Despite all the recent talk of the Hebrew Bible being the “Book of Books,” it is well known to anyone who has studied Judaism that the Bible has been taking a back seat to the Talmud for well over a thousand years. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, whose numerous popular introductory books to the subject are bestsellers, calls the Talmud “the central pillar supporting the entire spiritual and intellectual edifice of Jewish life.” To the uninitiated, the Talmud (and here, I mean the Babylonian Talmud) is a strange book. Firstly, it is not one book but a set of 37 books (called “tractates”) containing over 2.5 million words spread across 6000+ folio pages. Secondly, unlike most contemporaneous literature from other religious traditions (e.g., the writings of the Church Fathers, the Qur'an) the Talmud is not a theological tractate or revealed prophecy or even a law code written by a single person. Rather it is an anthology of statements, sayings, aphorisms, legal opinions, and stories attributed to a plethora sages who lived over a 500 year period. It is eclectic, given to wild tangents and wonderfully free within a fixed structure. Mostly it is a running conversation, and much has been written about how this genre gave rise to a democratic impulse in Judaism.
The problem is that the conversation is not real. Open any page of the Babylonian Talmud and you will quickly see that this is not at all a natural dialogue which actually took place in a bet midrash some 1700 years ago. This is not a direct transcription of the oral proceedings that took place in the celebrated Babylonian yeshivot. How can it be that sages who lived hundreds of years apart can talk to each other? How is it that someone always happens to have a baraita on hand that precisely controverts the dominant view in the room? This sense of an “imagined conversation” reminds me of a screenplay which tries to go for realism but where the dialogue is a bit too good to be real. People don't talk like that in real life. You enjoy the story on the screen, but at no point do you forget that this is fantasy. Part of what makes the Babylonian Talmud fascinating is this element of fantasy. The fantastic Talmudic conversation flows smoothly by means of editorial additions and interpolations made by the redactor of the text. The Jerusalem Talmud did not undergo the same careful scripting and therefore is much choppier. The anonymous editorial voice in the Babylonian Talmud is thought to date to the 6th century CE and is known by scholars as the Stamma d’Gemara, or simply the Stam (which means something like the passive, neutral one). This is a term coined by David Weiss-Halivni in the 1980s and has become widely accepted in the academic study of the Talmud.
A few months ago, while watching Comedy Central, it occurred to me that there is something very Talmudic about the style of the Daily Show. Jon Stewart is neither a traditional stand-up comedian nor is he a mere parody of a newscaster. He is a comedic redactor of the official news. What makes the show brilliant is that Stewart knows how to play the role of the Stam masterfully. Note that his jokes always begin with a clip from one of the cable news channels (usually Fox), and he basically referees an imagined conversation between these clips. He carefully sews these clips together with editorial introductions: “…of course, that did not prevent her from saying the following...” The humor comes about through the skillful arrangement of these clips as well as Stewart’s cunning interpolations between them: a grimace, an impersonation, a flippant comment. For example, the devilish smile he flashes when he asks really?... akin to the Talmudic איני?.
The importance of this Stam-Stewart comparison goes beyond the mere fact that it demonstrates Jon Stewart's Jewish roots. It shows how much Talmudic discourse is intended to be entertaining. My friend Yoni Moss calls this a “show-like aesthetic.” When the Stam begins a sentence with the phrase סלקא דעתך אמינא, you know that this position will be soon rejected. But the reader plays along just to enjoy the mental exercise of imagining what could be. Stewart does this all the time when he shows clips of Republican ideologues saying typically reactionary things. This is followed by Stewart's straight-face commentary, "Got it. So what you are saying is..." You know full well that Stewart is temporarily agreeing with the conservative position in order to take it to an extreme that eventually reveals its stupidity. Or another example is when he shows the first half of a clip of a speech made by someone who is known to be radical. With a look of surprise on his face he says, "Oh well, you know, that actually sounds pretty reasonable..." Then he shows you the second half of the clip which contains an outrageously inflammatory remark. This of course is followed by Stewart's humbled expression of shock. This is sort of similar to the Talmud’s stock phrase כולי עלמא לא פליגי כי פליגי ב...
I especially love the comic device that Stewart often uses where he supposedly receives a message from his producer through a hidden earpiece: “Excuse me one second. What? Oh, I am being told that…” These intrusions almost always serve the same purpose: to undo an erroneous editorial assertion made by Stewart himself. When he goes too far to agree with a radical position, the earpiece informs him that he needs to swing back to the center. It works because it is invisible and unheard. This is almost like the Talmud’s bat kol that announces the truth from on high.
