The Problem of the Theater in Early Judaism

In: Journal for the Study of Judaism

Abstract

Some scholars have characterized Jewish participation in Roman theatrical institutions as a departure from normative Judaism, while others have distinguished Jews in the diaspora, who attend the theaters, from Jews in Palestine, who criticize and reject them. Both of these narratives are inadequate because scholars have failed to analyze the sources in terms of the cultural and discursive dynamics of Roman theater-going in general. Critiques and accommodations of the theater are common among Jews who lived in both the diaspora and Palestine, for the nature of theatrical culture itself provided Jews with opportunities for vigorous dialogical give-and-take under a Roman imperium in which theaters and their shows were of utmost political and social importance.

  • 2)

    Louis H. Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 61-66. Barclay, Jews, 83-88 and Lanfranchi, Ezéchiel le Tragique, 54 rightly critique this position. For a particularly stark version of this thesis outside of early Jewish studies, see Gilbert G. Bilezikian, The Liberated Gospel: A Comparison of the Gospel of Mark and Greek Tragedy (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), 44-49, who shapes his characterization of the Jewish “abhorrence of drama” (46) in order to enhance his thesis that the author of the Gospel of Mark deliberately framed his narrative in accordance with the plot of Greek tragic drama as a way to “liberate” his gospel from Jewish particularism.

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  • 3)

    Josephus, A.J. 15.275-276; cf. 19.332-334. For an account of Rabbinic attitudes toward theater, see Lanfranchi, Ezéchiel le Tragique, 51-53.

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  • 6)

    Barclay, Jews, 84-86; Gruen, Diaspora, 309, n. 143; Lanfranchi, Ezéchiel le Tragique, 54-55.

  • 7)

    Lanfranchi, Ezéchiel le Tragique, 53-56; cf. Gruen, who likewise distinguishes differing attitudes toward theater-going among Jews in Palestine and the diaspora: “It may be a stretch to imagine that Jerusalemites did so [attended dramatic productions]. But Alexandrian Jews surely did” (Diaspora, 125). I shall move beyond the Palestine-diaspora dichotomy and thereby extend the classic demonstration by Martin Hengel that it is necessary to suspect and complicate this distinction regarding Jewish integration with Greek cultural institutions (Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in Their Encounter in Palestine During the Early Hellenistic Period [trans. John Bowden; 2 vols.; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974]).

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  • 8 )

    Strabo, Geogr. 794.9; Athenaeus cites a writer named Jason who wrote a work on the shrines of Alexander the Great and refers to the “great theater” of Alexandria (620D). See the excellent map in Michael Pfrommer, Alexandria im Schatten der Pyramiden (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1997), 6-7.

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  • 9)

    Strabo, Geogr. 793-794.8-9; P. M. Fraser, Ptolemaic Alexandria (3 vols; Oxford: Clarendon, 1972), 1:14-25 describes this quarter of the city in detail, proceeding on the basis of a wide collection of literary evidence, particularly that offered by Strabo, which he correlates with the results of archaeology.

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  • 11)

    Strabo, Geogr. 794.9; Caesar, BC 3.112.8; see other references to the theater in Polybius, 15.30.4, 6 and Athenaeus, 620D.

  • 12)

    Fraser, Alexandria, 1:23.

  • 14)

    Fraser, Alexandria, 1:23; Empereur, Alexandria, 28; for the location of the odeon, see the map in Fraser, Alexandria, 1:8.

  • 17)

    Strabo, Geogr. 795.10; Fraser, Alexandria, 1:25-29. For probable locations of the Hippodrome based on Strabo’s description, cf. the maps in Pfrommer, Alexandria, 6-7 and Sly, Philo’s Alexandria, Map 3.

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  • 18)

    For these changes, see Barclay, Jews, 48; also, Sandra Gambetti, The Alexandrian Riots of 38 C.E. and the Persecution of the Jews: A Historical Reconstruction (JSJSup 135; Leiden: Brill, 2009), 57-59.

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  • 27)

    Horace, Ep. 2.1.197-198.

  • 28)

    Suetonius, Tib. 37.2; Tacitus, Ann. 1.54, 57.

