Sunday, March 23, 2008

Ancient Jewish Reactions to Pagan Statues

I found the subject of this article in the Jewish Journal to be quite interesting.  How would a Jewish rabbi react to statues of Greek and Roman gods?  One point that the writer does not seem to recognize though is the ease with which hellenized cities could be avoided.  Just as one can easily live in Israel today and avoid the "pagan centers" of Tel Aviv and Eilat, it is not difficult to imagine the religious avoiding Beth Shean and Caesarea in the Roman period.  To give one example, there is no record that Jesus ever entered either city.

Imagine a rabbi encountering a statue of Zeus in Roman Palestine, circa 70 to 300 C.E. -- a monotheist's nightmare.

"The myth is that he would have uttered something like the Yiddish 'gevalt,'" said professor Yaron Z. Eliav of the University of Michigan, who recently spoke about Jews and statues at the Getty Villa in Pacific Aphrodite, Pan, Eros group from Delos, 100 BC, tb030806078 Palisades. "We imagine he would have put his hand over his face, the way an ultra-Orthodox Jew might shield his eyes from a poster of a woman in a bikini."

But the sages who wrote classical texts, such as the Talmud, could not afford to ignore such statues, which were like the mass media of the ancient world.

Images of gods, mythological monsters, sports heroes and emperors were everywhere: atop pedestals and in niches, adorning public buildings, temples, fountains and tetrapyla, the colonnaded structures marking street intersections. They were intended to be lifelike and often heavily painted, as revealed in the Getty's new exhibition, "The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture From Antiquity to the Present."

"One could not have strolled heavily Jewish cities such as Tiberias or Caesarea without encountering Roman sculpture every step of the way," said Eliav, as he strolled amid ancient statues at the museum. "While the assumption has been that the sages opposed everything Graeco-Roman, they were in fact far more sophisticated and varied in their response."

The article continues here.

HT: Joe Lauer

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