Issue 98 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Spring 2003 Copyright © International Socialism
Geoffrey de Ste Croix's The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World1 is probably the finest example of Marxist ancient history writing that we have. It provides a template for all other authors in the field. Every piece of evidence, sometimes it seems almost every word, is carefully weighed in terms of its source. And the scholarly debate (the equivalent of scientists' 'peer review'), which often means controversy about the source, is usually present either in the text itself or in the endnotes. In addition, there is his stern warning about importing modern analytical concepts into ancient-historical analysis. His test was simple. Did the ancient Greeks have a similar concept? If not, then, he writes, 'it may be a salutary warning to us that the phenomena we are looking for may not have existed'.2 De Ste Croix was on secure ground. Aristotle had used a concept similar to social class.
Neil Faulkner's book about the 1st century Jewish Revolt against Rome would have benefited considerably by taking de Ste Croix's method much more seriously. Despite this, there are substantial parts of Neil's book that are outstanding and I will conclude this review by acclaiming his analysis of the revolutionary mood of the ancient Jewish peasantry.
Neil will reasonably object that to put in place the sort of 'scholarly apparatus' used by de Ste Croix would be to weigh his book down and make it almost unreadable. I agree and de Ste Croix's is sometimes almost unreadable! However Neil is writing about a period where the cataclysmic upheavals of 1st century AD Palestinian Judaism, its slogans, prayers, and other messianic melodies, cascade down the centuries to us with a capacity to shape, or rather misshape, religion and politics in the here and now. After all, the leaders of something called 'Western civilisation' partly rest its credentials on the 'Judaeo-Christian tradition'. Rigour is especially important when analysing its roots. Marxists like to think we have something important to contribute here. We even call it a scientific understanding. Well, we have to prove that beyond our ranks, so let's at least follow the rules of science!
Neil should have developed a slimmed-down way of alerting us to at least the potentially controversial pieces of evidence. He needed a proper, albeit brief, discussion of the difficulties with his most important sources: the histories of the revolt by Josephus, the aristocratic Jewish historian sponsored by Rome; the Dead Sea Scrolls; and the Gospels. We need to know how modern scholarship deals with them and, above all, what procedures he uses to deal with them. He makes matters worse by sometimes wrapping dodgy evidence in modern concepts like racism and nationalism.
Let's begin with Neil's claim that in the background to the Jewish Revolt, there was a 'long tradition of aristocratic nationalism among the Jews'.3 He uses 'nationalism' uncritically, and quite often, as though it obviously fits the events and needs no further explanation by him. There has been an excellent debate in the past 15 years 'deconstructing', for want of a better word, the idea of nationalism. Particularly pertinent is Eric Hobsbawm's warning about Zionism imposing a 'Jewish nationalism' model on events 2,000 years ago.4 Nationalist movements are modern movements which invent traditions about the past to help mobilise the masses. It is really unhelpful to use this concept about the ancient world. The 'ancients' did not use it, or any concept like it. At no stage did the Jewish rebels conceive of their struggle as a national liberation struggle. In the later part of his book, Neil himself offers an alternative and far more plausible analysis of the dynamics motivating the Jewish peasantry.
