Judaica Online Exhibitions
Jewish & Other Imperial Cultures in Late Antiquity
An Online Exhibition from the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies 2007-2008 Fellows
at the University of Pennsylvania
William Adler
Jerome's translation of the second book of the Chronicon of Eusebius of Caesarea

Featured here are sample pages from Jerome's translation of the second book of the Chronicon of Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 260-340 C.E.). Eusebius' chronicle of world history was divided into two parts. The first part consisted of citations from primary historical sources and analysis of the chronologies of the Chaldeans, Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans. The second part, known as the Canons, took the form of parallel chronological tables, into which Eusebius inserted brief historical notices. In the Canons, Eusebius dated events from the year of Abraham's birth.

Eusebius published several versions of the Chronicon. Although the Greek original does not survive, a complete copy of the chronicle survives in an Armenian translation. Jerome's own Latin translation was limited to the Canons, which he expanded to include events up to his day (326-378 C.E.). His edition of Eusebius' Canons provided the foundation for European historiography in the Middle Ages.

Doron Bar
The Madaba Mosaic Map

The Madaba Mosaic Map is a unique piece of art created in the 6th century C.E. as a decoration for the pavement of a church in the town of Madaba (in today's Jordan). The mosaic represents the biblical land from Egypt to Lebanon, including Sinai, Israel, Palestine, and Transjordan. Unfortunately parts of the map were damaged during the 19th century but what remains is still of the greatest importance for art, history and biblical topography.

The city of Jerusalem is depicted with the utmost care, with more than 150 places or biblical memoirs that are presented in the preserved portion of the map. Most of the labels are concerned with biblical locales, regional names, and events. The map marks Jericho with palm trees, 12 stones at Gilgal, Jacob's well in Shechem, the Oak of Mamre at Hebron, John's baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River and Bethlehem. The largest and most detailed topographic element on the map is Jerusalem. The mosaic clearly shows a number of significant structures in the city: Damascus Gate, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Tower of David and the main Cardo street.

Beth Berkowitz
The Assemani Codex of the Sifra

Vatican Codex Assemani 66 (Ebr. 66) is perhaps the oldest extant manuscript of rabbinic literature, dating possibly to the tenth century C.E. It features the rabbinic compilation known as the Sifra, which provides legal exegesis of Leviticus considered to date back to the second century C.E. In this passage (Sifra Aharei Mot 9), the rabbinic authors interpret Lev. 18:3, which instructs the Israelites to shun the practices of Egypt and Canaan. The midrash proposes that the intention of the verse is to prohibit only those gentile practices that are transmitted for generations, and it points to several marital practices, including homosexual marriage, as examples. The anonymous authors create here a sharply critical portrait of gentiles, but at the same time they expand the set of gentile practices permitted to Jews. The passage points to the complexity of the rabbinic response to the largely pagan culture of Palestine in that period.

Ra'anan Boustan
King Solomon in Constantinople

The little-studied Hebrew text known as "The Hippodrome of Solomon" (Ippodromin shel Shlomo) contains a stunning act of Jewish literary imagination: it represents the Jerusalem of King Solomon's day through the cultural lens of Byzantine urban life. In particular, it highlights the architecture and imperial ceremonial of the hippodrome in Constantinople in relation to this ancient model. Dating to some time between 600 and 950 C.E., this composition exhibits highly detailed knowledge of Byzantine court ritual, especially regarding the central place of the hippodrome and horse-racing in the imperial practice and ideology. The text's knowledge of Byzantine court life and what would seem to be its direct awareness of the genres and even specific examples of court literature suggest a view from "within the palace" or at the very least from "within the capital."

At the same time, the text attributes its traditions to much earlier amoraic rabbis, such as R. Yohanan and Abbaye, and exhibits formal affinities to midrashic writings and styles of exegesis. This provocative fusion of Byzantine and rabbinic literary cultures need not surprise us. Both Jewish and Christian sources provide ample evidence for the existence of Jewish elites who belonged socially and culturally to the world of the Byzantine imperial court. This text thus demonstrates that in medieval Byzantium at least some Jews could integrate their knowledge of Hebrew and their commitment to Jewish communal life with their education in Greek literary culture and even a relatively high degree of identification with Byzantine interests.

Hannah Cotton
Heliodorus Stele

Exhibited at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, on long term loan from Michael and Judy Steinhardt, New York. Photo: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem/Peter Lanyi. Courtesy of and with thanks to the Israel Museum.

