This story of an encounter between Diocletian (ruled 284-305 CE) and two rabbis features legendary motifs, namely a demon and miracles. This Aramaic narrative has an extended parallel in the fifth-century midrash Genesis Rabbah 63:8 (Theodor-Albeck edition, p. 688-690). Whereas this talmudic version appears in a sugya (talmudic unit) that presents several tales of miracles which assisted Jews in captivity (including under Roman authorities), in Genesis Rabbah, this story is placed within a critique of Esau (Jacob’s twin brother), who commits bloodshed. In that midrashic text, Esau represents Rome and its murderous ways (more on this parallel in Genesis Rabbah in Har-Peled, The Dialogical Beast, p. 123-146; Morgenstern, “The Image of Edom,” p. 216-218; Simon-Shoshan, “Did the Rabbis Believe in Agreus Pan?”).
Section A states that the children of Rabbi Yudah (or Yudan) the Patriarch (Nesiya) hit or taunted a swineherd named Diclot. Rabbi Yudah was a grandson of Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch, who was active until ca. 290 CE. Diclot is presumably a variant of Diocles, the original name of the man who was known as Diocletian upon becoming emperor. Although Diocletian was neither a swineherd nor a resident of the Galilee before rising to head the empire, this tradition may refer to his origins in a low-status family. Christian texts also incorporate traditions about his background and depict him in a negative light. By comparison, in the Jerusalem Talmud, this teaching emphasizes the importance of showing respect to all, lest someone of lower status achieves a position of power and seek redress against prior abuse. In such a case, only a miracle can offer protection.
The parallel in Genesis Rabbah adds a few details:
.דוקליטיינוס מלכא הוה רעי חזירין בהדה טיברייה. וכיון דהוה מטי סדריה דרבי הוון מיינוקיה נפקין ומחיין ליה
Diocletian the king used to herd swine here in Tiberias. When he arrived at the study hall of Rabbi [Yudan the Patriarch], the young ones (probably students) went out and hit him.
The midrash does not mention the previous name of Diocletian. In this version, the children seem to have attacked the swineherd because he brought pigs near their study hall. Swine were regarded as an impure animal, so Jews were prohibited from raising and consuming them (Mishnah Baba Qamma 7:7). Furthermore, in amoraic texts, swine come to represent Rome (Genesis Rabbah 65:1; Leviticus Rabbah 13:5). It is therefore symbolic that Diocletian is a swineherd who, according to Genesis Rabbah, herds his flock beside a center of Torah study. Neither pigs nor a study hall appear in the earlier, talmudic version (only his role as a swineherd in mentioned); thus, no external factors suggest a reason for the children’s behavior toward Diclot, other than his socio-economic position. Therefore, the Talmud underscores that the children’s conduct toward him was unjustified.
Section B states that Diclot the swineherd became king and then arrived in Paneas, or Caesarea Philippi (today Banias in the north of Israel). In Jerusalem Talmud Shevi‘it 9:2, 38d, another passage also describes this emperor’s visit to Paneas and his treatment of the residents of that city. Diocletian came to Palestine at least twice (for more on these visits, see the commentary on Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 5:3, 44d). According to E. Mary Smallwood: “Probably during his long stay in 286…Diocletian made a sufficiently deep impression on the Jews for stories to be recorded about him” (The Jews under Roman Rule, p. 537). In our text, after arriving in Paneas, Diocletian decides to punish the patriarch by dispatching a decree that required the rabbis to come to Paneas immediately after Shabbat, meaning on Saturday night (or, according to Genesis Rabbah, early Sunday morning). However, he instructs the messenger not to deliver the decree until sunset on the eve of Shabbat (Friday evening). This directive leaves the sages with two possibilities: travel on Shabbat, which is prohibited by rabbinic halakhah, or remain in Tiberias and face punishment for failing to comply with the emperor’s order. This narrative assumes that Diocletian is familiar with Jewish laws of Shabbat and uses them to design an impossible choice for the rabbis: they were forced to choose between obedience to God versus the emperor.
Section C describes Rabbi Yudan the Patriarch and Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥman, a second- or third-generation amora who was active in the third century, as they are going to bathe in the public bath of Tiberias after having received the emperor’s command, perhaps in preparation for Shabbat. The public bathhouse of this city is the setting for a number of amoraic narratives that depict rabbis and their encounters with various others (see, for example, Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 7:13, 25d; Pe’ah8.9, 21b; Leviticus Rabbah 34:10). At the bath, they meet Angitris(or in some versions of Genesis Rabbah, Argentin or Argint), whom commentators interpret as a demon (for a summary of scholarly suggestions, see Simon-Shoshan,“Did the Rabbis Believe in Agreus Pan?” p. 441-449, who posits that this demon is actually the god Agreus Pan). While Rabbi Yudan the Patriarch wants to rebuke him, Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥman tells his colleague: “Let him be! For a trial (or, for miracles) does he appear.” In the Talmud, the term is “trial” (nisayon); in Genesis Rabbah, it is “miracles” (nisin). Given the nearly identical spelling of these two Hebrew words, it is plausible that, in the Talmud’s original version, Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥman also speaks of miracles. The Talmud does not explain why Rabbi Yudan is inclined to rebuke this demon but, as we will see below, Genesis Rabbah details its inappropriate behavior. Eventually, Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥman’s attitude toward the demon enables the sages to avoid both violating the laws of Shabbat and disobeying the emperor. When Angitrisapproaches the rabbis and inquires about their welfare, they tell him about the decree. He then instructs them to continue to the bathhouse and assures them that their Creator will enact miracles on their behalf. Here too Genesis Rabbah presents a more elaborate account:
נחת ר' שמואל בר נחמן למיסחי. חמתי לרבי קאים קומי סדרה רבה פניו חולניות. אמ' לו. למה פניך חולניות. אמ' לה. כן וכן אשתדר לן כתבין מן מלכותה. אמ' לה. אתה סחי דבריין עבד ניסים. עלון למיסחי. ואתה ארגינט מגחך ומרקד. בעא ר' דינזוף ביה. אמ' ליה ר' שמואל בר נחמן שבקיה דזמינין על נסין מתחמי. אמ' ליה מריך בעקא ואת גחיך. אמ' להון. אזלין ואכלין ושתין ועבדין שובה טובה. ואנה מקים לכון קודמוי בצפרה דחד בשובה באתרא דאתון רעיין.
Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥman went to bathe (in the bathhouse). He saw Rabbi [Yudan the Patriarch] standing in front of the Great Study Hall and he (lit. his face) [looked] sick. [Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥman] asked him: “Why do you (lit. does your face) [look] sick?” He answered: “Thus-and-such was sent to us in a decree from the kingdom.” [Rabbi Shmuel] said to him: “Come [and] bathe, for our Creator performs miracles.” They went in (lit. enter) to bathe. Argint came [in] laughing and dancing. Rabbi [Yudan the Patriarch] wanted to rebuke him. Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥman told him: “Leave him [alone]! Sometimes he is seen for [performing] miracles.” He (Rabbi Yudan) said to him (to Argint): “Your masters are in trouble and you are laughing?” He (Argint) said to them: “Go eat and drink and have (lit. make) a good Shabbat, and I bring you before him on the morning of the first day of the week to wherever (lit. to the place that) you want.”
This version expands on the Talmud by detailing: Rabbi Yudan’s reaction to decrees; the conversation between the two sages and their different coping mechanisms for dealing with the emperor’s order; the reason for Rabbi Yudan’s inclination to rebuke the demon; and, an elaborate dialogue with that being, who promises to bring the rabbis to any destination. Of particular interest, these rabbis also refer to themselves as masters of this demon (“Your masters are in trouble”). Moreover, as Moshe Simon-Shoshan writes, Genesis Rabbah emphasizes the tension between Rome and the Jews: “Tiberias and Paneas, the two former Herodian capitals, one the leading center of Jewish political and religious authority and the other a regional center of Greco-Roman culture and religion, are well cast as stand-ins for long desolate Jerusalem and far away Rome” (“Did the Rabbis Believe in Agreus Pan?” p. 432; see also Har-Peled, The Dialogical Beast, p. 126-128). Despite this contrast between Tiberias and Paneas, each has a Roman bathhouse and, in both versions, part of the narrative occurs in that Roman institution.
Section D takes place after Shabbat (Saturday night or, as noted above, Sunday morning in Genesis Rabbah). The demon transports the two rabbis to Paneas to meet Diocletian. When the emperor’s staff informs him that the sages have arrived, he issues a new requirement: before their audience with him, they must bathe in a bathhouse that was heated for seven days and seven nights (before they entered). Here too the demon intervenes, now by entering in advance and enabling them to survive this ordeal, perhaps an echo of the narrative from Daniel 3:19-30, where Ḥanania, Mishael, and Azaria (also named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) survive in a fiery furnace (the Talmud does not specify how the demon protects them; Genesis Rabbah states that he cooled the bathhouse). When the rabbis approach Diocletian, he accuses: “Because your Creator performs miracles for you, you treat the kingdom with contempt,” but the sages respond that they showed no disrespect to Diocletian the king, only to Diclot, the swineherd. As Simon-Shoshan explains: “The Romans recognize that the Jews are kept beyond their reach due to divine protection. At the same time, the Jews still need to respect the power and authority of the Romans. Taken as a whole, the story appears to call for a balance between Jewish faith in the continuing engagement of God with his people, and pragmatic recognition of political realities” (“Did the Rabbis Believe in Agreus Pan?” p. 433).In the closing line of this source, Section E states: “Even so, you should despise neither a junior Roman nor a junior colleague.” It is unclear whether this comment is ascribed to Diocletian or the anonymous voice of the Talmud. In Genesis Rabbah, a similar remark is attributed to the emperor; and, moreover, this instruction is illustrated by the mention of two Roman figures. By contrast, the Talmud seems to include lower status Jewish colleagues (other sages, students or members of rabbinic circles). Regardless of the scope of this final teaching, in the Talmud, Diocletian’s behavior toward the sages seems to stem from the taunts that he suffered from the children or students of the patriarch, long before becoming emperor. Unlike Titus, Trajan or Hadrian, this emperor is not presented as evil. This talmudic passage conveys the importance of according respect to all people, irrespective of their standing. While several scholars have attempted to identify a historical inspiration or background for this story, the Talmud does not seem to draw on a factual event, but rather to warn against treating lower ranking members of society with disrespect or violence (see the summary of research in Har-Peled, The Dialogical Beast, p. 124-125).
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