Jews and Their Roman Rivals: Pagan Rome’s Chal­lenge to Israel

Katell Berth­elot

January 12, 2021

How encoun­ters with the Roman Empire com­pelled the Jews of antiq­ui­ty to rethink their con­cep­tions of Israel and the Torah

Through­out their his­to­ry, Jews have lived under a suc­ces­sion of impe­r­i­al pow­ers, from Assyr­ia and Baby­lo­nia to Per­sia and the Hel­lenis­tic king­doms. Jews and Their Roman Rivals shows how the Roman Empire posed a unique chal­lenge to Jew­ish thinkers such as Phi­lo, Jose­phus, and the Pales­tin­ian rab­bis, who both resist­ed and inter­nal­ized Roman stan­dards and impe­r­i­al ideology.

Katell Berth­elot traces how, long before the empire became Chris­t­ian, Jews came to per­ceive Israel and Rome as rivals com­pet­ing for suprema­cy. Both con­sid­ered their laws to be the most per­fect ever writ­ten, and both believed they were a most pious peo­ple who had been entrust­ed with a divine mis­sion to bring order and peace to the world. Berth­elot argues that the rab­binic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of Rome with Esau, Israel’s twin broth­er, reflect­ed this sense of rival­ry. She dis­cuss­es how this chal­lenge trans­formed ancient Jew­ish ideas about mil­i­tary pow­er and the use of force, law and juris­dic­tion, and mem­ber­ship in the peo­ple of Israel. Berth­elot argues that Jew­ish thinkers imi­tat­ed the Romans in some cas­es and pro­posed com­pet­ing mod­els in others.

Shed­ding new light on Jew­ish thought in antiq­ui­ty, Jews and Their Roman Rivals reveals how Jew­ish encoun­ters with pagan Rome gave rise to cru­cial evo­lu­tions in the ways Jews con­cep­tu­al­ized the Torah and con­ver­sion to Judaism.

Discussion Questions

In her schol­ar­ly tour de force, Jews and Their Roman Rivals: Pagan Rome’s Chal­lenge to Israel, Katell Berth­elot mas­ter­ful­ly traces the ways in which ancient Jew­ish thinkers respond­ed to the dis­tinc­tive chal­lenges that pagan Rome and its ide­ol­o­gy posed to world Jew­ry between Pompey’s con­quest of Jerusalem in the first cen­tu­ry BCE and the Chris­tian­iza­tion of the Roman Empire in the fourth cen­tu­ry CE. Berth­elot argues that pagan Rome pre­sent­ed a unique threat to Judaism pre­cise­ly because of its sim­i­lar­i­ties to Judaism: both Jews and Romans saw them­selves as divine­ly elect­ed; as pur­su­ing a uni­ver­sal mis­sion; and as pro­mul­gat­ing a supe­ri­or legal sys­tem. These ide­o­log­i­cal and legal affini­ties, accord­ing to Berth­elot, engen­dered a height­ened anx­i­ety among Jews who saw pagan Rome as seek­ing to replace and sup­plant Judaism. This explains, in Berthelot’s view, why the rab­bis labeled pagan Rome — and only pagan Rome — as Esau,” Jacob’s broth­er and archrival.