Joseph Scales Reviews Identity and Territory: Jewish Perceptions of Space in Antiquity (Eyal Ben-Eliyahu)

Reviews of the Enoch Seminar 2021.01.05

Eyal Ben-Eliyahu. Identity and Territory: Jewish Perceptions of Space in Antiquity. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2019. Pp. Xii + 195. ISBN: 978–0–520–29360–1. $95.00. Hardcover.

Joseph Scales
University of Birmingham

This volume builds on Eyal Ben-Eliyahu’s previous work, Between Borders (Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2012, published in Hebrew). It is a welcome arrival which brings Ben-Eliyahu’s work into the English-speaking sphere. The book consists of a brief introduction, followed by five chapters and concluded by a short retrospective on the book’s findings. The first two chapters are based on arguments presented in Between Borders, while the final three develop Ben-Eliyahu’s work further and pay attention to rabbinic sources and other ancient works. Readers can expect to find a thorough engagement with a wide range of ancient Jewish and Christian literature, informed by conceptions of identity and space.

The introductory chapter frames Ben-Eliyahu’s project with a reflection on the many names and narratives connected to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. This place highlights two important perspectives which the author seeks to discuss: how identity and territory are interconnected, and how sacred or holy spaces are conceived. Ben-Eliyahu then introduces the theoretical concepts of space, place, memory, territory, citizenship, ethnicity and identity. These ideas intertwine in various ways which helped create ancient Jewish identity.

Chapter one begins with an expression of the relationship between ethno-national identity and geographic space. Ben-Eliyahu explores this connection through a discussion of the toponyms, “Judah/Judea” and “Israel,” each of which stood in for an ethnic group. While biblical sources tended to favor “Israel” in earlier texts, the use of “Judahite” began to take root in later documents. Around the 2nd century BCE, “Judean” came to mean “Jew” in some instances. This trend was not total, as during both the First Jewish War and the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the term “Israel” was used on coins minted by the Jewish war authorities. After the 2nd century CE, rabbinic literature once again predominantly used the name “Israel” “consistently as the name of the ethnos” (p. 25). Ben-Eliyahu suggests that the rabbis used the term Israel intentionally to relate their lived experience to the land they now lived in, no longer Judea, but the northern territory of Galilee, once “Israel.” “Judah/Judea” was left behind after the northern movement of rabbinic Judaism.

Chapter two discusses the borders of the “land” in Second Temple period Jewish literature, specifically literature that the author interprets as having been written in Judea or by people from Judea. Ben-Eliyahu conducts this survey in a broadly chronological fashion, covering Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles, Judith, First Maccabees, Jubilees, the Genesis Apocryphon and the works of Josephus. These texts all fall along a continuum of territorial expression, some not connecting identity strongly with territory and others explicitly tying the people to the land.

Chapter three examines further texts which Ben-Eliyahu characterizes as having weaker conceptions of territory. Texts include First Enoch, documents from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Second Maccabees, the writings of Philo, and the Letter of Aristeas. Ben-Eliyahu also introduces the concept of a “Holy Land” which in certain texts begins to become detached from a physical terrestrial space (see 2 Macc; 2 Bar.; 4 Ezra; LAB; Sib. Or.; Wis). This is followed by a discussion of the New Testament Gospels, the Pauline Epistles, Origen, Eusebius, Jerome and the Madaba Map. Ben-Eliyahu suggests that during the early centuries of the first millennium, some conceptions of territory shifted from a physical place to a “Holy Land” which could then be understood as a physical or non-physical notion.

Chapter four discusses rabbinic literature of the Tannaitic and Amoraic periods. Ben-Eliyahu argues that three sources contributed towards the perception of Jewish territory in Galilee during these eras, namely, “collective memory based on scripture, demographics, and the imperial administrative division” (p. 89). The interaction between the Jews of Galilee, Christian interest in sites associated with Jesus’ activity in the gospels, and imperial mandates shaped the boundaries of territorial conceptions. Documents discussed include the Baraita of the Boundaries, the Rehov inscription and the Babylonian Talmud. The borders described by the sages are compared with the administrative boundary line between Roman Syria and Palaestina. Ben-Eliyahu finds that there are some overlaps between these described territories, even if they do not exactly correspond. The boundaries described by the sages were “elastic” in so far as they could be adapted for various purposes, as in the case of Prince Judah (pp. 104–106).

