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SIDIC Periodical VI - 1973/3
The Talmud (Pages 12 - 19)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The Master Urges: Jew and Christian in the Tannaitic Age
Thomas Franxman


Polemics of any kind seldom, if indeed ever, develop between parties which have no values in common. Rare would be the person who would risk the vicissitudes of battle over a cause for which he cared little or nothing. Often enough, the value which either side places on the bone of contention is quite obvious and comprehensible to each of the opposing parties: what, for my purposes, I have or wish to have, you wish to have or have for yours. As long as the object of the dispute remains defined and identical for both parties, opposition remains understandable, if not always preferable. It is when what is fought over becomes so unsure and ill-conceived that both parties of the opposition can claim victory with equal conviction, that we can be sure that the value disputed has long since ceased to be a genuinely common one, and that the bone, in effect, has been split, each contender carrying off that portion of the spoil which he claims to be, if not the whole, at least all that he really was fighting for. If one were made to choose between these two types of confrontation, it is the former which appears to me the less damaging. Unfortunately, it would likewise appear that most religious disputes which culminate in permanent divisions represent the latter type.

The foregoing preamble, which I hope to be clear and believe to be legitimate, is meant to introduce a presentation of, and two subsequent reflections upon, an over-view of the first two centuries of our era. This over-view attempts to combine, mainly for the purposes of the subsequent reflections, two streams of religious tradition, Jewish and Christian, which, as the first set of reflections tries to demonstrate, are usually thus brought together in order to dwell upon the emergence of mutual hostility, developed though it was in a correspondingly underemphasized milieu of respectful tolerance and even mutual cooperation. The center of the battle between the two opposing sides was, without question, the meaning to be given to the life and person of Jesus. The second set of reflections will, in turn, pose the feasibility and importance of a re-examination of the common concern manifested by both religious traditions for one of their principal beliefs which, in fact, made Jesus a matter of contention at all the belief which is monotheism itself.

When the above preamble is compared with the outline of the matter which it is meant to introduce, it should also be clear what I mean when describing both the spirit and the purpose of what will be said. The Jewish-Christian confrontation of the historical period under discussion is realistically and readily admitted to be a heated and increasingly uncompromising duel which, however, is viewed in a spirit which clearly perceives that such animus as was manifest on both sides would have been impossible without some common value being felt to be in jeopardy for both. On the other hand, the purpose in broaching this polemical period in this particular spirit is to point out forcibly the fact that the very monotheism which the spirit of our enquiry allows us to see as a dynamic power behind the disputes, produced in the course of the same period and within both traditions an enriched comprehension and articulation of its own significance.

What follows is an effort, not, it is to be hoped, overly technical, to expedite the above-mentioned purpose. To many it will doubtless seem too general and over-diluted a means to achieve the end in view; to others, it may appear somewhat fantastic or irrelevant. If the point be taken by any, however, that both traditions during this particular period produced things which are mutually valuable for the understanding of a belief which both traditions did and do so highly esteem, then what is now to be said will be worth the saying.

* * *

The Jewish side of the picture which follows is admittedly but one portion of a totality. Amidst a whole array of writings, writers and authorities, a single group of men has been chosen, and from among these merely some of the chief est. The group in question is that constituted by the Tannaites the group who, having inherited oral traditions respecting both the interpretation of their received law and the application of its principles and spirit beyond its letter, in fact formed an historically continuous chain of witness to and development of one religious tradition. Thus, this group recommends itself for treatment as forming a kind of backbone to the whole era which the first two centuries of our epoch constitute for Jews. The group is also central in that it engaged in and inspired other types of literature than that which eventually became enshrined in the Mishnah the great and lasting memorial to the group's existence and efforts. What must be born in mind, of course, is that in approaching the matter in this fashion we are, as it were, tuning in on a program which has already begun, for the Tannaites occur in Jewish tradition within a process which they trace hack through Ezra to Moses, and which time itself has made the basis for even further development.

The series of Tannaites is usually divided into six successive generations of teachers and taught. This arrangement I have adopted so that, in bringing Christian writers and authorities into the picture, it will be easier to assess the kind of confrontation which took, or might have taken, place.


