The Roman occupation and the failure of the Bar Kochba rebellion elicited a collective disappointment in God and might have led to the abandonment of Judaism and even separation from the community. The Sages dealt with the phenomenon through the discourse on "minut." In a new research study, Professor Adiel Schremer surveys the sources in which the terms “minut” and “minim” are mentioned and rejects the conventional wisdom that they were meant to describe Christianity and heresy against Judaism.
The term “minut” was first used by the Sages. In the Hebrew sources prior to the period of the Tannaim, no such word appears and even in the Tannaitic literature, where it appears for the first time, it is quite rare. It is only mentioned once in the Mishna, in one story in the Tosefta and in two similar drashot in the midrash halacha of the Tannaim. Although the term “minim” (plural of “min”) is quite common in Tannaitic literature, its meaning is not totally understood and the phenomenon to which the Tannaim were referring to is not completely clear.
So who were the people called “minim” by the Sages, and why was this term used for them? What was the phenomenon that the Sages were pointing to with the word “minut” and why did they choose to oppose it? These questions are discussed by Professor Adiel Schremer in his new research study “Brothers Estranged: Heresy, Christianity and Jewish Identity in Late Antiquity”, which was published in early 2010 by the Oxford University Press.
A Jewish parade at the Arch of Titus on December 19, 1947; photo from the Davar newspaper. To mark the declaration of the State of Israel, the Jews of Rome violated their custom of not passing under the Arch of Titus, though they did march in the opposite direction to that of the Roman victory parade.
Various researchers who have examined the phenomenon of “minut” in the world of the Sages approached the Talmudic tradition from a position that was deeply influenced by Christian tradition, and therefore tended to assume that “minut” is a term for heresy. A reading of the Talmudic sources from a Christian-influenced viewpoint led to the emphasis on sources in which “minut” appears as an expression of a theological viewpoint which the Sages viewed as illegitimate. This approach led to a widespread identification of “minim” as Christians. In his new book, Professor Adiel Schremer comes out against this approach. In its place, he suggests a different textualization of the Sages’ discourse on “minut.” His systematic examination of all the references to “minim” and “minut” in the Tannaitic literature has revealed that apart from one source there is in fact no justification for identifying “minim” as Christians or “minut” as Christianity.
Moreover, Schremer shows that certain sources relate to “minut” as a ritual phenomenon or as separation from the community, and not necessarily as a mistaken belief. Therefore he claims that the Tannaim’s discourse on “minut” is not to be understood as a clash of beliefs, but rather as a method of coping in a different context.
Shremer suggests viewing the Tannaitic discourse on “minut” as a reaction to the identity crisis experienced by Jewish society in Israel following the destruction of the Second Temple and the failure of the Bar Kochba rebellion. The supremacy of the Roman Empire, as evinced in these dramatic events and in the continuing Roman occupation, presented the Jews of Israel with a serious challenge to their faith in God and undermined their confidence in the value of their unique Jewish identity.
In one of the most dramatic moments in Midrashic literature, Titus, the Roman Emperor, is described as ripping the curtain on the opening to the Holy of Holies in the Temple and shouting a challenge upward: “If he is God, let him come and oppose me!” In another version of the midrash, the challenge is as follows: “If he is God, he should come and stand with his sons!” God’s choosing not to defend his people and the fact that there is no way to fight the power of the Roman Empire creates doubt: Is he indeed God?
This doubt lies at the heart of the Midrash that explains the dialogue between the beloved and the daughters of Jerusalem in the Song of Songs. There the non-Jews put a question to the Jewish People: “Why is your beloved more than another beloved that you die for him, that you are killed for him?” and this question leads to the invitation to join the Gentiles “Come and join us!” This Midrash expresses the feelings of the Jews in Israel following their military and political failures, which were perceived in the national consciousness as a failure of God himself.
This identity crisis could have led Jews to desert the Jewish People and Judaism. The Tannaitic discourse on “minut” was the Sages’ way of dealing with this phenomenon. This is the explanation as to why a variety of sources relate to “minut” as separation from the community, while others attribute theological positions to it. An examination of these sources from the viewpoint of the existential crisis experienced by the Jews of the Land of Israel makes it possible to understand the theological positions presented by them as an expression of their despairing of God. Such despair is liable to lead to separation from the community and even abandonment of Judaism.
What therefore was the place of Christianity in this story? In Schremer’s view, Christianity carried little weight in the world of the Tannaim. The most significant religious challenge facing the Sages was in fact the power of the Roman Empire rather than the developing Christian religion. However, as Christianity differentiated itself from Judaism, the Sages tended to view it as separation from the community and therefore it became included in their discourse on “minut.”
This process, which first appeared explicitly in the Tosefta, gradually gained strength until it culminated in the official declaration of the Roman Empire as Christian by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century CE. This event signified a kind of stamp of approval that Christians were complete Gentiles and that Christianity was the religion of the non-Jewish peoples. However, although this was an important event, it did not bring about a significant change in the attitude of the Sages to Rome. Essentially, the Sages continued to view the Roman Empire for many years afterwards through a political lens and to regard it first and foremost as a vicious enemy, a conqueror and an oppressor.
Professor Adiel Schremer is a lecturer in the Department of Jewish History and the head of the Halperin Center for the Study of Jewish Self-Perception at Bar Ilan University. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.