My recent encounter with Matthew Novenson’s Christ among the Messiahs has led me to a few other publications of his and one of them I found particularly surprising and interesting: Why Does R. Akiba Acclaim Bar Kokhba as Messiah? that appeared in a 2009 Journal for the Study of Judaism (40). (Bar Kokhba was the leader of the second Jewish rebellion against Rome in the 130s CE. The Jewish Talmudic record preserves a tradition that the leading Rabbi of the time, Akiba, declared Bar Kokhba to be the Messiah. Unfortunately for Akiba’s hopes Bar Kokhba’s rebellion failed.)
What grabbed my attention was the way Novenson analysed the documentary evidence to understand its nature before accepting its narrative content at face value — something that should strike as such an obvious thing to do but also something that very few historical Jesus scholars seem to follow through seriously. Note the present tense in the title of Novenson’s article: “Why does R. Akikba . . .” — that is significant in that it tells us Novenson will be addressing the literary Akiba in the narrative. A rationale for this might be that the literary Akiba is all we have today to analyse. Or as Thomas L. Thompson might say, we need first to deal with the Akiba we do have (the figure in literary texts) before we can move on to knowing how we might understand a historical Akiba behind the texts.)
A significant feature of Novenson’s method of argumentation is that it touches on a few criteria and methods frequently used in historical Jesus studies. We will see that he applies them not as rhetorical questions with “obvious” answers but as real questions requiring genuine investigation:
- Why would any Jew make up a story embarrassing to a great rabbi of history?
- Why would anyone make any of it up at all?
- The characters are historical, the setting is historical, and the narrative is plausible and coherent. Why should we not believe the narrative is historical?
Now in historical Jesus studies these sorts of questions are raised less as gateways to inquiry than as rhetorical affirmations. There seems to be something about Jesus as a subject of historical inquiry that shuts down imaginations and brings out The Fossil’s Creed in NT scholars. “Why of course this or that story must be based on a true event! Why would anyone make it up? Why would anyone make up a story embarrassing to a respected rabbi? Of course it cannot be made up! It has to be true!”
Scholars generally seem to be at their best when they are not taking on Jesus.
In his article Novenson takes those above sorts of questions seriously as portals to genuine inquiry. Maybe there really could be a compelling reason why Jews would “make up” a tradition that was embarrassing to a respected rabbi. Maybe there is a way of accounting for historical details and plausibility that has nothing to do with genuine historical reporting. Maybe we should explore all possibilities before being quick to run with an “obvious” answer. That is, he does not commit the fallacy of incredulity, or of lack of imagination.
Here’s how Novenson examines the widely accepted “fact” that Rabbi Akiba hailed the Jewish rebel Bar Kokhba as the Messiah.
The historical question and historians’ “lazy” assumptions
Firstly, Novenson was not setting out to prove or disprove the historicity of Rabbi Akiba’s proclamation that Bar Kokhba was the Messiah. He was trying to understand the tradition that was preserved about this event: Why did the highly reputable Akiba declare Bar Kokhba the Messiah and why was this declaration preserved in the Talmudic record even though the defeat of Bar Kokhba proved him wrong.
That is, he was asking questions about the evidence as we have it. He was not asking questions about events often assumed to be beyond or behind the evidence. We have literary traditions, or texts. So let’s investigate that literary evidence for what it is — as literature first and foremost.
Novenson notes that earlier historians have answered these questions by accepting the documentary evidence at face value. This brings to mind the problem of “laziness among historians” (the link is to a 2007 post where I discuss historian Mario Liverani‘s exposure of the naïve tendency of many historians of ancient history to embrace ready-made narratives with minimal critical evaluation). So when they read in the Talmud (Lamentations Rabbah 2:2)
And what did Ben Koziba [Kokhba] used to do? He used to catch the ballistas from the enemy’s catapults on one of his legs and throw them back, killing many men. For this reason R. Akiba spoke thus.
they conclude that it was the remarkable military feats [assumed to have been preserved through legendary/mythical exaggeration] of Bar Kokhba that prompted Rabbi Akiba to declare him the Messiah. The historicity of the tradition (or at least of the historicity of something that could explain exaggeration in the tradition) — that is, the “report” of the narrative — is never questioned. The only question that is asked is “What sorts of historical facts may have lain behind the exaggerated tale?” Historicity is an assumption, a given.
