Sociological and Anthropological Approaches to the Study of the Evidence of the Mishnah: A Call to Scholarly Action and a Programmatic Introduction
This paper originates from a Research Group bearing much the same title that has been meeting since July 2015 under the aegis of the European Association of Biblical Studies (EABS). The essay was, and is, intended as a call to renew the scholarly study of the evidence of the Mishnah, but from decidedly social scientific perspectives. The modern study of ancient Judaism has always shown a sustained interest in Mishnah, the first authoritative text produced and promulgated by the early rabbinic movement near or soon after the beginning of the third century CE. Mishnah has been the object of literary critical and historical analysis, with much debate having ensued around fundamental and difficult methodological issues. Social scientific, and specifically sociological and anthropological, inquiries and approaches to Mishnah’s evidence have been, relatively speaking, less pursued. This paper both invites such inquiries and suggests three broad topical rubrics for renewed scholarship, after surveying some of the commonly discussed methodological challenges that will impinge on such work. These three broad areas of research are:
1) to try to use the evidence of Mishnah to tell us more about Palestinian Jewish social and cultural constructs generally in the era in question;
2) to analyze Mishnah to understand the social and cultural dynamics of the specific Palestinian group that produced, and thereafter studied, Mishnah as an authoritative text, namely the early Palestinian Rabbinic group;
3) to study Mishnah’s evidence in order to describe the social and cultural “world” that is imaginatively created by, and within, the document by its framers, but which may describe no historical Jewish society and culture.
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I wish to express my thanks to the EABS for its sponsorship of this Research Group, in particular to Prof. Ehud Ben-Zvi, who persuaded me to form the group and now as president of the EABS continues to encourage its work. I also wish to thank the co-chair of the group Prof. Simcha Fishbane, as well as its most stalwart participants to date (i.e., September 2017), including Profs. Calvin Goldscheider, Shaye J. D. Cohen, Tirzah Meacham, Harry Fox, Michael Satlow, Eyal Baruch, Lennart Lenhaus, and Naomi Silmann. An initial tranche of some of the participants’ work for the group is represented in the papers published together with this introductory essay in this issue of Studies in Judaism, the Humanities and the Social Sciences.
Abraham Geiger’s work on Mishnah in the mid-19th century represents one of the earliest such efforts. His “Lehrund Lesebuch zur Sprache der Mischnah” was published in 1845 in the journal, Jüdische Zeitschrift für Wissenschaft und Leben, that he himself edited. See David Weiss Halivni, “Abraham Geiger and Talmud Criticism,” in New Perspectives on Abraham Geiger, ed. Jacob J. Petuchowski (New York: Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 1975), 31-41. Similarly, Zachariah Frankel founded the academic journal, Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judenthum in 1871, and among his major works are Darkhey HaMishnah, first published in 1859, and reprinted as Darkhey Ha-Mishnah, Ha-Tosefta, Mekhilta, Ve-Sifre (Tel Aviv: Sinai, 1959). Geiger and Frankel, and others like them, straddled the worlds of religious community and academic study, their academic work was undertaken within a context of reforming and modernizing traditional rabbinic Judaism, because they largely shared the conviction that rigorous historical study would legitimate and underpin this modernization against the inertial counterforce of tradition.
For example, exemplary of literary-historical criticism of Mishnah is the classic masterpiece of J.N. Epstein, Mavo le-Nusah haMishnah, 2 vols.(Jerusalem: press not specified, 1948), to which one should add his equally influential, posthumously published, Mavo le-Sifrut ha-Tannaim (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1957), and Mavo le-Sifrut ha-Amoraim (Jerusalem, Magnes Press, 1962), both edited by E. Z. Melammed. As to the use of Mishnah’s evidence, on its own or in combination with that from other early rabbinic documents, I shall have more to say later in this paper.
See especially the articles in Jacob Neusner, eds., The Modern Study of the Mishnah (Leiden: Brill, 1972).
Seth Schwatrz, The Ancient Jews: From Alexander to Muhammad (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), chaps. 3, 4 and 5; See also Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 BCE to 640 CE (New Haven: Princeton University Press, 2001).
Seth Schwartz sees it as far more profound than some others might.
See Lee I. Levine, “The Jewish Patriarch (Nasi) in Third Century Palestine,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der roemischen Welt, II, 19.2, ed. H. Temporini and W. Haase (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1979), 649–88; “The Status of the Patriarchate in the Third and Fourth Centuries: Sources and Methodology,” Journal of Jewish Studies 47 (1996): 1–32. See also Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud, (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 95–97. See also Martin Goodman, “The Roman State and the Jewish Patriarch,” in The Galilee in Late Antiquity, ed. Lee I. Levine (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1992), 127–39; Lee I. Levine, The Rabbinic Class of Roman Palestine in Late Antiquity (Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi and New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1989).
See Levine, The Rabbinic Class.
See Jacob Neusner, A History of the Jews in Babylonia, 5 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 1966–1969); see especially vols. 4 and 5. To date, Neusner’s five-volume work on the Jews and Rabbinism in pre-Muslim, Persian Babylonia is still the most ambitiously comprehensive.
This is the view promoted by Seth Schwartz in Ancient Jews. In his view, rabbinic stories about the prestige of the Palestinian Jewish Patriarchate are anachronistically placed in the second century in order to bolster the institutions legitimacy, and to bolster rabbinic legitimacy as a result.
