- Reading the Bavli with Monks and Zoroastrians
The Babylonian Talmud is clearly the pinnacle of classical rabbinic literature, perhaps one of the great literary treasures of the Jewish and maybe even the Western tradition. Yet for many reasons, academic study of the Babylonian rabbis who created this magnum opus has lagged behind the study of their counterparts in the land of Israel. The main reason for this lacuna is that scholars generally believed that Palestinian rabbis operated in a sphere of Greco-Roman influence, whereas their Babylonian counterparts were in Persia where Hellenistic influence was less significant, Greek and Latin were not spoken, and Christianity did not dominate. When the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, the die was cast and centuries later the academic study of the history of Greece and Rome drew far more attention than the study of Persia. Naturally, European (and subsequently American) scholars wished to elucidate the history of their primary religion, Christianity, and their cultural ancestors, Greece and Rome. Greek and Latin were continuously taught in schools and universities and the classics were read in their original languages. When academics turned their attention to rabbinic literature, they focused on the texts most relevant to Christianity and Greco-Roman culture, those produced in Palestine, the main milieu in which Christianity was fostered as well. There were other reasons compounding the difficulties in studying the history of Babylonian Jewry and the level of contact that Babylonian rabbis had with surrounding cultures, such as the lack of material remains from ancient Babylonia, but this seems in my mind to have been the primary one. [End Page 381]
The works of Michal Bar-Asher Siegal and Shai Secunda are certainly not the first attempts to address Babylonian rabbinic literature in its literary–historical setting. Isaiah Gafni and Yaakov Elman, among others, have spent a significant portion of their academic careers focusing on this subject. But in recent years, there has been renewed attention to this subject, probably at least partially due to the cadre of students that Elman has developed. It may be that the most fruitful soil left for rabbinic scholars to till is specifically that on which the greatest of rabbinic compositions was created—the Bavli. Bar-Asher Siegal’s and Secunda’s works take completely different angles, one examining parallels between the Bavli and monastic Christian texts and the other examining the Bavli in light of its Iranian context. But both make the same assumption: despite the impression the Bavli gives of having been created in splendid isolation, an internal document recording the debates that occurred in the rabbinic bet midrash, and at times even within the minds of the editors who shaped this literature, in reality Babylonian rabbis could not help but be influenced and shaped by other thinkers who shared their cultural space. Whether this influence flowed directly or in a more diffuse fashion, both Zoroastrian priests and monastic (and other) Christians left their mark on rabbinic literature.
RABBIS AND MONKS
Most prior research comparing rabbinic and Christian literature has attempted to locate direct polemics or at least parallels between the two budding religions, often focusing on the narrow question of the level of competition between the two or lack thereof. How aware were the rabbis of Christianity in its various formations? How much of rabbinic literature is a polemic against Christianity? How can we identify the minim (loosely translated as “heretics”) whose beliefs the rabbis disqualify from normative rabbinic theology? Is rabbinic halakhah at times directed against halakhic positions identified with Jesus in the New Testament? How does the rabbis’ division of the world into ethnic groups compare with that of Paul or with his negation of ethnic identity? These inquiries have often encountered the thorny problem that the rabbis simply do not directly address Christianity or its leading figures all that often. The high level of engagement and at times disputation [End Page 382] between rabbis and Christian...