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Appelbaum, Alan


The Dynasty of the Jewish Patriarchs.


Tübingen. Mohr Siebeck 2013. XI, 246 S. = Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism, 156. Lw. EUR 89,00. ISBN 978-3-16-152964-1.


Catherine Hezser

Once upon a time one comes across a book that should better not have been published, especially not by a respected academic pub-lish­er such as Mohr Siebeck. The present study by Alan Appelbaum purports to be an analysis of the dynastic aspects of the Palestinian patriarchate and a contribution to the study of ancient Jewish leadership. It turns out to be an opinionated piece of writing that does not only fail to contribute any new insights but happens to turn scholarship backwards towards an uncritical, positivistic, and harmonizing stage. The idea that the Jewish patriarchs of Roman Pales­tine constituted a dynasty seems self-evident, although sparse evidence exists for an examination of the nature and workings of this institution in the third to fifth centuries C. E. A. purports to present an analysis of the dynastic aspects and chronological succession of the patriarchs but neither examines the sources closely nor discusses the sociological models and functions of dynasties within soci-ety. What he offers is a conglomeration of opinions expressed in previous literature, siding with some scholars and rejecting others. To compensate for the sparse evidence, sources from early and late, Palestinian and Babylonian sources are combined and generally considered historically trustworthy to construct a chronological sequence and historical narrative. The often convoluted sentences (e. g., 68: »The new dynasty is hard to distinguish from a family working to become one, and either a new dynasty or such a family is likely to be organized so that merit trumps age order more than it would in an established dynasty«) do not help to clarify the subject but contribute to the problematic nature of the book.
Since Martin Jacobs’ examination of the sources on the patriarchate (Die Institution des jüdischen Patriarchen. Eine quellen- und traditionskritische Studie zur Geschichte der Juden in der Spätantike, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 1995) it should be evident that historically trustworthy information about the institution and individual holders of the office is very limited and that the sparse and am-biguous Jewish and non-Jewish sources need to be examined very carefully within the context of Palestinian provincial history. There­fore the aim of the book: namely to reconstruct the historical succession of the dynasty until its end in the fifth century and beyond seems highly suspicious. Equally suspicious is the rejection of critical methodology which has become the hallmark of scholarship on ancient Judaism during the last decades. Already in his introduc-tion A. writes: »I am convinced the sources can yield real data about real actors and events as well as about the dynastic structure of the Patriarchate« (7). The sentence already indicates the reactionary nature of the following narrative.
The eight chapters of the book purport to examine the patriarchal dynasty from its origins until its end in the fifth century C. E. A. agrees with the current scholarly view that R. Judah (»Rabbi«) was the first patriarch. In the first chapter he discusses other earlier opinions which associated the beginnings of the patriarchate with the »pairs«, Hillel, or R. Gamliel. The very terms »nasi« and »nesiyut« are never examined and defined contextually, however, so that every appearance is associated with the »patriarch« and »patriarchate«. As far as R. Judah ha-Nasi is concerned, he is believed to have assumed the highest power in »rabbinic ordination« which is equat­ed with appointing judges to rabbinic courts. Texts such as y. Sanh. 1:2 (19a) are taken literally as historical sources and interpreted in light of traditional presumptions about the »ordination« of rabbis in antiquity (the text itself does not specify what functions indi-vid­uals are »appointed« to). Various »patriarchal« roles are associat­ed with R. Judah, based on a combined reading of disparate sources. Secondary literature is aduced in support of the claims that he stemmed from a wealthy Galilean family, had influence in the Dias­pora, played a major role in editing the Mishnah, and was buried at Bet She’arim. By being succeeded by his firstborn son he established a dynasty that should prevail for centuries to come.
A. reckons with an »uninterrupted« line of patriarchal dynastic leadership »until and beyond the last Patriarch« (64). An individual patriarch’s scholarship is deemed irrelevant, what mattered was their membership in an established dynasty. Each one is seen as part of a chain, building on his predecessors and preparing the ground for his successors. As such, R. Judah Nesiah is considered to have played an especially important role: his »achievements« prepared the later recognition of the patriarchate in the fourth and fifth centuries (85). These »achievements« are posited by a literal reading of rabbinic narratives from a variety of documents and periods. For example, R. Judah Nesiah is believed to have super-vised Jewish schools and set the foundations for a Jewish school system »in both Palestine and the diaspora« (ibid.). He is considered to have met Diocletian, again on the basis of a Talmudic narrative, and to have possessed »quasi-royal powers« (113). A. even thinks that he can reconstruct this patriarch’s personality, praising the »confidence and brilliance with which he went about being Nesiah«, in-sis­ting that »we can infer with some confidence that he worked tirelessly, and effectively« (85). All of this is based on A.’s imagination rather than on a critical understanding of the source material, its limitations and ideology.
The evidence for the later patriarchs is even more sporadic and uncertain. Nevertheless, A. assumes that he can reconstruct the development of the dynasty under Constantine, based on conjec-tures and hypotheses. The dating and identities of the incumbents remain uncertain and arbitrary but are posited nevertheless. When discussing the impact of Byzantine Christian legislation on Jews, A. suggests that »Jewish clerics« were »treated similar to orthodox Christian clerics« (130), assuming a patriarchal involvement in synagogues: »Thus, CTh indicates that Judah Nesiah’s first successor (or successors) continued his efforts by reaching out both to synagogues (and their leaders) and to the imperial government, convincing each that he was the representative and leader of the Empire’s Jewry« (132). The discussion of the end of the patriarchate in the fifth century C. E. does not contribute any new insights and understandings to this enigmatic episode. Rome seems to have stopped to pay attention to the patriarchate so that it eventually »faded away« (184), initiating a leaderless period of Jewish history and »the beginning of the Jewish Middle Ages« (186).
Altogether then, the book cannot be recommended and has to be read with caution by those who are not familiar with the nature of the sources and historical-critical methodology. Martin Jacobs’ detailed study of the source material is much preferable as are articles about the patriarchate written by Sacha Stern and Lee I. Levine.