Romans and their Levantine Ways

Benjamin West, Cicero & the magistrates discovering the tomb of Archimedes, credit Wikipedi

Romans and their Levantine Ways

Hannah M. Cotton, ROMAN RULE AND JEWISH LIFE, Collected Papers, edited by Ofer Pogorelsky, reviewed by Darrell Sutton

Hannah Cotton is the Shalom Horowitz Professor of Classical Studies Emerita at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Well respected, her published work, whether written by her alone or edited with others, is substantial. This collection of thirty-four papers is divided into four sections: A – ‘Government, Power, and Jurisdiction’; B– ‘Documents, Language, and Law’; C – ‘Land, Army, and Administration’; and D – ‘Law, Custom, and Provincial Life’.

There is a list of publications (XXV-XXXII) that discloses her areas of expertise. Ciceronian language, Roman Republic civil matters and Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic writings discovered in the Judean desert have occupied much of her time. But her work encompasses more. Classicists are rarely acquainted with Semitic idioms. Professor Hannah Cotton (henceforth HC), however, educates the reader on important aspects of Levantine issues. And as stated in the preface, although most of the papers are devoted to ‘legal and administrative issues… Despite the title of the book, some of the articles have nothing specifically to do with the Jews’. That claim is ‘specifically’ true only for section A. In this volume remarkable papers are included. In my opinion, readers will find vital work performed in section B. A small number of specialists will trouble themselves with C; but by far, her best research in this collection appears in the final section, D. A review of a massive first-rate work like this one calls for criticism of points of detail. It is to these issues that I will give attention. Conversely, I want it to be known that all these collected papers are models of precision, containing coherent thoughts and reasonable inferences as she explicates rather difficult-to-construe texts.

HC’s early writings treated Ciceronian texts. Her doctoral work delved into Cicero’s letters of recommendation (p.99). Of the first paper, ‘Cicero, ad Familiares XIII, 26 and 28’, she investigates the meaning of reiectio Romam, and any supposed links to whether provincial citizens needed to apply for a change of court to have better judges in Rome. Roman customs in one ancient text, The Acts of the Apostles, go unstudied. The legal rights of Roman citizens in the provinces are not everywhere locatable in ancient secular documents. Paul’s treatment by hostile Jews (Acts 21:27) and his arrest by Roman soldiers, even his examination by Roman authorities, is recorded in Acts chapters 24-26. In a Palestinian province, Paul chose to appeal his religious case to Rome as a citizen (Acts 25.10,21, 26:32). I agree with HC that ‘In many respects Cicero’s letters of recommendation are the best primary evidence we have for determining the minutiae of provincial government under the Republic, the day-to-day working of provincial administration and jurisdiction as well as certain prevailing attitudes and conventions of conduct’ (p.5). Nonetheless, Acts is of ancillary importance for her discussion but is excluded from her study. In the end, she does not believe Cicero’s letters of endorsement that suggested that Roman citizens ‘possessed a legal right to demand a remittal of their case from the provinces to Rome’ (p.22).

In the paper on ‘Iustitia versus Gratia’, HC controverts J.M. Kelly’s thesis in Roman Litigation (Oxford, 1966). He believed the use of preferential letters for friends to be incompatible with an unprejudiced application of the law. It remains true, though, that the showing of ‘favor’ to individuals whom one knows is standard operating practice in every ancient and modern society. HC may not hold so tenaciously to these views today. In this paper she is a overcautious, trying to embrace too many positions at one time. Eventually she comes down in favor of the idea that ‘The tension we have detected between the two incompatible claims of iustitia and gratia is much reduced when we take into account the emphasis on dignitas and persona in the Roman notion of aequitas’ (p.78).

In ‘The Languages of the Legal and Administrative Documents from the Judaean Desert’, HC asserts that ‘All scholars agree that Aramaic was the dominant language of the Jews in Palestine during the first and second-centuries CE’ (p.129). That assertion, however, is outmoded and misleading. For example, see Uri Mor, ‘Language Contact in Judea: How Much Aramaic Is There in the Hebrew Documents from the Judean Desert?’, in Hebrew Studies, vol. 52 (2011), where he argued persuasively that

‘Hebrew was spoken alongside Aramaic during the days of the Second Temple and ceased to be spoken around the beginning of the third century C.E…. A detailed philological investigation and socio-linguistic inspection of this corpus reveal that it represents a living spoken Hebrew dialect, very close to Rabbinic Hebrew’.

