Book Review: Aphrodite and the Rabbis

When I started researching Judaism, the first thing I learned was that I didn’t know anything about Judaism. It turns out that Judaism-in-the-Bible (the one I was familiar with) and modern Judaism are pretty different.

Visotzky’s Aphrodite and The Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as we Know it explores the transition from Biblical to Rabbinic Judaism. If you’re looking for an introductory text on the subject, it’s a good place to start. (It doesn’t go into the differences between major modern-day Jewish groups, though. If you’re looking for that, Judaism for Dummies or something along those lines will probably do.)

I discussed several ideas gleaned from this book in my prior post on Talmudism and the Constitution. Visotzky’s thesis is basically that Roman culture (really, Greco-Roman culture) was the dominant culture in the area when the Second Temple fell, and thus was uniquely influential on the development of early Rabbinic Judaism.

Just to recap: Prior to 70 AD, Judaism was located primarily in its homeland of Judea, a Roman province. It was primarily a temple cult–people periodically brought sacrifices to the priests, the priests sacrificed them, and the people went home. There were occasional prophets, but there were no rabbis (though there were pharisees, who were similar.)  The people also practiced something we’ll call for simplicity’s sake folk Judaism, passed down culturally and not always explicitly laid out in the Mosaic Law. (This is a simplification; see the prior post for more details.)

Then there were some big rebellions, which the Romans crushed. They razed the Temple (save for the Western Wall) and eventually drove many of the Jews into exile.

It was in this Greco-Roman cultural environment, Visotzky argues, that then-unpracticeable Temple Judaism was transformed into Rabbinic Judaism.

Visotzky marshals his arguments: Jewish catacombs in Rome, Talmudic stories that reference Greek or Roman figures, Greek fables that show up in Jewish collections, Greek and Roman words that appear in Jewish texts, Greco-Roman style art in synagogues (including a mosaic of Zeus!), the model of the rabbi + his students as similar to the philosopher and his students (eg, Socrates and Plato,) Jewish education as modeled on Greek rhetorical education, and the Passover Seder as a Greek symposium.

Allow me to quote Visotzky on the latter:

The recipe for a successful symposium starts, of course, with wine. At least three cups, preferably more, and ideally you would need between three and five famous guests. Macrobius describes a symposium at which he imagined all the guests drinking together, even though some were already long dead. They eat hors d’oeuvers, which they dip into a briny sauce. Their appetite is whetted by sharp vegetables, radishes, or romaine lettuce. The Greek word for these veggies is karpos. Each food is used as a prompt to dig through one’s memory to find apposite bookish quotes about it. … Above all, guests at a symposium loved to quote Home, the divine Homer. …

To kick off a symposium, a libation was poured to Bacchus Then the dinner guests took their places reclining on pillows, leaning on their left arms, and using their right hands to eat. Of course, they washed their fingers before eating their Mediterranean flatbreads, scooping up meats and poultry–no forks back then.

Athenaeus records a debate about desert, a sweet paste of fruit, wine, and spices. Many think it a nice digestive, but Athenaeus quotes Heracleides of Tarentum, who argues that such a lovely dish ought to be the appetizer, eaten at the outside of the meal. After the sumptuous meal and the endless quotation of texts… the symposium diners sang their hymns of thanksgiving to the gods. …

All of this should seem suspiciously familiar to anyone who has ever attended a Passover Seder. The traditional Seder begins with a cup of wine, and blessings to God are intoned. Then hands are washed in preparation for eating the dipped vegetables, called karpos, the Greek word faithfully transliterated int Hebrew in the Passover Haggadah. Like the symposiasts, Jews dip in brine. The traditional Haggadah recalls who was there at the earliest Seders: Rabbi Eliezer … Rabbi Aqiba, and Rabbi Tarphon (a Hebraized version of the Greek name Tryphon). The converation is prompted by noting the foods that are served and by asking questions whose answers quote sacred scripture. …

Traditionally the Passover banquet is eaten leaning on the left side, on pillows. Appetites are whetted by bitter herbs and then sweetened by the paste-like Haroset (following the opinion of Heracleides of Tarentum?) Seder participants even scoop up food in flatbread. Following the Passover meal there are hymns to God.

