Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Empire and Neighbors: Babylonian Jewish Identity in its Local and Imperial Context
by Gross, Simcha M., Ph.D., Yale University, 2017, 458; 10633248
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation studies Babylonian Jewish texts that describe the Sasanian Empire. It argues that these texts are better understood not as objective accounts of real historical events, but rather as "memories" that reflect their authors' contemporaneous realities and agendas. As such, they demand comparison, contextualization and study in their own right.

Surprisingly, only in the past decade have scholars begun to explore the larger context of Babylonian Jewry, but even this exploration has focused almost entirely on information contained within Babylonian Jewish texts or on comparisons to a limited subset of external materials. This dissertation urges scholars to broaden their focus to address what it argues are the two most important contexts for understanding Babylonian Jews– first, their larger imperial context, whether Sasanian or Arab; and second, their local and similarly situated minority groups, in particular, Syriac Christians, who lived as neighbors alongside Babylonian Jews for centuries and produced a significant body of literature. Triangulating these three elements –Babylonian Jews, neighboring groups, and the imperial context – enables scholars to paint a more colorful and dynamic picture of Babylonian Jewish history.

By combining these two insights – that Babylonian Jewish historiographic writings are best understood as carefully crafted responses to their authors contemporaneous realities, and that these realities are best understood through their larger imperial and local contexts – it becomes clear how rabbinic memories shifted over time as imperial circumstances shifted. This process of shifting memories is strikingly similar to Syriac Christian reflections of the same period.

This dissertation demonstrates how memories of the Sasanian Empire – especially memories of persecution - shifted among Babylonian Jews and Syriac Christians from the 3rd century CE to the 10th. It begins with both Jewish and Christian texts depicting an imperial context of religiously moderate Sasanian kings opposed by religiously zealous magi. Scholars traditionally assumed that this described reality – that is, Sasanian kings were mostly disinterested religiously and thus often benevolent to minorities, whereas the magi were intent on humiliating, if not destroying, all non-Zoroastrian groups in the Empire. According to this account, Sasanians kings persecuted minorities only in response to pressure from the magi. However, it is quite clear that the Sasanian kings were not religiously disinterested. On the contrary, in their coinage, inscriptions, and imperially sponsored writings, the Sasanian kings boasted that they were both guarded by the Zoroastrian deities and patrons of their cult. However, Babylonian Jews and Syriac Christians created a different account to enable their cooperation and accommodation with the Sasanian kings who were dependent on Jewish and Christian administrators. Jews and Christians, in turn, required imperial support to thrive.

Memory of life in the Sasanian Empire was no less important after the Muslim Conquest. Following the Conquest, both Jewish and Christian writers appealed to memory to create ideological borders that no longer existed politically. The Jewish writer, Pirqoi ben Baboi, thus paints a past in which Palestinian Jews were constantly persecuted, whereas Jews in Babylonia enjoyed centuries of perfect tranquility. For Pirqoi, this justifies the superiority of the contemporaneous Babylonian Jewish tradition whose development was unfettered by persecution like that of Palestine Jewry. Pirgoi"s Syriac Christian near-contemporary, John of Fenek, also uses persecution in the past as a way of justifying the superiority of the church in the East over the West, but the logic is reversed: it is the existence of persecution of Eastern Christians under the Sasanian Empire that enabled them to rise above their tranquil coreligionists in the Byzantine West.

Memories of the Sasanian past continued to be important to both Jews and Syriac Christians in the 9th and 10th centuries, after centuries of Muslim rule, as a means of strengthening ties to their Muslim rulers. Thus, the Epistle of Sherira Gaon, the most important text for the scholarly study of Babylonian Jewish history, creates a highly schematized account of Jewish history in which the persecutory Sasanian rulers were superseded by the benevolent Muslim rulers of his day. Sherira thus uses a highly structured and mythical past to flatter and endorse his contemporary Muslim rulers. Syriac chronicles from this period do much of the same.

This study provides a new methodology for understanding Jewish and Syriac Christian historiographical texts. It urges scholars to move past simple historical readings of these texts and explore their underlying motives and political agendas. This dissertation ultimately provides a richer account of both of these groups in and after their formative periods, and thus models an approach that can be used to better study collective memory in other periods and contexts.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Hayes, Christine
Commitee:
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 78/11(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: Religious history, Ancient history, Judaic studies
Keywords:
Publication Number: 10633248
ISBN: 978-0-355-10540-7
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