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Re-thinking Judaism’s Encounter with the Roman Empire: Rome’s Political and Religious Challenge to Israel and its Impact on Judaism (2nd Century BCE – 7th Century CE)

Final Report Summary - JUDAISM AND ROME (Re-thinking Judaism’s Encounter with the Roman Empire: Rome’s Political and Religious Challenge to Israel and its Impact on Judaism (2nd Century BCE – 7th Century CE))

The ERC project Judaism and Rome has reassessed the impact of the Roman empire upon ancient Jewish thought, paying particular attention to Roman imperial ideology, and using a comparative approach that takes into account the way other provincials in the Roman empire perceived Roman imperialism and reacted to it.
The ERC team has analyzed a wide range of sources (literary and epigraphic sources, coins, monuments, reliefs) stemming from the Romans and from various provincial groups within the empire, and provided a detailed commentary of each source. These analyses can be consulted in open access on the website These sources document both the expression of Roman imperial ideology and Roman policies, and provincial reactions to them. We have focused on three themes in particular, Roman military power, Roman law and Roman citizenship. In addition to the analyses provided on the website, three international conferences—on these three topics, respectively—have led to the publication of collective analytical volumes: In the Crucible of Empire: The Impact of Roman Citizenship upon Greeks, Jews and Christians (Peeters, 2019); Reconsidering Roman Power: Roman, Greek, Jewish and Christian Perceptions and Reactions (Press of the Ecole Française de Rome, forthcoming); Legal Engagement: The Reception of Roman Law and Tribunals by Jews and Other Inhabitants of the Empire (Press of the Ecole Française de Rome, forthcoming).
The project has shown that Rome represented a special and new challenge for the Jews, even if Israel had been confronted to other empires before being subjected to Roman domination. The rabbis, in particular, elaborated at least two strategies, one that tried to relativize the importance of the Jewish defeats against Rome by stating that Rome was just one empire among many, and another one that attempted to cope with the extraordinary challenge that Rome represented for the Jews by giving Rome a very special status, through the identification of Rome with Israel’s twin brother according to biblical tradition, Esau. This paradoxical identification indicates that at least some Jews saw Rome as a rival people that threatened not only Israel’s existence, but its role in history and its place in God’s scheme for humankind. As a matter of fact, Roman policies toward the Jews in the wake of the failed revolts—especially the refounding of Jerusalem as a Roman colony—could give the impression that Rome was trying to erase Israel and replace it. In short, some Jews perceived Rome as attempting to substitute itself to Israel, long before the Roman empire became Christian. Hence an acute sense of rivalry that is not found in Israel’s encounter with other empires, or not to such an extent.
We have also been able to show that the confrontation with Roman imperial ideology, political practices and legal system had an impact on Jewish thought during the first centuries CE. For example, this impact has to be taken into account to explain the relationship of the rabbinic circles to the teaching of Greek, or the rabbinic laws concerning converts and freed slaves (in ways that differ from previous studies), or the evolution of the conception of the Torah from Jewish Hellenistic to rabbinic thought, that is, the fact that in rabbinic texts, the Torah is not conceived as a universal law any longer, but rather as the particular ius civile of the Jewish people. The works of Philo, Josephus and the rabbis show that some Jews could both reject most aspects of the Roman imperial project and imitate and appropriate in creative ways Roman notions and social practices. The two phenomena are in no way mutually exclusive.