Diocletian’s edict which ordered all inhabitants of the empire to offer sacrifices; and, the permissibility of Samaritan wine for consumption by Jews
This text from the Jerusalem Talmud aims to explain the prohibition against Samaritan wine. While wine that was produced by gentiles was forbidden because it might have been used for idolatrous libations, it is more difficult justify this ban on the wine of the Samaritans, for they also worship the God of Israel and, especially, since this ruling is presented as a new standard, issued late in the third century. The context of this entire passage from the Talmud is a controversy with the Samaritans and its tone is polemical. It opens with Rabbi Abbahu’s prohibition against Samaritan wine, followed by three possible explanations for its introduction, and concluding with a discussion about this exclusion between Rabbi Abbahu and the Samaritans of Caesarea.
Rabbi Abbahu was a third-generation amora who resided in Caesarea circa the late third and fourth centuries. Samaritans probably started to live in Caesarea in greater numbers after the Bar Kokhba revolt, and their community became substantial during the third century (Pummer, “Samaritanism in Caesarea Maritima”). As a dominant minority in Caesarea, Samaritans participated in municipal administration as well as the security forces (Holum, “Identity,” 169-173; Dar, “The Samaritans in Caesarea,” p. 328). In Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 1:3, 39c, Rabbi Abbahu defines these Samaritan soldiers (or administrators) as idolaters.
In Section A, Rabbi Abbahu prohibits Samaritan wine. According to this section, his ruling was founded on the testimony of three other sages: Rabbi Ḥiyyah, Rabbi Asi, and Rabbi Ami, all third-generation amoraim who were also active circa the late third and early fourth centuries. These sages stated that, while traveling in (or close to) a Samaritan area (on the identification of the King’s Mountain, see Shahar, “Har Hamelekh), they saw a gentile who was suspected of possessing the wine of idolaters (Lawrence H. Schiffman, “The Samaritans,” p. 383, suggests reading “a Samaritan” instead of “a gentile," but without textual evidence). The Talmud then adds that, upon hearing that their conclusion relied on the presence of this gentile in Samaritan territory, Rabbi Abbahu told them: “Not by pretext.” The exact meaning of this remark is not clear. For Saul Lieberman, “The passage states clearly that R. Abbahu forbade the wine of the Samaritans on the ground that one man was suspected of using forbidden wine. It is certainly only an excuse. This is also the explanation of R. Moshe Margulies” (“The Martyrs of Caesarea,” p. 248; see also Shahar, “Har Hamelekh,” p. 279). Alternatively, the second sentence in Section A may represent a later editorial layer of the Talmud (this line is in Aramaic, while the first is in Hebrew), in which Rabbi Abbahu concludes that this prohibition cannot be based on this type of reasoning; therefore, the Talmud then offers other potential explanations for this new standard. This text may have originally included only the first sentence of Section A and Section E, which both feature Rabbi Abbahu, and a later editor may have added the Aramaic portion of Section A, Sections B to D (also in Aramaic), and probably the opening words of Section E, which join these sections together.
Section B presents a tale which demonstrates that the Samaritans purchased wine from gentiles, referred to here as Aramaeans (’aramaiya). Thus, if they buy wine from gentiles even though it is prohibited, logically, Samaritan wine is banned as well. In contrast to Section A, where a gentile suspected of owning unsuitable wine was seen in a Samaritan area, here the case against their wine is stronger. However, (B) does not accuse Samaritans of practicing idolatry.
