Diversity and Rabbinization: Jewish Texts and Societies between 400 and 1000 CE

Diversity and Rabbinization: Jewish Texts and Societies between 400 and 1000 CE Gavin McDowell, Ron Naiweld, Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra (eds)


This volume is dedicated to the cultural and religious diversity in Jewish communities from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Age and the growing influence of the rabbis within these communities during the same period. Drawing on available textual and material evidence, the fourteen essays presented here, written by leading experts in their fields, span a significant chronological and geographical range and cover material that has not yet received sufficient attention in scholarship.

The volume is divided into four parts. The first focuses on the vantage point of the synagogue; the second and third on non-rabbinic Judaism in, respectively, the Near East and Europe; the final part turns from diversity within Judaism to the process of "rabbinization" as represented in some unusual rabbinic texts.

Diversity and Rabbinization is a welcome contribution to the historical study of Judaism in all its complexity. It presents fresh perspectives on critical questions and allows us to rethink the tension between multiplicity and unity in Judaism during the first millennium CE.



Diversity and Rabbinization: Jewish Texts and Societies between 400 and 1000 CE
Gavin McDowell, Ron Naiweld, Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra (eds) | Forthcoming in 2020
Semitic Languages and Cultures | ISSN: 2632-6906 (Print); 2632-6914 (Online)
ISBN Paperback: 9781783749935
ISBN Hardback: 9781783749942
ISBN Digital (PDF): 9781783749959
ISBN Digital ebook (epub): 9781783749966
ISBN Digital ebook (mobi): 9781783749973
ISBN Digital (XML): 9781783749980
DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0219
Subject Codes: BIC: JF (Society and Culture: General), JFSR1 (Jewish Studies), CFF (Historical and comparative linguistics), CFP (Translation and interpretation); BISAC: REL006020 (RELIGION / Biblical Biography / General), LAN009010 (LANGUAGE ARTS & DISCIPLINES / Linguistics / Historical & Comparative)

1. Diversity in the Ancient Synagogue of Roman-Byzantine Palestine: Historical Implications
Lee I. Levine

Lee I. Levine’s ‘Diversity in the Ancient Synagogue of Roman-Byzantine Palestine: Historical Implications’ addresses the variety of synagogues in Late Antiquity. Levine criticizes the hypothesis of a linear development of synagogue types and shows that there was a great deal of diversity in synagogue art, architecture, and even liturgy throughout Late Antiquity. Furthermore, the number and size of synagogues suggests a thriving Jewish community even after the Christianization of the Roman Empire, a time that has been normally viewed as one of steady decline for the Jews.

2. Society and the Self in Early Piyyut
Michael Swartz

Michael Swartz, in ‘Society and the Self in Early Piyyut’, takes us on a textual journey in the company of some early liturgical authors from the Byzantine period whose work was probably recited in the synagogues of Palestine and other places before audiences that were not exclusively rabbinic. Through the analysis of selected piyyutim, Swartz shows that these liturgical poems help us better understand ideological frameworks and social structures of the Late Antique Jewish Palestinian society. These piyyutim, whose authors are generally known (unlike most other Jewish literary production from the period), complicate our vision of the Jewish society and the structures that held it together.

3. Some Remarks about Non-Rabbinic Judaism, Rabbinization, and Synagogal Judaism
José Costa

In ‘Some Remarks about Non-Rabbinic Judaism, Rabbinization, and Synagogal Judaism’, José Costa proposes the tripartite division of Late Antique Judaism into rabbinic Judaism, Christian Judaism (i.e., Jewish Christianity), and "synagogal Judaism”, a term coined by Simon Claude Mimouni (Le judaïsme ancien du VIe siècle avant notre ère au IIIe siècle de notre ère, 2012). Costa particularly engages with and criticizes Ra‘anan Boustan’s article ‘Rabbinization and the Making of Early Jewish Mysticism’ (2011). Costa suggests that the rabbinization process meant mainly the rabbinization of the synagogues and the religious activity within, a conclusion that can be shared also by those who do not adhere to the model of "synagogal Judaism”.