And David Flusser (1917-2000), a member of the Israel Academy of Arts and Sciences, who published over 700 articles, certainly believed Hebrew was the dominant language spoken in first century Palestine and was used for literary purposes also. HC’s examination of the evidence is fulsome, but here explanations are conventional throughout.

Discoveries in the Judaean Desert (DJD) are interpreted variously. Students of inscriptions tend toward conjecture when attempting to tell a story. One should follow closely to see if the DJD facts lead to an author’s conclusions. How can scholars give their consent to the view that ‘It may not be a coincidence therefore that there are no documents in Hebrew which date to the years before the first revolt, or to the period between the two revolts’[?] (p.136). Later she admits that ἑβραϊστί may refer to Aramaic or Hebrew in the correspondence of Bar Khokhba (p.186 – ‘The Bar Khokhba Revolt and the Documents from the Judaean Desert’). Readers might want to find surer ground to stand on, as in the authoritative investigation by R. Buth, C. Pierce, ‘Hebraisti in Ancient Texts: Does βραϊστί Ever Mean “Aramaic”?’ (The Language Environment of First Century Judaea, Brill, 2014). In their analysis of the term, they illustrate copiously how, in their opinion, the term can only refer to Hebrew.

Likewise, HC is known for her scholarship on the Babatha Archive[i]. It is so named for a Jewish lady from Maḥoza (Maoza). Documents about her range in time over 35 years from c.AD94 to 132. These business records were hidden securely in a cave, which makes sense if one wanted to account for transactions of importance. Why they were placed in the location where they were found is anyone’s guess. More questions are raised upon reading. After the annexation (pp.403-404), how pervasive was Romanization in Arabia? Was the former Nabatean kingdom a new client kingdom or merely an unfortunate province, now hampered by subjugation? HC’s two papers, ‘Some Aspects of the Roman Administration of Judaea/Syria-Palaestina’ and ‘Jewish Jurisdiction under Roman Rule: Prolegomena’, are helpful but not on Arabian questions or on peculiar Nabatean policies. And despite the title, ‘Ἡ νέα ἐπαρχεία Ἀραβία: The New Province of Arabia in the Papyri from the Judaean Desert’, it sheds less light on the ‘province’ than its title implies the papyri will do.

The documentary evidence for contrasting Talmudic legal jurisprudence with Greco-Roman law is problematic. Receipts, deeds of sale, contracts and so forth are often heralded by legal experts in several disciplines. Names indicate Jewishness in these papyri only in so far as it can be demonstrated that non-Jewish persons in the Nabatean world did not use similar nomenclature in their own familial circles, as in the case of Soumaïos’ letter, P.Yadin 52 (pp.183-187). As HC states, the letter could have been written in Greek because Soumaïos was incapable of forming/placing his Nabatean thoughts in print via Jewish letters. As a consequence of the emended Greek text, it also might mean that there was nothing more than an unwillingness on the writer’s part to generate his thoughts outside of Greek, that what could ‘not be found’, or ‘produced’, was an innate wish to write that specific letter in Jewish idiom.

Regarding the custody or guardianship of children (orphans), the Greek word ἐπίτροπος/administrator does not appear to have antecedent forms in Jewish law (p.412); but in a case like this one, the lack of verification to the contrary should encourage classicists to look extensively into ancient near eastern texts and modern scholarship on them: in that part of the Levant the Emar tablets clearly show close similarities despite the lack of a term like ‘guardian’ in Sumerian or Akkadian. See ‘Custody of Children in Late Bronze Age Syria, in the Light of Documents from Emar’, in Edd. U. Yiftach, M. Faraguna, Ancient Guardianship: Legal Incapacities in the Ancient World (2013).

In her excellent last paper on ‘The Conception of Jesus’, she proves that betrothal was a significant part of the marriage process, stating ‘The structure of the story, as related in the Gospels, appears to reflect a very particular context in which the nature and portentous consequences of betrothal were clearly understood… acts of betrothal – and divorce – are decidedly crucial for the legal status of the children born to a couple (pp. 543-4)’. Interesting sidelights are provided as she contemplates Talmudic attitudes. HC devotes little space to supernatural aspects of religion. Her disquiet over the Gospel accounts is overt (p.536). Her remarks regarding Tannaitic comments are guarded (p.457f.), and her belief in ignoring Roman lore is on display in this volume.

Additional Comments:

Everywhere in her administrative research, HC compares Judaea with Egypt. The comparisons do not convince. In numerous instances, she admits a point is true or valid only to resist that consideration in the next line or paragraph. On p.174, in reflecting on papyri from the Judean desert, she says ‘the evidence of these documents cannot be set aside as reflecting the habits of fringe groups or sects, as the documents from Qumran do’. But what group utilized or wrote the Qumran scrolls? Reems of paper have been devoted to research on this topic, and decades later no one knows if they were a fringe group or not.

