Sifra Emor, parashah 8, pereq 3 (99d)

Trajan kills Pappus and Lulianus
3d CE
Syria Palaestina
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parashah 8, pereq 3 (99d)


This passage from the Sifra reports on a discussion between these brothers – Pappus and Lulianus (probably Lolianus, a name that is well attested in Rome’s eastern Mediterranean provinces) – and Trajan before he executes them. Within this midrash, this story is placed in a discussion on Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, and qidush ha-shem, or martyrdom. The reason for their condemnation is unclear, and later rabbinic compositions (such as Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 3:3, 21b; Shevi’it 4:2, 35a; and, Genesis Rabbah 64:10) provide contrasting accounts of their martyrdom and even the period when they lived. As we have seen elsewhere (Jerusalem Talmud Sukkah 5:1, 55a-b; and 5:1, 55b), Trajan is portrayed as an evil emperor in rabbinic literature, primarily for his role in destroying the Jewish community of Alexandria and its synagogue. These sections from the Jerusalem Talmud refer to events during 115-117 CE, when Jewish communities in Egypt, Libya (Cyrene), and Cyprus first fought against their Greek and indigenous neighbors, then against the Romans, in what was later named “the Diaspora Revolt.” Our source from the Sifra refers to an incident that occurred in Laodicea (northern Syria). Based on this text and other rabbinic traditions about these two brothers, it has been suggested “that Jewish unrest under Trajan” also took place in Syria (Horbury, “Pappus and Lulianus,” p. 293). Given the absence of additional evidence that Jewish communities in Syria participated in the Diaspora Revolt, the Sifra’s version of the tale about Pappus and Lulianus probably addresses martyrdom rather than this uprising (see Horbury, “Pappus and Lulianus,” p. 289 for a survey of scholarly treatment on this theme). Irrespective of whether this text focuses on an episode during the revolt or an unrelated act of martyrdom, this emperor is depicted in negative terms. 

This passage centers on an exchange between the emperor and the two brothers, following the model of the biblical Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (or, by their Babylonian names: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego). In Daniel Chapter 3, King Nebuchadnezzar erects an image of gold and requires his subjects to worship it. When Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah refuse, the king summons them and repeats his order, threatening: “But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” (Daniel 3:15, NRSV). They answer: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter.  If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18, NRSV). The king then casts these three men into that furnace, from which God rescues them. 

According to this midrash, Trajan is familiar with that biblical story, as demonstrated by his reply to the brothers: “Are you not of the nation of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah? [If so,] let your God come to (lit. and) save you from my hand!” The brothers’ response dominates this source. They assert that: 1) Unlike Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, they do not merit having a miracle performed on their behalf. 2) By comparison to Nebuchadnezzar, Trajan is too wicked to be the instrument of such a miracle. This statement is striking, for this Roman emperor is considered more sinister than the Babylonian king who destroyed the First Temple. 3) The brothers perceive themselves as condemned to death by God, so if Trajan does not execute them, they will die by other means. However, God will deem the blood of Pappus and Lulianus to be on Trajan’s hands whether or not he kills them.

The opening line of this teaching informs us that Trajan indeed slayed Pappus and Lulianus. However, this tradition does not explain what prompted the emperor to exact this punishment. Given its placement in a discussion of the martyrdom of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, perhaps these brothers from Laodicea also resisted idolatry. Other rabbinic texts discuss Pappus and Lulianus in a context of martyrdom for their adherence to Jewish practices (see, for example, Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 3:3, 21b; Shevi’it 4:2, 35a).

This source concludes with the death of Trajan, whose torturous execution was decreed in an order from Rome. This description of Trajan’s demise has no support in non-Jewish sources. In an attempt to resolve this problem, William Horbury writes that “Trajan’s death in Cilicia during his return from Mesopotamia will have been conflated with the execution of Quietus on his own way back not long afterwards” (“Pappus and Lulianus,” p. 291). LusiusQuietus was the governor of Judea for several months in 117 CE, after subduing the revolt against Trajan in Mesopotamia. Scholars identify “the war of Qitem (or Qites)” in Mishnah Sotah 9:14 with the war of Quietus, referring to the events of 115-117 CE, whether in the Diaspora or in Judea, naming it “the war of Qitus” (Pucci Ben Zeev, Diaspora Judaism in Turmoil, p. 238-239). For Horbury, a fusion of the deaths of Trajan and Quietus in the Sifra made it possible “to associate events underlying this legend of Jewish martyrdom under Trajan with the … polmos shel (of) Qitos,” thus linking their martyrdom to the Diaspora Revolt (“Pappus and Lulianus,” p. 291). While this solution helps to explain these otherwise unattested circumstances of the death of Trajan, rabbinic mentions of Pappus and Lulianus offer little that would connect them to this revolt, except for this Roman emperor, who is related to both. Therefore, it seems that most rabbinic material about these two brothers is more pertinent to martyrdom than to a rebellion against Rome.  

Bibliographical references: 

“Pappus and Lulianus in Jewish Resistance to Rome”

Horbury, Williamarticle-in-a-bookJewish Studies at the Turn of the Twentieth Century; Proceeding of the 6th EAJS Congress, Toledo, July 1998, vol. 1 J. Targarona Borrás, A. Sáenz-Badillos283-304“Pappus and Lulianus in Jewish Resistance to Rome”Tübingen Mohr Sibeck1999
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