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The Babylonian Talmud

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The Babylonian Talmud

Sep-30-2000 at 01:45 AM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

Here are passages from this valuable paper which was presented in the Melammu Symposia I, "The Heirs of Assyria".

The Survival of Babylonian Wissenschaft in Later Tradition.
By: M. J. Geller

The Babylonian Talmud records an amusing anecdote, which can only be appreciated by someone aware of an Akkadian idiom. A noted Rabbi named Raba, who flourished in the early 4th AD, is quoted as saying that when he saw asses carrying away dust, that he struck his hand on their backs and said, Hurry, righteous ones, to perform the will of your Master. (A second anecdote in this same context provides additional background information. The 5th century scholar Mar bar Rabina, who, arriving at the city of Babylon, took some dust in his turban and threw it around to illustrate the prophecy of Is. 14:22-23 that Babylon will be swept away.) What is the joke? Rabas pun is an illusion to the Akkadian phrase which appears several times in Seleucid chronicles and records, namely that the dust of Esagil was removed, indicating rebuilding works in Babylon. A local Babylonian hearing Rabas words would have understood it to mean that Raba approved of the renovation of the temple, although it is clear from the context that Raba actually has in mind that Babylon will become a wasteland. On one hand these observations might suggest that Rabbis may actually visited Babylon in the 4th or 5th centuries, and that building works were still ongoing. (A third story in this same passage in Ber. 57b quotes Rabbi Hamnuna as saying, If one sees Babylon, he should say, blessed be He who destroyed wicked Babylon. On seeing the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, he should say, blessed be He who destroyed the palace of the wicked Nebuchadnezzar. On seeing the lions den or burning fiery furnace, he should say, blessed is He who wrought miracles for our ancestors in this place. ) On the other hand, it is only clear that the Babylonian Talmud is hardly conscious of its role as witness to Babylonian life in the Parthian period, nor is much appreciation expressed for the greatness that was Babylon. The Talmud serves, somewhat ironically, as a major source of information for the end of Mesopotamian antiquity.

The survival of Babylonian or Assyrian intellectual heritage into later Classical antiquity is predicted on some form of translation of cuneiform literature into alphabetic scripts, and one presumes into the lingua franca of the day, namely Aramaic. Both the timing and processes of these transmissions are difficult to determine because of the lack of original manuscripts on parchment or papyrus, which would supply the necessary data. The only Akkadian-Aramaic bilingual inscription known to me is the Tell Fekhrije statue inscription, which is historical but not literary, and a few Aramaic tablets have recently turned up from the 8th and 7th centuries which contain Neo-Assyrian legal formulae. Hence, in order to reconstruct the transfer of literature from cuneiform to alphabets there are two main possibilities to consider. One is that Babylonian literature occasionally appeared to have been translated into Aramaic, Mandaic, or Syriac, although it has never been possible to identify the exact Akkadian source or Vorlage for a later Aramaic literary text. (For an example of wisdom texts which appears to be from Akkadian, cf. R. Murray, Aramaic and Syriac dispute poems and their connections) A second possibility is that already in the court of Assyria literary texts were being composed in Aramaic, without necessarily having been translated from an Akkadian original, since we know that Aramaic was widely used in Assyria from at least the 7th century BC. A good example of such a composition was the proverbs of Ahiqar, which became popular in Greek circles and were known to Clement of Alexandria and Strabo, as well as in rabbinic literature, and such Aramaic texts also facilitated the transmission of Mesopotamian culture into later periods. One important late source, however, which has yet to be properly mined for cuneiform relics is the Babylonian Talmud, a rich repository of information regarding Babylonian life in the 2nd to 5th century AD.

There are several reasons why the Babylonian Talmud has been neglected as a witness to late Babylonia. First of all, the perspective of the 19th century Wissenschaft des Judentums school of interpretation of Jewish texts is that the Talmud was to be compared with Classical texts, mostly in Greek. There are several reasons for this approach, both valid and invalid. On one hand, when dealing with the Mishnah , Jewish Talmud, and various Midrashim, all of which were primarily composed or edited in Palestine, a considerable amount of Greek influence can be detected reflecting strong Hellenistic influence of the Roman East. Such is not the case, however, in the Babylonian Talmud, the Aramaic portions of which were composed in Babylonia, far removed from the Roman Empire and virtually any Hellenistic influence. Although some knowledge of Greek may have existed in Seleucid Babylonia among the ruling classes, or among somr foreign peoples, certainly by the Parthian and later Sassanian periods Greek was not spoken and not known by the local population, including Babylonian rabbis. Despite the efforts of the Wissenschaft des Judentums school to de-orientalise Judaism by associating the Talmud with Classical texts, the Babylonian Talmud cannot be disregarded. There are almost no Greek loanwords in Babylonian Aramaic in contrast to Palmyrene Aramaic or even the Aramaic of Palestine. On the other hand, one must not criticise the great 19th century pioneers of Babylonian scholarship in Germany too harshly: Akkadian was hardly well-known in their day, and only now has it become clear how many Akkadian loan-words one can find in Babylonian Aramaic, and especially in the Babylonian Talmud, many of which are still not recognised in standard dictionaries.

