“Creation of Bible and Mishnah” from A Provocative People, (2012)
By the end of the second century CE the Jewish population of the Roman Empire and the Western Diaspora, despite all the setbacks, stood at seven million.* In the eyes of the Romans, the Jews were still annoying troublemakers; but they were still too numerous to destroy. Hadrian’s successors would have to find a new way to control them.
In the second century, the Empire was at the peak of its power, with the best system of imperial management that had yet been devised. The Flavian dynasty of Vespasian and his two sons, Titus and Domitian, yielded to a stronger alternative—succession by merit. Three emperors in a row chose successors who were not members of their family, but military men who commanded the respect of the army and the administration. Trajan chose Hadrian, Hadrian chose Antoninus Pius; and Antoninus Pius chose Marcus Aurelius (98-161 CE). All three emperors wanted to solve the Jewish problem.
After their second defeat by the Romans, the Jews (for all practical purposes) had ceased to be a territorial nation. They were still a nation, both in their own view and in the eyes of their neighbors—but a dispersed nation. This nation lived in two empires which were hostile to each other. Most lived in the Western Diaspora, under Roman control. Many lived in the Eastern Empire, which was under Parthian control. Western Jews lived with the challenge of the Greek world and the attractiveness of the Hellenistic option. Eastern Jews experienced a world where the old authoritarianism of the Semitic and Persian worlds prevailed. In the Jewish mind the Jews, wherever they lived, were one and the same people. But time and distance would aggravate the differences between East and West.
The Romans were confronted with the problem of taming the Jews. Forced Hellenization was no longer a feasible alternative. The only credible leadership group that survived the two messianic wars was the rabbis. There was nobody else left, not even a few Alexandria Jewish philosophers. And the leader of the rabbis was a presumed descendant of Hillel, a famous Pharisaic scholar whofounded a dynasty of rabbis, many of whom became the chiefs of the Sanhedrin. His name was Judah (170-220 CE).
In the middle of the second century, the presidency of the rabbinic Sanhedrin was permanently assumed by the House of Hillel. What David was to the monarchy, what Zadok was to the High Priesthood, so was Hillel to the “chief rabbinate.” Until 429 CE every “chief rabbi” was a descendant of Hillel.
Judah was the great-grandson of Gamaliel II. He had grown up in the turmoil of the Second Jewish War. He had witnessed the failure of the Akiba administration. He saw the devastation and demoralization of the Jews. He knew that the stability of Jewish life was only possible through an effective central control and through a long-run accommodation with the Romans.
The Romans wanted law and order from the Jews. They wanted centralized control with effective management. What was needed was a Jewish “emperor” who would tame Jews in the West and who would be directly responsible to Roman authority. A new job gradually emerged called the Nasi (Prince). The Nasi might have a Sanhedrin to whom he would defer. But from the Roman perspective, the ultimate authority would not be the council; it would be the Nasi.
The Nasi became the effective king of all the Western Jews. He became responsible for their good behavior. He became responsible for their payment of the special “Jew tax.” The Jew tax was the price that Jews paid to receive exemption from the impossible requirement of emperor worship. A king and pope wrapped into one, the Nasi was a royal personage, belonging to the “royal” family of Hillel, which now joined the house of David and the house of Zadok as an ultimate Jewish pedigree. It was rumored that Hillel himself was descended from David.
From the Roman perspective, the role of the Nasi was to check messianism. The rabbis were to return to their former Pharisee carefulness—a Messiah yes, but not for a long time. The Jews must remain a well-behaved minority nation under the control of their clergy. The Persians had authorized the Zadokite theocracy. The Romans now authorized the rabbinic theocracy, or government by the rabbis. The Nasi established rabbinic courts and ordained rabbis to serve in them. The certification of rabbis was now formalized (semikha). All legitimacy now depended on the Nasi.