Vigotzsky relates one major difference between the Greek and Jewish version: the Greeks ended their symposiums with a “descent into debauchery,” announced api komias–to the comedians! Jews did not:

Indeed, the Mishnah instructs, “We do not end the meal after eating the paschal lamb by departing api komias.” That final phrase, thanks to the Talmud of Jewish Babylonia, where they did not know Greek, has come to be Hebraized as “afi-komen,” the hidden piece of matzo eaten for desert.

The one really important piece of data that he leaves out–perhaps he hasn’t heard the news–is the finding that Ashkenazi Jews are genetically about half Italian. This Italian DNA is primarily on their maternal side–that is, Jewish men, expelled from Judea, ended up in Rome and took local wives. (Incidentally, Visotzky also claims that the tradition of tracing Jewish ancestry along the maternal line instead of the paternal was adopted from the Romans, as it isn’t found in the Bible, but is in Rome.) These Italian ladies didn’t leave behind many stories in the Talmud, but surely they had some effect on the religion.

On the other hand, what about Jews in areas later controlled by Islam, like Maimonides? Was Rome a major influence on him, too? What about the Babylonian Talmud, written more or less in what is now Iraq?

Modern Christianity owes a great deal to Greece and Rome. Should modern Judaism be understood in the Greco-Roman lens, as well?


Dear Donna Zuckerberg: You Don’t Own the Classics

You don’t own Aeneas. You neither sent him down to Hell nor raised him up–

Hic aliud maius miseris multoque tremendum
obicitur magis atque improuida pectora turbat.

You incurred not Hera’s wrath nor threw love-cursed Dido on her pyre–

ecce autem gemini a Tenedo tranquilla per alta
(horresco referens) immensis orbibus angues

You did not bear Anchises upon your shoulders as you fled Troy’s burning walls–

fit sonitus spumante salo; iamque arua tenebant
ardentisque oculos suffecti sanguine et igni
sibila lambebant linguis uibrantibus ora.

You do not own the blind poet’s songs, Hektor of the shining helm, Diomedes of the great war cry–

τίς δὲ σύ ἐσσι φέριστε καταθνητῶν ἀνθρώπων;
οὐ μὲν γάρ ποτ’ ὄπωπα μάχῃ ἔνι κυδιανείρῃ

You cannot take Plutarch nor Socrates by PhD!

“I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom …
When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise,
although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself …
So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.”

Even a critic as skeptical as Edward Said, having succumbed to the temptation of university, academic employment, could not tear down the master’s house with the master’s tools: what hope have you?

At pater infelix, nec iam pater, “Icare,” dixit,
“Icare,” dixit “ubi es? qua te regione requiram?”

You may focus on the parts of antiquity that weren’t white men–

And I shall read Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Plato, Herodotus, Sophocles, Plutarch and Horace
because they are spectacular

Because you think it despicable to inspire “the foundation of Western civilization and culture”–

τὸν δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὑπόδρα ἰδὼν προσέφη πολύμητις Ὀδυσσεύς:
‘ξεῖν᾽, οὐ καλὸν ἔειπες: ἀτασθάλῳ ἀνδρὶ ἔοικας.
οὕτως οὐ πάντεσσι θεοὶ χαρίεντα διδοῦσιν
ἀνδράσιν, οὔτε φυὴν οὔτ᾽ ἂρ φρένας οὔτ᾽ ἀγορητύν.
ἄλλος μὲν γάρ τ᾽ εἶδος ἀκιδνότερος πέλει ἀνήρ,
ἀλλὰ θεὸς μορφὴν ἔπεσι στέφει, οἱ δέ τ᾽ ἐς αὐτὸν
τερπόμενοι λεύσσουσιν: ὁ δ᾽ ἀσφαλέως ἀγορεύει
αἰδοῖ μειλιχίῃ, μετὰ δὲ πρέπει ἀγρομένοισιν,
ἐρχόμενον δ᾽ ἀνὰ ἄστυ θεὸν ὣς εἰσορόωσιν.
ἄλλος δ᾽ αὖ εἶδος μὲν ἀλίγκιος ἀθανάτοισιν,
ἀλλ᾽ οὔ οἱ χάρις ἀμφιπεριστέφεται ἐπέεσσιν,
ὡς καὶ σοὶ εἶδος μὲν ἀριπρεπές, οὐδέ κεν ἄλλως
οὐδὲ θεὸς τεύξειε, νόον δ᾽ ἀποφώλιός ἐσσι.

