The Jewish Manumission Inscriptions of the Bosporus Kingdom

By Noy, David | Journal of Biblical Literature, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Jewish Manumission Inscriptions of the Bosporus Kingdom


Noy, David, Journal of Biblical Literature


The Jewish Manumission Inscriptions of the Bosporus Kingdom, by E. Leigh Gibson. TSAJ 75. Tubingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1999. Pp. x + 201. DM 128.00.

The Bosporus Kingdom on the north coast of the Black Sea was home to an apparently substantial Jewish community, knowledge of which depends entirely on inscriptions. These have mainly been made accessible to English-speaking readers through the work of Irina Levinskaya, particularly The Book of Acts in Its Diaspora Setting (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996). Now Gibson has provided a new publication that puts them into a fuller context than has previously been possible. She concentrates on the inscriptions that involve the manumission of slaves in the prayer-house or with the Jewish community as guardian or (in some sense) beneficiary. She seeks to do this by exploring the background of manumission inscriptions written in Greek, as well as Jewish attitudes to manumission before moving on to look at the Bosporan inscriptions themselves.

She argues convincingly that nothing particularly Jewish is in the underlying manumission process or its record in inscriptions: "the Jewish manumissions of the Bosporus fit readily within the models and the possibilities demonstrated by a wide range of Greek manumission inscriptions" (p. 11). Archaeological evidence shows that there was widespread hellenization in the area, and the presence of a Jewish community was presumably a result of that hellenization.

Gibson believes that the practice of recording manumissions in inscriptions was in the interests of owners more than of slaves. The inscriptions were not motivated by affection, and they did not take the opportunity of depicting manumission as the reward for slaves' good behavior. Instead, the owners were willing to incur expense in order to promote their own social standing.

Gibson argues that Jewish attitudes to slavery were not as liberal as has sometimes been claimed. She sees Philo as interpreting Jewish law on slavery in the light of GrecoRoman norms, and in a Jewish setting where biblical instructions about slaves were not widely observed. She sums up his attitude this way: "Slaves were essential, but they should come from other nations, not from kinsmen" (p. 75)-a view with which Aristotle would certainly have agreed. However, she makes the important point that Jews who were redeemed from slavery to Gentiles by their fellow-Jews would still be kept in some form of servitude. She treats rabbinic discussions of slavery as evidence for the aspects of slave-owning that were of concern to Jews. There is an interesting summary of the texts on Tabi, slave of Rabban Gamaliel and the only slave mentioned by name in the Mishnah. His story, even if not to be taken literally, illustrates that learning in the Torah did not necessarily lead to manumission. She detects an increasing concern with the ritual purification of slaves in later rabbinic writing, perhaps arising from a fear that slaves would manipulate procedures in order to secure their manumission against their owners' wishes.

In chs. 5-6, manumissions from the Bosporus are discussed which took place in the context of apparent paganism or of the worship of the "most high god.

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