Rabbis as Romans: How Should We Understand the Rise of the Rabbinic Movement in Palestine

Certainly, one cannot exclude the possibility that rabbinic sources accurately record what a certain sage did, or said, or thought, and some scholars, although increasingly fewer, continue to read the texts for precisely this kind of data. My own preference, however, is to exchange specificity for probability. Thus, I prefer to ask what we might reasonably learn about Rabbis based on the redactional decisions taken by the editors with the material they had, or by collecting a significant number of traditions, such as case narratives, and asking what kind of history their appearance and their distribution among generations of Rabbis and among the various corpora of rabbinic literature presupposes. Particularly rich or complex individual rabbinic traditions are similarly most useful for the compositional and editorial decisions they reflect or for the social, religious, or political issues that they grapple with.

See Also: Rabbis as Romans (Oxford University Press, 2012)

By Hayim Lapin
Robert H. Smith Professor of Jewish Studies
Professor of History
University of Maryland
February 2014

A series of texts, beginning with the Mishnah at the turn of the third century, attest to the presence of scholars and ritual experts with the title Rabbi (“my master,” or “my teacher”) in Palestine and somewhat later in Mesopotamia. That much, everyone is agreed upon. There remains considerable debate about what this movement was, who made up its membership, and its historical significance. For a long time, scholarship was constrained by the fact that practically the only form of Judaism (not including Christianity) that survived from late antiquity to the modern period was organized around the study of these texts and the performance of the practices adumbrated in them. Modern Jewish and Christian scholars alike (and there were few if any who were not one or the other) had a great deal of difficulty breaking the presumption of “normativity,” that is, that these texts reflected what Jews actually did and more significantly, that Rabbis, and their precursors the Pharisees, played a central role in determining the forms that Judaism took in the second-Temple period and the early post-Temple period.

Few scholars today operate explicitly with this presumption. Still, whether it is the canonization of Hebrew scriptures, or purity practices in the time of Jesus, or betrothal and marriage practices, during the time of Jesus or long after, scholars find it all too easy to read early rabbinic literature as a repository of representative and authoritative traditions that we can use to answer our questions. This essay hopes to show you why that is not always a reliable course of action. Instead, we should try to understand Rabbis as a relatively small group that came into being in the two to three generations leading up to 200 CE, and best reflect what is of concern to their small group. Finally, we will consider the possibility that what Rabbinic movement tells us most about is Romanization among a certain sector of Palestinian Jewish society.


There are a very few references in Christian sources in Greek and Latin from the 380s and after that might reflect knowledge of the Rabbis. To this we might add Origen’s Commentary to the Song of Songs from the third century. These may suggest a rise in the visibility of Rabbis in late antiquity, at least among those writers, and emperors, who thought about Jews. Several dozen inscriptions, mostly from Palestine, use the title rabbi. In my opinion, these inscriptions probably reflect a broader use of a title of respect that Rabbis too utilize (Lapin 2011; Cohen 1981, cf. Rosenfeld, 2011). Even if that is not the case, the inscriptions seem to come from the same period as the patristic sources. To my knowledge, there are no "pagan" sources that refer explicitly to Rabbis.

Ultimately, we have to rely almost exclusively on rabbinic sources themselves (Strack 1996 for literature and discussion). All classical rabbinic works are the product of compilation and editing rather than authorial composition. The editing ranges in date from about 200 CE, for the Mishnah, to the early Islamic period for some midrashic texts, and in geography from Palestine, seemingly the Galilee, to present-day Iraq. We can roughly classify these into four types:

As a rule of thumb, we can say that the closer in time and in place a rabbinic work is from the period we are interested in, the more likely it is to have material that is relevant. Rules of thumb will only get us so far, however. In the case of the early Rabbinic movement, we can rely on "Tannaitic" corpora, those Palestinian works that appear to represent the traditions of Rabbis up to the early third century: the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and the "Tannaitic" or "Halakhic" midrashim. However, if, for example, we are interested in the origins of, or the precursors to, the movement, and wish to locate these immediately in the post-Temple period or earlier still in the second-Temple period, the earliest works on which we can rely are still removed by at least a century from the circumstances we want to understand, and in the interim there was considerable social and political change.

