Christianity in Talmud and Midrash
R. Travers Herford
(1903)

 

INTRODUCTION

THE passages from the Talmud and other Rabbinical works which will be considered in the following pages are excerpts from a literature of enormous extent, in which the intellectual energy of the Jewish nation during many centuries found ample and varied expression. To give a detailed account of this literature would lead me far from my main subject, and would, moreover, need a considerable volume for its full description. All that seems necessary here is to give in a few words a general account of the Rabbinical literature, so that the reader may be able to judge of the kind of evidence furnished by the passages which will be quoted, from some knowledge of their origin.

The details of date, authorship and contents of the several writings may be found in works of reference accessible to scholars, such as Zunz "Gottesdienstliche Vortrage der Juden," Hamburger's "Real-Encyklopadie fur Bibel und Talmud," or, for English readers, the "Introduction to Hebrew Literature" of Etheridge, a work of considerable value, in spite of the strong theological bias of the writer.

In an often quoted passage (Aboth, i. 1 sq.) the Talmud declares that "Moses received Torah* from Sinai and delivered it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the prophets, and the prophets delivered it to the men of the Great Synagogue. Simeon the Just was of the remnants of the Great Synagogue .... Antigonos of Socho received from Simeon the Just .... Jose ben Joezer of Zereda, and Jose ben Johanan of Jerusalem received from them."** Then follow the names of successive pairs of teachers down to Hillel and Shammai, who were contemporary with the beginning of the Christian era; and after these are mentioned singly the leading Rabbis of the first two centuries. The treatise, 'Pirqe Aboth,' as its title indicates, is a collection of 'Sayings' by these 'Fathers' of Israel. Now, whatever may be thought of the historical accuracy of the statement just quoted, it expresses clearly enough the view which the great founders of the Rabbinical literature held concerning their own work. It gives the keynote of the whole of that literature; it indicates the foundation on which it was built, and the method which its builders one and all adopted. The foundation is the Decalogue, and the method is Tradition.

* Torah, literally 'Teaching.' The usual translation 'Law' is too narrow in its meaning. Torah denotes the whole of what, according to Jewish belief, was divinely revealed to man. As the Pentateuch contained the record of that revelation, the Torah denotes the whole contents of the Pentateuch, whether narrative or precept; and further, it includes not merely the written contents of the Pentateuch, but also the unwritten Tradition, the so-called Oral Law, which finally took shape in the Talmud.

** There is a gap between Antigonos and the first Pair, as is pointed out by Strack in his edition of the Pirqe Aboth, 1882, p. 9. The Pairs of teachers are technically known as Zugoth.

The foundation is the Decalogue. More exactly, it is the famous declaration, Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might (Deut 6:4,5), a declaration enshrined in the Jewish liturgy as the very soul of Judaism.* The Rabbinical literature is an attempt to furnish a complete answer to the question, "How shall a man love the Lord his God with all his heart and soul and might?" And even those Rabbinical writings which seem to have least reference to this main subject are dependent on it to this extent, that they would not have been written unless there had been in the minds of their authors the consciousness of this great fundamental principle.
* It is known as the Shema', from its first word in Hebrew. The Shema', as recited, includes some other texts.
The links in the chain of development are easily distinguished, according to the Rabbinical theory. Upon the Decalogue (of which the Shema' is the summary) rests the Pentateuch. The Ten Commandments were expanded into greater detail; and the historical and legendary parts, as we should call them, were included, or rather were expressly written with the same object as the legal parts, viz., for instruction in the right conduct of life. Moses was regarded as the author of the whole, unless with the exception of the last eight verses of Deuteronomy (b. B. Bathr. 14b).**
* See the Talmudic theory of the authorship of Scripture in Traditio Rabbinorum Veterrima de Librorum V. Testti ordine atq. origine illustrata a Gustavo Armiuio Marx. Theol. licentiate. Lipsiae, 1884.
Upon the Pentateuch rested the whole of the other scriptures, according to the Rabbinical theory. That is to say, they were to be interpreted in conformity with the Pentateuch, or rather with the Torah, or Teaching, of which the Pentateuch was the written expression. The Rabbis held that the Torah, or teaching, which Moses was commissioned to give to Israel, was partly written and partly oral. It is the written Torah which is found in the Pentateuch, and developed in the other scriptures. The oral Teaching was said to have been handed down, from one generation to another, as the key to the interpretation of the written Teaching. That the Pentateuch was regarded as the standard to which the other scriptures must conform is shown by the well-known discussion as to whether the books of Ezekiel and Ecclesiastes were to be included in the Canon. The reason alleged against them was that they contradicted the Torah; and it was only after this contradiction had been explained away that they were recognised as canonical (b. Shabb. 13b, 30b). What may be the value of this statement for the critical history of the O.T. Canon is a question which does not arise here.

