Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Talmudic philology, the Tower of London, and NT background

THIS WEEKS DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: How the Talmud Has Bridged the Gaps Between Various Jewish Cultures for Ages: By imbuing even the most mundane things—like vinegar—with importance, the rabbis find proof of sacred history. Excerpt:
There is, then, a great gulf of time and space, a historical rupture, inscribed within the Talmud itself. The Amoraim are often reduced to guesswork when they try to figure out the Mishnah’s exact meaning and, still more often, its exact authorship. They are constantly asking which Tanna held which opinion, and why, and how you can tell. Frequently, they have to deduce what a given Tanna thought by analogy: If he said X regarding one subject, he must have said Y regarding another. At least as much energy is devoted to these questions as to the substance of the laws themselves.

Sometimes, as we saw in the Daf Yomi reading this week, the loss of knowledge is still more profound, when the very meanings of words used in the Mishnah are forgotten. In Pesachim 39a, for instance, the Mishnah lists the species of vegetables that can be used to make maror, the bitter herbs eaten on Passover: chazeret, tamcha, charchavina, ulshin. But these names conveyed nothing to the Aramaic-speaking rabbis of the Gemara, who had to translate them into their own language: chasa, hindvei, tamachta.

And the chain of translation doesn’t end there. Over the next 500 years, the meaning of these plant names was lost again, and so Rashi, commenting on the Talmud in the 11th century, had to try to figure out their French equivalents: hindvei, in old French, was krespelah. And in the last thousand years, krespelah itself was forgotten, so now we English-speakers have to guess at what Rashi was talking about. According to the Schottenstein Talmud, it is probably what we call endive, or possibly escarole.
Philologists today spend their time trying to understand the meaning of ancient texts like the Talmud, the meaning of whose vocabulary and grammar has often been forgotten over the centuries.

Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.

And on a somewhat related note: Reading the Talmud in the Tower of London (Stephen Grosby, Library of Law and Liberty; via Jacob L. Wright on Facebook).
On March 4, 1629, John Selden, the most learned man in England, was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He had been arrested on charges of conspiracy and sedition against King Charles I. The question is: what did Selden choose to read while imprisoned?
You have to read for a while to reach the answer, but it's there already in the title.
The question can no longer be put off. What did Selden study while imprisoned in the Tower of London? The answer to our question is: the Babylonian Talmud.

Now, a different question arises: Why did he do so? ...
Basically the answer is for New Testament background. Now Professor Grosby at this point gives the somewhat misleading impression that New Testament scholars still draw on the Talmud for NT background. In fact, they stay away from (or at least they should stay away from) the Gemara, which consists mostly of traditions attributed to the much later Amoraim. The Mishnah consists of traditions attributed to the Tannaim, who lived from the first to the third centuries CE. The earliest layers of this material are potentially relevant to the New Testament, but great care must be taken to establish the date of these traditions not only on the basis of attribution to the earlier rabbis (which is unreliable), but also on the basis of the stratigraphic relationship with older traditions in the Mishnah. It's complicated.

All that said, I can totally relate to Selden. I hope I never end up locked in the Tower of London, but in the unlikely event that I do, I will probably take similar reading material with me.