Titus in the Temple, in the sea and in Rome
Hebrew and Aramaic
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This tale about Titus emphasizes that even a mosquito can be an agent of God: “Rabbi ’Aḥa said: ‘Through all the Holy One blessed be He who carries out his mission, even by snake; even by scorpion, even by frog, even by mosquito.’” The chapter includes, therefore, examples for each of these creatures carrying out God’s will. This story, in which a mosquito is used includes three sections: Titus’s sin in the Temple (A), his journey to Rome (B), and his arrival in Rome and his punishment. As Galit Hasan-Rokem (“Within Limits,” p. 7) exposes, the plot is divided into three scenes: Jerusalem – Sea voyage – Rome, creating a contrast between the two cultures (see also Levinson, “Tragedies Naturally Performed,” p. 360).
Section A describes Titus entering the sanctum of the Holy of Holies, the most consecrated section of the Temple. Titus is not presented here as the destroyer of the Temple following the Great Jewish revolt (66-70CE). Rather, his sin consists in his entry into the place where only the Jewish high priest was allowed to enter once a year on Atonement Day, and in his behavior there, including his blasphemy and disgrace towards God and the tearing of the Temple’s curtains, which separated the holy space from the sanctum of the Holy of Holies (Mishnah Yoma 5:1). As Titus enters the sanctum of the Holy of Holies, he holds a sword in his hand, which according to Joshua Levinson is “brandishing the symbol of Roman identity” (Levinson, “Tragedies Naturally Performed,” p. 369). Besides, Leviticus Rabbah adds details that are missing from earlier parallels of this story (Mekhilta Deuteronomy 32:37-38; Sifre Deuteronomy 327-328; Genesis Rabbah 10:7): Titus took “two whores, spread out a Torah scroll beneath them and ravished them on top of the altar, and his sword came out full of blood.” As Joshua Levinson explains: “The first scene employs the theme of violation and penetration” (Levinson, “Tragedies Naturally Performed,” p. 364), thus emphasizing Roman masculine power that submits other nations, who are portrayed in feminine terms. Moreover, Titus understands his entrance into the holiest place of the Temple and his violation of the holiest Jewish symbols (the altar, the Torah) as a victory over the Jewish God within his own abode. After this victory, he is therefore ready to return home to Rome.
Section B describes Titus’s journey to Rome. First, he collects all the vessels of the Temple and takes them with him to Rome. As he descends to the ship a wave almost drowns him. At that point, Titus claims that the Jewish God is a sea god, as His power is limited to water. In order to prove this idea, he mentions biblical examples in which God punished sinners with water. According to Galit Hasan-Rokem, Titus understands the Jewish God as “the Hebrew counterpart of Roman Neptune.” However, “From the Jewish perspective of the narrator, Titus is also a radical heretic, who limits God’s omnipotence to only one element, water” (“Narratives in Dialogue,” p. 115). Titus, therefore, emphasizes his power vis-a-vis the Jewish God who attacks him at sea, but had no power in his own home – the Temple. In response to this claim, God hints the sea to be quiet, saying that he will punish Titus instead by “the most insignificant of” His creatures. This punishment will occur in Titus’s home: Rome.
Section C describes the adventus ceremony in which the Romans welcomed the emperor (here, his son) after a successful campaign. Titus is acclaimed as “Conqueror of the Barbarians” (nikitia barbaria) and then goes to the baths. Like the sea, the bath also includes water, but rather a more controlled one, as it became another Roman establishment and a symbol of Roman civilization. After his bath, he receives a double-glass (diplopotorin), which echoes the two Temple curtains and the two whores of the first episode in Jerusalem. In addition to the wine, a mosquito enters his nose and burrows into his brain, eventually bringing about Titus’s death. Galit Hasan-Rokem points out a “phonetic association between the name Titus and the Hebrew yatush (mosquito), which possibly alludes to the association between Vespasian (Titus’s father) and the Latin vespa (wasp)” (“Narratives in Dialogue,” p. 116).
In the end, God has punished Titus at his home in Rome, indicating that God is not a local god, nor the sea god, but rather his power extends over the entire universe, including Rome. Thus, even what looked at the beginning as a defeat of the God of Israel, is only an illusion.