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Thomas Sheehan Firstcoming Appendix

The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity (1986-electronic edition 2000)

Thomas Sheehan


Appendix: Notes on Rabbinical Literature


In the centuries after the closing of the Pentateuch (ca. 400 B.C.E.), and particularly from 270 B.C.E. onward, there grew up alongside the Written Law of the Pentateuch a rich oral tradition of ethical casuistry, generated by the scribes and Pharisees but not accepted by the Sadducees. The purpose of this Oral Law, according to its proponents, was to “build a fence around the [Written] Law.”

At first this tradition was elaborated via running commentaries (midrash: “explanation” or “exposition”) on the Torah and more broadly on the whole Tanackh. These scriptural commentaries eventually took the form either of Midrash Halakhah (“the way”), which generated legal principles in a quasi-systematic manner, or the more imaginative Midrash Haggadah (“tale”), which expanded on biblical history and developed ethical and/or devotional ideas. These two forms of commentary continued, usually mixed together, with one or the other dominating according to the document, in later rabbinical literature.

After the Maccabean revolt the scribes developed a systematic, but still oral, tradition of deriving legal opinions. This elaborate and meticulous oral jurisprudence, over which Jesus and the Pharisees frequently clashed, was at first taught by scribes and, after 70 C.E., by teachers (Tannaim) through the process of repetition (Hebrew mishnah; Greek deuterôsis). Therefore, when the famous Galilean Rabbi Judah the Prince collected, codified, and wrote out the corpus of received legal opinions in postbiblical Hebrew around 200 C.E., it took the name Mishnah.

The Mishnah, as Jacob Neusner has noted, “stands at the beginning of a new and


stunningly original epoch in the formation of Judaism” (Midrash in Context, 4) insofar as it leads to the Talmud, Judaism’s Summa Theologiae. But more important, as “the oldest extant code of traditional Jewish law” (Schürer, The History of the Jewish People I, 71), the Mishnah is a valuable source of information about Jewish traditions reaching as far back as the first century C.E. It is composed of six Orders (Seder, plural Sederim), each of which is composed of tractates, which are divided into chapters and these in turn into paragraphs. In its final form the Mishnah comprises sixty-three (originally sixty) canonical tractates (along with seven extracanonical ones, which are sometimes printed at the conclusion of the Fourth Seder). The Sederim are listed here with an indication of their general content as well as the number of tractates contained in each one. (A complete list, with the names of the individual tractates, is found in Strack-Billerbeck, V: Rabbinischer Index, edited by Joachim Jeremias and elaborated by Kurt Adolph, vii-viii; and Schürer I, 71-74 and 80.)

The Orders (Sederim) of the Mishnah:

(I) Zeraim, (Agriculture; 11 tractates)

(2) Mo’ed (Feasts, Appointed Times; 12 tractates)

(3) Nashim (Women; 7 tractates)

(4) Nezikin (Damages; 10 tractates, Plus 7 extracanonical ones)

(5) Kadashim (Holy Things; 11 tractates)

(6) Torohoth (Purities; 12 tractates)

Texts in the Mishnah are usually cited according to the name of the tractate, the chapter, and the paragraph, without the name of the Seder. For example, the citation “Berakoth, 2, 3” refers to the tractate Berakoth (on benedictions), chapter two, paragraph three. (The tractate Berakoth happens to be the first one in the First Seder, Zeraim.) However, I cite both Seder and tractate.


Legal opinions that continue and comment on the Mishnah were collected around 300 C.E. into the Tosephta (“supplement”), which, although it cites sources older than the Mishnah and is four times longer, has not achieved the same status as the Mishnah. The Tosephta follows the same plan as the Mishnah but is composed of fifty-nine rather than sixty-three tractates. Omitted are the tractates Aboth (Sayings of the Fathers) from the Fourth Seder, and Tamid (Perpetual Sacrifice), Middoth (Measures), and Kinnim (Nests) from the Fifth Seder. In some editions of the Talmud the Tosephta commentaries are inserted at the end of each tractate.


After its compilation around 200 C.E. the Mishnah itself became an object of commentary and exegesis, especially in the form of the Gemara (“completion”), written in Aramaic and Hebrew and composed of casuistic interpretations of the Mishnah


along with the views of the third- and fourth-century Mishnah scholars called Amoraim (“speakers”). The combined texts of the Mishnah and the Gemara make up the Talmud (“teaching,” “doctrine”), although the word “Talmud” often refers only to the Gemara.

The Talmud exists in two forms: the earlier and shorter Jerusalem (or Palestinian) Talmud (ca. 425 C.E.), composed basically of only the first four Sederim of the Mishnah along with the corresponding Gemara texts-thirty-nine tractates in all; and the later and four-times-longer Babylonian Talmud (ca. 500 C.E.), which comments on about thirty-six tractates and which is the one usually referred to.

The Talmud is usually cited (1) with an abbreviation indicating the Talmud in which the Gemara is found: for example, “J.” or “Y.” or “P.” for the Jerusalem/ Yerushalmi/ Palestinian Talmud; and “B.” or no indication at all for the Babylonian Talmud (Strack-Billerbeck cite the two Talmuds respectively as “p” and “b”); (2) then comes the name of the Mishnah tractate that is being commented on-for example, Berakhoth; in Strack-Billerbeck, for example, bBerakoth; (3) then follows an indication of either the chapter and paragraph of the Mishnah text under consideration (e.g., Y. Berakhoth 2, 4) or the page number and column letter in the particular Talmud (e.g., Y. Berakhoth 4 d). (Strack-Billerbeck cites the Jerusalem /Palestinian Talmud [according to the German edition published in Cracow in 1609] by chapter, page, column, and line; thus “pBerakhoth 1, 2a, 37” refers to: Palestinian Talmud, the Gemara-commentary on the Mishnah tractate Berakhoth, chapter 1, page 2, sheet on reader’s left [cf. infra], line 37 in the Cracow edition.)

Regarding reference by page and column: In the Talmud, which of course reads from right to left, a single page is made up of the sheet on one’s left and its verso. In the Jerusalem Talmud, each sheet has two columns. Columns a and b are found on the sheet on one’s left, columns c and d on the verso. Thus “Y. Berakoth 4 d” refers to: page 4, verso, second column. In the Babylonian Talmud each sheet has only a single column. After the page reference the letter a indicates the sheet on one’s left; the letter b indicates its verso.


The Midrashim, or commentaries on the Tanackh, grew out of the edifying lectures and sermons delivered in synagogues and schools rather than out of the legal academic discussions that gave birth to the Mishnah and the Talmud. Whereas the Talmud is, to be sure, filled with scriptural commentary, it is not organized as a book of exegesis the way the Midrashim are.

The four oldest Midrashic commentaries (250-350 C.E.?), sometimes called the Tannaitic Midrashim, are Mekhilta (devoted to Exodus 12-23), Sifra on Leviticus, Sifra on Numbers 3-35, and Sifra on Deuteronomy. Among the later commentaries, dating from the fifth to the eighteenth centuries C.E., are: the extensive Midrash Rabba, a collection of midrashim on the Pentateuch and on the Megilloth (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther); the three Pesikta (on the Bible texts read at feasts); Pirke (on Pentateuchal history from Adam to Moses); Tanhuma (on the whole Pentateuch); Yalkut (on the whole Tanackh); and Lekah Tob (on the Pentateuch and Megilloth).



The Targumim (“interpretations’) are explanatory Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible, giving evidence of the popular and traditional expositions of the Tanackh provided in the synagogues. The Targumim date mostly from the second century C.E. and later but provide information on traditions reaching back to pre-Christian times.

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