In a previous post I included rabbinic literature as a possible source for the study of the Second Temple period. I hesitated to include this on my list and placed it last intentionally. I was asked on twitter by @woofboy to expand on this point. (Sorry, I do not actually know a real name!)

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Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, printed by Daniel Bomberg, Venice, 1522.

By rabbinic literature, I primarily mean the Mishnah, a collection of legal commentaries on the Torah. The Mishnah as we know it today was not written until about A.D. 250, but there are oral traditions which likely go back to a generation or two before Jesus. The rulings of Hillel and Shammai are often discussed in the Mishnah; Hillel died about A.D. 10 and Shammai died about A.D. 30.  Before the Mishnah, the Tannaim (“the repeaters”) passed these traditional rulings along orally. After these oral traditions were written in the Mishnah, they were discussed and interpreted (the Amoraim and Savoraim), a process which eventually resulted in the Talmud. (This is a very simplified history!)

The rabbinic literature presents special problems as a source for studying the practice of the first century. First, what really goes back to the first century? In the Mishnah we read debates which occurred in the second century which sometimes cite rabbis who are from the pre-70 period. The evidence more solid when a debated topic also occurs in the Dead Sea Scrolls since we know they dated before the first century. But it is increasingly difficult to accept a tradition appearing only in the Talmud as reflecting first century practice.

A second and perhaps more perplexing problem is the issue of authority. The Mishnah and other traditions record debates between rabbis and there eventual rulings. So these debates accurately reflect the practice of the first century?  If the rabbi Hillel decided that a particular practice was lawful, does that mean that the average Jews of the first century accepted his teachings and followed his decision? The classic (and often reprinted) studies of Jewish practice by Jeremias and Schürer would likely answer both of these questions in the positive

E. P. Sanders disagrees with this in his Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 BCE – 66 CE. He argued it is not possible to know if the rabbinical decisions ever governed practice. These are only arguments, not civil law. A rabbi might state that a certain practice is not to be done, but it is quite possible the opinion never quite made it into the practice of the common people.

It is also possible rabbinical decisions in the Mishnah were ideal, perhaps the “way things ought to be” and not necessarily the way things were. The Pharisees did not have power to impose their decisions on the people in the first century. This is the biggest difference between Sanders and other scholars – the Pharisees did not control Palestine and the Mishnah does not describe actual practice in the first century.

Here is an example of what I mean. A Second Temple example of tithing multiple times a year is Tobit. He is described as giving a tenth to the Levites, spending a tenth in Jerusalem, a tenth to “those to whom it is his duty” (Tobit 1:7f). Jubilees 32:10-14 refers to a second tithe, and 32:15 mentions a tithe on cattle. Josephus also seems to say Moses required two tithes every year except the third and sixth, when three per year were required. This would be a total of fourteen tithes per seven years (Antiq. 4.69, 205, 240). The Mishnah developed the twelve-tithe system (see Ma’aser and Ma’aser Sheni), two tithes per year except the Sabbath year, and less tithe needs to be spent in Jerusalem than Josephus. An individual may have had a hard time convincing a Temple tithe collector he had already paid his share!

But did anyone actually give the tithes as described by a fictional righteous Diaspora Jew (Tobit) or the idealistic writer of Jubilees? Perhaps the Mishnah preserves a tradition which was practiced by some, or the opinion of the later rabbis about how tithes were supposed to be paid (whether they were or not).

The lesson here is to use caution when reading the rabbinic literature as “background” to the Second Temple period.