Judaism in the Beginning of Christianity

By Jacob Neusner | Go to book overview

4
THE FIGURE
OF
HILLEL

A Counterpart
to the Problem
of the
Historical Jesus

When we take up the question of the Pharisees, we focus attention on Hillel in particular because he was the greatest figure of that group. Furthermore, once we ask questions of historical method concerning the use of rabbinical sayings and stories, we do well to study particular texts, specific problems. Hillel, then, provides both an important object of study in his own right, and also a significant example of how historical-critical issues must govern our study. In this chapter we pursue the analysis of the more important texts in various documents of the rabbinical canon, from the Mishnah through the two Talmuds, in which tales about Hillel or sayings attributed to Hillel appear.

Students therefore face the challenge of dealing with the actual texts of rabbinical writings. These texts arc not so accessible to us as are their New Testament counterparts, stories about Jesus. They take up problems remote from our world—though close to the world of the biblical laws—and they approach those problems in ways in which, in general, we should not have predicted. Accordingly, it will require a measure of patience to work through remote and arcane discussions of issues no one really cares about anyhow. But to understand another world and its human issues, we have to listen patiently to alien minds and how they define and solve their problems. The translation should make the passages reasonably accessible, and the discussion of their literary and substantive characteristics then states what is relevant to our problem of historical inquiry.


HILLEL'S IMPORTANCE

Hillel's name predominates in the rabbinical traditions about the Pharisees. Indeed, the greater part of those traditions deals with him,

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