Archaeology and the Rabbis in Late Antiquity

Center for Israel Studies Hosts Scholars for International Two-Day Conference featuring “Talmudic Archaeology”

An international conference organized by the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies (CIS)—“Talmuda de-Eretz Yisrael: Archaeology and the Rabbis in Late Antiquity”—attracted some 300 scholars, students and community members. Attending were more than 100 students from the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish StudiesYeshiva College and Stern College for Women, and from area universities.

Professor Eric Meyers of Duke University
Professor Eric Meyers of Duke University

The March 27-28 conference was hosted by Steven Fine, professor of Jewish history and director of the CIS, and Aaron Koller, assistant professor of Bible at YU. The Yeshiva University Museum and Revel co-sponsored the event.

In his summation report to YU Provost Morton Lowengrub, Fine made special note of student enthusiasm in interactions with attending scholars, from the Yeshiva, University, Duke University, Bar-Ilan University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Hebrew Union College, Jewish Theological Seminary, DePaul University, Nyack College, University College London and Yale University.

“Our students treated the scholars like rock stars,” Fine wrote. A number of his own students from a Revel seminar class in Talmudic archaeology were paired for luncheon discussions with professors whose works they had recently studied, an arrangement Fine described as a “teaching moment.”

“Yeshiva University has a long and distinguished history of scholarship on Talmudic Archaeology,” said Fine. “The first professor of Jewish History at YU, Nahum Slouschz, was the first Jewish archaeologist, and such greats as Rachel Wischnitzer, Louis Feldman and Yaakov Elman have written on the relationship between the rabbis and material culture.”  YU Museum has mounted a number of exhibitions on this theme, including Fine’s own award-winning Sacred Realm: The Emergence of the Synagogue in the Ancient World (1996).

Presenters at each day’s sessions—the first day at the YU Museum, the second on the Wilf Campus—focused on the sometimes puzzling evidence of artifacts, comparing these findings to ancient rabbinic writings, especially Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash and liturgical poetry, piyyutim [liturgical poetry]. Each speaker explored a different way that material culture and text help illuminate the culture of the ancient rabbis in the land of Israel in the Greco-Roman period.

“If we’re lucky, we can try and make [text and material] interpret each other,” said Professor Galit Hasan-Rokem of Hebrew University. For historical reconstruction, “one is not superior to the other.”

Of individual conclusions drawn from such interpretation, Professor Eric Meyers of Duke University cautioned, “None of this is a slam-dunk. It’s highly contentious.”

Professor Daniel Sperber of Bar-Ilan University
Professor Daniel Sperber of Bar-Ilan University

Yonatan Adler of Bar-Ilan suggested that archaeology reflects the masses more than the writings of the Jewish elite. Nonetheless, he said, “We need both. The tensions become interesting.”

But often in poetic writings, “allegory outdoes reality,” according to Professor Laura Lieber of Duke University, whose paper dealt with Jewish marriage customs of the early Byzantium period—for which there is virtually no material evidence.

Mentions of bridal “gold crowns” and “silver cups” in wedding poetry are neither “inherently religious” nor necessarily regal, she said. A crown could mean simple garlands, and only a tiny percentage of Jews had the wherewithal for silver goblets at wedding rituals.

Other speakers dealt with issues of idolatry, color in the Jerusalem Temple, mosaics that reveal ties to ancient Jewish homiletics (midrash), historical geography and the earliest text of the Talmud yet discovered.  Lawrence Schiffman—the newly appointed vice-provost for undergraduate education at YU and professor of Jewish studies—presented “Of the Making of Books: Rabbinic Scribal Arts in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

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