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Monika Bernett: Der Kaiserkult in Judäa unter den Herodiern und Römern. Untersuchungen zur politischen und religiösen Geschichte Judäas von 30 v. bis 66 n. Chr. (= Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament; 203), Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2007, XIII + 441 S., ISBN 978-3-16-148446-9, EUR 99,00
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Steve Mason
Department of History, York University, Toronto
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Steve Mason: Rezension von: Monika Bernett: Der Kaiserkult in Judäa unter den Herodiern und Römern. Untersuchungen zur politischen und religiösen Geschichte Judäas von 30 v. bis 66 n. Chr., Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2007, in: sehepunkte 8 (2008), Nr. 3 [15.03.2008], URL:

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Monika Bernett: Der Kaiserkult in Judäa unter den Herodiern und Römern

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Scholarship on Roman Judaea has not paid much attention to emperor worship. This is because most specialists have agreed that Augustus and his successors, Caligula excepted, accommodated the well-known (and often admired) Jewish rejection of cultic images by accepting a daily sacrifice for their well-being at the Jerusalem shrine. With that issue considered resolved, the revolt in 66 CE is attributed to other (debated) causes. In this revised and revisionist Habilitationsschrift, Bernett mounts a sustained challenge, arguing that the imperial cult was as expected (if never demanded) by Roman rulers as it was intolerable to the Judaeans, and that this root tension led inexorably to war.

Chapter I (1-26) deals with four introductory questions: the state of scholarship; consequences of recent research on imperial cult; Josephus as principal literary source; and the meaning of "Judaea" (Bernett will use its broad Roman sense.). Although the second and third questions are crucial for her argument, in both cases she identifies a few results of "recent scholarship" rather than independently assessing evidence or surveying the fields. On imperial cult: she understands this research to highlight its fundamental importance as a means of ordering power relationships throughout the empire. Curiously, she places particular weight on a marginal handwritten note by sociologist Max Weber on the distinction between oriental regimes, under which Jews lived peacefully for centuries, and Roman rulers, who allegedly expected to be worshipped as Gods. As for Josephus: Bernett relies heavily on K.-S. Krieger [1] in supposing that the later volumes of Antiquities use War 1-2 as a source, except in the Herodian narrative, where Antiquities often represents the original source better. (The issue is not so settled.) For her, Josephus is no mere compiler, but nor does he write without connection to sources. This point is unassailable, though Bernett's division of scholarship into "compiler" or "apologist" camps and her misdirected polemic (16-23) expose an uncertain grasp of the field.

In sharp contrast, Chapter II (28-170), representing nearly half the study, consists mainly of impressively detailed and methodical analysis. It begins with reflections on the problem of ruler-legitimacy in Israel and Hasmonean strategies of legitimation. In the first decade of his rule (40/37-30 CE), Bernett proposes, King Herod sought to establish his legitimacy by close association with the Hasmonean dynasty: marrying Mariamme, appointing her brother as high priest, and securing the return of the last Hasmonean king, Hyrcanus II, from Parthia. Still he faced ongoing pressure, within Judaea from the Hasmonean critique of his qualifications, and externally from the instability caused by Rome's civil war.

When the latter problems were resolved with the rise of Octavian Caesar (30 BCE), who unexpectedly confirmed his kingship and dashed Hasmonean hopes, Herod found the confidence to break with his thankless Hasmonean programme: he quickly had Hyrcanus II and Mariamme murdered, having already disposed of young Aristobulus. Now he began to seek ways to honour his benefactor, which meant embracing the rapidly growing imperial cult: he first built a theatre and amphitheatre in Jerusalem and began quadrennial games (28 BCE); when that project evoked popular resistance, from 27 BCE he turned to establishing cities and cult centres for the worship of the domus augusta away from Jerusalem.

Bernett's detailed analysis of Herod's efforts to establish imperial cult (52-146) - at Sebaste (27 BCE), coastal Caesarea (23-11 BCE), and Panias (20 BCE) - includes a discussion of his euergetism in the eastern Mediterranean. She points out his conspicuous achievements in building influence (126): he was the only client to build three (very large) temples to the princeps, and the first to hold games or found a city (Sebaste) in Augustus' honour.