By and large, this is the approach taken by earlier generations of rabbinicists and historians, who tended to associate R. Akiba and Bar Kokhba quite closely on the testimony of y. Ta’an 4:8/27 and its parallel in Lamentations Rabbah.
That is, generations of historians have simply assumed that a section (y. Ta’an./Ta’anit) in the Palestinian or Jerusalem Talmud is reporting traditions that have historical roots. Such a stance is generally assumed rather than argued. Novenson continues:
Some recent interpreters, however, have made more critical assessments of the sources. No new consensus has emerged, though, and many remain convinced of the historical authenticity of the R. Akiba-Bar Kokhba connection. (pp. 552-553)
What Novenson is doing here in effect is challenging others to take more time to understand the evidence we have in our hands (the texts) before assuming we can recreate another historical world in our imaginations inspired by our willingness to believe that the story must be somehow true.
Dare anyone breathe the word “interpolation”?
Among some quarters in New Testament scholarship “interpolation” is treated as a four-letter word. But the honest inquirer cannot doubt that interpolation was Big Business in the ancient world. See, for example, the evidence cited in earlier posts, A Literary Culture of Interpolationss and Taking Eddy and Boyd Seriously. Novenson is not so shy of arguments for the possibility of interpolation in a key Talmudic text, however, and refers to quite complex arguments for the Akiba-Kokhba-Messiah passage being an interpolation:
One important contribution to the recent discussion is Peter Schäfer’s literary-critical argument, first advanced in 1978, that the name of R. Akiba is actually secondary to the tradition in y. Ta’an 4:8/27 in which Bar Kokhba is acclaimed as messiah. If so, then the historical connection between R. Akiba and Bar Kokhba becomes quite tenuous. Others have objected, however, that in light of the tendency of talmudic haggadah to preserve the good names of the sages, there would have been no reason to attribute such a view to R. AKiba if he had not in fact held it. (pp. 553-554 — The arguments for interpolation are partially available online in the first chapter of the Google books edition of The Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered.)
So we have here a complex argument for interpolation countered by what can be classified as an argument based on a “criterion of embarrassment”.
Novenson can see both sides raise difficulties and rather than jump into either camp he seeks to address the questions raised by both sides:
My aim in this article is to sort out these difficulties and to explain the tradition-historical rationale for the messianic acclamation . . .
and he concludes that
Schäfer is right that R. Akiba was not originally part of the tradition preserved in y. Ta’an 4:8/27, but Schafer’s critics are right that there must be a compelling tradition-historical rationale for inserting him there. It is just a different tradition-historical rationale than the one that is usually suggested.
That is, an examination of the wider contemporary literature will lead Novenson to argue that the embarrassment from one perspective (that a reputable rabbi erroneously declared Bar Kokhba to be the messiah) is offset by a far stronger need to convey a quite different message to readers that has been widely overlooked by scholars. The reason it has been overlooked, we will learn, is that scholars have tended to narrow their focus on the key text with insufficient appreciation of its wider literary and historical context.
(Comparison: start to think of the place of NT studies that have specialized in assessing the Gospels in the context of the wider literary and philosophical world of their day — Thompson, Pervo, MacDonald, Hock, et al — and note how such studies have tended to have minimal influence upon studies that begin with the assumption that the Gospel narratives are based on oral traditions of genuine historical events.)
The Acclamation Account
R. Shimon b. Yohai taught, “My teacher Akiba used to expound, A star goes out from Jacob [Num 24:17], ‘Koziba goes out from Jacob.'”
When R. Akiba saw Bar Koziba, he said, “This is the king messiah.”
R. Yohanan b. Torta said to him, “Akiba, grass will come up between your cheeks and still the son of David will not have come.” (y. Ta’an 4:8/27)
I will not go into the technical details of the arguments here, but simply point out that Novenson discusses a range of textual evidence that gives us good reason to think that the name Akiba is a secondary addition. The original statement quite likely referred to an unknown sage living at the time of the Second Revolt.
