BMCR 2007.05.33

Jewish Babylonia between Persia and Roman Palestine: Decoding the Literary Record

, Jewish Babylonia between Persia and Roman Palestine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xiv, 285 pages). ISBN 9781435619128 $65.00.

The title of Richard Kalmin’s book, Jewish Babylonia between Persia and Roman Palestine, appears to promise spatial and cultural insights. Kalmin (henceforth K) succeeds to a remarkable degree in thus situating his explorations of the rabbinic communities of Babylonia in Late Antiquity, despite the fact the Babylonian Talmud remains virtually the only source concerning most Jewish activity. He succeeds because while he consistently reflects upon the limitations of his source, he shares his eager conviction that recent critical work in Talmudic studies offers the best available tools for historical study of Jewish Babylonia.1 Although historians would surely prefer to have a wider selection of material in order to triangulate from literary sources to historical reconstructions, K presents the Talmud as anything but a monolithic or static document, and thus offers glimpses of contrasting rabbinic contexts and behaviors. In each of seven chapters K compares sections of the Babylonian Talmud with parallels in the Mishnah, Tosefta and Palestinian Talmud that thus reveal new developments within the Babylonian Talmud. He traces signs of emendations in the Babylonian Talmud that illustrate its different perspective of Palestine and Babylonia. Finally these comparisons uncover distinctions between perspectives of earlier and later Babylonian rabbis. He concludes that this evidence of change within the Babylonian Talmud suggests changes within the Babylonian Jewish community as well.

In the Introduction K alludes to the thousands of inhabitants that King Shapur I of Persia transplanted from the eastern Roman Empire to Mesopotamia. K suggests that these “dramatic conquests of the third century may have had pronounced literary and practical consequences” (5). He alludes to Armenian conversion to Christianity in the fourth century in response to new currents from the west. K argues that Babylonia, like Armenia, inhabited a border location between the Persian and Roman Empires, so we might expect to observe developments in Jewish identity likewise affected by Roman ideas. K’s introductory chapter also discusses competing theories of the character of the Babylonian Talmud and argues for its use as historical evidence.

In Chapter 1, “Roman Persecutions of the Jews,” K builds upon scholarship that challenges the historicity of rabbinic texts describing Roman treatment of Jews in order to present the first case of Babylonian adaptation of Palestinian sources. While texts from both communities describe prohibitions against circumcision and Sabbath observances, only the Babylonian Talmud describes “Torah study” as forbidden (30). K thus highlights the uniqueness of the Babylonian rabbinic community, their adaptation of earlier sources, and the emphasis they place on “Torah study” in defining their identity.

In Chapter 2, “Kings, Priests and Sages,” K observes that in Babylonian versions of narratives, which also appear in Palestinian texts, we find “rabbis” in the place of non-rabbinic figures, such as kings. K suggests that while it did not trouble Palestinian rabbis to have non-rabbis appoint priests, Babylonian rabbis “found it unacceptable that a king made a halakhic decision” (40). These first two chapters support his ideas about the inward and rabbinic focus of rabbinic society, a detachment that he argues corresponds “to strict hierarchical divisions within Persian society” (60).

Chapter 3, “Jewish Sources of the Second Temple Period in Rabbinic Compilations of Late Antiquity,” considers the phrase: “when the sages heard about the matter,” that refers to narratives that “purport to describe the distant past” (61). As in Chapter 2, the Babylonian Talmud features sages where parallel accounts did not. Again issues of historical method become central. K highlights clues that the tannaitic stories introduced by this phrase originally featured non-sages. While he argues that later Babylonian rabbis tampered with these sources, he rejects the idea that they actually created them. He explains that for such a late narrative to be introduced into “the same context in two or three compilations” (83) stretches credibility. According to K, such a theory would call for an incredible degree of coordinated editing. Thus, K presents Babylonian rabbis as involved editors but not authors.

Chapter 4, “Anxious Rabbis and Mocking Nonrabbis,” like chapters 2 and 3, observes rabbis replacing nonrabbis in yet another kind of discourse in Babylonia. While Palestinian texts appear self-conscious about how nonrabbis might have interpreted scripture (95), Babylonia rabbis do not share this particular self-consciousness. In the Babylonian Talmud we find mockery among rabbis, rather than between rabbis and outsiders, again emphasizing their internal focus.