You reduce the Classics to something that inspires:
No civilization, no culture

No one.


Your PhD does not entitle you to dictate other people’s heritage.

The Bronze Age Collapse (pt 3/3)

Go back to Part 1, Part 2

Fall of Troy
Fall of Troy

So what caused the Bronze Age Collapse?

  1. Greek gods threw a party and forgot to invite the goddess of Discord.
  2. Volcanic eruption => famines => migration.
  3. Chariots, iron, and swords that hack.
  4. Famine/Deforestation
  5. Systemic collapse.

I. Love and War

Earliest known depiction of the Trojan Horse (I think)
Earliest known depiction of the Trojan Horse (I think)

We are all familiar, of course, with the Homeric (and Vergilian) version of the Greek assault on Troy. Though Homer does not actually detail the war’s initial causes, nor its end, these parts of the tale are famous enough in their own right.

[Oh goodness, I just realized that I am assuming that everyone knows the story of the Trojan War. Let me know in the comments how much of the story you’re familiar with. :)]

By the time Homer composed his epics, the assault on Troy had fallen into the realm of legend; for the next 3,000 years, myths of the “golden age” of the late Greek Bronze Age dominated European art and culture.


By the 1800s, scholars assumed the war had never happened–and then Heinrich Schliemann managed to actually find Troy. Wikipedia further notes:

In the twentieth century scholars have attempted to draw conclusions based on Hittite and Egyptian texts that date to the time of the Trojan War. … Hittite archives, like the Tawagalawa letter mention of a kingdom of Ahhiyawa (Achaea, or Greece) that lies beyond the sea (that would be the Aegean) and controls Milliwanda, which is identified with Miletus. Also mentioned in this and other letters is the Assuwa confederation made of 22 cities and countries which included the city of Wilusa (Ilios or Ilium). The Milawata letter implies this city lies on the north of the Assuwa confederation, beyond the Seha river. While the identification of Wilusa with Ilium (that is, Troy) is always controversial, in the 1990s it gained majority acceptance. In the Alaksandu treaty (ca. 1280 BC) the king of the city is named Alaksandu, and Paris’s name in the Iliad (among other works) is Alexander. The Tawagalawa letter (dated ca. 1250 BC) which is addressed to the king of Ahhiyawa actually says:

Now as we have come to an agreement on Wilusa over which we went to war…

Formerly under the Hittites, the Assuwa confederation defected after the battle of Kadesh between Egypt and the Hittites (ca. 1274 BC). In 1230 BC Hittite king Tudhaliya IV (ca. 1240–1210 BC) campaigned against this federation. Under Arnuwanda III (ca. 1210–1205 BC) the Hittites were forced to abandon the lands they controlled in the coast of the Aegean. It is possible that the Trojan War was a conflict between the king of Ahhiyawa and the Assuwa confederation. This view has been supported in that the entire war includes the landing in Mysia (and Telephus’ wounding), Achilles’s campaigns in the North Aegean and Telamonian Ajax’s campaigns in Thrace and Phrygia. Most of these regions were part of Assuwa.[69][217] It has also been noted that there is great similarity between the names of the Sea Peoples, which at that time were raiding Egypt, as they are listed by Ramesses III and Merneptah, and of the allies of the Trojans.[218]

800px-Homeric_Greece-en.svgNow someone needs to find a reference to Helen.

That said, the historical sack of Troy was a much smaller even than Homer recounts, and is certainly inadequate to explain the large-scale collapse that consumed the entire region (and possibly a good chunk of northern Europe, as well.