Absolutely! Since taking David Brakke's freshman seminar "Images of Jesus in Western Culture" at Indiana University in 1998, I have known that Monty Python's Life of Brian is much more than an irreverent comedy. I would certainly say that it has strongly colored my understanding of life in first century Judea. Similarly, it has impacted my view of the historical Jesus. I would even say that (for better and for worse) Brian is always looming somewhere in the background whenever I study anything having to do with Greco-Roman antiquity: the gospels, Josephus, Herodian architecture ... and naturally, Latin grammar.
Apparently, lots of scholars agree because in June 2014 an academic conference devoted to the subject will take place at King's College London. Academic interest in the film formally started with Philip R. Davies' famous 1995 article entitled "Life of Brian Research" in which he writes the following:
Among tour guides in Jerusalem, one of the most memorable parts of the film is of course the scene towards the beginning ("Saturday Afternoon, About Tea Time") where Brian watches Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount from afar. It is here that a member of the crowd mishears "blessed are the cheesemakers" instead of "the peacemakers". When one bystander asks "what's so special about the cheesemakers?" her husband, an aristocratic Hellenized Jew, nonchalantly answers: "Well, obviously it's not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products." This one line has to be one of the most concise illustrations of trends in biblical interpretation in Jewish antiquity.
As Davies notes, "cheesemakers" is clearly a reference to the Tyropoeon Valley (τυροποιῶν = in Greek) which bisects Jerusalem's Old City, separating the lower eastern ridge (Mt Moriah) from its higher western counterpart (Upper City). This central valley was the commercial heart of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period, as can be seen from the impressive remains of shops which have been excavated south of the Western Wall, beneath Robinson's Arch (see image below). The Tosefta's reference to the "lower marketplace" (השוק התחתון) might preserve a memory of this area as well (t. San 14:14). The valley begins outside the Old City in the vicinity of the Musrara neighborhood, running southeast toward the walls of the Old City and entering the Damascus Gate. At this point, it turns due south and cuts directly through the Muslim Quarter all the way to the Dung Gate. It skirts the eastern side of the City of David, eventually joining the Kidron Valley, which runs down to the Dead Sea.
Today, the Tyropoeon Valley is hardly recognizable. Unlike the impressive Kidron and Ben Hinnom Valleys which circumscribe the Old City, there is little to be seen of the humble Cheesemaker's Valley. Over the centuries it has become almost completely filled in with debris and buildings. In the Ayyubid and Mameluk periods many homes and public institutions (i.e., mosques and madrasahs) were built upon vaults that spanned the valley in order to be as close as possible to the Haram al-Sharif. These massive constructions made it possible to access the Temple Mount by means of numerous east-west streets (e.g., Suq el-Qattanin, Tariq Bab el-Silsila) without ascending almost any stairs. So where is the Tyropoeon today? It mostly runs deep beneath the main north-south artery of the the Muslim Quarter that runs from Damascus Gate to the Western Wall Plaza. The name of the street - Tariq Al-Wad / Rehov HaGai (= The valley street) - preserves a memory of the original topography of the city.
We have Josephus to thank for coining the phrase in his famous description of the geography of the city (Jewish War 5.4.136-141). He does not explain his use of the term and it is not corroborated in any contemporaneous texts. Its meaning has puzzled generations of scholars. A convincing theory has been offered by the eminent Jerusalem archaeologist Dan Bahat. He thinks that the original name was the Valley of the Silversmiths, which makes sense given the archaeological evidence for commercial activity here. In Hebrew this would have been עמק הצורפים. Τransliterated into Greek, צורפים became τυροπιμ = Tyropim, which has no meaning whatsoever in Greek. Later, a copyist altered Tyropim to τυροποιῶν = Tyropoeon, which means "cheesemakers". This is a far more picturesque name for Greek audiences and it has stuck to the present day. Interesting to ponder what would have happened had Josephus chosen to translate the name to ἡ ἀργυροποιών φάραγξ. Monty Python would have had to find another beatitude to poke fun at.
