Shift­ing Images of the Has­moneans: Sec­ond Tem­ple Leg­ends and Their Recep­tion in Jose­phus and Rab­binic Literature

Vered Noam

December 18, 2018

The shift­ing image of the Has­moneans in the eyes of their con­tem­po­raries and lat­er gen­er­a­tions is a com­pelling issue in the his­to­ry of the Mac­cabean revolt and the Has­monean com­mon­wealth. Based on a series of six Jew­ish folk­tales from the Sec­ond Tem­ple peri­od that describe the Has­monean dynasty and its his­to­ry from its leg­endary founders, through achieve­ment of full sov­er­eign­ty, to down­fall, this vol­ume exam­ines the Has­moneans through the lens of recep­tion his­to­ry. On the one hand, these brief, col­or­ful leg­ends are embed­ded in the nar­ra­tive of the his­to­ri­an of the age, Flav­ius Jose­phus; on the oth­er hand, they are scat­tered through­out the exten­sive halakhic-exeget­i­cal com­po­si­tions known as rab­binic lit­er­a­ture, redact­ed and com­piled cen­turies later.

Each set of par­al­lel sto­ries is exam­ined for the moti­va­tion under­ly­ing its cre­ation, its orig­i­nal mes­sage, lan­guage, and the his­tor­i­cal con­text. This analy­sis is fol­lowed by explo­ration of the nature of the rela­tion­ship between the Josephan and the rab­binic ver­sions, in an attempt to recon­struct the adap­ta­tion of the puta­tive orig­i­nal tra­di­tions in the two cor­po­ra, and to deci­pher the dis­par­i­ties, dif­fer­ent emphases, rework­ing, and unique ori­en­ta­tions typ­i­cal of each. These adap­ta­tions reflect the recep­tion of the pris­tine tales and thus dis­close the shift­ing images of the Has­moneans in lat­er gen­er­a­tions and with­in dis­tinct con­texts. The com­pi­la­tion and char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of these sources which were pre­served by means of two such dif­fer­ent con­duits of trans­mis­sion brings us clos­er to recon­struc­tion of a lost lit­er­ary con­ti­nent, a hid­den Jew­ish Atlantis” of ear­ly pseu­do-his­tor­i­cal leg­ends and facil­i­tates exam­i­na­tion of the rela­tion­ship between the sub­stan­tial­ly dif­fer­ent libraries and worlds of Jose­phus and rab­binic literature.

Discussion Questions

Vered Noam’s Shift­ing Images of the Has­moneans: Sec­ond Tem­ple Leg­ends and Their Recep­tion in Jose­phus and Rab­binic Lit­er­a­ture is, accord­ing to the author, a quest for a lost body of lit­er­a­ture that pre­dates both Jose­phus and rab­binic lit­er­a­ture. Noam applies care­ful tex­tu­al crit­i­cism to six spe­cif­ic sto­ries that describe the his­to­ry of the Has­monean revolt and the Has­monean king­dom found in both Josephan and rab­binic cor­po­ra. She argues that the par­al­lels in the tra­di­tions were a result of both bod­ies of lit­er­a­ture draw­ing from a shared pool, the same inde­pen­dent source of Jew­ish tra­di­tions — a pre­vi­ous­ly over­looked Atlantis” of most­ly oral, Phar­i­sa­ic sources. In doing so, Noam chal­lenges the reg­nant schol­ar­ly notion that the rab­bis were depen­dent upon Jose­phus, and that Jose­phus is more his­tor­i­cal­ly reli­able than the rab­bis on these mat­ters. Noam’s work is part of a larg­er col­lab­o­ra­tive project that seeks to exam­ine the par­al­lel tra­di­tions of the Sec­ond Tem­ple peri­od, but this work stands on its own and serves both as an impor­tant rethink­ing of the sources of the peri­od and as a cru­cial intro­duc­tion to these dis­cov­er­ies for Eng­lish readers.