The Judaic Sages Canon in the Context of the Fourth Century

The premise of all that has been said is that the documents redacted at the end of the fourth century or the beginning of the fifth, the Talmud of the Land of Israel, Genesis Rabbah, and Leviticus Rabbah, testify to ideas held at that time. I have therefore to explain the basis on which I maintain that this is the case. The answer is that I work with what I know, not with what I do not know. I know—because the consensus of all scholarship concurs—that the three documents at hand reached closure at the end of the fourth century or shortly thereafter, between ca. a.d. 400 and 450. So I hold that the documents represent opinion held at that point and, I assume, prior to that point by something on the order of fifty years.

One may well wonder, however, why I do not take account of the claim that sayings in the documents derive from a period prior to the period of redaction. For the sages' documents contain numerous sayings attributed to authorities who flourished long before the half-century prior to the redaction of those documents. If I could demonstrate that those sayings really were said by the authorities to whom they were attributed, I should treat them as evidence of opinions held before the point at which the documents themselves were closed. But what I cannot show, I do not know—nor does anyone else. Accordingly, I work with the simple fact that writings closed at the end of the fourth century tell us views deemed authoritative by the framers and redactors of those writings. Those same views may well have circulated prior to the point of redaction, for the Talmud of the Land of Israel of the Land of Israel at ca. a.d. 400, for Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus Rabbah within the following half-century. If they did, then we know opinions held earlier than ca. a.d. 400. But, as I said, in this book I work with the established fact that the documents were closed at a given point, and with the equally reasonable surmise that the framers included opinions they regarded as worth preserving—hence, for whatever purpose we do not know, authoritative. I report, then, on views held by a small circle of editors, compilers, arrangers, and redactors of a college of sayings and stories, toward the end of the age of Constantine. True, the documents may well portray opinions formed before that age. No one maintains that the sages of the Talmud of the Land of Israel, Genesis Rabbah, and Leviticus Rabbah made up everything in those books—from Scripture and the Mishnah onward. But it is in this time, and not earlier, that those opinions came forth as the doctrine of the collegium of sages, in documents deemed to enjoy authority as the position of the Judaism expressed by the sages. And, when I speak of a confrontation between Judaism and Christianity, it is the sages who stand behind the documents of the day that represent Judaism.

Let me expand with special reference to the Talmud of the Land of Israel on the matter of reading a document as the voice of its framers and organizers— and as theirs alone. For we may adduce striking evidence that the Talmud of the Land Israel does speak in particular for the age in which its units of discourse took shape, and that the work was done toward the end of that long period that began at the end of the second century with the Mishnah's reception (ca. a.d. 200) and came to an end at the conclusion of the fourth century.

The Talmud of the Land of Israel speaks about the Mishnah in an essentially cogent way. Its mode of speech, as much as of thought, is uniform throughout. We know that is the fact because diverse topics produce slight differentiation in modes of analysis. The same sorts of questions phrased in the same rhetoric—a moving, or dialectical, argument, composed of questions and answers—turn out to pertain equally well to every subject and problem. The Talmud of the Land of Israel's discourse therefore forms a closed system in which people say the same thing about everything. That is a stunning fact, for it clearly defines the choice at hand. The Talmud of the Land of Israel speaks in a single voice. That voice by definition is collective, not greatly differentiated by traits of individuals.1 The Talmud of the Land of Israel identifies no author or collegium of authors. When I say that the Talmud of the Land of Israel speaks in a single voice, I mean to say it everywhere speaks uniformly, consistently, and predictably. The voice is the voice of a book. The message is one deriving from a community, the collectivity of sages for whom and to whom the book speaks. The document seems, in the main, to intend to provide notes, an abbreviated script which anyone may use to reconstruct and

1. Individuals in the Talmud, unlike in the Mishnah, do not speak uniformly, but the differences are not marked.

reenact formal discussions of problems: ". . . about this, one says that. . . ." Curt and often arcane, these notes can be translated only with immense bodies of inserted explanation. All of this information is public and undifferentiated, not individual and idiosyncratic. We must assume people took for granted that, out of the signs of speech, it would be possible for anyone to reconstruct speech, doing so in accurate and fully conventional ways. So the literary traits of the document presuppose a uniform code of communication: a single voice.