The Rabbinical theory thus regarded the O.T. scriptures as a body of instructions based upon the Torah of Moses; and when it is said, in the passage above referred to, that the prophets delivered the Torah to the Men of the Great Synagogue, this probably means that the Rabbis traced their own system to Ezra and Nehemiah, and thus could regard it as the continuation of the Teaching handed down by the Prophets from Moses himself. It is certain that they did thus regard it, even to the extent of believing that the whole of the Oral Law was given to Moses, and by him handed down along with the written Torah. The question here again is not as to the historical facts of the development of the Rabbinism out of the O.T., but only of the view which the Rabbis themselves held of the connexion between them. And that view was, that after the time of the men of the Great Synagogue, those whose names are recorded as teachers taught by word of mouth the Torah as it was now written, together with such interpretation of it—not written, but handed down—as would serve to apply it to cases not distinctly provided for in the scriptures. It was, as always, the Torah of Moses that was taught and expounded; and the object was, as always, to teach men how they ought to "Love the Lord their God with all their heart and soul and strength and might." Historically, we distinguish between the prophetical and the legal elements in the contents of the O.T. The Rabbis made no such distinction. In their religious instruction they distinguished between halachah (precept) and haggadah (edification), terms which will be more fully explained below. For the purposes of halachah they interpreted the whole of Scripture from the legal standpoint ; and, in like manner, for the purposes of haggadah they interpreted the whole of Scripture from the didactic standpoint, in neither case making any difference between the several books of the O.T., as legal, historical or prophetic.

On the legal side, the task to which Rabbinism, from the days of Ezra to the closing of the Talmud, devoted itself with all its strength and ingenuity and patience, was to develop a set of rules for the right conduct of life, a code of laws, wherein the original teaching of Moses should be applied to every conceivable event, act and duty of daily life. Historically, the founder of Jewish Legalism was Ezra, to whose mind was ever present the supreme necessity of guarding the national religion from those corruptions and laxities which had brought about the exile, and who saw no better protection against the recurrence of such a danger than an authoritative code, which should state—either in speech or writing—the divine commands which the Jewish people were to obey. If by the "Men of the Great Synagogue" we are to understand Ezra and those who worked on his lines, with him and after him, then we can understand the saying ascribed to that ancient assembly, "Make a hedge for the Torah" (Aboth, i. 1). The Torah is the divine teaching given to Moses and handed down by him; and the hedge is the Legalism, the outward form of law and precept, in which henceforth it was to be preserved. The Talmud indicates its view of the work of Ezra, and also of the connexion between his work and that of the Rabbis by saying (b. Succ. 27a): "In the beginning, when the Torah was forgotten, Ezra went up from Babylon and founded it; again it was forgotten and Hillel the Babylonian* went up and founded it; again it was forgotten and Rabbi Hija and his sons went up and founded it." In other words, both the Legalism of Ezra, and the Rabbinism of which Hillel was the first representative, are the outward form of the Torah, the divine teaching given to Moses; and in every detail, every minutest precept which Rabbinical ingenuity developed, there is assumed as the ground of all the primal religious duty, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul and might."

* Hillel was no doubt the founder of Rabbinism in the stricter sense, for he introduced the exegetical rules on which the Rabbinical casuistry is founded. But Ezra is the true founder of that Legalism, of which Talmudic Rabbinism is the logical result. To compare Hillel with Jesus on the ground of their gentleness is to ignore the fact that Hillel did more than anyone else had done to organise that Tradition of the Elders which Jesus denounced. In their conception of the form of religion, Jesus and Hillel stood at opposite poles of thought.
Whether the form of definite precept and precise rule is the best adapted to promote the living of a righteous life is not here the question. Right or wrong, better or worse, it is the form which the Rabbis chose for the expression of their conception of the religious life. And the whole system of Rabbinism is misjudged, unless it be carefully and constantly borne in mind that it is all an expansion of the idea of human service of God, under the form of precept. What is usually called 'empty formalism,' 'solemn trifling' and the like, deserves a nobler name; for it is—whether mistaken or not—an honest effort to apply the principle of service of God to the smallest details and acts of life. That, in practice, such a conception of religious life might lead to hypocrisy and formalism is undeniable, and the Talmud itself is perfectly well aware of the fact. But that it necessarily leads to hypocrisy, that it is impossible on such lines to develop a true religious life, the whole history of Judaism from the time of Hillel downwards is the emphatic denial. The great Rabbis whose work is preserved in the Talmud were not hypocrites or mere formalists, but men who fully realised the religious meaning of what was expressed in the form of legal precept and apparently trivial regulation. They were under no mistake as to what it all meant; and the heroism which has marked the Jewish people through all the tragic history of eighteen Christian centuries has found its divine inspiration in the Torah as the Rabbis interpreted it. To them it was the word of God, in all its fulness and depth; and no Jew who thoroughly entered into the spirit of the Rabbinical conception of religious life ever felt the Torah a burden, or himself bound as by galling fetters. Paul doubtless spoke out of the depths of his own experience; but he does not represent the mind of the great leaders of Rabbinism. And the system of thought and practice which bears that name is unfairly judged if it is condemned on the witness of its most determined enemies. Judged on its own merits, and by the lives and words of its own exponents and defenders, it is a consistent and logical endeavour to work out a complete guide to the living of a perfect life, and whatever verdict may be passed upon that endeavour, the right word is not failure.

