How the Rabbis Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as We Know It

In antiquity, as today, synagogue architecture followed local custom. This was true for the adoption of the Greco-Roman public building, the basilica, as the standard form for ancient synagogues. Roman buildings, churches, and synagogues might be indistinguishable from one another but for the dedicatory inscriptions and art that archeologists find within them. One may safely assume that the same architects, artisans, and contractors built all of these buildings with but minor modifications depending upon which community was paying their bills.

See Also: Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as We Know It (St. Martin’s Press, 2016).

By Burton L. Visotzky
Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies
Jewish Theological Seminary
January, 2017

When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem bringing to an end the Jewish rebellion of 66-70 CE, they also brought an end to the sacrificial cult centered in the Second Temple and its priesthood. Inadvertently, Rome served as a midwife to the emergence of rabbinic Judaism, providing not only opportunity, but also the cultural milieu for Judaism to grow and flourish. Greco-Roman civilization, encompassing many aspects of Hellenistic paideia, served as a muse to the creation of what was at once a continuation of biblical religion, as well as a new Roman religious movement that came to be called Judaism. Greco-Roman influences can be felt across a broad spectrum of rabbinic literature: in vocabulary, institutions, hermeneutics and exegesis, rhetoric, law, philosophy, art, and architecture.

Within the classical rabbinic literature, redacted between the late-second and early-seventh centuries CE ― that is to say the Mishnah, Tosefta, Yerushalmi, Bavli, and Palestinian Midrash collections ― there are thousands of loan-words from Greek, and to a lesser extent, Latin. The sheer ubiquity of the penetration of foreign locutions into the Hebrew and Aramaic of the Jews is also mirrored in inscriptional evidence from synagogue dedication plaques and funerary inscriptions in the Land of Israel and, more to be expected, in the Diaspora. Major Jewish institutions such as the Synagogue and the Sanhedrin still bear the names of their Greek origins. Other words are less recognized as loan words, but are nonetheless Greek. Among them the raised platform from which the Torah is read, bema, and the hors d’oeuvre consumed on Passover, karpos.

The synagogue was a gathering place in the Jewish community, much as it was in the Roman world. It remains debated what the actual function of the synagogue was in each community, and no doubt it changed from the time of its origins in the late Second Temple period, to the flourishing of synagogues in Byzantine Galilee. So, too, the Sanhedrin, which among the word’s uses served as a Greek term for the pre-imperial Roman Senate, came to be associated with Jewish courts large and small. The very institution of Torah study, performed in virtually every synagogue and rabbinic academic setting, was itself a Hellenistic enterprise which marked the shift from a central sacrificial cult to a peripatetic means of teaching and enforcing rabbinic paradosis, the transmission of oral teachings from masters to disciples. The study of a canonical text (e.g. Homer) was central to Hellenistic paideia. So, too, was the rabbis’ study of Torah in its broadest sense.

Another rabbinic institution of note, the Passover Seder, also owes its very order (seder) to the Greco-Roman symposium. The form dates as early as Plato’s Symposium (4th century BCE) and continues throughout the history of Greco-Roman literature to Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae (ca. 200 CE), and as late as Macrobius’ Saturnalia (5th century CE). The Passover Seder took shape in the Jewish world in the centuries following Jerusalem’s destruction, during the heyday of symposium literature.

Decades ago, Prof. Saul Lieberman and others pointed out the ways in which Greco-Roman rhetoric served to guide Jewish exegesis of Hebrew Scripture. We refer here to Philo of Alexandria’s allegories, of course, but also to later rabbinic norms of interpretation. Some such as notarikon and geometria are evident by rabbinic adoption of their Greek names. Others, such as the Hebrew gezerah shavah owes its use by the rabbis to the synkrisis pros ison, found in Greek progymnasmata texts from the period. So, too, the rabbis’ qol vahomer, parallels Greek and Latin a fortiori reasoning.

The Hellenistic progymnasmata literature mentioned above trained would-be rhetors to deploy the vast repertoire of Greco-Roman chreiae. The chreia (sing.) or anecdote is also a commonplace in rabbinic tales. Indeed, virtually the entire oeuvre of Talmudic-Midrashic narrations about the rabbinic founding sage Hillel the Elder, is paralleled among the various extant pagan chreiae collections and other Hellenistic anecdote literature. Famous stories about Hillel relating to his “standing on one foot,” his legendary patience (Greek: sophrosyne), his engaging a convert who had heard a random verse of Scripture, his ascent to leadership of the Jewish community, and the like, each have Greco-Roman antecedents.

