Migrating Tales: The Talmud’s Narratives and their Historical Context

by Richard Kalmin 

This guest post is part of a series leading up to the upcoming joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature in San Diego. Eight of our authors with recent and forthcoming titles on a range of topics will share the motivations and stories behind their research. We hope these personal glimpses into their scholarship will inspire a broad community of readers. Come back for a new post every few days between now and November 21st.

I wrote Migrating Tales because my area of specialization, Babylonian rabbinic literature of late antiquity, is so often read two-dimensionally, against the background of other rabbinic literature. I wanted to read rabbinic literature three-dimensionally, against the backdrop of the literature and culture of contemporaneous non-Jewish groups. In addition, very often scholars of non-Jewish cultures ignore Jewish literature because they see it as too difficult, or too anomalous and bizarre, with the result that Jewish literature of late antiquity tends to be left out of the equation. Although it is becoming increasingly rare to find Judaism totally excluded from the study of late antiquity, it has yet to be fully integrated into the curriculum of scholars of other literatures and cultures. Scholars of Judaism are guilty of the same oversight but from the opposite side: too often they study Judaism, particularly Babylonian rabbinic Judaism, in isolation from the cultural production of other groups. Since it is so difficult to master the field of rabbinics, which demands a lifetime of constant study, scholars of ancient Judaism worry about spreading themselves too thin and take refuge in the confines of the one field in which they are truly expert.

There are those who do to try to break out of their narrow field of expertise, which is wonderful, but they seldom go far enough. They compare the Bavli—the Babylonian Talmud—with Zoroastrian Persian literature, find parallels, and consider their work done. Too often they neglect to ask whether the parallels they have discovered are evidence of a special relationship between Zoroastrian Persian and Babylonian Jewish cultures, or would they find, if they surveyed the evidence more broadly, that the phenomenon under study is symptomatic of late antiquity in general? Might the parallels result from similar cultures manifesting similar phenomena at comparable stages of development? Might they simply reflect the fact that we are dealing with two unrelated literatures that have incorporated similar or identical folk motifs that transcend cultural boundaries? For example, several scholars have concluded that a story in the Bavli about King Manasseh’s execution of the prophet Isaiah by sawing him in half originated in an ancient Persian compilation, the Avesta. Casting the net more broadly, I attempt to show that versions of the narrative composed in the eastern Roman provinces provide a much closer parallel and that the Avestan parallel is only superficial. The story turns out to say much about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and nothing at all about the relationship between Zoroastrianism and Judaism. In brief, I have attempted to make it more difficult for scholars of Babylonian Judaism to study their subject in isolation from other cultures, and for scholars of non-Jewish cultures to studytheir subject in isolation from Judaism of late antiquity.

Richard Kalmin is Theodore R. Racoosin Chair of Rabbinic Literature at The Jewish Theological Seminary. He is the author of the award-winning Jewish Babylonia between Persia and Roman Palestine and several other books about the literature and history of the Jews of late antiquity. The research and writing of Migrating Tales was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

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