Sifre Deuteronomy 327-328

Titus in the Temple

3d CE
Syria Palaestina
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Sifre Deuteronomy


Source(s) that the text is built upon (explicitly – quotations, references – or implicitly): 

Deuteronomy 32:37-38


This midrash discusses several verses from Moses’s poem before his death: “Indeed the Lord will vindicate his people have compassion on his servants, when he sees that their power is gone, neither bond nor free remaining. Then he will say: Where are their gods, the rock in which they took refuge, who ate the fat of their sacrifices, and drank the wine of their libations? Let them rise up and help you, let them be your protection! See now that I, even I am he; there is no god beside me” (Deuteronomy 32:37-39, NRSV). The midrash, which also has a parallel in Mekhilta Deuteronomy 32:37-38, brings teachings from Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Neḥemiya who expound upon these verses. According to rabbinic texts, the two sages were students of Rabbi Akiba, and were especially active after the Bar Kokhba Revolt in the second century CE. Section A opens with the biblical lemma and then informs that there are two sages who offer different readings of these verses. Although in its original biblical context Moses ascribes these words to God, in the midrash these words are said either by Israel to the nations of the world (according to Rabbi Yehudah) or by the nations referring to Titus, who destroyed the Temple (according to Rabbi Neḥemiya). Thus, in this text, “the nations of the world” denote Rome.  

Section B presents Rabbi Yehudah’s reading that Israel would say this verse to the nations of the world in the future. The midrash, that was composed under Roman rule and hegemony imagines a future in which this military power will vanish and the highest Roman officials will have no power. Thus, Israel asks the nations of the world, “Where are your consuls and governors (Greek hēgemōn)?” Using the words hapaqtin from the Greek word hupatikos (“consular”), and hagmonin from the Greek word hēgemōn (“provincial governor”). Thus, the words “Where are their gods?” (Deuteronomy 32:37), refer here to the higher Roman hierarchy in the provinces. In rabbinic texts from this period the term God often refers to judges (as in Sifre Numbers 86, Kahana’s edition p. 217-218) and rabbis, thus indicating that this word may denote great men. Rabbi Yehudah continues to explain the words “Who ate the fat of their sacrifices” (Deuteronomy 32:38, NRSV), explaining that these words refer to a variety of gifts that were given to these officials, including: 1) ’fsoniyot from the Greek word opsōnia which means “food supplies” or “wages”; 2) don’atov’a from the Latin word donativa (sing. donativum) that refers to “gifts” or money that was given to the soldiers. According to Paul Veyne, “The emperors were required by custom, in various circumstances and especially on their accession, to give their troops, a donativum, a money present … The donativum was a gift of some thousands or tens of thousands of sesterces per men” (Bread and Circuses, p. 336); 3) salania, which according to Ma’agarim: the Historical Dictionary Project, came from the Latin word salarium, refers to “salaries,” especially of soldiers. Thus, Rabbi Yehudah concludes: “Let them rise up and help you …” (Deuteronomy 32:38, NRSV).

Interestingly enough, Israel’s words to the Romans are filled with Greek and Latin words: hēgemōn; hupatikos; opsōnia; donativa; and salaria.

However, according to Section C of this midrash, Rabbi Neḥemiya attributed these verses to Titus’s words in the sanctum of the Holy of Holies, the most consecrated section of the Temple. While in the parallels that discuss Titus he is usually called “the wicked Titus” (and also in some versions of Sifre Deuteronomy), here he is called “Titus, the son of Vespasian’s wife,” suggesting that Vespasian is not his father, and thus ascribing him a dubious pedigree. The negative image of Titus is immediately described. Titus is not presented here as the destroyer of the Temple following the Great Jewish revolt (66-70CE), but rather his sin is his entry into a place where only the Jewish high priest was allowed to enter once a year on Atonement Day, and the tearing of the Temple’s curtains which separated the holy from the sanctum of the Holy of Holies (Mishnah Yoma 5:1). For this ripping, Titus uses a sword, which according to Joshua Levinson is “brandishing the symbol of Roman identity” (Levinson, “Tragedies Naturally Performed,” p. 369). Titus also articulates disgrace towards God by saying: “If he is God, may he come and protest.” Moreover, Titus cites biblical verses to show the people of Israel that their God has no power, and that they were misled by Moses since their offerings have no impact. Titus concludes his speech with the words: ‘Let them rise up and help you let them be your protection!’” (Deuteronomy 32:38, NRSV). Thus, as the words of Israel to the Romans in section B are replete with Greek and Latin words, the words of Titus include biblical verses. However, according to Rabbi Neḥemiya, God immediately revisits those who desecrate His name. Despite the fact that God would punish Titus for his actions and words, this section presents the idea put in Titus’s mouth that God did not stop Titus, who called him to protest, that he did not help Israel at that moment, and that Israel’s cult did not help. While the later amoraic texts from the fifth century, such as Leviticus Rabbah 22:3, describe the punishment imposed upon Titus and his subsequent acknowledgment of the power of God, in the tannaitic texts these issues are not addressed.    

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