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Jewish Popular Piety in Late Antiquity

Posted in: AIAR, ASOR
Tags: AIAR, American Schools of Oriental Research, ASOR, Brown University, Jewish, Michael Satlow, Seymour Gitin
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Michael L. Satlow, Brown University
Seymour Gitin Distinguished Professor
W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research

Michael Satlow

Michael Satlow

The four and a half months that I spent as the Seymour Gitin Distinguished Professor at the Albright Institute have been among the most productive and intellectually stimulating of my career.  I entered the fellowship with two goals: (1) to further my project on Jewish popular piety (or “lived religion”) in late antiquity and (2) to gain, as somebody who has worked primarily with texts, a better understanding of the archaeological materials and techniques related to my research interests.  I will address each in turn.

I am now working on a book on Jewish popular piety after 70 CE.  In a post-temple age, how did Jews—specifically in Roman Palestine—continue (or not) to worship the God of Israel?  Over the fellowship period, partly as a result of my work on an edited volume that was just published (The Gift in Antiquity), I have been able to sharpen the project to focus on attitudes towards, and practices of reciprocity.  That is, how Jews, like their non-Jewish neighbors understood their relationship with the divine realm as a reciprocal one in which, following the basic insight of Marcel Mauss, each side gave to each other in an ever recursive cycle, with the goal of creating a “total social fact.” Prior to 70 CE, this relationship was maintained in the temple in Jerusalem at least on the communal level, primarily through sacrifices.  With the temple destroyed, though, did Jews continue to engage in such reciprocal practices, and if so, how?

I devoted much of my fellowship time to pursuing one case-study of this larger question, that is, the issue of vows and votives.  There is tantalizing literary evidence that Jews in late antiquity made conditional vows to God, the fulfillment of which obligated them to dedicate a gift to God.  For example, a man might vow that if his wife bears a healthy son he would give something to God.  Some epigraphical remains suggest that one avenue through which one could fulfill such a vow was by contributing to the building of a synagogue.  Such gifts were often explicitly marked as having been given in fulfillment of a vow (more so in Greek than Hebrew or Aramaic), but other less explicit language suggests that this was a widespread practice.

Literary texts suggest that such dedications were also made with moveable objects.  Yet, finding the material remains of such objects has proven elusive.   I have been combing through the excavation reports of synagogues and other Jewish Roman-Byzantine sites, looking primarily for “junk”; the notice of objects that excavators might not have thought important but which might be evidence of votive or other religious practices.  I have found some interesting items, but nothing definitive—and I appeal to the learned readers of this report to let me know if you know of anything!

At least as valuable to me as the time and material resources, however, has been the intellectual community.  My interactions with the other fellows, the staff, the speakers, the guides of the many trips that I joined, and the visitors have all vastly expanded my intellectual horizons.  These mostly informal conversations have given me a much better understanding of archaeology as a disciplinary or scientific practice, and have greatly enhanced my ability to be an “educated consumer” of published archaeological reports.  I am delighted to have had the opportunity to develop these personal relationships, which I am sure will continue to enrich me in years to come.

 

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