Podcast episode

Episode 143: Politics and Religion in Late Antiquity, Part I: Geopolitics, Empire, and Rabbinic Judaism

[Thanks to the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek for the above image. Corrigendum: as alert listener Berel Dov Lerner points out, we are mixed up about what the term Mishnah Torah refers to. The term has a few different meanings, but most often refers to a work of Maimonides.]

After a long time and a lot of episodes spent in the rarified company of late-antique intellectuals like Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus, we thought it might be helpful to come up for air for a minute and take stock of where the Roman world is politically at the end of the third century, on the cusp of the extraordinary transformation of the empire into a Christian state. New religious movements abound, competing for adherents. At the same time, the old, traditional polytheist ways continue, sometimes being rethought by philosophers and intellectuals in order to make them better suited to meet the needs of the late-antique mind. Things are very complex, and increasingly polarised. Sounds like the twenty-first century, come to think of it.

In an attempt to impose some order on all this complexity, in this episode we focus on the basic Roman/Sassanian geopolitical setup prevalent through late antiquity up to the mid-seventh century; we discuss the political position of Jews, mostly in the Roman empire, in the aftermath of the Jewish Wars (66-70CE), the Kitos War (115–117 CE) and lastly the messianic rebellion of Bar-Kochba (c.132–136 CE); we then turn to the social and religious ‘reformation’ of Jewry from within in the wake of the destruction of the Temple and under the influence of more general religious trends of late antiquity. The result of all these changes is something known as ‘Rabbinic Judaism’, and it will be the home of a great deal of extraordinary esoteric thought in the centuries to come.

Recommended Reading:

On Religion and Politics in Late-Antique Rome Generally:

  • Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede, editors. Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1999.
  • Glen W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar, editors. Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Post-Classical World. Harvard University Press, Cambridge,MA, 1999.
  • P. Brown. The World of Late Antiquity. Thames and Hudson, London, 1971.
  • E. R. Dodds. Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety: Some Aspects of Religious Experience from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1965.
  • G. Fowden. From Empire to Commonwealth: The Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1993.
  • R. Lim. Public Disputation, Power, and Social Order in Late Antiquity. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1995.
  • Stephen Mitchell and Peter van Nuffelen, editors. One God: Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010.
  • S. Sambursky. The Physical World of Late Antiquity. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1962.

On the Formation of Early Rabbinic Judaism (and Related Esoteric Stuff):

  • Gabriele Boccaccini. Roots of Rabbinic Judaism: An Intellectual History, from Ezekiel to Daniel. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 2002.
  • J. H. Charlesworth. The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity. Fortress, Minneapolis, 1992.
  • Louis H. Feldman. Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1993.
  • Louis H. Feldman and Gohei Hata, editors. Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity. Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1987.
  • Lester L. Grabbe. Judaism from Cyrus to Hadrian. Fortress, Minneapolis, 1992.
  • N. Janowitz. Magic in the Roman World: Pagans, Jews, and Christians. Routledge, London, 2001.
  • Richard Kalmin. Christians and Heretics in Rabbinic Literature of Late Antiquity. Harvard Theological Review, 87:155–69, 1994.
  • Steven T. Katz, editor. The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume Four: The Late Roman-Rabbinic Period. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008.
  • Robert Kirschner. Apocalyptic and Rabbinic Responses to the Destruction of 70. Harvard Theological Review, 78:27–46, 1985.
  • John C. Reeves. Trajectories in Near Eastern Apocalyptic: A Postrabbinic Jewish Apocalyptic Reader, volume 45. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, 2005.
  • Anthony J. Saldarini. Apocalypses and ‘Apocalyptic’ in Rabbinic Literature and Mysticism. Semeia, 14:187–205, 1979.
  • Gershom Scholem. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Shocken Books, New York, NY, 1941.
  • Idem. Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition. Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, 2 edition, 1965.
  • Idem. Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism. In Gershom G. Scholem, editor, The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality, pages 1–36. Schocken, New York, 1971.
  • Shaye J.D. Cohen, Robert Goldenberg, and Hayim Lapin, editors. The Oxford Annotated Mishnah. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2022.
  • G.A. Wewers. Geheimnis und Geheimhaltung im rabbinischen Judentum. Number 35 in Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten. De Gruyter, Berlin/New York, NY, 1975.

On the Sassanians, Eastern Jews, and the Relevance of Zoroastrianism to Western Esotericism:

  • Joseph Bidez and Franz Cumont. Les mages hellénisés: Zoroastre, Ostanès et Hystaspe d’après la tradition grecque. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1938.
  • Michael G. Morony. Magic and Society in Late Sasanian Iraq. In Joel Walker, Scott Noegel, and Brannon Wheeler, editors, Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World, pages 83–107. Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, 2003.
  • J. Neusner. Later Sasanian Times. In Baruch A. Levine, editor, The Language of the Magical Bowls, volume 5, pages 343–373. Brill, Leiden, 1970.
  • Shaul Shaked. Popular Religion in Sasanian Babylonia. Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam, 21:103–117, 1997.
  • Michael Stausberg. Faszination Zarathushtra: Zoroaster und die Europäische Religionsgeschichte der Frühen Neuzeit. De Gruyter, Berlin, 1998.


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