Section C links this prohibition to a historical event: Emperor Diocletian (ruled 284-305 CE) visited the land of Israel or its vicinity and issued this decree: “All nations will offer a libation (of wine), except for Jews.” According to Lawrence H. Schiffman, Diocletian required emperor worship when he arrived in Palestine (“The Samaritans,” p. 384). However, from this passage, it is not clear whether Diocletian ordered all nations to worship the emperor or the gods. Nonetheless, the Talmud asserts that the Samaritans offered a libation and, therefore, their wine was prohibited. In this section, we see that the Samaritans not only bought wine from gentiles but they also offered libations to the emperor (or the Roman gods) when instructed to do so. However, it has also been suggested that they freely chose to participate in this ritual (see Rabello, “On the Relations between Diocletian and the Jews,” p. 150-151). The first edict that required all inhabitants of the empire to dedicate a sacrifice to the gods was proclaimed by the emperor Trajan Decius in 249 CE. At that time, the first empire-wide persecution of Christians took place (see more in Rives, “The Decree of Decius”; and the commentaries on Papyrus Rylands 12 and Cyprian, On the Lapsed VIII). In 304, Diocletian issued the fourth edict to order the entire population of the empire to bring sacrifices (Rees, Diocletian, p. 64; Corcoran, The Empire of the Tetrarchs, 182). This requirement led to yet another persecution of Christians. As Roger Rees writes: “Because sacrifice was the quintessential ritual in Roman pagan religion, performance of sacrifice was to become the hallmark of religious affiliation in the Tetrarchs’ clash with Christians” (Diocletian, p. 58). However, the Jerusalem Talmud does not mention Christians, but rather focuses on the Samaritans. Yet, this passage confirms that the emperor ordered all nations (including Samaritans) to offer a libation, with Jews as the sole exception. Moreover, the Talmud states that this decree was issued in or near the land of Israel. According to E. Mary Smallwood, “Diocletian visited Palestine at least twice and perhaps three times during his reign, the first emperor to do so since Caracalla. In 286 Galilee seems to have been his base for some weeks” (The Jews, p. 536). She also cites a visit in 297, and perhaps in 287. This talmudic claim notwithstanding, there is little evidence that Diocletian’s decree for the entire population to perform sacrifices was announced in the land of Israel. Another explanation posits that, rather than referring to an order for the whole empire, this talmudic section describes a decree that was related to the emperor’s visit to Palestine and specifically applied to the inhabitants of that land.
It is also noteworthy that the attitude toward Diocletian in this source is not negative. Whereas Titus and Hadrian are often called “the wicked” and Antoninus (whose identity is not completely certain) is praised in rabbinic texts, Diocletian, who is mentioned no less than these emperors in rabbinic literature, seems to receive neutral treatment in this passage. However, according to Saul Lieberman, rabbinic texts honor Diocletian, as the epithet “king” indicates. Furthermore, he states that Jews honored this emperor without providing their reasoning (Studies, p. 378-379).
In Section C, it seems that the Samaritans were forced to offer a libation of wine; by contrast, according to Section D, their own cult incorporated offering libations of wine to an image of a dove. This anecdote implies that they are idolaters and, consequently, their wine is prohibited.
These four explanations for Rabbi Abbahu’s prohibition are presented tentatively, since the first (A) may have been rejected by Rabbi Abbahu (even if not, the editors of the Talmud offer alternative options, which indicate that it was inadequate); the others (B to D) open with the phrase: “But there are those who want to say …” Moreover, the Talmud seems to have arranged these four explanations according to the severity of the Samaritans’ sins. In Section E, the Talmud describes the Samaritans of Caesarea approaching Rabbi Abbahu, inquiring why previous generations of Jews (“your fathers”) bought their supply (presumably of wine) from the Samaritans, a practice that has now ceased. Rabbi Abbahu answers that “Your fathers did not corrupt their actions, but you have corrupted your actions,” thus depicting contemporary Samaritans as having strayed from their ancestors’ ways. Without deciding which of these explanations for the ban is correct, the Talmud concludes with a polemical tone. Moreover, if the Hebrew material in Section A and Section E are early, in comparison with the other sections of this sugya (talmudic unit), it seems that rabbinic criticism toward Samaritans intensified over time. Or perhaps later editors of the Talmud considered the reasoning in Section A to be an insufficient explanation for banning Samaritan wine or as evidence of the corruption of the Samaritans mentioned in Section E; therefore, they inserted other, more severe, options to explain Rabbi Abbahu’s claim that the Samaritans “corrupt their actions.”
Given its focus on Samaritans – especially the prominent minority living in Caesarea – and their tensions with Jewish leaders, we may conclude that Diocletian and his edict are not the primary concern of this text. Although mentioned in passing, this sugya provides another source on this decree and indirectly documents a rabbinic perspective on it. It is noteworthy that, rather than placing this order in the context of tensions with Christians, the Talmud situates it in a conflict with Samaritans.
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