Interview with Dr. Ari Finkelstein
Conducted by Sean Keating, Program Coordinator, Taft Research Center
Ari Finkelstein is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Judaic Studies. Ari holds dual law degrees from McGill University, an MA from Hebrew Union of Jerusalem, and a Ph.D from Harvard University. He joined UC faculty in 2013.
SK: What are you working on presently?
AF: Last month I finished two encyclopedia entries for The Routledge Dictionary of Ancient Mediterranean Religions on “Ezekiel the Tragedian” and “Pseudo-Philo”. At the moment I am writing two conference papers which I will deliver at two national conferences later this fall and a book proposal. One of the conference papers arises out of research I completed in Israel in the summer of 2013 thanks to the generous support of Taft and from a chapter I completed this summer thanks to the assistance of a summer University Research Council award. I write about how representations of Jews were instrumental in the production of both Christian and imperial identities and empires in the imperial projects of Late Antiquity. Recent scholarship focuses on Christian representations of Jews in the creation of a Christian empire. There is little if any scholarship on the use of Jews in the creation of pagan empires. I focus on the works and projects of Emperor Julian (361-363), a mid-4th century Roman emperor, and nephew of Constantine the Great, who tried to return the empire from a Christianizing empire back into a pagan empire guided by Neoplatonic philosophy.
Between January and March 363 while in Syrian Antioch Julian employed Jewish Scriptures, practices, heroes, and institutions to authorize pagan practices and also to de-legitimize, and deconstruct Christian identity. For instance, right now I am writing about how Julian employed biblical notions of purity from the dead to encourage his pagan subjects to worship only at temples and to counteract the burgeoning Christian cult of the martyrs. This was no easy process. We know that by the fourth century pagans and Christians worshipped at tombs believing that the dead could intercede with the divine and grant their wishes. By the end of 362 Julian’s program was failing in Antioch. Jews were particularly useful tools in an environment where some Christians attended synagogues, kept Jewish festivals, and other Jewish practices and where some pagans kept the Sabbath, certain dietary laws, and other Jewish practices. Jewish texts were important tools of persuasion employed to convince Christians and pagans that contact with the dead was impure. Julian used Isaiah 65:4 to demonstrate that the great prophet had castigated wayward Jews who sat and worshiped at tombs.
Quite a bit has been written about how Christians of the fourth century struggled to identify with the persecuted Christians of earlier centuries. The growth of the Christian cult of the martyrs is symptomatic of their changed situation in the empire. It was through these martyrs that Christians negotiated their identity within an empire in which they had favored status.
Earlier this year I spoke at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion about the case of the cult of the Maccabean martyrs which likely began in Antioch during Julian’s reign. Julian used 2 Maccabees to refocus Christian attention on the fact that these martyrs had died for Jewish law. In a world in which the Christian Church Fathers attempted to separate Christians from Jews, Julian’s argument weakened their position. Indeed, Jewish practices were authentic and might have convinced some Christians to favor “Jewish” practices, thus driving a wedge within Christianity.
The environment I have described in Syria in which Jews, their Scriptures, institutions, and practices were authenticating matter for some pagans and Christians allowed Julian to triangulate Jews with Christians and pagans such that he could define pagan identity and delegitimize Christian identity. And this representation does not take place in a vacuum. There are many Jews living in Antioch who kept the very practices which Julian used in his imperial project.
Finally, there are important consequences to Julian’s use of Jews. His project takes a historicized and therefore passive construction of the Jew used by Christians to fashion and authenticate imperial Christian identity (see the scholarship on Praeparatio Evangelica and Demonstratio Evangelica by Eusebius of Caesarea) and turns Jews into dangerous objects which must be weakened and controlled by later Christian leaders who only a few years later began to attack Jews ever more vociferously in their works and laws.
SK: Is the Christian reaction to demonize Jews?
AF: He’s not demonizing the Jew; he’s using them in various ways. He’s actually, quite favorable to Jews and Jewish practices. I actually gave a talk about this in the Religion Department at Indiana University last year. He tries to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem as part of his temple rebuilding project across the empire. Also, Jews are objects of knowledge which he can control to produce imperial pagan identity. Julian believed that the success of the Roman Empire depended on each people’s proper worship of their god. By rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem he demonstrated that Jews or perhaps more properly in this context, Judeans, were a people like every other people in his empire. They had a god, a temple, a cult, and a set of laws given by their lawgiver. Rebuilding the temple and writing about the Jewish god fixed Him within Julian’s pantheon of gods and fixed Judeans to their ancestral territory. It also countered Christian claims of being the “true Israel.” Julian calls Christians, ‘Galileans’, thus pointing out that they had no temple, nor their own ancestral laws. This was designed to eliminate Christian claims to universalism as well as claims of being Judeans in ethnicity. In effect, he argued that Christians had no place or rationale in his empire. Just as important is Julian’s attempt to interrupt Christian conceptions of triumph.
