A rabbinic response to Jewish opposition to the inclusion of Roman dating formulae in Jewish divorce documents
200 CE to 220 CE
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As various Aramaic legal papyri from the Judean Desert attest, Jews incorporated Roman annual dating formulae, even in writs that did not otherwise incorporate Roman norms (for Roman dating formulae in Aramaic documents from the Judean Desert, see Czajkowski, Localized Law, p. 109-112). Mishnah Gittin 8:5 and Tosefta Gittin 6:3 show that, in rabbinic halakhah, Roman dating formulae were an obligatory feature of Jewish legal documents composed under Roman rule. Although neither of these texts from Tractate Gittin object to the inclusion of Roman years on ideological or theological grounds, Mishnah Yadayim 4:8 articulates opposition to this practice in the voice of a Galilean sectarian (min glili). The Hebrew word min (pl, minim) is usually translated as “sectarian” or “infidel,” and is sometimes read as a reference to Jewish Christians (see Jastrow, A Dictionary, p. 776; the scholarship on minim in rabbinic literature is extensive, see, for example, Hayes, “The ‘Other’ in Rabbinic Literature,” p. 258-259). Our mishnah, which is framed as a debate between the aforementioned sectarian and Pharisees, and is situated after a famous series of three disputes between Pharisees and Sadducees (for a reading of these four arguments as a single unit, see Furstenberg, “We Cry Out,”). That trio of arguments has received significant scholarly attention, particularly because Pharisees are rarely mentioned in the Mishnah and other tannaitic texts, by contrast with Second Temple sources (such as Josephus’s writings), where they are portrayed as a dominant group (Jewish Antiquities, 13.298; 18.15; Jewish War, 1.110-112). The Pharisees are also central in the New Testament, where they are typically portrayed in a negative light (see, for example, Matthew 23). Historians have long considered the sages as the heirs of the Pharisees, either as the continuation or the outgrowth of their initiative, although this approach has been contested. Several hypotheses have been proposed for the identity of the Pharisees’ interlocutors in this text, including the Sadducees, as in the prior three exchanges (see, for example, Sussmann, “The History”). Nevertheless, a Galilean sectarian is explicitly named here, in place of the Sadducees. In this commentary, I focus on the inclusion of Roman dating formulae in Jewish divorce writs and, therefore, discuss the fourth debate only.
This source opens with a Galilean sectarian who voices an objection to the Pharisees’ practice of writing the name of the presiding ruler (moshel) – probably the emperor, as the mention of Pharaoh in Section C suggests – and the name of Moses on divorce writs (A). The requirement to date Jewish divorce documents according to the current authority appears in Mishnah Gittin 8:5; Tosefta Gittin 6:3. These texts detail the province, consuls, and emperors as mandatory in such documents (though it is unclear if all of these elements are necessary). The criticism posed by this sectarian may address having the names of both a Roman authority and Moses appearing on the same writ, not only the inclusion of a Roman official on a Jewish legal document. As Hanoch Albeck explains, ke-dat moshe ve-israel (in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel) was the customary closing phrase in a writ of divorce (The Mishnah, vol. 6, p.486-487). Indeed, Babatha’s ketubbah (wedding document), from Arabia in the first third of the second century, incorporates a similar phrase in Aramaic: “[according to the la]w of Moses and the J[u]deans” (P. Yadin 10, line 5; Yadin et. al., The Documents, p. 118-141). Thus, marriage and divorce documents from that period began with a Roman dating formula, that names the emperor or consul, and their main text includes a stock phrase that includes the name of Moses.
Let us now survey scholarly identifications of this Galilean sectarian. Gedaliah Alon considers him to be one the Zealots, for they rejected the dating of legal documents according to Roman emperors. He claims that the majority of the Pharisees accepted this scribal convention. Yet, Alon also suggests that this text may reflect an argument among the sages (The History, vol. 1, p. 336; cf. Lieberman, Texts and Studies, p. 401). In contrast, Yair Furstenberg contends that this sectarian does not protest against the use of Roman dating per se, as the rebels did, but rather the mention of Roman officials and Moses on Jewish legal documents, such as ketubbot (“We Cry Out,” p. 299). According to his view, the perspective held by this Galilean sectarian seems to differ from the rebels’ (or others’) objection to any mention of Rome in their legal documents, including those that do not cite Moses. By comparison, Moshe David Herr identifies the sectarian in this source with the disciples of Jesus, who were known as Galileans. He argues that, before the destruction of the Temple, they had rejected any acknowledgment of Roman rule (Roman Rule, p. 76). These possibilities notwithstanding, it is noteworthy that the Mishnah presents Sadducees as interlocutors in three debates but only in this fourth argument, on the subject of Roman dating formulae, is the opponent a Galilean sectarian.