Alongside Herod's embrace of imperial cult, Bernett sees him trying to neutralize the "guilt" that this created among his Jewish subjects (152) with a euergetism directed toward them. Thus he founded two "Jewish cities" and three monumental centres: in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Mamre. Although Josephus fails to connect the last two sites with Herod, in both cases archaeology has revealed a Herodian temenos and decorated walls. Herod's efforts were apparently successful, Bernett argues, for the archaeology of Galilee (note) reveals an "acculturation" phase marked by the use of imported tableware; this quickly changes at about the time of Herod's death, as a simpler local style takes over, arguably marking a resistance phase that continues until the war (335-336). [2]

Bernett's final chapters deal with the allegedly growing problem caused by imperial cult after Herod's death. The division of his kingdom placed enormous pressures on his heirs (Chapter III, 171-263). The two sons who prospered, in Rome's eyes (Philip and Antipas), continued dedicating cities and developing cult, though they must have alienated their Jewish subjects. By contrast, Archelaus' immediate preoccupation with internal opposition led him to neglect the increasing demands of that cult, even compounding the problem by dedicating a city to himself (Archelais); so he quickly lost the support of Augustus.

Herod's death thus marked the end of a successful "balance" between imperial and Judaean demands. Augustus tried to manage the problem following Archelaus' removal (6 CE) by constituting Judaea a prefecture within Syria, leaving the priesthood a degree of ethnic-religious autonomy, but this led to problems under Pilate and Caligula, as a prefect and then an emperor - an insecure ruler responding to Jewish aggression towards his cult, but only an extreme case of the general expectation (264-65, 354) - tried to force the issue (Chapter IV, 264-309).

Claudius tried to recreate the balance of Herod's rule by appointing the latter's grandson Agrippa I as king (41-44 CE), but this also failed: Agrippa's enthusiasm for imperial cult and pagan euergetism created antagonisms at home, while his clumsy efforts to compensate by fortifying Jerusalem's walls or strengthening ties with eastern kings only created suspicion in Rome. With Agrippa's premature death, therefore, Claudius reconstituted Judaea as a prefecture, now without significant autonomy.

In Chapter V (310-351) Bernett traces events under the later procurators (44-66 CE), suggesting that although they were not unusually bad, relations unavoidably deteriorated. Everything was exacerbated by the problem of imperial cult in Caesarea, where the Jewish minority tried unsuccessfully to remake the city in keeping with their traditions, in the process losing even their existing status. The failure of Roman administrators to protect that status drove the conflict forward. A parallel problem was the steadily expanding reach of Agrippa II in the north: in his territories he was seen as an apostate, because of his coins (for the first time explicitly honouring the imperial cult) and for his accommodation of cities (Tiberias, Tarichaea, and Caesarea Philippi/Neronias) to the needs of that cult. A widespread movement to war was now underway, led by priests (including Josephus) and supported by cities from Agrippa's territory. The decisive move in Jerusalem was the cultic step of halting sacrifice for foreigners.

Bernett situates her work in the line of E. Baltrusch (for the period to 63 BCE), and K. L. Noethlichs (for the diaspora) [3], who likewise imagine a fundamental conflict between Roman rule and Jewish monotheism. Before reading this book, however, I had just finished M. Goodman's Jerusalem and Rome (also 2007), which agrees with J. McLaren's (unmentioned) Turbulent Times? (1998) in rejecting what they regard as Josephus' hindsight-driven portrait of a "gathering storm." [4] Goodman insists that, despite the cultural-religious differences between Jews and Romans, none portended lethal conflict; a peculiar series of events connected with Cestius Gallus' failure and the rise of the Flavians turned what should have been manageable difficulties into war. This approach complements E. Gruen's Diaspora, which sees no basic problem for Jews under Roman rule but only isolated flare-ups. [5]

Now to an assessment. Bernett is exceptionally capable in exploring material evidence. She commands the field, with access to unpublished archaeology and intimate familiarity with scholars and debates. She covers an enormous range of important questions - the dates of each city's foundation under Herod and his heirs, their topography, structure, and decoration, the types and meanings of coin issues, the dates of crucial events (and eras) for each ruler, the political status of Judaea, and much more. Even where she supports another scholar's direction, her own contribution is original and illuminating. Striking contributions include: the identification of Herod's palace alongside the Augustus-temple of Sebaste ("living among the Gods") and of a Kore-Dioscuri temple on lower ground (76-98); the likelihood that Livia was honoured (as "Roma") alongside Augustus in Caesarea (115-116); her identification of the rectangular structure 100 metres west of the Pan cave as the base of Herod's Augustus-temple and orientation point for Philip's later city (130-146); and her proposal that Pilate's tiberieum in Caesarea was a cult-related structure (205-216). There is much more, all of it enhanced by fifty-seven well-chosen illustrations.