From what is delineated on page 310 about ου καί, emendations of Greek texts may not be her forte. Additional aid in her work on private international law in the Roman world could have been found in the writings of Arthur Nussbaum (1877-1964), Research Professor of Public Law at Columbia, who is absent from her bibliography. His 1952 paper, ‘The Significance of the Roman Law in the History of International Law’ (University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 100) contains a rich survey of material on this subject. HC, in her study, ‘Some Aspects of the Roman Administration of Judaea/Syria-Palestina’, refers to the title procurator in this way in a footnote: ‘For this designation there is no epigraphic evidence in Judaea’ (p.319,fn.9). Further investigations are needed. HC explores a few on (pp.322-323). How do we construe it all? Was Judaea a public province or an imperial one? The Pilate inscription found at Caesarea Maritima that was discovered in June 1961 refers to Pilate as ‘Praefect’. But HC does not define, nor does she disentangle any classical nuances between the two administrative titles, which in their strictest Latin senses were synonymous – as she avers on page 319. And in relation to those Latin ascriptions, what exactly is implied by her use of the English term ‘governor’? Tacitus referred to Pilate as Procurator of Judaea (Annals 15.44) as do English versions (KJV,NIV,NRSV,REB) of the Matthew at 27.2,11. Her definitions of ‘proconsul, and ‘propraetor’  in the illuminating paper ‘Cassius Dio, Mommsen and the Quinquefascales’ complicate how readers will apprehend her use of ‘governor’. On the other hand, the change of name of Judaea to Syria-Palaestina never suppressed ‘the Jewish identity of the province’ (p.323). If anything, Jews zealously embraced their identity, safeguarded relevant features of it, and by it fostered in them a xenophobia of the fiercest kind. Besides, Rome would have imposed its non-Jewish will upon (the Jewish provinces of) Palestine whatever its name.

HC’s faith in the view that the ‘guardianship by women’ (p.410) was created to satisfy Roman legal restrictions does not persuade, nor does her suggestion that ‘we may have in Arabia the first example for such an adaptation of local custom, and another expression of Romanization’ (loc. cit.). In her article ‘The Rabbis and the Documents’ she writes of an oath formula believing ‘that “the Roman oath ‘by the genius of the emperor’ was not yet familiar in Egypt”. It is doubtful if she is correct. But a corrective to her 1998 article is Kimberley Czajkowski, ‘Jewish Attitudes towards the Imperial Cult’ (SCI Vol. XXXIV 2015).

Certain classicists refer to themselves as ‘historians.’ In not a few cases the label is a misattribution. For Professor Cotton, however, the title is justly deserved. This essay collection provides plentiful data on material records from ancient pasts as well as information on the techniques and guidelines of reliable historical method. Historians of the ancient Levant should take notice. Each paper requires special tools for these literary expeditions, which take readers along the painstaking paths that have occupied HC during her fruitful career. And even if she writes with verve and clarity, numerous journals and volumes still are needed within reach to follow and/or validate the intricate points of her arguments. This collection is of note and deserves close inspection.

N.B These articles were kept in their ‘original form’, aside from ‘references to forthcoming publications’ (p.IV). It would be nice to see each one thoroughly revised. If revision occurs, on page 32, instead of ‘…Pliny in his solicitation of behalf of…’, write ‘…Pliny in his solicitation on behalf of…’.

ENDNOTE [i] For general and reliable information about the Babatha Archive, see N. Lewis, ‘The Complete Babatha: More Questions than Answers’, in SCI 2003, pp.189-192. And, J.G. Oudshoorn, General Introduction – I. The Archives, in The Relationship between Roman and Local Law in the Babatha and Salome Komaise Archives, (Brill,2005)

Darrell Sutton is a Classicist

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11 Responses to Romans and their Levantine Ways

  1. Darius Van Ashe says:

    Research into first-century Judaism, the prevalence of Aramaic, the attitude of Jews to Romans and vice-versa, and Christian origins, is on-going, and influenced by present-day religious attitudes and political interests.
    This book review refers to the betrothal of the presumed parents of Yeshua, the apocalyptic Galilean exorcist. If Joseph was not his biological father and a virginal conception is genetically impossible for a truly human male, who was his actual father? The Greek philosopher Celsus quoted Jewish allegations that this was a Gentile soldier called Pantera.

