Category: Late Antiquity


Studies of the ancient Mediterranean world have been powerfully enhanced by the current awareness of the complexity that the politics of identity both reveals and covers over. In particular, heterogeneity strives with universalism where the forces of empire and colonialism produce multiple and charged cultural contact zones. At the borderlines of oppression, not only resistance but also enormous creativity is encountered in the production of hybridized subjects. How do we read or map gender at such complexly determined and politically ambivalent sites? How, furthermore, do we read or map gender across religious affiliation, breaking through prior barriers of disciplinary practice that have separated scholars of Christianity, Judaism and pagan or “classical” antiquity, without thereby losing all traction on the particularity of religious cult or culture, shifty and overlapping as these mappings may prove to be?

Virginia Burrus, “Mapping as Metamorphosis: Initial Reflections on Gender and Ancient Religious Discourses”, in Mapping Gender in Ancient Religious Discourses, ed. Todd Penner & Caroline Vander Stichele (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2007), 3-4.

…gender played a strong role in the agonistic articulation of nascent religious identity and difference, whether Christian, Jewish or “pagan.” Is religious discourse then mapped in antiquity as a competition among cultural claimants of masculine perfection? Alternatively, is it mapped as an irruption of ambivalently subversive or counterhegemonic genders to which empire paradoxically gives rise? I would answer both of these in the affirmative. Again, we face an ambivalence that is mapped across our texts and theirs.

Virginia Burrus, “Mapping as Metamorphosis: Initial Reflections on Gender and Ancient Religious Discourses”, in Mapping Gender in Ancient Religious Discourses, ed. Todd Penner & Caroline Vander Stichele (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2007), 9-10.

What matters, in this propagandistic game, is not the actual sexual proclivities of a particular emperor but the extent to which notions of masculinity functioned to articulate the strength of the emperor and state, regardless of which imperial family occupied the palace in Rome.

Jason von Ehrenkrook, “Effeminacy in the Shadow of Empire: The Politics of Transgressive Gender in Josephus’s Bellum Judaicum,”  The Jewish Quarterly Review 101:2 (Spring 2011), 161.

…the rabbis did take notice of shifts in historical reality, but only when such comparisons provided some contribution toward an understanding of their own situation. The past thereby emerges as a way of defining or categorizing the present, just as discussions on the cessation of prophecy helped contribute to an understanding of the role of the sages.

Regarding historical causality in rabbinic thought, it appears meaningful only when understood within a framework of moral virtue or culpability. Punishment following sin (for nations as well as individuals) thus becomes a form of moral causality, with the nature of the divine chastisement frequently deriving from the essence of its causes. This is not to say that the rabbis were totally oblivious to the role of history in the halakhic process. Their discussions surrounding gezerot and takkanot clearly portray an awareness of the impact of social realities in the past on the development of certain halakhic behavior. But here too history plays a subservient role, and it is the relevant legal issues that remain at the center of the rabbinic discourse.

Isaiah Gafni, “Concepts of Periodization and Causality in Talmudic Literature”, Jewish History, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring, 1996), 34.

…if indeed anatomical equipment was not absolutely determinative of one’s place on the gender spectrum, then it stands to reason that masculinity itself was a tenuous state of existence that required more than possession of a penis. According to Maud Gleason’s assessment, ‘‘manhood was not a state to be definitively and irrefutably achieved, but something always under construction and constantly open to scrutiny.’’ While there is little indication that men actually became (or thought they could become) women, numerous sources do betray an awareness of the possibility of gender slippage, the very real danger of sliding into the much-maligned mediating category of effeminate male, of being infected with, in the words of Philo of Alexandria, the ‘‘disease of effemination’’ (noson the¯leian).

Jason von Ehrenkrook, “Effeminacy in the Shadow of Empire: The Politics of Transgressive Gender in Josephus’s Bellum Judaicum,”  The Jewish Quarterly Review 101:2 (Spring 2011), 148-149.

