Diaspora: Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans

Authored by Erich S. GruenHarvard University Press, Cambridge. 2002

From the first page of the Introduction Erich S. Gruen sets the tone forDiaspora: Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans.  The book looks at the Jewish experience within the ancient world focusing on the mostly overlooked fact that Jews of these time periods, although historically believed to have detested their “exile,” in fact assimilated (to an extent), to the cultures they found themselves living in.  The book looks into the Jewish communities living in Rome, Alexandria and Asia, suggesting that in all three places historians can find thriving and vibrant cultures.  Gruen’s thesis is that Jews who found themselves throughout the Mediterranean world sought employment in business as well as agriculture.   He also points out that many grabbed onto opportunities, which were open to Jews “as mercenaries, military colonists, or enlisted men in the regular forces.”

Through the use of written texts by the Romans, accounts of the massacre in Alexandra in A.D. 38, material on Jewish defense of their rights, and the overwhelming archaeological evidence on synagogues, Gruen concludes that “compulsory dislocation cannot have accounted for more than a fraction of the Diaspora,”   and that in certain circumstances, like the exile into Egypt, Jews themselves many have moved to Egypt voluntarily.  “All lands were open to them,”  Gruen writes, and the evidence suggests that Jews did not live isolated and oppressed, huddled in enclaves clinging to their past under the threat of foreign governments.

To back up his arguments Gruen has divided his work into two sections.  The first section is titled Jewish Life in the Diaspora, and consists of four chapters covering The Jews in Rome, The Jews in Alexandria, Jews in the Province of Asia, and Civic and Sacral Institution in the Diaspora.  Within these pages the author paints a picture of Jewish life while in exile.  In Rome for example, which plays so large a part in Jewish life during the last century B.C., Gruen clearly states that while some of the Jews were brought involuntary into the city as slaves, most “arrived as visitors, immigrants and settlers.”   Citing several Roman documents Gruen establishes a picture of Jewish life within the Empire, and while problems did arise between the average Roman and Jewish citizens, Gruen establishes that the Roman Government “engaged in no systematic persecution of the Jews.”   The same, according to Gruen, holds true for Alexandria.  While the author clearly acknowledges the massacre which was focused against the Jews in A.D. 38, he points out that for over four centuries, “from the founding of the city to the advent of the Great Revolt,”  Jews were an integral part of city life, and that for the most part their experiences were a positive one.

In the Roman provinces of Asia, the author sites many of Jewish historian Josephus’ work to expound on the fact that persecutions by the Greeks were “episodic and infrequent”  at best.  And although Rome itself pasted several pronouncements in support of Jewish rites, Gruen argues that these were prompted more by “repetitive assertions citing the precedents of predecessors”  than actual constraints placed on the Jews by the Greeks.  In addition, the synagogue, so prominently found throughout all the Jewish communities around the Mediterranean, suggests the importance of Jewish communal life in their newfound countries.  “Jews established synagogues in communities all over…[and] these institutions provided centers for vigorous religious, social and civil life.”    And while the synagogue provided a cultural connection to their roots, Jews participated “in a whole range of activities connected to the traditions of Greco-Roman society.”

The second section, Jewish Constructs of Diaspora Life, also consists of four chapters, Diaspora Humor I: Historical Fiction, Diaspora Humor II: Biblical Recreation, Jewish Constructs of Greeks and Hellenism, and Diaspora and Homeland.  To find humor within the Diaspora, Gruen looks at the Books of Esther, Tobit, Judith and Second Maccabees.  Again Gruen re-establishes his thesis by once again clearly stating “Jews of the Second Temple period did not perceive themselves as victims of the Diaspora.”   Gruen points out that within Jewish literature of this period, one finds very little reflection of contempt towards their current situation.  “Jews repeatedly found means to both spoof those set above them,” the author writes, “and to mock their own foibles.”   By using humor, and especially mockery of foreign rulers and themselves, Gruen suggests that instead of the humor being used to mask their fears (as a people living under alien rule), the dark nature of the comedy depended on a sense of distance and detachment.  The texts themselves, according to Gruen, “leave the impression of a [people] unburdened by a precarious existence and comfortable with the human comedy.”