  2. Darrell Sutton says:

    You asked and answered your question. However, in regard to Celsus and Talmudic sayings/traditions, your riddle is solved by your self-applying statement: the Greek philosopher and Jewish rabbis, too, were “influenced by [their own] present-day religious attitudes and political interests” [my brackets]. If the rule applies now, it applied then.

  3. Darius Van Ashe says:

    The knowledge that Joseph was not the actual father of Jesus was known outside his own family circle was early, and quickly spotted by his opponents, as indicated by John 8.41 in an eyewitness report in a gospel now considered to have been written between 50 and 60. The alternative to human fatherhood is a miracle that fabricates the essential SRY gene, which makes Jesus an artificial male replica.

  4. Darrell Sutton says:

    Unfortunately, you misread the English and Greek texts. As often was the case in the Gospels, notably in the chapter you cited, Jesus spoke roughly to the Pharisaical Jews who hardly ever understood his sayings. Jesus accused them of having the devil as their father. In their reply, they tried to justify their opposition to his teachings and professed Sonship. The statement of the Jews regarding ‘fornication’ they do not link to Jesus. They refer to themselves where it is written ‘we be not born of fornication’. Those persons devoted to Moses’ Law were reminding Jesus that their genesis did arise from a physical relationship but was divinely derived through Abraham’s covenant with God.
    The verbal attack on him in that chapter is not about Jesus’ supposed virgin birth, but merely a firm and fierce denial of his Jewish heritage (see v.48 in the same chapter). The claim therein was not that he had a Roman father, nor were they indirectly speaking of Joseph, but particularly of their despised kin – the Samaritans, by saying Jesus was demonic, as they believed the Samaritans were also.
    The virgin birth is a moot point in Cotton’s massive volume. Conservative, Liberal and atheist scholars will be wasting ink on this matter so long as the world stands. We all bring to the reading of a text our own biases. Its best to acknowledge them, embrace them and when appropriate, own them publicly and privately. It is doubtful the canonical texts will settle things in every heart; but as to who Jesus’ father really is, God knows and so do the people who believe in Him.

  5. Darius Van Ashe says:

    The Jewish leaders denied his Jewish heritage, agreed. The Samaritans were of mixed racial heritage, the many “husbands” of the woman at the well being the different gods that ruled the neighbouring people in successive foreign occupations. Other scholars of NT Greek support my specific personal accusation. The NT rules out Joseph as the biological father as a presumed descendant of Coniah was under a divine curse against messianic entitlement (Jeremiah 22.30). So Jesus was of mixed human heritage.
    Whether a real man could ever also be God is a philosophical conundrum even for the most credulous believer.

  6. Edgar Hammond says:

    Without wishing to sidetrack this important debate about the identity and parentage of the so-called “Word made flesh”, I thought readers might find relevant and interesting two quotations from erudite writers:
    The first, abridged from Marina Warner’s “Alone of All Her Sex” [1990 ed]: “Origen refuted a story current among Jews and pagans that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier called Pantherus. [But] the virgin birth was attacked far more frequently because it was common in pagan belief than because it was unlikely in nature… Justin Martyr (d. c 165) maintained that Jesus’ birth differed from…Apollo or Bacchus because God did not woo and overcome the Virgin Mary, nor was he united with her in a voluptuous theogamy, as was Jove… with any of the innumerable mortal beauties….” (pp.35-36).
    The second from Ethelbert Stauffer’s extensively annotated “Jesus and His Story” [1960]: “Jesus was vilified as ‘a gluttonous man and a wine bibber’…. But in Palestine Jewry of antiquity this word of abuse was employed when attacking a person who sprang from an illegitimate union…. In Mark 6.3, the Jews wish to express [that] Jesus is the son of Mary, and of Mary alone, not of Joseph…. Things are to be made impossible in his home town for this renegade bastard” (pp.23-25).

  7. Darius Van Ashe says:

    Mr Hammond’s reference to people in Nazareth knowing their town carpenter had simply been a foster-father recalls the reported reception of Jesus at the Nazareth synagogue, where the question of the locals about Joseph (Luke 4.22) could relate to identity as well as competence; reference to the cure of foreigners like Naaman provoked them into a murderous rage.
    One explanation of the paternal name quoted by Celsus was offered by Alfred Rosenberg, derided by fellow-Nazis as “a walking encyclopedia of worthless information”. In “Die Spur des Juden” (1937) he explained that the Jews were repulsed by the depravity of Greeks in their decline and especially their Dionysiac orgies. “To Bacchus the panther was an especially sacred animal and to Jews a symbol of lasciviousness in general. The Christians named Jesus Son of the Virgin from the Greek Parthenos and from that Jewish word-play formed the contemptible Ben Panthera, son of the obscene animal.”