In addition, we can never be sure of the balance of compilation to reworking of material. In the former case, the editors stand between us and what once may have been available through their selection and organization. In the latter case, the editors re-present their own work as older tradition.

Origins and History

The best historical benchmark for the emergence of the rabbinic movement is the production of the Mishnah. By broad consensus, this legal compilation was produced around 200 CE, and already presupposes a history of preceding sages and their teachings, exempla, and debates. From this point we can work both forwards and backwards. A great deal of older scholarship draws on those traditions that connect Rabbis with the Pharisees and more generally with the later Second-Temple period and the significant role of a gathering at Yavneh (Yamnia) on the Mediterranean coast. Recent scholars are more inclined to see much of this as legendary (especially when, following our rule of thumb, it appears in the Babylonian Talmud).

At the same time, some connection with the Pharisees is implied by the debates that the Mishnah cites between them and the Sadducees, by the prominence of the house of Gamaliel in early rabbinic circles, and the possible identification between figures mentioned in “genealogical” traditions rabbinic tradition (m. Avot 1–2, m. Hagigah 2.2) and figures identified as Pharisees in Josephus. The legal traditions that the Mishnah ascribes to its pre-70 CE precursors and those that were discussed in the convocation at Yavneh all suggest that the earliest Rabbis emerged as a pietist group, concerned with some of the same kinds of issues, such as tithing, purity, and vows, that the Dead Sea sect and especially the scribes and Pharisees mentioned in the Gospels were concerned with. The kinds of cases that individual Rabbis of the first generation are said to have heard as judges also suggests that Rabbis made up a predominantly pietist group in its earliest manifestation, and that “judgment” was primarily consultation by adherents on matters of practice.

By the time the Mishnah was completed, the range of interests had expanded significantly. In fact, the Mishnah proffers a vision for a restored Jewish society complete with Temple, king, Sanhedrin (council), courts and civil law. While scholars debate just how much the Mishnah was geared toward day-to-day practice, whether proscriptively or descriptively, there is clearly also a broad utopian quality to its editors’ vision. Even when describing important historical institutions like the Temple and its sacrifice, it is unclear whether the Mishnah has access to real historical tradition, or relies on the speculative and exegetical work of Rabbis. Thus, for instance, Tractate Middot sometimes relies on verses in Ezekiel or Zechariah to describe a Temple that had been rebuilt by Herod and had long ago been destroyed.

As we move forward in time, to the “Amoraic” period, perhaps the most remarkable development is that the movement also took root in Mesopotamia. While my essay here is on developments in Palestine, there has been much important work done in recent years reconsidering the culture of the Babylonian Talmud (Rubenstein 2007, Secunda 2013, and Hermann 2012). In both regions, for all their very significant differences, an important new dimension becomes important in Rabbinic works, what we might call citationality. Not only do the Hebrew Bible and the opinions of earlier sages continue to be significant, but Tannaitic tradition itself and even Amoraic statements become the subject of commentary, and Amoraic traditions frequently carry “genealogies” of transmission (e.g., Rabbi A, in the name of Rabbi B, in the name of Rabbi C … said). We are dealing in this later rabbinic literature with a literary tradition whose meaning and significance sages and disciples alike study.

In Palestine, the utopian dimension of Rabbinic texts did not disappear, if for no other reason than that it forms a central feature of the shared legacy of later Rabbis. However, other dimensions come to prominence. While the Mishnah all but ignores the present-day political circumstances of the Jews of the Provincia Palaestina, later corpora engage the lived world of Roman Palestine more explicitly. The moral, cosmogonic, and theological dimensions of the interpretation of Scripture drew clear attention in the midrashic works of the fifth century and later. The range of cases later Rabbis are said to have heard as judges—although apparently still voluntary arbitration—is also broader than that those of earlier generations, extending to contractual and property law.