Rabbinic laws of marriage and the protections offered to Jewish women equally find close parallels in Greco-Roman law. It is likely that the rabbinic novum of determining Jewish identity through the mother may come from Roman law. Indeed, the very system of relying on case law, with all its messiness (and departure from the apodictic law system of the Torah), also seems to be an element in common with Roman legal systems. Even the rabbinic penchant for compilation of laws (e.g. Mishnah) has strong parallels in contemporary Roman legal history.

Rabbinic appropriation of Greco-Roman philosophy is somewhat more complex. Although the rabbis eschewed abstract vocabulary and logic in favor analogies from Roman daily life (e.g. the ubiquitous King-parable), philosophical influences are readily apparent. From the rabbis’ self-presentation as philosophers (e.g. Mishnah Rosh HaShannah 2:9, where Rabbi Yehoshua is presumed to carry the philosopher’s staff and wallet), through their general comfort adopting Stoic teaching (Pirke Avot, passim), the rabbis go so far as to advise their disciples “Know how to refute the Epicurean” (Avot 2:14). We have already mentioned rabbinic teaching of self-control, sophrosyne, a quintessentially Stoic virtue.

Art is more complicated, if we are to speak solely about the rabbis of Late Antiquity. Although there is ample evidence of Jewish art from the period, almost none of it can be explicitly tied to the rabbis themselves. This is because of scant material evidence demonstrating rabbinic presence within the many synagogues discovered both within the Land of Israel and the Diaspora. That absence noted, the extant synagogue remains from west to east display art that is in keeping with Greco-Roman two-dimensional figurative representation, at least from the late second century onward. The mid-third century synagogue of Dura Europos is a breathtaking example of Jewish art, depicted in floor-to-ceiling wall paintings on biblical themes. In these paintings, the Jewish/Israelite characters are routinely portrayed wearing Roman garb. This is by and large also true for the biblical characters found in the many mosaic floors uncovered in Galilean synagogues from the 3-7th century.

The rabbinic attitudes toward pictorial art are tempered by the second of the Ten Commandments, apparently forbidding such representation. Yet the Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 3:4) reports the ostensible leader of the Rabbinic community, Rabban Gamaliel (of Yavneh), engaging in dialogue with a pagan on the topic of Gamaliel’s presence in the “bathhouse of Aphrodite.” R. Gamaliel piquantly offers the principle that if a statue (in this case, of Aphrodite) is an object of pagan worship, then it is surely prohibited to Jews. Yet if the object is but an adornment, as was the statue of Aphrodite in the bathhouse, it is permissible for Jews to enjoy it. There are times when art is but art, and not idolatry. We note that from the time of Gamaliel onward, figurative art became a regular feature in synagogue adornment.

Indeed, a number of synagogues from the 4-7th centuries are adorned with a depiction of the heavenly zodiac on their mosaic floors. In the center of each is the bodily image of the Greco-Roman god Zeus-Helios, guiding his four-horsed chariot across the diurnal sky. This ostensibly pagan image has proved a conundrum to art historians and commentators with flurries of new articles devoted to the phenomenon each time a new synagogue with Zeus-Helios in its central panel has been uncovered. Opinions range from suggestions of religious syncretism, to lack of orthodox rabbinic control over unruly building committees, to representations of the one and only God of the Hebrew Bible depicted as the Greco-Roman sun-god. While any of these possibilities and more may be the explanation for this efflorescence of imagery, we also should consider the possibility that the Jews who commissioned these mosaics simply thought of the art as art, Helios as depicting the sun, and not as an object of worship laying there on the floor for all to walk upon.

In antiquity, as today, synagogue architecture followed local custom. This was true for the adoption of the Greco-Roman public building, the basilica, as the standard form for ancient synagogues. Roman buildings, churches, and synagogues might be indistinguishable from one another but for the dedicatory inscriptions and art that archeologists find within them. One may safely assume that the same architects, artisans, and contractors built all of these buildings with but minor modifications depending upon which community was paying their bills.

To summarize thus far: vocabulary, institutions, hermeneutics and exegesis, rhetoric, law, philosophy, art, and architecture were all adapted from the broader Greco-Roman world in the service of reshaping Judaism to become a viable religious force following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. We should note that there were also institutions that the rabbis seemed to ignore or reject. Above we commented on the rabbis’ lack of abstract philosophical vocabulary. We might conjecture this was due to their choice to transmit rabbinic teachings orally and not commit their “Oral Torah” to writing – a medium much more amenable to abstract thought. While the cause remains a matter for conjecture, the effect is that the rabbis only employ short narratives rather than specialized philosophical vocabulary to transmit their thoughts about God.

The rabbis explicitly reject (as did the contemporary Church Fathers) such Roman institutions such as the theater and the games. The former they associated with licentiousness, while the latter, be they animal contests or gladiatorial battles, were deemed brutal and vicious. Yet within the rabbinic community there was debate even about apparently more benign Roman contributions such as markets, baths, and bridges. The Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 33b) depicts the zealous second-century Rabbi Shimeon ben Yohai dismissing these Roman institutions with scorn, “Anything they have built has been for their own needs. They build markets so their whores have a place to ply their trade, bath-houses to pamper themselves, and bridges to collect tolls and taxes.”

