Robert Goldenberg. The Nations That Know Thee Not: Ancient Jewish Attitudes Toward Other Religions. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
Robert Goldenberg’s The Nations That Know Thee Not is
largely about ancient Jewish views on Gentile religions. There was the
view that there is only one God, and the view that other gods existed
and God permitted the Gentiles to worship them. There was the view that
idolatry was foolishness, and the view that it was wicked and immoral.
There was the view that Gentiles could worship their gods, and that
what was important was that they be moral people. There was a strong
Jewish desire to uproot idolatry from the holy land. However, there
were devout Jews who may not have participated in idolatry, but they
were not phobic about pagan temples or pagan people. Overall, ancient
Jews were attempting to navigate their way through a world in which they
were vulnerable, and that shaped their interaction with Gentile
I was hesitant to write a blog post about this book, not because I
disliked it (since I did like it), but rather because I had already read and blogged about
other books that pertain to Jewish views of Gentiles and Gentile
religions: Terence Donaldson’s Paul and the Gentiles has an excellent section about this topic, which I blogged about, and I also blogged about Louis Feldman’s Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World, David Novak’s The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism, and Shaye Cohen’s The Beginnings of Jewishness.
Overall, the data in Goldenberg’s book is the same as the data in the
other books, although Goldenberg does disagree with how Novak applied
the data, at times. There were some new things that I learned from
Goldenberg’s book, however: how the ancient Israelites who worshiped
gods in addition to YHWH were trying to make themselves secure by
getting more of the pantheon on their side; devout Jews who felt no
compunction about hiding in pagan temples or making pagan items for
Gentile worship; Hellenistic Jewish literature that appears to have no
problems with Gentiles worshiping idols, just so long as they are moral
people; reasons that Philo believed that God forbade Jews to blaspheme
other gods (i.e., doing so would desensitize them to blaspheming the
true god); statements in Josephus and the Jerusalem Talmud about
representatives of Temple authorities going out and collecting tithes
from Israelite farmers; and the list goes on.
One concern that I had in reading Goldenberg’s book is that I saw
that scholars do not always interpret statements in an absolute,
straightforward manner. When an ancient Jewish text says that God is
the only God, does it mean that God is the only God, or is that rather a
sign of enthusiasm, nationalism, or devotion, not an absolute
theological statement? When Jephthah in the Bible was acknowledging to a
Gentile nation the existence and power of its god, did that truly
reflect Jephthah’s beliefs, or was that diplomatic maneuvering on
Jephthah’s part? It is difficult for an Aspie like me not to take what
people say at face-value, and I wonder what boundaries there may be once
one does not. Yet, who can deny that humans are complex creatures, and
that there is more behind what they are saying than their actual words?
There is a part of me that wishes that Goldenberg’s book had more
historical explanation. I can understand why someone would take issue
with me on that, for Goldenberg does discuss important aspects of
historical context: how Gentiles viewed Jews and Jewish religion, both
negatively and positively; the impact of Hadrian’s decree against
genital mutilation; Christian fears of Judaism winning Gentiles over,
alongside Jewish reluctance to proselytize, etc. I cannot exactly say
why, but there is a part of me that does not think that Goldenberg was
diachronic enough, but rather was referring to different Jewish stances
on Gentile religions, without mounting a sufficient historical
explanation for those stances. Maybe I was wishing that he would make
the connections between the stances and the history more clear and
linear than he did (according to my impressions).
Good book, though.