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 the ritual baths in Sepphoris, and in general throughout the Israel, were found in private houses.
Chapter Nine ("Priests, Purities, and the Jews of Roman and Late Antique Galilee–Rethinking the Priests of Sepphoris and the Mishmarot") turns to priests in the Late Ancient Galilee and particularly in Sepphoris. Miller discusses not only [End Page 518] rabbinic sources but also inscriptions that mention the priestly courses. He explores the social role of priestly courses in order to relate it to purity practices, seeking to determine to what extent priestly dominance affected the use of ritual bathing in Sepphoris. He concludes that the priests did not have special authority over the Jewish people. Even when certain stepped pools in Sepphoris may have functioned in accordance with rabbinic halakhah, such conformity does not mean that rabbis or their followers used them. Miller rejects a scholarly over-determination to explain stepped pools in terms of rabbinic halakhah in view of the fact that rabbis and priests were not the only ones among the Jews who practiced ritual purity.
Chapter Ten ("Non-Rabbinic Ritual Immersion Practices in Post-Talmudic Sources") is a short but interesting survey of non-rabbinic immersion practices in Post-Talmudic sources, including the Jewish diaspora. Here too Miller finds biblically derived general interest and dedication to ritual purity practices among both sages and commoners, reflected in references to stepped pools in literary sources.
Chapter Eleven ("From Stepped Pools to Miqv'ot and the Society that Produced Them") concludes the book with reflections on the society that produced the stepped pools. Each group or movement had its own purity practices. Miller's general conclusion echoes his observations in his Sages and Commoners in Late Antique 'Eerets Israel (2006): "there is no reason to assume that the sages dictated these practices or were responsible for promoting them in the first place" (p. 220). The book closes with a postscript on the excavation of a nineteenth-century miqveh in Chesterfield, Connecticut.
Miller's book presents an excellent scholarly survey of purity-related matters in ancient Judaism, rabbinic literature, and the social history of the Galilee. He is familiar with all the relevant texts from rabbinic literature and with related Jewish sources. His approach is critical and cautious, and unlike other scholars, he does not fall into the trap of associating the material culture in Jewish sites with rabbinic social dominance and culture. One flaw, however, is the too general treatment of the archaeological evidence. Although Miller argues for the complex use of ritual baths and the variety of purity practices, he does not entirely clarify the differences between the various users of the baths and their perceptions of purity, nor does he pay sufficient attention to the archaeological context of ritual baths and stone vessels in Sepphoris and how they were used in relation to the context in which they were found. This is a common shortcoming among archeologists as well. It is to be hoped that future research will pay more attention to the use and meaning of specific ritual baths in their immediate archaeological context within the household.