Jews in the Ancient City: Materiality and Politics


This course will explore the experience of Jews in the ancient—primarily Roman imperial—city, with particular attention to Asia Minor (modern Turkey), where evidence is most abundant. Cities to explore include, Sardis, Smyrna, Ephesus, Akmoneia, Hierapolis (Phrygia), and Antioch, in Syria. The course will have a phenomenological aspect, trying as far as possible to reconstruct the texture of Jewish life on the basis of abundant remains whose character gradually shifts from mainly literary in the early Roman Empire (31 BCE-138 CE) to almost entirely material in the high and later Empire (138-c.630 CE). The nature of the evidence raises methodological issues relevant to both Jewish history in particular, as well as history more generally, issues such as how to produce a continuous history across such an evidentiary divide? How can material culture be made to yield a political history and if so of what sort? How do we define a diasporic material culture and what problems does it raise? The course is simultaneously argument-driven, taking up debates within the fields of ancient Judaism and Roman imperial history. Scholars have read the shift from literary to material as if it constituted evidence for stabilization: Jewish life in Asia Minor started out turbulent but achieved stability—in other words, the Jews developed institutions like the synagogue and the local community which allowed them to balance the conflicting imperatives of integration and separation. Much scholarship, implicitly or explicitly, regarded the Jews’ Asian experience as the prototype for successful diasporic Jewish accommodation. But how convincing is this argument? In what ways does it simplify and misread a materiality that was far more complex and dynamic? The course will run as a seminar. Students will be required to write a weekly short paper (750-1000 words) engaging with one of the week’s readings and a final research paper of approximately 3000 words. 3 credits. Satisfies either the non-Western or pre-1800 requirement.