The heart of the book (ca. 52-263) serves therefore as a Supplementband to volume I of the revised Schürer. It is a bonus that Bernett writes with elegant clarity.

Alas, none of the book's manifold virtues establishes its central argument. Josephus had emphasized Herod's cult structures and euergetism (Bellum 1.407), and this book marvelously illuminates the picture. One could argue from the same evidence, however, that Herod was unique in character, resources, and relationships, that his heirs tried to follow his lead, but that such an expression of imperial cult was never expected from Judaea - or its absence problematic for Rome. Josephus, who writes two intricate accounts of the build-up to war, never makes imperial cult an issue; for him, the daily sacrifice in behalf of emperor and Roman people was the accepted expression of loyalty, which is why its abrogation in 66 CE was so fateful (Bellum 2.197, 409-10; C. Ap. 2.77). Philo, who lived through the period from Augustus to Claudius and was deeply interested in such questions, wrote plainly: whereas in Alexandria and elsewhere it was fitting that Augustus be honoured with "quasi-Olympian" rituals (Legat. 149-152), respecting the Jews' philosophical refusal to call men "Gods" that model emperor not only permitted the Jews of Rome to send contributions to Jerusalem, but he also made costly contributions himself and arranged for the daily sacrifice at his expense (Legat. 155-158, 291-292) - supplemented by the Jews themselves at special moments in an emperor's life (Legat. 356-57).

Bernett dismisses Philo's account as pro-Augustan rhetoric (196), but that only forces the question as to why the first princeps was so admired if he had introduced an expectation of worship. In any case, it remains a problem that no source for the period, whether Jewish or Roman - not even Tacitus in his denunciation of Jewish difference as he charts the build-up to war (Hist. 5.1-13), and not the Dead Sea Scrolls or other apocalyptic texts, with their dualistic hostility to foreign rule - isolates imperial cult as a problem. Instructive are the New Testament texts, which mention emperor worship not as the normal situation in Judaea but as a dread prospect (perhaps influenced by Caligula's spectre; 2 Thess 2:4; Mark 13:14).

Bernett must therefore configure refractory evidence - Josephus' presentation of the rebel slogan as "no master but God", Pilate's image-bearing standards, a stadium in Tiberias, or even Paul's hymn about Christ's self-emptying (Philippians 2:6-11) - as symptoms of a required imperial cult. An anecdote in Suetonius (Aug. 93) claiming Augustus' preference for old-fashioned piety, by citing his own initiation at Eleusis (NB: not a demand for worship), along with his alleged disdain for Egyptian and Judaean cult, illustrated by his commendation of grandson Gaius for not stopping to offer sacrifice in Jerusalem, is pressed into service by Bernett as evidence that Augustus was then at odds with Archelaus because of his failure to implement imperial cult (186-187).

Given the lack of specific evidence for her thesis, the main problem with Bernett's argument is that the two areas (imperial cult and Josephus) in which she cites only selective conclusions of recent scholarship, actually determine the cogency of her case.

From her brief summary of scholarship on imperial cult, one could gain no sense of the complexities of scholarly debate: imperial cult as an organized programme or more local and varied emperor worship; Kaiserkult versus Kaiserverehrung; deus versus divus and the meaning of Greek theos for imperial cult; the Greek origin of the imperial cult in the competition for honour among eastern elites (important for understanding Herod as distinct from the priesthood); the precise nature of Greek eusebeia toward the emperor; the ambiguity inherent in an emperor's being both augustus and object of sacrifice, on the one hand, and chief priest, augur, and sacrificer in need of divine protection, on the other; the meaning of isotheoi timai (divine honours, or honours equivalent to but separate from those paid to the Gods?). And what about variations from one emperor to the next? [6] Against the range of independent ancient evidence that portrays Caligula's brief rule as an aberration, Bernett appears to "Caligulize" the imperial cult.