Further, the actual acclamation, “This is the king messiah”, is not in Hebrew like the surrounding text, but in Aramaic. This can be interpreted as either evidence of a primitive Aramaic original saying, or it could be evidence of “a later archaizing interpolation into an existing Hebrew tradition.”
Add to this other anomalies in the introductory formula of the passage and Novenson sees good reason to think that the passage as we have it was not part of the original.
On balance, there is reason to conclude . . . that the Akiba-Bar Kokhba connection is suspect on literary-critical grounds. Not that R. Akiba could not have made such a statement, but the tradition that has in fact come down to us bears several telltale marks of inauthenticity.
My point in drawing attention to this aspect of Novenson’s argument is not to suggest that arguments for interpolations should necessarily be taken seriously as a matter of course. What should be a matter of course is a willingness to consider the arguments on all sides and being prepared to address all the issues raised. Attributing human moral conditions to texts (e.g. we should presume a text “innocent” or “trustworthy” until evidence to the contrary is found) strikes me as a vapidly quaint “methodology” unique to some NT scholars.
But Novenson does not follow this up by dismissing the argument against interpolation simply because he finds what he believes are good supports for it. He acknowledges and deals with the argument that prevents many scholars from accepting interpolation.
His first task is to summarize the grounds for believing that no rabbi would have invented an embarrassing tale of such a heroic figure as Rabbi Akiba.
The argument against interpolation holds that the tendency of the Talmud is to uphold the honour of the early (post 70 CE) rabbis, and since Akiba himself was one of the most famous of the rabbis in legend, a revered master of halakah whom many later rabbis claimed to follow, and who was reportedly martyred in the time of emperor Hadrian, it is ‘inconceivable’ that later rabbis would have fabricated a story about Akiba that attributed to him the embarrassing claim that Bar Kokhba was the messiah.
In short, what we have here is another instance of an appeal to ignorance or failure of imagination. Now the question here is significant. It is certainly necessary to be able to account for the embarrassment to Akibah’s name from this perspective if the story was an invention. Similarly, to counter an appeal to a “criterion of embarrassment” it is necessary to be able to explain why an apparently negative portrayal would be manufactured. But the way to investigate these questions is not to shut down inquiry and thoughtlessly declare that there can be no satisfactory answer, but to explore the extant evidence and broader context and see IF there are any possibilities that are being overlooked.
One point Novenson does stress before moving on, however, is that though Akiba’s declaration of Bar Kokhba’s messiahship may be embarrassing from one perspective, it is hardly of the shameful embarrassment we would have if he were found to be an unconscionable liar or sinner. Rather, the embarrassment is that he wistfully places his hope in what turned out to be a broken reed — or a “sadly mistaken messianic dreamer” as Novenson puts it. This is significant because Novenson will later bring us to evidence for competing impulses to present famous rabbis in different ways. Akiba is hardly to be judged a criminal for his mistake. He can still maintain a positive role in the overall tradition.
Other Talmudic evidence
Novenson, faced with the above questions, stepped back from the Akiba-declares-Kokhba-messiah account and surveys the wider Talmudic literature’s portrayal of the characters involved. Will this broader perspective help throw the Akiba-Kokhba account into a new light?
The Babylonian Talmud contains the following:
Bar Kokhba reigned two and a half years. He said to the rabbis, “I am the messiah.”
They said to him, “Of the messiah it is written, He smells and judges [Isaiah 11:3-4]. Let us see whether he smells and judges.”
When they saw that he was unable to smell and judge, they killed him. [“Smells” may refer either to judging the right or wrong of case by smelling, or related to Isaiah’s 11:3 “His smelling/delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. . . ]
Here Bar Kokhba declares himself the messiah. Rabbi Akiba is nowhere in sight. But a council of rabbis is present and they are subjecting Bar Kokhba to trial. Upon finding him guilty of falsehood the rabbis execute him.
The story is patently fictitious. Bar Kokhba was not judicially executed by the rabbis. The rabbis in the time of the Second Jewish Revolt almost certainly held no such authority. They may well have held that kind of authority at the time the story was included in the Talmud, however. So Novenson sees here later rabbis projecting a glorious past into their history. They seek to establish a tradition that they as a class had always been powerful, rulers of kings, judging the national fate.