For that matter, the Greeks themselves were invaded and their own cities were sacked. Historians attribute this to the Dorians, a Greek-speaking tribe that invaded from somewhere up north. As Carl Blegen wrote:[25]

“the telltale track of the Dorians must be recognized in the fire-scarred ruins of all the great palaces and the more important towns which … were blotted out at the end of Mycenaean IIIB.”

But archaeology isn’t always easy, and it isn’t totally clear that the Dorians actually existed:

“It has of late become an acknowledged scandal that the Dorians, archaeologically speaking, do not exist. That is, there is no cultural trait surviving in the material record for the two centuries or so after 1200 which can be regarded as a peculiarly Dorian hallmark. Robbed of their patents for Geometric pottery, cremation burial, iron-working and, the unkindest prick of all, the humble straight pin, the hapless Dorians stand naked before their creator – or, some would say, inventor.” — Cartledge

Somebody burned a bunch of Greek cities. We’re just not exactly sure who (or why.)

II. Farewell, Atlantis

Santorini /
Santorini / Thera

One of the largest volcanic explosions in the past few thousand years happened round about 1500 BC on the island of Thera (aka Santorini) in the Mediterranean (potentially ejecting 4 times more material than Krakatoa.)

Unfortunately, we’re not sure exactly when Thera blew its top:

Archaeologists have traditionally placed it at approximately 1500 BCE.[14][21] Radiocarbon dates, including analysis of an olive branch buried beneath a lava flow from the volcano which gave a date between 1627 BCE and 1600 BCE (95% confidence interval), suggest an eruption date more than a century earlier than suggested by archaeologists.[22][23][24]

In 2012 one of the proponents of an archaeological date, Felix Höflmayer, argued that archaeological evidence could be consistent with a date as early as 1590 BCE, reducing the discrepancy to around fifty years.[26] …

At Tell el Dab’a in Egypt, pumice found at this location has been dated to 1540 BCE… . Tree-ring data has shown that a large event interfering with normal tree growth in North America occurred during 1629–1628 (+-65 years) BCE.[37] Evidence of a climatic event around 1628 BCE has been found in studies of growth depression of European oaks in Ireland and of Scotch pines in Sweden.[38]

A volcanic winter from an eruption in the late 17th century BCE has been claimed by some researchers to correlate with entries in Chinese records documenting the collapse of the Xia dynasty in China. According to the Bamboo Annals, the collapse of the dynasty and the rise of the Shang dynasty, approximately dated to 1618 BCE, were accompanied by “yellow fog, a dim sun, then three suns, frost in July, famine, and the withering of all five cereals”.[8]

The downside to the Thera Theory is that even if we use the latest dates, it’s still too early–by 2 or 300 years–to explain the Bronze Age Collapse. Widespread famines in some far-off place certainly could have triggered migrations that, three hundred years later, ended in the Mediterranean, but it seems more likely that widespread famines would have caused immediate collapse in the area right around the volcano.

Thera might have inspired Atlantis and certainly caused some destruction on Crete, but I think it’s a stretch to blame it for events some 2-400 years later. Unless someone comes up with a bunch of evidence for a more recent eruption, I think it’s an unlikely cause.

III. Faster, Cheaper, Better: a revolution in military technology

Three new military technologies “diffuse” through Europe right around the time of the Battle of Tollense and the Dorian Invasion: spoked-wheeled chariots, true swords, and cheap iron.

spread of spoke-wheeled chariots
spread of spoke-wheeled chariots

Chariots were invented out on the vast Eurasian plain around 2,000 BC, which sounds like a recipe for invasion if I ever heard one. They arrived in Anatolia and Egypt around 1500 BC, but didn’t make it to Greece and Germany until 1300 BC–just in time for an invading army to sweep through the Tollense valley or into Greece, driving a wave of displaced folks into the sea and across to Egypt.

According to Wikipedia, the Battle of Kadesh, fought by the Egyptian Empire under Ramesses II and the Hittite Empire under Muwatalli II in 1274 BC, was “was probably the largest chariot battle ever fought, involving perhaps 5,000–6,000 chariots.[12]” (Warfare on that scale between two of the biggest political entities in the region may have contributed on its own to general collapse.)