The foundation, then, of Rabbinism is the precept, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul and all thy might. The method is tradition. This is indicated by the names which the Rabbis themselves gave to the mass of religious precept which they taught, viz., Massoreth, and less frequently Qabbala.* The same fact is shown by the formula to be found on every page of the Talmud, in which a precept is expressed, "Rabbi A. says, in the name of Rabbi B," or, "Rabbi A. says that Rabbi B. says that Rabbi C. says, etc." Some authority must confirm the dictum of every teacher, the authority, viz., of some previous teacher, or else the authority of the Torah interpreted according to some recognised rule. No teacher could base his teaching merely on his own authority; and the fact that Jesus did this, was no doubt one of the grievances against him on the part of the Jews. Ye have heard that it was said to them of old time . . . . but I say unto you, etc. (Matt 5:21,22), implies the disavowal of the Rabbinical method; and the statement (Matt 7:28,29) that Jesus taught them as one having authority and not as their scribes, was certainly cause sufficient that the people should be astonished at his teaching, and that the scribes should be incensed and alarmed.

* Massoreth, or Massorah, from to hand over, deliver; more fully. Qabbala, from to receive. The term Massorah is also used in a special sense to designate the apparatus criticus devised by the Jewish Grammarians for the fixing of the text of Scripture. The term Qabbala likewise has a specialised meaning when used to denote the system of Theosophy or secret doctrine, set forth in the books 'Jetzirah' and 'Zohar.'
The question naturally arises here, How could new teaching find a place where, in theory, nothing was valid unless it had been handed down? That new teaching did find a place is evident, if only from the fact that the modest volume of the O.T. was expanded into the enormous bulk of the Talmud, to say nothing of the Midrash; while, on the other hand, the principle of receiving only what rested on the authority of tradition was jealously upheld and resolutely enforced. For want of a clear understanding of the relation between the new and the old in Rabbinism, that system has been condemned as a rigid formalism, crushing with the dead weight of antiquity the living forces of the soul, and preventing all growth and expansion of thought. It is doubtless true that the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life; but the truth of that great saying is not the condemnation of Rabbinism, any more than it is of Christianity; and it might have been spoken with no less right by Aqiba than by Paul, for the one, no less than the other, was an originator within the lines of his own form of religious thought.

The answer to the question, 'How could new teaching find a place in a system based exclusively on tradition'?admits of a simple statement. The Torah as given to Moses, and by him handed down, was regarded as containing the whole of divine truth, not merely so much as might at any given time have been discerned, but all that in all future ages might be brought to light. This divine truth was partly explicit, partly implicit. That which was explicit was stated in Scripture, more particularly in the Mosaic laws, and also in that oral tradition which furnished the interpretation and application of the Scripture. That which was implicit was the further, as yet undiscovered, meaning contained in the Torah. And the whole task of Rabbinism was to render that explicit which had been implicit, to discover and unfold more and more of the divine truth contained in the Torah, so as to make it available for the perfecting of the religious life. When, therefore, a Rabbi taught some new application of a religious precept, what was new was the application; the precept was old.* He was not adding to the Torah, but showing for the first time some hitherto unknown contents of it. The sum total of Torah was unaltered; but part of it had been transformed from implicit to explicit. Thus a new teaching could not but rest upon Tradition, because it was merely the unfolding into greater clearness of meaning what the Torah had all along contained. And it was only new, in so far as such and such a Rabbi had been the first to declare that development of the original principle. Rabbinism never did, because it never could, reach the logical end of its own method; but the complicated and minute legislation embodied in the Talmud, is, on the Rabbinical theory, merely the unfolding of what was contained in the original Torah—rendered explicit instead of implicit. Thus it appears that even in that department of the Rabbinical system where the principle of Tradition was most strictly maintained, there was ample room for the expansion and adaptation of the original principle to the varying needs of practical religious life. In other departments, perhaps rather the other chief department of the Rabbinical system, there was little or no attempt at restraint upon individual liberty of teaching. These two departments, or main divisions of Rabbinical teaching, are called respectively Halachah and Haggadah (or Agada, as it is often, though perhaps less correctly, given). The distinction between these two has often been explained; but a few words upon them here may serve to bring out a fact which has not always been duly recognised. Halachah (from to go) denotes that which is recognised as a valid and therefore binding law of religious practice. The connexion between this, its undoubted meaning, and that of the root from which it is derived, is uncertain, and has been variously explained. The etymological question need not detain us here. Halachah is therefore that system of rule and precept to which the religious life of the Jew must conform. The several rules and precepts, individually, are called Halachoth (plural of Halachah). The Torah of Moses was, first and foremost, Halachah; what it taught was, above all things, how a man should love the Lord his God with all his heart and soul and might; in other words, how he should serve God most perfectly. The task of Rabbinism was to ascertain and determine Halachah, in its fullest extent, to discover the whole of what divine wisdom had decreed for the guidance of man. And it was in regard to Halachah that the principle of Tradition was most rigorously upheld, because it was above all things essential that Halachah, the law of right conduct binding on every Israelite, should be accurately defined and based upon ample authority.