This is the upper half of a limestone stele inscribed in Greek with a copy of correspondence between King Seleucus IV (187-175 B.C.E.) and his officials. It probably stood in the sanctuary of a polis or village in this region. The stele preserves three letters, arranged from top to bottom in reverse chronological order. The king's letter, of which only the opening remains, is at the bottom of the stone and represents the earliest of the three missives. Those above it were written within a period of a few days of each other in August 178 B.C.E. In his letter, the king informs his viceroy Heliodorus, who is "in charge of affairs", of his decision to appoint an overseer of the sanctuaries in the satrapy (province) of Koilē Syria [Coele-Syria] and Phoinikē [Phoenecia], a territory encompassing the land of Israel. Heliodorus, in turn, conveys this decision to his subordinates.

Heliodorus, revealed here as an actual historical figure, is well known from the dramatic episode in the Second Book of Maccabees, written by Jews in the mid-2nd century B.C.E. According to the account, King Seleucus IV sent Heliodorus to confiscate funds deposited in the treasury of the Temple in Jerusalem. Heliodorus's attempt to seize the funds was foiled by the miraculous appearance of a horseman in shining armor assisted by two strong youths, who beat the viceroy senseless. Heliodorus' life was spared only through the intervention of the high priest Onias III.

The story, an outstanding example of divine intervention in human destiny, was immortalized by Raphael in 1511-1512 in a fresco painted on the walls of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican. The inscription provides important information on the workings of the Seleucid Empire in this region, this time from the Seleucid perspective: The King intended to bring the satrapy of Koilē - Syria and Phoinikē - into line with the rest of the empire by appointing an overseer of the sanctuaries - among them, the Temple in Jerusalem. The position presumably included authority over the sanctuaries' funds, above all taxes due to the king. It is likely that the Jews regarded this appointment as an infringement of Jewish religious autonomy, granted them by Seleucus's predecessor, Antiochus III. Thus the dramatic episode described in 2 Maccabees may represent a subjective reworking of the historical event from an internal Jewish perspective. The appointment may also mark the beginning of a process of Greek/Seleucid interference in Jewish religious affairs, which culminated in the decrees of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and would result in the outbreak of the Maccabean revolt a decade later, in 168 B.C.E.

Paula Fredriksen
Captiva Ivdaea

The image on this coin, held at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies Library at Penn, resonates with so many issues in the tangled history of Jewish/Gentile relations in Mediterranean antiquity. It commemorates the defeat of the Jews - thus the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple in 70 C.E. - while at the same time it broadcasts the divine favor shown to the victors, Titus and his father, Vespasian. Vespasian had emerged the winner from the imperial sweepstakes that had paralyzed the Empire in 69 C.E., "the year of the four emperors." Nero's sudden death had abruptly ended the Judeo-Claudian line, and power was up for grabs. (This dynastic collapse itself had encouraged Judea's revolt.) The Roman victory went a long way toward shoring up the fledgling Flavian dynasty's prestige and auctoritas. Vespasian wanted the news of his victory circulated - literally - as widely as possible.

Roman art customarily depicted cities as feminine: indeed, Roma was worshiped as a goddess throughout the imperium. On the verso of this coin, however, only Judea/Jerusalem is gendered female: she sits in the dust, hand on head, contemplating her ignominy. Rome's victory is gendered male - the standing soldier/emperor/god looks down upon his humiliated captive. Heaven favors the victor, says this coin; heaven favored the Flavians, and Rome.

Though later Christians claimed to worship the same supreme god as the Jews, this image of Judea's defeat remained a positive one for them. Gentile Christians associated Jerusalem's destruction with Judaism's rejection of Christian claims for Christ: indeed, the canonical gospels, each written after 70, place the "prediction" of the temple's destruction into the speech of their main character, Jesus of Nazareth. What began as a purely pagan sound bite, the image on this coin, ultimately grew into a major Christian claim: the imperial church also held that heaven favors victors: through the Jews' loss, claimed the bishops and emperors, Christianity had "won."

Paula Fredriksen and Oded Irshai
Saint Stephen's Bones: A Chapter in the History of Jewish-Christian Relations in Late Antiquity

The story of St. Stephen's bones begins with a vision near Jerusalem and ends with sea voyages throughout the late Roman world. The proto-martyr of the early church, Stephen, through his recovered relics, instigated bouts of internal brawling between local bishops and spasms of external political struggles between Jewish dignitaries and the ascendant Church.