Chapter 5, “Idolatry in Late Antique Babylonia,” provides the first glimpse of K’s second theme, that while the Babylonian rabbis for the most part focus their attention inwards, he would nevertheless characterize Babylonian rabbis as “relating to the outside world through the medium of texts” (104). Specifically, in this chapter he presents rabbinic encounters with statues and other forms of idolatrous worship that he argues occurred in Roman Palestine, but not Sassanian Persia. Thus explorations of idolatry in the Babylonian Talmud display a theoretical interest, and even an attraction, argues K. In a series of explorations about rhetorical effectiveness K observes that rabbis address other rabbis rather than non-Jews and thus create an opportunity to work out their anxieties.

Chapter 6, “Persian Persecutions of the Jews,” most explicitly argues for the importance of Talmud as a historical source. K explicitly declares: “In this chapter, I hope to exemplify my contention…that significant aspects of the history of the Jews of late antiquity will have to be rewritten once the latest developments in Talmud text criticism are taken into account” (121). Through a series of comparisons of Palestinian and Babylonian texts, in keeping with the methods of earlier chapters, K suggests that late emendations account for descriptions of persecution of Jews by Sassanian Persians. According to K, while Zoroastrian priests interfered when offended, references to Persians destroying synagogues do not appear in all variants and manuscripts, and are rather the work of late anonymous editors who resolved difficulties with eye towards logic “rather than historical cogency” (131). This in turn casts doubt on the way earlier historians had read Persian and Talmudic accounts as supposedly reinforcing each other.

Chapter 7, “Josephus in Sassanian Babylonia,” returns to and develops the theme that new ideas (and ultimately behaviors) entered Jewish Babylonia through textual material. K traces the appearance of negative portrayals of Sadducees “by rabbis who flourished during the mid-fourth century” (157) to the influence of Josephus or a common source for Josephus and parallel stories in rabbinic literature that depicted Sadducean attitudes towards scripture. K emphasizes that there is no evidence for proto-Karaite (Sadducee-like) groups in fourth- or fifth-century Babylonia, as some have hypothesized. Significantly, these inward looking sages appear motivated by stories also found in Josephus that made their way into Talmud. The sages do not appear to have been moved by specific events. His evidence depends on the controversial move of assigning generations to the rabbis of the Talmud (see further discussion below). In keeping with his attention to historical method, K acknowledges the possibility that the cluster of sources he relies on as attributed to, in this case, Abaye, might be psuedepigraphical (163). Nevertheless, he reminds his reader that his argument does not depend on their belonging to a particular individual, but rather a single school or group, and its chronological relationship with others. K emphasizes “that this is not an argument in favor of trusting ancient rabbinic attributions in general; it is simply to say that in the cases under consideration here it makes sense to do so” (164). K explains that to read otherwise in this instance offers no coherence.

It remains only for the conclusion to suggest that at this same time we see Amoraic texts begin to point outwards as in the example of the Sadducees above, we also begin to see Babylonian sages depart form earlier patterns. K indicates that “Babylonian rabbis after the mid-fourth century, like Palestinian rabbis but unlike early Babylonian rabbis…idealize and promote non-rabbinic support of sages,…express approval of marriage between rabbis and nonrabbis”(178) and so forth. He thus suggests a trajectory from the introduction of new texts towards new behaviors.

Throughout this work K has produced a compelling exploration of Jewish Babylonia. He has asked interesting questions and developed a vision of rabbis who put themselves at the center of consideration, emending earlier texts in order to reflect themselves rather than non-rabbis. Additionally he focuses upon Babylonian assimilation of new texts such as Josephus or a common source for Josephus and parallel stories in rabbinic literature. This acceptance of new texts brings with it the irony of rabbinic attraction to idolatry and idols that rabbis only encountered through texts and otherwise would not have known. K suggests that the reception in the fourth century of new texts ultimately changed rabbinic perspectives.