The short story of Ehud in the book of Judges (3:12-30) contains a particularly gory account of the murder of King Eglon of Moab. Because he is a left-handed man, Ehud hides his sword on his right-thigh and is able to enter the king's chambers undetected. Eglon is apparently seated on the toilet (the text refers only to the "cool upper chamber," עֲלִיַּת הַמְּקֵרָה) when Ehud barges in and stabs him in the belly. The description of the murder is quite gruesome: "The hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly, and the filth came out." (Judges 3:22)
In order for this scene to work, Ehud must have a massively fat belly. Indeed, the author sets up the scene by telling us:
וְעֶגְלוֹן אִישׁ בָּרִיא מְאֹד
The Hebrew word בריא usually means 'fat' in the Bible. It is often used with regard to fattened animals and is juxtaposed with the word רזה 'thin' (Gen 41:2; Ezek 34:20). In Modern Hebrew it means 'healthy', which maybe tells us about what the ideal body-type was in the late 19th century when Hebrew was revived.
Most translations of Judges 3:17 understand the word בריא to mean "fat"
Interestingly, the major exception is in the first translation of the Bible, the Septuagint (LXX), which contains the following:
καὶ Eγλωμ ἀνὴρ ἀστεῖος σφόδρα
The use of the word ἀστεῖος is surprising. It comes from the word ἄστυ which means city in Greek. So apparently, the translator is trying to convey the idea that Eglon was an urbane, sophisticated man. Perhaps refined, elegant, polite or even handsome? Why would the LXX use this word? Why depict Eglon in a positive light if he is the villain of the story? Moreover, the image of Eglon's fat belly seems so important for setting the stage for the dramatic stabbing that follows. Finally, the word ἀστεῖος is used elsewhere in the LXX to refer to decidedly virtuous figures: Moses (Ex 2:2), Eleazar the martyr (2 Macc 6:23), Judith (Jud 11:23).
Maybe this last reference is the key to understanding the use of the word. Perhaps the story of Ehud's killing of Eglon is meant to remind us of the story of Judith's killing of Holofernes (Judith ch. 13). Of course, if the parallel were perfect it would be Holofernes not Judith who would be called ἀστεῖος but intertextuality is not a game of precision. It is meant to drop hints that hopefully provide the reader with a deeper understanding.
It should be added that the LXX translation of Judges 3:17 should be seen as part of a post-biblical rehabilitation of Eglon/Moab. This can be seen in Ruth Rabbah 2:9 where Eglon is depicted as the ancestor of Ruth (and therefore of David) due to the fact that he stood up to hear the news from God that Ehud claimed to have (3:20).
Judas Iscariot's betrayal of Jesus is one of the famous passages in the NT that fueled anti-Semitism over the centuries. But was Judas really the key to Jesus' arrest and eventual crucifixion? Couldn't the Romans have found Jesus without Judas?
Some scholars think that Judas' crime was not just that he physically led the Romans to Jesus but that he divulged insider information about Jesus' teachings. For example, Jesus never refers to himself as the "Messiah" or the "King of the Jews" in his public teachings (usually just the "Son of Man"). All throughout the Gospels he is careful to walk a thin line: he is very good at staying out of explicit trouble while preaching a dangerous anti-establishment message. Perhaps in public he limited himself to topic related to social justice (e.g., Sermon on the Mount), healings and other miracles; but among the inner circle of 12 disciples he taught more apocalyptic themes, and alluded to himself as the Messiah or king of the Jews. When he is on trial before the Sanhedrin and later the Romans, these two titles are exactly what he is charged with. Could it be that Judas is the one responsible for revealing this information? Just a theory, but I find it quite convincing.
In my opinion, more interesting than the question "what really happened?" is the question"what is the significance of events to the author/reader of the text?" The point is that Judas is a symbol for the rejection of Jesus by the entire Jewish ("Judaic") people. As we know, the gospels were written a few generations after the events they depict. By this point (circa 80 CE), the Jesus Movement had been pretty strongly condemned within rabbinic Judaism. Remember all the nasty things the rabbis had to say about the "minim" in the Mishnah? By this point, it was pretty clear that rabbinic Jews were not going to convert en masse to become messianic Jews. Instead, the Jesus Movement (by now we can call it "early Christianity") would have to abandon the Jews altogether and invest itself entirely in the Gentile mission. So Judas becomes a lesson to the Gentile audience hearing the gospel - this is why the Jews are no longer the chosen people. It's not because they crucified Jesus (obviously the Romans were the only ones able to do this); it's because they stubbornly failed to accept Jesus as the Messiah and therefore facilitated his death.
The Greek Orthodox Monastery of St Onuphrius, located in the Ben Hinnom Valley southwest of the Old City of Jerusalem. This is the traditional location of the Potter's Field purchased by the Temple authorities with the 30 pieces of silver that Judas returned to them (Matt 27:3-10). According to the book of Acts, Judas himself purchases the plot and commits suicide there (Acts 1:18-19). In both versions the site is renamed the Field of Blood: Ἀγρὸς Αἵματος or Ἁκελδαμάχ which means 'field of blood' in Aramaic חקל דמא.
