Over the Border

Over the Border November 16, 2015

For some centuries, Jews of the Second Temple era lived in a world that was definitely multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. That was true of course in Diaspora communities, but between, say, 200 BC and the 60s AD, Palestine itself was a mosaic of different ethnicities and religions. No Jew there had to travel more than a few miles to encounter alien customs and faiths. That old order came crashing down quite suddenly in the carnage of the Jewish Revolt.

Based on that observation, a couple of thoughts come to mind. As I have suggested before, borderlands are marked by degrees of contact and conflict, but also of hybridity and synthesis, appropriation and exchange, and particular forms of creativity. As I remarked, “Trace the frontiers, and you follow the patterns of religious development.” Such interaction was made vastly easier by the translation of the scriptures into Greek, in the third century BC. Educated Jews thought in Greek.

One observation concerns the attribution of ancient texts to particular regions or communities. Often, the texts themselves contain no specific identifying data, and the interpretation has to be impressionistic. Commonly, a scholar will use as a guide the degree of Hellenization, and decide (for instance) that a work that draws heavily on Greek genres and ideas is likely from a “high contact zone”, usually Alexandria. Those attributions might well be correct, but Palestine and its environs had many places where Jews were in close daily contact with Greeks or Hellenized peoples, at all social levels. The fact that a Jewish text is more or less Greek in tone really says little about its locale or origin.

Some of the instances of hybridity and assimilation are famous. In conventional Jewish history, the Maccabees of the 160s BC rose against a foreign tyrant who was determined to snuff out their religion, and to impose his own Greek and pagan ways. Yet reading Josephus (for example) leaves no doubt that this struggle was in its origins emphatically a civil war. One faction saw no problem in developing a form of Judaism that accepted many of the practices and customs of the Greek and Syrian neighbors. The outcome of later historical struggles means that the position adopted by these partisans would be labeled as betrayal, but other historical roads might have been taken.

We look at other moments of border crossing. As I have mentioned, the Decapolis was the major region of Syrian, Greek and Gentile settlement, and the term occurs several times in the gospels. In Mark 5, Jesus heals a Gerasene demoniac, who tells the people of the Decapolis what Jesus had done for him. In chapter 7, he meets a Syro-Phoenician (or Canaanite) woman near Tyre, and then “went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis.” Matthew says that, at the start of Jesus’s ministry, “Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.”

The claim is not necessarily that Gentiles were following Jesus, and this mission might have been part of his outreach to the truly lost sheep of Israel, those dwelling among the Gentiles. But it does raise questions about the existence of early Gentile followers of Jesus, who might have been among the so-called “Judaizers” of the 60s, who I mentioned in my last post.

I have also written on Gnostic origins, stressing that virtually none of the key thinkers and theorists we hear about are active before about 100 AD. The only two plausible exceptions are Simon Magus and Menander, both of whom were Samaritans. According to orthodox church historians, Menander was a key founder of the great Gnostic school of Antioch. While these origins are highly debatable, they do point to a region of cultural and religious interaction in Palestine itself, where Jews, Greeks and Samaritan interacted.

More on related themes in coming weeks.



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