Then there is the problem of comparisons of texts. One difficulty is that specialists in comparative literature and cultural anthropologists look for mythology and literature overlapping between one society and another, but if one expects to find Gilgamesh or Adapa in the Babylonian Talmud, he will be disappointed. While mythology is culture specific, science (in the European sense) is universal, and therefore one actually finds technical terms and specific concepts known from Akkadian within Talmudic passages dealing with medicine and omens, or mathematics and astronomy, and these are the areas where one should begin to investigate
Once one identifies such loan words and transmissions, the same question arises regarding when a presumed borrowing from Akkadian into Aramaic took place. It may be worthwhile to glance at the other end of the spectrum, to see how long Akkadian survived. I have argued elsewhere that Akkadian was likely to have survived throughout the Parthian period, at least until the mid-3rd century AD. The so-called Grco-Babyloniaca tablets do not indicate that cuneiform was being rejected in favour of Greek scripts; on the contrary, the purpose of the Grco-Babyloniaca tablets was to preserve Akkadian, which was now being written on leather. (M.J. Geller, Zeitschrift fr Assyriologie 87, 1997, 47-49) The point is that even if Talmudic passages descend directly from older Aramaic translations of Akkadian texts, Aramaic science in the Babylonian Talmud was transmitted or translated while Akkadian was still a living language. This makes a quantitative difference to the accuracy of transmission

Suffice it to say that many Akkadian loan words and expressions can be found in these passages (dream omens or medicine in the Babylonian Talmud containing Akkadian loan words) which have not previously been recognized in the standard dictionaries. The obvious conclusion is that the Talmud preserved ancient science, but did not invent it. Hence the appellation of Jewish medicine for this period is probably inaccurate, except where medicine impinges on Jewish law, as when it concerns itself with circumcision or the ritual purity of women. Similarly, all aspects of the Babylonian calendar were adopted by the Rabbis, nor is there any reason to believe that Rabbis had a particular academic interest in astronomy which superseded the knowledge which they inherited from Babylonian schools. Rabbis probably adopted Babylonian science for their own use, and when they had questions or difficulties, they consulted their Babylonian colleaguespriestfor answers. It is likely that, at least until the 3rd century AD, these Babylonian scholars gave Rabbis their answers by reading from cuneiform tablets.

From The Heirs of Assyria
Edited by Sanna Aro and R.M.Whiting

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Assyria \ã-'sir-é-ä\ n (1998)   1:  an ancient empire of Ashur   2:  a democratic state in Bet-Nahren, Assyria (northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey and eastern Syria.)   3:  a democratic state that fosters the social and political rights to all of its inhabitants irrespective of their religion, race, or gender   4:  a democratic state that believes in the freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture in faithfulness to the principles of the United Nations Charter — Atour synonym

Ethnicity, Religion, Language
» Israeli, Jewish, Hebrew
» Assyrian, Christian, Aramaic
» Saudi Arabian, Muslim, Arabic
Assyrian \ã-'sir-é-an\ adj or n (1998)   1:  descendants of the ancient empire of Ashur   2:  the Assyrians, although representing but one single nation as the direct heirs of the ancient Assyrian Empire, are now doctrinally divided, inter sese, into five principle ecclesiastically designated religious sects with their corresponding hierarchies and distinct church governments, namely, Church of the East, Chaldean, Maronite, Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic.  These formal divisions had their origin in the 5th century of the Christian Era.  No one can coherently understand the Assyrians as a whole until he can distinguish that which is religion or church from that which is nation -- a matter which is particularly difficult for the people from the western world to understand; for in the East, by force of circumstances beyond their control, religion has been made, from time immemorial, virtually into a criterion of nationality.   3:  the Assyrians have been referred to as Aramaean, Aramaye, Ashuraya, Ashureen, Ashuri, Ashuroyo, Assyrio-Chaldean, Aturaya, Chaldean, Chaldo, ChaldoAssyrian, ChaldoAssyrio, Jacobite, Kaldany, Kaldu, Kasdu, Malabar, Maronite, Maronaya, Nestorian, Nestornaye, Oromoye, Suraya, Syriac, Syrian, Syriani, Suryoye, Suryoyo and Telkeffee. — Assyrianism verb

Aramaic \ar-é-'máik\ n (1998)   1:  a Semitic language which became the lingua franca of the Middle East during the ancient Assyrian empire.   2:  has been referred to as Neo-Aramaic, Neo-Syriac, Classical Syriac, Syriac, Suryoyo, Swadaya and Turoyo.

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