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Review of Lapin, _Rabbis as Romans: The Rabbinic Movement in Palestine, 100-400 CE_

December 17th, 2013

Hayim Lapin, Rabbis as Romans: The Rabbinic Movement in Palestine, 100-400 CE. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.  295 pp. $55.

By Nathan Schumer

Writing the social history of the rabbinic movement in Roman Palestine has always been a difficult task. Previous treatments of this topic include Lee Levine’s The Rabbinic Class of Roman Palestine in Late Antiquity and the more tenuous, network theory driven model of Catherine Hezser in the Social Structure of the Rabbinic Movement in Roman Palestine. While each of these books make important contributions to the study of the rabbinic movement, Hayim Lapin’s Rabbis as Romans convincingly makes the case that the rabbis of Palestine are best understood as an elite urban association of Roman provincials.

Lapin first provides a new model for the rabbis as Roman provincials. In his opinion, scholars of rabbinics have primarily conceptualized rabbis and Romans through the postcolonial language of subalterns and overlords (as presented by Ranajit Guha), deploying an overly dichotomous description of the relationship.Scholars have primarily characterized the rabbis as engaged in cultural resistance to Roman hegemony. Instead of focusing on rabbinic resistance, Lapin argues that the rabbis were a group who learned to “speak” (in the Gayatri Spivak sense), fashioning a role and domains of power for themselves in the Roman province of Palestine. Lapin argues that the rabbinic movement emerged precisely in the stratum of the provincial elite that could be incorporated into the system.  As elites, rabbis navigated Romanizing cultural practices and their place within the Roman Empire, articulating a distinctive Jewish cultural identity. Lapin demonstrates that the successes of the rabbinic movement in gaining power are a result of deploying elements of Romanization to create a place for themselves in the Roman provincial system.

Chapter 1 provides a brief overview of the provincial history of Palestine, paying close attention to Roman governance. Lapin follows the trajectory ofprovincial Jewish history laid out in Seth Schwartz’s Imperialism and Jewish Society with some minor changes. He describes the Romanization of Palestine, discussing the material and administrative changes such as roads and cities that created the urban provincial context in which rabbinic literature emerged.

Chapter 2 provides a concise history of the rabbinic movement, examining its texts, origins, and development. As a programmatic statement of method, Lapin argues that rabbinic texts can be read (in aggregate) to answer structural questions about the rabbinic movement (so for instance, were the rabbis generally well to do, on the basis of the available traditions). This approach to rabbinic literature guides Lapin’s historiography of the rabbinic movement in Chapters 2, 3, and 4. Chapter 2 presents a slightly revisionist account of the early years of the rabbinic movement. Lapin demonstrates that in 200 CE, a variety of factors coalesced, particularly the redaction of the Mishnah and the rise of Patriarch Judah I, which created a more institutionalized rabbinic movement.

The third chapter is a structuralist account of the Palestinian rabbinic movement in the third and fourth centuries CE. Lapin argues that Palestinian amoraic rabbis were drawn from the urban well to do class. In their civic setting, the rabbis also began to set up rudimentary institutions, such as the study house or appointment by the patriarch. Finally, Lapin demonstrates that the rabbinic movement shared a vocabulary with other urban, religious (or secular) associations of the Greco-Roman world, arguing that we should view the rabbinic movement as similar to these other associations. In short, the rabbis selectively adapted to the new Romanized world, setting up institutions and forms of organization that were derived from the Roman world around them.This is a particularly persuasive account of the rise of the Palestinian amoraic movement, demonstrating its new provincial base among the urban well to do.

The fourth chapter describes rabbinic judicial practice in the context of provincial law and voluntary adjudication. Lapin focuses on stories where rabbis operate as judges in tannaitic and amoraic literature. In tannaitic case stories, the rabbis are consulted as religious experts who rule on issues related to Jewish piety. In amoraic case stories, the rabbis rule on a broad array of issues (such as property or personal status) for people who are socially connected to the rabbis. Lapin explains that the Roman state recognized voluntary adjudication as legally binding. Roman law recognized the decision of agreed upon arbiters for parties—in Egypt, some arbiters’ judgments were even enforced by the state. The relative weakness of the Roman state allowed rabbis to judge, creating a legal space that allowed them to articulate their sense of cultural difference from the Romans through application of particularist Jewish law. Scholars of Jewish law, especially those engaged in comparative work, will find this chapter very revealing, allowing them to understand how rabbinic law was practiced in the interstices of the Roman legal system.

