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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Judaism in Late Antiquity

The surviving sources yield little information concerning Jewish responses to evolving Christianity and to the Christianization of the empire with the concomitant deterioration in the legal status of Jews and Judaism. Some Jews and Christians probably engaged in debates, and both Origen and Jerome, roughly a century apart, apparently studied with Jewish sages, a reminder that Jewish-Christian relations could be positive as well as negative. Perhaps the standardization of the Jewish calendar, which probably occurred in the mid-fourth century, and the completion of the Palestinian Talmud and such midrashic works as Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus Rabbah in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, were responses to the challenges posed by now Christian Rome, as the eminent scholar of rabbinic Judaism Jacob Neusner has suggested. Both in their doctrines of history, Messiah, and Torah and in their depictions of Rome, these works appear to respond implicitly to Christian dominance, notwithstanding the absence of explicit reference to Christianity in them.

The same period was also formative in the evolution of such institutions as the synagogue, the patriarchate, and the office of rabbi. Today the intimate association between the rabbi and the synagogue is taken for granted; but in the earliest centuries of the rabbinate and the synagogue, they functioned largely independently of each other. The origins of the synagogue are unclear. It is apparent from archaeological data and from Jewish and non-Jewish literary sources, including the writings of Josephus and the New Testament, that the synagogue, as a Jewish communal association and as an actual building or place, existed in Palestine and in the Diaspora before 70 CE, when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed. In the aftermath, the roles and importance of the synagogue would increase in Jewish communal and religious life. These roles were neither static nor uniform, varying regionally and over time. The evolving synagogue appears to have assimilated what, at least in some places, were originally separate institutions, to become a multipurpose institution whose activities included the reading of the Torah, organized prayer, study, and, most likely, a variety of communal endeavors such as education and charitable work.

The earliest archaeological evidence for the synagogue dates from third- and second-century BCE Egypt, where inscriptions for “prayer houses” have been found. At Delos the remains of a first-century BCE synagogue have been excavated. Diaspora synagogues have also been identified in such places as Ostia, Sardis, Stobi, Priene, and Dura-Europos on the Euphrates, where a third-century CE synagogue contained wall frescoes depicting biblical scenes, some of which have parallels in rabbinic midrashic texts.

Although there is evidence for first-century CE synagogues at Gamla and Migdal and at the fortresses of Masada and Herodium, the florescence of Palestinian synagogal architecture dates from the third century CE. Most of the more than one hundred remains of synagogues that have been identified are located in Galilee and in the Golan. Typically oriented toward Jerusalem, synagogue buildings consisted of apsidal and nonapsidal variations of the Roman basilical structure, as did Christian churches. The art of the synagogue was diverse, and included both relief sculpture and mosaics, and secular and distinctly Jewish symbols, the most common of which was the menorah. Several of the mosaics include depictions of the pagan sun-god Helios surrounded by the signs of the zodiac. Although the significance of these mosaics is unclear, they are testimony to the participation by local Jewish communities in facets of the larger Greco-Roman culture. Similarly, synagogal donor inscriptions provide evidence of Jewish participation in the Greco-Roman practices of communal benefactions. Inscriptions and imperial legislation both provide some information on synagogue offices, especially that of the archisynagoge, or “head of the synagogue.” The rabbi seems to have had no authority over the synagogue; his domain was the academy or disciple circle, and the rabbinic court.

The synagogues of the fourth to sixth centuries are also indicative of the vitality of the Palestinian Jewish community, despite the changing legal status of Jews and Judaism. The fourth and fifth centuries were overall a period of growth and prosperity for all of the communities of Palestine, not only because of that region's special status as Holy Land but also because it shared in an overall economic recovery in the east, facilitated by the radical administrative, economic, and financial reforms of Diocletian, which were continued by Constantine and Constantius. Although the economic situation was far from optimal, it was better than it had been during the political and economic anarchy of much of the third century.

Although it is commonplace to refer to “the rabbis” and to “rabbinic Judaism,” each of these terms subsumes significant diversity. Not only do each of the foundation documents of rabbinic Judaism, completed between the third and seventh centuries, preserve diverse opinions on a given topic, but each document has its distinctive concerns, perspectives, and methods.

The earliest rabbinic writing, the Mishnah, was completed about 200 CE. Later rabbinic works attribute its editing to Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, although the Mishnah makes no mention of this. The Mishnah is arranged by topic. It consists of six divisions or orders: Zera'im/Seeds (agricultural laws), Mo'ed/Appointed Times (festivals), Nashim/Women (marriage law), Neziqin/Damages (civil law, contracts, torts), Qodashim/Holy Things (sacrifices), and Toharot/Purities (sources of impurity, means of purification). The orders are divided further into sixty-three tractates. With the exception of the tractate Pirqei Abot/Sayings of the Fathers, which may slightly post-date the remainder of the Mishnah, the latter is a kind of book of laws, albeit one that preserves diverse and often contradictory opinions on a given topic.

