The ERC project "Judaism and Rome"

Re-thinking Judaism’s Encounter with the Roman Empire: Rome’s Political and Religious Challenge to Israel and its Impact on Judaism (2nd Century BCE – 4th Century CE)

Together with "Athens and Jerusalem," "Jerusalem and Rome" is a beloved topic for historians of Ancient Judaism. Scholars have studied the history of the relationship between Rome and the Jewish people in Antiquity from many angles. Traditionally, they have focused mainly on the political and military confrontation between the two, on legal aspects of Jewish life in the Roman empire, and on the image of Rome in Jewish literature. In the last decade, scholarship has turned to a new research agenda less focused on conflict, along two intertwined lines of enquiry: 1) the Romanness of the Jews who lived in the Roman empire, and, in particular, that of the Palestinian Rabbis; 2) the impact of Roman values, norms and institutions upon Judaism, mainly through the study of Jewish literary texts.

The ERC project “Judaism and Rome” builds upon this new trend of scholarship. Its starting point or fundamental hypothesis is that Roman imperialism—and, more specifically, Roman imperial ideology—represented a particular challenge for the Jews, even if the history of Israel was already rich in episodes of imperial domination, from the Assyrian empire to the Hellenistic kingdoms, via the Neo-Babylonian and Persian empires. What made the encounter with Rome special was the paradoxical similarity between Roman and Jewish self-perceptions, which from a Jewish perspective resulted in a sense of rivalry between Israel and Rome, which the rabbis adequately expressed through the identification of Rome with Esau, Israel’s twin brother. This identification can be traced back to a period during which Rome was still a “pagan” empire, and is thus not to be interpreted, originally, as a response to Christianity.

The ERC project “Judaism and Rome” examines how, because of this paradoxical similarity, Roman imperialism challenged Judaism —both rabbinic and non-rabbinic—on a political-religious level, and tries to assess how the Jewish encounter with (the pre-Christian) Rome contributed to shaping Judaism itself. This is examined particularly in relation to sensitive issues such as notions of human and divine power, the integration of non-Jews in Jewish society, and the Jews’ understanding of Jewish Law (Torah) as a national and/or universal law, in connection with Israel’s role in the establishment of a just universal political order. The project focuses in particular on three sub-themes: Power, Law and Citizenship (or membership with a given group), and examines the Jewish responses to the challenge of Rome in these three areas.

However, the project is not limited to the study of Jewish perspectives alone, and does not explore the Judeo-Roman relationship in a vacuum. In order to better comprehend the specificity of the Jewish responses to Rome, we use a comparative approach, comparing the Jewish responses to those of the Greeks and other peoples dominated by Rome, as well as to those of the Christians until the fourth and even the beginning of the fifth century CE. Hence the project employs a multi-disciplinary team and engages in multiple collaborations with specialists from different fields.