The residence of the Nasi was in Galilee, the surviving center of Jewish life in Roman Palestine. The Nasi first resided in the Western Galilee in Beth Shearim, not toofar from the big city of Sepphoris. Later on the court of the Nasi moved to Tiberias in the Eastern Galilee. For two centuries Tiberias was the capital of the Jewish world. There the Nasi held court. There he lived in splendor. There he revived the politically obedient posture of the former Zadokite High Priests. But his jurisdiction was no longer little Judea. It was the boundaries of the Roman world.
The power and prestige of the Nasi did not emerge immediately. It took over two centuries to perfect them. First, the Romans had to recover from their anger. Then the rabbis had to reorganize themselves in Galilee. And then the Nasi had to create the institutions that would give reality to this power. The most important institution would be the yeshiva (Torah academy). At the heart of the yeshiva would be a new document, a Second Torah, which the Nasi himself would create.
The Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple had rendered useless the old Zadokite clergy. They had been the masters of the Temple. They had been hoisted on their own petard. The Torah which they had championed did not allow them to build a Yahweh temple in any place but the sacred hill of Jerusalem. They had foolishly arranged for their own demise. The new clergy, the rabbis, cleverly attached themselves to a portable symbol of God’s presence, the Torah book itself. They were the masters of the book. This book, which their Zadokite competitors had created, was tied to no single place. It praised and exalted Jerusalem, but it did not need it. The rabbis sincerely mourned the loss of Jerusalem. Yet, ironically, the loss of Jerusalem eliminated their competition and gave them undisputed power. The book was the very voice of God, and the rabbis were now the only people who understood what this voice was saying.
If the challenge of a temple religion is to determine which temples are “kosher,” then the challenge of a book religion is to determine which books are “kosher.” A kosher book is a book which is clearly the work of God. Human books have human authors. Divine books have divine authors. In Zadokite times, nine books had already been acknowledged as sacred— Torah, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Twelve. By dividing the Torah intofive books, the Greek Jews had already made it thirteen. But the Hellenistic centuries had produced a whole series of new books that their devotees also claimed were divine, each of them attributed to a prophet who served as the secretary of Yahweh. There were the songs used by the Levites in the Jerusalem Temple (Psalms). There were Hellenistic books like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Ben Sira. There were anti-Hellenistic books like Daniel and Jubilees. There were Zadokite histories like Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. There were anti-Zadokite books like Ruth and Job. There were pro-Maccabee books like Maccabees I, II and III. There were anti-Maccabee books like Esther. There were even leftover Asherah books like the Song of Songs.
The Zadokite priests had been reluctant to add books to the Torah. But the rabbis, with their messianic and Davidic agenda, had been eager to do so. The collapse of the temple regime gave them the freedom to do what-ever they wanted. What they wanted was to impose their own ideology on Jewish life in the same way that the Zadokites had done in their time. The rabbis were still eager to add books if they fit the Pharisee belief system. But they were also now eager to ban books which they saw as doctrinally dangerous. Books were instruments not only of devotion but also of instruction.
The selection process for the Bible took place at one of the most catastrophic times for the Jews. The Temple had just been destroyed and the rabbinate was rallying to assert its control over Jewish life in Yavneh. The symbol of their new power was a council of rabbis in Yavneh (90 CE), which fixed for all time the “word of God.” There were dozens of competing books to choose from. A set of stated and unstated criteria guided their decision making. The first was that all prophecy had ended. Malachi (c. 515 BCE) was the last prophet. Any legitimate book needed an author who lived before Malachi. The rabbis, like the Zadokite priests, wanted no new prophets to challenge their authority, especially at a time when hundreds of men were running around claiming to be prophets and claiming to be better messianists that the rabbis were. Of course, at one time there had been prophets. But now there were only rabbis to interpret their words. In other words, anybody claiming to be a new prophet was a false prophet. And whatever Yahweh had wanted to say to the Jews he had already said. The rabbis were now, as the official interpreters of the Divine Book of the Divine Word, the sole spokesmen for God.
The second criterion was that every book must have a legitimate prophet as its “secretary.” Since most of the books had been written long after Malachi, finding suitable transmitters provided an ideological strain. Two ancient warrior kings (who were certainly illiterate)—David and Solomon—were now turned intofamous authors, composing everything from songs to sex poetry to Hellenistic proverbs and philosophy. The age of illiteracy was transformed by the rabbis into the age of literary giants. But, of course, that made no difference. The only author was God himself.
