Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Day at the Races

No wooden engraved "זכור ימות עולם" hovered over the lecturers today in UCL's nondescript J.Z. Young Lecture Theater. But speaking of cut wood, Richard Kalmin traced a motif recognizable to Talmudists from b. Yevamot 49b-50a and y. Sanhedrin 10:2 (28c) - Menashe's murder of the prophet Isaiah after the latter attempted to escape harm by hiding in a cedar tree. How did Menasheh do it? Well, he sawed him in half of course! Kalmin masterfully traced the tale in its various permutations: (A) 1st to second century Ascension of Isaiah (1:7-10; 3:6-10) as the earliest version we have, (b) the fourth century, Syrian Acts of Sharbil (ed. William Cureton), (c) Tabari (ed. Perlmann, p. 41), (d) Shahnameh, to name a few of the stops along the way. Kalmin was careful to point out the differences in the versions, and he argued for a messy, thick development begun in the "West" in the Ascension of Isaiah, taken up by later Christian sources, the Yerushalmi, and then on to the "East" - including the Bavli, Middle Persian expansions on the Yima myth and the Persian Epic (Firdowsi's Shahnameh). Apparently, the development here confirms Kalmin's theory of the direction of (growing) influence from West to East in the fourth century. But some reservations do need to be voiced about this kind of East-West bifurcation. To Yaron Eliav's protestations, Kalmin initially assumed a vast territory of shared culture. However he backed away by saying that the whole thing needs to be nuanced.

I can't do it all for you here, and you'll need to wait for the conference volume (to be published by Brill). In the meantime, the usual, exciting textual nugget: Manuscripts of the Bavli Yevamot passage describe Isaiah's tekhelet as "giving away" his hiding place by sticking out of the tree. And wouldn't you know it, Tabari writes: "As Isaiah finished his speech, they turned upon him to kill him, but the prophet fled from them. A tree that he passed split open, and he entered it. But Satan caught him and seized a fringe of his garment, which he showed to the pursuers...

On to Yaakov Elman's favorite city, Ctesiphon. Elman painted an extremely vivid picture of Jewish luxury shopping in the Persian winter capital based on talmudic evidence and a "late" late antique Chinese description. The use of documents and seals (so he and Geller decided to interpret חותמות) demonstrates that cash was not used to effect the transfer of these goods, rather a document - in contrast to rabbinic law. Thus, according to Elman, a lot of the seemingly relevant talmudic discussions are "academic" in some sense. Still, what is encoded therein? For this we'll have to wait for Elman's forthcoming article(s) in the Bulletin of the Asia Institute, which will outline the identity politics in the Bavli and Middle Persian literature. I have seen this paper (70+ plus) and can attest that there is a lot of material on the topic.

It doesn't get much better than a senior curator at the British Museum giving you a guided tour of Ctesiphon, Mahoza, and the land "behind" them using Google Earth and other impressive images. Appropriately called St. John, Prof. Simpson, went through everything in extreme detail. Forgive me, but the hour is late...Wealth generated by farming in the surrounding area, (Ammianus' "smiling orchards"), immensely thick walls (which we saw) with horseshoe towers, a round city, but divided into rectangular blocks, all streets "paved" by questionable materials like refuse. Tight, tight space, with access to some houses via 1.5 meter wide alleyways. Houses made of mudbrick, though vaulted reception rooms in the nicer ones and fired brick in public buildings. In the countryside the story was all about taming the rivers through an incredible network of canals. The Saint told us that the salination problem discussed in R. Adams' influential work (The Land Behind Babylonia) was "overatated" and the officials usually figured out how to fix this challenge; the materials goods, some of which were luxury items and distinctly Sasanian (like the silver bowls, and those almost prophetically minimalistic glass bowls)
[The image on the left is a recreation by a Japanese artist, which is currently on display in the British Museum and was received by the Saint himself]

, but some common to the WHOLE broad region - from Scotland to the Eastern reaches of the Sasanian empire - such as hairpins. And the pearls, which images confirm that people used tg "drip"!...What can I say, some of this has already been collected in Oppenheimer's Babylonian Judaica, but to see these images on the big screen was...

like meeting your "den" in Iranian heaven.

