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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Institutions and Offices

The form and development of institutions and offices in ancient Judaism and the early church provides the background and context in which biblical and rabbinic literature was created. During Second Temple times the institution of the Jerusalem Temple stood at the centre of Jewish religious life, and its priestly hierarchy (high priest, ordinary priests, Levites) had official authority in cultic and sometimes also political matters. Scribes attached to the Temple seem to have fulfilled various administrative functions in addition to writing religious texts and secular documents (see Demsky and Bar-Ilan 1988). A special school for the training of scribes may have been attached to the Temple (see p. 14). One may assume that these scribes were the ones who were most familiar with the texts of the ancestral tradition. They would produce copies of biblical manuscripts, preserve the scrolls in the Temple precincts, and also serve as experts in reading and interpreting them.

After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, rabbis set themselves up as religious experts and promoted Torah study and observance as the most important religious activity. Although status differences existed amongst rabbis, the rabbis were not organized hierarchically, but rather formed a loose network of colleague-friends who supported but also competed with each other (see Hezser 1997: 255–306). Each rabbi had a circle of close students, who lived with him and served him in various ways, and a broader and more detached set of sympathizers who valued his counsel in religious and everyday life matters. Rabbis' main functions were those of teachers, on the one hand, and legal (halakhic) advisors, on the other. They were concerned with applying the biblical tradition to everyday life situations, to sanctify the ordinary and to serve the holy in the here and now.

From the time of R. Yehudah ha-Nasi at the end of the second century CE onwards, the patriarch seems to have emerged as primus inter pares amongst rabbis (see Jacobs 1995). We may assume that his position was based on his reputation as a Torah expert, his family background, wealth, and good connections amongst high-ranking Jews and Romans. He was not officially recognized by the Romans until the fifth century, shortly before the institution came to its end. He does not seem to have been the president of a central court (sanhedrin) or academy, for whose existence after 70 CE no convincing evidence exists (see Goodblatt 1994: 232–76). One rather has to reckon with many local study rooms or houses and informal courts associated with the patriarch as well as with various rabbis. Accordingly, the rabbinic movement was not centralized, but should be imagined as an informal network of colleague-friends, resident in a variety of Galilean and coastal cities, towns, and villages (see Hezser 1997: 157–84).

Due to the nature of the evidence, the question of rabbis' and the patriarch's actual influence on the religious life of their fellow Jews cannot be answered any more. Scholarly opinions range from the traditional, no longer valid maximalist view of rabbis as authoritative leaders of local Jewish communities with the patriarch at the top of the rabbinic hierarchy (see e.g. Safrai 1974: 378; Avi-Yonah 1976; Alon 1989: 467) to the minimalist view of rabbis as an insignificant intellectual élite at the margins of Jewish society (Schwartz 2001). Since rabbis did not possess any institutional authority, their power must have been based on their ability to persuade: they won adherents amongst those who valued Torah piety and saw the individual rabbi as an incorporation of the Torah as the word of God. Since rabbis' authority was both role-related and personal, some rabbis would have had more adherents than others. The percentage of ‘rabbinic’ Jews in Jewish society of the first centuries remains unknown, though. No rabbis are known to have existed in the Diaspora, and Palestinian rabbis' sphere of influence would have been more or less limited to Roman Palestine.

Due to our almost complete lack of Jewish literary sources from Diaspora Judaism in the first centuries CE and the scant archaeological fieldwork done so far, our knowledge of the social and religious life of those communities is based mostly on inscriptions and funerary architecture. Most of the evidence stems from late ancient Rome, where a Jewish community existed from the first century BCE onwards. On the basis of funerary remains and artistic production, the interaction between Jews and non-Jews can be determined (see Rutgers 1995). The main literary source produced by (a) Roman Jew(s) of the fourth century CE is the Collatio Legum Mosaicarum et Romanarum, a systematic juxtaposition of biblical (mostly Exodus and Deuteronomy) and Roman law (see Rutgers 1998: 235–78). This collection seems to have been created to emphasize the primacy of Mosaic law and to show that it was fully compatible with Roman jurists' ordinances.

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