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Lee I. Levine, "The
Jewish Community at Caesarea in Late Antiquity" in Robert Lindley Vann,
ed., "Caesarea Papers," Journal of Roman Archaeology, Supplementary
Series, no. 5 (1992)
Recent work has shown that Caesarea was not just another Roman urban centre on a Mediterranean coast. The city's special standing was directly related to its links with Herod, its political prominence, its strategic and economic importance, its early Christian ties (Cornelius, Paul, Origen, Eusebius, et al.), and its flourishing Jewish community in late antiquity. Its unique character derives from two factors. Firstly, with its special cultural and social configuration it served as a bridge between the larger Graeco-Roman world and the province of Judaea. Secondly, it attracted people from every grouping within the province --Jews, Christians, Samaritans, and pagans. This unusual demographic configuration and the resultant dynamic interplay of social and cultural forces set the stage for the particular character of late antique society there.
Caesarea's role as a bridge between the Roman and Judaean worlds began at the origins of the city. Herod's political and economic policies were important factors. The city provided him with an economic emporium which contributed to the prosperity of the Judaean hinterland. It served as an indispensable link in his vast security system. It provided a major outlet for his ambitious building program. His power and legitimacy were inextricably bound with Rome: its port linked his kingdom to Rome, and the city was named after his patron Augustus Caesar. He wished to achieve a rapprochement with the pagans of his kingdom by showing that the hegemony of a Jewish king did not constitute a threat to their cultural, religious or physical lives. Much of his building program was intended to win their loyalty and confidence. The magnificent pagan city would become a centre of Greek culture in Judaea.
Herod's founding of Caesarea should also be understood from the Graeco-Roman perspective. His activities may be compared with those of his contemporary, Juba II, another client king who united several territories into one kingdom. Juba was heavily indebted to Rome for his throne, and was an ardent admirer of Greek culture. Both men transformed Phoenician settlements (Lol and Straton's Tower) into political and commercial centres with the name of Caesarea. Juba too founded his Caesarea early in his reign and made that important port his capital; his city also possessed a large temple, statues of Augustus, a theatre, baths, and other monuments.
Herod's Caesarea was as much the outgrowth of his position as a Jewish king of Idumean descent ruling over a mixed population as it was a reflection of the political and economic policies of a Roman client king. This picture of Caesarea straddling two worlds is reflected in Pliny's description of the city as lying on "the frontier of Palestine". Though built as a Greek city, it housed a large and powerful Jewish community, and was first ruled by a king who was Jewish. Its dual heritage was to characterize its subsequent history -- the struggle between Jews and pagans in the first century, the period of the Christian community, and the Jewish community of late antiquity. We shall focus here upon the last of these.
The Cultural Ambiance of the Jewish community
This aspect is illustrated by an incident recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud (Sota 7.1.21b):
Rabbi Levi the son of Hitta came to Caesarea and heard voices reciting the Shema in Greek. He wanted to stop them. R. Yosi learned of this and became angry. He said [to R. Levi]: "Am I to understand that he who does not know how to read in Hebrew should not read it at all? Rather, he should fulfil his obligations by reading in any language he knows."This story is revealing, for it indicates that at least some Jews in the city were able to recite one of the most important Jewish prayers in Greek only. It should be noted, moreover, that the people gathered in that Caesarean synagogue were in no way estranged from the Jewish tradition; the source reports that they were praying. If they recited the Shema in Greek, probably the same was the case with the rest of the prayer service, including perhaps the reading of the Torah. The existence of a Greek-speaking Jewish community at Caesarea is confirmed by the synagogue inscriptions: all those which can be identified with certainty as Jewish are in Greek, as are the names of donors mentioned in the inscriptions -- Theodorus, Olympus, Matrona, Beryllos, Justus, Marouta, and Julis or Julius. Even a quotation from the Bible appears to have been taken from a Greek translation.
Caesarea thus provides a striking example of the process of hellenization taking place throughout Palestine in late antiquity. The degree of hellenization of Jews of this period has long been debated. Some have assumed that hellenization was widespread, others have minimized its impact, while others have adopted a middle position. Today there can be little doubt that Hellenistic culture in one form or another penetrated deeply into large segments of the Jewish community, as seen also at the Beth Shearim necropolis (late second-fourth century) where almost 80% of the inscriptions are in Greek, or at the synagogue at Tiberias, where 10 of the 12 inscriptions are in Greek.