I cannot find among the units of discourse on the Mishnah evidence of differentiation among the generations of names or of schools. There is no interest, for instance, in the chronological sequence in which sayings took shape and in which discussions may be supposed to have been carried on. That is to say, the Talmud of the Land of Israel's unit of discourse approaches the explanation of a passage of the Mishnah without systematic attention to the layers in which ideas were set forth, the schools among which discussion must have been divided, the sequence in which statements about a Mishnah law were made. That fact points to formation at the end, not agglutination in successive layers of intellectual sediment. Let me spell this out. In a given unit of discourse, the focus, the organizing principle, the generative interest—these are defined solely by the issue at hand. The argument moves from point to point, directed by the inner logic of argument itself. A single plane of discourse is established. All things are leveled out, so that the line of logic runs straight and true. Accordingly, a single conception of the framing and formation of the unit of discourse stands prior to the spelling out of issues. More fundamental still, what people in general wanted was not to create topical anthologies—to put together instances of what this one said about that issue—but to exhibit the logic of that issue, viewed under the aspect of eternity. Under sustained inquiry we always find a theoretical issue, freed of all temporal considerations and the contingencies of politics and circumstance.

Arguments did not unfold over a long period of time, as one generation made its points, to be followed by the additions and revisions of another generation, in a process of gradual increment and agglutination running on for two hundred years. That theory of the formation of literature cannot account for the unity, stunning force, and dynamism of the Talmud of the Land of Israel's dialectical arguments.2 To the contrary, someone (or a small group) at the end determined to reconstruct, so as to expose, the naked logic of a problem. For this purpose, oftentimes, it was found useful to cite sayings or positions in hand from earlier times. But these inherited materials underwent a process of reshaping, and, more aptly, refocusing. Whatever the original words—and we need not doubt that at times we have them—the point of

2. The same is to be said in different terms of Leviticus Rabbah, with its remarkable syllogistic program, worked out through cogent lists of facts. But we do well to concentrate on only a single document, allowing it to suggest the state of affairs pertaining to the others.

everything in hand was defined and determined by the people who made it all up at the end. The whole shows a plan and program. Theirs are the minds behind the whole. In the nature of things, they did their work at the end, not at the outset. Principles of chronology were not wholly ignored. Rather, they were not determinative of the structure of argument. Everything is worked together into a single, temporally seamless discourse.

It follows that the document is the work of the one who decided to make up the discussion on the atemporal logic of the point at issue. Otherwise the discussion would be not continuous but disjointed, full of seams and margins, marks of the existence of prior conglomerations of materials that have not been sewn together. What we have are not patchwork quilts, but woven fabric. Considerations of the origin of a saying play no role whatsoever in the rhetoric, or literary forms of argument. There will be no possibility of differentiation among opinions on the basis of where, when, by whom, or how they are formulated, only on the basis of what, in fact, is said. So the whole—the unit of discourse as we know it—was put together at the end. At that point everything was in hand, available for arrangement in accordance with a principle other than chronology, and in a rhetoric common to all sayings. That other principle will then have determined the arrangement, drawing in its wake resort to a single monotonous voice: the Talmud of the Land of Israel. The principle is logical exposition, that is, the analysis and dissection of a problem into its conceptual components. The dialectic of argument is framed not by considerations of the chronological sequence in which sayings were said but by attention to the requirements of reasonable exposition of the problem. That is what governs.

So, as I see it, the Talmud of the Land of Israel testifies to the opinions held by authorities during the penultimate and ultimate stages of its redaction.3 The Talmud of the Land of Israel evidently underwent a process of redaction, in which fixed and final units of discourse (whether as I have delineated them or in some other division) were organized and put together. The probably antecedent work of framing and formulating these units of discourse appears to have gone on during a single period. By this I mean that the work went on among a relatively small number of sages working within a uniform set of literary conventions, at roughly the same time, and in approximately the same way. These framers of the various units of tradition may or may not have par-

3. Similar arguments can be constructed for Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus Rabbah, but the upshot is the same. We know with reasonable certainty that the documents tell us views accepted and held authoritative by the consensus of sages who stand behind them. That justifies our treating all materials in those documents as testimonies to views held in the fourth century and given recognition as authoritative at that time. That view does not deny the possibility that others held the same opinions prior to the point of redaction, but that possibility has no bearing on our problem. We focus on views people held and expressed at a given time, not on the origins of those views, or, as I have stressed, on the reasons that, at diverse times, people may have reached the same conclusions. Those reasons may prove diverse, but we do not know the reasons people in the age under discussion said the things they said. So we deal only with what we know.

ticipated in the work of closure and redaction of the whole. We do not know the answer. But among themselves they cannot have differed very much about the way in which the work was to be carried on. For the end product, the Talmud of the Land of Israel, like the Mishnah, is uniform and stylistically coherent, generally consistent in modes of thought and speech, wherever we turn. That accounts for the single voice that leads us through the dialectical and argumentative analysis of the Talmud of the Land of Israel. What follows for this book is simple. We are justified in citing the documents at hand as evidence of the views of their framers. And that is why I maintain we do have ample evidence on the state of sages' views, in the writings closed at the end of the fourth century, on the issues important in the age at hand.4

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