The Synoptic Problem in Rabbinic Literature / Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture

By Bakhos, Carol | Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

The Synoptic Problem in Rabbinic Literature / Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture


Bakhos, Carol, Journal of Biblical Literature


The Synoptic Problem in Rabbinic Literature, edited by Shaye J. D. Cohen. BJS 326. Providence: Brown University Press, 2000. Pp. xiii + 167. $60.00.

Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture, by Jeffrey Rubenstein. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Pp. xvi + 436. $55.00.

Shaye Cohen's edited volume The Synoptic Problem in Rabbinic Literature and Jeffrey Rubenstein's Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture are major contributions to the field of rabbinics, the former for its explicit attempt to deal with methodological issues pertaining to the study of this literature, the latter for the ways in which it analyzes several notable rabbinic stories in a fresh and detailed manner. While prima facie these works are different in terms of style and scholarly agenda, each nonetheless deals with the question of the extent to which rabbinic literature can be used to enhance our understanding of the rabbis, and of Palestinian and Babylonian Jews of late antiquity.

The Synoptic Problem in Rabbinic Literature comprises six papers given at a small conference held at Brown University in 1998. Topics included the relationship of the Mishnah to the Tosefta, the relationship of these texts to Tannaitic midrashim and beraitot, the relationship of the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) to the Yerushalmi (Palestinian Talmud), the relationship of the Talmuds to both the Tosefta and the Tannaitic midrashim, and the relationship of the Yerushalmi to Genesis Rabbah, Leviticus Rabbah, and Lamentations Rabbah. Given the caliber of the participants, undoubtedly this was an intellectual feast for those interested in current trends in rabbinic scholarship. While the collection covers a variety of topics and raises many methodological issues, its cohesion lies in its attempt to debunk the documentary hypothesis. As Robert Goldenberg refers to it, the Documentary Premise, espoused by Jacob Neusner, is an approach to rabbinic documents that treats rabbinic texts only on the redactional level with no serious regard for either earlier sources found within a work, or for similar sources found in other compilations. Each document must be understood on its own terms and as such tells us a great deal about the redactor of the compilation. That is to say, documents such as the Mishnah, Genesis Rabbah, the Tosefta, or the Yerushalmi are discrete works that attest to the coherent Weltanschauung of their respective redactors who intentionally shape their sources accordingly.

Indeed, as Shaye Cohen avers, "Much of ancient rabbinic literature is as synoptic as Matthew, Mark, and Luke; because of their extensive parallels in structure, content, and wording, rabbinic texts should be `seen together (p. vii). It should be noted, however, that the synoptic problem in rabbinic literature is in many respects more complex and unwieldy than in the Gospels. While the Synoptic Gospels are more or less contemporaneous, rabbinic literature spans several centuries. In this instance, the synoptic problem does not deal with three Gospels, a commonly recognized Q source and two other putative sources, but rather it involves numerous iterations of similar stories, sayings and dicta in more than one corpus (for that matter in more than one type of corpus), which, depending on the corpus itself, could very well have undergone several layers of redaction. Cohen's collection of essays, despite lacking a synthesizing conclusion, offers the reader access into the complicated nature of the synoptic problem in rabbinic literature.

Each of the six chapters merits a more detailed treatment than space allows. With this in mind, I will discuss briefly the main thrust of each paper and occasionally will make some general observations.

In the first paper of the series, Robert Goldenberg sets the stage for the ensuing engagement with and criticism of Neusner's documentarian approach, which he considers a "deeply problematic stance.

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