- Book Review Index
Were the Jews a Mediterranean Society?: Reciprocity and Solidarity in Ancient Judaism, by Seth Schwartz. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010. 212 pp. $29.95.
In spite of its title, this book has nothing to do with Goitein’s classic A Mediterranean Society (Berkeley, 1967–1993), which is not even mentioned throughout the present book. It is, in fact, an attempt to look closely at Jewish society in Palestine in the Second Temple and rabbinic periods, and ask whether that society conforms to what is commonly expected of a “Mediterranean” society, and to what is known about Hellenistic and Roman societies outside the Jewish world. To answer that question, Schwartz begins by explaining his understanding of reciprocity, and especially institutionalized reciprocity, as a means for generating social cohesion, as when, for example, a rich Roman would build a new bathhouse for his hometown, and in return would be duly honored by the town’s people with honorific statues, inscriptions, and public speeches. He also notes that Jews had other means for generating social cohesion, such as the stress on common descent and the celebration of a set of community-binding holidays. In the next chapter, he turns to the question of “Mediterraneanism,” a historiographical, anthropological and even literary construct which sees Mediterranean societies as possessing highly institutionalized mechanisms of reciprocity, and as based on elaborate codes of honor and shame. While doubting the validity of this construct, Schwartz nevertheless seeks to test ancient Jewish society against it, and to do so he turns, in the next three chapters, to Ben Sira (second century BCE), Josephus (first century CE) and the Palestinian Talmud (third-fourth centuries CE). In each of these test-cases, a detailed analysis of the sources in search of their views of reciprocity, benefaction, social hierarchy, deference, honor, and related cultural values and social realia leads to a broader assessment of how they fit into the landscape of ancient society as a whole. Seen through this lens, Ben Sira emerges as quite ambivalent on issues of gift-giving and gift-exchange, money, trade and honor. Josephus, who is “the pivotal figure for the concerns of this book”(p. 81), sees Roman-style benefactions—such as the erection of new theaters—as bad, but is full of praise for more “Jewish” benefactions, such as the distribution of charity to the poor (and especially in times of famine) and the subsidizing of religious activities (such as funding the sacrifices owed by nazirites upon the completion of their vows). The rabbis, living at a time when many Jews were gradually adopting the trappings of the Roman culture of benefaction (as may be seen, for example, from the many donor-inscriptions in the synagogues of late-antique Palestine), shared many of Josephus’ cultural preferences, but also worried about issues of status, deference, and honor, both within their study houses and in the world at large. In the sixth and final chapter, Schwartz pulls together the different strands of his analysis, concluding that the Jews’ unusual set of social values was a major hindrance in the process of their integration into the Hellenistic world, and especially into the Roman empire.
Newcomers to the field of ancient Judaism would probably find much of this book too specific and too daunting, and are likely to be put off by Schwartz’s tendency to disparage the work of earlier scholars even when he grudgingly agrees with their conclusions. More experienced scholars will welcome the shift from the religious-cultural focus of older scholarship—which tended to focus on the encounter between “Judaism” and “Hellenism” or between monotheism and polytheism—to the sociological, anthropological and post-colonial perspective taken here. They would also welcome the use of well-known texts to illuminate issues of broad relevance not just for “Jewish” history, but for ancient history as a whole. They too, however, might wonder whether Schwartz was right to choose a model with which he mostly disagrees as the axe with which to carve into some of his favorite sources. I myself often wondered, while reading the book, whether Schwartz’s analysis of the ancient Jewish sources would not have benefited from a comparative glance at the extensive data gathered by Goitein and his successors for a later period of the Jews’ Mediterranean history. Such a comparison would easily have highlighted a point rightly stressed by Schwartz, namely, how little we actually know about ancient Jewish history as it was experienced in the everyday lives of ordinary Jews. I have no doubt, however, that the late Keith Hopkins—to whose memory this book is dedicated—would have enjoyed the combination of originality, erudition, theoretical sophistication, and refusal to accept accepted wisdoms that are evident on almost every page of this book.