1280px-Ramses_IIs_seger_över_Chetafolket_och_stormningen_av_Dapur,_Nordisk_familjebok 1280px-Parade_charriots_Louvre_CA2503

Were any chariots found in conjunction with the Tollense battlefield, or in local burials of the time?

Naue II Sword
Naue II Sword, found in association with the Nebra Sky Disk

Swords, I was amazed to discover, were invented around 1600 BC in the Aegean. Before the Bronze Age, people just didn’t have materials suitable for making long blades and had to content themselves with daggers or clubs. (Sometimes clubs studded with daggers.) A new variety of sword, the Naue II, appears around 1200 BC and quickly spreads around the Mediterranean–just in time for the collapse.

Early iron was, ironically, inferior to bronze. Steel will hold an excellent age, but primitive iron working did not, and early iron swords were inferior to bronze ones. But iron had several advantages over bronze: it was cheaper, required less fuel to work, and didn’t have to be mixed with tin imported from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

As a result of these technological developments:

Robert Drews argues[26] that the appearance of massed infantry, using newly developed weapons and armor, such as cast rather than forged spearheads and long swords, a revolutionizing cut-and-thrust weapon,[27] and javelins. The appearance of bronze foundries suggests “that mass production of bronze artifacts was suddenly important in the Aegean”. For example, Homer uses “spears” as a virtual synonym for “warriors”.

Such new weaponry, in the hands of large numbers of “running skirmishers” who could swarm and cut down a chariot army and would destabilize states based upon the use of chariots by the ruling class and precipitate an abrupt social collapse as raiders began to conquer, loot and burn cities.[28][29][30]

I’m putting my money on this theory.

IV. Lean times

According to Herodotus:

In the days of Atys, the son of Manes, there was a great scarcity through the whole land of Lydia … So the king determined to divide the nation in half … the one to stay, the other to leave the land. … the emigrants should have his son Tyrrhenus for their leader … they went down to Smyrna, and built themselves ships … after sailing past many countries they came to Umbria … and called themselves … Tyrrhenians.

Wikipedia continues:

Connections to the Teresh of the Merneptah Stele, which also mentions shipments of grain to the Hittite Empire to relieve famine, are logically unavoidable. Many have made them, generally proposing a coalition of seagoing migrants from Anatolia and the islands seeking relief from scarcity. Tablet RS 18.38 from Ugarit also mentions grain to the Hittites, suggesting a long period of famine, connected further, in the full theory, to drought.[68] Barry Weiss,[69] using the Palmer Drought Index for 35 Greek, Turkish, and Middle Eastern weather stations, showed that a drought of the kinds that persisted from January 1972 would have affected all of the sites associated with the Late Bronze Age collapse.

Anatolia appears to have been fairly hard-hit by the collapse, with many cities completely abandoned and  some regions not regaining their former levels of complexity for a thousand years.

Alternatively, (or relatedly,) I’ve seen it suggested (though I don’t remember where) that deforestation caused by burning trees to make charcoal in order to forge bronze weapons had advanced to a point where the locals just ran out of trees. (See: Easter Island.) No trees=no cooking, no building, no ships, no chariots, no forging, pretty much nothing. (This, in turn, could have spurred the adoption of inferior but easier to make iron weapons.)

Famine in Anatolia or deforestation in parts of the Middle East would be unlikely, however, to have much effect on Tollense. (Of course, the Tollense battle may be no more than a coincidence.)

V. Diamondian Theory: General Systems Collapse

Systems collapse is what it sounds like: the theory that the systems just got too big, too unwieldy, and could no longer respond adequately to stresses like broken trade routes, famines, invasions, massive military spending, social unrest, deforestation, migration, etc., and so the system crumbled. I admit that this is a kind of “all of the above” (except for maybe the volcano.)


At any rate, whatever caused the collapse, it happened. The Dark Ages reigned, then the world recovered. The Greeks and then the Romans ruled; then Rome collapsed and the Dark Ages returned.

The Dark Ages will come again.

Go back to Part 1, Part 2