Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Shirah (Be-Shalaḥ), parashah 6

Antoninus and Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch
3d CE
Syria Palaestina
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael
Shirah (Be-Shalaḥ), parashah 6

This source from the tannaitic midrash Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael has been placed in a chapter that discusses the Israelite exodus from Egypt, and God’s punishment of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Our passage presents a dialogue between Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch (here referred to as “our rabbi” but usually called “Rabbi”) and Antoninus, a Roman emperor. Dialogues between these two leaders represent a popular theme in rabbinic literature (for a list of references of such traditions, see Wallach, “The Colloquy,” p. 263-264).  These narratives frequently open with Antoninus posing a question to Rabbi: in our example, Antoninus is depicted seeking counsel from regarding his interest in journeying to Alexandria. The emperor fears that that city will appoint a king who will defeat and displace him. This scenario implies instability within the Roman Empire, where a major city, such as Alexandria, could present another candidate to rule the empire. Michael Avi-Yonah, who identified Antoninus as Caracalla, has claimed that such a meeting could plausibly have occurred in 199 CE or 215 CE, when Emperor Caracalla visited Palestine. However, he sees 199 CE as “the most suitable occasion for the consultation with the patriarch concerning the affairs of Egypt…for just at that time Egypt had revolted against the emperor” (The Jews of Palestine, p. 40-41). However, it is not clear whether this rabbinic teaching should be taken as historical evidence of a meeting between a Roman emperor and Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch.

While Rabbi initially claims that he does not know what Alexandria will do, he then cites biblical verses that convey divine punishment against Egypt, which state that this kingdom will neither regain its earlier level/s of power nor will it again have a king. Hence, the placement of this teaching in a chapter that addresses the Israelite exodus from Egypt. This midrash attributes Rabbi’s insight to his knowledge of the Torah, not political analysis (Meir, Rabbi Judah, p. 265). As in other rabbinic traditions that report on discussions between Jews and non-Jews, this Jewish sage cites biblical references in his exchange with the emperor.          

The stories of Rabbi and Antoninus have long fascinated scholars, particularly because of their depiction of an unambiguously positive relationship between a Jewish patriarch (or prince) and a Roman emperor. This connection seems to reflect or symbolize Jewish acceptance of Roman rule after generations of violent conflict. Moreover, since this Roman emperor seeks advice from a Jewish sage in our case and, in other sources, even engages him on philosophical and religious subjects (see, for example, Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Shirah [Be-Shalaḥ], parashah 2, Horovitz-Rabin edition, p. 125; Genesis Rabbah 34:10 [Theodor-Albeck, edition, p. 320-321]; 85:3 [Theodor-Albeck, edition, p. 1002]), these traditions place Rabbi above this emperor, who honors him and treats him as a trusted interlocutor. While Antoninus certainly rules the empire and commands the army, these passages depict a power dynamic where the wisdom of Judaism and its leader are recognized by Rome’s sovereign emperor.     

When considering the treatment of Roman emperors in rabbinical texts, Antoninus is presented in the most positive light. Later amoraic texts even portray this emperor as a convert to Judaism or, at least, as “God-fearing,” meaning a non-Jew who became close to Judaism, often practicing certain mitzvot (religious commandments) but without completing the process of conversion (see, Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 1:10, 72b). The identity of this emperor is a topic of ongoing discussion. Since Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch was active in the closing decades of the second century and, it seems, the opening decades of the third century (died c. 220), scholars have posited several emperors who may have been the Antoninus of rabbinic literature. “Antoninus” was a component of several emperors’ names during this period, including: Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Commodus (176-192), Caracalla (198-217), and Elagabalus (218-222). Most scholars agree that Antoninus was a member of the Severan dynasty and, as mentioned above, specifically point to Caracalla (Avi-Yonah, The Jews of Palestine, p. 40-42; Oppenheimer, Rabbi, p. 47-48; more on the scholarly discussion regarding the identity of Antoninus in Freund, “Alexander Macedon and Antoninus,” p. 48-51). Indeed, Septimius Severus and Caracalla permitted the appointment of Jews to public offices in Roman cities; and, Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire. A unique Greek inscription from Qatzion (in the Upper Galilee), which praises Septimius Severus and Caracalla may indicate an amicable relationship between these emperors and their Jewish subjects (Roth-Gerson, The Greek inscriptions, p. 125-127; Harvey, “The Greek Inscription from Qazion”). Numerous scholars cite these examples in support of the identification of Antoninus in rabbinic literature with Caracalla.