Eusebius wrote that Constantine the Great built his Church of the Holy Sepulcher across from the site of the destroyed temple. This message was one of Christian triumph over Judaism. Had Julian’s attempt to rebuild the Jewish temple been successful a Christian coming out of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher would have seen the Jewish temple which would have undercut this message. Worse, Jesus prophesied that the temple would never be rebuilt and Julian’s success would have weakened Jesus’ status as a true prophet.
SK: What is the Christian reaction?
AF: There are an astounding number of Christian tracts written in response to Julian. There are several in the fourth century after he dies and they continue for centuries. Julian grew up a Christian and thus was uniquely able to harness Jewish and Christian texts to attack Christianity at its weakest points. Often he leaned on points of contention within existing divisions among Christians. Even after his death Julian energized the pagan movement in the empire. They continued to use Julian’s Against Christians tractate as a primer for arguments they could make against Christians. He also kindled hope among Jews and certain millenialist Christians that the temple might yet be rebuilt.
Christians reacted by attacking Julian. As I have already mentioned, they also cast a wary eye towards Jews, believing them to be a potential threat and raised the levels of their anti-Jewish rhetoric. But as the decades passed, they also used Julian’s failed tenure as proof of Jesus’ message. After all the Jerusalem temple was not rebuilt and Christianity grew from strength to strength. Christians also reacted to Julian’s attempt to separate Hellenistic culture from Christian identity. In an edict of 362 Julian forbade Christians from being teachers because he believed Homer was a religious rather than merely a cultural text. This cut off Christian influence of young minds and would have cut off Christian access to elite education and would have weakened it considerably.
SK: Why is it that despite his short reign, we have more of his writings and see such a large impact?
AF:There are a number of factors here. One is that he fancies himself a philosopher and so he writes quite a bit. The other is that there is a certain urgency about the man. He is a very active emperor both in his activity restoring temples, and in the quantities of his reading and writing. Consider that many emperors had major figures writing histories etc. on their behalf. Julian did too. But he undertook much of the writing himself. Also, for a variety of reasons, Christians preserved his writings.
SK: Take us on a ride tracing your intellectual development – where did you start out and how did you get here?
AF: Well I started off doing a BA in Religious Studies, and Political Science at an institution in Canada that is very much like the University of Cincinnati. I concentrated in ancient Jewish Studies both with professors there and at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in my year abroad. Afterwards, I attended law school thinking I would enjoy that, but always knowing that I enjoyed what I am doing right now.
After about five years of law I left and went to Israel to work on a Masters and ultimately on a PhD. Even though I was focused on Antiquity, I became interested in Julian and in Late Antiquity. There seemed to be more work in the field of Jews in Late Antiquity than there was in Antiquity. And then there was Julian himself. There was something about his dogmatic, unreasonable nature that struck a chord with me. Maybe in tackling Julian I was working out something for myself. Who knows? In any case, I realized right away that his reign was a watershed moment in history with serious consequences for Jews and Christians. It became clear to me that I should go to the U.S. to work on my dissertation. So I went to study at Harvard with Shaye Cohen, a renowned Jewish historian of antiquity.
The project started with me looking at Julian’s unusual comments about Jewish practice in a rather positivistic way to determine whether there was anything I might glean about Jewish life in Late Antiquity in the Diaspora. This is a subject for which we have few sources outside of rabbinic literature (which is not written as history) and archaeological finds and inscriptions. Ultimately this led me to a number of negative conclusions. About half way through my dissertation I realized that Julian was using Jews and Judaism not only to delegitimize Christianity but also as a model for pagans. Thus my dissertation ended in a hybrid state. The year I spent as a Starr Fellow at Harvard was helpful in the maturation of my work.
In the last couple of years I have turned to theories of post-colonialism and semiotics. The more I read, and the more I write and publish the more I realize that Julian presents a very different dynamic than the standard binary thinking of Greek vs Jew or Christian vs Jew. Roman historians tend to pay short shrift to Jews in the Roman Empire. I argue that Jews ought to be paid much more attention in order to understand Roman imperial identity in Late Antiquity. Jews and their Scriptures are key to producing pagans in the Roman East. Indeed, they are essential building blocks of Hellenic wisdom for Neoplatonist philosophers, who for some time influence imperial conceptions of empire. By bringing Jews back into the discourse of imperial Roman identity in the 4th century, as well as into Christian Roman identity, we gain a richer understanding of what it meant to be Roman.
Finally, I have recently brought “real” Jews and their practices back into my writing. It is important to realize that Julian’s fashioning of Jews was effective because pagans and Christians interacted with and valued Jews, their practices, institutions, and heroes in the Roman East. Julian sought to affect what they saw, valued, and understood when they gazed upon the Jews performing these practices. He hoped they would emulate these perceived practices.
SK: You were awarded a Summer Research Fellowship from Taft last summer to conduct research in Israel. Would you describe that research?
AF:Most of the work I have completed abroad has involved research in Israel’s National Library. There are a number of journals written in Hebrew that I only have access to there. This is particularly true when it comes to archaeological surveys that have been completed in the Old City of Jerusalem in recent years. Recently Julian’s bullae have been found in the vicinity of the temple mount. There have also been recent articles written in Hebrew on the inscription found on the southern edge of the Western Wall which cites Isaiah 66:14 “When you see this, your heart will rejoice and you will flourish like grass.” Some scholars have conjectured that the height at which this was inscribed places this in the fourth century and have tied it to Julian’s rebuilding of the temple.
