Symbols that were associated with Roman power and its limitations relative to God's power
This passage from the Jerusalem Talmud expounds on a line from Mishnah, Avodah Zarah 3:1 that discusses images that Jews found or received, and whose status was unclear. The permissibility for Jews to derive benefit from these articles – whether for their own use or if sold – was dependent on whether they had ever been objects of worship and if they were considered idolatrous (following Exodus 20:4-5; 23:24; 34:12-16; Deuteronomy 7:1-5; 25-26; 12:1-3):
כל הצלמים אסורין מפני שהם נעבדים אחת בשנה. דברי ר' מאיר. וחכמ' אומ'. אינו אסור אלא כל שיש לו מקל או ציפור או כדור. ר' שמעון בן גמליא' או'. כל שיש בידו כל דבר.
“‘All images (tzelamim) are prohibited because they are worshipped once a year.’ – [these are] the words of Rabbi Meir. But the sages say: ‘It is only prohibited if it has a staff or a bird or a globe.’ Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: ‘Any [image] that has something in its hand.’”
The sugya (talmudic unit) discussed here expands on the sages’ view, that the prohibition of an image be determined by the presence of certain symbols. Scholars have understood the opinion presented in this mishnah in various ways. The three dominant readings assert that the sages: 1) rejected the imperial cult, as signaled by their mention of “a staff or a bird or a globe”; 2) objected to engagement with symbols of Roman power; or, 3) identified these articles as signs of deities (not specifically related to the imperial cult or Roman power). The Jerusalem Talmud’s discussion of this section of the Mishnah focuses on these items as symbols of imperial power.
Sections A+D are in Hebrew and mainly comprised of tannaitic material (composed by the first decades of the third century). These sections could be read sequentially without Sections B+C, amoraic materials written in Aramaic and Hebrew, which are attributed to fourth-century sages.
Section A elaborates on Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:1 by clarifying that it focuses on symbols of Roman power, since the Talmud relates the objects being held by these statues to dominion over the world: First, though a staff could evoke a scepter, generically symbolizing authority and command, it is also associated with Hermes – and his Roman counterpart, Mercury – who carried the caduceus (a staff with two snakes intertwined around it and topped by a pair of wings). This reference may also signal the Staff of Asclepius, which is entwined by one serpent and lacks wings. Nonetheless, the Talmud explicitly states: “‘A staff’: with which he rules the world.” Second, although birds were associated with various gods and goddesses, the Talmud clearly links this symbol to power and authority over the world by quoting a biblical verse that speaks of the king of Assyria, who will draw God's wrath:
“For he says: ‘By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding; I have removed the boundaries of peoples, and have plundered their treasures; like a bull I have brought down those who sat on thrones. My hand has found, like a nest, the wealth of the peoples; and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken, so I have gathered all the earth; and there was none that moved a wing, or opened its mouth, or chirped’” (Isaiah 10:13-14, NRSV).
By citing this biblical context to explain the bird mentioned in the Mishnah, the Talmud suggests that the bird being held by a king – the Roman emperor in the framework of the Jerusalem Talmud – represents his power as well as his arrogance. Through its use of this biblical verse, the Talmud may also be suggesting that the Roman emperor will inevitably be subject to divine punishment, like the Assyrian king before him. Although it is difficult to identify a statue of an emperor with a bird in his hand, some known coins depict emperors hold an eagle. For example, in a Gold medallion depicting the head of Constantine and his sons Constantine II and Constantius (326 CE), the reverse side depicts laureate busts of Constantius and Constantine II and, each is holding an eagle-tipped scepter in one hand and a globe in the other. On a Silver cup (Skyphos) depicting the Triumph of Tiberius from Boscoreale, Tiberius holds a scepter topped by an eagle. Following the winged motif, albeit without birds, coins and reliefs preserve representations of emperors holding the winged Victoria. Eagles were specifically associated with Jupiter and, therefore, represented Roman power; thus, if an eagle were the bird envisioned by rabbinic sages, its symbolism is unambiguous. Third, when referring to the globe, the Talmud explicitly states that “the world is shaped like a globe,” thus symbolizing domination of the orbis terrarum or oikoumenè.