  • 29)

    Dio Chrysostom, Or. 32.71-73. Cf. the incident during gladiatorial contests at Pompeii in 59 C.E., when verbal jibes between Pompeians and visitors from the neighboring town of Nuceria led, Tacitus writes, “to abuse, then to stones, and finally to steel,” resulting in many maimed Nucerians, who lacked home-court advantage. As a result the senate prohibited such public gatherings in Pompeii for ten years (Tacitus, Ann. 14.17). Scholars have connected this incident with a fragment of a fresco from the garden of a house in Pompeii, which depicts numerous spectators fighting with swords, stones and fists in and around an amphitheater viewed from a bird’s eye perspective, thereby revealing for the historical imagination one way theatrical violence between rival crowds may have been experienced (for this image and its connection with Tacitus’ report, see Bettina Bergmann, “Introduction,” Art of Ancient Spectacle [ed. Bettina Bergmann and Christine Kondoleon; Studies in the History of Art 56; Washington: National Gallery, 1999], 14-15; the best plate in color that I have seen is in Thomas Fröhlich, Lararien-und Fassadenbilder in den Vesuvstädten [Mainz: von Zabern, 1991], Tafel 23.2).

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  • 33)

    Suetonius, Aug. 53.1.

  • 34)

    For more examples, see Cicero, Sest. 115-127; Suetonius, Jul. 84.2; Dio Cassius, 60.29.2-3. In the imperial period emperors often took the verses of songs and poetry as allusive criticism, as when Britannicus sings a song at a banquet during the Saturnalia alluding to unjust treatment at the hands of Nero, who is thereby provoked (Tacitus, Ann. 13.15; cf. Suetonius, Nero 32.2-3). Such songs could lead to the execution of their authors, even when the allusion was unintended, as when Macro accuses Mamercus Scaurus of writing verses in a tragedy that could be taken as criticism of Tiberius (Tacitus, Ann. 6.29; Dio Cassius, 58.24.3-5). Mario Erasmo expresses the dual reference of these allusions nicely when he writes, “play means this (as it relates to the play’s plot) and this (as it alludes to cultural/offstage personalities and events)” (Roman Tragedy: Theater to Theatricality [Austin: University of Texas Press], 51).

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  • 36)

    Barclay, Jews, 49; E. Mary Smallwood, The Jews Under Roman Rule: From Pompey to Diocletian (Leiden: Brill, 1981), 231-32; Tcherikover, CPJ, 1:59-61.

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  • 41)

    Philo, Flacc. 54; Barclay, Jews, 54, 65; Van der Horst, Philo’s Flaccus, 155-56; Smallwood, Jews Under Roman Rule, 240. For Gambetti, the “increasingly difficult” lives of Jews are not historically speaking due to Flaccus’s supposed alliance with the nationalists, as Philo narrates the story, but to Flaccus’s implementation of Gaius’s imperial policies (Gambetti, Alexandrian Riots, 10-11, 19-20, 70-76, 138-50, 176-80).

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  • 45)

    Josephus, A.J. 14.153 preserves an Athenian edict τιµῆσαι τὸν ἄνδρα χρυσῷ στεφάνῳ ἀριστείῳ κατὰ τὸν νόµον, καὶ στῆσαι αὐτοῦ εἰκόνα χαλκῆν ἐν τῷ τεµένει τοῦ Δήµου καὶ τῶν Χαρίτων, ἀνειπεῖν δὲ τὸν στέφανον ἐν τῷ θεάτρῳ Διονυσίοις τραγῳδῶν τῶν καινῶν ἀγοµένων καὶ Παναθηναίων καὶ Ἐλευσινίων καὶ ἐν τοῖς γυµνικοῖς ἀγῶσιν (the Greek text of Josephus’s works that I shall use throughout is by B. Niese, Flavii Iosephi opera [Berlin: Weidmann, 1890; repr. 1955]). For the details of and sources for the ceremonies performed in the theater at Athens at the opening of the Great Dionysia, see Simon Goldhill, “The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology,” in Nothing to Do with Dionysus?: Athenian Drama in Its Social Context (ed. John J. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 97-129. Specifically, the proclamation of Hyrcanus occurred in the theater before the performance of the tragedies in that part of the ceremony when the names of all those who had benefited the city were read out, along with the honors that had been bestowed upon them, usually a crown or garland (104-105).

