- At the Intersection of Texts and Material Finds: Stepped Pools, Stone Vessels, and Ritual Purity among the Jews of Roman Galilee by Stuart S. Miller
Miller's book discusses the literary and archeological aspects of purity practices, mainly bodily immersion and ritual baths (miqva'ot). It focuses on the Galilee in Late Antiquity, particularly on the city of Sepphoris.
Chapters One ("Misleading Use of Terminology: The "miqveh", "bet tevilah" and other "Ritual Baths"") and Two ("The Evolving, Non-Monolithic "Ritual Bath"") deal with the terminology of miqveh and the problem of identifying a miqveh in the material record. It is argued that the rabbinic miqveh is not always a manmade stepped pool since it is also possible to bathe in natural waters. Chapter Three ("Pre-Rabbinic, Non-Rabbinic, and Rabbinic Ritual Immersion Practices in the Making") explores the different types of ritual baths [End Page 517] and modern scholarly attempts to relate them to specific groups, sects, and movements. Miller includes ritual baths with a split staircase, which elsewhere this reviewer has identified with priests or priestly maintenance of purity, and ritual baths with an adjacent pool (o'tzar), which I have identified with the halakhah of the Pharisees ("Ritual Baths of Jewish Groups and Sects in the Second Temple Period," Cathedra 79 (1996): 3–21 and Cathedra 83 (1997): 169–76 [Hebrew]).
Chapter Four ("Did the Author of P. Oxyrhynchus 840 Know What a "Miqveh" Was?") deals with the so-called uncanonical gospel (P. Oxy. 840), which is dated to the third or fourth century ce(?). Miller compares its references to immersion with rabbinic notions of purity and favors the view that the priest's reproach of Jesus' immersion-purification is directed not against rabbinic purity practices but rather against Jewish-Christian purity practices. Miller also demonstrates that Jews and Christians alike understood and appreciated the life-giving properties of water and regarded them as a divinely bestowed.
Chapter Five ("Further Observations on Stone Vessel Finds and Ritual Purity in Light of Talmudic Sources") diverges from the main theme of ritual baths to stone vessels, which, according to rabbinic halakhah (rules), were not susceptible to impurity. These vessels are found in large numbers in Jewish sites throughout the Israel from the early first century ce to the mid-second century. Miller reviews rabbinic legal texts and criticizes the view that stone vessels were used mainly because they are not defiled. Rather he regards these vessels as an outcome of a functional development of the stone vessels industry, which also produced ossuaries for burial. To support this view Miller refers to stone vessels found in Khirbet Qumran, even though several Qumran scrolls insist that stones or vessels made of stone are capable of impurity.
Chapter Six ("The Stepped Pools of the Western Acropolis at Sepphoris") is a survey of the findings of ritual baths in Sepphoris, a city that Miller treated in a separate study (Studies in the History and Traditions of Sepphoris, 1984). He now concludes that the construction and arrangement of the Sepphoris baths did not follow rabbinic prescriptions. Chapter Seven ("Understanding the Pools: Biblical Perceptions of Purity and Habitus of the Jews of 'Eres Israel") discusses biblical perceptions of purity and their impact on Jewish practices. Miller maintains that Jews observed purity laws not because they were regulated by priests or rabbis but because they were biblically derived.
Chapter Eight ("Domestic Judaism and the 'Well-Ordered Bayit': Who bathed/Immersed in the Stepped Pools at Sepphoris and Why?") is perhaps the most important chapter in this book. Miller shows that rabbinic laws of purity mainly concern household practices, such as hand washing before eating and immersion related to sexual halakhic practices. In other words, the domestic environment, rather than the synagogue, was the space most affected by the spiritual properties of water. The domestic aspect of purity laws and practices corresponds well with the fact that most of...