The period of Judaism's history which is ordinarily reckoned to contain the first generation of tannaitic masters falls between 10 and 80 A.D.

The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 stands as a kind of watershed. Before the catastrophe the personalities of two great teachers, Shammai and Hillel, continued to dominate religious thought to the extent that their contrasting and rival approaches were kept very much alive in the respective schools they founded. After the sack of Jerusalem it was Johanan ben Zakkai who became the major personality. Nurtured in the school of Hillel, Rabban Johanan rightly came to be considered of the utmost importance in the preservation of Judaism after 70, for his chief works, the foundation of the academy of Jabneh and of the Great Bet din, served not only to preserve tradition but also, and perhaps most importantly, to maintain it as a living reality. In Rabban Johanan Pharisaism became dominant and Hillel gained what was to prove the decisive advantage over Shammai.

In Christian tradition, this same long period of 70 years cannot be said to be uneventful, covering as it does most of the life-span of Jesus as well as most of the apostolic age. The bulk of the literature which will eventually be known as the New Testament was undertaken and concluded. It is in the world of the schools of Hillel and Shammai that Jesus dies and Saul sets out on the road to Damascus. Rabban Gamaliel I, son or grandson of Hillel himself, is momentarily glimpsed as young Saul's master and as a cautioning voice raised during a trial of Jesus' apostles before the Sanhedrin. But some twenty years before Titus put the torch to the Second Temple the fateful council had taken place in Jerusalem whereat Gentile converts to Christianity were freed from the obligation to observe the whole of the Law.


Though Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai is said to have had five disciples, two of them became far more distinguished than the others. It is therefore upon Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Joshua ben Hananiah that attention automatically focuses when reviewing the second generation of Tannaites. In frequent dispute with one another, as individual authorities they are joined to the authorities of the following generation in being reckoned fundamental to normative Judaism. During, or even at the beginning of, this same period of forty years (80-120), Rabban Gamaliel II succeeded Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai as head of the Great Bet din, and it is with reference to the work done by that assembly that this period of Jewish religious history is most easily remembered. Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs were approved for inclusion in the canon of Scripture. Since it will be the business of a later paragraph to mention it, it could be noted here that the execration of the minim, a curse against the Jewish-Christians, was composed at this time and added to the daily recitation of the Eighteen Benedictions.

The later of the writings included in the New Testament date from this same period, but Christian tradition tends to shape its recollections of the age of Rabban Gamaliel II around three figures who are usually designated Apostolic Fathers. Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna are personalities rarely thought of in conjunction with Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Joshua ben Hananiah. The surviving authentic works of the three Christians, however, place them or more precisely their literary activity vis-a-vis the disputatious pupils of Johanan ben Zakkai. As yet small and already in crisis of persecution, the infant Christian Church is, understandably enough, on the whole more reticent than vocal.


Between 120 and 140 occurred the rebellion under Hadrian, initiated as early as 130 and reaching its dismal conclusion in 135. The outstanding authorities among the Tannaites were Ishmael ben Elisha and his even greater contemporary, Akiva. Both owed at least something to each of the two main figures of the previous generation, but Akiva is outstanding in two ways: his part in the drastic political events of the time, and his Mishnah a codification of the Oral Law which, if not the first of its kind,nevertheless became the basis for later productions. This rebellion, however, was the occasion for another event which should not be overlooked. The Nazarenes or Jewish Christians broke definitively and permanently from the rest of the Jews. Up to this time a circle within the synagogue, and as suspicious as the rabbis of what they considered to be antinomianism among Gentile Christians, they experienced the rebellion as a test of national loyalty. Would they follow the revolutionary Messiah or continue to adhere to their conviction regarding Jesus? In the event, they fell squarely between two stools and became outcasts both from the synagogue and from Jew-purged Jerusalem.

