Late Ancient Judaism: Beyond Border Lines – By Mira Balberg

Mira Balberg in the Late Antiquity and the New Humanities Forum

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At the turn of the fourth century CE there lived in Caesarea, a coastal city in Palestine, two prolific religious thinkers. They both engaged extensively in biblical reflection and interpretation, and they were both concerned with defending their faith from external and internal threats. One of those two is Eusebius of Caesarea (or Eusebius Pamphili); the other is Rabbi Abahu.

If you have any training, or even mere interest, in the field we have come to call “late antiquity,” you are almost certain to have heard of the former and not very likely to have heard of the latter. Eusebius is of course most famous for his Historia Ecclesiae, but wrote extensively on many other topics, ranging from textual criticism to geography. Rabbi Abahu, on the other hand, wrote not a single thing (that we know of) in his life. Rather, we only know of him because hundreds of statements attributed to him and various anecdotes about him were preserved in various compilations of rabbinic literature – the Palestinian Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud, and the aggadic Midrashim. Rabbi Abahu is not an “author” in the same way that Eusebius is: like the many other rabbis mentioned and quoted in rabbinic works, he is more of a placeholder of oral traditions compiled in collective, multi-authored, multi-generational, multi-genred anthologies than he is a traceable historical figure.

Yet if fourth-century Caesarea is a quintessential locale in which the transformations and developments pertinent to late antiquity are both reflected upon and manufactured, why are Rabbi Abahu’s teachings usually not of interest for understanding these transformations? Why, more broadly, are the teachings of the greater circle known in Palestinian rabbinic sources as “the rabbis of Caesarea” (rabbanin dekisrin) not brought into this conversation, as well as the teachings of the circles that often position themselves against the rabbis of Caesarea — the rabbis who dwell in the Galilee? And if we’re already at it, where are the Babylonian rabbis, many of whom have emigrated to and from Palestine and transmitted various teachings between the two Jewish centers of learning of the third to the sixth centuries? In short, why is the vast Jewish literature of late antiquity so rarely considered a part of “late antiquity”?

The answer to this question has to do in part with conventions of archiving and classification — which, as Ellen Muehlberger powerfully argues in this forum, determine our ways of approaching and assessing our materials more than we tend to realize. First, the “late ancient” library is still conceived almost exclusively as a Greek and Latin library. Only fairly recently have Syriac, Coptic, and to some extent Armenian claimed a place on this library’s shelves; Hebrew and Palestinian/Babylonian Aramaic, however, have not been introduced to this library at all (as is the case with Pahlavi, Arabic, and other non-European languages). Second, the fact that the Jewish literature of late antiquity (with the exception of liturgical poetry) is entirely devoid of nameable authors but is rather collective, anonymous, and anthological in nature, makes it largely uncategorizable and unmanageable through conventional systems of organization. Finally, Jewish late ancient works do not make any use of the genres that we are trained to think of as quintessential to ancient and late ancient literature: the sermon, the epistle, the funerary oration, the philosophical or theological treatise, and so forth. If Jews ever wrote in these genres (and in all likelihood some of them probably did), later generations did not find it necessary to preserve such works.

Mosaic floor in a synagogue in Sepphoris, 6th century CE. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The integration of late ancient Jewish literature into our library, then, forces us to rethink some of the fundamental categories and distinctions — of language, authorship, and genre — through which we approach the period of late antiquity and its texts. This in itself is a worthwhile and desired development: as more and more scholars now contend, these categories and distinctions need to be rethought, challenged, and expanded — not only to include materials beyond the Greek-Roman canon but also to include a plethora of uncategorized materials that defy clear pigeon-holing (literary, religious, doctrinal or other), like magical texts, apocalyptic visions, dedicatory inscriptions, collections of sayings, etc.