The degree to which the contents of the Mishnah reflect or are rooted in the life of third-century Palestine varies. Much of the Mishnah concerns Temple ritual, although at the time of the Mishnah's promulgation the Temple had been absent for more than a century. The Mishnah is also striking in that it rarely endeavors to justify its positions through scriptural citations. This would be left to the two Talmuds—the Palestinian Talmud, also referred to as the Jerusalem Talmud or the Talmud of the Land of Israel, and the Babylonian Talmud. The former was completed around 400 CE, whereas the latter, the product of the rabbinical academies of the Sassanian empire, dates from a century or so later. Both are essentially commentaries on the Mishnah and consist of mishnaic passages followed by elucidations of the Mishnah passage. The Talmuds include not only legal or halakic material but also haggadic texts, which are narratives of nonobligatory material, often presented in the form of didactic stories.

In addition to the Mishnah and its commentaries, the rabbis of the first seven centuries also produced compilations of scriptural exegesis known as Midrashim. The process of midrash, or inquiry, and its outcome in the form of exegetical collections, were the vehicle by which the rabbis explored the meanings of various books of the Hebrew Bible.

During the same period in which the formative documents of rabbinic Judaism were produced, the rabbis developed the belief that their teachings, embodied in these documents, had the same authority as scripture. The rabbis even went a step further to articulate the central distinctive tenet of rabbinic Judaism—that is, the Torah itself consisted of both the oral Torah and the written Torah. According to rabbinic belief, at Mount Sinai God had revealed the dual Torah to Moses. But whereas the written Torah had been revealed to all of Israel, the oral Torah had been transmitted from one generation of sages to the next, by means of memorization and recitation, in a chain of tradition that linked the revelation at Sinai to the rabbis of the Mishnah, the foundation document of the oral Torah.

For the rabbis, a scholarly elite of Late Antique holy men, the most worthwhile activity was the study of Torah, a holiness-producing activity. Insofar as one could know God or imitate God, it was through the study of his Torah. Through the mastery of Torah, the rabbi came to embody Torah. His activities on earth echoed the activities in heaven, where not only Moses but also God studied Torah.

With the exception of the religious systems of such groups as the Jews of Ethiopia and the Samaritans and Karaites (the latter two having been treated at times as part of, and at other times as separate from, the Jewish community), all the varieties of modern Judaism are forms of rabbinic Judaism. But during the formative centuries of rabbinic Judaism, it is unclear how much authority the rabbis exercised outside their own circles, especially over the Jewish communities of the Roman Diaspora. As the historian Shaye Cohen has aptly summarized, the Diaspora communities probably celebrated the Sabbath, followed Jewish dietary laws, and worshiped God quite independently of the rabbis.

In Palestine, the rabbinic presence and rabbinic authority seem to have increased significantly from the second to the seventh centuries. The major arena of rabbinic authority was probably the rabbinic court. But whereas rabbinic literature provides some information concerning the kinds of cases that may have been adjudicated, it yields little information about who, when, where, and at whose bidding Jewish men and women resorted to those courts, whether in place of or in addition to the Roman courts. The situation in Sassanian Babylonia was similar, although the rabbinic presence there begins slightly later than in Palestine, where the movement emerged. Eventually, the Babylonian rabbinic academies surpassed the Palestinian academies in importance, and the Babylonian Talmud became the foundation document for succeeding centuries of Jewish learning.

Whereas the office of rabbi survived and evolved, imperial legislation provides evidence that the patriarchate had ceased by 429. The reasons for this cessation are unknown, but it may have been abolished by the Roman government. Still, both rabbinic literature and Roman law reveal the growing authority of the patriarchate as it developed from the second through the close of the fourth centuries. The patriarch (Hebrew nasi) functioned initially as the head of the major rabbinic academy and of the Sanhedrin in Palestine, but by the late fourth century Roman law had granted the patriarch jurisdiction over all of the empire's Jewish communities, including the right to collect taxes. Most of the increase in power occurred under Christian rule. During the reign of Theodosius (379–95), Roman law granted the patriarch the titles of clarissimus and illustris, typically bestowed on the highest magistrates and on members of the senatorial order. The letters of Libanius include correspondence, dating from 388 to 393, between him and the patriarch Gamaliel V, suggesting that Gamaliel, like Libanius himself and the Christian bishops, was part of the cultured and powerful elite described above.

Although Gamaliel was typical neither of the rabbis nor of the larger Jewish population, he reminds us that the Jewish communities of Late Antique Palestine did not exist in isolation from a larger eastern Mediterranean Greco-Roman culture. Literary sources, as well as regional surveys and excavations, especially in lower Galilee, suggest that even the predominantly Jewish cities had mixed populations and were linked by trading patterns and the Roman road system to the predominantly non-Jewish cities of the coastal area and elsewhere.

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