Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Jewish Revolts and the Beginnings of the Rabbinic Movement

I've read another couple chapters (specifically, chs. 4-5) in Seth Schwartz new book on ancient Jews. (Previous posts are here and here.) I'm reading the Kindle version, so I'm citing the Kindle location numbers rather than page numbers.

Chapter 4 covers the period of the Jewish revolts in the first and second centuries, and ch. 5 discusses the Rabbis. Here are some notes:

On the significance of 70 CE:
The destruction of Jerusalem in the summer of 70 constituted as sharp a turning-point as any in Jewish history. This bears emphasis, because a revisionist trend in Judaic scholarship argues otherwise (D. Schwartz 2012; Klawans 2012). (loc. 2138). 
The year 70 CE marked transformations in demography, politics, Jewish civic status, Palestinian and more general Jewish economic and social structures, Jewish religious life beyond the sacrificial cult, and even Roman politics and the topography of the city of Rome itself. In the pages that follow I will briefly address each of these issues. (loc. 2160)
You'll have to read the section to see if you think Schwartz makes his case. On the whole I think so, though I'm not sure that he really nails it on the transformation of Jewish religion. He says that it was transformed "even beyond the very significant fact that at least for the time being cult and pilgrimage--the central features of pre-70 Judaism--were impossible" (loc. 2201). But then he goes on to talk about how the loss of the cult must have been traumatic. Indeed. But it reads a bit like a guess. In the next chapter Schwartz mentions a story in the Palestinian Talmud [without citing the passage, as far as I can tell] about a Jew in Rome "who observed Passover not with a seder but with the sacrificial slaughter of a lamb, something the rabbis strongly opposed," and just below this Schwartz mentions the account of Philo, when the temple still stood, about some Jews who observed Yom Kippur by fasting and praying; "evidently some Jews had figured out ways to observe the essentially cultic Jewish festivals outside Jerusalem" (loc. 2637). The only religious element "beyond" the cult that he mentions as having been transformed is that Jews might have thought that their God had been defeated by the Romans. It's hard to argue with that guess. Anyway, it does make sense to me that Jewish religious life, at least in Palestine, was significantly altered by this event, and the other areas Schwartz mentions--especially demography, economy, social structures--were certainly affected.

Why do we have to take guesses about this post-destruction period?
Aside from some bits of information about his own later life at Rome, Josephus' account comes to an end with the reduction of the last rebel stronghold, Masada, near the shore of the Dead Sea, in 73 or 74 CE. His works are the last extant general Jewish narrative history for many, many centuries to come, arguably until late in the Italian Renaissance. This means that even the most basic facts about how the Jews organized themselves and conducted their lives in the wake of the destruction have to be laboriously reconstructed from poor and scattered sources, often from material whose very relevance to the questions it is called on to answer is uncertain. (loc. 2241)
Despite this lack of narrative history,
there seem excellent grounds for supposing that these events [the Diaspora Revolt of 116-117 and the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-135] were catastrophic; all evidence for Jewish presence in Egypt fails for almost two centuries after 117, and archaeological surveys and excavations appear to confirm the claim of Cassius Dio [Historia Romana 68.32.1-3] that the district of Judaea was largely depopulated by 135; it recovered only in the fourth century, and then as a Christian district. (loc. 2249)
In the note (n. 12): "Barring new discoveries, there will be little to add to Pucci Ben Zeev 2005 on the subject of the Diaspora Revolt."

Further on our lack of knowledge:
[On the Diaspora Revolt:] we do not even know whether the disturbances in Cyrene, Egypt, Cyprus, Mesopotamia and elsewhere were connected and, if so, how. (loc. 2297)
[On Bar Kokhba:] Who exactly Shim'on ben Kosibah was, where he came from, what sort of military experience he had and where he got it (there is a single possible answer to this, in effect: the Roman army), why he would have thought that anyone would regard him as the messianic saviour predicted--according to the type of reading common in the first and second centuries--in the Hebrew Bible, indeed, whether he did so (see Schäfer 1981; 2003), we will probably never know. (loc. 2375) 
In ch. 5, on the Rabbis, Schwartz argues against the "maximalists" (his term) that take the rabbinic accounts about their own history, or, let's say, who take a traditional reading of rabbinic accounts about their own history at face value. Schwartz is an admitted minimalist, who thinks that rabbinic sources don't tell us a whole lot about what Judaism was like right after 70. In one passage where Schwartz cites the opinion of "the distinguished Jewish historian Salo Baron (1985-1989)," a maximalist, Schwartz says that it is "revealingly unclear" what evidence Baron can cite for his own position. I like that phrase: revealingly unclear. That says a lot.