Journeying further west, fragments of Stephen's body set off waves of anti-Jewish hostility. This animus had important consequences, from the forced converson of Minorca's Jews to Augustine's insistence on Jewish freedom of practice in his City of God. The relic controversy is illustrated in this unique, possibly fifth century C.E. ivory monument, the so-called "Trier Ivory," named after the German Church where it is now located, depicting the "adventus ceremony" celebrating the bringing of the holy relics of the saints, perhaps to the gates of Constantinople, seat of the Byzantine Church.

Maxine Grossman
The Damascus Document

Sometimes called "the first Dead Sea Scroll," the Damascus Document is an ancient Jewish sectarian rule text that was initially discovered by Solomon Schechter in the late 1890s in the Cairo Genizah. Schechter's publication of the two manuscripts that he identified (one dated to the 10th century C.E. and one to the 12th) led to a flurry of responses by scholars who disagreed variously on the origins of the text (was it a "true" ancient document or a medieval "forgery"?) and the community with which it should be associated (Sadducean? Essene? Pharisaic? "An Unknown Jewish Sect"?). The discovery, half a century later, of ancient manuscripts of this very text in the caves at Qumran successfully confirmed the text's antiquity and also provided the Damascus Document with a historical social setting, in the context of ancient Jewish sectarianism.

Yuval Harari
Aramaic Magic Bowls

Magical practices were part of every-day life in late antiquity. Magicians performed their craft for many practical purposes and for the benefit of both men and women. As magic was first and foremost a pragmatic technique, elements of magical expertise easily crossed ethnic as well as religious boundaries, especially in cases in which spells "proved successful". Moreover, magicians carefully controlled their exclusive knowledge. They transferred it orally or through written texts, even as they reshaped that knowledge according to the standards of the borrowing culture and assimilated it into their own distinct traditions. Professional interaction between Jewish and other experts of spells (Christians, Mandaeans, Zoroastrians and pagans) generated a shared magical tradition beyond cultural differentiation.

Aramaic magic bowls, manufactured in Babylonia in the 5th-7th centuries C.E., exemplify one of the ways by which Jews established their own type of adjurations within the shared genre of anti-demonic practices. The Jewish origins of these incantations are evidenced by the biblical verses and mishnaic paragraphs they cite and by their references to Jewish mystical and liturgical traditions. At the same time they strongly suggest a give-and-take relationship between Jews and their neighbors in this realm of popular religion. On the one hand, Babylonian and Persian gods and other spiritual entities are invoked in some of these bowls (along with Jesus) in order to expel harmful demons and evil sorceries from the house and the body of the persons for whom the bowls were prepared. On the other hand, the names of these persons mentioned in the bowls testify to the fact that they were frequently non-Jews themselves.

It is thus clear that in late antiquity all over Babylonia Jewish experts of magic, literate and highly familiar with their ancestors' tradition, employed various sorts of "beneficial knowledge" both from Jewish and non-Jewish origins. The writing of charms on clay bowls was meant to heal and protect their clients from demons and harmful sorceries and served a community much broader than their own Jewish one.

Marc Hirshman
Israel and the Nations

By the time of the Roman emperor Julian in the fourth century C.E., the issue at stake for rabbinic sages was no longer the meaning of the election of Israel, a doctrine which was held in common by them, but rather the extent to which the God of Israel remained a universal God. Julian complained that according to the Jewish and Christian narrative, God had neglected all the other nations "for thousands of years, while men in extreme ignorance served idols, as you call them, save only that little tribe which less than two thousand years before had settled in one part of Palestine." Some of the sages, as recorded in the Sifre Deuteronomy, an early midrashic text, it would seem reversed Julian's argument and claimed that the nations had neglected God so long that they were doomed. Other sages held that God's beneficence remained for all.

(Quote and translation from Menahem Stern, vol 2, p. 533) Greek and Latin authors on Jews and Judaism / edited, with introductions, translations, and commentary, by Menahem Stern. Jerusalem : Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1974-1984. In 3 volumes. Series: Meḳorot le-toldot ʻam Yiśraʾel. Kitve ha-Aḳademyah ha-leʾumit ha-Yiśreʾelit le-madaʻim, ha-Ḥaṭivah le-madaʻe-ha-ruaḥ).

