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date: 16 June 2021


Abstract and Keywords

This article introduces the study of daily life in Jewish Roman Palestine, specifically during the time after the Roman conquest of Palestine by Pompey. It describes the works of Samuel Krauss and Gustav Dalman with regards to ancient Jewish daily life. The article also presents a brief outline of the articles that cover the major thematic areas of Jewish daily life in Roman Palestine.

Keywords: Jewish daily life, Roman Palestine, Roman conquest, Samuel Krauss, Gustav Dalman

A whole century has passed since the Hungarian Jewish scholar Samuel Krauss published his Talmudische Archäologie (three volumes, Leipzig 1910–12), and more than half a century since the German Lutheran theologian and orientalist Gustav Dalman wrote his Arbeit und Sitte in Palästina (eight volumes, Gütersloh 1928–42). Ever since, these monumental works have constituted the most essential handbooks on ancient Jewish daily life, and served as essential tools for students and scholars of rabbinic literature and ancient Judaism, as well as for ancient historians, classicists, archaeologists, and scholars of early Christianity. The works provided a detailed survey of Jewish everyday life in Roman Palestine, based mainly on rabbinic texts from the first six centuries ce. The topics addressed in these volumes ranged from housing and household goods to food and food production, clothing and jewellery, work and trade, family and household, schools and education, entertainment and leisure‐time activities. Both of these works were written in German and never translated into English, requiring readers whose native language is English to acquire a reading knowledge of German in order to access them.

Today Krauss' and Dalman's works are out-of-date, both with regard to their methodology and the archaeological and epigraphical material they rely on. Since the publication of these works, historical‐critical research in rabbinic texts and numerous new and exciting archaeological discoveries have vastly increased our knowledge of the daily life of Jews in Roman Palestine in the first six centuries ce. Therefore the time has come for a new comprehensive volume that provides an overview of the state of scholarship into ancient Jewish everyday life, and offers guidelines for the future study of these topics.

(p. 2) The study of everyday life is a relatively new area of research which historians of ancient Judaism are beginning to discover in the footsteps of historians of Greek and Roman society. Whereas ancient historians had traditionally focused on political history and the history of institutions, more recently the various aspects of the life experience of the ancients are increasingly attracting scholars. As far as Roman society is concerned, a number of scholarly and semi‐popular books have been written on the subject (e.g. Carcopino 1941; Dupont 1992; Toner 1995; Adkins/Adkins 1998; Lacon 2000; Aldrete 2004). Special attention has also been paid to particular parts of the Roman Empire, such as Egypt (Lindsay 1963; Casson 2001; Bagnall 2003), and to the public and private life of particular groups, such as ancient Christians (Ermatinger 2007). In addition to these broader surveys, individual monographs have been written on various aspects of the Roman life experience.

The topic of everyday life received most scholarly attention from the 1960s onwards, in the course of a shift of focus from the history of institutions to the history of the ordinary, proposed by the French Annales school (Burke 1990; Schilling 2003), named after the journal Annales d'Histoire Économique et Sociale. The articles published in this journal concerned issues of social, economic, and cultural relevance, rather than political and institutional history. The books published by Annales historians, such as Fernand Braudel (1902–85), used models developed in the social sciences, and took geographic location into account (cf. Braudel 1949). Their studies mostly dealt with medieval and pre‐modern societies, but their approach set a model which was subsequently emulated by historians of (Greek and) Roman antiquity, such as Moses Finley and Keith Hopkins (see, e.g. Finley 1985 and 1992; Hopkins 1978 and 1983).

Krauss and Dalman wrote at a time when methodologically critical reflections on the proper use of the source material and the employment of approaches from related disciplines were not yet prevalent. Nevertheless, at the time when the Talmudische Archäologie was written, Krauss' subject matter and approach were unique and innovative. Krauss, who had studied at the Rabbinical Seminary in Budapest and at the Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judenthums in Berlin, stood in the tradition of the Wissenschaft des Judentums approach, which developed in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century. In accordance with this approach, he was interested in the historical and philological investigation of rabbinic sources, for which the realia of everyday life—neglected in traditional Talmudic scholarship—provided an ideal theme. In Krauss' time, archaeological research in Palestine was taking its first steps, and focused mainly on ‘holy’ places and buildings rather than on the material remains of ancient everyday life. Therefore Krauss' investigation of the literary sources for everyday life filled a real lacuna within scholarship at the turn of the century.

During the last decades extensive archaeological excavations in the Mediterranean world in general, and in Israel in particular have yielded numerous and variegated finds concerning matters of daily life. The increase of archaeological (p. 3) evidence, combined with a heightened methodological awareness as far as the use of rabbinic literary sources is concerned, have made the creation of a new comprehensive volume mandatory. Although Krauss believed in the historical development of rabbinic sources, he did not distinguish properly between Palestinian and Babylonian, and tannaitic (70 to 200 ce) and amoraic (200 to mid‐5th c.) sources. He often used Babylonian Talmudic texts to elucidate practices in Palestine. The identification of different literary forms, parallel versions, redactional revisions, and expansions that is part of any historical‐critical study of rabbinic texts today was not yet practised at his time.