* This is clearly stated in the Talmud (j. Hag. i. 8. 76): "Even that which an acute disciple shall teach in the presence of his Rabbi has already been said to Moses on Sinai."
The other main division of Rabbinical teaching, known as Haggadah, differed from Halachah both in its object and its method. Haggadah denotes illustrative teaching; and it includes all that can help to build up religious character otherwise than by the discipline of positive command. It includes theological speculation in its widest range, also ethical instruction and exhortation; and its object is to throw all the light of past thought and experience upon the present duty. It is thus the necessary accompaniment of Halachah; both have the same general purpose, viz., to teach a true service of God; but the one proceeds by way of direct command, and rests upon divine authority, the other by way of exhortation and explanation, with no other authority than the wisdom and knowledge of the individual teacher. This is said without forgetting the fact that the great teachers of Haggadah were looked upon with the deepest reverence, and their teaching received with great deference. Moreover, the Haggadah was considered to be contained in the Scripture, and to be deducible thence by regular rules of inference. But nevertheless it is true that the teaching and development of Haggadah was under no such strict restraint as was required for Halachah. And Haggadah served as the outlet for the creative imagination of the Rabbinical mind, which could find no scope in the severe logic of Halachah. The teacher of Haggadah gave free rein to his thought; his object was edification, and he made use of everything—history, legend, anecdote, fable, parable, speculation upon every subject from the most sublime to the most trivial which might serve to teach some religious lesson, and thereby develop religious character. The Haggadist made no scruple of altering not merely the narrative but the text of Scripture, for the sake of drawing out a religious or moral lesson; and where Scripture was silent, the Haggadist freely invented incidents and traits of character in regard to Scripture personages, not stopping short of the Almighty Himself. Frequent appeal is made to the example of non-biblical Fathers in Israel, and it is to the Haggadah that we owe nearly all our information as to the personal character and life-history of the Rabbis. Anecdotes and historical reminiscences abound in the Haggadah, which is the chief reason why to non-Jewish readers the Haggadah is so much more interesting than the dry and difficult Halachah. It is hard for any one but a Jew to realise the direct personal concern, and therefore intense interest, of Halachic discussions; while in the Haggadah, the human interest never fails, nor the charm—at least for those who have sufficient sympathy and insight to enter into a form of thought widely different from their own.

Having thus briefly indicated what is meant by Halachah and Haggadah, and before going on to describe their mutual relation in the Rabbinical literature, I pause for a moment to draw a comparison, or rather a contrast, between the development of Rabbinical and Christian thought. The contrast is certainly a sharp one, yet there is a considerable likeness. Both have a Tradition of the Elders, and rest a part of their teaching upon authority presumed to be divine. This has been already shown in regard to Rabbinism. In regard to Christianity the same fact appears in connexion with dogmatic theology. What is of faith is taught on the authority of creeds or decrees of councils, or the writings of the Church Fathers, or of Scripture as expounded by competent and accredited interpreters. The Roman Catholic Church definitely places Tradition among the sources of the teaching which she gives; and if Protestantism repudiates Tradition to take her stand upon the Bible only, she nevertheless admits the authority of ancient expositions of Scripture and definitions of faith. Both Rabbinism and historical Christianity alike recognise that to set forth the contents of the word of God is the supreme object of religious thought; and they have jealously guarded the Torah, or the True Faith, from the interference of unauthorised exponents. The verbal expression is different in the two cases, as the matter of thought is different; but in both the liberty of individual opinion was confined within strict and definite limits, and to overstep those limits was in each case heresy.

In like manner both Rabbinism and Christianity have a department of religious teaching where no restraint is put upon the freedom of the individual to hold and teach his own opinions, whatever they might be. In Rabbinism this is Haggadah; in Christianity it is all that helps to the right conduct of life, moral teaching, encouragement to good works, and the like. There is in regard to these subjects nothing to prevent the Christian teacher from teaching out of his own heart and conscience whatever seems good and right. And while the great Christian teachers, in this department, are deeply reverenced, and their teaching received with the deference due to their wisdom and experience, there is no such authority attaching to their words as there is in the case of those who have helped to define the Faith. Their teaching is "not to establish any doctrine, but for example of life and instruction of manners," and no heresy is implied by divergence of opinion.

While there is thus a considerable likeness between Rabbinical Judaism and historical Christianity, in regard to both principle and method, the contrast between them is the more striking from the fact that each system applies restriction to what the other leaves free, and each allows liberty where the other imposes restraint. Rabbinism prescribes what a man shall do, and defines his service of God in precise rules, while it leaves him perfectly unfettered in regard to what he shall believe. Such a thing as a doctrinal creed is foreign to Rabbinism—Maimonides notwithstanding. Historical Christianity prescribes what a man shall believe, and defines the True Faith in precise creeds; while it leaves him perfectly unfettered in regard to what he should do—unfettered, that is, except by his own conscience. Christianity never set up a moral creed; she did not make sin a heresy, but heresy a sin. To sum up this comparison in a single sentence, while historical Christianity is based on the conception of orthodoxy, Rabbinism rests on the conception of what I venture to call orthopraxy. The one insists on Faith, and gives liberty of Works; the other insists on Works, and gives liberty of Faith.

It would be interesting and instructive to pursue this line of thought still further, and endeavour to form an estimate of the comparative value of the two contrasted systems as theories of religious life. I refrain from doing so, however, as my purpose in making the comparison has been sufficiently attained if I have succeeded in explaining and illustrating the answer of Rabbinism to the two great questions of Duty and Belief. That answer is given in the Halachah and Haggadah respectively; and I go on to show how these two elements are combined and distinguished in the Rabbinical literature. For this purpose I will briefly refer to the chief representative works of that literature.