Second, and perhaps more impressive, K commits himself to keeping methodological considerations continually before us. K recognizes that a significant portion of scholars view the Talmud as too insular to point beyond itself, and thus unhelpful for the purposes of historical investigation. While K will continually qualify his conclusions about individual rabbis, he nevertheless insists upon the coherence of ideas surrounding individuals, in certain “cases.” He takes care not to over-generalize, but he refuses to relinquish the methodological importance of tracing references to individual rabbis, and reconstructing and dating their generations in those instances in which he can demonstrate a significant pattern. I have to admit that I myself have always been (and probably still am) impatient with accepting such generational categories as meaningful. And yet I found myself repeatedly intrigued by K’s care and consistency with these categories and his results. Historians necessarily rely on sources with which they are more and less familiar. K’s meticulous presentation of the specialized tools of the Talmudist offers insights for the non-specialist, opening new ways of considering Talmudic evidence as it relates to an understanding of Late Antiquity, while simultaneously recalling the pitfalls lying beyond these certain “cases” which have been thoroughly scrutinized.

Despite his passion and his care with his sources, K’s presentation assumes a highly initiated reader. While featuring “Jewish Babylonia” instead of “Babylonian Talmud” in the book’s title suggests interest in an audience of historians, the first pages undermine that welcome. In the second sentence K asserts that this book “supports my claim in earlier work that Babylonian rabbis tended to avoid contact with other Jews” (3). Thus he launches the reader into the battle ground of earlier arguments, but does not offer a general introduction whereby we might understand the parameters of these claims. Eventually the reader can begin to put pieces together. Nonetheless, it is not a friendly start. Specifically K could have been helped by clarifying that his observations about rabbinic isolationism were only meant to describe Babylonian rabbis through the third century. Although ideas of inward looking Babylonian rabbinic community on the one hand and the fourth century receptivity of Babylonian rabbis to Palestinian texts on the other appear together in the introduction, it took this reader until the conclusion of the book to see that K intended these observations in a temporal sequence rather than as simultaneous descriptions. The fact that six of his seven chapters deal with his first point makes it all the more difficult to recognize that K intends for his assertions about change in the fourth century to remain central.

In a related vein, K offers such interesting ideas that I am sorry he does not take more time to explore fully the implications of his conclusions. In his introduction K relates that thousands of new inhabitants appeared in Persia in the third century. Does he suspect that they brought versions of Josephus to Babylonia? In what form? He mentions neighboring Christians also undergoing significant changes in the fourth century? Does he think the texts that ended up in the Talmud came with Jews? Might they have come with other immigrants such as Christians? He does not return to these new arrivals in his conclusion. Perhaps, since K appears to argue that even though the rabbis tended to be inward looking they could welcome new texts, we might speculate that the texts had to be set aside for some time first so that they need not be associated with the people who brought them. In any case I would have welcomed more discussion about how texts could be separated from people and assimilated, as well as more explication of how the reception of new texts evolved into a new outlook.

Finally, given the title’s suggestion that we attend to that which is “between” Roman Palestine and Persia, a map would have helped articulate the importance of spatial claims made and then set aside. In the introduction K raises some interesting cross-cultural questions in light of Babylonia’s similar position to Armenia as a province closer to the border than the heart of the Sassanian Empire. These too could have been strengthened by reference to a map, especially since they do not receive much play in the body of the book because of its overall dependence on rabbinic texts.

Not withstanding certain barriers to the non-specialist, or insights that might be developed more fully, K’s care with his sources is inspiring, as is his passion to share specialized methods with his reader. In addition he asks important questions both about what happened in Jewish Babylonia, and how we might know. Ultimately, his exploration of Babylonian Talmud offers new perspectives on Late Antiquity that deserve our attention.


1. Over and above introductory considerations of method (10-17), K continually references insights for reading Talmud. For instance, he repeatedly reminds his readers of the explorations of Shamma Friedman (especially his “Al Derekh Heker haSugya” in Perek ha-Ishah Rabbah ba-Bavli (Jerusalem: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1978), 7-45) concerning corrupted texts or evidence that a change in language, such as from Hebrew to Aramaic or back, indicates a change in speakers within the text (26, 75, 134 and 157).