Servility buried in the psyche

Jewish Slavery in Antiquity

December 8, 2006

In Jewish Slavery in Antiquity , Catherine Hezser offers us a systematic account of Jewish slavery in the Graeco-Roman world. In the wake of the Roman conquest of Judaea in the 1st century BC and the suppression of Jewish revolts in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, myriad Jews were enslaved and relocated throughout the Roman Empire. Hezser discusses the fate of these Jews, but her study is not primarily concerned with the experience of Jewish slaves in the Gentile world. Rather, her main focus is the role of slavery in Jewish society, in communities where free Jews, like Roman citizens, were masters of both Gentile and Jewish slaves.

The book is divided into four parts. In part one, "The status of slaves", Hezser describes the lowly position of slaves in ancient Jewish society.

She demonstrates, for example, how the slave-owning strata of society legally defined slaves as chattels and thereby contributed to the dehumanisation of slaves, a process that made their exploitation more palatable for slave owners.

In part two, "Slaves and the family", Hezser considers the role and treatment of slaves in the context of the household. Domestic rather than agricultural slavery was apparently the prevalent form of slavery in the Roman Empire of late antiquity, and the slave was a member of the household whose functions and presence influenced the family in numerous ways.

In part three, "Slaves and the economy", Hezser discusses the socioeconomic roles of slavery in Jewish society. She reveals, for example, that although Roman law prohibited the sale of one's own body into slavery, self-sale for the purpose of repaying debts is taken for granted in rabbinic writings.

In the final part, "The symbolic significance of slaves", Hezser investigates the metaphorical uses of slavery in antiquity, illustrating how slavery became a religious metaphor for one's position before God; a socioeconomic metaphor for one's relation to human superiors; a political metaphor for subjugation to foreign rule; and a psychological metaphor for enslavement to one's passions and desires.

The comparison of Jewish culture and society to the surrounding Roman environment is a methodological principle at the heart of the book. Hezser consistently points to the common ground shared by Jews and Gentiles while not forgetting to highlight differences as well.

She is most insightful precisely when she locates features of Jewish society that clash with Roman norms. For example, rabbinic literature portrays rabbinic disciples fulfilling menial tasks for their teachers; such tasks were ones that educated Romans would have assigned to slaves, although the positive depiction of these activities is not in keeping with Roman views of subservience and humility. Hezser suggests that this non-Roman rabbinic position was a result of a distinctive religious ideology in which Jews metaphorically viewed themselves as God's slaves, and rabbinic disciples enacted this metaphor by enslaving themselves to a religious "master," the embodiment of God's word on Earth.

I would add only that the similar servile portrayal of sons in rabbinic literature suggests that the disciple was also viewed as the spiritual "son" of his teacher because Jews symbolically viewed themselves as both slaves and children of God.

Jewish Slavery in Antiquity was written primarily for historians who will be interested in seeing how Hezser teases social and cultural history out of literary and legal sources, while non-academics interested in the author's conclusions but less so in her argumentation will profit from reading the summaries at the close of every part. Hezser has produced a carefully crafted study that is ambitious in scope, and her scholarship makes this book a significant contribution to Jewish and Roman history in late antiquity.

Amram Tropper is lecturer in Jewish history, Ben-Gurion University, Beer-Sheva, Israel.

Jewish Slavery in Antiquity

Author - Catherine Hezser
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 464
Price - £55.00
ISBN - 0 19 928086 X

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