You are here

Expressions of Cult in the Southern Levant in the Greco-Roman Period: Manifestations in Text and Material Culture

Expressions of Cult in the Southern Levant in the Greco-Roman Period: Manifestations in Text and Material Culture

Edited by Oren Tal and Zeev Weiss (Contextualizing the Sacred 6). Pp. xxiv + 288. Brepols, Turnhout, Belgium 2017. €120. ISBN 978-2-503-55335-1 (paper).

Reviewed by

This volume originated in a research group formed by the editors in 2013–2014 at the Israel Institute of Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which was composed of scholars and guest lecturers from Israel, the United States, Europe, and Canada. Eighteen articles of varying weight were gathered into this book, which, the editors tell us, “examines different aspects of religious cult, both in the monotheistic and in the polytheistic religions from the dawn of Classicism to the eve of Late Antiquity” (xviii). The editors have divided the book into five parts, covering: cult in context; cult and cult places in the urban sphere; cultic practices beyond the temple precinct; coins as evidence of cult; and cult-related issues of Jewish faith.

Several articles briefly announce new material or preliminary findings: Ecker, “People and Gods in the Cities of Roman Palestine: A Preliminary Inquiry into the Popularity of Civic Cults” presents inscriptions from Ascalon, Samaria, and Caesarea Maritima denoting city gods who were the focus of cults in the Imperial period. Lamps and bronze objects secreted in cracks in a cave in the western hills of Jerusalem are discussed by Zissu et al. (“Votive Offerings from the Late Roman Period in the Te’omim Cave, Western Jerusalem Hills”) in contexts that appear to span the second to fourth centuries C.E. Rosenthal-Heginbottom (“[Presumable] Cultic Artefacts from Domestic Contexts at Dora”) gathers together lead plaques, a fragmentary marble griffin, and figurative lamps and posits their use in cultic contexts. A hitherto unknown coin type is announced by Bijovsky (“Unpublished Coin Type of a Nursing Woman”), who suggests the type depicts Maia. Farhi (“Heroes and Deities on the Coins of Gaza”) places coin types showing Io within the sociopolitical context of the second century C.E. Miller (“Markers of Pagan Cults in a Jewish City: Rethinking the Hadrianeum of Tiberias”) reexamines the evidence for a temple to Hadrian and finds it somewhat lacking, even if the site could have housed a cult building for the polytheistic inhabitants of Tiberias.

Most of the rest of the essays are studies of particular aspects of polytheistic religions in the southern Levant. Belayche’s essay on the architecture of ritual and its use (“Cults in Contexts in the Hellenistic and Roman Southern Levant”) opens the book with methodological questions about polytheistic cults in the southern Levant. While Belayche agrees that she cannot be exhaustive or thorough in her investigations of the “selected case studies” she presents (15), the essay is a welcome reminder that the cults in this area are to be studied not in isolation but within the broader framework of the Roman East. Weiss’ essay (“Cult and Culture: Amusing the Crowds Under the Auspices of Gods and Caesars”) is in a similar vein, as he examines case studies of particular buildings and festival practices in ancient Palestine and Arabia. With Salzman (“Aurelian and the Cult of the Unconquered Sun”), who returns to a long-standing problem concerning the place Aurelian holds in the establishment of the cult of Sol Invictus and its impact on Constantine, we look at the empire as a whole, not just the southern Levant. Salzman reinterprets coin types and calendrical entries in Neoplatonic thought and views the cult as a way in which Aurelian tried to unite the eastern and western halves the empire. (Ecker had briefly explored the unification of the empire through religions in the essay noted above.)

Finds from and about particular cities—sculpture, lamps, and items needed for sacrifices—are discussed by Gersht (“Deities at the Service of Cities and People: Sculpted Images from Caesarea Maritima”), Tal and Taxel (“More than Trash: Cultic Use of Pottery Lamps Found in Late Antique Dumps: Apollonia [Sozousa] as a Test Case”), and Lapin (“Temple, Cult, and Consumption in Second Temple Jerusalem”), respectively. Gersht has been working steadily since 1984 to publish the many fragments and statues from the “jewel on the sea”; this is a welcome overview, especially of the nymphaeum in front of the platform for the Temple of Roma and Augustus and the Domus of the Dioscuri. Lapin attempts to understand the “economic requirements” of the Temple in Jerusalem from the Persian period to its destruction in 70 C.E., an argument that he admits is “incomplete” (250). In the essay, he explores food requirements for fixed sacrifices—wine, grain, oil—and also the wood used for immolation.

The remainder of the essays deal with broader themes. Barbet returns us to the geographical area of the entire Mediterranean basin as she finds parallels for motifs, especially from painted tombs (“A Mediterranean Overview of Painted Motifs in the Southern Levant”). The author takes pains, as did Belayche, to place the eastern examples next to examples from the west, whose paintings she knows in detail. Lichtenberger (“Coin Iconography and Archaeology”) is undoubtedly correct that some coin types show physical buildings, but I remain among the sceptics who argue that not all coin types correspond to an actual (cult) building; I suspect that many temple images present generic indications of the urbanization of the city space. In part, this argument is due to the ubiquity of temple types on coins across the Roman East; these are portrayed in stereotypical forms and are thus unlikely to represent a specific building. Bohak’s study (“Magic in the Cemeteries of Late Antique Palestine”) presents a topic that is rarely approached for this period and place and so is written “to open up this large field” (164). It is one of the few in the book to examine “private” (non-state-organized) religious practices. One can hope that his identification of problems and methodologies are taken up by other scholars. Adler (“The Decline of Jewish Ritual Purity Observance in Roman Palaestina”) synthesizes arguments about the decline of ritual bathing, chalk vessel production, and purity observances in the Jewish tradition, concentrating on the period ca. 63 B.C.E.–135 C.E. Two of the essays I do not feel qualified to comment on, since I am an archaeologist and not a philologist (Lamberton, “The Beginnings of Philosophy of Religion and the Fate of Polytheism in the Late Antique Levant,” and Gordon, “Debt Fraud, Ḥērem Entrapment, and Other Crimes Involving Cultic Property in Late Hellenistic and Early Roman Judea”).

The book is a mixture of discussions of older and newer problems, announcing some new material or synthesizing older material; the essays concentrate on the polytheistic religions present mostly in the area of ancient Palestine. The editors formed the research group by inviting scholars from different disciplines “in order to overcome the tendency to hem in both questions and answers by the scholars’ own training and discipline” (xxii). In some cases, the aims of the seminar have resulted in thought-provoking entries that point to further exploration. It is to be hoped that such interdisciplinary efforts multiply, as we seek to understand the complexity of the ancient world.

Jane DeRose Evans
Temple University

Book Review of Expressions of Cult in the Southern Levant in the Greco-Roman Period: Manifestations in Text and Material Culture, edited by Oren Tal and Zeev Weiss

Reviewed by Jane DeRose Evans

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 4 (October 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1224.evans

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.