Daniel Gurtner Reviews Torah, Temple, and Transaction (Alex Ramos)

Reviews of the Enoch Seminar 2021.01.03

Alex J. Ramos. Torah, Temple, and Transaction: Jewish Religious Institutions and Economic Behavior in Early Roman Galilee. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2020. Pp. xxvii + 250. ISBN: 978-1-9787-0450-3. $95.00. Hardback.


Daniel M. Gurtner
Crestwood, Kentucky

This book is the author’s doctoral dissertation from the University of Pennsylvania (2017). In it Ramos examines the role of Torah regulations on the regional economy of Galilee in the Early Roman period. In doing so he proposes a unique strategy to a field which typically has looked to state institutional structures of administration and taxation to address matters of regional economy. He argues instead that the influence of state institutions has been over-emphasized, and that religious institutions played a more formative role in defining economic behavior. 

In the first chapter, “Institutions of Administration and Taxation in Early Roman Palestine” (pp. 1–48), Ramos reviews the political structure and government institutions that presided in Galilee in the Early Roman period (63 bce to 66 ce), since much previous scholarship operates under the assumption that the state exercised considerable influence on local economic practices. In the author’s opinion, this does not adequately suit the case of Galilee, where local political administrators had little interest in disrupting the functions of local infrastructures far from the administrative centers in Caesarea and Jerusalem. Tax assessment and collection was left to Galileans, meaning other societal features unrelated to state mechanisms influenced economic systems.

Chapter 2 examines Galilee more closely (“Movement and Trade in Galilee’s Regional Economic Network,” pp. 49–103).Here Ramos shows specifically how the prevailing model by which Galilean economic networks are seen as “urban-rural” does not fit the archaeological or literary evidence of Galilee. Most cities were too small to fit the paradigm, and larger cities, like Sepphoris and Tiberias, did not exercise pressure on the countryside proportionate to their size. Instead, Ramos argues, Galilee utilized a “small world network” in which economic transactions were largely conducted at the village and interpersonal level and largely limited to Galilean Jews. The notable exception to the insular operations of Galilean economics is found in its trade with Jerusalem, which was prompted by religious requirements of the Torah.

Torah obligations are the subject of chapter 3, “Mosaic Laws and Cultivating Piety in an Agrarian Economy” (pp. 104–148).Laws pertaining to the production and consumption of agricultural goods are the author’s primary focus. He considers the role of Sabbaths, festivals, and Sabbatical years, first fruits, tithing, and food purity concerns from Second Temple texts as well as material culture. Evidence suggests that many Jews in Early Roman Palestine viewed the Mosaic laws as mandates that formed the social context of the economic framework operating in Galilee. Their laws constrained the manner and timing of agricultural production and consumption and placed demands on the allocation of resources. This brings Ramos to examine the impact of the travel of Galilean Jews to Jerusalem.

Chapter 4, “The Temple, Pilgrimage, and Household Economic Resource Management” (pp. 149–210), focuses on the three religious festivals that drew (male) Jews from Galilee (and elsewhere) on a regular basis. Particular attention is given to household economics impacted by obligatory offerings that can only be fulfilled in Jerusalem. The practical needs of travelers as well as caring for their obligations back home while making pilgrims three times per year impacted the temporal rhythms of the Galilean economy. By considering these matters, Ramos ties the day-to-day regional transactions of the Galilean regional economy to a broader Jewish Palestinian economic network.

Ramos states that he hopes his book is but a first step toward a more thoroughgoing investigation of the ways the economic decision-making was shaped by the constraints and incentives of religious institutional structures. In the Conclusion,he advocates forcontinued study of the economic ramifications of other Torah laws and how they may have shaped economic behavior in other regions as well as further investigation of the role of other religious institutions (e.g., Christian, Egyptian, Roman) in defining economic rationality among various populations.

Navigating archaeological evidence with literary material to inform historical judgments about societal practices is necessarily complex, and Ramos does an admirable job balancing each. The volume is replete with carefully articulated historical and cultural insights. At times the project is largely descriptive, and it is difficult to delineate a sustained thesis rather than observations about historical phenomena. Moreover, his engagement with literary sources–for example, Josephus–could be enhanced by dialogue with critical scholarship, as Ramos largely takes Josephus at face value, and little account is given to the historiographic interests of that Jewish historian. As the volume unfolds the contribution becomes clearer, and in the end Ramos renders a persuasive portrait of the importance of religious practice in economic structures, particularly in Galilee, and provokes further thought for more careful consideration of such practices in general. His demonstration that cities of Galilee require an alternative model for assessing economies than what is typically used is an important step, and will require scholars to pay more careful attention to local nuances that may run counter to what generalized rubrics may suggest. It is unfortunate that the publisher used endnotes after each chapter rather than footnotes. The reader is thereby forced to thumb through pages to consult the author’s carefully cited works. This is cumbersome for the reader and does a disservice to an otherwise fine volume and welcome contribution.

Daniel M. Gurtner

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