In their response (Section B), the Pharisees do not explain their inclusion of Moses and a Roman official on a divorce writ; rather, they attack the Galilean sectarian’s own scribal norms. As Yair Furstenberg notes, the Pharisees expose that the sectarian does not follow the standard that he presented (“We Cry Out,” p. 294). The Pharisees counter that he writes the name of the ruler (governor, consul or emperor) and the name of God on the same page (daf). In tannaitic literature, the Hebrew word daf has several meanings: one page of a legal document, such as a divorce writ (Mishnah Gittin 9:7 and Tosefta Gittin 7:10); a writing tablet or board (from the Greek pinax; see Mishnah Shabbat 12:5; Kelim 15:2); and, a page of Scripture (see Mishnah Baba Metzi’a 2:21). In this passage, commentators understand daf as a page of Torah. The retort in Section B further claims that this Galilean sectarian writes the name of God below emperor’s, as supported by the quotation of Exodus 5:2 (Section C), a verse that mentions the title of a foreign king, Pharaoh, followed by God’s name, which the sectarian accepts. This biblical citation thus implies, how can this Galilean object to Moses and the governor appearing on the same document, given that both are human, yet he places a gentile ruler and God side by side? In his analysis of the Pharisees’ incorporation of Exodus 5:2 in their response, Hanoch Albeck suggests that certain groups of sectarians had a different version of the Torah, in which this verse was split into two lines, such that “Pharaoh” was literally written above the name of God (The Mishnah, vol. 6, p. 487, 610; but cf. Furstenberg, “We Cry Out,” p. 300). These readings of our mishnah (Sections A to C) as one unit suggest that the Galilean sectarian also adheres to the Torah.
Irrespective of the precise identity of this sectarian, Exodus 5:2 seems to provide theological justification for both the Pharisees’ and the sages’ inclusion of Roman dating formulae for the year in legal documents: If Pharaoh and God can be mentioned in a single Torah verse, with the evil king appearing first, the emperor and Moses can be named on the same writ, with Israel’s revered teacher listed second. That is to say, for the sages who composed this dialogue and ascribed these views to the Pharisees, the incorporation of such dating formulae does not convey acceptance of Roman rule or positive regard for the Roman emperor, who is analogous to Pharaoh here. This passage was written with an awareness of Jewish opposition to the adoption of Roman dating conventions, in response to the emperor’s name preceding Moses’ or mentioning the emperor under any circumstances (legal documents issued during the Jewish revolts do not include such Roman formulae). To address such objections, a verse from the Torah is quoted, for this source is shared by the Pharisees and this sectarian.
Section D cites another verse from the Torah: “But after he (Pharaoh) was struck, what did he say? And Pharaoh sent and called for Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘I have sinned this time. The Lord is righteous, and my people and I are wicked’” (Exodus 9:27, based on NKJV). Here, the Egyptian king acknowledges God’s power and Israel’s superiority. Scholars have suggested that this verse was appended to this final passage of Mishnah Yadayim to close the tractate with a positive tone (Epstein, Introduction, p. 975).
Even though we cannot identify the Galilean sectarian, the ascription of this argument to the Pharisees, who were active during the Second Temple period, may suggest the Jewish adoption of Roman dating formulae during an early stage of Roman rule. As noted above, Jewish Aramaic legal documents from Arabia attest that Roman standards for recording dates were incorporated soon after its establishment as a province in 106 CE. While Mishnah Gittin 8:5 and Tosefta Gittin 6:3 do not indicate theological or ideological objections to these conventions, this mishnah signals principled opposition to their usage, at least on documents that also mention Moses, which the sages felt compelled to respond to substantively.