But late ancient Jewish literature has been excluded for a long time from scholarly conversations on late antiquity not only because of its linguistic and stylistic incommensurability with other texts, but also because of a deep-seated assumption regarding the cultural isolation of Jews from their intellectual and religious environments. This assumption, traditionally shared and propagated both by Jewish and non-Jewish scholars, maintains that there is an uninterrupted, continuous Jewish kernel of beliefs and practices, which at times can be placed, due to various “external influences,” in Greek-like or Roman-like or Sassanian-like husks. Whatever those husks may be, however, the kernel remains pristine and easily identifiable as “Jewish” and nothing else. To put this bluntly, Jews were not studied as part of late antiquity because it has been assumed for years that Jews were in their time and place but never quite of it.

In the last two decades, fortunately, the “kernel and husk” approach has gradually fallen out of favor. The scholarly community, largely speaking, had grown past the kind of essentialism that assumes that ethnic or religious groups have some kind of unchanging and fixed quality that remains monolithic and stable over time, and became rightfully suspicious of clear-cut distinctions between form and content, or between “external” and “internal.” Furthermore, we are now inclined to believe that everything and everyone is thoroughly a product of its particular time and place: Judaism in third-century Roman Palestine can only be understood and discussed as a Roman phenomenon, and Judaism in seventh-century Constantinople can only be discussed as a Byzantine phenomenon. There is no trans-historical, trans-geographical “Judaism” that can be reified as its own category.

The disintegration of essentialist approaches to religions and religious identities, and the growing willingness to historicize and particularize one’s sources, led to many important developments in the field of late ancient Jewish studies in recent years, perhaps most important of which was the readiness to reconsider the relations between Jews and Christians. Rethinking the famous “parting of the ways” paradigm, scholars have been able to undermine the long-standing view according to which “Jew” and “Christian” were fully-distinguished, fully-developed categories already in the beginning of the second century, and to show that the border lines, to use the title of Daniel Boyarin’s influential book on this topic, remained flimsy and blurry well into the middle of the first millennium of the common era. The conclusion to be drawn from the realization that the ways did not really “part” as clearly and cleanly as we once assumed was that early Christianity is a critical context against which late ancient Jewish texts must be assessed. One could say that the kernel and husk metaphor was abandoned in favor of a single kernel metaphor. Early Judaism and early Christianity are now increasingly viewed as two sprouts that emerged out of the very same kernel, which grow so close to each other that they are practically intertwined, so much so that it is sometimes useless to try and disentangle them from one another.

There is no trans-historical, trans-geographical “Judaism” that can be reified as its own category.

A critically important factor in the dismantling of the “parting of the ways” paradigm was readiness, on the side of scholars of ancient Judaism, finally to turn their gaze to materials other than the rabbinic corpus. Rightfully protesting that not all Judaism of late antiquity can be subsumed under the rabbinic umbrella, and that non-rabbinic works, whether textual or material, merit examination on their own terms, scholars were able to show the profound correspondences between apocalyptic, visionary, liturgical, artistic, and magical traditions from across the late ancient world. When it comes to these traditions, they convincingly argued, there is really no place to speak of “influence” or “borrowing” at all: these traditions are part of a profoundly shared world in which distinctions like “Jewish” and “Christian” sometimes fail to tell us anything of real significance.

When it comes to rabbinic literature, arguing for the feasibility of a fruitful dialogue or correspondence between Jewish and non-Jewish late ancient materials is significantly more complicated. This is mainly due to the fact that however much the rabbis were part of their greater cultural environments (and as studies have shown, they clearly were part of them, both in Roman Palestine and in Sassanian Babylonia), they made it their art to conceal it. In other words, the different rabbinic corpora make a remarkable effort to create a sense of timelessness and isolation, and to foster an ethos of cultural particularity and insularity. The rabbis not only refrain from using classical languages and genres (and we do not know whether and to what extent they were exposed to classical education), but also show relatively little interest in the intellectual and religious world that surrounds them. One who reads rabbinic literature will be hard-pressed to find direct responses to the Christianization of the Roman Empire, for instance, or to the allure of Manicheism. To be sure, there are quite a few texts in which engagement with other religious traditions is evident, and several other texts in which such engagement can be reasonably read into the texts, but on the whole material of this sort is a drop in the enormous bucket of rabbinic literature. If one reads rabbinic texts through their own mode of self-presentation, then one is inevitably stirred toward viewing the rabbis as existing in a cultural bubble of sorts. While we must not take the rhetorical effect of “we know nothing except ourselves” at face value, we must also not ignore this effect and triumphantly present rabbinic texts as contentedly immersed in their environment.

