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Siegal, Michal Bar-Asher


Early Christian Monastic Literature and the Babylonian Talmud.


Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2014. 242 S. Geb. £ 64,99. ISBN 978-1-107-02301-7.


Samuel Rubenson

Apart from the old hypotheses about a possible Jewish background for the rise of Christian monasticism, whether the so called Qumran community or the »Therapeutae« of Philo of Alexandria, studies of Christian monasticism and studies of Jewish religious life in late antiquity very rarely touch upon one another. The image of Jewish culture in the late Persian empire does for example not at all fit prevalent ideas about early Syrian monasticism as radically ascetic and anti-social. What connection could there for example be between the monks described by Theodoret of Cyrrhus in his Historia religiosa and the lives of the people producing the Babylonian Talmud? In her thought provoking study Michal Bar-Asher Siegal suggests that there is more here than we are used to think.
In her first chapter the author calls into question a tendency to regard all Christian-Jewish relations in the fourth to seventh centuries C. E. as a matter of conflict over the Scriptures, and suggests that we should in addition search for expressions of a shared culture. In order to do this we should look at non-polemical texts from both sides, texts that represent similar genres. Such texts she finds in the sayings and stories about holy men found in the Babylon-ian Talmud and in the early monastic collections known as the Apophthegmata Patrum or the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Here we find, she claims, a common ground: Jewish texts that show reverence for holy men and their wisdom and Christian wisdom literature not based on dogmatics and Scriptural polemics. By using a method that looks for similarities rather than direct literary engagement or common references to Scripture, she suggests that we can find material for Jewish-Christian relations of a kind not previously noticed.
After a brief chapter referring to recent scholarship in early mo­nasticism, in which the author probes the possibility of contact between Christian monks and Jewish communities, two chapters are devoted to similarities between the Apophthegmata Patrum and rabbinical literature, in form, style, common themes, as well as literary style and narrative. Although the parallels are in many cases fairly general, the author is able to demonstrate a number of interesting aspects of a shared literary culture. From these she draws the conclusion that »monks and rabbis viewed the world in similar fashion« (131).
The two last chapters are in-depth analyses of two examples where the author argues for a direct relation between monastic texts, mostly from the Apophthegmata Patrum, and texts from the Babylonian Talmud. In the first she claims that the reworking of a traditional Jewish story about R. Shimon bar Yohai in the Babylonian Talmud represents an incorporation of a monastic tradition, making the Jewish sage fit a monastic understanding of holiness, to become a »monastic rabbi«. In the second case a story about Eleazar b. Dordya, a story that is unique within the rabbinic tradition, is claimed to be based on a monastic tradition of the repentant whore represented by a saying in the Apophthegmata Patrum.
There is no doubt that the shared literary culture emphasized in chapters three and four is an important and neglected field of study, and that thee parallels in chapters five and six between the monastic and Talmudic stories is intriguing. The claim for a shared world-view and for direct literary relation are both, however, more problematic. Cumulative traditions of wisdom collected over centuries from a variety of sources and transmitted in sayings and anecdotes, as is the case with the Apophthegmata Patrum, are extremely difficult to use as evidence for a specific world-view. The plurality of voices, settings and perspectives is simply too large.
Even if the explicit parallels between motifs encountered in a number of monastic texts and the suggested reworking of the rabbinic material, mentioned in chapter 5, suggest a possible influence of Christian monastic tradition, in itself a discovery, they do not really prove that this influence is literary in a strict sense. The ideals presented may have been part of a culture that had become respected and do not prove that the reactors of the Babylonian Talmud actually were acquainted with the monastic texts. The same ideals also appear in Graeco-Roman literature on philosophical heroes. In the second case where a rabbinic story is claimed to depend on a specific monastic text a major problem is that this monastic text does not appear in the Syriac monastic material and is, moreover, not found in any of the early versions of the Greek apophthegmatic tradition.
In spite of the objections to some of the conclusions the volume is an important contribution to the study of early Christian and Jewish collections of religious wisdom. S.’s emphasis on the necessity of moving beyond polemics in research on Jewish-Christian interaction in late Antiquity is important, as is her emphasis on the importance of literary culture in the study of collections such as the Apophthegmata Patrum and the Babylonian Talmud. Even if the genre these collections belong to prevents us from identifying specific views governing the entire collection, and even if we are unable to prove a direct literary influence, the parallel study of the collections opens up new perspectives on the monastic as well as the rabbinic material.