Schwartz starts at the point when we actually know something. He says by the time the Jews emerged out of the Dark Ages and into the Medieval Islamic and Christian worlds:

  1. Greek was lost
  2. Hebrew was revived, though the linguistic situation was varied
  3. Jews were organized in local communities with limited autonomy. "The Torah was back in business as the constitution of the Jews, but in most places it was refracted through the interpretation of the rabbis--experts who drew their authority from their mastery not only of the Bible but, much more importantly, of the Talmud." (loc. 2556)
How far back can we date this type of organization. Should we think it was already in place before 70 with the Pharisees serving as the proto-Rabbis?
The view that local Jewish religious life was controlled by the Pharisees is not supported by any evidence beyond a single dubious and hard-to-parse statement by Josephus (Ant. 18.15). (loc. 2589)

On the origins of the Rabbis:

  • "It bears repeating that there were no rabbis before 70. Rabbinic literature itself never applies the title 'rabbi' even to pre-70 figures who clearly played an important role in rabbinic prehistory, such as Hillel (often erroneously called Rabbi Hillel by modern writers), a contemporary of Herod. It has often been supposed that the rabbis were simply the post-70 version of the Pharisees--a supposition fundamental to the maximalist view: if the rabbis were Pharisees, and the Pharisees actually did control Jewish life outside the temple before 70, then they could simply continue after 70 to exercise the authority they had achieved earlier. If by contrast they were a new group, they had to struggle for legitimacy and for a role in Jewish life. But were they in fact Pharisees?" (loc. 2665). 
  • Schwartz' answer is no, because the Pharisees and Rabbis (Schwartz does not capitalize "Rabbis," but I learned to do so, so I'm going with what my teachers said) had different organizations; the former were a religious sect, the latter a professional class. 
  • The first post-destruction generation has some figures famous from rabbinic literature (e.g., Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Rabbi Tarfon) that are unknown outside of that literature (except in some late patristic works). In other words, Josephus doesn't mention them. So who are they? Since Josephus does mention political leaders and rebel leaders: "We can infer that the earliest rabbis, with one or two exceptions, were neither. It stands to reason that they were the remnant of the Judaean clerisy; about half of the first generation of rabbis were identifiably priests, but with one exception not members of the high priestly families (the one exception is someone called Hanina, Captain of the Priests, apparently formerly a high-ranking temple administrator, but peripheral in rabbinic tradition). [Schwartz cites m. Pesahim 1.6 and several other mishnayot.] Presumably the future rabbis had been mostly the sort of people Josephus did not mention: not political leaders, great landowners or leading high priests, but administrators, judges, scribes. The lower priesthood, the main sectarian groups, and the religious and civil administration of pre-66 Jewish Palestine probably heavily overlapped, and the rabbis were their remnant. That so few names of the first generation were remembered reminds of of how thoroughly the Jews' institutional centre had been crushed in 70" (loc. 2688). 
  • Schwartz then goes on to talk about the family of Gamaliel, Simon, and Rabban Gamaliel II. The first Gamaliel is mentioned in the NT (Acts 5:34-40; 22:3), his son Simon is mentioned by Josephus (B.J. 4.159). Both Gamaliels are mentioned in rabbinic literature. 
  • "There is thus no prosopographical justification for positing a special relationship between Pharisees and rabbis, but the idea may have some basis nonetheless. Some of the views Josephus and the New Testament attribute to the Pharisees strongly resonate with views expressed in rabbinic texts. These range from lofty theological notions to odd details of religious law. Pharisees and rabbis (but also Christians!) believed in bodily resurrection of the dead at some future point (M. Sanhedrin 10.1); both believed that the law of the written Torah was supplemented by a body of legal traditions transmitted orally, though the Pharisees called this 'the tradition of the fathers', and the rabbis, 'the oral Torah', or simply, 'the Torah' (M. Avot 1.1); both required Jews to tithe even herbs--the most negligible agricultural product--and offer them as gifts to priests and Levites (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42; M. Demai 2.1; M. Ma'aserot 4.5)." (loc. 2706-12). 
  • "Nevertheless, there is no justification for supposing that even the earliest rabbinic text, the Mishnah (c. 200 CE), can be used to reconstruct Pharisaic law. It certainly contains a few such laws, and may even contain many, but our ignorance of Pharisaic law is nearly complete, so we simply have no way of knowing" (loc. 2717). 
  • "The Mishnah's single report of Pharisaic law (Yadayim 4.6-7), which the text seems to identify as 'ours', is vestigial, and the much more common rabbinic self-identification with the Pharisees found in the Talmuds, and a similar identification scattered about in patristic literature, are due in one case to rabbinic antiquarianism, and in the other, to Christian anti-Jewish polemic" (loc. 2734). 
The conclusion to a section titled "New Values" (beginning loc. 2745) starts in this way: 
Given what we know from archaeology, epigraphy and papyrology, we can say with certainty that Judaism ceased to function not only as an authorized set of religious and legal norms, but also as an informal component of public life even in the most heavily Jewish areas of High Imperial Palestine. Without any known shift in demography, the formerly Jewish cities of Palestine were now standard Greco-Roman cities in every way, including in their religious life, and larger villages in their territories emulated them. (loc. 2883)
This is after discussing the Babatha archive and the archaeology of some Palestinian cities, especially Sepphoris and Tiberias, chosen because they had the highest Jewish population in the second century CE.

On Schwartz' reckoning, the Rabbis started to take off near the turn of the third century, and the Patriarchate around the same time, though the latter institution had already lost its authority near the beginning of the fifth century.

No comments: