Using Rabbinic Literature for the Study of the Second Temple Period

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.

8 thoughts on “Using Rabbinic Literature for the Study of the Second Temple Period

  1. Thanks for this, prof. Phil. Jacob Neusner seems to say we have no way of knowing what goes back to the first century. It sounded hopeless when I read him. K. Bailey verbally acknowledges a problem, but seems to carry on regardless without showing his workings out for why any given rabbinic teaching/practice should be trusted as coming from the first century. I felt the same reading R. D. Aus. (Then there are people who seem to not even recognise a problem, like Rob Bell, Ray VanderLaan). Is it as bad as Neusner says? I’m guessing you think not quite as bad. Above, you say we need to proceed with caution when using these sources. What would that cautious process look like? (Do you know of any scholars who are good at the process, who we could imitate?) Thanks again!

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    • Thanks for the comment, I was going to include a paragraph on Neusner, but he tends to be a controversial figure. With respect to Bailey, I thoroughly enjoy reading his work, but sometimes I wonder of more than a thousand years of Islam has not left more of an impression in culture than he allows for.

      I agree many Christians cite whatever they want without any real thinking about the dates (and those two examples are good ones). My flippant observation is Christians will cite whatever proves their point.

      This is an old problem because Strack and Billerbeck made no real allowance for the dates of the material they provided (so Mishnah and Talmud are all listed without any real comment on value for understanding a particular passage). Scholars used their work to write commentaries and pastors pass that information along with no real idea it is 500 years out of date! I see this sort of thing in even the best of scholarship.

      I would probably summarize my “method” as recognizing the approximate age of a citation (so preference for Hillel and Shammai), then a kind of multiple attestation (is the practice attested in Josephus? Philo? The New Testament?). For example, some sayings on marriage and divorce in Mishnah are similar to the Sermon on the Mount or Paul in 1 Cor 7. That makes me think the sayings more or less accurately reflect rabbinic discussion on divorce in the mid-first century.

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  2. Good point about caution. Thanks particularly for the paragraphs on Sanders. I don’t get around to reading him so “outtakes” or summaries like this are helpful. While a bit dated now, I found Charlesworth’s “Jesus Within Judaism” very enlightening (years back now, so a lot forgotten from it).

    I will speak cautiously, myself, re. Josephus, not having read much from his works directly. But from what I have read in them and evaluations by others, I’d say he MAY tell us more accurately of actual practices than the later works (his, as you know, done mostly around 90 A.D. fairly closely, and after the war which he’d participated in and been captured). He’d “been around” within or studying the major sects, and while under Roman royal employ, was writing as both “historian” (ancient style) and as Jewish apologist. But I don’t know that his Pharisee alignment was heavily biasing his reports, as he was mainly presenting a broad defense for and affirmation of Judiasm… the religion as a whole, rather than any particular sect or set of interpretations.

    Does this match your understanding?

    Addendum: Most Jos. scholars mention also that he was an apologist for HIMSELF, but I think mostly in terms of his military career and overall reputation, not so much on his specific religious views or practices. Is this also about right, to your understanding?

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  3. Reblogged this on James' Ramblings and commented:
    Reblogging for this part: “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).”

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  4. If there was no way to prove someone had given their tithe, then there must not have been a way to prove that someone had not given their tithe. People could have easily conned the system if they truly wanted to. If there was no way to prove one way or another, could it have been possible that their were some tithe collectors who were twisted? Should there have been some way to prove that people gave a tithe just as Tobit did? If there was a way that did exist to prove who had paid their tithes, why would people not use it?

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