Chapter five turns to examine specific places which were considered sacred. After a discussion of some holy places in the Hebrew Bible (such as the Jerusalem Temple, Bethel, Mt Gerizim) and other Second Temple period literature, Ben-Eliyahu presents the way in which various Mishnaic tractates delineate holiness around particular sites. The rabbinic material is mostly polemical against other claims of holy places such as Hebron or high mountains in the region. Ben-Eliyahu suggests that this shows that these sites were in fact considered holy in the period, even if the rabbis disagreed. From the 4th century CE, Christians began to appropriate spaces as sacred sites. A reaction to this can be seen in rabbinic literature, where sites that were occupied by some Jews are rarely mentioned in rabbinic sources (such as Nazareth, Capernaum, Bethsaida, Korazim and Kursi). The rabbis ignored sites which were claimed by Christians in Galilee. Ben-Eliyahu argues that this “aligns with the principle [that there should be no discussion of other gods] in the Tannaitic and Amoraic literature” (p. 148). The rabbinic sources played down the concept of sacred sites which were being embraced by those Jews and non-Jews around them, so “in the case of the Jewish glorification of sites outside of Jerusalem, the sages diminish the potential holiness attributed to them as a means to suppress certain trends; in the case of Christian sites, the strategy was one of complete omission” (p. 149).

The work ends with a short conclusion. Space and identity were clearly interlinked in ancient Judaism, although this relationship was flexible, dynamic and always developing. Different claims about territory had an impact on identity, and the tensions over the control and access to space intensified these claims. After the conclusion are four indices for: places, sources, ancient persons and subjects.

Ben-Eliyahu’s study sparks many further questions. His analysis forms an interesting perspective with which to explore identity with a specific focus on how identity reacts to or drives territorial claims. Some of Ben-Eliyahu’s interpretation of how the land functions in certain texts is open to debate. Recent studies such as that of Katell Berthelot (In Search of the Promised Land)[1] and Ze’ev Safrai (Seeking out the Land) add much to the discussion. Particularly in the late Second Temple period, the relationship between identity and the land was quite complicated. At a time when political control of much of Palestine resided with the Jerusalem authorities under the Hasmoneans, the exact way in which those who lived in the land experienced the space around them as constitutive of their identity remains unclear. This question is largely unresolved in part because of the lack of sources that inform us about life in Galilee during the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE. Further studies will have to engage with the assumptions about the role of land conquest for identity formation under the Hasmoneans. One other area which warrants engagement with Ben-Eliyahu’s proposals is the perception of the synagogue in ancient Galilee. Studies on the nature of synagogue space are divided over whether the synagogue was conceived of as a sacred space, or simply a structure where sacred things were kept. Still, this volume is principally concerned with textual sources, with some reference to ancient artefacts. Further engagement with the archaeology of the territories discussed would have been welcomed as it may have informed readers further about the silent perspectives which the rabbis responded to.

Overall, this volume keenly examines questions of identity, and the lens through which such analysis is conducted has much to offer. Ben-Eliyahu successfully creates a groundwork upon which other studies can blossom, studies that examine particular texts and materials in depth. By grappling with multiple sources and perspectives, Ben-Eliyahu provides an excellent overview of the relationship between ancient Jewish identity and territory. One only wishes that there was even more.

Further reading:

Berthelot, Katell. In Search of the Promised Land? The Hasmonean Dynasty between Biblical Models and Hellenistic Diplomacy. Translated by Margaret Rigaud. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2018.

Bonnie, Rick. Being Jewish in Galilee, 100–200 CE: An Archaeological Study. Brepols, 2019.

Hachlili, Rachel. Ancient Synagogues – Archaeology and Art: New Discoveries and Current Research. Brill, 2013.

Safrai, Ze’ev. Seeking out the Land: Land of Israel Traditions in Ancient Jewish, Christian and Samaritan Literature (200 BCE–400 CE). Brill, 2018.


[1] I reviewed this work for RES. See http://enochseminar.org/review/15358.

Joseph Scales

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