Pre-eminent among them all stands the Talmud; and after what has been already said, it will not be difficult to explain the general nature of this colossal work. Bearing in mind that the main task of Rabbinism was to ascertain and define Halachah, it will be evident that in the course of years, and by the labours of many contemporary and successive Rabbis, a large number of decisions upon questions of Halachah gradually accumulated. Some of these, dating from far-off antiquity, were undisputed; others were subjected to keen examination and scrutiny before being pronounced to be really Halachah. But, while many decisions were rejected, for want of a sufficient basis of authority, the number of those that were accepted increased with every generation of teachers. More than once, during the first two centuries of our era, attempts were made to codify and arrange the growing mass of Halachah, the confusion of which was increased by the fact that the whole was carried in the memory alone, not put down in writing. The work of codification, attempted by Aqiba and others, was finally completed by Rabbi Jehudah ha-Qadosh (the Holy), usually known as Rabbi par excellence; and the collection which he formed is known as the Mishnah. The date of its completion is usually given as 220 A.D., or thereabouts. Mishnah denotes both teaching and repetition; and the work so called professed to be the repetition, in enlarged form, of the Torah of Moses. The Mishnah is a collection of Halachoth—presumably of all the Halachoth whose validity was recognised so far as known to the compiler; and it deals with every department of practical conduct. Under six main divisions (Sedarim, or orders), and sixty-three treatises (Massichtoth), the duties of the faithful Israelite are set forth, as positive or negative commands. But the Mishnah contains Haggadah as well as Halachah. Along with the precepts, and the discussions in which they were defined, there are illustrative and explanatory notes, historical and personal reminiscences, designed to show the purpose or explain the meaning of some decision. These are Haggadah; and they occur in the midst of Halachah, with not the slightest mark to distinguish the one from the other. The amount of Haggadah in the Mishnah, however, is not great compared with that of Halachah. And, in consequence, while the Mishnah is easier to read than the Gemara in point of language, it is far less interesting owing to the scantiness of the human element provided in the Haggadah.

As above stated, the Mishnah was completed somewhere about the year 220 A.D.; and though at first it only existed as oral teaching, it appears to have been very soon written down. From henceforth it was the standard collection of Halachoth, though other collections existed of which mention will be presently made. As the standard collection of Halachoth, it naturally became in its turn the subject of study, since many of its precepts were of uncertain meaning. To mention only one reason for this, the destruction of the Temple, and the consequent cessation of all the ritual and ceremonial of worship, reduced the precepts connected therewith to a branch of archaeology; while on the other hand, it increased the need of defining with the utmost precision the right practice in those matters, so that it might not be forgotten if ever the time should come for the resumption of the Temple services. And, if some are inclined to think lightly of the time and thought spent upon questions which could have no practical outcome for those who debated them, there is still a pathetic and even a heroic aspect in the toil which preserved a sacred memory so that it might keep alive a no less sacred hope.

The Mishnah, then, became in its turn the subject of commentary, interpretation and expansion. The name given to this superadded commentary is Gemara, which means completion. But, whereas there is only one Mishnah, there are two Gemaras. The Mishnah was studied not only in the schools of Palestine, but also in those of Babylonia. And by the labours of these two groups of teachers there was developed a Palestinian Gemara and a Babylonian Gemara. In course of time the same need for codification of the growing mass of Tradition began to be felt in regard to the Gemaras which had previously led to the formation of the Mishnah. The Gemara of Palestine was ended,—not completed,—towards the close of the fourth century; while it was not until the sixth century that the Gemara of Babylonia was reduced to the form in which we now have it. The name Talmud is given to the whole corpus of Mishnah plus Gemara; and thus it is usual to distinguish between the Palestinian Talmud (otherwise known as the Talmud of Jerusalem) and the Babylonian Talmud.*

* The Hebrew names are 'Talmud Jerushalmi,' and 'T. Babli' respectively. I do not know why the former is called T. Jerushalmi; because, of the various schools in which it was developed, probably none, certainly none of any importance, had its seat in Jerusalem. It is usually understood that residence in Jerusalem was forbidden to Jews after the last war, in 135 A.D. Yet it is stated (b. Pes. 113a) that R. Johanan, one of the founders of the Palestinian Gemara, cited a tradition "in the name of the men of Jerusalem." On the whole, however, it seems to me most probable that the Palestinian Talmud was merely called after the name of the capital city, as indeed the T. Babli may be said to have been called after the name of the capital city of the land where the chief Rabbinical schools of the East flourished for centuries.
To give any account of the multifarious contents of either Talmud, even of that of Jerusalem, which is much shorter and simpler than that of Babylon, would be a work of great length and difficulty, almost amounting indeed to a translation of the huge work with the commentaries upon it. Briefly, it consists (in both Talmuds) of a series of discussions upon the several Halachoth contained in the Mishnah. In the course of these discussions, all manner of digressions interrupt the argument,—personal anecdotes, speculations upon points of theology or philosophy, fragments of history, scraps of science, folklore, travellers tales—in short, anything and everything that could be supposed to have even the remotest connection with the subject under discussion are brought in, to the grievous perplexity of the reader. To add to the difficulty, this chaotic mass is printed in an unpointed text, with no stops except at the end of a paragraph, and no sort of mark to distinguish the various elements one from the other. And, finally, the language of the two Gemaras (based upon eastern and western Aramaic respectively) is far more difficult than that of the Mishnah, being, as it is, concise to a degree that Thucydides might have envied, and Tacitus striven in vain to imitate. It is full of technical terms and foreign words, which are the despair of the reader who knows only his Hebrew Bible. Yet there is order and method even in the Talmud, and it is a great mistake to suppose that its contents may be treated as a series of unconnected sentences, whose meaning is clear apart from their context, and without reference to the deep underlying principles which give vitality to the whole. The passages which will presently be cited from the Talmud may serve as illustrations of what has been said, so far as mere translations, however literal, can represent an original text so peculiar and so bizarre; and, in presenting them apart from their context, I trust I have not been unmindful of the caution just given.