The exact status of both Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch and the patriarchy remains a subject of debate. There is no scholarly consensus about the identity of the first patriarch (nasi; or “prince”). Moreover, while scholars agree that this position emerged among the sages, it is also debated when the Roman government began to recognize the patriarch as the official leader of the Jews in Palestine, particularly since the Jewish patriarchy is not mentioned in Roman laws until the fourth century. Therefore, scholars contest whether Yehudah the Patriarch had such Roman recognition, as these rabbinic sources suggest. Here I survey major positions in the abundant scholarship on this topic:

Gedalia Alon asserts that, following the destruction of the Temple, the sages – who developed from the Pharisees – emerged as the leaders of the Jewish nation and the nasi (patriarch) came from within their ranks. Initially, the nasi was the head of the rabbinic court and the rabbinic academy (beyt-midrash) but, over time, he became a representative of the Jews before the Roman government. According to Alon, these paired roles reached their apogee in the figure of Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch (The History, vol. I, p. 14, 16), even though his predecessors included: Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakay, perhaps the most prominent sage in the first generation of tannaim, who was active in the first century, before and after the Great Revolt; Rabban Gamliel II, who was active in the late first- and early second century; and, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel II, who was active in the second century, especially after the Bar Kokhba revolt. The latter two sages were the grandfather and father of Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch, respectively (The History, vol. I, p. 61-89; vol. II, 69-73). David Goodblatt has challenged Alon’s argument, claiming that the position of nasi was created by a Roman initiative. According to Goodblatt, Romans appointed Rabban Gamliel II as the first nasi (“The Origins”).

Lee I. Levine identifies the Severan era and, particularly, the early decades of the third century, as the period when the patriarchate appears as “a recognized communal institution” (“The Emergence,” p. 236). Levine bases his claim on three main points: First, the necropolis in Bet She‘arim provides evidence that Jewish communal officials and the urban elite from Palestine and the Diaspora sought burial in the cemetery that was associated with Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch and his dynasty. Second, comments on the power of the patriarch appear in the writings of the third-century church father Origen, which attests to Roman recognition of this office during that same century. Third, a synagogue inscription from Stobi (today in Macedonia) mentions the patriarch as the one to whom “any side that changes the terms of an agreement must pay an inordinate sum.” According to its archaeological context, Levine dates this inscription before the fourth century; therefore, he contends that it provides evidence of the patriarch’s influence prior to the fourth century (“The Emergence,” p. 237-254).

For Catherine Hezser, “Until the fourth century the position of the nasi was both unofficial and hereditary. No higher authority had formally set up the nasi in his ‘office.’ The dynasty of the nasi had emerged informally, within the rabbinic network, and without official Roman recognition”; only “in the fourth century the Roman authorities officially acknowledged the status of the nasi” (The Social Structure, p. 405, 415). Thus Hezser, following Martin Jacobs, claims that Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch was the first to be considered as nasi by the rabbis, but the Romans did not acknowledge such status (Jacobs, Die Institution des jüdischen Patriarchen, p. 349; Hezser, The Social Structure, p. 410-414). Seth Schwartz also concludes that, “There is little doubt that in the course of the third century the patriarchs were increasingly wealthy, powerful, and prestigious, possessing growing influence over the Jews in Palestine and the Diaspora; but even then, they were merely tolerated, not recognized, by the Roman state” (“Political, Social, and Economic Life,” p. 49).

David Goodblatt discusses the two poles of scholarly opinion regarding the patriarchate. His characterization can be summarized as follows: The “maximalists” derive their position from evidence in rabbinic sources (although contemporary scholars use them “more critically” than previous generations) and portray a series of powerful patriarchs, at least from Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch onward. By contrast, the “minimalists” dismiss the reliability of these rabbinic texts, presenting “a minimization of the power and social status of the patriarch.” Furthermore, they “limit Roman recognition an institutionalized Patriarchate to the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth” (“The Political and Social History,” p. 417-418; see also, Levine, “The Emergence,” p. 235).

While it seems plausible that Rabbi Yehudah the Patriarch was an influential leader beyond rabbinic circles, it is also reasonable that Roman authorities would have recognized him or, at least, acknowledged his position among the Jews. However, it is unclear if the rabbinic narratives that portray his dialogues with Antoninus refer to actual meetings or whether these texts may be considered historical evidence of a close relationship between this Jewish leader and a Roman emperor. Even if these sources are fictitious, they convey the notion of a close relationship between a Jewish leader and the Roman emperor who appreciates Judaism and its scholarly head. In such a case, the search for a specific Roman emperor would not pertain. Nevertheless, these texts present a positive attitude toward a Roman emperor (a rare occurrence in rabbinic texts) and construct the superiority of Judaism and its wisdom (the Torah) through the approval of a just and mighty Roman emperor.      

Bibliographical references: 

“The Emergence of the Patriarchate in the Third Century”

Levine, Lee I.article-in-a-bookEnvisioning Judaism, Studies in Honor of Peter Schäfer on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, Volume I Ra’anan S. Boustan, [et al.]235-264“The Emergence of the Patriarchate in the Third Century” TübingenMohr Siebeck2013

Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi

Oppenheimer, AharonbookRabbi Judah ha-NasiJerusalemThe Zalman Shazar Center2007
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