The idea of gender as a cultural system rather than a biological given has led to the recognition that the modern binary model of gender, rooted in a taxonomy of permanent, anatomically determined opposite sexes, is perhaps inappropriate for the ancient Mediterranean world. This is not to suggest that biological sex played no role in ancient conceptions of gender, but that the presence or absence of certain types of external genitalia constituted only one part of a vast and complex array of gender signifiers. Moreover, it is now widely agreed that gender in antiquity was viewed, at least from the perspective of the surviving male elite literary sources (an important qualification indeed!), through a single-gender, and not surprisingly androcentric, conceptual framework.

Jason von Ehrenkrook, “Effeminacy in the Shadow of Empire: The Politics of Transgressive Gender in Josephus’s Bellum Judaicum,”  The Jewish Quarterly Review 101:2 (Spring 2011), 147.

As has been called to my attention, the phrase “standing on one foot” may be found, for example, in the Satires of Horace, which include a criticism of Lucilius, whose copiousness Horace resolved to avoid: “In hora saepe ducentos ut magnum versus dictabat stans pede in uno” (“Often in an hour, as though a great exploit, he would dictate two hundred lines while standing on one foot”). Cf. Horace, Satires, Epistles, and Ars Poetica, edited and translated into English by H. Rushton Fairclough (Cambridge, MA, 1942), Book I, Satire 4:9-10, pp. 48-49, dated ca. 35 BCE. Fairclough notes that “standing on one foot” is proverbial for “doing without effort.” The parallel of the phrase is striking, and yet it need not surprise us that people of different cultural backgrounds find similar expressions, common themes, or other parallels. The question is whether in a given instance a historical influence of one on the other can be documented, or in the absence of historical evidence, whether an understanding of the one clarifies and helps us to understand the other better. The issue is thus not merely to find parallels in Latin or other non-Jewish literature to the phrase “standing on one foot.” In the case of Hillel’s statement in Avot 2.4, the Greek σχολή and σχολαστικός may give us an insight into a possible word-play in the Hebrew, and all the more so regarding the ambiguous passages about the ten batlanim: are the batlanim idlers who in any event have nothing better to do (as implied by the ordinary usage of the term), or do the passages refer with approbation to ten men who out of their concern for the community’s welfare avoid other remunerative occupations? Similarly, in the case of regel-regula, the Latin opens up a range of literary and perhaps even historical perspectives, which the literal Hebrew understanding of regel would never suggest.

Raphael Jospe, “Hillel’s Rule,” The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 81, No. 1/2 (July-October, 1990), 50, n8.

One document of paramount importance in the history of ancient medicine, the Talmud, remains for most classicists and, indeed, for most non-Jews in all disciplines, virtually a closed book. Yet it has a strong claim on the attention of the student of Greek medicine, for the medical researches of the Talmudic rabbis in some respects far surpass the extent of knowledge demonstrated in even the best of Greek medicine….
The medical achievement of the Talmudic rabbis is all the more remarkable because it was incidental to the main interests of the authors of the Talmud. Medical matters are covered only when they help to shed light on religious concerns, in particular on ceremonial and legal points.

Stephen Newmyer, “Talmudic Medicine: A Classicist’s Perspective,” Judaism 29, Issue 3 (Summer 1980), 360-361.

The circumstances which brought about renewed activity in re-attaching halachoth to the written Torah at the time of Hillel are undoubtedly to be sought in the struggle of the Pharisees with the Sadducees, and in turn these circumstances necessitated the establishment of schools – the houses of Shammai and Hillel – who came occasionally together for academic discussions.

S.K. Mirsky, “The Schools of Hillel, R. Ishmael and R. Akiba in Pentateuchal Interpretation,” in Essays Presented to Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, ed. H.J. Zimmels, J. Rabbinowitz, & I. Finestein (London: The Soncino Press Limited, 1967), 295.