The degree of hellenization within the Jewish community at Caesarea is illustrated in traditions concerning the foremost rabbinic figure of Caesarea in late antiquity, R. Abbahu. Referred to once as a man of "high Hellenistic culture", he was well versed in Greek and would often refer to Greek terms or sayings, or to word-plays in Aramaic and Greek. R. Abbahu clearly possessed the liberal tendencies studiously avoided by some of his colleagues. This may be illustrated by the stone reliefs, mosaics, and paintings that often decorated the synagogues of that period. Such practices are only occasionally reflected in rabbinic sources. Yet the Jerusalem Talmud (Avoda Zara 4.1.43d) reports a tradition of how some rabbis of late antiquity, including R. Abbahu, treated the verse "And you shall not place a figured stone in your land, to bow down to it" [Lev.26.1]:
Rav instructed the household of R. Aha, and R. Ami instructed his own household that when they go [to the synagogue?] on a fast day they should not bow down as they normally do [so as not to appear to be worshipping images]. R. Jonah bowed sideways, as did R. Aha, R. Samuel said: "I saw R. Abbahu bow as is his custom". R. Yosi said: "I asked R. Abbahu: Is it not written, 'You shall, not place a figured stone in your land to bow down to it' [Lev.26.1]?" It should be understood that [this verse prohibiting prostration applies to a situation] where one has a fixed place for bowing.Unlike the other rabbis, R. Abbahu apparently had no compunctions about bowing down in a decorated synagogue. Indeed, the passage indicates the ease which he felt in adapting to Hellenistic norms, which he did not regard as threatening or dangerous.
Social Interplay: Contacts with Non-Jewish Neighbours
The degree and variety of contacts with its non-Jewish neighbours also distinguished the Jewish community at Caesarea. Each group -- pagans, Jews, Christians, Samaritans -- appears to have been a minority in the city. The Babylonian Talmud (Avoda Zara 4a) tells of an incident involving Jewish-gentile relations in the city which is instructive:
The visiting Babylonian Rav Safra was at a distinct disadvantage when questioned by the Caesarean agoranomoi as to the Jewish interpretation of an obviously polemical passage. R. Abbahu's reply is most instructive: we in Caesarea who live side by side with you have undertaken the study of the Bible more intensely than have our Babylonian colleagues (and, we may add, even more than sages from other places in Roman Palestine). Thus it would appear as if the curriculum of the Caesarean rabbis was tailored to the local circumstances, which dictated a need to be prepared to respond in the ongoing polemics with other communities within the city. Origen, for example, who lived in Caesarea during the 230s-240s, tells of his frequent consultations with a Jewish master regarding the interpretation of Scriptures.
R. Abbahu praised Rav Safra to the minim [Christian or Jewish-Christian agoranomoi responsible for the market in Caesarea], saying that he was a great man. They exempted him from taxes for 13 years. One day the minim found him [Rav Safra] and said:
"It is written, 'Only you have I known from all the families on earth, therefore I will repay you for all your sins' (Amos 3.2). If someone is angry, does he then punish his beloved?" [Why is the Holy One, Blessed be He, angry with his people?].
He was silent and did not say anything to them. They threw a scarf around his neck and taunted him. R. Abbahu passed by and discovered them. He said: "Why are you taunting him?"
They answered: "Did you not tell us he is a great man [yet he does not know how to explain this verse]?" He [R. Abbahu] said to them: "When I told you that, [I meant] in rabbinic law. Who said anything to you about the Bible?"
They replied: "What is the difference? You know [the Bible]."
He said to them: "We, who are always in your proximity, have taken it upon ourselves to study [the Bible], but they [i.e. people like Rav Safra from Babylonia] do not study it."
