Understanding the Talmudic Evidence for the Trial

The three Talmud passages are found in a book that, from cover to cover, is about law and legal matters.

Just because the Talmud is an intimidating collection (as legal texts tend to be) doesn’t mean that a specific theme is impossible for a non-specialist to understand.

This capacity to be understood is especially true of sections that actually illustrate how to translate Hebrew legal ideas into language a Roman jurist can understand. These Talmud passages are a kind of Rosetta Stone for Jewish law and Roman law.

Jacob Neusner said the meaning of these passages is “obvious”.

The three Talmud passages are 1) Massekhet Semahot 8.7, 2)  ySanhedrin 7.5, and 3) Shabbat 16:7b.

I believe that the first two Talmud texts, in Massekhet Semahot and ySanhedrin, were originally formulary documents. A third text, Shabbat 16:7b, describes Yohanan b. Zakkai justifying a double execution to “Antigonus the Prince”, or “Hegemon”.

A formulary was a standardized form of legal documents intended to simplify and streamline legal proceedings. Risking oversimplification, imagine hand-written follow-the-outline court documents.

The formulary system evolved slowly under officials called peregrine praetors. These peregrine praetors were magistrates who dealt specifically with legal cases involving non-Roman legal systems. Such proceedings were adjudicated very much on a case-by-case basis.

The peregrine praetors had their origin on the Italian peninsula, centuries before, to facilitate regular legal commerce between Romans and non-Romans. This tradition of case-by-case, formulary (formula) peregrine legal negotiation was well-suited for imperial expansion.

Formulary clarity is exemplified by these passages from Massekhet Semahot and ySanhedrin. Each document follows the same pattern. First the local legal reasoning, then a comprehensible interpretation for the Roman magistrate.

Both the Massekhet Semahot and ySanhedrin passages begin with the destruction of things that are not normally subject to Torah punishments. The first are the inanimate objects connected to the sexual worship activities of the high places (timber, finished stone). The second things being destroyed are beasts engaged in sex with Jewish women. The “translation” into Roman law is preceded by the phrase “it is a deduction”.

Both passages use that word “deduction” to explain to the reader (or the judge) how the non-human examples relate to a human targeted for execution.

This is obvious.

The third passage, Shabbat 16:7b, is both similar to the first two passages, and different.

The Shabbat passage also justifies a double execution, but it is more explicit. The biggest difference is which culprit is assumed liable for destruction and which target requires justification.

Another difference between passages one and two, and passage three: in Massekhet Semahot 8.7 and ySanhedrin 7.5, the jurist is explaining why the gentile should be executed. But in Shabbat 16:7b, the jurist is explaining why the Jewish master should be executed along with his “beast”.

Same goal, execution of both transgressors, but different targets. Two argue for the execution of a gentile target, one argues for the execution of a Jewish target.

These Talmud passages will reward further study. And Jacob Neusner’s reasons for grouping them together with so little discussion merits discussion.

Nevertheless, the three Talmud excerpts demonstrate that Pharisee jurists argued for the execution of gentile sexual transgressors involved with Jews. One of the sources offers a clue to the identity of a presiding judge, and the fact of such a judge’s acquaintance with Yohanàn b. Zakkai.

About Ron Goetz

Husband, Father, Author
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