Quadratus is the name of the Christian author who, at this time, opened up an entire era of productivity in religious literature. The apologists, as this author and those who followed in his footsteps are called, attempted to obtain tolerant treatment from public authority for Christians by proving them innocent of various accusations made against them. But a second and more important purpose in their writing was to prove the value and truth of their religion in order to extend its influence. Quadratus' work is in fact lost, and there is no other Christian author, extant or otherwise, the dates of whose works place him vis-a-vis the highly significant Jewish contemporary. Apologies, as shall be seen, tended of their very nature to be against such parties as were conceived as the victimizers of the Christians. Nonetheless, these authors represent a genuine effort, possibly the earliest, to theologize, and this alone is sufficient to render their era noteworthy.


What resulted for the Jews from undertaking their. rebellion under Hadrian was dire. Prohibitions of the severest type were leveled in all directions, that which doubtless cut the deepest being the proscription of the study, teaching and copying of the Law. Rabbi Akiva thereby lost his life, and the practice of religion was made to grind to a halt. Under the subsequent emperor, however, life began to improve. Schools and a rabbinical synod were again established, but in Galilee, outside war-ravaged Judaea. The chief figure of this, the fourth generation of tannaim, was Rabbi Meir. Having gone to school to both of the principal authorities of the previous generation, he is however rightly reckoned the disciple of Akiva. The historical period in question is one of twenty-five years (140-165). The head of the rabbinical synod is now Simeon ben Gamaliel II, but it is Rabbi Meir who dominates this generation. Building on the already mentioned compilation of Akiva, Rabbi Meir succeeded in producing a codification which would undergo but one more rehandling before it reached the stage at which it would remain authoritatively fixed.

At the time when the Jews of Palestine were recovering from the above-mentioned reprisals, the Christian apologist Justin produced his celebrated work The Dialogue with Tryphon. Tryphon is presented as a Jew of Ephesus, and the dialogue may indeed be a literary version of some similar conversation actually held. Its tone is not immoderate, but it is particularly in the first portion of this two-part work that Justin makes plain his notion of how Jews and Christians use the same sacred text in quite contrasting fashions. The argument is salted with many a digression couched in an openly condemnatory style. Tryphon, however, is made to argue his position intelligently and is not, in fact, converted. The familiar argument from Old Testament prophecy Justin adopts as he received it from the now lost work of a contemporary apologist, Aristo of Pella.


This brief outline has already presented Johanan ben Zakkai as the founder of the Great Bet din, in the presidency of which he was succeeded by Gamaliel II and Simeon ben Gamaliel II. In 170, the latter's son, Rabbi Judah, succeeded his father. As is well known, Rabbi Judah is also the principal tannaitic master of this fifth generation, which is usually reckonedas extending from 165 to 200. The period thus closes with the approximate date of the appearance of the work upon which Rabbi Judah's importance so rightly rests. Rabbi Judah's Mishnah, based on the production of Meir in the previous generation, is both the end of one age and the beginning of another.

Within the time of Rabbi Judah stand the names of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Minutius Felix and Tertullian. Apology as a style of Christian literature is still well represented in the last two of these four authors, but the first two represent in their work the emergence of different concerns and, therewith, the development of new approaches to Christian belief. Minutius and Irenaeus belong exclusively to this period, the theological work of the latter underscoring consistently the monotheism of a faith seriously threatened by Gnosticism. The productivity of Clement and Tertullian continues beyond .200. It would be false, however, to see in the latter of these two nothing but an apologist. His moral and disciplinary writings outnumber in fact his efforts of other kinds, and the theologizing upon which he bases his vision of the practical side of Christianity enters deeply into his tradition's concept of the rule of law within a believing community.


Some have thought it otiose to speak of a sixth generation of Tannaites. Nevertheless, the contemporaries and disciples of Rabbi Judah are usually thought of as at least semi-tannaim and occupy the period between the appearance of Rabbi's Mishnah and his death (around 220). In this class Hiyya had his own special importance. The tannaitic period, extending as it does from about 10 to about 220, was one of continual crisis for Jews. Persecuted as Christians undoubtedly were during the same era, it can scarcely be said that the same lot was not shared by the adherents of the other tradition. Events leading up to and following the two crises of 70 and 135 constitute a litany of hardship, oppression and impoverishment. In such a struggle to preserve an identity it is not surprising that all that is truly fundamental should be sought, isolated and emphasized.