The first question, then, is how one positions a literature that claims to be in conversation almost only with itself as product of its time and place, and as a valuable and interesting voice in a broader conversation. The second question is what benefits are to be gleaned from integrating rabbinic literature into the study of late antiquity beyond the (due) acknowledgement that late antiquity was more diverse and multifaceted than it is customary to think. Will the way we think of late antiquity as a transformative time in history change if we take the massive rabbinic corpus as an inextricable part of the late ancient world rather than as a marginal subculture within a subculture, and if so, how? Let me begin by addressing the first question, and then point to a direction for answering the second question.

The enterprise of placing rabbinic texts in dialogue with other late ancient texts and traditions is, in essence, an enterprise of finding a shared language: finding forms of discourse that are readily translatable across boundaries — and thereby enable the questioning of these very boundaries. The most obvious language that could be seen as shared — and is indeed approached as such — is that of theology, and of doctrine more broadly. Rabbinic statements on divinity, on angels, on the soul, on redemption, on the resurrection, etc. — while not organized into treatises and not systematically developed — can be put in conversation with similar statements in the works of Origen, Plotinus, Augustine, Tertullian, and so forth.

Another common playing field is, of course, exegesis and homiletics: the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible is a shared template over which genuine dialogue between rabbis and “others” can be seen to exist, whether directly or indirectly. More recently, attention was turned to rabbinic narratives, and to the fact that not only does rabbinic literature contain what are essentially mini-hagiographies, but these mini-hagiographies also feature many of the same themes that we find in Christian hagiographies: asceticism, struggle with sexual desire, poverty and charity, sickness and pain, etc. Recent studies attempted to trace, within rabbinic literature, modes of discourse that are fundamentally identical to other late ancient modes of discourse, even if they are contextually and stylistically different. These studies were able to undermine further the “insularity” hypothesis and to demonstrate that the rabbis were actively a part of their cultural environment, by showing that the repertoire of themes and ideas that they had at their disposal was greater than previously assumed.

The quest to find parallels or analogies between rabbinic literature and other contemporaneous literatures is a worthwhile quest. Such parallels, when they are convincingly traced, provide important information on the formation of rabbinic literature and on the materials (oral or written) that were at play in its making, and also help dismantle the semblance of a “bubble” that separates the rabbis from their contemporaries.

Nevertheless, I do contend that close literary parallels — while they are a valuable starting point — can only take us so far. If the detection of literary parallels serves ultimately as a form of source-criticism (i.e., “the rabbis probably used X when creating Y”), or otherwise just as a “compare and contrast” exercise, then it does not really do what comparisons are fundamentally supposed to do: make us think of the two compared items in a different light. In fact, close literary parallels can sometimes, paradoxically enough, lend themselves to the very same essentializing mode of analysis against which the effort to diversify and expand our scholarly range was set in the first place. The analogies between similar texts or artifacts of different provenances are readily accounted for in terms of “influence” or “borrowing,” whereas the differences are readily explained as the result of core disparities in identity or tradition. These differences thus reify rigid categories like “Jewish,” “Christian,” “Roman,” “Rabbinic,” “Heretic,” etc., and, inadvertently, often enough land back on the good old kernel-and-husk paradigm.

More important, however, is the fact that the quest for literary parallels necessarily ignores approximately half of rabbinic literature: the half that is concerned with legal and ritual discussions, or what is commonly known as halakhah. This part, which is very technical, at times tedious, and thoroughly specialized and arcane — seems deeply foreign among other late ancient texts. Most late ancient authors were not concerned, for all we know, with the minutiae of using sponges on the Sabbath or returning damaged goods to the seller. As a result, there is a tacit but overwhelmingly accepted bifurcation of rabbinic literature among scholars, assuming that when the rabbis created non-legal materials they were deeply immersed in their cultural environment, but when they created their legal materials they safely lived in their bubble.

