Amit Gvaryahu on on Richard Kalmin’s Migrating Tales
When ISIS recently took over the historic city of Palmyra on the Silk Road, they declared they would not destroy the city but only the statues of “idols worshipped by the infidels” inside it. Lawrence Wright surmised that this declaration was motivated by the Arab tradition of reading Palmyra as an Arab kingdom and their Queen Zenobia (Arabic Zaynab or Az-Zabba) as an Arab heroine. Her ability to wrest control of large swaths of the Roman Empire in the late 260s and early 270 was seen as heralding Arab conquests to come. This contemporary anecdote is a striking example of the way in which a shared geographic and literary heritage can be received by different reading communities. Although separated by the rise of Islam, Europeans and Arabs both possessed some knowledge about Palmyra and its Queen Zenobia — and each fit this knowledge into their own paradigms of gender, ethnicity and empire.
Richard Kalmin’s Migrating Tales is neither about ISIS nor about Palmyra but about similar pods of knowledge which were successfully able to traverse political and ethnic boundaries. The subtitle, The Talmud’s Narratives and their Historical Context, is slightly misleading. The book is not about the historical context of the narratives but rather about the historical context of their transmission and migration. That is, readers will not get to know the precise location of Alexander’s fountain of youth but they will learn something about the tribulations of the story of Alexander and fountain of youth. In this sense, the stories themselves are historic artifacts. In eight chapters, Kalmin shows how non-rabbinic traditions from the Roman East ended up in the most rabbinic of rabbinic works, the Babylonian Talmud, which was redacted beyond the borders of the Roman Empire.
Each chapter could have been published separately, and the book reads somewhat “talmudically,” an anthology of stories with a connecting thread. The book can be read in two ways: as a close and rich reading of individual talmudic stories or themes and as a far-reaching cultural-historical claim. The first part of the book deals with specific traditions: Manassah sawing Isaiah in half with a wooden saw (b. Yev. 49b-50a); a demon named bar Talamion who might be a reflection of St. Bartholomew (b. Meil. 17a-b); the miraculous creation of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Torah, by seventy elders who did not collaborate with each other (b. Meg. 8a-9a); the building of Solomon’s temple aided by some demons (b. Git. 68a-b); and the bubbling blood of the prophet Zechariah (b. San. 96b). The rest takes on general themes: concerning the Pharisees and astrology, rounding out the analysis with a detailed commentary on the Alexander romance tradition preserved in tractate Tamid of the Babylonian Talmud.
Kalmin promises to include “non-rabbinic” material and makes good on the promise. A perusal of the bibliography of primary sources shows not only the breadth of Kalmin’s research, but also the wealth of his materials. The list of languages is exhilarating: together with the requisite Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Greek, and Latin, we find Armenian, Georgian, Persian, and Ethiopic. The horizons of the rabbinic world now stretch from Rome all the way to Yerevan; if you count the Alexander romance, they might extend all the way to that fabulous place which contains the fountain of youth. Finding the non-Talmudic elements in the Talmud has been a staple of rabbinic scholarship from its inception and Kalmin acknowledges his debts to previous scholarship while offering new methods for reading and new insight to each story.
Kalmin’s overarching claim is that the most important comparandum for Talmudic material is the eastern Roman Empire. This is an expansion of a claim he made in his previous book, Jewish Babylonia between Persia and Roman Palestine, in which he locates a channel of transmission in fourth-century rabbinic circles. In Migrating Tales, Kalmin presses the point further in specific case studies, noting that traditions which clearly came from “the west” find their way specifically into the Babylonian Talmud. Kalmin is looking for “western” ideas and stories which were picked up not by “western” Jews but by “eastern” ones, and then deposited into the Babylonian Talmud. This would make the Jews of Babylonia important recipients of “western” materials not found in Palestinian Jewish works. That the Babylonian Talmud has access to these materials diminishes somewhat the importance of Persian and Zoroastrian comparisons, which a small but dedicated group of scholars has been engaged with in the last decade or so. In this respect, Armenian, Ethiopic, and Georgian are guises for lost Greek and Latin originals or indicators of their presence.
