On Writing The Jews in Late Antiquity

When you want to learn about a certain historic period or specific topic, the first question is “what should I read”? Nowadays we have the internet and the ability to obtain the firsts hints concerning an issue we want to learn about, but sometimes this does not even help. We have the same problem and same solutions in historic research. In certain cases, we can consult the key experts of each field (personally or by mail), but occasionally we have to search information without a guide. 

My first reaction, when I received the e-mail of Arc Humanities Press (an imprint of Amsterdam University Press) regarding the writing of a short book on the Jews in late antiquity, was ambiguous. On the one hand, writing the history of the Jews between ca. third and seventh centuries CE seemed impossible to me for many reasons. Firstly, there is no one history but rather a lot of histories about the Jews in the period. Not only were the Jews from Babylonia different from Jews of Gaul, but also there were differences between Jews from different cities within one region, even neighbor cities. Moreover, sources about Jews are different in each region, and so different methodologies are necessary. Most importantly, late antiquity is a central period in Jewish history because of the birth and (gradual) imposition of rabbinic Judaism and also on account of the explosion of a kind of Jewish art not seen before, among other reasons. Crucially, I was charged to accomplish everything in few (very few!) pages.

On the other hand, the idea of The Jews in Late Antiquity seemed to me to be a challenge but a useful endeavor because – as I said before – I conceived the book as the first door to enter into the history of the Jews in the period. In fact, I wish I had had a book like this when I began my research more than 12 years ago. Not because the book is perfect, but for the reason that in more or less 100 pages condenses the main sources, facts and historiographical debates of the story of late ancient Jews of Spain, Gaul, Italy, Africa Proconsularis, Egypt, Palestine and Mesopotamia.  

Thus, I decided to face the challenge and try to highlight the central aspects of the Jewish late ancient history. I had to make certain unhappy decisions. For example, due to the stipulated length of the book, I had to leave out very important regions, such as the Balkans, Asia Minor and Syria. I really would have loved to have included these areas, but space concern within the book was an invincible enemy. The selection was arbitrary, as most selections are: I prioritized the areas that I had previously researched heavily (Italy, Spain, the Land of Israel, Babylonia) and other regions on which I had approached before, although tangentially (Gaul, Africa Proconsularis and Egypt).  

Other decisions regarded the chapter division on regions. As I said before, even though there are certain common patterns, the history of the Jews in the period need to be studied separately. This is not only because the (slowly) rabbinized Jews of Palestine were different to the non-rabbinized Jews of Spain, but also because the society in Palestine was very different to the Hispanian one. Jews did not live isolated; they were (more or less, depending on the region) integrated with their surrounding society. They were, in fact, part of the society. Thus, Jewish history cannot be studied without seeing the broader (micro and macro) context.

Although I had little space, I also decided to write an introduction in order to explain that differences are not only associated with facts, but also to the sources that survived. So, if we want to study the story of the Jews in Italy in late antiquity, we should analyze a great Jewish epigraphic record, the remains of two synagogues and references written by Christians, but we do not have texts (beyond the epigraphic ones) written by Jews.  On the contrary, several texts produced by Babylonian Jews survived, while no archaeological and epigraphical evidence (except seals and magic bowls) survived to present day. I explained this in the introduction and I also showed the nuances of the different kind of records that we have to deal with. 

I must confess that after finishing the book (and read it again and again) I like it. I really think that every chapter shows the reader not only the most important facts of late ancient Jewish history of each region, but also the key authors that he/she should read in order to deepen his/her knowledge. 

When I received the cover and the back cover and I read the endorsement, where Paula Fredriksen stated that I “accomplishes an astounding amount in very few pages”, I must confess that I became extremely happy because I always have admired her and I trust in her judgement. I hope the readers will also enjoy The Jews in Late Antiquity and that it becomes an entrance for one of the most exciting periods of Jewish history. 

by Rodrigo Laham Cohen