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The Archaeology of Hellenistic Palestine: Between Tradition and Renewal

The Archaeology of Hellenistic Palestine: Between Tradition and Renewal

By Tal Oren (In Hebrew). Pp. xvi + 392, figs. 229, tables 23. The Bialik Institute, Jerusalem 2006. $48. ISBN 965-342-919-1 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Oren’s book is a welcome contribution to the archaeological research of ancient Eretz-Israel. It may be compared to E. Stern’s The Material Culture of Eretz Israel in the Persian Period (Jerusalem 1973; English edition, 1982). As Stern’s book was a trigger for a revival of research on this topic, so Oren’s monograph on the archaeology of the Hellenistic period may prove to be. It may serve as a platform for future discussions on the Hellenistic period in Eretz-Israel and to encourage debates about Oren’s ideas and conclusions. His major thesis is that the amount of Hellenic ingredients in the archaeological remains in Eretz-Israel from Alexander the Great to the Hasmoneans is relatively small, and most of what can be retrieved is a continuation of the material culture of the Persian as well as earlier periods.

This is not a new idea (see, e.g., E. Bickerman, “The Seleucids and the Achaemenids,” in Atti del convegno sul tema: La Persia e il mondo greco-romano [Rome 1966] 87–117), but Oren bases his construction upon a detailed survey of up-to-date archaeological data. The data are divided into topical subjects: urban, rural, and military architecture; settlement models; burials; artifacts; and small epigraphic finds, and in each chapter these are arranged geographically north to south.

Since the book is a pioneer, it is not unexpected to note some imperfections in it. The idea that the transition from the Achaemenid to the Hellenistic empires was not a rupture, and that many aspects of the social, religious, and economic life either did not change or changed gradually and slowly, enjoys a broad consensus and is attested convincingly by the archaeological data. Yet the gradual changes in the material culture should be compared to the sociopsychological effect of Alexander’s victory over the Persian empire. Some literary sources testify to a conceptual rupture in certain sectors of the Oriental societies (e.g., the book of Daniel and the oracle of the Potter). Such a comparison illuminates the value of the archaeological data, as well as its limitations. Material culture in Eretz-Israel and in the East is often described in terms such as “assimilation,” “change,” “novelty,” and “influence,” whereas the more neutral and objective term “acculturation” may describe better the process of Hellenism’s coming into being.

The author’s argumentation is not always clear-cut, and the terms he uses are not accurate enough. The difference between polis and town is discussed long after he deals with the differentiation between the forms of settlement, and his argument that since gymnasia and ephebeia were absent there were no poleis in Eretz-Israel does not consider that a gymnasion and ephebeion were founded in Antiocheia in Jerusalem; this may put in doubt the validity of the e silentio argument based on their absence in excavations in Hellenistic cities such as Acco-Ptolemais. Also, the “Antiochians in Jerusalem” (2Maccbees 4:9) that has been interpreted as signifying either a polis (Tcherikover and Le Rider) or a politeuma (Bikerman) should be considered in relation to the “Antiochians in Ptolemais” and the “Seleukians in Gaza,” discussed in the section on numismatics.

Chapter 9 (“The Small Epigraphic Finds”) that surveys the coins, the lead weights, the ceramic stamps, the bullae, the ostraca, and the papyri is disappointing. There are plenty of references to scholarly works, especially in the section on coins, but the analytical discussion is unsatisfactory. Most of those objects bear texts that should be treated differently than the nonepigraphic material, which is the core of the book.

Papyri, inscriptions, and sometimes even ostraca (e.g., the Aramaic marriage contract from Maresha), are not small finds. They may be short or long (e.g., the Heftzibah inscription), but they should be treated as texts. The author seems out of breath at the final stages of composing his book, which began as a doctoral thesis, and was urged to complete the survey and to include the two last chapters (ch. 9 on small epigraphic finds, ch. 10 on arms); truly they deserve separate research. The mention of the deity Marnas on the coins of Gaza could have been used in the discussion of religion in a Hellenistic city—the same is true with the dove on Ascalonian coins. Barag’s interesting and important suggestion that Antiochus IV minted coins in Jerusalem to inaugurate the foundation of a new polis is referred to with no discussion; if it was intended to signify the foundation of a polis in Jerusalem, why was its name not inscribed on its coins? Does their diffusion in Jerusalem and its surroundings prove that they were minted there? Is it not possible that they were minted near Judea and were brought there by the soldiers who fought against the Jewish rebels? I raise these queries not to argue for or against Barag’s suggestion but only to propose that the treatment of the numismatic evidence is not comprehensive.

The last section of the book is a summary that reflects the weakness of the nonarchaeological part of the book. One page contains a mosaic of various definitions and views about “Hellenism” (323), but it is not clear which of them the author adopts. Also, the references to the various scholars who dealt with this subject seem to me accidental—some could have been left out and others should have been included (e.g., Bickerman and Édouard Will).

Yet, as I noted above, Oren’s book is a meaningful contribution to our understanding and knowledge of Hellenism in Eretz-Israel in the Hellenistic period that balances discussions on Hellenism in Eretz-Israel based mostly on the literary and epigraphic sources. An English edition of it is warmly recommended.

Uriel Rappaport
24 Smolenskin Street
34366 Haifa

Book Review of The Archaeology of Hellenistic Palestine: Between Tradition and Renewal, by Tal Oren

Reviewed by Uriel Rappaport

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 4 (October 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1114.Rappaport

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