For completeness, we should look briefly at the Palestinian Jewish Patriarch or Nasi, although the complicated history of this figure is only partly a problem of the history of the rabbinic movement. One late-first or early-second-century Rabbi, Gamaliel, is at the center of narratives that stress his special prerogatives. Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, his grandson (although the family connection has been questioned, Stern 2003), often known as simply Rabbi, or even Rabbenu ha-qadosh, "our holy master," and he is thought to have been the editor of the Mishnah. These traditions give the strong impression that the figure whom Origen calls the ethnarch and whom he describes as acting with considerable freedom and the tacit permission of Rome, or whose successors received formal recognition and powers for a brief time at the end of the fourth century, emerged out of the Rabbinic movement. Later rabbinic traditions suggest considerable tension between Rabbis themselves and patriarchs. It is difficult to sort out the underlying history. Did the Patriarchate emerge out of Rabbinic circles, or were the earliest connections aready the convergence interests by distinct parties?

And later, are the stories of conflict evidence of a parting of the ways, or of intramural tensions among Rabbis and their broader circle?


You may have noticed that I have referred to almost no specific traditions, stories, or passages to support the sketch of the rabbinic movement thus far. This is because the historicity of rabbinic narratives and legal traditions remains a thorny one. We can almost never find outside confirmation of the events, facts, or even persons mentioned in the classical sources, and we have to assume that of all the possible motivations that Rabbis had for formulating, collecting, and transmitting traditions, accurately conveying to modern historians history "as it really happened" was not a primary one.

Certainly, one cannot exclude the possibility that rabbinic sources accurately record what a certain sage did, or said, or thought, and some scholars, although increasingly fewer, continue to read the texts for precisely this kind of data. My own preference, however, is to exchange specificity for probability. Thus, I prefer to ask what we might reasonably learn about Rabbis based on the redactional decisions taken by the editors with the material they had, or by collecting a significant number of traditions, such as case narratives, and asking what kind of history their appearance and their distribution among generations of Rabbis and among the various corpora of rabbinic literature presupposes. Particularly rich or complex individual rabbinic traditions are similarly most useful for the compositional and editorial decisions they reflect or for the social, religious, or political issues that they grapple with.

The strategy is analogous to focusing on the Gospels as literary artifacts that were written at particular places and times and that have "genealogical" relationships between them (however we handle the Synoptic Problem), rather than trying to determine whether one or another anecdote about Jesus really happened. As the analogy to the Gospels suggests, the problem of the historicity of the sources is by no means peculiar to rabbinic sources. However, the peculiarities of rabbinic textual practices as they evolved do mean that we have to develop reading strategies suited to them, just as we must for any corpus we want to analyze.

“Rabbis as Romans”

Time for some stocktaking. Rabbinic corpora reflect the interests—generally legal or broadly “religious” but sometimes deeply embedded in the internal politics of Rabbis themselves—of the composers and editors of the literature. Rabbis’ origins, for instance, are generally obscured by the texts’ streamlined treatment of the past. Their testimony about the Temple may depend on living memory, but it is also inflected with the exegetical and the utopian impulses of the movement. Their case law suggests that Rabbis served as judges, or better, arbitrators and advisors, for circumscribed group of people. The bad news, at least for readers of the New Testament who want an authoritative Jewish perspective on, say, the Temple, the Pharisees, or Jerusalem of the time of Jesus, is that the Mishnah cannot reliably provide this. It provides perspectives (rarely a single one) that come out of a particular movement with a specific primary audience. The literature both, explicitly and in the editorial gaps and seams that it preserves, suggests that behind the texts stands a complex and contested social movement.