The twofold Talmud is by far the most important work of the early Rabbinical literature. Yet there are others, dating from the same centuries, which can by no means be passed by unnoticed. It was stated above that the Mishnah was not the only collection of Halachoth, though it was adopted as the standard. To say nothing of the fact that the Gemaras contain many Halachoth not included in the Mishnah (hence called 'Baraitha,' i.e. external), there exists at least one independent collection of Halachoth, as a sort of rival to the Mishnah. This is known as Tosephta, a name which means addition or supplement, as if it had been intended merely to supply what was wanting in the standard work. Yet it is not improbable that the existing Mishnah and the existing Tosephta are only two out of many contemporary collections great or small, two compilations founded upon the works of many previous teachers, and that of these two, "one was taken and the other left." The two collections might almost have exchanged names, so that what is now known as the Mishnah might conceivably have come to be looked upon as Tosephta to the other. And, although the one enjoys a sort of canonical authority not recognised in the other, yet for historical purposes they are both of equal value, since both contain traditions dating from the earliest centuries of the common era. The contents of Tosephta are, as will have appeared above, mainly Halachah; but Haggadah also is found, as in the case of the Mishnah, and in greater abundance.

The works above described, viz., Mishnah, Gemaras, and Tosephta, have for their common purpose the development and definition of Halachah as the rule for the right conduct of life, the expansion into minute detail of the principle, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul and strength. But the Rabbinical literature includes another very extensive class of works, in which the same principle is dealt with in a somewhat different manner. The generic name for works of this class is Midrash, i.e. exposition; and the common characteristic of them all is that they are free commentaries upon books or portions of books of the O.T. Perhaps commentary is hardly the right word; for the Midrash does not profess to explain every point of difficulty in the text with which it deals, and, as a rule, it makes no reference to grammatical and linguistic questions. The purpose of the Midrash is to expound the Scriptures with a view to edification and instruction, from the standpoint not of the scholar but of the preacher. And probably the contents of the various Midrashim are collected extracts from the sermons, as we might call them, of the Rabbis to their hearers, either in the synagogues or the schools. The general plan of a Midrash is to take a book or selected passages of a book of the O.T., and to arrange under each separate verse in order the expositions of several Rabbis. The connexion between the text and the exposition is often very slight; and, just as in the case of the Gemaras, digressions are frequent, as opportunity offers for bringing in some interesting but irrelevant topic. The method of Tradition is followed in the Midrash, though not with the same strictness as in the Talmud. Most of the expository notes are given in the name of some Rabbi, and of course the whole body of Midrash is now Tradition. But a good deal of the contents of many Midrashim is anonymous, and therefore presumably due to the compiler. In no instance in the Rabbinical literature can we say that any individual Rabbi is the author of such and such a work; at most he is the editor. But a nearer approach is made to individual authorship in the Midrash than in the Talmudic literature.

Midrash, then, is homiletic exposition of Scripture. And it will be seen from what has been said above, that the distinction between Halachah and Haggadah is applicable no less to the Midrash than to the Talmud. That is to say, there can be Midrash whose chief purpose is to connect Halachah with Scripture, and again Midrash which chiefly aims at connecting Haggadah with Scripture. Of these two classes, the Halachic Midrashim are the more ancient, the Haggadic by far the more numerous. Of the Halachic Midrashim, the chief works are Siphra, on the book of Leviticus; Siphri, on Numbers and Deuteronomy; and Mechilta, upon parts of Exodus. These were compiled, according to Zunz, at a later date than the Mishnah, but contain in part older material. And while they do not exclude Haggadah, where the text suggests it, they are prevailingly Halachic, since a great part of the text dealt with is concerned with the ceremonial law. Siphra and Siphri are frequently made use of in the Talmud.

The Haggadic Midrashim are very numerous, and the period of their production covers several centuries. Even the earliest of them is much later as regards date of compilation than the earliest Halachic Midrash. There is more need, on this account, of caution in using their statements as historical evidence. Yet, since those statements rest on tradition, and refer to many well-known names, there seems no reason why they should—other reasons apart—be denied all historical value. I have therefore made use of what the Midrash offered for my purpose, with, I trust, due critical caution. Of the Haggadic Midrashim, the most important in point of extent is the so-called Midrash Rabbah (or M. Rabboth), a collection of expositions upon the Pentateuch and the five Megilloth (i.e. Ruth, Esther, Lamentations, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes). The ten Midrashim are of very various date, and were not gathered into one great collection till as late as the thirteenth century. Other Midrashim, of similar character, are Tanhuma, or Jelam'denu, on the Pentateuch, Pesiqta on selected passages, and Jalqut Shim'oni on the whole of the O.T., being a vast collection of extracts from earlier Midrashim. For details concerning these and many similar works, I refer the reader to the books of Zunz, Hamburger, and others mentioned above. My object in this introduction is not to give a bibliography of Rabbinical literature, but to indicate the general scope and method of that literature, so that the reader may have some idea of the sources whence the passages, which will presently be given, have been extracted.

