenges traditional views rooted in romantic notions about Jewish fortitude. Integrating material relics and literature while setting the Jews in their eastern Mediterranean context, it addresses the complex and varied consequences of imperialism on this vast period of Jewish history more ambitiously than ever before. Imperialism in Jewish Society will be widely read and much debated.

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Winner of the National Scholarly Jewish Book Award, Jewish Book Council

"Schwartz has presented nothing less than a learned and bold bombshell with this important, groundbreaking book. His thesis is that to make sense of the remains of ancient Judaism, one must consider the effects of shifting types of imperial domination and that there is a direct connection between the rise of the synagogue and the religious ideology that justified its construction and the rise of Christianity. This is the most original and the most provocative book on this period that has appeared in many years. It will, and deservedly, be the subject of debate for a long time to come."--Louis H. Feldman, The Forward

"Important. . . . Schwartz challenges many long-held ideas about Jews in antiquity. . . . This work is recommended as fascinating reading for anyone interested in the history of the Jews and Judaism."--James E. Seaver, History: Reviews of New Books

"Schwartz is a leading expert on the Jews in the Roman Empire. Using scholarly publications, he has produced a new synthesis that will provoke much debate among scholars. . . . [His] carefully argued positions must be taken seriously."--Choice

"A bold feat of reinterpretation that is certain to stir up controversy in scholarly circles."--Stuart Schoffman, Jerusalem Report

"This is a brilliant and provocative book, which will undoubtedly stimulate much debate among historians of Judaism and of the ancient world. But it deserves, as well, a wide audience among all those interested in the impact of imperial power on regional cultures."--J. B. Rives, International History Review

"Schwartz's study is wide-ranging, rich, well-informed, polemical, creative, unconventional."--Jonathan J. Price, Religious Studies Review

"An invaluable piece of current scholarship on ancient Judaism. . . . This book represents a fresh and unique look at a familiar subject, and it should be required reading for any serious scholar of ancient Judaism, early Christianity, or ancient Mediterranean religions."--Daniel Bernard, Journal of Religion and Culture

From the Inside Flap

"Seth Schwartz's work is a much more complex assessment of ancient Jewish society and culture than that which the one-sided traditional accounts present: it is the first consistent and comprehensive attempt to view Jewish society of Hellenistic and Roman-Byzantine times in the context of the broader socio-political, economic, and religious developments of the ancient eastern Mediterranean world. This allows him to interpret the sparse evidence from Roman Palestine in a much more convincing way than has formerly been done."--Catherine Hezser, Trinity College, Dublin

"Imperialism and Jewish Society comprises a highly ambitious discussion of a very wide sweep of Jewish history, with novel insights into major issues of the general interpretation of that history and into numerous minor matters of a widely disparate nature. There are interesting observations on every page. Nothing quite like it has ever been attempted before."--Martin Goodman, Oxford University

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

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3.0 out of 5 stars Provocative, but not fully convincing June 9 2002
This is an unusually ambitious monograph. It seeks to describe the history of Jewish society from the Maccabean revolt to the Muslim attacks that ensured the decline of the Roman Empire in the East. Schwartz argues throughout his book that what we consider to be Judaism was much weaker throughout this period than we have been lead to believe. Arguing against the Zionist ethos that marked much of the archaeology of Palestine, Schwartz emphasizes the elite nature of Jewish doctrines and the limited depth of Judaic doctrine. Not even the Maccabean revolts should be considered an attack on hellenization. He also emphasizes the almost unbroken imperial support for the temple from the Persians to Nero. A certain ideological mindset did occur among the common people after the Maccabean's victory which lasted until the Jewish revolt. But for the next several centuries afterwards Jewish doctrines became shadowy and marginal for most Jews as the centre of Jewish doctrine, the Temple had been irretrievably shattered. Rabbis were a distinctly marginal presence in Jewish life and what archaeological evidence shows the strong influence of paganism in Jewish life. Only with the christianization of the empire from the fourth century onwards did synagogue construction truly bloom, rabbinical influence really increase and iconophobic ideologies develop. Much of this revival was partly the result of Christian exclusion of Jews from the patronage networks that run the empire, but it also included the adaption of Christian motifs.
The book is extensively footnoted and the bibliography is 23 pages long. But most of this consists of the extensive secondary literature. The actual primary evidence which exists is unavoidably scarce.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but frustrating at times April 18 2002
By A Customer
Schwartz has produced a tour de force, covering a wide range of Jewish history with a fair degree of success. The positive side of this book is that it provides a good overview of much recent research into the periods covered and the ideas are generally presented readably and in an interesting and informative way. Downside is that the depth of coverage is inevitably variable given the scope and occassionally throw away comments are made which can appear somewhat eccentric. More emphasis on the detailed analysis of rabbinic literature would have been helfpul in this reviewers opinion. Also, the views presented are in general not as radical as Schwartz seems to think they are.
Nevertheless, this book is overall well worth reading for students/scholars of the period and provides an update/counter for the works of Gedalia Alon (sadly never completed) and his subsequent students.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Schwartz redefines the field March 9 2004
Dr. Schwartz's book redefines the field for the study of Ancient Judaism. Any serious student of the topic has to read this book. Clearly the Israeli scholars and other adherents to the "maximalist" school will find Schawrtz upsetting. On the other hand, many other serious scholars agree with Schwartz's direction, if not conclusions. This is state of the art scholarship at its best.
This book is not for "novices" when it comes to Jewish history. It was written for an informed academic audience. It is heavily footnoted, makes ongoing references to debates within scholarly circles, and presents an impressive bibliography spanning many different disciplines.
My personal copy barely has two pages go by without my notes and underlining. I personally feel that this is one of the most important books in the field to emerge in years.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Concrete and Dry Dec 13 2002
As a reader a few "light" histories of the era, I have a passing familiarity with the chronology, personalities, and issues of the time. None of this prepared me for the obscurity of Professor Schwartz's book. It reads like a doctoral thesis; short on description, long on concrete assertions and refutations of such. It's hard to read and hard to appreciate unless you are a REAL student of the time and are throughly familiar with the subject matter. I was so disappointed with how dense this book is that I'm stunned that it's being recommended for the casually interested history reader.
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