So while the rabbinic class readily adopted Greco-Roman elements in their quest to keep Judaism viable, there was nonetheless ambivalence regarding how thoroughly Roman culture could be assimilated into Jewish identity and have the latter remain distinct. This recognition of the potential moral peril of Hellenism on the one hand, and its attractiveness on the other, is beautifully expressed in an oft-told tale about a rabbinical student and his own desire to engage with the Roman “other.” The story is first found in the earliest rabbinic commentary to the biblical book of Numbers (Sifre Numbers #115, ca. mid-3rd century CE). It concerns the commandment in Numbers 15:38 to affix ritual fringes (tzitzit) to four-cornered garments:

Rabbi Nathan said, Each and every commandment in the Torah has its reward. We can learn this from the commandment of tsitsit. It once happened that there was a man who was very careful regarding the commandment of tsitsit. He heard there was a prostitute in a harbor town who charged 400 gold pieces as her price. He sent her 400 gold pieces and made his appointment for her services. When the day came, he went and sat in her ante-chamber. Her maid came and told her that the man who had the appointment had arrived. She said, “Let him enter.”
When he entered she spread before him seven beds of silver and a bed of gold at the very top. Between each one was a bench (subsellium) of silver, and the topmost was gold. But when he came to do the deed, his four tsitsit arose like witnesses and slapped him in the face!
He immediately disengaged and sat down on the ground. She, too, climbed down to the ground and sat next to him. She said, “Agapé of Rome! I will not allow you to leave unless you tell me what flaw you saw in me!” He replied, “By the Temple service! There is no one as beautiful as you in the world. But the Lord our God commanded us a simple commandment wherein it is twice written (Numbers 15:41), `I am the Lord your God.’ The first time is to teach that God will reward us, and the second time teaches that God will also punish us.”
She said, “By the Temple service! I will not allow you to leave until you write down your name, your city, and the name of the rabbinic academy where you learn Torah.”
So he wrote what she desired and went on his way. She then arose and dispersed all of her wealth: one third to the government, one third she gave to the poor, and the final third she took with her to the rabbinic academy of Rabbi Hiyya. She asked him, “Rabbi, will you convert me?”
He asked her, “Have you set your eye on one of my students?”
She handed him the note that she was holding. Rabbi Hiyya called his student and said to him, “Rise now and take what you contracted for. When you first contracted for her it was forbidden. Now that she is converting, she shall be permitted to you.”
If this is the reward for the commandment of tsitsit in this world ― in the World to Come, I cannot even imagine!

Yes, this is a rabbinic fantasy with a comic punch-line at the end. But it also instructs the careful reader about rabbinic ambivalence towards the lure of Hellenism, on the one hand, and rabbinic confidence that it could be successfully integrated into Judaism, on the other.

The Roman prostitute is located in the liminal space of a harbor town. There on the border between the wilds of the Mediterranean and the sacredness of the Holy Land she plies her trade. Her price, 400 gold dinars, is almost beyond reckoning. In the peculiar economy of fantasy, our rabbinical student saves enough to procure an appointment to enjoy her talents. Once there, he is greeted with a vision of seven heavens, played out in the seven ascending silver beds of the harlot’s boudoir! As he disrobes to join her on the golden divan, his ritual fringes fly up and, as he interprets it, slap him in the face in rebuke for what he had planned to do. Deflated, he disengages from her.

The prostitute utters a vow, invoking her patron Aphrodite, the goddess of love (agapé). The student, in his turn, vows on the Jerusalem Temple service. When she responds to his piety, she changes her vow so that she, too, invokes the Temple liturgy. We see her now on the road to conversion to Judaism. She bribes local officials to allow her to give up what was a lucrative source of bribery income for them. She distributes her bounty to the poor – an unusual gesture for a Roman pagan, but a common observance among Jews. And she arrives at the rabbinic study house of the renowned early-third century sage, Rabbi Hiyya. The rabbi in his wisdom instructs the very same fellow who failed to have sex with the Roman prostitute to now instruct her to become Jewish. We presume they marry and live happily ever after.

Rome and its institutions were seductive to the rabbis. The Jews deeply valued the allure of Hellenism, her ways and her beauty. Yet the rabbis knew there were places their morality forbade them to go, acts they could not commit in their romance with Rome. In the end, they imagined that the rabbinic academy as the crucible wherein Rome could be joined with the remnants of biblical religion to produce an amalgam that was a much stronger form of Judaism. It was a marriage that thrived happily, even until today.

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