As has been already noted, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian continued writing in this period. It was sometime between 200 and 206 that Tertullian produced the apologetic work on account of which his name is frequently mentioned in connection with Jewish-Christian relations: Adversus Judaeos. Two other authors, however, become prominent at this juncture, Hippolytus and Origen. The talent and productivity of the latter set a whole new standard in Christian literature, and the fact that his name stands in Christian tradition at the end of what was for Jews the tannaitic age sums up something of what could be said about the contrast of the two religious traditions during this one same historical period. Like Rabbi Judah, Origen was in his way the beginning of something new and the end of a long road. The road at the end of which he stands, however, is one that is only partially paved, for at the time when Judaism was consolidating, Christianity was but beginning.

* * *

So much having been omitted from and so little said about what was included in the foregoing summary, it may indeed seem hardly worth the effort of having made it. Any reflection on the Jewish-Christian confrontation of this period, however, demands some concrete picture at least, and the standard excuse that some is better than none must stand in apology for the obvious deficiencies of the precis. But even so light and inadequate an overview cannot help but adumbrate the highly negative counterpoise which is ordinarily emphasized in treating of the inter-relation of the two religious traditions at this time. It will be the business of this first set of reflections to ponder the significance of this negative, hostile atmosphere.

The emergence of what is, rightly or far too facilely, termed Gentile Christianity is unquestionably an element of the greatest importance. One finds quite early witness to the details of this emergence in the Acts of the Apostles, a work whose significance and weight find, in my opinion, far too small a place amid the data upon which the treatment of Jewish-Christian relations in these centuries is ordinarily based. Chapter fifteen of the Acts of the Apostles is especially important. Therein is described the meeting of a council which took place in Jerusalem about the middle of the first century, and about this description there are some crucial points to be made. This council takes place well within the religious and social ambit of what for practical purposes may be called (with as much justice as is meted in the coining of the term which is its opposite number) Jewish Christianity. Yet it is within this very ambit that Gentiles are made formally welcome on condition of willingness to observe a few basic precepts (circumcision and Sabbath not included) in lieu of the whole Law. The status granted the Gentiles is equal to that of any other Christian, but it is the reason for allowing the Gentiles into the community on these conditions that is interesting. In the text recounting the events of the council, Peter is made to say to his conationals in explanation of this treatment of Gentiles: But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus just as they [the Gentiles) will. The principle which renders the whole Law unnecessary for Gentiles is made the common denominator of all Christians, Gentile or Jewish, and this within the milieu of Jewish Christianity itself.

Jewish concern with Christians during the first two centuries of the epoch centers understandably enough about the Christians with whom Jews came most into contact. Christian converts from among the Jews would naturally tend to continue to function on much the same social, psychological and religious level as before. Ties between Church and Synagogue were doubtless of varying strength, an example of the very closest sort being the Jewish-Christians of Palestine who came to grief during and after the rebellion under Hadrian. In reading the accounts which insist on calling the Christian Church of this period a sect of Judaism, one is led to wonder, nonetheless, how much that Christianity which was nothing but a sect of Judaism was, in fact, nothing but a sect rather of Christianity. It is said that the Jewish-Christians during the rebellion under Hadrian were similar to Jews in all things but holding Jesus as the already proven Messiah. In the case of these as well as of all those equipped with a similar but equally inadequate minimalism, cannot one justly ask whether normative Christianity, evolved by Jewish Christians, enshrined in the traditions which went to make up the New Testament, and authoritatively propagated thereafter, ever really made an impression upon or was accepted by those for whom Jesus constituted little more than the traditionally conceived Messiah? To the extent that Jewish Christianity was characterized by attitudes which made it very similar to Jewish belief and practice, and to the extent that such Christians were, or were likely to be, the only Christians whom Jews tended to know, cannot one finally ask whether in cursing minim the Jews were really attacking normative Christianity at all?

Can we not then at least consider the possibility that the actual split which occurred between Christian and Jew took place at a much earlier date than is usually considered feasible to maintain? This does not mean that the but gradual separation of the two communities in areas where Christians were converts from Judaism was not an historical fact and rendered the two communities very much alike to outside observation.