I spoke about the bei abedan and attempted to accomplish two things. I accepted Shaked's etymology of (a)bag-dan - a temple, which incidentally is confirmed in an early Gaonic tradition and one part of R. Hananel. I studied the talmudic sources in detail and emphasized their "constructedness" via source-criticism and the like. The accounts of Rav and Shmuel at b. Shabbat 116a are clearly modeled on the preceding Toesftan baraita, and most of what we can know here (and in the anachronistic accounts of b. Shabbat 152 and b. A.Z. 17b) tells us more about circulating oral traditions regarding the place than about the specific activities of tannaim and amoraim. But fear not, we still are able to correlate the institution and its activities with another cultural construction in Sasanian Iran - that of the effort of Sasanian kings to seek out the books of other nations, "refit" them with the Avesta, and dispute their inclusion in the newly expanded canon, which was stored in a special gubernatorial treasury. I also noted a small parallel to b. Taanit 24b, which according to MS Herzog (Yemenite) describes Shapur II's effort to engage in "disputation (Iranian "paykar")" with the Jews, and the same word used in regard to the same king in the Middle Persian passage in the Denkard (a Zoroastrian encyclopedia) about collecting the traditions of the Avesta.
M. Geller added to the discussion by suggesting the possibility that the institution was a holdover from Neo-Babylonian times.

But alas, my jetlag caused me to miss Maria Macuch's lecture on the particular difference between קרן and פירות in the Sasanian lawbook - in contradistinction to Roman Law. She noted the parallel to MP xweshih (ownership) and darishn (possession) and suggested that the talmudic discussion about this distinction, even though it is attributed to R. Lakish and R. Yohanan, nevertheless seems to be informed by this knowledge.

Albert de Jong problematized the problematization(!) of Gnosticism in Mesopotamia, as Karen Kings' thesis (and her supporters) leaves Manichaeaism, Mandaeism and other Mesopotamian Gnostic like religions in a kind of academic no-mans land and only takes aim at its use in Early Christian polemics and their modern scholarly descendents. de Jong took up Shaul Shaked's suggestion (and good old JZ Smith) that Gnosticism is not a religion, nor is it a heretical category for orthodox Christians, but a kind of system, like mysticism. He was left with many more questions than solutions, but at least put a lid on Kings' extremist diatribes, which brand anyone who uses the term 'Gnostic' a "colonialist pseudo-scientist" - ouch!

Theordore Kwasman did the loanword thing and crunched some serious numbers, which I cannot do for you here since there wasn't a handout. The work is exciting but preliminary, and it is unclear whether he will be the one to continue it as the paper was written "at the request of a colleague, Geller!" In general, he followed Derekh Eretz' advice to "teach your tongue to say 'I don't know'," which seems to have rattled some of the "enthusiasts". But enough said.

Yaron Eliav closed the deal with a fascinating discussion about the perception that Palestinian Jews had of Babylonia, and included an important caveat about what material culture means, which is a matter of great significance for this conference. For Eliav, it does not mean archaeology, rather the study of how people of the past engaged with and conceived of the material world around them. In that sense it stands at the intersection between archaeology and textual study. And this was what Samuel Krauss, the man for who's achievements this conference is being held, wanted to do. Eliav argued that Palestinians accessed the Babylonian Other through literary traditions (Josephus' stories, rabbinic oral traditions) and also through encounters with physical people - the nehotai and Babylonian immigrants. He discussed a few cases about how this worked, including R. Gamliel's "I love the Persians for three things" statement at Berakhot 8b). It was good fun, with a humorous picture of

Roman's eating like pigs ("but don't think that all Roman's ate like pigs"), and of the public latrines in Roman Palestine with a few pictures of Beit Shean. The nugget:
Genesis 10:10
וַתְּהִי רֵאשִׁית מַמְלַכְתּוֹ בָּבֶל וְאֶרֶךְ וְאַכַּד וְכַלְנֵה בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר:
is interpreted in Genesis Rabbah as follows:
ותהי ראשית ממלכתו בבל וארך ואכד וכלנה הדס ונציבין וקטיספון
These cities are on a line from NW to SE, i.e. the route by which Palestinian Jews traveling to Babylonia would have encountered the places. It testifies to their construction of geography (the ultimate material culture, the terra firma) according to their experience - as opposed to b. Yoma 10a, where the places are simply located in Meishan. Gafni, on the other hand, suggested a word size organizing principle.

Next time, some actual objects - especially bowls.
Signing off.

DISCLAIMER: All mistakes and omissions, mine. All zany image choices, mine.

1 comment:

  1. שי, אולי תחליף את הרקע למשהו בהיר! נוראה קשה לקרוא ככה


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