The force of this overarching claim is mitigated by a calm attention to detail and a localized focus. In the introduction he nods to two works by Daniel Boyarin and Peter Schäfer that make similar claims, and he offers his own book as a more prudent and measured foray down the same path. Kalmin does not pontificate, and he lets the readers in on his thought processes in the footnotes. This is a laudable move that makes for good scholarship. Discussing specific case studies rather than far-reaching tendencies allows readers to draw their own conclusions in this debate and even to take opposing sides in different cases. The book’s localized focus also pre-empts a critique that this book has nothing to say about the vast majority of the Babylonian Talmud, the legal, non-narrative part. An exciting project would be to look for traces of Roman or Eastern-Christian legal discourses in the Babylonian Talmud’s legal debates.
Reading Kalmin, the overarching impression is that the rabbis were not the leaders of the Jewish community but rather an elite vying for control of the hearts and minds of a wider community against other elites. This realization (or: contention) has become commonplace in recent years. But Kalmin goes further to divide the world he is studying into “rabbis” against all others — “pagans,” Christians, Mandaeans, Zoroastrians and “non-rabbinic Jews?” This division needs to be unpacked. Was the binary rabbinic/non-rabbinic division self-evident for the rabbis themselves? Did they see all “non-rabbis” as equal? From what we know about rabbinic rhetoric and law, the rabbis directed their words toward all Jews inclusively and divided the world into Jews and gentiles. (The latter group was afforded the luxury of being all but ignored by the rabbinic class, unless they chose to meddle in the rabbis’ affairs, for example by trying to take their money or assets). This of course is a gross generalization. It should be picked apart, place by place and era by era. But with the necessary caveats it stands. The rabbis were speaking as the leaders of the Jewish community, even though they may not have been. This is important to emphasize in the context of Kalmin’s book because the different kinds of material he discusses: “Jewish” and “non-Jewish” materials.
Kalmin expertly uses the examples in his book to claim that the borders of late ancient empires were porous, and that ideas and traditions moved freely between them. This is undoubtedly correct and an important corrective to the inward gaze of rabbis — Roman and Sasanian — celebrated in scholarship in recent decades. But more than the borders of empire were porous, the Jews were tight-knit with themselves. Any evaluation of the migration of traditions from the Roman East to Babylonia on biblical and Jewish themes must consider the possibility that these ideas were born and transmitted within the confines of the Jewish community, even though they may also be found in works associated with other Abrahamic groups, most notably Christians (to whom Kalmin points often in the book).
The question of community needs to come to the fore when discussing movements of knowledge and mythical materials across the Levant. Stories about Isaiah, Zechariah and the Pharisees trigger a different subset of questions than stories about Alexander. A discussion of traditions which the Jews understood to be their own and originated in sources which self-identified as Jewish from the first centuries before and during the Common Era, is not the same as the broad and fundamentally universal category of “astrology.” Everyone sees the sun and the moon, but not everyone knows about Moses or Jeremiah.
More importantly, however, communities are constituted by their shared myths just as much — perhaps even more than — their shared creeds. Understanding the borders of these myths — and the porosity of these limits — offers glimpses into the complex and exciting dynamics by which communities are constituted. This is, in my opinion, the single most important insight of Kalmin’s rich and well-documented book. The Jews of the Levant were a people who shared myths with others: some of them Greek, some explicitly Christian, and some home-grown, but all of them shared, told and re-told. They were members of a wider mythic community, in which they could tell each other stories. Heroes could be exchanged and appropriated, woven in each community into wider narratives and etiologies. In this sense, the past and the present of the Levant are so jarringly different. We are all so possessive of our myths nowadays, always on the lookout for unfamiliar material to chase away and label anathema. Zenobia would have been puzzled.