Section B presents a teaching attributed to Rabbi Yonah, who was active in the fourth century CE. This tradition is inserted here to explain why a globe symbolizes the world. Rabbi Yonah describes Alexander the Great ascending to great heights so he could view the world as a globe, and the sea as a platter or a bowl. This section does not mention how Alexander reached that altitude. Medieval Jewish and non-Jewish traditions developed stories about Alexander and his flying machine. As Richard Stoneman writes, “Literally hundreds of representations of this adventure are known in the art of the Middle Ages from 1000 to 1600, in manuscripts, in architecture and sculpture, and even on tapestries” (Stoneman, Alexander the Great, p. 114). Yet, it is difficult to locate an early version that served as the source for this talmudic tale. According to Stoneman, “The story … first appears in western tradition in the eighth-century L MS of the Greek Romance, whence it derives from the Talmud (fourth century AD) by routs obscure” (Stoneman, Alexander the Great, p. 116). I consider this talmudic mention of Alexander the Great as a means for criticizing Roman emperors’ ambitions to conquer the entire world. The association of Alexander with Roman emperors and generals is well established in Roman literature (Spencer, The Roman Alexander, 168). As Diana Spencer writes, Alexander became “an archetype for power and imperialism in the Roman world” (The Roman Alexander, p. xv). Thus this tradition, which is ascribed to Rabbi Yonah, uses this tale about Alexander to demonstrate the power of God, the ruler of land and sea, who can save those who are endangered in either realm. This divine capacity is compared to Alexander’s power, which was limited to the land. As per the reference to the king of Assyria in the previous section (A), Alexander's ascent may indicate arrogance and a desire to reach beyond human bounds, yet he is limited, by comparison to God, for the sea is beyond his grasp. This demonstration of God as the sole sovereign of the universe in relation to Roman emperors, whose powers are constricted, is well-known in amoraic sources; see, for example, Leviticus Rabbah 22:3 on the arrogance of Titus, who claims that God's power is restricted to the seas.
Section C presents another teaching that is attributed to a fourth-century sage. Here too, God’s power is emphasized vis-à-vis a human king, even by comparison with the human ruler of the world. While the Greek word kosmokratōr can signify the Roman emperor and also Zeus, here it refers to the former. According to this tradition, the authority of a flesh and blood ruler is limited, for he relies on a patron and, in certain provinces, he has no power. Even the kosmokratōr, as ruler of the world, controls land but not the sea. By contrast, God's reign is without limit, extending to rescuing a man with a sword against his neck. Roman emperors were often acclaimed as rulers of land and sea (see examples in Clifford Ando, Imperial Ideology, p. 320, 333, 372, and 401; the Aeneid prophesies regarding Jupiter: “imperium sine fine…!” This quotation from Virgil, Aeneid I.257-296 proclaims that Rome’s dominion is boundless across time and space). While, as Clifford Ando writes, “In the fourth century the title ‘lord of the entire world’ (expressed as dominus totius orbis or dominus orbis terrarum) became a regular part of imperial titulatures” (Ando, Imperial Ideology, p. 333), fourth-century rabbis emphasized the restricted power of human rulers relative to God.
In Section D, the Talmud returns to the subject of symbols that render an image prohibited, by introducing three additional items: First, a sword, which represented Roman power. Second, a crown – whether durable or of laurels – that symbolized victory in war and was associated with the imperial cult (Ando, Imperial Ideology, p. 279-281). This symbol appears on coins and several other artifacts that bear depictions of emperors and gods alike wearing laurel crowns as an emblem of honor. As Robin M. Jensen writes: “Laurel crowns were awarded to conquering generals and, later, a decoration generally reserved for emperors. In Roman iconography, the goddess Victory usually holds the crown just above the head of a victorious general or emperor” (Jensen, “The Emperor Cult,” p. 164). Third, a ring. These three symbols are also mentioned in Tosefta Avodah Zarah 6:1, but that text also includes a dragon. After listing these three additional symbols, the Talmud affirms that the ring referred to is used as a seal, then elaborates on the regulations that pertain to seal rings. This section has a parallel in Tosefta Avodah Zarah 6:2 which bans seal rings that bear idolatrous images. The sages cited in this section (D) are tannaim who were active up to the early third century. This passage also discusses depictions of human faces on rings and as architectural features in Jerusalem.This talmudic sugya discusses six widely recognized symbols that were associated with Roman power. While presenting amoraic interpretations of tannaitic material, the Talmud critiques the purportedly limitless power of the Roman emperor by contrasting his agency with the true ruler of the world – God.
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