Since Jewish domestic architecture and objects of daily life had, for the most part, not been excavated by then, Krauss often relied, when reconstructing ancient practices, on his own observations of ‘oriental life’ made during his travels to Palestine and Egypt. During the one hundred years which have passed since the publication of his work, archaeological research has made tremendous progress and become more aware of the importance of investigating daily life. In recent decades, historians of ancient Judaism have also shown a great interest in the everyday life of Jews in antiquity, and many books and articles have been published in this regard. Historians of ancient Judaism have recognized the importance of viewing Jewish phenomena in the context of the broader Hellenistic and Roman cultural developments, and a knowledge of these contexts becomes imperative for a proper understanding of Jewish life in Roman Palestine. The essays included in the Handbook will explore how, and to what extent, the specific configuration of everyday practices amongst the Jewish population of the province can be assessed in these wider contexts, and they will suggest ways in which similarities and differences between Jewish and non‐Jewish life practices can be investigated.

The study of ancient Jewish daily life must be an interdisciplinary undertaking in which archaeological, epigraphic, and literary sources are evaluated together by archaeologists, ancient historians, and experts of the literary texts. Archaeologists have often limited themselves to a description of material findings, whereas scholars of rabbinic literature do not always take archaeological discoveries into account. A proper understanding of ancient life practices can only be achieved if these two approaches are combined. By taking archaeological, historical, and literary studies into account, and by correlating the different approaches, the authors of these essays will suggest ways in which scholarship on ancient Jewish everyday life can proceed in the future.

Geographically, the essays all focus on one particular Roman province, namely, Roman Palestine. By focusing on one particular geographical area within the larger Graeco‐Roman cultural environment, a certain unity can be achieved which would be lacking if the Jewish Diaspora were included. Besides Josephus and the New Testament, the large majority of the literary sources are rabbinic documents which originated in, and were transmitted and edited in, Roman Palestine in late antiquity. The major methodological challenge involved in dealing with everyday life (p. 4) issues is the correlation of these literary sources with the extant archaeological and epigraphic material. The traditional use of the Babylonian Talmud to reconstruct everyday life in Roman Palestine, commonly practised by Krauss, Dalman, and other scholars of their time, is not considered methodologically valid today. Scholars of the Babylonian Talmud have stressed that the daily life of Jews in Babylonia should be seen in the context of ancient Iranian society, a cultural context different from the Graeco‐Roman environment which determined Palestinian Jews' life.

Chronologically, the Handbook focuses on the time after the Roman conquest of Palestine by Pompey in the first century bce, and particularly on the period after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 ce, until the end of Byzantine rule and the Islamic conquest of Palestine in the early seventh century ce. With the end of Byzantine rule, the Graeco‐Roman epoque came to an end, and Islamic civilization would henceforth dominate the Eastern Mediterranean. The first six centuries ce are particularly significant as the literary and archaeological sources demonstrate. The classical rabbinic documents were edited at that time, and major religious and secular institutions, such as synagogues, theatres, and bathhouses were built in the Land of Israel in late antiquity. At the end of this period, from the late sixth and early seventh century onwards, Babylonian Jewry became dominant, and Palestinian Jewry played a more minor role.

The Handbook contains thirty‐four essays which cover the major thematic areas of Jewish everyday life in Roman Palestine. The topics are subdivided thematically into eight sections. The first section addresses the major methodological issues involved in studying ancient Jewish daily life and sets the theoretical parameters for the following chapters. The second and third sections (‘Life in a Roman Province’; ‘City and Countryside’) are devoted to the political, cultural, social, and geographic contexts, and the ways in which they affected Jewish life in Palestine. The fourth and fifth sections (‘Labour and Trade’; ‘Family Life’) deal with the major practical aspects and contexts of daily life, work, and the family, whereas the sixth and seventh sections (‘Education and Literacy’; ‘Religion and Magic’) address educational and religious matters. The eighth and final section discusses the various types of leisure‐time activities.

An important aspect of the essays is to provide a basis and direction for the future study of the topics concerned. The essays point out which questions are worth asking and which methodological approaches can be applied. They provide a critical assessment of past and present scholarship, discuss methodological issues, and clarify the state of research on the respective subject matters. They were written for fellow‐scholars and post‐graduate students in Jewish Studies as well as for colleagues in related disciplines and interested lay‐readers. Because of the broad scope of the intended readership, knowledge of ancient Jewish literature and history are not presupposed. Basic issues will be explained in the methodological chapters.

(p. 5) Last but not least it should be noted here that, although the volume attempts to be comprehensive, certain readers will miss particular subject areas which they might consider relevant. For example, there is no chapter on ancient Jewish slavery, since a recent monograph deals with that topic extensively (Hezser 2005), and a mere summary of the book was deemed unnecessary. For other topics, such as Jewish childhood in antiquity, no suitable author could be found. Three chapters were commissioned to authors but never delivered in the end. For that reason, a chapter on the landscape, climate, and geographical characteristics of Roman Palestine is missing here. We point readers to the excellent article by Rehav Rubin (1990) instead. Similarly missing is a chapter on the body and purity. The reader is referred to Fonrobert (2000), to her review essay (2007), and to the literature discussed therein. Finally, a commissioned chapter on ancient Jewish intellectual life seems to have been too challenging to handle, perhaps because our sources mainly reflect the rabbinic perspective. We hope that, despite these lacks, readers will benefit from the topics that are covered in this volume and be inspired to conduct their own research to boost the study of ancient Jewish daily life in the future.


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