Again, according to Neil, Jews were a racially oppressed and despised minority at the heart of empire, in Rome itself. He writes:
The Jews belonged to this world: a world of despots and slaves. 'Syrians were born slaves,' announced Cicero, 'like Jews.' '(Their) customs,'...declared Seneca, detecting a sinister spread of Jewish influence, 'have gained such strength that they have now been received in all lands, the conquered have given laws to the conquerors.' Whether caricatured as slaves or manipulators--or both at once (racist discourse is never rational)--the Jews were easy targets because they were noticeably different and stood out from the crowd. They had long hair and beards...and they wore skull caps, headscarves and prayer shawls. There were strange eating habits, like not eating pork... A more serious charge was that the Jews were idle, refusing to work on the Sabbath... Strange and arrogant religious beliefs seemed to many the root of the problem... Some aspects of Jewish otherness seemed positively chilling: the circumcision of Jewish males was a practice which would so offend the neurotic emperor Hadrian that he would try to ban it... To many of Rome's backstreet racists, the Jews seemed especially alien and malevolent.5
Quite apart from the absurdity of describing all Jews as wearing skull caps and prayer shawls (where did he get this idea from?), Neil's use of the 'racist' concept gives us pre-war Warsaw from the 20th century, not Rome from the 1st century. 'Race' simply had no meaning 2,000 years ago. Many aristocratic Romans did indeed despise Syrian and Jewish and all other slaves. But these attitudes reflected social class snobbery and the celebration of Roman 'civilisation' over and above other, 'lesser' beings. But slaves, Jewish or otherwise, could obtain manumission, their 'freedom', and become Roman citizens. And very large numbers did so. This could not have been possible in a racist state. The reason Seneca made the remarks he did had absolutely nothing to do with racism. Though exaggerated, there was a fear of Jewish influence precisely because Jewish beliefs and customs were sometimes popular, not least the day of rest!
It is very interesting to compare Neil's version of the experience of the Jews in Rome with that of the ancient historian, John Barclay. Here is Barclay's conclusion at the end of a chapter which has scrupulously sifted the (very limited) evidence:
Our survey of the history of the Jews of Rome has been conducted largely on the basis of 'snapshots'... Yet these have provided...a remarkably coherent picture. As one among many immigrant minorities in Rome, Jews were subject to the cultural and social snobbery of the Roman elite, even though exceptional Jewish individuals were known in the imperial court. However, the durability of the Jews' ancestral customs, and their particular attractiveness to Romans of many social classes, were special features of the Jewish profile, sufficiently important to attract hostile attention from Tiberius, Claudius and Domitian... At no point were the Roman Jews so numerous or so threatening to the Roman plebs or the governing classes as to occasion the sort of violence we have witnessed in Syrian, Egyptian and Cyrenaean cities. With their hands clean of the wars in Judaea and the Diaspora Revolt of AD 116-117, the Jewish community in Rome could sustain an unbroken history, which has lasted to the present day.6
Rome's Jews could have played a strategically vital role at the height of the Jewish Revolt in the late 60s of the 1st century. Rome was shaken to its foundations by the revolt in the wider empire. In AD 69 there were no fewer than four emperors. No doubt discontent was rife among the rest of the city's 'plebs'. Yet it seems Rome's Jews were quiet--whether through oppression or voluntary acquiescence we do not know. That is, neither Neil nor John Barclay nor the rest of us know. Ancient history is sometimes like that. Sure, we can speculate on the thinnest of evidence. But if we are speculating then we should say so.
Now let us turn to what Neil believes to be the central manifesto of the Jewish Revolt, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and one of the people he believes to have been one of its key leaders, Jesus Christ.
According to Neil, the Dead Sea Scrolls have 'something of the significance of the pamphlets of the Levellers, the speeches of Robespierre, or the newspapers of the Bolsheviks'.7 Once again, we see this urge to drag this highly complex event and the religious literature indirectly associated with it into a modern framework. It is not necessary and it somehow belittles both the ancient peoples and ourselves. They had a complex thought-world and we have to make a greater intellectual effort to understand it. This is particularly true of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which incidentally were written at least 150 years before the Jewish Revolt, whereas the Leveller pamphlets, Robespierre speeches and Bolshevik newspapers grew out of and responded to the immediate struggle. Neil almost gives us the image of a 'popular militant'8 (his description of a 1st century opponent of Rome) waving a scroll in front of a revolutionary crowd. It wasn't like that. A much better analogy would have been the use of the Old Testament in the English Civil War. We will see later Neil's much more considered view of the impact of the scrolls on the Jewish peasantry.