It will now be possible, as it is highly desirable, to attempt an answer to the question, What is the value, as historical evidence, of the Rabbinical literature? Can any reliance be placed upon statements found in works whose main purpose was not to impart exact knowledge of facts, but to give religious and moral teaching?

Nothing is easier than to pick out from the Talmud and the Midrash statements in regard to historical events, which are palpably and even monstrously false, and that, too, when the events referred to were not very far removed from the lifetime of the author of the statements. And the conclusion is ready to hand, that if, in regard to events almost within living memory, such error was possible, reliance cannot be placed upon statements concerning events more remote. Yet that hasty conclusion is refuted by the fact that the statements referring to historical events are sometimes confirmed by external testimony, such as the writings of non-Jewish historians, and sometimes, when not directly confirmed, are still in accordance with such external testimony. No one would dream of accepting as true all the historical statements of the Talmud and Midrash; but they are certainly not all false. And it ought not to be, and I believe is not, beyond the power of a careful criticism, to distinguish with some degree of probability the historically true from the historically false.

It must be borne in mind that the whole of the literature under consideration is a collection of Traditions. Now, while such a method of retaining and transmitting knowledge is exposed to the dangers of omission, addition, and alteration in a greater degree than is the case with written documents, yet on the other hand the fact that such a method was alone employed implies that the power of memory was cultivated and improved also in a greater degree than is usual with those who only or chiefly make use of writing. The Talmud and Midrash afford illustrations of both these propositions; for while we find that varying forms are handed down of one and the same tradition, the difference in the form shows that the tradition was the subject of remembrance in several minds and over considerable periods of time. It must also be borne in mind that the Talmud is not "a dateless book," as it has been called, but that the main points in its chronology are well known, being determined by the biographical data of the leading Rabbis. The researches of W. Bacher* have shown beyond dispute that these biographical data are, on the whole, mutually consistent; and thus we are provided with a firm foundation on which to rest a case for the credibility of the Rabbinical records. If the whole were a mere tissue of extravagant inventions, there would be no such consistency; and further, it is often possible to mark where the historical tradition leaves off and the legendary invention begins. Thus, R. Jehoshua b. Levi is a perfectly well-known historical figure, and one whose name occurs numberless times in the Talmud and Midrash; of him various facts are related which there is no reason to call in question, while in addition other stories are told—such as his conversation with the Angel of Death (b. Keth. 77b)—which are plainly imaginary.

* "Agada der Tannalten," "Ag. der Palestinensischen Amoriier," "Ag. d. Babylonischen Amoraer." Bacher is not the only scholar who has dealt with Rabbinical biography; but so far as I know, his work is much more thorough and complete than any other on the same subject; and I would here express my very great obligation for the help I have derived from the invaluable works I have named above.
In judging, then, of the reliability, as historical evidence, of the Rabbinical records, we must take as our guide, in the first instance, the chronology of the lives of the Rabbis themselves, and note whether their statements refer to matters nearly or quite contemporary. Thus, when Rabbi A. says that on a certain occasion he walked with Rabbi B. who told him so and so, or again, that when he was a boy he remembered seeing Rabbi C. who did so and so, he is presumably speaking of things well within his knowledge. And though these incidental remarks may refer to things in themselves very trivial, yet they serve to extend the region of credibility. Indeed, it is perhaps in these incidental remarks that the largest harvest of historical fact is to be gathered. Because they are usually the illustration, drawn from the actual knowledge and experience of the teacher who mentions them, of the subject with which he is dealing. A Rabbi, especially one who was skilful in Haggadah, would permit himself any degree of exaggeration or invention even in regard to historical persons and events, if thereby he could produce a greater impression. Thus, an event so terribly well known as the great war, which ended with the death of Bar Cocheba and the capture of Bethar in 135 A.D., was magnified in the description of its horrors beyond all bounds of possibility. And probably no one was better aware of the exaggeration than the Rabbi who uttered it. But then the purpose of that Rabbi would be, not to give his hearers an exact account of the great calamity, but to dwell on the horror of it, and to burn it in upon the minds of the people as a thing never to be forgotten. Yet there are many incidental remarks about the events of the war which are free from such exaggeration, and being in no way improbable in themselves, are such as might well have been known to the relater of them. The long passage b. Gitt. 57a-58a contains a variety of statements about the wars of Nero, Vespasian, and Hadrian; it is reported to a considerable extent by R. Johanan, whose informant was R. Shim'on b. Johai, who himself took part in the last war. No one would dream of crediting the assertion that for seven years the vineyards in Palestine needed and received no other manure than the blood of those slain in the war. But the story that young Ishmael b. Elisha was carried captive to Rome, and discovered there and released, is in every way probable. Ishmael b. Elisha was the name of two very well-known Rabbis, one the grandson of the other, and the younger being the contemporary and rival of Aqiba. Nothing is more likely than that stories of the lives and adventures of these men should have been told amongst their friends and remembered in later times. Such stories must of course be judged on their own merits. But if they are in themselves reasonable and probable, there is nothing to discredit them in the mere fact that they are found in works like the Talmud and Midrash, embedded in a mass of Haggadic speculation. Neither Talmud nor Midrash were intended primarily to teach history; but from the manner of their origin and growth, they could hardly fail to show some traces of contemporary history. Therefore, in place of condemning as apocryphal all and sundry of the allusions to historical personages and events contained in the Talmud and Midrash, we may and ought to distinguish amongst them. And perhaps we may make some approach to a general canon of criticism on the subject, if we say that in the literature referred to, the obiter dicta are of most value as evidence of historical fact; or, in other words, there is more reason to suspect exaggeration or invention in statements which appear to form part of the main line of the argument, than in those which appear to be merely illustrative notes, added to the text and embedded in it. The purpose of Haggadah (to which all these historical references belong) is homiletic; it aims at building up religious and moral character by every means other than the discipline of positive precept. Reference to historical fact was only one, and by no means the most important, form of Haggadah. Since it is in Haggadah that the Rabbinical mind found the outlet for its instinct of speculative inquiry, and the play of its fancy and imagination, as already explained, it is natural to expect that these will be most prominent and most abundant in Haggadic passages because most in accordance with the genius of Haggadah. When, accordingly, we find in the midst of such fanciful and exaggerated passages occasional statements which appear to be plain, sober matter of fact, there is the more reason to accept the latter as being historically reliable (at least intended to be so), because the author (or narrator) might have increased their effect as illustrations by free invention, and has chosen not to do so. I say that such statements may be accepted as being at least intended to be historically reliable. They must be judged on their merits, and where possible tested by such methods as would be applied to any other statements professedly historical. The narrator who gives them may have been wrongly informed, or may have incorrectly remembered; but my point is that in such statements he intends to relate what he believes to be matter of fact, and not to indulge his imagination.

