Jewish Authors and Power in the Greco-Roman Period International Workshop

21.7.2021
At the beginning of June, a collaboration between the Institut für Judaistik at the University of Bern and ANEE brought together a group of early career researchers to discuss notions of power in the works of Jewish authors from Greco-Roman times in a two-day online workshop.

Contemporary understandings of Jewish life in the Greco-Roman period are often characterized by assumptions on Jewish power or lack thereof. Be it the Jewish people’s subjugation to imperial rule, their resistance to empire, or any forms of Jewish political and religious autonomy; power is often equated with brute force; for example, foreign kings’ ability to threaten Jewish communities with religious persecution or even extinction, and Jewish acts of self-defense and rebellion. When such force is absent on the Jewish side, opposition is identified with subaltern positions and practices that are the so-called “weapons of the weak''. From the books of the Maccabees to Josephus’s Jewish war, Jewish or Judean power is sought in military action and religious belief.

Yet, is this approach to power supported by contemporary sources? The question that guided the workshop was, how did Greco-Roman authors—taken at the broadest sense, to include both Josephus and the scribes behind compositions such as the biblical book of Esther—conceptualized and defined power in general and Jewish power in particular. The workshop’s participants elaborated on this question and brought up new ones in their contributions. How waspower described, established and negotiated in (and between) texts? How did authors perceive power, and how did it affect their writings and form their texts (implicitly or explicitly)? How was power tangible in character depictions, virtues, moral and social standards and norms? Did authors pursue an inside, for example Rome-centered, view of power or rather an outside one? Were there any limitations to power or alternative sources to it? And can we detect notions of power balance or attempts to create such a balance? In turn, this set of questions brough about another, more general one, what is the methodological toolkit necessary to approach historical conceptions of power?

Our speakers came up with different answers to these questions and placed ‘power’ on a spectrum whose one end is loud and violent action and the other—simple, intentional silence. Out of the ancient evidence, power emerges as relational. It is dependent on particular situations and audiences, and means of communications, and is the result of interpretation—past as well as present.

With the aid of modern theories drawn from political philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and gender studies, we are able to put the communicative aspects of power and its display to the fore and see it as relating to individual or group agents and not necessarily limited to the ‘state’. Moreover, we see how ancient authors used the past to reflect upon contemporary realities and intentionally construct temporally and spatially entrenched notions of power and weakness, and utilize them to different ends. 

In the course of two days, the workshop allowed emerging and more senior scholars to engage in discussions on various understandings of power and start to outline some new paths in approaching power in the works of Jewish authors of the Greco Roman period.

The results of the workshop will be published in a special open-access issue of the Journal Judaica.

Workshop participants and talks:

Keynote Lecture 1 Katell Berthelot: ”Re-thinking Power in a Roman Context: Philo and the Rabbis between Opposition, Competition, and Appropriation

Fabian Knopf: “Die Macht der Zeitrechnung, Seleukidische Herrschaft und die Makkabaiische Erhebung

Lukas Jansen: “Warten und Warten-Lassen – Philon über das Warten auf Audienzen beim römischen Kaiser

Matthias Adrian: “Gottesfürchtige Frauen zwischen Synagoge und Christus-Gemeinde

Laura Quick & Ellena Lyell: “Dress to Impress: Power Dressing in Hebrew and Greek Esther

Carson Bay: “The Power of Positive Role Models: Cultural Capital, Ethnic Alterity, & Abraham/Moses as Exempla in Jewish, Greek, Roman, & Christian Antiquity

Ursula Westwood: “Powerful silence and powerless speech: Moses’ response to rebellions in Josephus’ Antiquities

Jeremy Steinberg: “Josephus’ Response to a Flavian Display of Power: Reading the Unemotionality of the Triumph Narrative, BJ VII.123-57

Helge Bezold: “Violence is Power!? Negotiating Power and the Depiction of Jewish Violence in the Ancient Esther Tradition

Keynote Lecture 2 René Bloch: “Who Dares in Ancient Judaism?