Hayim Lapin
The Synagogue Inscription at Rehov

Discovered in excavations between 1974 and 1979, the mosaic floor of a synagogue at Rehov in the Beth Shean Valley in Israel, is the earliest exemplar of rabbinic writing. Additional inscriptions painted in plaster on the walls and have yet to be published. The mosaic is dated to the sixth century C.E., and contains extracts from the Palestinian Talmud (Yerushalmi) and some tannaitic works relating to the ritual boundaries of the Land of Israel and to the territories deemed obligated to or exempt from the biblical rules of tithing and related laws. The inscription is of great geographical interest. In addition, it serves as the terminus ante quem for the practice of preserving rabbinic texts, or at least extracts, in writing. If it can be shown to have quoted from our Yerushalmi, it also contributes to the question of when that work was composed. Finally, because it appears in a village context and in a synagogue, it is an important datum in the debate about the extent and timing of "rabbinization," the process whereby Jewish life in Palestine conformed to the norms and ideas of the rabbinic movement.

Lee Levine
Hammat Tiberias Synagogue Mosaic

The synagogue at Hammat Tiberias, located south of modern-day Tiberias, was discovered in 1961. The mosaic floor, dating to the last half of the fourth century C.E., is the earliest and one of the most impressive of such finds from Byzantine Palestine. The well-executed mosaic displays three panels. The first one, flanked by two lions and encountered upon entering the sanctuary, features eight Greek inscriptions listing the donors responsible for the founding/construction of the building. The main donor, whose inscription filled two squares in the panel, was Severus, who identified himself as being affiliated with the Patriarch, the leader of the Jewish community in the Roman Empire.

The second panel displays the signs of the zodiac, the four seasons, and an impressive representation of the sun god Helios in the guise of Sol Invictus (the unconquerable sun). The third panel, nearest the bima, displays a series of Jewish symbols, including the menorah, shofar, lulav, and ethrog.

The importance of this synagogue lies in the fact that it is the earliest known example of the widespread use of Greek and Greek names, the use of a blatant pagan motif in the center of the hall (which was to be copied in a number of other synagogues during the following centuries), and the use of Jewish symbols that were to become ubiquitous in the ancient synagogues of Palestine and the Diaspora.

Joshua Levinson
Literary Anthropology and the Rabbinic Sense of Self

Late antiquity was witness to new ideas of the self, as the internal world of the individual became the center of intense religious, philosophical and ethical debate and speculation. This inward turn becomes acutely apparent when comparing biblical to rabbinic texts. In both legal and imaginative biblical texts both the legal subject and the narrative character are evaluated first and foremost by their actions. In rabbinic literature of late antiquity we can witness a new sense of self and a new theory of agency. Both legal and midrashic texts evaluate actions and agents based upon their internal deliberations. As legal texts become an exercise in self-fashioning, so the midrashic texts display an almost obsessive interest in a character's thoughts and motives. This transformation signals the emergence of a new type of subject, that was shared by both Roman and Christian discourses of Late Antiquity.

Ophir Münz-Manor
The Liturgical Poetry of Yose ben Yose

Yose (son of Yose) is the first Jewish poet from late antiquity known to us by name and one of the finest Hebrew poets of all times. Yose was born sometime in the early fifth century C.E., in Palestine - most probably in the Galilee - and was among the first to introduce poetry to the synagogue services. This liturgical poetry, also know as Piyyut (a Greek loan-word), gradually gained its cultural prestige and became - by the mid seventh century - a hallmark of the Palestinian liturgical rite. A manuscript in the Genizah collection of the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies (Halper 247, folio 2v) preserves a beautiful composition that exemplifies Yose's artistry. The poem En Lanu Kohen Gadol (We Have no High Priest) - that was chanted on Yom Kippur - seeks to emphasize the religious crisis that followed the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Yose enumerates the lost rituals of the temple and laments Israel's downfall in a brilliant poetic fashion, as the following lines demonstrate:

We have / no high priest // how shall we be pardoned / for our transgression?
The temple service has been eliminated // how shall we serve God while strangers rule over us?
There are no more / lamb sacrifices // how shall we immolate and Jerusalem is destroyed?
Prayer has ceased in the house of prayer // how shall we offer prayers if God rejects them?

We have sinned - Almighty, forgive us, our Creator!