The third criterion was that texts must be Messiah friendly. But that was not enough. They must also never suggest that a Messiah other than the one from the house of David was legitimate. Messianic texts that celebrated a Zadokite or priestly Messiah were not kosher.
The fourth criterion was that nothing positive about the Maccabees must be included. The less said about the Maccabees the better. The rabbis detested the Hellenizing Maccabees with great passion. The two great holidays celebrating Maccabee victories, Hanukka (Kislev 25) and Nicanor’s Day (Adar 13), were anathema to them. The story of Hanukka in the Books of the Maccabees was excluded. And the more important Nicanor’s Day, the celebration of the victory of Judah Maccabee over a mighty Greek army, was cleverly replaced by the Fast of Esther and Purim. The story of Purim in the Book of Esther was declared divine, even though the book was very problematic, with no mention of Yahweh and with two chief characters who have the names of Babylonian gods: Marduk (Mordecai) and Ishtar (Esther). On its own it would never have been included in the rabbinic Bible. But the rabbis hated the Maccabees. The chief holiday of the Maccabees was Nicanor’s Day (Adar 13). Purim was Adar 14. The rabbis adopted Purim and the Book of Esther and turned Nicanor’s Day, the day before Purim, into a preparatory fast day called the Fast of Esther. Purim and the Book of Esther were the gifts of the Maccabee-hating rabbis. Of course, the rabbis were already covered by their principle that all prophecy had ended with Malachi, 350 years before the Maccabees appeared. No story about the Maccabees could, therefore, be divine.
By the time the selection process was over, only eleven new books passed muster—Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. The rest were consigned to destruction. What emerged was a collection of twenty-four books which we call the Hebrew Bible. For the rabbis they were the revelation of Yahweh to the Jews and the world. Nothing might be subtracted. Nothing might be added. Whatever Yahweh had wanted to say he had said in these books. And their true meaning and their true implications were in the hands of the rabbis. The books without the rabbis—and the rabbis without the books—were incomplete.
The Bible began with the Protest Movement and was refined by the Zadokites. But in its final form, it was a rabbinic document. We know it to be a human document with serious problems—historical inaccuracies, contradictions, anachronisms and a parochial ethics and world view. But for the rabbis, it was perfection, superior to all other literature, the presence of God on earth and the message of God to the Jews and the world. Although the Temple had been destroyed, the rabbis had fashioned a document that would replace the Temple. The study of Torah and its nineteen supplementary books would be, like the Sabbath, an alternative sacrifice to meat and incense, a sacrifice of time and devotion.
Yet the completion of the Bible did not provide the rabbis with the constitution that they needed. There was no clear and explicit articulation of rabbinic ideology. The Torah was overwhelmingly a Zadokite document. And while the prophets of the supplementary books were often deliciously anti-priestly, they never spoke about rabbis and synagogues and yeshivas. The heart of rabbinic Yahvism did not comfortably lie there. The Bible as a codebook was an inadequate foundation for a new rabbinic theocracy.
An alternative to the Bible already existed. It was the 250 years of legal decisions which the rabbis had issued both as teachers and as judges. Sometimes these decisions cited support from the Bible; sometimes they did not. There was a defiant rabbinic strain that was trans-biblical. It was the doctrine of the “Second Torah,” the bold claim that most of the decisions of the rabbis did not derive their authority from the Bible. They came directly from God, Moses and Mount Sinai. The rabbis needed their own Torah, especially now when their supremacy had been achieved.
The rabbis enhanced the mystery of this Torah by keeping it “oral.” It existed only in the memory of the rabbis who transmitted it from teacher to disciple. No lay person had access to it unless he/she consulted the rabbis. The advantage of the system was that it conveyed an ancient pre-writing authenticity to the statements. The disadvantage of the system was the bur-den of memorizing.