4. In Search of Non-Rabbinic Judaism in Sasanian Babylonia
Geoffrey Herman

Geoffrey Herman assesses the problem of Babylonian Jewry in his article ‘In Search of Non-Rabbinic Judaism in Sasanian Babylonia’. If Jewish diversity in the Roman Empire is broadly acknowledged, it has taken more time for scholars to acknowledge diversity among Babylonian Jews. One reason for this is a dearth of archeological evidence in context. For example, vestiges of Late Antique synagogues in the regions around Babylonia are wanting. Herman provides a survey of scholars who dealt with the question, from Jacob Neusner’s Aphrahat and Judaism (1971) to the more recent works of Richard Kalmin Catherine Hezser, Moulie Vidas, and the Jewish Babylonian Aramaic magic bowls published by Shaul Shaked and others.

5. Varieties of Non-Rabbinic Judaism in Geonic and Contemporaneous Sources
Robert Brody

In ‘Varieties of Non-Rabbinic Judaism in Geonic and Contemporaneous Sources’, Robert Brody shows that, based on his analysis of several responsa attributed to Natronai Gaon and the letter of Pirqoy ben Baboy, rabbinic authorities were aware of the existence of several non-rabbinic Jewish groups in the eighth century. However, over the course of a little more than a century, rabbinic discourse shifted from knowledge of several such groups to the assumption that all non-rabbinic teachings derived from Anan ben David and his followers. Finally, Brody pinpoints several differences between the earlier non-rabbinic groups (on the one hand) and the Ananites and Karaites (on the other), who seem to have posed a greater threat to the rabbis.

6. Karaites and Sadducees
Yoram Erder

Yoram Erder, writing on the ‘Karaites and Sadducees’, addresses the polemical identification of the two groups by Rabbanite Jews (such as Moses Maimonides). Not all Rabbanites equated the Karaites with the Sadducees, and the Karaites recognized the Sadducees as a group distinct from their own movement. In fact, the Karaites refer to two groups called Sadducees: the Second Temple sect and the "Zadokites” of the Qumran movement. He suggests that the Damascus Document, found at Qumran but also in the Cairo Genizah, was known to the Karaites. While the Karaites have much in common with these "Zadokites”, there are also important differences between them, such as the Karaite belief in the resurrection.

7. The Judaism of the Ancient Kingdom of Ḥimyar in Arabia: A Discreet Conversion
Christian Robin

Christian Robin’s ‘The Judaism of the Ancient Kingdom of Himyar in Arabia: A Discreet Conversion’, surveys the prominent Yemenite kingdom, which plays an important role in both Christian and Muslim historiography but is utterly neglected in Jewish sources. This is surprising, since Judaism was the official religion of the kingdom from the fourth to the sixth centuries (c. 380-530 CE). Robin carefully analyses the primary evidence, epigraphy, to assess our knowledge of Himyarite Judaism. He arrives at the conclusion that it was grounded in priestly rather than rabbinic currents. The Himyarite inscriptions mention neither the rabbis nor belief in resurrection, yet there is an important inscription mentioning the twenty-four priestly courses in the Temple. The scant evidence, however, obscures the exact nature of Himyarite Judaism. Robin characterizes this as calculated religious minimalism in a pluralistic society.

8. The Didascalus Annas: A Jewish Political and Intellectual Figure from the West
Capucine Nemo-Pekelman

Capucine Nemo-Pekelman, in ‘The Didascalus Annas: A Jewish Political and Intellectual Figure from the West’, explores the identity of a little-known fifth-century figure who managed to secure two legal victories for the Jewish community of Ravenna, both involving controversies over conversion. Annas’ title, didascalus, was one of several Latin and Greek titles used for Jewish legal experts, but it was also used by Christians. It was therefore not a synonym for rabbi. Nemo-Pekelman associates Annas with the same Jewish milieu that produced the Collatio Legum Mosaicarum et Romanarum. She also suggests, with some hesitation, that this Annas is also the author of the Epistola Anne ad Senecam.

9. Rabbis in Southern Italian Jewish Inscriptions from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages
Giancarlo Lacerenza

Giancarlo Lacerenza, in ‘Rabbis in Southern Italian Jewish Inscriptions from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages’, examines the evolution of the title rabbi based on the epigraphic evidence. Even though rabbinic literature mentions the presence of rabbis in Rome, the word rabbi rarely appears in the early inscriptions. Lacerenza studies three Greek and Latin funerary inscriptions from the fourth to sixth centuries that mention some variation of the title. The scarcity of evidence for this period contrasts with the situation after the ninth century, where rabbinic allusions abound in predominantly Hebrew inscriptions. Lacerenza postulates that a progressive rabbinization of southern Italy occurred during the two centuries where the evidence is silent.