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  • 47)

    Adolf Deissmann, Light From the Ancient East: the New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Greco-Roman World (trans. Lionel R. M. Strachan; New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 451-52.

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  • 48)

    B. Lifshitz, “Du nouveau sur les ‘sympathisants,’ ” JSJ 1 (1970): 77-84, esp. 81-82; Tessa Rajak, “Jews and Christians as Groups in a Pagan World,” in “To See Ourselves as Others See Us”: Christians, Jews, “Others” in Late Antiquity (ed. Jacob Neusner, Ernest S. Frerichs, and Caroline McCracken-Flesher; Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1985), 247-62, esp. 258-59; Schürer, History, 3.1:167-68; Paul R. Trebilco, Jewish Communities in Asia Minor (SNTS Monograph Series 69; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 158-62.

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  • 52)

    Suetonius, Cal. 55.3; Dom. 7.1.

  • 53)

    Roueché, Performers, 44-47.

  • 55)

    Josephus, A.J. 18.257-309.

  • 56)

    Roueché, Performers, 49-50.

  • 57)

    Roueché, Performers, 152-56. For an analysis of these and other (even later) items of evidence for Jews among the partisans of the Blues, see Pieter W. van der Horst, “Jews and Blues in Late Antiquity,” in Jews and Christians in their Greco-Roman Contexts: Selected Essays on Early Judaism, Samaritanism, Hellenism, and Christianity (WUNT 196; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006), 53-58. He argues that Jewish allegiance to the Blues might have arisen simply as “a matter of custom: Jews happened to have always had theatre or hippodrome seats in the sectors customarily occupied by the Blues” (57; following Roueché, Performers, 130-31). On the basis of social psychology Van der Horst reasons, moreover, that Greens singled out Jews in particular for attacks because they were among the more homogeneous and easily identifiable of the sub-groups within the Blues (58).

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  • 58)

    Roueché, Performers, 119-28.

  • 59)

    Josephus, Vit. 16; LSJ, I.1-2; Roueché, Performers, 21. Philo uses the term only once clearly in the sense of “mime-writer” (Spec. Leg. 4.59). It is interesting that Josephus forms a friendship alliance (φιλία) with someone whose profession Philo criticizes in no uncertain terms. He suggests that the law commands the juror not to give ear to futile speech such as is heard from “myth-writers or mime-writers or inventors of falsehood who dignify things of no worth” (µυθογράφων ἢ µιµολόγων ἢ τυφοπλαστῶν τὰ µηδενὸς ἄξια σεµνοποιούντων).

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  • 61)

    Lanfranchi, Ezéchiel le Tragique, 43. For the text and commentary, see Elena Miranda, “La comunità giudaica di Hierapolis di Frigia,” Epigrapha Anatolica 31 (1999): 109–55, esp. 114-16.

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  • 62)

    Martial, Epigr. 7.82; for the sheath used by actors to cover their penises, see Epigr. 11.75.3; 14.215; Juvenal, Sat. 6.73, 380. Lanfranchi’s assemblage of the evidence for Jewish actors includes in addition to the items discussed here a third-century sarcophagus found near Rome decorated with theatrical masks and belonging to a Jewish woman name Faustina, which he takes to imply that Faustina was an actress (Ezéchiel le Tragique, 43) But David Noy rejects this possibility because “masks were often used on sarcophagi and are no evidence here that the deceased was an actress” (Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe [2 vols; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993-95], 2:535).

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  • 63)

    Philo, Flacc. 74-80.

  • 65)

    Tacitus, Ann. 13.54.

  • 71)

    Josephus, A.J. 19.86, 90; Suetonius, Cal. 26.4.

  • 79)

    Dio Cassius, 68.32.1-3; Josephus, B.J. 6.418.

  • 82)

    Feldman, Jew and Gentile, 61-66; Lanfranchi, Ezéchiel le Tragique, 51-56.

  • 95)

    Segal, Theaters, 41-43, 56-61, 61-69, 75-77, 87-93.

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