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Rivkah Fishman-Duker on Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations, by Martin Goodman

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 20:1-2 (Spring 2008)

The Challenge of Ancient Judaism

Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations, by Martin Goodman, London, Penguin Books, 2007, 639 pp.

Reviewed by Rivkah Fishman-Duker

Martin Goodman’s comprehensive study of the world in which the Great Revolt of the Jews of Judea against the Romans took place presents a challenge to the reader and to the reviewer. It is a magnum opus, an impressive culmination of a lifetime’s work and thought of a prolific and creative historian of the Roman Empire and of ancient Jewish history and Judaism.

Goodman’s mastery of literary and archeological sources in Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, and Greek is daunting. Nearly half the chapters of Rome and Jerusalem consist of well-documented and intelligent discussions of differences and similarities between norms, values, institutions, and beliefs of ancient Romans and Jews, with the contrasts emerging more vividly than the commonalities. Goodman points out the pervasive influence of Hellenization, the ancient version of globalization, on Jews and Romans. He juxtaposes Roman and Jewish thought and behavior by addressing a wide range of topics such as concepts of power; governmental institutions; ideas about life after death; treatment of the poor; attitudes toward old age, marriage, and children; education; manners; and leisure pursuits.


An Ancient Civilization in Its Own Right

The combination of these subjects clearly fits the definition of the term civilization as used by Samuel Huntington. Indeed, the title of the book recalls the latter’s well-known work, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.[1]  Huntington explains the essential characteristics of civilizations as cultural entities of a comprehensive nature, made up of interrelated features. He further describes civilizations as the highest cultural groupings of people defined by common objective elements such as language, history, customs, and institutions, and designates the particular importance of religion. In addition, civilizations are long-lived and capable of adapting and evolving. It is clear that Goodman views both Romanitas and Judaism, represented by the cities of Rome and Jerusalem, respectively, as distinct ancient civilizations.

Goodman’s designation of ancient Judaism as a civilization in its own right is indeed welcome and refreshing. For well over a decade, the history of the Jewish people and the Jewish religion has been undergoing a process of deconstruction by scholars who question its uniqueness and essential narrative and would not describe the Jews as having a distinctive civilization. For example, Eric M. Meyers almost relegates Jews and Judaism of the Greco-Roman period to the status of a branch of the prevailing global Hellenism.[2]  The general trend of such scholarship is to portray Jews as skilled copycats and adapters with little originality and certainly not as creators and participants in their own civilization. In contrast, by describing ancient Jews as possessing a civilization of their own, albeit with diverse expressions and adaptations, a center and numerous Diaspora communities, Goodman performs a great service for students and teachers of history and religion. He somewhat mitigates the mistaken impressions left by recent deconstructionists, who miss the forest for the trees.


The Great Revolt against Rome

The second part of Rome and Jerusalem depicts the events in Judea that led to the outbreak of the Great Revolt against Rome in 66 CE, the conduct of the war itself, and the lasting impact of its consequences on Jews and Romans. Goodman argues that the atmosphere in Judea did not necessarily lend itself inevitably to war against Roman rule and it was the actions of the maladroit procurator, Gessius Florus (64-66), that caused the revolt. Florus, according to Goodman, provoked armed conflict on the part of various types of Jews, which could not be stopped because of the initial Jewish success in defeating Cestius Gallus’s attempt to retake Jerusalem from the Jewish rebels in the fall of 66 CE.

This interpretation differs from most scholars’ views of Judea in the first century CE, based on Josephus’s The Jewish War, the major history of the Great Revolt, along with collateral evidence supplied by other written and archeological sources.  Indeed, first-century Judea was marked by tension between Jews and previous Roman procurators, local Greeks and Samaritans; Roman insensitivity and sporadic brutality; the occasional appearance of charismatic revolutionary figures; and the presence of ideologically motivated groups, such as Zealots of different stripes, who viewed all foreign rule in the Land of Israel as illegitimate and advocated ongoing armed struggle against the Romans and their Jewish collaborators, real or imagined.