10. Jewish Demographics and Economics at the Onset of the European Middle Ages
Michael Toch

Michael Toch’s contribution, ‘Jewish Demographics and Economics at the Onset of the European Middle Ages’, deals with the knotty question of the origin of European Jewry. Toch contests the controversial claim that both Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities were descendants of converts (notably the Khazars). He emphasizes the continuity of Jewish presence within the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, which eventually resulted in immigration northward into the European continent. Toch concludes that these later European Jewish communities, who emerged with a fully-formed culture in a short period of time, were rabbinic from the outset.

11. The Rabbinization Tractates and the Propagation of Rabbinic Ideology in the Late Talmudic Period
Ron Naiweld

Ron Naiweld examines the process of rabbinization in ‘The Rabbinization Tractates and the Propagation of Rabbinic Ideology in the Late Talmudic Period’. He identifies two interrelated aspects of this process: first, the rabbinization of the past, including the biblical past, and, second, the acceptance of rabbinic institutions as normative. Naiweld focuses on two texts that teach Jews how to think like rabbis, the extracanonical Talmudic tractate Kallah and the Sar ha-Torah section of Hekhalot Rabbati. He sees both texts as ideological tools intended to promote rabbinic thinking outside of the academy.

12. Who is the Target of Toledot Yeshu?
Daniel Stökl ben Ezra

In ‘Who is the Target of Toledot Yeshu?’, Daniel Stökl ben Ezra begins with the observation that the ideological opponents of this polymorphic work are not merely Christians but (in the words of John Gager) ‘the dangerous ones in-between’, Christianizing Jews and Judaizing Christians. The rabbinic authors of Toledot Yeshu, which Stökl Ben Ezra dates to the fifth century, were particularly concerned about Christianizing Jews. Drawing from selected cases in the legal composition Sefer ha-Ma‘asim, he argues that unforced conversion to Christianity was a social reality in Late Antiquity.

13. Rabbinization of Non-Rabbinic Material in Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer
Gavin McDowell

Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer (eighth century) is a clear example of the rabbinization of the biblical past. Many of the stories in this rewriting of biblical history have roots outside of rabbinic and even Jewish literature. Gavin McDowell, in ‘Rabbinization of Non-Rabbinic Material in Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer’, shows how Christian, "Gnostic”, and Muslim legends about biblical characters have been altered to make them compatible with existing rabbinic traditions from the Talmud and classical Midrash. Through this process, biblical history, the common cultural patrimony of all these groups, becomes specifically rabbinic history.

14. Seder Eliyahu Rabbah: Rabbinic Tradition for a Non-Rabbinic Society
Günter Stemberger

Günter Stemberger investigates the raison d’être of a late rabbinic text in ‘Seder Eliyahu Rabbah: Rabbinic Tradition for a Non-Rabbinic Society’. Although Seder Eliyahu cites the Mishnah and other classical rabbinic texts, it does not demand a level of learning greater than knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. A couple of the interlocutors with the narrator are not even Jewish. According to Stemberger, the text advocates a "minimal Judaism” bordering on universalism, where respect for the Law is equal to or greater than academic achievement.

15. Rabbinization and the Persistence of Diversity in Jewish Culture in Late Antiquity
Ra‘anan Boustan

Ra‘anan Boustan, in ‘Rabbinization and the Persistence of Diversity in Jewish Culture in Late Antiquity’, offers some closing thoughts on the overall theme of the volume. He begins with a brief history of the concept of "rabbinization”, a twentieth-century neologism that only recently came to designate the process by which rabbinic institutions became normative. He also catalogues the written and archaeological sources that are used in order to study this process, most of which are covered in the present volume. In addition to rabbinic literature itself, he mentions synagogues, piyyutim, inscriptions, the writings of the Church Fathers, legal corpora, Geonic writings, and Jewish magic. At the same time, Boustan sounds a note of caution that the varieties of non-rabbinic Judaism should not be lumped together as a homogenous entity in opposition to the emerging power of the rabbinic Sages.