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  • Irano-Talmudica and Beyond: Next Steps in the Contextualization of the Babylonian Talmud
  • Simcha M. Gross

Traditional scholarly study of the Babylonian Talmud has largely ignored the work’s historical context. The underlying presumption of most scholarship was that the Bavli was the product of a reified rabbinic culture, with Palestinian rabbinic literature as its antecedent and geonic literature as its successor, and that the Babylonian rabbis were themselves an ideologically and culturally insular elite.1 In recent years, however, a school of scholarship, sometimes called “Irano-Talmudica,” sought to give historical context to the Bavli and its rabbis, challenging the presumed insularity of the Babylonian rabbis. This has proved to be a critical turn in the field.

This drive to contextualize the Babylonian Talmud has begun to emerge from its infancy, raising a number of new questions: What are the most apt and fruitful sources and materials? Which methodology is most promising? What is the potential payoff for scholars investigating these sources? The answer to any one of these questions has an impact on the others.


The primary sources used for comparison by scholars of Irano-Talmudica have, to date, been a select group of Zoroastrian priestly texts composed in Middle Persian (the “MP texts”). Methodologically, scholars identified parallels exhibiting verbal, thematic, and other similarities between the MP texts and the Bavli. The parallels were meant to demonstrate that the rabbis had contact with, and were influenced by, Zoroastrian priests, and [End Page 248] in turn that the rabbis were less insular and more culturally attuned than their own rhetoric would suggest.2 In short, this research brought a new-found awareness that the Persian historical and social context had impacted the Babylonian rabbis.

There are drawbacks, however, to this almost exclusive focus on the MP texts. For one, the approach makes it appear as if the Babylonian rabbis interacted exclusively with another elite and insular scholastic group—namely, the Zoroastrian priests of the MP texts.3 So, even as these studies opened communal borders, they also reified, in a modified form, the old characterization of the Babylonian rabbis as blinkered. These parallels therefore did little to animate the rabbis’ Persian historical and social context. Moreover, in concentrating primarily on the MP texts, Irano-Talmudists have tended to minimize the significance of other prospective bodies of evidence and points of social interaction. But as the field matures it should explore contextual points of reference beyond those embraced by its pioneers. None should be a priori ruled out, just as none should be deemed exclusively or singularly significant. To be sure, a pluralistic approach does not mean that every point of comparison is equally useful. However, once one begins exploring different avenues of contextualization, the evidentiary strengths and weaknesses of the various possible points of reference are not problems to be ignored or dismissed; they are simply the basic realities around which scholarship must work.

Adopting a broader range of comparanda has allowed some scholars to see the MP texts as offering less instruction about the Bavli’s context than was originally thought. This has been amplified by problems with dating, access, and geography.4 The earliest manuscripts of the MP corpus [End Page 249] date well into the medieval period, and many show clear signs of post-Islamic influence. They therefore appear to substantially postdate the Bavli. That the Persian material was orally transmitted for centuries, suggesting an earlier provenance, remains a controversial counterargument. More important than dating, it remains unclear just how the Babylonian rabbis would have accessed this literature. Some Irano-Talmudists find shared rhetoric, reasoning, and ideology between the rabbis and the Zoroastrian priests,5 but how did this sharing occur? Indeed, the claim that the MP texts were transmitted orally only reinforces the problem, as it implies human contact. Were the Babylonian rabbis in personal dialogue with their Persian counterparts?6 Did they have sufficient command of colloquial Persian to converse in Persian or to read Persian texts, let alone to engage in theological discussions with Persian intellectual elites? Or, conversely, did Persians know enough Aramaic to speak with rabbis? Scholars are divided on this basic yet critical point, claiming that the rabbis...


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pp. 248-255
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