If we go back to Rabbi Abahu, whom I mentioned in the beginning, we can happily make him a late ancient interlocutor when he is talking about a person who calls himself “son of man” and says that he will ascend to heaven, or when he talks about the importance of repentance and charity, or when he is interpreting the Song of Songs. But when Rabbi Abahu is discussing slaughter practices, or the elimination of bread upon Passover, or the interpretation of the Mishnah, his statements are of no interest for understanding “late antiquity” as such.

This bifurcation, I contend, is the main myopia that scholars of late antiquity, working both from the Jewish side and from the Roman/Christian/Zoroastrian side, must overcome. I believe that the rabbis’ legal creation was their utmost mode of intellectual expression, and that understanding this creation as a form of engagement with questions and concerns that animate the works of other late ancient authors stands to make a real contribution to our thinking of late antiquity in the broadest terms. Examining rabbinic legal creation as part of a late ancient intellectual discourse will force us, I believe, to re-conceptualize some of the most fundamental terms with which we think about this period, and thereby to enrich the way we approach some well-established categories.

Allow me to use the topic of sacrifice, on which I am currently working, as one example for the directions of inquiry I am hoping to see evolve. It is difficult to disagree with Guy Stroumsa’s claim that the “the end of sacrifice” — that is, the gradual but rapid marginalization of animal and vegetable sacrifice as a central form of religious worship in the Mediterranean region — is one of the most pivotal transformations of late antiquity. Non- or post-sacrificial developments and practices in Jewish, Christian, and “Pagan” communities are not only comparable but also clearly mutually dependent and co-responsive: suffice it to read Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho or Julian’s Against the Galileans to see how those three groups are configured and theorized vis-à-vis one another in relation to sacrificial practices. Nevertheless, if late ancient Jewish texts are even brought into the conversation about the end of sacrifice, as potential interlocutors of Porphyry or John Chrysostom or Ambrose, the only texts that are utilized are general rabbinic statements on how sacrifice can be substituted or matched by other practices, such as prayer, fasting, charity, study, or the death of righteous persons.

Such statements work well as pithy parallels for similar non-Jewish approaches to sacrifice and supersession, and they certainly capture a development quintessential to late ancient Judaism. Rarely is it mentioned, however, that close to a quarter of legal rabbinic literature engages with sacrifice-related practices in great (not to say excruciating) detail. The enormous sacrificial rabbinic corpus is seen as irrelevant to the “end of sacrifice” because it does not openly acknowledge that sacrifices are no longer performed, but rather provides detailed instructions on how they ought to be performed. As such, it is considered as a residue of the past — a preservation of laws and regulations from the temple period — rather than as a distinctly late ancient creation.

Integration of new materials into existing conversations can and should change the conversation itself.

But if we consider this massive legal creation as part and parcel of the late ancient discourse on sacrifice, if we look closely at these arcane and technical texts as engaging questions about the efficaciousness of sacrifice, about the atoning value of blood, about intention versus praxis, about divine-human interaction, and many other things — we will be able to attain a much richer understanding of the ways sacrifice as a concept and idea changed in late antiquity, which go beyond run-of-the-mill assumptions about substitution and supersession. Integration of new materials into existing conversations, I believe, can and should change the conversation itself.

Obviously, it is not feasible for any one of us to acquire the full set of skills, knowledge, and breadth required to access multiple different materials and genres, written in multiple languages and emerging from multiple cultural settings, so as to become a “late-antiquity-broadly-conceived” scholar. Specialization and expertise in a limited area are not only a pragmatic necessity, but also a condition for the production of valuable and intellectually responsible scholarship. Therefore, the key to rethinking established categories, to enriching and complicating paradigms, and to animating “late antiquity” as a continuously evolving field, lies not in incorporating anecdotal nuggets from other traditions into one’s own area of specialty, but rather in collaborative work. Collaborations between authors who bring to the table different capabilities and perspectives, who together develop new analytical frameworks and conceptual approaches and new modes of writing and presentation, hold the potential of rejuvenating what is still, I believe, one of the most exciting areas a humanist can study.