Such polemical statements and debates reflect the tensions existing between the Jewish and Christian communities. Like other cities, Caesarea had fixed meeting-places for controversies of a religious nature; be abedan in rabbinic sources may be identified with the odeion at Caesarea (B Shabbat 116a and 152a; B Avoda Zara 17b; Malalas, Chron. 10.111a [ed. Niebuhr p. 261]) where the Bible and New Testament, and other Jewish and Christian writings, were deposited for reference during such exchanges. Some debates were held before large audiences (Origen, Contra Celsum 1.45, PatrGr 11.743a; 1.55, 11.762b), and, as Origen himself admits, the Jews often bested their opponents:
For if we are so prepared for them in our discussions, they will not, as is their manner, scornfully laugh at gentile believers for their ignorance of the true reading as they have them (EP. to Africanus 5).To provide an accurate text of the Bible, and a list of the variant manuscript readings then in circulation, Origen undertook the compilation of the Hexapla. In the same letter he noted:
As I have tried to take account of all the Jewish editions, we ought not to find ourselves quoting for controversial purposes texts which are not in their copies, and, conversely, we shall be able to use texts in their copies even if they are not in ours (Ep. to Africanus 5).Unfortunately we have no detailed record of what was said on these occasions. Origen has noted that the Jews made pejorative references to the life of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament (Contra Celsum 6.27, PatrGr 11.1334b). But what we do know from the rabbinic literature has contributed much to our knowledge of the nature of these debates and the involvement of the Caesarean rabbis. R. Abbahu made several statements which were intended as attacks upon Christian beliefs:
Thus said R. Abbahu: "An example would be an earthly king, who rules and has a father, brother, and son. God says: 'I am the last' [which means] I have no brother. 'And besides me there is no God' -- [which means] that I have no son" (Exodus Rabba 29.4).Commenting upon a verse from Bilam's prophecy ("God is not man that he should lie", Num.23.19), R. Abbahu commented:
If a man should say to you, "I am God", he is a liar; "I am the son of man," his end will be that he will regret it (i.e., his assertion); "I am going up to heaven", he spoke, but it will not be fulfilled (J TaĠanit 2.1.65b).Many other statements of R. Abbahu appear to have been polemical in intent. The claim that Enoch never died but was translated to heaven was widely held in both Jewish and Christian circles, and it may be the latter whom R. Abbahu had in mind when he demonstrated that, from the Biblical text itself, one could argue that Enoch had indeed died (Genesis Rabba 25.1, edd. Theodor-Albeck p.239). His emphasis on the importance of ritual practices may have been aimed at Christian denigration of the Law (B Sukka 45a), while his admonition not to follow a prophet who preached "idolatry," even if he should perform a spectacular miracle, may be an allusion to the tales of Jesus' works contained in the New Testament (B Sanhedrin 90a). Finally, R. Abbahu's confrontation with Christians in the Caesarean marketplace, quoted above, revolved around the apparent contradiction between Israel's "chosenness" and the frequent punishments visited upon it (B Avoda Zara 4a).
In an introduction to one of his sermons, another Rabbi of Caesarea, R. Yosi b. Hanina, quoted thus:
Moses has said: 'He visits the sins of the fathers on the children' (Exod.34.7); Ezekiel came and annulled it, 'The person who sins will die.' (Ezek.18.4) Moses said: 'You shall perish among the nations' (Lev.26.38); Isaiah came and said, 'On that day a great shofar will be sounded (and they who were lost shall return from Assyria).' (Isaiah 27.13) (B Makkot 24a).These apparent contradictions may have been aimed at countering Christian arguments against the Jews. The Jews, it had been said, have been suffering ever since the destruction of the Temple because their fathers had rejected and crucifed Jesus. Exile and the repudiation of Jewish messianic hopes of restoration were punishments for these crimes. R. Yosi rebutted these claims with a twofold argument. Ezekiel has once and for all dismissed the idea of subsequent generations suffering for their father's sins. Each generation begins with a heavenly tabula rasa, so to speak. Israel's messianic dreams were far from crushed by the exile: just the opposite. Has not Isaiah said that on the great day, symbolized by the sounding of the shofar, the Jews would be gathered from their places of dispersion and brought to Palestine?