Goodman dismisses this background too summarily. His argument here is subject to question and perhaps could have been presented more cautiously.


Rome and Jerusalem: The Origins of Anti-Judaism

It is Goodman’s interpretation of the impact of the revolt, however, that apparently serves as inspiration for the title of the book, Rome and Jerusalem. As he points out in his conclusion (584-85), the tract Rom und Jerusalem, written in 1862 by the German Jewish thinker Moses Hess, confronted European anti-Semitism by proposing the creation of a sovereign Jewish state. The persistence of hatred of the Jews and Judaism and its reemergence in its current form of the new anti-Semitism against the Jewish state has led Goodman to give his work the same title as that of Hess’s composition.

Goodman’s major thesis is that the defeat of the Jews and the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem acted as a catalyst of a policy of unprecedented official hostility toward Jews and Judaism that profoundly influenced pagan Rome and Christianity. His argument is convincing, cogent, and well documented, despite the paucity of Jewish sources from the late 70s on, after the completion of The Jewish War, and a limited number of Roman works.

According to Goodman, the dispatch of the talented commander Vespasian to conquer the Galilee and other parts of the country, and subsequently of his son Titus to finish the job in Jerusalem, paved the way for the accession of the Flavian house to the imperial throne. Thus the prestige and power of the Flavians (Emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian) rested on their decisive, albeit costly and delayed victory in Judea in 70 CE. Goodman quotes Josephus’s accounts of the triumphal marches throughout the empire, particularly where large Jewish communities resided, such as Antioch.

In fact, the Flavians enacted and enforced the humiliating penalty tax, the fiscus iudaicus, for all Jews: rebels, collaborators, residents of the Diaspora or the Land of Israel, observant or not. The tax monies, collected in a humiliating fashion, were used for maintaining a pagan temple. Goodman makes excellent use of the symbols on the fiscus coins and of the depictions of Jews, the Temple vessels, and particularly a copy of the Jewish law on the triumphal Arch of Titus in Rome in order to prove his point that “the conquest was being celebrated not just over Judea but over Judaism” (453).

Similarly, the Roman campaign against Masada, which fell in 74, involved meticulous suppression of any remnant of Jewish insurgency, even remote or tangential. Subsequent emperors such as Trajan and Hadrian continued Flavian anti-Jewish policies. The former may have been influenced by his father who commanded a legion in Judea during the revolt, though there is no explicit documented proof.

Goodman emphasizes the importance of the Flavians’ policy of not allowing the Jews to rebuild the Temple, which contrasted with Roman policies of restoration of shrines of other defeated peoples. Indeed, he attributes the Jewish uprising in the Diaspora (115-17) under Trajan and the Bar Kochba Revolt in Judea under Hadrian (132-35) in part to the refusal to rebuild the Temple. In the latter case, Hadrian went so far as to render it impossible for Jews to do so by making Jerusalem a pagan city, Aelia Capitolina.

Furthermore, Goodman challenges the more conventional view of scholars such as Jacob Neusner[3] who contend that the rabbis of the Mishnah had adjusted to life without a physical Temple and created a Temple out of words, as it were, by recalling its memory in prayers, texts, and rituals. He asserts that the Jews actually planned to rebuild the Temple “speedily in our time.” The presence of priestly families and “the detailed instructions for the procedures of the Temple cult found in the Mishnah [ca. 200 CE] and in Josephus’ histories show that people still knew what to do” (448-49).

Goodman contends that the Flavian legacy of anti-Judaism was a major factor in preventing its reconstruction, even after Jewish rebelliousness had long subsided.  However, the nature and language of prayer, the lack of a messianic agenda in the Mishnah, and rabbinic strictures against calculating end-time, when the rebuilding of the Temple would take place, somewhat dampen Goodman’s argument. Indeed, statements such as: “He who is buried in the Land of Israel, it is as though he is buried under the altar” (Tosefta, Avodah Zarah, IV, 3, mid-third century) seem to reflect life without a Temple as a normal condition and as a memory replaced by reality.