Giotto, The Kiss of Judas, c. 1304
One of the beloved Christian pilgrimage sites in Jerusalem is the Pater Noster Church located on the Mount of Olives. This is (according to Catholic tradition) the site where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord's Prayer, and you can find the prayer in 143 languages on tiles on the walls. But shouldn't it be located on the Mount of the Beatitudes above Capernaum, where the Sermon on the Mount took place?
In the gospel of Matthew the Lord's Prayer is part of the Sermon on the Mount (chs 5-7), but in Luke there is no such sermon. Instead, Luke takes all the material from Matthew 5-7 and sprinkles it throughout his gospel. Luke's version of the Lord's Prayer is in ch 11. Although he does not specify where this happened, the previous scene (ch 10) takes place in the house of Mary and Martha, who live in Bethany on the Mt of Olives.
The earliest church on this site, was not actually connected with the Lord's Prayer. The Eleona (ἐλαιών - olive grove in Greek) commissioned by Queen Helena in the 325 was meant to commemorate another teaching of Jesus, the so-called "Synoptic Apocalypse" (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21), which Jesus recites after leaving the Temple and looking out at the buildings. Today, this apocalyptic teaching is more connected with the church of Dominus Flevit (technically, the relevant passage there is Luke 19:39-44).
Sometime after the arrival of the Crusaders in Jerusalem, the site of the Eleona church (destroyed by the Persians 614) changed its tradition; still the location of Jesus teaching, but no longer the Apocalypse, instead the Lord's Prayer. The support for this comes from Luke 11, as explained above. So again, the question is not "where did Jesus really utter the Lord's Prayer for the first time?", but rather "which Gospel (Matthew or Luke) wins when we try to put together a map of Jesus' ministry?" Luke wins out probably because since the industry of Christian holy sites got started 1500 yrs ago, one of the guiding principles has always been to spread the wealth. If there are two competing traditions, sanctify them both. Why should a lone hill near the Sea of Galilee get all the glory? Moreover, the Crusaders were very interested in making Jerusalem the strong, holy center of their kingdom. Importing the Lord's Prayer from the Galilee to the Mt of Olives was a good way of adding prestige to the city that otherwise is mostly connected to Jesus' death.
An artist's representation of the 4th century Eleona Church based on pilgrim's accounts (i.e., Egeria in 384) and archaeological remains uncovered in the early 20th cent.
Today the Pater Noster Church is administered by the Carmelite order and belongs to the government of France.
I attended a discussion about anti-Judaism in the Gospel of John at the Van Leer Institute on Tuesday evening. Inevitably, the discussion turned to one of the really caustic verses in the gospel -- John 8:44, where Jesus tells the Jews "you are of your father the devil." One of the participants asked what the difference is between the term διάβολος used here and σατανᾶς used elsewhere in the NT. I just looked into this and did not come up with much.
The first term διάβολος (from which our 'devil' comes) comes from the Greek verb "to slander" (διαβάλλω) and is definitely more common in the Septuagint as a translation for השטן. The second term σατανᾶς is obviously from the Hebrew (or more likely the Aramaic סטנא) and is a NT innovation apparently. Because it is Semitic sounding, the second might appeal more to authors such as Matthew, who likes to use Jewish terminology to give their gospel an "authentic" flavor. For example, in the story of Jesus' temptation, Matthew and Mark both use σατανᾶς, while Luke, the responsible Greek historian, changes it to διάβολος. But this is not a strong argument since σατανᾶς appears 36 times in diverse places in the NT (including Luke) without any kind of consistency (e.g., 2 Cor 12:7, Luke 10:18, 1 Tim 1:20 Rev 2:9). One very interesting use of διάβολος is found in John 6:70 where a human being (Judas) is referred to as the devil, but this is quite unique.
So the best I can say is that the two words are synonymous. They both mean the adversary, the enemy, the one who accuses the human race before God. This is very much in line with the image of השטן found in the Hebrew Bible (Job 1 and Zechariah 3).
The short-lived (1969-70) CBS cartoon show Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines had a different title in France.
I am Jonathan Lipnick, tour guide and educator specializing in Christianity and Judaism. In this blog I explore questions (historical, linguistic) that come up in the course of my teaching and reading.