Store that point in memory and look at the next instance.
Ben Kozeba was there [at Bethar], and he had 200,000 [men] with amputated fingers. The sages sent and said to him, How long will you continue to mutilate Israel?” He said to them, “How else is it possible to test them?” They said to him, Anyone who cannot uproot a cedar of Lebanon while riding on his horse shall not be enlisted in your army.” So he had 200,000 of the former and 200,000 of the latter.
Again the sages or forbears of the later rabbis are in contact with King of the Jews Kokhba. This time they counsel him. They challenge him for breaking their purity rules and advise him on a better way to test recruits for his army. Their wise advice wins the day.
Once again we have rabbis and the king in close contact and the king in this case submits to the rabbis. Such a scenario is anachronistic. The rabbis at the time of Bar Kokhba had no such prominence at all. This is a later generation creating a glorious past for themselves in order to justify their high standing of a later era.
A third passage is far too long to quote here so I paraphrase:
It tells of Hadrian himself besieging Bethar for 3 1/2 years. Inside the city the rabbi Eleazar of Modiin steadfastly prayed for the deliverance of the city. Hadrian wanted to “go to” this rabbi but a Samaritan persuaded Hadrian to let him sneak into the city instead. So the Samaritan crept into the city through a drainpipe, found Rabbi Eleazar of Modiin praying, went up to him, and pretended to whisper something in his ear.
The townspeople who saw the Samaritan do this brought him to Bar Kokhba. Bar Kokhba demanded the Samaritan tell him what message was exchanged between him and Eleazar. The Samaritan claimed that the rabbi had agreed to hand over the city to emperor Hadrian.
Bar Kokhba then went to Rabbi Eleazar to confirm the report, but when Eleazar said no words were exchanged at all, Bar Kokhba kicked the rabbi to death.
Because of Bar Kokhba’s unjust murder of the one righteous rabbi who could have saved the city God allowed Hadrian to storm the city and kill Bar Kokhba in the process.
Here we have another story of a great rabbi who stood before kings (both Bar Kokhba and Hadrian) and whose fate determined the fate of a city and, indeed, of all Israel. The story is again clearly fiction. The emperor Hadrian can hardly himself have spent all that time at the siege. Again we find a story that valorizes the prestige and status of rabbis in the time of Bar Kokhba. Although Eleazar is killed the subsequent turn of events show us that he is clearly vindicated by God.
So what do all these stories have in common and that might shed some light on the story of Akiba’s declaration that Bar Kokhba was the messiah?
The rabbis appear in the [stories] in a position of moral rectitude or judicial authority of historic importance, of some combination thereof, influencing the ebb and flow of events. This is the common denominator of these otherwise diverse traditions. The accounts are sometimes more, sometimes less historical plausible; sometimes more, sometimes less supportive of the revolt. But they never fail to tell the story of the rabbis’ significance in the events surrounding the Second Jewish-Roman War. (p. 564)
Despite the Akiba-messiah story being supportive of Bar Kokhba, all these stories
present the rabbis, or a representative rabbi, as historically significant in relation to Bar Kokhba. The acclamation account [where Akiba acclaims Bar Kokhba the messiah] is a different literary means of achieving the same rhetorical end: namely, remembering the rabbinate of the high Amoraic period back into the second century C.E. This is the dominant tendency at work in the acclamation account, a tendency even more powerful than the tendency to protect the reputation of the Yavnean sages. Notwithstanding the meager evidence for a rabbinic movement in the early second century, the rabbis tell the early history of the movement as if it had always been grand as it was at the time of the telling. They remember aspects of the present into the past.
There is, then, a compelling tradition-historical rationale for having R. Akiba acclaim Bar Kokhba as messiah, namely that doing so provides yet another way of giving the rabbis a presence at this crucial point in Jewish history. . . . from the perspective of the tradition, the blemish to R. Akiba’s reputation . . . is worth trading for the overall picture of the early [politically influential] rabbinic movement that results . . . The benefit outweighs the cost; the one tradition-historical tendency is stronger than the other. (pp. 564-565; my emphasis)
The Meeting-with-Kings topos in late antiquity
Novenson attempts to seal his argument by one more contextual examination.