The question remains as to the extent of the impact of Roman pagan hostility toward Judaism from the time of the Flavians, its influence on Christians, and its contribution to their separation from Judaism and their subsequent anti-Judaism. Most scholars tend to view the “parting of the ways” as a process that took several centuries and was given a boost by the degrading imperial legislation beginning with the first Christian emperor Constantine in the fourth century. In addition, the accepted view is that Jews ejected Christians from their midst. Paul was chased from synagogues and, at the end of the first century CE, the rabbis at Yavne introduced the “Birkhat ha-Minim,” which read Judeo-Christians out of the community. In contrast, Goodman argues that “the impetus to the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity had come less from the Jewish side than from the Christian” (582) and that as early as the second century, some Christians began “to distance themselves from Jews with language of increasing vitriol at the same time that similar terminology was being used in the centre of imperial power in Rome” (582).

It is somewhat difficult to attribute so great a role to Flavian animosity toward a rebellious people as a major motive for the separation of Christians from Judaism. Although Chapter 13 of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans advocates obedience to state authority, Christians would not worship Caesar and were persecuted for not doing so. The emperor was viewed as hostile or irrelevant, despite later attempts to describe imperial power as part of a divine plan of eventual Christian domination. In addition, Greek anti-Jewish ideas and accusations and traces of the longstanding feuds over citizenship and rights in various towns of the Roman Empire may have contributed to Christian animosity toward Jews.

In fact, Christian writers of the mid-second century, such as Justin Martyr and Melito, bishop of Sardis, do not attribute the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple to the failure of the revolt against the empire. Instead they explain it as divine punishment for the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus, respectively. It is Melito’s Easter hymn that initiates the malicious charge of deicide and paints the Jews as an eternally guilty and condemned people.

Furthermore, Jews do not seem powerless or disfranchised. As late as the mid-third century, Origen of Caesarea, a leading Church Father and himself a victim of imperial persecution, describes the head of the Jews of the Roman Empire, the nasi (patriarch), who presided over the Sanhedrin in Tiberias, as having great power and as differing “in no way from a king of a nation.”[4] Nevertheless, it is possible that the continuous presence of a thrice defeated and humiliated people without a Temple  may well have influenced Christians, and that the corpus of Roman legislation, including that of the Flavians, may have served as precedent for later Christian imperial legislation.


Summing Up

Rome and Jerusalem appears at a time of world crisis for the Jewish people and religion. Many doubt the very existence of a Jewish people and call Jews an “imagined community.” The ancient heritage and roots of the Jews in the Land of Israel have been subject to corrosive deconstruction and doubt and have come under vicious and libelous attacks. A wide array of intellectuals, politicians, and Christian and Muslim leaders challenge the existence of a sovereign Jewish state of Israel. Moreover, Judaism often seems so diluted that it cannot be clearly defined.

In light of this background, Martin Goodman’s erudite and encyclopedic volume restores ancient Jewish civilization to its proper place in world history and contributes to the ongoing debate about the origins of hatred toward Jews and Judaism. The work is indeed a tour de force.

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[1] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996), 40-45.

[2] Eric M.  Meyers, “Jewish Culture in Greco-Roman Palestine,” in David Biale, ed., Cultures of the Jews: A New History (New York: Schocken Books, 2000), 135-79.

[3]  E.g., J. Neusner, Method and Meaning in Ancient Judaism (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1979), 152ff.

[4]  Origen, “Epistle to Africanus,” 14, in L. Levine, The Rabbinic Class of Roman Palestine in Late Antiquity (Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Press, 1989), 137.

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Rivkah Fishman-Duker is lecturer in Jewish history at the Rothberg International School, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.