I have made this attempt to work out a canon of criticism for the historical value of the Rabbinical literature, because such a canon seems to me to be greatly needed. So far as I am competent to judge, it appears to me that Jewish historians—as is only natural—make a far more legitimate and intelligent use of the Rabbinical literature for historical purposes than is generally to be observed in the writings of Christian historians who have dealt with that literature. Even in the works of Keim and Schurer, whose scholarship is above reproach, I do not remember to have found any attempt to set forth the principles on which they make use of the Rabbinical literature for historical purposes. And it is perhaps not too much to say that in most Christian writings that touch upon the Rabbinical literature there is little or no appearance of any such principles; sometimes, indeed, there is a mere reproduction of statements from previous writers, which the borrower has not verified and not always understood.

The principle which I have stated above will, of course, find its illustration in the treatment of the passages from the Rabbinical literature to be presently examined. That is to say, an attempt will be made to estimate the historical value of the statements contained in them. But it should be observed that for historical purposes they may be valuable in one or both of two ways. Whether or not they establish the fact that such and such an event took place, they at least establish the fact that such and such a belief was held in reference to the alleged event, or the person concerned in it. Thus we shall find that several instances are mentioned of miracles alleged to have been worked by Jews or Christians. The mere statement does not prove that these were actually performed, any more than the mere statement of the N.T. writers proves that the alleged miracles of Jesus and the Apostles were actually performed. But in the one case or in the other, the record of alleged miracles, made in all good faith, is clear proof of the belief that such events did take place and had taken place.

So also we shall find many instances of discussion upon topics chiefly scriptural, between Jewish Rabbis and certain persons called Minim.* Now the record of such discussions may be, in a given case, inaccurate; but it is proof positive of the belief that such discussions had actually occurred, and indeed may be said to establish not merely the belief but the fact that they had occurred. Therefore, whatever may be the amount of actual historical fact established by the passages from the Rabbinical writings examined in the present work, they will at least have the value (and it is no slight one) that belongs to records of opinion and belief upon the subject for the illustration of which they have been chosen.

* The whole question of the interpretation of the word Minim will be dealt with hereafter.
To the consideration of those passages I will now proceed, having given what I trust may be a sufficient, as well as a reliable, explanation of their nature and origin. I merely premise one word as to the classification of them, and the method by which I shall deal with their contents. The subjects referred to in them are so various that an exhaustive classification would involve a great deal of repetition, since one passage might be appropriately placed under each of several heads. This might be avoided by arranging them in the order of their occurrence in the Talmudic treatises and the several Midrashim. But such an arrangement would not afford the slightest help to the reader who wished to find what was said upon a given subject, e.g. the Christian scriptures. The same objection would apply to a chronological classification, according to which the passages should be arranged under the dates of the several Rabbis responsible for them.

I have thought it best to make a classification according to the main subject dealt with in each passage. I place first of all the passages referring to Jesus; then, the much larger group of those relating to followers of Jesus. Each passage or series of passages will have its title, indicating the main subject to which it refers; and an index of all the titles will be found in the table of contents. Under each title will be given the translation of one or more passages, bearing upon the particular topic, together with sufficient commentary to explain its meaning and its connexion with the main subject. The Hebrew and Aramaic texts, numbered consecutively to correspond with the translated passages, will be collected in an appendix. Following upon the translations and commentaries, a concluding chapter will sum up the general results of the inquiry, under the two main heads of the Tradition concerning Jesus and the Tradition concerning the Minim.

 

Remember the future.


Copyright 2007 JCR