Lapin’s fifth chapter moves from structural accounts of the rabbinic movement to an analysis of rabbinic texts. It demonstrates that rabbinic fashioning of Jewish difference can best be understood through the lens of Roman provincial culture. Lapin highlights elements in rabbinic literature that thematize Roman provincial history, such as bathing and martyrdom. For instance, he argues that in one pericope in the Talmud Yerushalmi, the rabbis resist a concept of martyrdom that extends to the general exercise of state power, so if the state is merely requisitioning bread from Jewish provincials on the Sabbath, then martyrdom is not justified. Though inconvenient and transgressive of Jewish law, state requisitioning is a typical form of provincial/state relationships.  Martyrdom is only appropriate when the state is persecuting Jews for their Jewishness—a concept of martyrdom that is clearly shaped by the persecution of Christians in the 3rd and early 4th century. In this section, Lapin uses the local provincial history of Palestine to contextualize rabbinic literature, while also using the rabbis as representative of provincial views of the Roman Empire. Though his argument is convincing, it would have been nice to see a more programmatic statement of how viewing the rabbis as provincial Romans can transform our readings of texts and how it presents new insights into Roman history.

The epilogue sketches out the rabbinization of the Jews more broadly in the fifth to eighth centuries CE. Lapin argues that during this period the rabbinic movement transitioned from a voluntary urban association into a normative orthodoxy, spreading among the non-rabbinic Jews. To a certain extent, this process of rabbinization was aided by imperial marginalization of the Jews, which turned the Jews as a discrete community. The rabbinization of the Jewish world began in the fifth to eighth centuries and laid the ground for rabbinic expansion in the gaonic period. Though Lapin primarily surveys the evidence, he compellingly suggests that the end of antiquity/the early Islamic period will be a crucial area of study going forward if we wish to understand how Judaism became rabbinic.  The epilogue also serves as a refutation of the narrative of Jewish decline in late antiquity, though this seemed to be an overstatement of the current scholarly consensus.

Lapin’s reading of rabbis as Romans is successful, demonstrating that rabbis are part of the Roman Empire in a non-trivial sense. The entire structure of their cultural, social, and economic world is shaped by the reality of Romanization and their articulation of Jewish distinctiveness is connected to elements of Romanization. By providing an account of the social world of the rabbis that roots them in their provincial context, Lapin presents the historical basis for reading the rabbis through the lens of Romanization. Animating this project is the strong belief that rabbinic literature can and should be used not only for the study of Jewish history, but also for Roman history. Roman historians can better understand the social history of the Roman Empire by reading rabbinic literature as representing a (semi) elite Roman provincial experience. Jewish historians, on the other hand, will better understand the rabbinic movement through more serious engagement with scholarship on Roman provinces. Lapin’s book is a welcome development in the field of rabbinics, because it presents rabbinic literature before a broader audience and argues that rabbinic literature is some of the best evidence we have for understanding the experience of being ruled by the Roman Empire.

Yet, Lapin could have made his argument more convincing by describing the rabbis with reference to other provincial elites. In arguing that the rabbis participated in and used Romanization for their own ends, Lapin is claiming that the rabbis were part of the same stratum as the native non-rabbinic Jewish elite, which benefited from and was incorporated into the Roman state. To demonstrate rabbinic Romanization, it would have been useful for Lapin to show how the rabbis were like other elite provincial groups, particularly those who were not directly co-opted by the Romans. Similarly, though Lapin generally draws on Seth Schwartz’s minimalist narrative of the rabbinic movement, Lapin emphasizes the elite status of the rabbis, arguing that they come from the group of provincials who could and did benefit from provincial rule, but used the provincial power structure to advance their own nativist agenda. Schwartz emphasized the marginal status of the rabbis, placing them on the edge of Jewish society, but slowly expanding into it.[1] While Schwartz argues that the rabbis are to a certain extent sui generis, Lapin argues that the rabbis are typical of the provincial experience and should be read alongside a variety of other provincial elites. It is conceivable that Schwartz and Lapin could be emphasizing different facets of the same movement, though it would have been nice to see Lapin engage more thoroughly with Schwartz’s arguments for the marginal status of the rabbis, precisely because he often relies on Imperialism and Jewish Society.

Lapin’s book is relatively concise, yet quite detailed, providing a quick encapsulation of the nature, rise, and social setting of the rabbinic.The book is clear enough for general audiences and detailed, methodologically sophisticated, and rich enough for scholars of rabbinics.  Ancient historians will find the work to be a useful introduction to the rabbinic movement and rabbinic literature. The book will be especially useful in a classroom setting as a historical textbook on the rabbinic movement in Palestine.


[1]Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 103–128.

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