Gruen then goes on to address the cultural effect on the Jews by their encounters with the language, and literature of the Hellenic world.  “Ancient Judaism was never quite the same again,”  the author writes, and sees the Jews as not only interacting with the Hellenized Mediterranean, but also influencing that environment for themselves.  Although they held onto their culture, traditions and history, Gruen argues that Jews “were part and parcel of a Greek cultural community,”  working both inside and outside that community, twisting them to Jewish ends.  In support of this, the author turns to several sources, including Second Maccabees and the Letters of Aristeas.  In the final chapter, Diaspora and Homeland, Gruen addresses the possibilities that the modern concept of the Diaspora is a constructed one.  As the author points out, Jews of this time period living throughout the Mediterranean, “far outnumbered those in the homeland.”  And had in fact done so for hundreds of years.  This notion echoes back to Gruen’s thesis, that Jews for centuries had lived and prospered within their respective nations.

These sections are followed by a list of Abbreviations, a comprehensive section of Endnotes and an extensive bibliography, listing all of Gruen’s sources.  While the Endnotes are extensive, their placement at the back of the book is somewhat distracting.  Some of the information contained within the 89 pages of notes, especially those several paragraphs long, should have been placed within the context of the actual text, especially if the information warranted such detail.  In addition footnotes would have made referencing this material much more accessible.

If there is any major criticism of this work however, it has to be that Gruen relies much too much on the interpretation of ancient texts, which unfortunately contain a limited number of references made by the Greeks and Romans on the Jews.  Of course many other authors have used the same type of sources to make the opposite argument from what Gruen has stated here, and the limitations of the evidence Gruen uses is one of the weaker points of his tome.  Most of the material the author uses to formulate his thesis tells very little of what the average Jewish person living in the Diaspora actually felt, or for that matter, how he or she made their actual living.  While Gruen does used Jewish sources like Josephus and Philo to make some of his arguments, the fact that Roman and Greek scribes would not normally pay attention to the average Jew’s daily life, brings one to question if one is truly getting a complete picture.  It may be that the reality of that bygone age is this; the average Jewish person did not feel assimilated with his newfound nation at all.

Another criticism of the book has to do with its size.  Although the work itself is a very easy read, one gets the feeling that Gruen tried to squeeze too much information into the 380 plus pages, and that some information was compromised to accommodate the page requirements.  In addition some of the information provided is over kill, presenting too much information to get his point across.  Later chapters seem to skip around a bit too much, not concentrating on the details of events as well as the first section did.  For an example of this, one can look at Gruen’s examination of Diaspora humor.  Here the author falls short.  With the exception of the Books of Esther, Gruen is hard pressed to find humor in the other books, and one gets the impression that the author is straining to do so.  It may be that the situations Gruen finds humor in, like Sarah’s rudeness towards her maid in Tobit, more reflect a simple misinterpretation of Jewish cultural life in antiquity, than actual humor on the part of the original writers.

Overall Gruen accomplishes what he sets out to do.  In tackling this subject, Gruen provides a different look into Jewish life during the classical ages that, because of historically Orthodox views, the average person knows nothing about.   Jews were not the outsiders that Orthodox history makes them out to be.  And just like the Jews of today, although they felt a loyalty towards Israel, most were active and loyal citizens of the nations they found themselves in.

As the author plainly states it, Jews for centuries had lived and prospered within their respective nations, and although the negative image of the Diaspora dominates “modern interpretations of the Jewish psyche,”  the truth of the matter is that “Jews required no territorial sanctuary or legitimating.”   And to assume that, as a people, they lamented for a lost homeland should be seriously questioned.