Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.09.05 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.09.05

Benjamin Isaac, Yuval Shahar (ed.), Judaea-Palaestina, Babylon and Rome: Jews in Antiquity. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism, 147.   Tübingen​:  Mohr Siebeck, 2012.  Pp. ix, 324.  ISBN 9783161516979.  €99.00.  

Reviewed by Ranon Katzoff, Bar Ilan University (


The present volume is a collection of studies originating in a conference in 2009 honoring Professor Aharon Oppenheimer, of Tel Aviv University, on the occasion of his retirement. Oppenheimer is one of the leading historians of the Jews in antiquity, and a representative of the more conservative school of historians, who maintain that much useful historical information may be derived from ancient, especially rabbinic literature, in contrast to those, sometimes termed revisionists, who do not. That representatives of both schools contributed to the conference is an indication of the esteem in which Professor Oppenheimer is held among his colleagues, and this excellent volume is a fitting tribute to him.

In "The 'Outreach' Campaign of the Ancient Pharisees," Albert Baumgarten draws especially from stories in Luke, a picture of the efforts of the Pharisees to attract followers by acts of friendship and fostering trust, and especially by invitations to meals. Hence the subtitle: "There is no such thing as a free lunch." That this picture is historical— Baumgarten eschews "profound historical agnosticism"— Baumgarten argues from two independent approaches: observation of the practice of comparable spiritualists contemporary with the Pharisees, and the modern study of missionizing activity, particularly of the Mormons. The argument, it seems, will work equally well whether the Pharisees efforts were directed primarily to gentiles (missionizing), as was the prevalent opinion based on Matt 23:15, or primarily to Jews (outreach), as has been argued since the early 1990s.

Talmudic literature records that Jews, at least in Babylonia, not only ate and drank well on the Sabbath, but also danced and clapped, despite the strictures in the Mishna against the latter practices, and also that the rabbis chose not to make a fuss about it. Shaye J. D. Cohen, "Dancing, Clapping, Meditating: Jewish and Christian Observance of the Sabbath in Pseudo-Ignatius," finds that early Christian writers in neighboring Syria, especially Ps. Ignatius, report the same on Jewish practice, condemning it in favor of a Christian spiritual Sabbath, characterized by "meditation on laws." For Cohen these "laws" in a Christian context must be "laws of nature," sharply contrasting to the Jewish "laws of the Torah."

In "How Jewish to be Jewish? Self-Identity and Jewish Christians in First Century CE Palestine," Joshua Schwartz sets the stage for a thesis that what drove Jews and Christians apart was politics, by arguing that it was not theology, ritual, or tradition. He sets out an array of characterizations of first-century Jews and Judaism made by contemporary scholars, of each he asks whether Christians would necessarily be excluded, and in each case the answer is negative. No less interesting than this conclusion is the taxonomy of scholarly views.

Günther Stemberger, "Birkat ha-minim and the Separation of Christians and Jews," revisits this much-discussed question, and concludes that while the berakhah existed as part of the shemoneh esrei at the turn of the second century, it was not directed specifically against Christians, and thus did not trigger the "Parting of the Ways." While the conclusion itself is reasonable and not revolutionary—Kimelman, for instance, reached pretty much the same conclusions decades ago—the argumentation, of the "revisionist" sort, will not command universal agreement.

In "Another Look at the Rabbinic Conception of Gentiles from the Perspective of Impurity Laws," Vered Noam affords the English-reading community access to a chapter from her Hebrew book, From Qumran to the Rabbinic Revolution: Conceptions of Impurity (Jerusalem 2010). Noam addresses here the susceptibility of gentiles to "occasional" ritual (rather than moral) impurity—that is, impurity "contracted" by contact with a corpse and the like, and the applicability to gentile corpses of corpse impurity. Whereas the Bible, in Noam's view, treats Jews and gentiles alike with respect to both matters, by the end of the talmudic period gentiles are entirely excluded from the regime of occasional impurity, namely, living gentiles cannot be carriers of occasional impurity and gentile corpses do not impart impurity. Noam detects within rabbinic tradition two contrary strains of interpretation of the rabbinic rule—two differing conceptions of the difference between Jews and gentiles—leading to that result.

Richard Kalmin reviews critically the evidence for "The Evil Eye in Rabbinic Literature of Late Antiquity," with 'evil eye' here defined narrowly as the "magical evil eye," which "exerts a direct, baneful influence on the victim," and is typically used against a person with a positive attribute, or who has been successful or fortunate. There are interesting results: Tannaitic compilations are completely silent on the subject. Amoraic compilations display a geographical divide. Compilations from the Land of Israel contain many references to the evil eye, but always as something alien, wielded by gentiles, or by at best inauthentic Jews, and, very rarely, by marginal rabbis. In the Babylonian Talmud, it is a fact of life, and one for which the Talmud offers advice on remedies. It should be noted that for this categorization to work it must be assumed that material in any compilation reflects the time and place of compilation, not that of the putative source, so that, for instance a reference to the evil in tannaitic material quoted in the Babylonian Talmud must be the result of Babylonian interpretation or of outright fabrication.