The Christians directed their attacks against the laws of the Torah as well as the Jews' present plight. Rabbi Isaac of Caesarea felt compelled to explain why the Torah did not enumerate the reasons for all the commandments (B Sanhedrin 21b), while R. Hoshaya and Bar Qappara responded to queries on the reasons for circumcision (Genesis Rabba 11.6, edd. Theodor-Albeck p.94; Pesikta Rabbati 23, ed. Friedman p.116b) and for observance of the Sabbath. Confronted by Christian demands for abrogation of the law and rejection of the Jews, some rabbis retorted by affirming the eternality and universality of the commandments (J Avoda Zara 2.1.40c) while defending and explaining the Jews' fate as a scattered and seemingly forgotten seed (Song of Songs Rabba 1.41; B Pesahim 87b; Genesis Rabba 53.4, edd. Theodor Albeck p.557). In connection with their assertion that the destruction of the Temple was not a sign of estrangement from God, the rabbis emphasized the importance of prayer in place of sacrifices (Pesikta de Rav Kahana 24.27, ed. Mandelbaum pp377, 408).
Contacts between Jewish and Christian leaders in Caesarea must have been regular and even direct. Origen produced a number of works written during his stay in the city which seem to reflect an intimate knowledge of opinions and interpretations of certain Jewish sages, and vice versa. It has even been suggested that certain arguments ascribed to R. Yohanan (who frequented Caesarea in the time of Origen) address a number of important issues which were at the core of the Jewish-Christian polemic. Origen for his part deals with those same issues in his commentary to the Song of Songs. We may have here traces of a real give-and-take that took place in Caesarea between leaders of these two communities.
It is clear from rabbinic literature that contacts between Jews and Christians (gentiles, Jewish-Christians or minim) in Caesarea and elsewhere were sustained and intense. These contacts were maintained in towns and villages in Galilee as well as in Caesarea, and could not help affecting Jewish attitudes and behavior. Dramatic changes in rabbinic attitudes towards Biblical figures or stories seem to have been caused by developments within the Christian world. The attitude of earlier rabbis (i.e. tannaim, rabbis who flourished up to c. 225) towards the people of Nineveh in the Jonah story was rather positive: they had indeed repented and listened to God's word. But during the 3rd-4th century critical statements were made of the people of Nineveh: their repentance was neither sincere nor complete. As Urbach has shown, Nineveh had then become a positive symbol in Christian homiletics, which may account for the changed rabbinic view on the story. The same happened in the case of the prophet Bilam: at first he was highly regarded by rabbinic sources; later he became a distinctly negative figure, a reaction that may have been triggered by Bilam's increasingly positive profile in Christian sources.
Contacts between Jew and Christian also led to modifications in Jewish liturgy. Both the Jerusalem and the Babylonian Talmuds (J Berakhot 1.5.3c; B Berakhot 12a) mention the fact that an important part of the morning service was eliminated owing to the polemical claims of Christians, probably at some time in the 2nd century. It had long been customary to recite the Decalogue prior to the Shema. This practice went back to the period of the Temple (M Tamid 5.1), and is reflected in an Egyptian papyrus probably of the 2nd century. B.C.E. Both Talmuds indicate the claim of the minim (sectarians), that the Ten Commandments were the essence of the Torah; the rest was of secondary importance. To avoid giving any legitimacy to their claim, the Jews eliminated this section from their service.
The high Level of Political Involvement of the Jewish Community at Caesarea
R. Abbahu, the central figure in the history of the community, was active in this capacity too. We often read of rabbis deferring to R. Abbahu because of his associations with the House of Caesar -- a reference to the procurators' court at Caesarea. For this reason they did not dispute him on halakhic questions (B Yevamot 65a; B Yoma 73a), and they used to accompany him to his lodgings before retiring to their own during a visit to another town (B Sota 40a). In one case R. Abbahu is referred to as 'an important man,' and in another the phrase 'a man of rank' is applied to him:
It is written "a man of rank" (u'nesu fanim, Isaiah 3.3) -- one whose generation is favoured on his account above [i.e. by heaven], one such as R. Hanina ben Dosa; below [i.e. by earthly powers], one such as R. Abbahu of Caesarea (B Hagiga 14a).A most revealing source in this regard notes the laudes offered by the women of the governors' court at Caesarea whenever R. Abbahu appeared:
When R. Abbahu came from the academy to Caesar's [i.e. the proconsul's] house, the women of Caesar's house would greet him thus: 'Leader of his people, spokesman of his nation, a glowing lamp, blessed be your coming in peace' (B Sanhedrin 14a; B Ketubot 17a).
Such an acclamation,
unparalleled in rabbinic literature, is striking evidence of the recognition
and reverence accorded to R. Abbahu as the representative and spokesman of the
Jewish community by the Roman government.