BMCR 2024.03.06

The Babylonian Talmud and late antique book culture

, The Babylonian Talmud and late antique book culture. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2023. Pp. 243. ISBN 9781009297332.

Open access


It is a distinct pleasure to recommend Monika Amsler’s well written and carefully argued new monograph, “The Babylonian Talmud and Late Antique Book Culture,” not despite this reviewer’s strong disagreement with many of the claims made in the book, but because of them. Without strong and well-argued challenges to basic prevailing assumptions, the field of Talmud and rabbinics, like any other field of inquiry within the academy, will never advance. One famous example of such a process in the field was the late Jacob Neusner’s assertion that reliance on attributions in rabbinic texts to reconstruct their history was hopelessly naive. Instead, he argued, all rabbinic documents must first be understood as products of their latest, redactional layer. The field responded. A number of scholars produced detailed studies of the sages of particular generations, showing that while later redactors sometimes played fast and loose with their sources, much of the time they accurately preserved their sources. While, as always, scholarly debate remains robust, the separation of the constituent layers of the Talmud from one another is again widely employed.

I suspect Amsler’s book will occasion this kind of response, for “The Babylonian Talmud and Late Antique Book Culture” challenges at least four widely held scholarly assumptions about the Babylonian Talmud: first, that the Talmud is, at least primarily, a “text” which was composed and preserved orally for centuries before it was committed to writing in the early medieval period. Second, that the cultural context in which the Talmud took shape was largely a Sassanian Persian one. Third, that the act of composing the Talmud occurred late in the Sassanian period (the Arab conquest of Babylonia in 634 is frequently proposed as a terminus ad quem). Finally, that the Babylonian Talmud’s redaction was largely independent of that of the earlier Palestinian Talmud.

In order to make these bold claims, Amsler wisely prioritizes the Talmud’s form over its content. She argues that, “the Talmud is best classified as a commentary in form, an encyclopedia in content, and a symposiac work in its literary mode.” (p. 17) She thus proposes that the Talmud is far from the sui generis work it seems to be when viewed based on its content, and instead argues that the Talmud’s form shows it to be of a piece with late-antique Greco-Roman literatures which were “assembled according to an elaborate plan that followed upon a period of sorting excerpts according to keywords.” (p. 8) In this way, she draws on work by Richard Hidary and David Brodsky, both of whom look to late antique Roman exercises in the study of rhetoric, called προγυμνάσματα (progymnasmata), as a potential model for the basic literary unit of the Talmudic, the sugya, in which excerpts from preexisting texts are woven together to create new literature. Her model for the writing of the Talmud builds on ideas first formulated by Martin Jaffee, in which textuality and orality ought not to be seen as binary opposites but as a spectrum.

Her first chapter focuses on this issue of genre, profitably comparing the Talmud with a wide number of Latin texts from the first four centuries of the common era (such as?). Chapter 2 focuses on how the Talmud might have been created, arguing that pithy sayings of early rabbinic figures must have been written on a variety of media: wooden tablets, ostraka (pottery shards), and scraps of papyrus. Only afterward were they freshly arranged according to a system of sorting by keyword, much the same way Pliny the Elder’s Natural History was. It is here that Amsler makes her strong claim against the regnant theory that the Talmud is, at heart, an oral “text,” arguing that the pervasive orality of early Islamic Jewish culture in evidence in Geonic works should not be seen as an accurate representation of the earlier Talmudic period. Instead, she argues that the privileging of orality should be seen as an anti-Islamic polemic. Chapter 3 focuses on a number of passages to further the argument for such a process of creation, arguing that those who produced the written text of the Babylonian Talmud, “before the middle of the fifth century” (p. 131) did so with deep knowledge of the Palestinian Talmud, using it as “inspiration, a template, or even a foil.” (p. 103). Chapter 4 turns to talmudic narratives to argue that stories, too, were products of progymnasmata in which stories were retold, and thus that rhetorical training should be treated by scholars of the Talmud “as the cause and effect of Rabbinic literature, instead of thinking of rhetoric as something that merely left traces in that literature.” (p. 176). Chapter 5 attempts to fully reconstruct one of the Talmud’s sources, a medical treatise of simple remedies, which Amsler argues had been chopped up and reapplied throughout the Talmud on the keyword model. This treatise is presented in full in an appendix.

Along the way, Amsler provides some wonderful insights from her comparison with late Roman texts. For example, she shows that the basic question words which tend to introduce talmudic pericopae are the same ones that late antique doxographers borrowed from Aristotle (p.44). Additionally, she shows how a passage in tractate Gittin mirrors the five stages of classical rhetoricians like Cicero, one of which is “arrangement.” (p.104). In this way she attempts to yank scholarship away from its contemporary fascination with the Talmud’s Sassanian Persian context and concomitant focus on Pahlavi or Syriac parallels.

Bold as many of these arguments may be, they are not always convincing. Part of the problem is the lack of serious engagement either with the myriad of textual hints of orality, or with the complete lack of material evidence for a Jewish codex before the 8th century CE. No extant wooden tablets, ostraka, or scraps of papyrus display rabbinic writing. The bibliography lists few articles by Yaakov Sussman, David Weiss Halivni, Jonah Frankel, and Shamma Friedman, all but one of them in English instead of the Modern Hebrew in which these questions tend to be addressed. Neither Judith Hauptman’s nor Neil Danzig’s work, which shows quite clearly how oral material was collected and arranged throughout the talmudic and early Islamic periods respectively, are cited at all. While she engages with Yaakov Ellman’s proofs for orality, she dodges his most convincing one, that the periods which both preceded and followed the creation of the Talmud displayed what he calls, “pervasive orality.”

These criticisms, however, in no way prevent me from recommending this book. Students of late antiquity who engage with the Talmud must not be presented only with the emerging scholarly consensus that the Talmud is a late, oral document without also coming to terms with the flaws in this model. Specialists in the field, much as they responded to Neusner’s revolution in the field a half a century ago, must now respond to Monika Amsler.