There is some good news, though, for those who are interested in looking at Rabbis in their own time and place. If we are willing to give up on a high degree of specificity (Rabbi X did the following, and it had the following consequences among his disciples or for the Jewish people), and focus instead on the texts themselves as the data, and consider use comparative data to help discern the limits of the possible (what do we know about the archaeology of the placed mentioned? about the demography of the Roman East?), we may be able to say something about Rabbis in Palestine in the second in Palestine (and by extension in Mesopotamia).

The payoff, at least in the picture I have developed, is that Rabbis give us some insight into the historical and cultural processes of “Romanization” (Lapin 2012, but there is plenty of criticism). By way of conclusion, let me sketch some of the results. By the third century, Rabbis were a numerically small movement of men, disproportionately congregated in the cities of Sepphoris and Tiberias in Galilee, Caesarea on the coast, and Lydda in western Judaea. They constituted a kind of sub-elite, from generally well off landed households, with perhaps a few truly wealthy among them (notably the Patriarch). Not surprisingly, the social horizons of the group were overtly focused on their own members and more broadly on Israel as fundamentally distinct from the peoples around them or who governed them. Yet, along with urbanization, Rabbis reflect considerable embeddedness in their Roman provincial setting.

The most remarkable example of embeddedness, by way of conclusion, is bathing in Roman baths. If one were going to select an institution that shouted “the Other” in the Levant of the third century, and particularly for Jews, one might happily choose the Roman bath. It was relatively newfangled, imported, and urban, relied on technologies developed in Rome, involved public states of undress or nudity, and featured in its dedications or decorations depictions of pagan deities. Instead, Rabbinic texts adopted, even naturalized, the phenomenon of bathing in public baths, and, in a sense, handled the moral, religious, and political issues piecemeal as they came up. Perhaps the most famous anecdote, about which much has been written, has Rabban Gamaliel in the bath of Akko claiming that Aphrodite in the bath is no more than a decoration. Here is an example of a complex text that rewards delicate unpacking, although we cannot do that here (Schwartz 2001, Yadin 2006). Instead, I will point out that Rabbis’ very negotiation of the propriety of, and comportment in, baths, while also the product of Rabbi’s Judaism, is echoed in Roman and Greek pagan writers, and in contemporary Christian texts such as the Didascalia Apostolorum and the writings of Tertullian.

Here is an important vantage point with which to view the development of the rabbinic movement. A local, Jewish movement that articulated an Israelite "us" over and against a gentile "them," Rabbis also constituted a group of provincials who navigated the possibilities and complications of a Roman provincial landscape, its baths and cult and statuary, who carved out a space for voluntary aribtration and adjudication, and who built an school culture that placed "Torah" at the center of study and yet sounds very much like the scholastic traditions of the third and fourth century Roman world. In that sense, Rabbis were indeed Romans.

For Further Reading

Cohen, S. "Epigraphical Rabbis." JQR 72 (1981): 1-17.

Fonrobert, C. E., Jaffee, Martin S. Cambridge Companion to the Talmud. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Hermann, G. A Prince without a Kingdom: The Exilarch in the Sasanian Era. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012.

Hezser, C. Social Structure of the Rabbinic Movement. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997.

Lapin, H. "Epigraphical Rabbis: A Reconsideration." JQR 101 (2011): 311–346.

Lapin, H. Rabbis as Romans: The Rabbinic Movement in Palestine, 100–400 CE. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Neusner, J. Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1981.

Rosenfeld, B-Z. “The Title 'Rabbi' in Third-to Seventh-Century Inscriptions in Palestine,” JJS 61 (2010), 234–256.

Rubenstein, J. L. The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Schwartz, S. Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Secunda, S. The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Strack, H. L. Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash. Translated by M. N. A. Bockmuehl. Revised by G. Stemberger. 2 ed. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1996.

Stern, S. "Rabbi and the Origins of the Patriarchate." JJS 54 (2003): 193-215.

Yadin, A. "Rabban Gamliel, Aphrodite's Bath, and the Question of Pagan Monotheism." JQR 96, no. 2 (2006): 149-179.

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