Rabbinic literature, in particular in the Mesopotamian area, was not immune from influences of the literature of other philosophical writings in late antiquity. The “formal similarities” between the two literatures have been increasingly recognized, Novenson informs us.
But this particular topos, the meeting of minds between a founder of a minority movement and a contemporary king or emperor, has received relatively little attention. . . . [T]he R. Akiba-Bar Kokhba tradition is best understood in this context. Bar Kokhba is not a Hellenistic king or Roman emperor, but in the unique political history of the period, he occupies, for the place of the tradition, the place of an Alexander or a Vespasian. (p. 571)
Some examples follow.
R. Yohanan b. Zakkai is said to have had a face-to-face meeting with emperor Vespasian at the end of the First Jewish Revolt. As Jerusalem lay in ruins Rabbi Yohanan approached Vespasian declaring him to be a king. Soon afterwards a messenger arrived from Rome to tell Vespasian that he had indeed inherited the Roman principate. Vespasian thereby gave the rabbi the right to establish the rabbinic school at Yavneh — thus founding the school of rabbis who were to become the religious leaders of the Jews in subsequent generations.
We have a similar story of Josephus announcing something similar of Vespasian, saying he was prophesied to become the ruler of the world.
This type of “coronation” scene is just one form of a broader topos in which a minority hero is remembered as having rubbed shoulders with royalty. (p. 567)
Other examples in the Talmud:
- R. Akiba and Tinneius Rufus
- Joshua b. Hananiah and Hadrian
- Rabbi and Antoninus
Novenson quotes Louis Ginzberg:
The traditional religious discussions between Hadrian and Joshua ben Hananiah, between Akiba and Tinnius Rufus, between . . . . as well as legendary interviews between Alexander the Great and the high priest Simon, or between Ptolemy and the priest Eleazar, may serve as parallels to the various Antonine legends. Jewish folk-lore loved to personify the relations of Judaism with heathendom in the guise of conversations between Jewish sages and heathen potentates. (p. 567)
(Let no-one dare think to place the Jesus-Pilate or the Paul-Agrippa/Caesar scenes in this context!)
Examples from non-Jewish literature:
There is the fourth-century correspondence between Paul and Seneca, the tutor to the emperor of Rome.
The Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope is well-known in the tradition for his meetings with Alexander the Great.
Once again we see that
the minority hero appears alongside the king in a position of relative influence or importance: so Diogenes orders Alexander to stand out of the sunlight, or the two men are said to have died on the same day.
(All of this kind of undermines the pop claim among some NT scholars that the inclusion of historical persons in narratives is some sort of confirmation of the historicity of those narratives.)
Concluding with a note on open-ended questions
What sorts of questions lead us to more learning? Yes and no ones like, “Did the rabbis endorse the Second Revolt?” or open-ended ones like, “Why are the rabbis telling stories about Bar Kokhba?”
The answer is surely obvious. Not only are open-ended questions more educative but they address more significant and ever-expanding historical questions.
There is no evidence (outside the one Talmudic account discussed above) that Rabbi Akiba and Bar Kokhba ever met but we do have evidence that later religious tradition had a strong identity-reason to imagine the two together in history.
In this case, as in the cases of R. Yohanan b. Zakkai and Vespasian, Rabbi and Antoninus, Paul and Seneca, and Diogenes and Alexander, the tradition imagines an ancestor at a critical moment in world history in such a way as to stake a claim to historic significance for the movement. Why does R. Akiba acclaim Bar Kokhba as messiah? Whether or not he ever did so in fact, he does so in the tradition because the authors of the [Palestinian Talmud] want to make the point that the great sages of the Yavnean period were not only righteous but also important. (p. 572)
It is refreshing to come out of the mire of historical Jesus studies and dogmatism and see how historical questions and handling of evidence, when done validly and comprehensively, can lead to something far more interesting than a stubborn X did or said, or did not do or say, Y. There is certainly a place for knowing basic facts, obviously. But before we can ever validly tackle a past that we must necessarily reconstruct, it is absolutely necessary first and foremost to tackle the literary evidence before our eyes.
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