J. N. Lightstone, “Roman Diaspora Judaism,” A Companion to Roman Religion. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World, vol. 9, ed. Jörg Rüpke (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 345–77. J.N. Lightstone, “Is it meaningful to talk of a Greco-Roman Diaspora Judaism? A case study in taxonomical issues in the study of Ancient Judaism,” in Introducing Religion: Essays in Honor of Jonathan
Z. Smith, eds. W. Braun and R. McCutcheon (London: Equinox Publishers, 2008), 267–81. See also J.N. Lightstone, The Commerce of the Sacred: Mediation of the Divine among the Jews in the Greco-Roman Diaspora (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, l984). Second Edition, with a forward by Willi Braun and updated bibliography by Herbert Basser (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).
See, for example, Lee I. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue, the First Thousand Years (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005).
Indicative of this centuries-long trend is the Epistle of Rav Sherira Gaon. Writing in the ninth century Sherira’s monumental attempt to (re)construct a history of the rabbinic movement and of its principal texts is fashioned as a response to questions posed by the elders of the Jewish community of Kairouan. In the latter community, rabbinic authority was being challenged by its detractors, and Sherira’s history affected a defense of rabbinic authority by establishing its pedigree and the pedigree of early rabbinic literature. The challenge only makes sense in a context that the rabbis had achieved a position of dominant legal and religious authority in North Africa, with eyes turned to the major rabbinic academies of the Babylonian plain for superior, authoritative pronouncements. To give added weight to his response, Sherira explicitly states that he consulted the major luminaries associated with the academy that he led, attesting thereby, to an established, and well-recognized authority structure within the institution.
Again, the archaeological remains of ancient synagogues rank among the most abundant material evidence for Jewish life in Roman and Byzantine Palestine. See Levine, The Ancient Synagogue.
Judean Desert Studies, 3 vols. (1963, 1989, 2002); See Emanuel Tov, Discoveries in the Judean Desert, vol. 39: Introduction and Indices (London: Clarendon Press, 2002); Benjamin Isaac “The Babatha Archive: A Review Article,” Israel Exploration Journal 42 (1992): 62–75. See also Philip F. Esler, Babatha’s Orchard: The Yadin Papyri and an Ancient Jewish Family Tale Retold (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
Megilat Ta’anit, if it is a type of chronicle at all, is an exception that proves the rule. And one certainly not want to turn to the ninth century epistle of Sherira for these purposes.
See Jack N. Lightstone, “Textual Study and Social Formation: the Case of Mishnah,” Journal for Studies in Judaism, Humanities and the Social Sciences 1 (2017): 23-44, cf. 24-29.
See the discussion in Seth Schwartz, The Ancient Jews, spans his chapters 3, 4, and 5.
Jack N. Lightstone, Mishnah and the Social Formation of the Early Rabbinic Guild: A Socio-Rhetorical Approach (Waterloo ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press), 33–78.
See for example, L. H. Schiffman, “The New Halakhic Letter (4QMMT) and the Origins of the Dead Sea Sect,” Biblical Archaeology 53 (1990): 64–73; L. H. Schiffman, “The Place of 4QMMT in the Corpus of Qumran Manuscripts,” in Reading 4QMMT: New Perspectives on Qumran Law and History, eds. J. Kampen and M.J. Bernstein (Atlanta GA.: Scholars Press, 1996), 81–98; See also L. H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls: The History of Judaism, the Background of Christianity, the Lost Library of Qumran (Philadelphia and Jerusalem: Jewish Publication Society, 1994); J.N. Lightstone, “The Pharisees and the Sadducees in the Earliest Rabbinic Documents,” in In Quest of the Historical Pharisees, ed Jacob. Neusner and Bruce D. Chilton (Waco TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), 255–96.
Indeed, relatively speaking, in the 1970s Neusner emerged as situated well to the minimalist side of other scholars using early rabbinic evidence for social and historical reconstruction of Judaism and Jewish society in the Greco-Roman Period. For example, adopting minimalist-like positions (as articulated earlier in this essay) Neusner critiqued, among others, the work of George Foote Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, 3 vols. (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1954) as well as that of his contemporary Ephraim Urbach, The Sages: Their Beliefs and Opinions (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1977) (a translation of the original work in Hebrew, Hazal). Aside from his review articles about works like those by Moore and Urbach, Neusner wrote a monograph with the challenging title, Reading and Believing: Ancient Judaism and Contemporary Gullability (Atlanta GA: Scholars Press, 1986), 30–31, 48–50. These works extended and lengthened the range of the active continuum at the time between what I have called minimalists and maximalists.
Jacob Neusner, Judaism, the Evidence of the Mishnah (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981). Neusner’s first major articulation of this historical-logico-deductive sequencing of Mishnah law may be found in his History of the Mishnaic Law of Purities, Part 22 (Leiden: Brill, 1977). See also J. Neusner, “History and Structure: The Case of Mishnah,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 45 (1977): 161–92.
Jacob Neusner, Purities, Part 21 (Leiden NL: Brill, 1977); Jack N. Lightstone, Mishnah and the Social Formation of the Early Rabbinic Guild: A Socio-Rhetorical Approach (Waterloo ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press), 33–78; William S. Green, “What’s in a Name? The Question of Rabbinic Biography,” in Approaches to the Study of Ancient Judaism, vol. 1, ed. William S. Green (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1978), 77–96.
It is ironic that one of the founders of modern sociology, Max Weber, chose to analyze ancient Israel, and the biblical evidence, as major objects of sociological inquiry.
I have just such an argument—more for Tosefta, but also for Mishnah—in J. Lightstone, “Urban (Re-) Organization in Late Roman Palestine and the Early Rabbinic Guild: What Toseftan Evidence Indicates about the City and its Institutions as an Emerging Salient Category in the Early Rabbinic Legal (Re-) Classification of Space,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 36 (2007): 421–25.
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