  8. Edgar Hammond says:

    Ironically, Alfred Rosenberg himself thought Yeshua the Nazarene was not a “Jew” but an “Aryan”, a view proposed by a minute number of much better scholars from Paul Haupt to H. S. Chamberlain. Whereas several Jews today claim Jesus as one of their own gifted personalities, in ancient times he was attacked (see e.g. the books by Peter Schaefer). Unfavourable Jewish stories about his origins and mission were subsequently elaborated, as were those by Mandeans (“Jesus the Roman”), while mainstream Christians, Zoroastrians and Muslims developed favourable birth/infancy legends.
    In “Jesus the Evidence” [1984] Ian Wilson wrote that the rumour that Jesus resulted an illegitimate union between his mother Miriam” and soldier called Pantera was in relatively early circulation, but thought by critics to be completely invented until the discovery of the tombstone of Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera, “a Roman archer from Sidon” dating from the appropriate Imperial Roman period.
    The Pantera story has been considered seriously by Thomas Hardy, Bart Ehrman, Robert Eisler, Marcello Craveri, Desmond Stewart, Morton Smith, Robert Miller, Jason Covalito, Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, among others.

  9. Darius Van Ashe says:

    My view that John 8.41 shows that Jews suspected, believed or knew that Jesus was fathered by someone other than Joseph was totally dismissed by Darrell Sutton as “misreading” the Greek text.
    “Jesus (it is implied) was born of fornication. This slander [was probably] used in anti-Christian propaganda in Jn’s time, and perhaps earlier” (C. K. Barrett).
    Other scholars competent in NT Greek, who regard this emphatic “we are not illegitimate” as possibly, if not indeed probably, a personal parentage allegation, include Barclay, Blomberg, Brant, Brown, Carson, Hunter, Keener, Lightfoot, Sanders, Tenney and Vawter.

  10. Edgar Hammond says:

    Sorry your classicist Pastor Sutton has said nothing more about the paternity of Jesus.
    Several issues are raised.
    1. Could the Virgin Birth narratives actually be a response, at least in part, to plausible accusations of illegitimacy (rather than vice-versa)? In 1939 Bishop Blunt (citing Judges 11.1) suggested that Mark 6.3 cast doubt by Jews on the paternity of Jesus. Two later Pelican commentaries are worth noting. Prof. Dennis Nineham states it would be unheard of among Jews, in this case family neighbours, to describe Jesus solely with reference to his mother, except as the obvious insult; and on Mark 12.35-37 he considers it possible that Jesus had to counter the belief that he was not in fact of Davidic descent. Septuagint specialist Prof. George Caird discusses the elaboration of the quite different Matthew and Luke stories, suggesting that birth from a virgin (i.e. “parthenos”) rather than just a girl (“almah”) was an editorial adaption when the gospel spread into the Gentile world; he confirms that “John has an echo of a hostile Jewish report that Jesus was born out of wedlock”.
    2. Adolf Hitler originally modelled himself on the “young man” who attacked the financial desecrators of the Temple (there is indeed evidence that old Annas presided over a profitable racket), maintained that the Galilean revolutionary was at least part “Aryan”, and that he was conceivably fathered by a Gentile from one of the Roman garrisons. Alfred Rosenberg got his “panthera” explanation from the Talmud critics Heinrich Laible and Gustaf Dalman. His quotation of Judaic abhorrence of depravity rings oddly with his NSDAP comrades, including the Fuehrer, who accused Jews of promoting it.
    3. “Yeshua ben Pantera” has been subject to extensive lexical analysis, notably by Dan Jaffe. The simple assumption that this expression contained an anagrammatic parody of “parthenos” is not only remarkably late but surprisingly questionable. The vilification of Jesus and his mother in ancient and medieval Hebraic literature, expanded with unpleasant and ridiculous additions, contributed to the “antisemitism” of both Mohammad and Luther. As for the “panther”, as sexually voracious and happy to mate with other species, the early Christian text “Physiologus” portrays this animal by contrast as a symbol in many respects of Jesus, with its sweet breath and clothed with virginity, purity and virtue, while similar bestiairies depict them both as the enemy of the diabolical dragon.

  11. Darius Van Ashe says:

    Mr Hammond’s well-informed support is appreciated.
    Mary was not a victim of rape or seduction, but chosen for a religious purpose at a crucial time though not by an imaginary Holy Spirit. Judges 13.2-24 recounts a “precedent”. Perhaps I should develop this speculation in a properly documented essay?

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