What it may mean is that the Council of Jerusalem marked a kind of point of no return and that once the decision was taken which the Acts of the Apostles says was taken on that occasion, the two poles had been established around which, in the course of time, the two opposing beliefs would group.

The fact that the articulation of the central core of the Christian position, as this articulation appears in the New Testament, may have been generally unknown to Jews does not render the polemics of the period pointless hut is an element which cannot be overlooked in reflecting on the negative aspect present in Jewish-Christian relations of the time. The corresponding fact that the articulation of the central core of the Jewish position accomplished in the course of the tannaitic period may have remained largely unknown to Christians, makes one begin to wonder whether either side really in fact knew what the other was seriously about. The Jew, taking his stand upon the Law, and the Christian, taking his with Jesus, were unquestionably in clear opposition. This opposition, as we have seen, may have resulted from a cleavage which was both earlier and more abrupt than it is usually given credit for being. The lack of acquaintance with the New Testament among the rabbis, and the corresponding lack of knowledge of developing and developed rabbinic tradition among the early Christian Fathers, combine to add the kind of qualification to the history of the whole period which allows one to see the often embittered polemics as a less permanently valid summary of the views entertained by one party for the other.

Though the ordinary historical accounts of the negative opposition present at this time may be somewhat mitigated or at least qualified by what has been said, and though even these ordinary accounts leave room for evidence that mutual tolerance and even occasional cooperation were not altogether lacking, the fact still remains that the elements really present at the basis of the opposition did in fact in the course of time become mutually known despite the fact that mutual ignorance of the fuller articulation of these basic elements continued. This stems, in my opinion, not from a prejudice, howsoever arrived at, against fuller understanding of an opposing position, but rather from another element which may go far to explain the animus and clarity of the opposition, as well as the seeming carelessness regarding how in fact the opposing party attempted to identify what he meant and held.

Both Jew and Christian held that the Jewish Scriptures and, above all, the God thereof, were cardinal to their mutually opposing stances. Nothing is better calculated to begin and perpetuate opposition than difference in conclusion drawn from a common starting point. It was on this ground, however, where exchange proved impossible, that development took place in parallel and not in divergent fashion. The New Testament and the Mishnah might go their separate ways in expatiating upon the principles of opposition once established, but these principles themselves looked back to a common tradition and a common God. To the extent that each said somewhat about something both held dear, the script was written for a dialogue which in fact never took place.

* * *

All the Christian writers mentioned heretofore, from those whose works are actually included in the New Testament down to and including Origen, assume and build upon a monotheistic faith. Moreover, they insist upon such a faith. Perhaps it is too infrequently mentioned that the threat of Gnosticism brought this insistence more and more to the fore. The triadic configuration of the unity of God, present and well attested already in New Testament writings, does not in fact detract from this insistence. The peculiar thrust of Christian monotheism is often thought to be entirely removable from the religious milieu of Palestinian Judaism by an appeal to Hellenism . Hellenism is made to explain the Triad as well as the kind of unity which either lay beneath it or could be considered as the chronological antecedent in the light of which a Triad was first conceivable and then acceptable. The first assertion may well confuse Triad with the Trinity which, as a doctrine, stands at the end of a long development of terminology and theological reflection on the significance of the Triad, while the second does less than justice to the unmistakable Palestinian origin of much of what the New Testament has to say about the One God in which its authors believe.

The meaning of God's unity as it was received and dwelt upon by the Jewish masters of the tannaitic period may in effect have something to say about how there came to be the peculiarly Christian expression of a belief that Christians at least have always held as common to the two traditions. Jesus and the Law were surely in the forefront of any exchange between Jew and Christian, but it is not true to say that the Christian backed into a type of monotheism which he made conform with his peculiar prejudices regarding Jesus and the Law. The point at issue is rather how his very monotheism might have prejudiced the Christian in favor of his attitudes to both these, and whether this monotheism was the kind of belief shared by Jews who, in fact, did not draw Christian conclusions there from.