Annette Yoshiko Reed
Between "Judaism" and "Christianity" in Late Antique Syria

This book, from Penn's Rare Book and Manuscript collection, is one of the earliest printed versions of the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions. The Recognitions were written in Greek in fourth-century Syria (possibly in Edessa). Today, the text of the Recognitions is preserved in whole only in Rufinus' Latin translation of 407 C.E. It is one of the two major surviving forms of the Pseudo-Clementine novel. Like the other major form - the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies - it appropriates the Greco-Roman genre of the novel to tell the story of the life of Clement of Rome, his travels with the apostle Peter, and Peter's debates with Simon Magus. The Homilies and Recognitions are widely believed to preserve important first-hand evidence for "Jewish-Christianity." Both celebrate Peter, James, and the Jerusalem Church as the true heirs to Jesus. These books also voice surprisingly positive views of Jews and Judaism, and they outline dietary restrictions and prescriptions for ritual purity for Gentile followers of Jesus. In addition, they contain hints of familiarity with roughly contemporaneous Rabbinic traditions.

Rufinus' Latin translation of the Recognitions circulated widely in the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity and in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. The first printed edition of the Recognitions was that of Jacques Le Fèvre in 1504. The 1526 Basel edition, pictured here, was printed by Johannes Sichard, who appended a number of letters pseudepigraphically attributed to Clement of Rome, including the Epistle of Peter to James and Epistle of Clement to James (both of which originally circulated with the Homilies). Sichard followed late antique and medieval tradition in asserting the authentic sub-apostolic origins of these writings. Although Sichard defended them against the charge of "apocrypha," John Calvin, Voltaire, and others soon dismissed them as papal forgeries. The denunciation of these writings, during the Reformation and Enlightenment, arguably played a part in fostering modern scholarly assumptions of their marginal status and significance. It is only recently, for instance, that scholars have begun to recover the significance of the Pseudo-Clementine literature for our understanding of the interactions (and overlaps) between Jews, Christians, and "pagans" in late antique Syria.

Seth Schwartz
A Greek Tombstone Inscription

The Center for Advanced Judaic Studies Library possesses a marble plaque containing the Greek epitaph of a man or boy whose Jewish identity is signified by the name Jeremias and the image of a menorah inscribed on the bottom right corner of the stone. This tombstone inscription probably dates from the 4th-5th centuries C.E., possibly from Palestine. Among the noteworthy features of this brief but enigmatic text is the appearance of two personal names not previously attested in either the Jewish or the Greco-Roman onomastica: Kolokasias and the feminine noun Theodotus. It is proposed that the inscription be translated as follows:

"Grave of Jeremias Kolokasias. Iose and Theodotus (made this) for their son"

Hagith Sivan
Letter of bishop Severus of Minorca

The Letter of bishop Severus of Minorca provides unique and in some ways horrific insight into relations between Jews and Christians on a tiny island in the Mediterranean in late antiquity. The letter describes, in gruesome details, a carefully devised campaign to convert forcibly the Jewish community on the island. The bishop enumerates a series of strategies aimed at changing the balance of communal relations in order to eliminate Judaism. Long suspected of being a forgery composed in the seventh century C.E. to support the Visigothic campaign of forced conversion of the Jews of Spain, the authenticity of the letter as an early fifth century C.E. composition has been vindicated through the discovery of the new letters of St Augustine of Hippo. The venerable African bishop was evidently informed of the happenings of Minorca although his reaction has not been recorded.

The Letter also illustrates the difficulties of reconstructing Jewish life in the Latin west. The sources are invariably written by Christians with a specific agenda rarely conducive to precision. Jewish reactions are presented through the prism of the converting agent. Other documents, such as inscriptions, or archaeological data, are either absent or rarely bear direct relevance to the contents of texts like Severus'letter.

Rina Talgam
Jewish Art in Antiquity: Go Figure!

In contrast to the strict interpretation of the Second Commandment in the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods that led to an almost complete avoidance of animal and human representations, from the third century on the attitude of Jews towards figurative art became much more liberal. The different reactions to the threat posed by the art of the majority culture, which is reflected in the expansion of the border in the Second Temple period as opposed to the expansion of the dynamic area in the early Byzantine period, call for an explanation. What changed the Jewish attitude towards art? The waning of paganism allowed for the more extensive use of figures drawn from Greco-Roman art, but the main reason for the change was the need to contend with the rising power of Christianity, which used art as an efficient tool for establishing its faith.