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Reading Challenge #9: Jews and Christians: Graeco-Roman Views.

Continuing my summer reading challenge, I’ve just finished (most of) Molly Whittaker’s sourcebook, Jews and Christians: Graeco-Roman Views.  This anthology, part of the 1980s Cambridge Commentaries on Writings of the Jewish and Christian World: 200 BC to AD 200, is designed to give readers a foundation in Greco-Roman religious culture and Greco-Roman views of Jews and Christians.  Accordingly, the book is divided into three parts: “Judaism,” “Christianity,” and “The Pagan Background.”  Whittaker excerpts many different authors and provides running commentary, so this book can be read as more of a continuous narrative than just a collection of unrelated fragments.

whittakerSince I’ve already gotten enough of the “pagan background” sources from The Ancient Mysteries and Arcana MundiI skipped that section and only read the sections on Judaism and Christianity.  There was a lot of interesting stuff!  Whittaker mines Roman poets, satirists, and historians, as well as Jewish apologists responding to anti-Jewish sentiment, to unveil what the pagan Romans thought of the Jews.  Some particularly strange, insulting, and/or just plain ignorant views:

  1. Jews don’t eat pigs because they consider them sacred. (Petronius’ Satyricon)
  2. The Jews were expelled from Egypt because of their impurity.
  3. Moses was an Egyptian priest and magician. (Strabo, Apuleius, Juvenal)
  4. The “holy of holies” in the most sacred part of the Jewish temple was actually an ass’ head. (Apion, whose writings are only known via Josephus’ treatise against him)
  5. Jews practice human sacrifice and cannibalism.  (This one sadly persisted in Christianity; we see it in Chaucer.) (Apion again!)
  6. Jews were actually a Dionysiac cult. (Plutarch)
  7. The Sabbath was just an excuse for idle laziness.

In some of these we see some inkling of truth: yes, Moses was a religious figure, and yes, the Jews do trace their origins to Egypt.  Jews do refrain from eating pigs, though not because they worship them.  They do keep a Sabbath.  But these truths are filtered through a strong filter of prejudice, ignorance, and xenophobia.  Jews in Roman times did have special license to practice their religion and not worship the emperor, but at times this privilege was taken away at the whim of an emperor or a governor.  Many Romans classified Judaism as “superstition” rather than true religion.

At the same time, some pagans of a more philosophical bent admired the Jews’ iconoclasm.  Whittaker includes several excerpts describing the Jewish practice of proselytization.  Pagans did convert to Judaism, or at least adopt its tenets without undergoing circumcision.  (Understandable!)  As with colonizers today, the Romans did not uniformly hate the Jews and their religion, but neither did they admire them.  But even their admirers, I suspect, always saw them as a foreign and somewhat suspect, just like many of the other “Oriental” or “Eastern” religions adopted by Greeks and Romans such as Mithraism and the cult of Isis and Osiris.

In the section on Christians, Whittaker provides examples of many similarly strange views about Christians.  She includes excerpts from the New Testament, pagan writings, and non-biblical early Christian literature to demonstrate the range of pagan attitudes towards Christians.  We see the same Roman suspicion of any group that fails to conform, and their belief in the danger of any group that does not worship the emperor as divine.  

Yet persecution of Christians was not systematic, but occasional, as we see in Pliny’s letters to Trajan toward the end of the first century AD.  Pliny, a regional governor in Bithynia, wrote to the emperor Trajan asking for advice on what to do with Christians.  He had so little idea of the content of the religion that he had to torture some Christians to find out their beliefs.  Not until later centuries do we see an intentional, systematic effort to wipe out Christians.

The most interesting texts to me in this section were the martyr acts which purported to provide transcriptions of interrogations of Christians by Roman officials, such as the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs and the Acts of Justin and The Companions.  We see officials seeming to be merciful, giving Christians the opportunity to recant their alleged impiety, or asking them to return in a week to give them time to change their minds.  Whittaker believes that these are accurate depictions of interrogations (178).  I’m less sure, but if they are even close, that is really cool.

I’m so-so on the book itself.  On the plus side, Whittaker has collected a lot of different sources, and I learned a lot even from tiny little fragments of many different thinkers.  This book makes a good complement to Robert Louis Wilken’s The Christians as the Romans Saw Them.   She also has some nice maps and a chronology of writers in the back.  She introduces each author, so one does not need to know much about classical literature to use this volume.

However, her organization was confusing.  The Christianity section was organized by the type of source and by author.  That made sense.  But she organized the Jewish section thematically: Sabbath, Moses, Food Laws, Circumcision, etc.  The writings themselves were not so easily organized.  She often had to repeat the same excerpt in multiple sections, which got confusing.  It would have made more sense to organize the excerpts by author.

Also, the third section just seemed superfluous.  There are many other books that introduce Greco-Roman religions and provide source texts on them.  A brief glance at this section looked promising though.  I just would have preferred she stick to the first two sections — that is the title of the book, after all.

Still, this anthology is useful for its conciseness and commentary.  Biblioblogger Michael F. Bird mentions pagan attitudes towards Jews as one of the essential areas a New Testament graduate student should read up on.  Unlike Menaham Stern’s Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, Whittaker’s anthology is not three volumes, but only about 200 pages on the Jewish and Christian material.  I would recommend this book to students of the New Testament.

Later this week I hope to finish Homer’s Odyssey and begin Apuleius’ The Golden Ass.  Onward and upward!