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Contextualizing Jewish Art
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Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology
Steven Fine
(New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005), xviii +267 pp.; 87 illustrations, $75.00 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Robin Jensen
Steven Fine’s previous work on the synagogue in the Greco-Roman period demonstrates that scholars must integrate textual, archaeological, art historical and liturgical evidence in their analyses of Jewish life in antiquity. His latest work is a detailed and learned exposition of his synthetic, interdisciplinary method and a rich resource of Jewish art in the Greco-Roman era.
Fine opens by addressing a vexing problem: the marginalization of the study of Jewish art in scholarly circles. As he points out, the embedded idea that “Jews don’t do art” probably accounts for the inattention both to Jewish art’s existence in its historical context as well as its artistic value. Earlier scholars regarded the discovery of “Jewish art and visual artifacts” as anomalous productions by nonobservant or sectarian groups, while others concluded that the material must have been imported from confused or syncretistic Gentiles. The artifacts were typically deemed inferior on aesthetic grounds. For these reasons, the study of Jewish art usually has been consigned to Jewish Studies rather than to Art History departments in academic institutions. Such attitudes reflect both ambivalence and prejudice about Jewish art in general, regardless of whether the scholar was a Jew or a non-Jew. Fine goes beyond demonstrating that “Jews did (and do) art too,” documenting that the doing was (is) neither un-Jewish nor inartistic. In this regard he builds on the work of archaeologist Rachel Hachlili, Jewish historian and philosopher Kalman Bland and art historian Margaret Olin, among others.1
Fine effectively contests the common view that representational (especially figurative) art is always un-Jewish. He summarizes earlier (and standard) explanations including Erwin Goodenough’s famous multi-volume work concluding that Jewish visual art in antiquity emerged out of a Hellenized, mystical form of Judaism that offered an alternative to the aniconic Judaism of the rabbis. Fine then refutes this view. He distinguishes between imagery and idolatry, pointing out that the two are not overlapping ideas. He focuses on the broader social and political context of the artifacts and argues for understanding Jewish art’s continuity as well as discontinuity within its wider Greco-Roman milieu. Fine sees Jewish art as a means of both establishing and crossing boundaries of identity and religious precepts. He argues persuasively for understanding Jewish iconography “holistically” by considering its function in a particular space—a religious and liturgical setting.
For example, Fine asserts that the iconography on a tomb or a synagogue floor (for example, the menorahs found in Roman Jewish catacombs or the zodiac panel in the Sepphoris and Beth Alpha synagogues) should not be considered apart from their function for those who mourned, prayed or attended the reading of sacred texts at these sites. Fine shares the concerns of many historians of early Christian art who also try to see their evidence in its broader social and religious context, who argue that early Christians also distinguished between idol and image.
These moves exemplify what Fine refers to as a “new Jewish archaeology.” In this respect, he describes his thinking as having moved from the “modern” to the “postmodern.” Some may see his work as an apology for the perfectly acceptable Jewishness of Jewish art in late antiquity. Almost every reader, however, will be impressed by the rich erudition and persuasive arguments of the work as a whole. It is an impressive book, worth every penny of its somewhat-hefty price.
Further Reading:
Copper Scroll
Hyrcania’s Mysterious Tunnels ( BAR 32:05, Sep/Oct 2006)
Where Was James Buried? ( BR 19:03, Jun 2003)
Golden Anniversary of the Scrolls ( BAR 23:06, Nov/Dec 1997)
Queries & Comments ( BAR 20:03, May/Jun 1994)
Queries & Comments ( BAR 20:02, Mar/Apr 1994)
Where the Temple Tax Was Buried ( BAR 19:06, Nov/Dec 1993)
Jewish Art
ReViews: Catalog Capsule ( BAR 40:06, Nov/Dec 2014)



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