There is no doubt that some of the teachings of this “Second Torah” had their origins in ancient stories and practices that the Zadokites priests and even the Protest Movement prophets had excluded in their zeal. There was a folk anti-elitist edge to some of it. But most of it was comparatively recent, a vast collection of teachings derived from the schools of many rabbinic masters. The language of this transmission was Hebrew, even though the common language of the Jews was Aramaic—but not the Hebrew of the Bible; a more elegant and flexible Hebrew that had evolved in the rabbinic academies. Pharisaic ideology forbade these teachers from calling themselves prophets. But they were inventors of a new lifestyle, a pious lifestyle that was trying to adapt the severe message of a shepherd Protest Movement to the demands of an urban Hellenistic world.
Out of this struggle came the foundations of the traditional Judaism with which we are familiar. The Torah lifestyle was modified tofit the world of craftsmen and merchants, as well as farmers and herdsmen—the world of bourgeois families as well as peasants in huts and shepherds in tents—the world of literacy as well as the world of trances and ecstasies. Sabbath lights and synagogue prayers, Passover seders and commercial transactions—all take their place on the Jewish stage as though they were perfectly traditional. And the rabbis make it all kosher with their wonderful oral transmissions.
The great rabbinic masters, the founders of important schools, were called tannaim (repeaters), and their teachings or repetitions were called mishnayot (mishnah in the singular form). By the time of Judah the Prince, there were thousands of these transmissions floating around the rabbinic world. If they could only be collected, if they could only be written down, they would become an effective “second constitution” for the new rabbinic establishment.
Attempts had been made to relieve the burden of memorization by writing down the teachings to facilitate study and judicial decision making. But there was strong resistance from conservatives who feared innovation and who also feared that it would undermine rabbinic authority. In the second century, before the Bar Kochba rebellion (and even after), famous rabbis like Akiba and Meir encouraged the recording out of fear that the destruction of the rabbis through Roman persecution would lead to the loss of the transmitted teachings.
Judah the Prince bit the bullet. As the first Nasi of a new Jewish regime, as a new High Priest without the Temple, he saw the necessity of the “Second Torah,” a visible constitution for the new Jewish government. The Bible held a primary place of honor but was too disconnected from the behavior and lifestyle of the evolving rabbinic world to be useful. Having just been finalized, it was already obsolete, even for the pious. Something in the language and style of the rabbis was required.
The monumental task of collecting and editing the mishnayot began. It was fed by the energy of the Jewish government, by the victory of propagandists who warned that the legacy would otherwise be lost and by the excitement of finally transcending the disasters of the recent past. By 200 CE it was complete. Once completed, it would become the major document of Jewish life until modern times. The Bible, like the Aaronide priests, would always be granted first honors. But the stuff out of which government and scholarship emerged was to be found in the new constitution.
The name conferred on the document was Mishnah. It turned out to be an anthology of sixty-three books organized into six sections. Each section dealt with a different area of Jewish concern—farming, holidays, family, crime, worship and purity. The organization of the Mishnah was different from that of the Bible. At the heart of the Bible was a rambling narrative with laws inserted. The Mishnah was a law book with stories inserted. The Mishnah, although its spirit was anti-Hellenistic, reflected the Hellenistic penchant for order and classification. It was sometimes more Greek that it wanted to be.*
In many cases, where rabbinic masters disagreed, the Mishnah cited both the majority and dissenting opinions, but, in general, the prevailing law was stated simply and clearly without the frills of biblical Hebrew. The anthology was all-encompassing. It recognized no boundary between state and religion. Religion was not a department of state as it was in the Greek and Roman world. The state was a department of religion, as it was in the mentality of salvation religion. Since the Jews at this time were a dispersed minority, a nation without territory, the Mishnah focused more on family, work and worship than on political administration. The Temple had its own section, a powerful reminder of its continuing hold on Jewish imagination and patriotism. But it remained the most neglected part of the Mishnah.
Of course, there were defects. Many teachings of many masters were excluded either deliberately or because they were not available. Hasty collecting was bound to leave out many candidates. Where there was no controversy, laws were frequently not included. Underlying the document was the existence of a world of shared culture and general consensus where everything did not need to be spelled out for the reader. The order was often less than Greeks would demand. It would require future code breakers to make the information in the Mishnah consumer accessible. But it was, in many respects, a workable compromise between Hellenistic reason and Semitic problem solving.
