Early Rabbinic Literature

Early Rabbinic Literature

Rabbinic writings sit in a frustrating position for the present study, not least due to their internal diversity.  On the one hand, they provide clearly-stated and strongly worded civilian opinion on the Roman army and so are invaluable for this purpose.[1]  The rabbinic authors express, seemingly with little self-consciousness, easily discerned assumptions about the role of regional soldiers. A set of particularly vivid examples comes in the presumption that occupying soldiers were prone to sexually assaulting and raping Jewish women.[2]  The candor of rabbinic discussion indicates that these are often not intended as polemic, but rather involve real-life concerns within rabbinic social life.

On the other hand, there are two major issues precluding their unimpeded applicability to the present study.  First is the well known issue of dating, since these writings were composed far later than the period of concern. Indeed, composition began well after the transformative events of the Bar Kokhba War, when the Roman military came to serve as an occupying force quite distinct from even the early post-Judaean War period (the foreignness of the Roman army is a common theme as well).[3]  This is noticeably different from the provincial character of pre-Judaean War soldiers, as well as the relative degree of autonomy provincial politicians wielded over these forces. The character of day-to-day soldier-civilian interactions were determined in large part by the role of the force in the region and so were extremely different on either side of the Bar Kokhba War, just as they were with the Judaean War.  Garrisons continually spread across Palestine after the Judaean War, but this process was expedited after the Bar Kokhba War; the salience of the military to rabbinic memory was no doubt due to its increased relevance in this later time.

A second problem is the tendentiousness in rabbinic depiction of Rome and its ensigns.  Pervading these depictions is a theme of cruelty and malice.[4] Beyond the expected problems of numerical exaggeration of Jews slaughtered (“Hadrian slew eighty thousand myriads of human beings at Bethar”),[5] most non-legal rabbinic discussion of soldiers indicates extreme contempt for their often-vicarious participation in brutality against the Jews of Palestine. In short, narrative and poetic discussion of the army holds little of value, though pre-Bar Kokhba legal sources may be of some utility.

[1] Isaac, Benjamin. 1992. The Limits of Empire: The Roman Army in the East. Revised ed. Oxford: Clarendon, pp. 115-118.

[2] See, e.g., y. Ned. 11.42d; m. Ketub. 2.9; t. Ketub. 4.5; b. Ketub. 51b; y. Ketub. 2.26d.

[3] To list only a few of the changes from the pre-Bar Kokhba era (i.e., beyond those discussed in chapter 5): the change of Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina as a Roman colony; enduring resentment associated with the temple’s destruction; exclusion of Jews from Aelia Capitolina; general absence of Jewish political power and Jews in positions of political power; renaming of the province from the historically significant “Judaea” to the spiteful “Syria Palaestina”; etc., etc.

[4] Hadas-Lebel, Mireille. 2005. Jerusalem against Rome. Translated by Robyn Fréchet. Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion 7. Leuven: Peeters University Press, pp. 231-242, 398-409.

[5] Rab. (Lam.) 2.2-4, quoted in Hadas-Lebel, Jerusalem against Rome, 399.