Neil also insists on recruiting Jesus as one of the leading revolutionary cadres, and it weakens his argument because of the risk of enveloping the whole discussion in an aura of religious mysticism.9 He should have at least acknowledged the opposing views of two absolutely essential authorities on this subject and responded to them. Dead Sea Scrolls expert Geza Vermes has written the indispensable book on this subject, Jesus the Jew.10 Vermes achieved almost the impossible by extracting historical substance from the Jewish theological literature of the period. He brings to life charismatic healers of the Jesus type who really did preach in Galilee in the 1st century. But Vermes does not see them as revolutionary activists even if their message, or at least parts of their message--the meek shall inherit the earth, etc--could be incorporated by others who were. Jesus also, and rather suddenly, wanders into the pages of de Ste Croix's epic study. De Ste Croix is ready to concede that Jesus may have been a real historical figure, but he is scathing about using the Gospels, virtually the only source, to prove Jesus's revolutionary credentials. De Ste Croix tore apart the last serious attempt to make this case, Brandon's The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth.11 Neil should have told us about this.
Actually the problem is obvious from a key passage from Luke, in the New Testament, that Neil himself quotes:
When he [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him... 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour...'12
Neil takes for granted that this incident really occurred. This is despite the fact that we don't really know who 'Luke' was, or even how many Luke writers there were, and the fact that Luke was written at least one, two or even three generations after the supposed Jesus ministry. 'Luke' was engaged in a ferocious faction fight about the direction of the nascent Christianity. The name of the game was, those who invented the best stories about Jesus won the argument. As de Ste Croix reminds us, the Gospels were never intended as historical documents.13 At least Josephus, for all his faults, lived through the revolution and was therefore a witness to it.
Neil is quite right to draw our attention to this passage, but for a much more important reason. It doesn't really matter who read the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue. But it is highly likely that the scroll was read in the synagogues of the Palestinian countryside. And it is extremely likely that the 'year of the Lord's favour' was proclaimed. This is a reference to the Jubilee Year, and Neil quite rightly characterises the struggle of the Jewish revolutionary peasantry in the 1st century AD as the struggle of the Jubilee and the Apocalypse.14 This is a really original and thoughtful contribution and Neil should have the last word about it here. But, just a few other remarks first.
Neil is an able military historian and I have not been able to do justice to his descriptions of the Roman army. Nor have I done justice to his attempts to reconstruct and capture the astonishing heroism of the peasant battles against the Roman army. He is also an archaeologist and provides some fascinating archaeological insights into the period. Particularly intriguing is the discovery of Roman arrowheads at the Dead Sea Scrolls site at Qumran. Neil's view that this proves that the uprising spread here is contentious but certainly worth debating.
Finally I have not mentioned the vital revolutionary battles at Jerusalem itself. Like all historians who approach this subject, Neil is dependent on Josephus, who he rightly describes as a 'general, historian, traitor'.15 Interpreting Josephus has almost become an academic discipline in itself. You can interpret Josephus as Neil does, and see a rational progression from one Jewish revolutionary faction to another dependent upon serious political differences and the wider balance of forces, along the lines of the changing fortunes of the leadership in the French Revolution. Or you can give intellectual credibility to the Monty Python satire Life of Brian, and see only aristocratic Jewish ruling class power-hungry factions forced to adapt to the revolution but contemptuous of the masses, and ready to commit the most insane and irrational acts to get their way. This is Martin Goodman's view, a Josephus expert in a way that Neil is not.16 This does not mean that Neil is mistaken, but it does mean that Goodman has to be taken seriously.