The Mishnah had one book devoted to ideology. It was called Avot (rabbinic Fathers) and clearly articulated the philosophy of salvation so dear to the hearts of the Messianists and Pharisees. This world was but an antechamber to the next. Every deed was observed and recorded. The final Judgment Day hovered over all reality. Justice would prevail. The ultimate reward was the presence of God. The taste of that presence on earth was the study of Torah (read Mishnah). The opening of the Book of Avot is the most important ideological statement in the entire Mishnah—that God di-vided the Torah into a written and oral one; the first he gave to the Zadokite priests. The second he gave to Moses and Joshua, who ultimately transmitted it to the rabbis.* Loud and clear!
The Mishnah became the foundation of the new Jewish government. It transformed the Jewish culture of the Western Diaspora, and ultimately that of the Eastern Diaspora as well. It became the foundation of the new rabbinic academies in the Galilee. Mastering the Mishnah was the avenue to ordination to the rabbinate. The rabbinate became the most prestigious Jewish profession. Rabbinic appointees and missionaries were placed all over the Roman world, enhancing the prestige and power of the Nasi. As the Hellenistic Jewish world retreated, it was embraced by this new Jewish authority. Government by the clergy returned to Jewish life.
In the third century, the Roman government dramatically underwent an ethnic transformation. Greek shared with Latin an equal authority. The merit system for the emperors broke down. Ambitious soldiers, chiefly of non-Roman origin, seized power. One of them was the child of a Syrian Baal priestess. Ultimately all the inhabitants of the Empire, including the Jews, received citizenship (212 CE). In a less Roman and more oriental empire, the Jews felt perfectly comfortable, even though Greek antisemitism would not go away. Citizenship arrived just as the economy began to decline from too much taxation and too much disorder. Salvation cults from the East poured in, catering to imperial citizens who were withdrawing from public life and turning to personal salvation. The messianic idea of impending catastrophe and rescue grew in popularity. The Jews found themselves in an ideological world where the Mishnah message was not so strange. The trauma of the last century faded away. The power and prestige of the Nasi increased. Like multicultural America with a problematic economy of self-absorbed consumers, Jews in the Roman world achieved the security of becoming a multicultural option.
In the rabbinic academies of Galilee, the Mishnah became the focal point of discussion and judicial debate. A new set of Mishnah masters appeared. They were the Amoraim. In typical religious and ancestral worship fashion, they viewed themselves as inferior to the Tannaim who preceded them. They were simply scholars, not transmitters. Questions from the Diaspora were referred to their academies. Disputes over the meaning of the texts then ensued. Disciples recorded the discussions of their masters. Succeeding generations referred to them and added their own commentary.
From time to time, challengers wanted to know whether the laws of the Second Torah could be found in the first one. There was a continuous insecurity in the Mishnah world over the equality of the Mishnah with the Bible. Much time was spent pursuing this search for “appropriate” Bible quotations. Along the way, much of the dialogue was recorded. After one hundred years, most mishnayot in the Mishnah had footnotes ten times as long as the original text. In the world of the rabbinic academies, nothing could stop this endless digression. What began as a pragmatic search for practical answers was now turned into a stream-of-consciousness doctoral dissertation.
At the beginning of the third century, an important event occurred. A Galilean master by the name of Rav (c. 220 CE) crossed over the eastern border of the Roman Empire to Parthian Chaldea and brought the Mishnah yeshiva with him. Rav was one of the most important teachers in the rabbinic world of his day, which was centered in Galilee. But the Jews of the Eastern Diaspora in Chaldea, who were numerous and populous, lacked the institutions and scholarship of Galilee. Rav’s decision to move to Chaldea was not the result of persecution or the anticipated collapse of the Roman Empire. It was an opportunity to incorporate the Eastern world (Jews of the Parthian Empire) more tightly into the rabbinic system.