In addition, the chapter on Julian’s rebuilding of the temple requires that I have a better spatial understanding of the Old City from a Christian point of view. In that chapter I imagine what it would be like for a Christian to walk through the city of Jerusalem in 335 CE after Constantine had built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and again in 363 CE had the Jewish temple been rebuilt. This allows me to demonstrate spatially the impact of Julian’s rebuilding process. In addition, some of the best scholars of Jews in Late Antiquity work in Israel. So I have spent hours talking to colleagues in my field. This has helped me in my own work and gives me the opportunity to solicit papers from these colleagues for the Early Jewish Christian Relations Section of the Society of Biblical Literature Conference, for which I serve as a Steering Committee member. Finally, I once took part in an archaeological dig of a fourth century Roman fort in the desert region of Israel to help me understand how to read archaeological publications relevant to my research interests.
SK: Why is being in Israel, face-to-face with other scholars so important? Can’t we simply use Skype, or iChat, facetime, or some other technology to accomplish the same thing?
AF:Let’s talk about it as if we are in the space ourselves. When you talk to somebody on Skype, or via e-mail, you get set answers to set questions. Sometimes answers to these questions raise other questions; many times they do not. When you sit down with someone the conversation develops organically leaving the conversant with a much richer understanding of each other’s works and ideas. Often people stop by leading to further conversations. It also opens up greater possibilities for collaboration. There is a much better chance that a face to face meeting will spur collaboration on a project. Often in Israel when you sit down to eat lunch in a cafeteria you end up engaging with all kinds of scholars you would not otherwise have met. Last summer I sat with a professor of Judaism in Late Antiquity in the cafeteria at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. During the meeting I met several other professors and PhD students whom I would not have otherwise met. One is collaborating with me on an edited volume about biblical reception in Antiquity and Late Antiquity. Without being there I never would have known about this project.
There are also other intangibles such as access to research. Hebrew University is notoriously bad about helping scholars from abroad with inquiries. Their database search engines had changed since my previous visit. Sitting at the Hebrew University’s library terminal allowed me to find all kinds of material I would never have otherwise found and that are very important to my work.
SK: What does Taft mean to you and your research/ how has it impacted your life as a scholar?
AF:Taft is a lifeline to small departments like Judaic Studies. The department has limited funds so I am completely reliant on Taft to help me pay for conferences. Attendance and presentation at conferences are crucial to my development as a scholar. Attendance at conferences has allowed me to vet my recent publication in a peer-reviewed edited volume as well as two forthcoming articles in a peer-reviewed journal in my field and a review I wrote for H-Judaic. There is really no one at UC who does the kind of work I engage in. My best source of feedback comes from comments on my conference papers and from discussions I have with scholars at any given conference. Attendance and participation have also afforded me an opportunity to join the steering committee for Early Jewish Christian Relations at the Society of Biblical Literature. The other scholars on this committee are another important outlet to discuss my work. This is crucial to my development as a scholar and Taft makes this possible.
Taft also offers me an intellectual community. For instance, I sit on the Taft Committee for Conferences and Lectures and have met some fantastic scholars at UC from all over the Arts and Sciences, people that I would have been hard-pressed to meet otherwise. Indeed, I have become friends with some of my committee members. I have not had this kind of experience since I founded and ran the Judaism in Antiquity Workshop at Harvard. I can’t say enough about just how important it is for someone who is not from Cincinnati to meet new people. So Taft has been an important social outlet as well.
The bevy of speakers Taft brings in is impressive and I have only occasionally been able to attend them. This semester alone I serve as Graduate Director for the UC Judaic Studies-HUC Graduate Certificate Program and I sit on other university-wide and college committees. So my time is limited. But each time I do attend I come away refreshed because I have had an opportunity to hear new ideas and think about these as they relate to my own work. In a department with heavy teaching and service requirements such opportunities are rare and make a big and positive impact on my satisfaction at work.
Finally, the people who work at Taft do everything with a smile. When I have organized lectures for my department’s Lichter Lectures, Taft has always assisted with creating the posters, housing a yearly lecture and working with me to cater to the audience. All of this makes Taft a very important landmark at my UC.
SK: How is your work on a 4th Century Emperor relevant today?
AF: I think it goes back to something that I touched on earlier. Anti-Judaism becomes much more virulent in response to Julian. This period is crucial to the development of the modern Western world. Our society emerges out of Christian culture. If we are to understand modernity, understanding the place of the Jew and how he became an object of fear and loathing, on the one hand, but also of attraction, on the other, is very important. My work addresses both of these issues. It helps Christians evaluate their own perceptions of Jews and I think helps Jews address the images that have been created by either developing counter-narratives or by subtly shifting that image. I think there are also contemporary processes at work in the development of perceptions of Jews in the Islamic world just as there are processes at work in the development of perceptions of Muslims in the Western world. If we want to avoid centuries of pain and persecution we should be alive to these processes and rethink our fundamental conceptions of the “other”.