Goodman, though, would probably approve of Neil's approach to the Jubilee-Apocalypse motivated peasantry. Neil resolves tension about the mood of the revolutionary peasants, with help from a wonderful Qumran scroll,17 between two of the best scholars of the period, the same Martin Goodman and Tessa Rajak, biographer of Josephus.18 Goodman stresses the peasants' apocalyptic visions, the political-religious expectations aroused by the anticipated and imminent arrival of the Messiah. Rajak stresses the more down to earth practical considerations in the struggles against increasing inequality, including the progressive part played by peasant-bandits. Neil writes:
Though Jerusalem was the living heart of the redoubt, the blood flowed into it and kept it beating from the villages. The Jewish Revolution was, in essence, a revolt of farmers, an uprising of country people whose lives had become unbearable... This elemental challenge to the social order...received only distorted expression in the politics of the capital. Here, in a city filled with sectarians and rival popular leaders, the instinctive drive of the peasant to make a Jubilee--to redistribute land and free it of burdens--was often submerged. Peasant revolution is always limited. The peasant is an individual whose ambition is restricted to his own farm; he wants to defeat his oppressors and then be left alone to work the land with his family; he has no vision of a wider transformation involving the collective action of peasants in general.19
Modern nationalists have provided such a vision for peasant mobilisation. But Neil, thankfully, here at least, has consigned the 'nationalist' concept to the dustbin as inappropriate for the ancient peasantry. He goes on:
This is why the apocalyptic vision of the sects was so important to the revolt: it provided the unifying ideology...needed to overcome the parochialism of the peasants.20
Even the apocalyptic vision contained down to earth and very revolutionary practical implications. A rebel peasant leader, Judas of Galilee, earlier in the century had organised a revolt against the Roman tax collectors. Judas virtually founded a family dynasty of revolutionaries. Third generation members of his family were active in the Jerusalem revolt. Neil quotes Josephus: 'These men have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only ruler and lord'.21
We have here a very healthy peasant anarchism led by would-be messiahs and peasant bandits. Again Neil quotes Josephus: 'The religious charlatans and bandit chiefs joined forces and drove numbers to revolt, inciting them to strike a blow for freedom'.22
And they certainly knew where they were heading.
Towards the Apocalypse, the revolutionary overthrow of Rome and a passage into 'the light of a possible sunrise'.23
G E M de Ste Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (Duckworth, 1981). For some reason International Socialism never reviewed his book. It's never too late and may I suggest that Neil be asked to do it.
N Faulkner, Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt Against Rome, AD 66-73 (Tempus, 2002), p68.
E Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (Cambridge University Press, 1990); E Hobsbawn and T Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1983).
N Faulkner, op cit, p25.
J M G Barclay, Jews of the Mediterranean Diaspora, from Alexander to Trajan (323 BCE-117 CE) (T&T Clark, 1996), pp318-9.
N Faulkner, op cit, p95.
G Vermes, Jesus the Jew (SCM Press, 1993). I discussed Vermes in some detail in my 'Jesus: History's Most Famous Missing Person', International Socialism 85 (Winter 1999).
G E M de Ste Croix, op cit, p640, footnote 6.
Luke, 4.14-21, quoted in N Faulkner, op cit, p117.
G E M de Ste Croix, op cit, p640, footnote 6.
N Faulkner, op cit, p116. Jubilee is a legitimate motif for characterising the peasant mood. And Neil knows his Bible: 'Scripture, after all, stated that the land was a gift of God to the people...small plots for all...not to be divided into great estates. Was not the original assignment by lot (Numbers 26.55)? Did not the law enjoin that every seventh year should be a Sabbath Year when all debts would be cancelled and all bondsmen made free (Deuteronomy 15.1-18)? Did it not also say that every 50th year should be a Year of Jubilee when all land should be restored to its former owners (Leviticus 25.8-17)?' And of course Jubilee 2000 made brilliant use of this motif in its campaign to demand the cancellation of Third World debt.
N Faulkner, op cit, p135.
M Goodman, The Ruling Class of Judaea (Cambridge University Press, 1987).
The Heavenly Prince Melchizedek, DSS, an Essene Bible commentary from Qumran, quoted by N Faulkner, op cit, p119. Lack of space prevents any debate on whether Neil's characterisation of the famous radical religious group, the Essenes, is justified...
T Rajak, Josephus (Duckworth, 1983). I contrasted the different emphasis of Goodman and Rajak in J Rose, op cit.
N Faulkner, op cit, p203.
Josephus, quoted in N Faulkner, op cit, p108. Neil doesn't give a reference when quoting Josephus. This may seem like nit-picking but Josephus often contradicts himself in his different writings about the same incident. Using Josephus is a forensic science!
N Faulkner, op cit, p109. (Unsourced, but here, at least, let poetic licence prevail.)