Toledot Yeshu is a medieval Jewish parody of the gospels' account of Jesus' life, a product of the intense Jewish-Christian polemic current then. It never became part of the Jewish literary canon in any sense, but rather circulated, if at all, in manuscript form, written as late as in the nineteenth century, a sort of samizdat. No surprise, then, that the manuscripts, over a hundred, display a great variety of versions and recensions. Peter Schäfer, "Jesus' Origin, Birth, and Childhood according to the Toledot Yeshu and the Talmud," presents an account of the various narratives in the opening sections of each category of manuscripts.

Tessa Rajak, "Reflections on Jewish Resistance and the Discourse of Martyrdom in Josephus," argues, contra Bowersock and others, that the roots of the Jewish notion of martyrdom are found in pre-70 CE Judaism, very wide-spread among Jews both in the Land of Israel and in the diaspora, to judge from the passages in Josephus which she examines closely.

In an ironically, considering its subject, delightful piece, "Titus, Berenice and Agrippa: The Last Days of the Temple in Jerusalem," Martin Goodman speculates on what would have been the reaction to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem of two prominent Jews who were in Titus's train at the time—Agrippa II and his sister Berenice. The latter was well integrated in Roman high society as a fifth-generation Roman citizen. Yet she was a devout enough Jew to take and fulfill a nazirite vow, which entailed no less than shaving her head. Agrippa, for his part, had been appointed custodian of the Temple by the Roman Senate , a function he exercised actively—too actively for some priests—for some two decades.

One of the most intriguing studies is by Yuval Shahar, "Why a Quarter? The Siqariqon Ruling and Roman Law." All scholars agree (or, should agree) that 'siqariqon' refers to property held by one person as owner, but considered by Jewish law as still being the property of a previous owner. The Yerushalmi is explicit that this occurred as a result of confiscation by Roman authorities. The Mishna reports that the rabbinic treatment of this situation changed over time: At an early stage a buyer from the new holder of the property had to reach an accommodation with the original owner before the purchase from the holder of the property, reflecting the rabbis' commitment to upholding traditional Jewish property law. It should be obvious that this accommodation would not entail paying the previous owner the full price of the land, since the chances of that owner retrieving the land in order to deliver were not good. Later the rabbis dispensed with the need for an accommodation—that requirement, says the Yerushalmi, deterred buyers, with the result that another, conflicting public policy commitment of the rabbis, to Jewish ownership of land in the Land of Israel, was not fulfilled—and replaced it with a standard compensation of a quarter of the purchase price and a sort of right of first refusal. Now, Shahar, having searched and found no precedent in Jewish law for a quarter payment, suggests that the model is the extension of the Roman quarta Falcidia to fideicommissa on intestacy, which occurred under Antoninus Pius, at roughly the same time as the second stage of the siqariqon rule. This would then be a remarkable instance of the absorption by Jewish law of a Roman legal institution. Shahar is the first to admit that there is quite a gap between fideicommissa and the siqariqon issue, and one wonders if the gap has really been bridged. Would it not be simpler to say that the rabbis found a quarter to be a reasonable approximation of what the original owners were getting in their accommodations?

Susan Weingarten, in "How Do You Say Haroset in Greek," in a wide-ranging survey of what is known about haroset, the thick sauce into which the bitter herbs—in antiquity most likely lettuce and endive rather than today's more customary horseradish—are dipped at the Passover seder, discovers that an early medieval glossary found in the Cairo Genizah translates the term as enbammous. In the Apicius collection embamma appears as one of two sauces into which lettuce and endive are dipped to mitigate the harm done by these vegetables. This is precisely the function the Babylonian Talmud ascribes to haroset, apparently preserving a tradition from the distant Graeco-Roman world.

Jonathan Price, "The Necropolis at Jaffa and its Relation to Beth She'arim," comparing the evidence from the two contemporary, late-antique sites, observes that the Jaffa inscriptions display a much narrower, and for the most part lower, range of socio-economic status than the other, and that Jaffa does not appear to have attracted burials of Jews who died abroad.

Youval Rotman, "Captives and Redeeming Captives: The Law and the Community," observes that among Jews and Christians, both of whom placed a high value on redeeming captives, a parallel development occurred in practice. In the first three centuries of this era the initiative to redeem was that of individuals; by the third or fourth century it became a communal responsibility.

Werner Eck surveys the evidence for "The Jewish Community in Cologne from Roman Times to the Early Middle Ages." He treats us to a close reading and contextualization of the famous decree of Constantine concerning the Jews there; and addresses the question of whether the community existed continuously from ancient to medieval times. He sides for the possibility of continuity.

David Goodblatt, in "The Jews of the Parthian Empire: What We Don't Know," demonstrates the effects of the critical, "revisionist," methods of the last half-century. Though a book on the subject in 1965 could fill 250 pages, today, after the application of the critical methods, there is hardly any information left at all.

Yoram Tsafrir, in "The Finds in Cave 2001-2002 and Burial at Masada," recounts the bitter controversy that for years followed his and Yadin's discovery of human bones in a cave at Masada in 1963, and defends their identification as the remains of Jews killed at Masada during the siege.

In a particularly engaging paper, which I would make required reading for all students of rabbinics, "Will the 'Real' Rabbis Please Stand Up: On the Repackaging of the Rabbinic Model in Modern Times," Isaiah Gafni demonstrates how the portrayal and assessment of the ancient rabbis has varied radically, and controversially, over the last two centuries, and especially during the last half-century, as historians brought their own varied social and ideological baggage to bear on the subject.

The volume concludes with three indices and a list of Professor Oppenheimer's publications. ​

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