Tellingly, she does not mention that Simon Price (one of the few scholars she discusses for imperial cult) has emphasized the ambiguity of the Greek language used: "[The emperor] was located in an ambivalent position, higher than mortals but not fully the equal of the gods. The cult he received was described as isotheoi timai, and the eusebeia which the cult displayed was compatible with honours not fully divine [...]. He was both in need of divine support and also god-like". [7] Price's work and the barely mentioned but important book by his student I. Gradel [8] seem to undermine Bernett's starting point (from Weber), that emperors inflexibly expected worship as Gods. Note also Pliny's report to Trajan that his province has fulfilled its annual loyalty oath, which describes this as involving prayers to the Gods for Trajan's well-being (Ep. 10.100); the emperor responds with clear satisfaction. In such a context, the Judaean arrangement described by Philo and Josephus appears entirely plausible.

Such a Judaea-specific accommodation would also fit with much scholarship on Roman provincial administration, which has emphasized the importance of the "periphery": the governor's fundamental responsibility was to work with local elites to build consensus. [9] Bernett does not mention this scholarship or explain how her model would suit Roman administrative goals. Her study is also Judaeo-centric study inasmuch as it implies that this was a Judaean issue alone; the rest of the empire had little problem with foreign rule or emperor worship. But of course the first century witnessed many revolts, and even in the second we find sharp criticism of the imperial cult that went with it (Pausanias 8.2.5).

Nor does the book deal with the Greek statesman under Roman rule, who saw his role as preserving the nation's dignity while managing relations with the great power, following the lead of Polybius and the Achaean leaders he describes. Josephus, who owes much to Thucydides and Polybius, happens to fit this model, which also explains why he writes War in a high Atticizing style. [10] He portrays his own character and other key players (Ananus II and Jesus, Herod and King Agrippa II) in the statesman mold. Bernett does not mention scholarship on these issues, but rests content with old-style judgments that figures and passages are pro- or anti-Roman (bzw. pro- or anti-Herod or Agrippa), attributing them to freundlich or feindlich sources.

More generally, Bernett's use of Josephus appears arbitrary. She frequently cites his artful narrative as though it simply transcribed events (e.g. 201), citing the speeches he gives his characters as if they were really given on the occasion - down to specific words (153-64, 177-78, 297-302); similarly, what Josephus - sometimes in the guise of "unsere Quellen" (65) - does not mention either did not happen (184) or it has been "suppressed" (158-59). Other passages are said to transparently reflect someone else's perspectives, perhaps from decades before his time (44-45,169, 201), though Josephus presents the narratives as his own. Other passages are rejected out of hand as resulting from his bias (69-72).

But what happened to our ancient author? Absent from Bernett's argument is any consideration of Josephus' narratives as wholes - their structures, purposes, themes, and audiences - though this would seem necessary context for one who wished to use elements from them for historical purposes. For example, she does not ask how Herod fits in the Antiquities, which is about constitutions (Ant. 1.5, 10, 14) and says a great deal about kingship-tyranny and other forms. She is astonished that Josephus' brief obituary of Philip should fail to condemn him for violating of the Law (241-244), but this astonishment might have been mitigated if she had investigated Antiquities' other obituaries and their functions in the story.

The question of Josephus' political stance is essential to Bernett's use of his work. She declares that whereas older scholarship - she cites works from 1983, 1988, and 2001 - had accepted his (alleged) self-representation as a moderate priest who opposed the revolt, recent research - her first example is a 1979 study - has "shown" him to have been a full participant and indeed a member of Eleazar ben Ananias' faction. This is a puzzle. In fact, early twentieth-century scholarship, mostly absent from her bibliography, held that Josephus began as an avid revolutionary. [11] That approach, based largely on simplistic polarities, defined the century and arguably reached its apex in S. Cohen's dissertation published in 1979. T. Rajak and P. Bilde were explicitly reacting against Cohen, with cogent reasons, in the process laying the foundations of the new sub-discipline of "Josephus scholarship". [12] Bernett does not deal with other scholarship bearing directly on her theme, such as R. Laqueur's detailed comparisons of War and Antiquities on Herod and the Romans, H. Moehring's challenging studies of this material, or Jonathan Price's critical treatment of the War. [13] Although the field is diverse today, as early approaches have also been reasserted, Bernett's characterization of what recent scholarship has "shown" is highly misleading. She does not address the serious problems with the speculation (not shown) that Josephus was a member of Eleazar ben Ananias' faction: for example, that known members of that faction reportedly sought his removal from Galilee (Bellum 2.451, 628). The question is no longer simply whether he was pro- or anti-Roman.

Scholars and advanced students of early Roman Judaea need to read this book for its expert, concise treatment of innumerable questions. Its larger historical framework, however, constructed from a narrow perception of provincial administration buttressed by doubtful historical theology and a jejune use of texts, seems to me a shaky edifice.


[1] Geschichtsschreibung als Apologetik bei Flavius Josephus, Tübingen 1994.

[2] Bernett depends on A. M. Berlin: Romanization and anti-Romanization in Pre-Revolt Galilee, in: The First Jewish Revolt. Archaeology, history, and ideology, edited by id. / J. A. Overman, London 2002, 57-73. Berlin is cautious about her own hypothesis.

[3] K. L. Noethlichs: Das Judentum und der Römische Staat. Minderheitenpolitik im antiken Rom, Darmstadt 1996; E. Baltrusch: Die Juden und das Römische Reich. Geschichte einer konfliktreichen Beziehung, Darmstadt 2002.

[4] M. Goodman: Rome and Jerusalem. The clash of ancient civilizations, London 2007; J. S. McLaren: Turbulent Times? Josephus and scholarship on Judaea in the first century, Sheffield 1998.

[5] E. S. Gruen: Diaspora. Jews amidst Greeks and Romans, Cambridge 2002.

[6] To mention only the most obvious omissions from a work on imperial cult: L. Cerfaux: Le culte des souverains dans la civilisation greco-romaine, Tournai 1957; C. Habicht: Gottmenschentum und griechische Städte, München 21970; R. Mellor: Thea Rhome. The worship of the goddess Roma in the Greek world, Göttingen 1975; J. R. Fears: Princeps a diis electus. The divine election of the emperor as a political concept at Rome, Rome 1977; J. N. Kraybill: Imperial Cult and Commerce in John's Apocalypse, Sheffield 1996; M. Beard (et al.): Religions of Rome, 2 vols., Cambridge 1998.

[7] Gods and Emperors. The Greek language of the Roman imperial cult, in: JHS 104 (1984), 94.

[8] Emperor Worship and Roman Religion, Oxford 22004.

[9] E.g., F. Millar: The Emperor in the Roman World, 31 BC-AD 337, Ithaca 1977; J. L. Lendon: Empire of Honour. The art of government in the Roman world, Oxford 1997; C. Ando: Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire, Berkeley 2000; E. Meyer-Zwiffelhoffer: Politikos Archein. Zum Regierungsstil der senatorischen Statthalter in den kaiserzeitlichen griechischen Provinzen, Stuttgart 2003.

[10] Basic studies ignored by Bernett include S. Cohen: Josephus, Jeremiah, and Polybius, in: H&T 21 (1982), 366-381; D. J. Ladouceur: The Language of Josephus, in: JSJ 14 (1983), 18-38; A. M. Eckstein: Josephus and Polybius. A reconsideration, in: ClAnt 9 (1980), 175-208; G. Mader: Josephus and the Politics of Historiography. Apologetic and impression management in the Bellum Judaicum, Leiden 2000; Y. Shahar: Josephus Geographicus. The classical context of geography in Josephus, Tübingen 2004.

[11] H. Luther: Josephus und Justus von Tiberias. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des jüdischen Aufstandes, Halle 1910, 7 ("supported the cause of revolt with determination"); R. Laqueur: Der jüdische Historiker Flavius Josephus. Ein biographischer Versuch auf neuer quellenkritischer Grundlage, Darmstadt 1970 (1920); H. Rasp: Flavius Josephus und die jüdischen Religionsparteien, in: ZNW 23 (1924), 27-47; H. Drexler: Untersuchungen zu Josephus und zur Geschichte des jüdischen Aufstandes, in: Klio 19 (1925), 299 ("the aristocracy of Jerusalem participated fully"). Bernett ignores all these but Laqueur, whom she mentions only to mistakenly include him among the source critics he vehemently denounced (18).

[12] S. Cohen: Josephus in Galilee and Rome. His Vita and development as a historian, Leiden 1979; T. Rajak: Josephus. The historian and his society, London 1983; P. Bilde: Flavius Josephus between Jerusalem and Rome. His life, his works and their importance, Sheffield 1988.

[13] For Laqueur see n. 11; H. R. Moehring: Novelistic Elements in the Writings of Flavius Josephus, Chicago 1957; Joseph ben Matthia and Flavius Josephus, in: ANRW 2.21.2 (1984), 864-917; J. J. Price: Jerusalem under Siege. The Collapse of the Jewish State, 66-70 C.E., Leiden 1992.

Steve Mason