It is, I believe, a general but fair supposition that God's unity for the tannaitic masters rested squarely where the Scriptures placed it his one, universal and sovereign will to righteousness. Working from one source for one end, it dominates the world and its history and is revealed to men in the Scriptures. The one will of the one God is the shape of his personality . Nothing is sovereign above this sovereignty and in this its uniqueness is rooted. To the extent that one perceives that this faith remains not only undiluted but achieves a greater and sounder emphasis, one does, I believe, enter into the spirit and thrust of the tannaitic age of Jewish tradition.

I wish then to ponder the possibility of whether the Christian can or, above all, could declare and really commit himself to the very same conviction, aside from what he may think of Jesus. It is my opinion that he can, and that Christian tradition testifies to the fact that he could because he in fact did. In saying this, I am not understanding this articulation of monotheism as being in any sense a minimalism which must be embroidered upon or expanded in order to see the significance of what it really means. Not only is this in its own unique way all the picture, but I should like to reflect on the possibility of whether in fact it is precisely the light cast by this most fundamental of all convictions which not only inspires but prompts the Christian to believe as he does. I tend to distribute the emphasis in this fashion because I happen to think that it is a very difficult thing to be a monotheist at all. If there can be a case made for this, the Christian writers and the rabbis of the tannaitic period were not only witnessing to but deepening the same identical conviction and, as has already been remarked, writing a script which never became mutually known. It should be emphasized, however, that in making this suggestion I do not suggest an irrefrangibly logical connection between monotheism and the Christian position. By the light of the sun many men see many things, but each can rightfully attribute to the same light the necessary means of perceiving the very different objects he sees.

The one Will as casting the shape of the one God is unquestionably basic for Jew and Christian alike. It is this above all which makes of our God-a moral and personal imperative, intruding into and cutting across, like a veritable sword, all privately personal considerations of desire and inclination. This Will, equally unquestionably, in both traditions, connotes, allows for and demands law. It is not bypassing a principal point of opposition between Jewish and Christian tradition to say that the exact shape of this law differs in each tradition. Augustine, a Christian writer much later than those whom it is the concern of this article to have mentioned, proverbializes the Christian shape of law (by paraphrasing both the Gospel and Paul) in the famous phrase Love and do what you will . Far too infrequently it is observed that this in fact masks the point that there is really nothing to do if the first imperative is truly fulfilled. For both traditions, law is both necessary and necessarily applicable to the entirety of life, and this precisely because the divine Will is universally sovereign. No Christian who professes or professed his faith could dare admit that the Will was any less urgent and all-encompassing than it was for a believing Jew.

The spatial and temporal universality of the rt dominion of the divine Will can scarcely be a point upon which the two traditions could be said to differ at all. Both regard all creation as not just the subject but the product of the Personal God who preserves what he has fashioned and continually conducts it to his own established ends. This belief constitutes a scarcely less urgent formula than the emphasis on the divine Will itself. Again, it is the motive of the divine simplicity which is asserting itself in the astonishingly radical conviction that all time is God's in a moral and not just physical or cosmological fashion.

Finally, the uniqueness of the divine Will emerges as an all too obvious reality. Without rival beyond the sphere of merely visible creation, it goes virtually without saying that nothing in the visible world can replace it. Its active power and universal scope act as magnets to attract the human mind to a single point, and that point is both beginning and end of all things outside itself.
It is the incalculable weight of these combined convictions which can be said, I think rightly, to be both accepted and borne by both Jew and Christian alike. All are no less than driven to serve the one Will as it alone deserves. That under this very same driving force the Christian reached out to a knowledge of that which he felt bound to serve constitutes an event within, and not apart from, the revealed presence of this Will among us. Perhaps it may be said that the degree to which the Christian felt the one Will calling for such a knowledge of itself is the most realistic yard-stick for measuring the distance between two traditions compelled by the same dynamic source.

Christian writer and tannaitic master cannot be made to converse over a period of eighteen centuries. If they could there would doubtless be more than just a little to say about what both took to be the meaning of and the force behind the world and its history. Our business here in the twentieth century, in noting this genuine possibility, is but part of our own on-going attempt to fully appreciate what it means for oneself and for all men to be able deliberately and sincerely to frame the words: I believe in one God.


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