Galilee’s Forgotten Period Brought to Life through Archaeology

21.11.2019
In his new book “Being Jewish in Galilee, 100–200 CE: An Archaeological Study” (Brepols, 2019), Rick Bonnie provides the first in-depth archaeological study of Galilee’s Jewish communities during the second century CE. The book explores evidence of infrastructure, art and architecture, as well as ritual practices from the second century CE Galilee (today’s northern Israel). It draws comparisons with the period before and contextualises the material culture in Galilee within the broader cultural environment of the Roman East.

What is the book about? 

I show in the book that the Jewish communities in Galilee were not isolated but well familiar with the wider cultural practices throughout the Roman Empire, most notably of course in the East. In that sense, those second century CE Galilean communities show a remarkable shift in practices with those living in the region only some generations before. For example, we lack strong evidence for this period that Galilean communities had a recognisable communal institution for religious gatherings (like a public synagogue), and the observance of Jewish purity laws appears to have been in decline among Galilean population. Yet, while being Jewish changed during the second century for Galilee’s population, we lack evidence to suggest (as some have done) that Judaism disappears. Later on, during the third and fourth centuries CE, Jewish life focused itself again around synagogues, but it did so in ways considerably different from the periods before.

Some may say that the second century Galilean communities became more “Roman,” an ambiguous term for a shared identity across the Roman world. But just as “Jewish” was constantly redefined by Jews across time and space, so was “Roman.” I argue in my book that the changes in Galilee during the second century CE shape to redefine that term as well. For example, such cities like Sepphoris and Tiberias, developed each in different ways and at a different pace. While the end result may seem to be a typical Roman city with bathhouses, temples, mosaics, and a chequered street grid, among other things, such urban constructions were chosen on a one-by-one basis and were different for each city. For their population, such changes were much more a product of local life than of a wider shared understanding of something Roman.

Why is the book important? 

My book shows that Galilee’s Jewish population was not either culturally isolated and estranged from wider imperial developments or full-blown globalised citizens who felt comfortably at home anywhere across the empire. Up till quite recently, such extreme oppositions were put forward, whereby the behaviour and attitudes of populations beyond the Jewish context was quite uniformly viewed as “Roman,” “Greco-Roman,” or “Pagan.” Whether one lived in the nearby Decapolis city of Hippos, in Roman Athens or in Rome’s harbour town of Ostia, practices and attitudes were roughly understood as the same.

I argue for a more nuanced model where practices and attitudes across regions beyond Jewish contexts are continuously different and where “being Roman” was continuously re-negotiated by various local populations. In such a model, in which Jewish material contexts are compared with their immediate neighbours, there is no room for complete opposition.

You can visualise this model like a network. The routes each material development takes differs in terms of time and space. At different crossroads of these routes, different regions (“nodes”) exist. These regions show the strongest similarities to their closest neighbours, while still upholding a unique self-identity. To put this more concretely, colonnaded streets originated at a different time, at a different space, and this cultural innovation was moved differently toward Galilee, as did the theatre, the Jewish ritual bath, the synagogue, or the bathhouse. These slow-moving and unique routes of material developments nuance cultural change and lowered the bar towards changing cultural practices among Galilee’s Jewish communities during the second century CE.

Perspectives 

My book shifts the focus in research onto a period that has not been given much attention earlier, but is important for understanding the move from Second Temple Judaism into what’s eventually to become rabbinic Judaism. Research has often centred around these two extremes; on the one hand, the first century CE with a focus on the historical Jesus and late Second Temple Judaism and, on the other hand, late-antique Jewish life, the rabbinic writings, and the rise of public synagogues. Second century Jewish life, in a way, has often fallen between the cracks.

The other reason for this is the lack of direct written evidence about life during this period. The detailed accounts on Galilee of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius are too early, and those of the Rabbis are too late. This places primary importance on our archaeological evidence. I was certainly not the first to observe this, but previous studies have used this archaeological material quite selectively. Their use of archaeology has been completely informed by their position toward the rabbinic written sources.

You can order the book Being Jewish in Galilee, 100-200 CE: An Archaeological Study (SEMA 11; Brepols, 2019) on the publisher's website.

Two open datasets accompany the book: