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Disturbing Images: Reading Civic Ideals in early Judaism and Ancient Christianity against the Backdrop of Roman Imperial Iconography
Disturbing Images: Reading Civic Ideals in early Judaism and Ancient Christianity against the Backdrop of Roman Imperial Iconography

A Collaborative Research Project with Rabbi Professor Robert A. Daum  and Professor Harry O. Maier

Funded by the Luce Foundation

 

This project explores how early "Jews" and "Christians" (ca. BCE 63--250 CE) developed a civic imagination in the context of the visual and material culture of the Roman Empire. A key component of that cultural situation was the way that civic ideals were promoted through visual media (imperial monuments, coins, organization of civic space, architecture, statuary, mosaics, etc). This helped to make Rome's ideals persuasive to their audiences, the majority of whom were either illiterate or otherwise disenfranchised. Jews and Christians, as inhabitants, formulated their own civic ideals by way of a range of responses, including association, resistance, rejection, accommodation, etc. The project explores how from diverse social locations "Jews" and "Christians" developed a civic imagination that reflected their socio-cultural and religious identities as colonized subjects. For example, visions of the conquered subject and the idealized city offered both Jews and Christians sites to explore a counter-imperial civic imagination; this fostered the development of ideals that were at once at home in and resistant to their imperial contexts. This project reads early Jewish and Christian civic ideals in the imperial context of the Hellenized Roman city to furnish resources for present day Jewish and Christian reflection on civic identity in our contemporary urban context.

 

The study encompasses Jewish, New Testament, and early Christian studies especially as these relate to social and cultural considerations of religious engagement with the political aspects of Roman imperial culture. Particular attention will be given to Roman imperial civic culture and the idealized representation of the Roman Hellenistic city, especially as promoted by literary elites. Particular attention given to representation of Christian, Jewish, and “pagan” literary representations of centres where there were demonstrably Christian and Jewish populations (Rome; Alexandria; the Levant; Asia Minor). Ancient art history, especially reception history, as well as socio-historical study of the imperial cult and its patrons and the cultural effects of visual imperial culture as a tactic of persuasion will be a central focus. Contemporary post-colonial study and considerations of the colonized subject as accommodating, resisting, and negotiating imperial ideals will be deployed from contemporary study. Primary interest will be in undertaking a general survey of Jewish and Christian responses to the Roman Empire to reconstruct their varying appraisals and negotiations of ancient political culture, especially as these relate to inhabiting public civic space, and show evidence of engagement with the material and visual culture of imperial monuments and imagery.  Within the canonical rabbinic anthologies, our investigation will encompass relevant texts in Mishnah, Tosefta, Tannaitic Midrash, and Talmudic baraitas for their explicit or implicit engagement with Greco-Roman material and visual culture.  In the non-rabbinical sources our focus will be on directly political texts (eg. Rom. 13.1-8; Rev. 13; 17-18; Philo, Embassy; Josephus), as well as texts that appropriate, deploy, and borrow political vocabulary and political ideals in the representation of religious ideals (Phil 2.6-11; 1 Thess. 5.16-17; 1 Cor. 12; Rom 12; 1 Clem. 60-61), as well as texts that challenge and directly oppose the political culture of imperial domination (Justin, 1 Apology; Minucius Felix; Tertullian, Apologies; Athenagoras; Diognetus; Jewish and Christian martyrologies). To gauge the power of visual political culture and its grammars of persuasion, focus will be on imperial numismatic representation of imperial victory (subjugation, bounty, fertility, political concord; monuments; etc); monumental architecture (temple facades; victory altars and arches); as well as inscriptional evidence (Priene; collegia inscriptions and iconography dedicated to or celebrating imperial patronage).



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