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Overview of Late Antiquity--The Classical Prologue

Section 8: Religion and the Roman Empire -- Judaism

Steven Muhlberger

The great weakness of the Greek and Roman ideologies of antiquity was that they ceased including (at least in a meaningful sense) when the vast majority of people were still excluded. Subject peasant populations were of course entirely ignored. But even in the cities which were the basis of political and cultural domination, most people were purposely left out so that a smaller group could rule them. A Latin or Greek city of the imperial period did not have the sense of community of early Athens or Rome. Cities had become increasingly oligarchic over the centuries (since even the shadow of democracy threatened monarchs), and the vast majority of people were excluded from any meaningful personal role in the life of their community, including the town's distinctive religious cults.

Civic religion became one more symbol of the privilege and elite culture of a very few wealthy and well-connected families. Civic religion was fossilized, something that all other townsfolk merely appreciated as spectators. Profound feelings of religious identity were no longer to be found in the official cults of the city. But there were alternatives, in the "ethnic" religions of immigrants, or more importantly, in personal religious practices and beliefs. Private religion had always existed, and all but the more outre* manifestations were tolerated. An urban resident in a town of any size had a choice of raw materials from which to build a satisfying religious identity.

And never was the choice more varied than in the great cities of the eastern Mediterranean during first two centuries A.D., at the peak of the imperial boom. Indeed, new, radical and very powerful religious ideas appeared. And since the rather stiff civic and imperial cults, which were now badges of privilege, could not really accommodate them, these ideas developed instead within the unregulated world of private religion.

Such ideas included a growing concern for life after death. Most older pagan religions said little about this, and what little they said was not reassuring. Now the possibility of eternal life, a rewarding one, was actively pursued. Likewise, the dichotomy between body and soul, a commonplace in earlier times, was more anxiously examined. People of all ranks discussed the transformation of the imperfect body into something worthier, or its abandonment for a purely spiritual existence. There was also a growing feeling that the individual could approach divinity directly through intellectual discipline, a bodily or social discipline of the type long preached by philosophers, the avoidance of sin, magical methods.

Adopting or exploring these ideas did not require the abandonment of traditional religious practices. But all of them expressed a feeling not met by the older religions -- that there was more to the believer than his or her body, material circumstances, or the rather inconsequential role assigned him or her by the official culture. All the most popular religious cults preached that a person's true home was elsewhere, not in this material world, not in his or her city. This longing for a true home was not going to be met in the fossilized civic cults of the past. What the believer needed was a new community, a redeemed community. Many were on offer, most no doubt small and ephemeral. The two most popular and successful, however, are reasonably familiar to us, as Judaism and Christianity.

Christian historians have tried for centuries to marginalize the Jews, and so it is a shock for non-Jews to realize that perhaps one-tenth of the Mediterranean population in the imperial period was Jewish. Jewish settlement was widespread. In two countries, Palestine and Babylonia, Jews were a significant presence in the countryside. In many other regions, Jews were an important urban minority. For centuries, Jews had been numerous in Greek-ruled areas and before that, in the Persian empire, and in the imperial period, they were slowly settling the Latin provinces.

They epitomized the ideal of communal redemption. The belief that Israel was chosen by God and given a special law that bound Jews to him is the key Jewish belief, the one that created the community. Accompanying it was another belief, in divine judgment of the sins of the world, and the righting of all wrongs in a final judgment. Neither belief was unique to Jews, but they held those belief very strongly. A belief in eternal life was not strong in the older tradition, but resurrection of the body had become a hot topic of debate among Jews by the first century.

Most Jews had been ruled by foreigners and unbelievers for centuries. Yet even while adapting to foreign cultures and taking advantage of the opportunities available in a cosmopolitan world, they had retained their identity and self-respect. Jews consciously stood apart from the rest of Mediterranean society, refusing to sacrifice to the gods of the city or, in imperial times, to the divine emperor who symbolized Roman order. In every locality they had their own civic institutions, councils and synagogues (which combined the roles of school and prayer hall). Jewish exclusiveness attracted hostility from their neighbors, but also admiration and converts. The necessity for circumcision prevented easy conversion by males, but did not unduly restrain Jewish expansion. If admission to this self-appointed elite was difficult, it was probably easier than admission to any other meaningful elite. Certainly those men who did convert did so for no light reasons, and may be presumed to have had a lasting commitment to a Jewish identity.

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Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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