Monday, July 8, 2013


Naftali S. Cohn, The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis. Divinations: rereading late ancient religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. Pp. xii, 240. ISBN 9780812244571. $69.95.

Reviewed by Phillip Michael Sherman, Maryville College (

Version at BMCR home site


Naftali Cohn opens his work with a perennial question in the history of the study of the Mishnah. Why do the authors or compilers of the Mishnah seem so concerned with ritual practices carried out in the Second Temple? What purpose could such material possibly serve? Cohn notes that "by the late second and early third century, when members of the early rabbinic group created the Mishnah, the temple had been destroyed for over a century. There was no one still alive who had directly experienced the destruction and concomitant change in ritual life" (1). Many answers to the questions raised in the study of the Mishnah have been proffered. One traditional answer has been that the temple material is an authentic memory by the early rabbinic class of how ritual was actually performed during the Second Temple period. Another (exegetically based) approach imagines that the early rabbis were not remembering ritual but creating ritual on the basis of scriptural interpretation. A final option, articulated first by Jacob Neusner, imagines the temple material as an attempt to "whistle past the graveyard" by a culture dealing with the shock of the destruction of a central identity- bearing institution. The argument presented in Cohn's work departs from these previous theories. He claims that "the most compelling and fruitful explanation for why the rabbis who created the Mishnah focused to such a great extent on the Temple in the Mishnah is that the Temple and its ritual were useful to them in their own time, in the late second and early third century" (3). Most directly, Cohn claims that rhetoric about the Temple and its functioning was a way to claim ritual and legal authority for the emerging rabbinic class over other Judaeans during a time of conflicting and competing models of Judaean-ness/Jewishness following the collapse of the centralizing institutions (Temple and Priesthood) of the Second Temple period.

Cohn begins by placing the early rabbis within a broader Roman juridical context. He argues that the rabbis fashioned themselves after Roman jurists, figures who would have been qualified to hear disputes between parties and to offer resolutions. Rabbinic participation (what he terms "cultural mimicry") in this culturally dominant legal discourse would have been an attempt at seizing the kinds of authority that would have been associated with such legal figures in the larger Roman world. The rabbis, however, would not have been permitted by the larger Roman world to rule on civil matters. The only sphere of influence open to them would be "Judaean ritual law." Cohn is quick to point out that such a legal role does not imply that the mishnaic rabbis were the heads of actual courts or that they wielded any real power. The appropriation of such legal material by the rabbis is both a sign of rabbinic participation in and an act of resistance against the dominant Roman culture. The following three chapters cover various methods by which the rabbinic authors of the Mishnah invented an authoritative identity for themselves by presenting their imagined version of Temple ritual material.

The second chapter explores how the rabbis of the Mishnah point to the institution of the "Court" as the dominant source for knowledge of the proper practice of Temple ritual in pre-destruction times. Cohn isolates three ways in which the Court is shown to function in these passages: a simple assertion that the Court set ritual practice involving the Temple; accounts of the Court challenging and sometimes controlling sectarian ritual actors; and the Court authorizing a modification of ritual practice when a previous form of the ritual failed. In all these cases, Cohn argues that the insertion of the Court into ritual decision-making is an act of rabbinic invention of the past. Memory of sectarian conflicts and their suppression, for example, are a literary technique to bolster the imagined authority of the Court as a predecessor of the rabbinic class. While he is brief in his comparison with earlier Jewish literature which refers to a Sanhedrin or Court, Cohn claims that previous scholarship has missed the most salient and unique aspect of the Mishnah's image of the Court: "the Mishnah is unique in giving the Court (or similar institution) a role in and authority over Temple ritual. According to the pre-rabbinic sources, the earlier institutions were not involved in, and did not have authority over, ritual in the Temple" (51). In a manner analogous to the "chain-of-transmission" myth familiar from Pirke Avot, the rabbis of the Mishnah created a genealogy that linked themselves to a previous institution, the Great Court, and imputed authority over Temple ritual decision- making to that institution.

A central element of Cohn's argument is the claim that a series of texts he terms the "Temple Ritual Narrative" can be isolated in the Mishnah. (Appendix A provides a list of such narratives.) Chapter Three explores the function of these narratives and why their purported narratology is essential for the cultural and ideological work they are trying to accomplish. One foundational aspect of the narrative is the claim that it represents something that actually did take place in the past. "If the narratives' audience believes such claims, this is perhaps the most effective way to prove the truth of rabbinic memory and authority—simply by asserting it" (58). Cohn further highlights elements of verisimilitude in the inclusion of highly mundane and seemingly trivial details as an example of narrative form being used rhetorically to argue for a belief in the truth of rabbinic memory. Cohn additionally examines the "iterative" nature of the Temple Ritual Narratives. "Iterative narrative…synthesizes unique multiple occurrences into a single telling to highlight their similarity, their regularity, their repetition" (61). The rhetorical impact here is the implicit claim that the way in which the rabbis present a ritual taking place is the way the ritual always took place in the past. The diversity of actual practice in the past is simplified and placed under the authority of the rabbis' predecessors. Cohn also holds that "plot coherence" which demonstrates a beginning, middle, and end to each of the narrative further bolsters the rabbinic claim to authority. The final narrative element he highlights is the intrusion of a rabbinic voice ("rabbinic interventions") into a narrative to provide commentary on how the narrator claims a ritual was performed. Cohn recognizes that the intrusion of a named rabbinic voice (e.g., R. Yose or R. Yehuda) which challenges the narrator of the Temple Ritual Narrative is not without paradox. In any event, the voice of a rabbi is given final authority over the performance of the ritual.

Chapter Four makes use of ritual theory to argue that the Temple Ritual Narratives often imagine the ritual space of the Temple in ways which highlight the authority and central importance of the rabbis and their imagined ancestors. He holds that "the construction and mapping of the Temple's sacred space assert the primacy of the rabbis and their predecessors among the various subgroups of Judaeans in Roman Palestine. In addition, they underscore the authority of the rabbinic version of what must be performed by those Judaeans within the ritualized and sacralized spaces" (74). Cohn argues that the narratives' focus on entry into and exit from the Temple is meant to mark off the Temple as a sacred space; those granted narrative access to the Temple are presented as authentic Jews and those excluded are outside the bounds of Judaism as the rabbis imagined or constructed it. Cohn especially explores the tractate Middot and its presentation of the "topography of sacred space" (84). This particular tractate is similar to Ezekiel 40-43 in its attempt to craft an image of the topography of the Temple which communicates theologically significant material. The comparison between the vision of Ezekiel 40-43 and the vision of Middot is central for Cohn's argument about the use of imagined sacred space to communicate ideological meaning:

"In Ezekiel, the Holy of Holies is the central, innermost, and most important space of the Temple; but in the Mishnah, the Holy of Holies is largely absent, mentioned only incidentally. The most important place in this mishnaic map is not the Holy of Holies, the place where the high priest goes, but the chamber of hewn stone, where the Great Court and its members go" (87).

In the final chapter, Cohn examines how the Temple continued to be an important symbol and image in post- destruction forms of Judaism—both by exploring other texts and by examining non-literary sources such as the Dura Europas synagogue. The reconfiguration of ideas concerning the Temple in the early Jesus movement has been the source of much study for New Testament scholars.Cohn's exploration of Temple discourse amongst early Jesus movements in light of the material from the Mishnah, however, demonstrates the extent to which arguments about the nature of the Second Temple were central to the emergence of rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. He also includes a section on how the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem continued to play an important political and ideological role for Roman Emperors for several centuries after the destruction itself. In all these contexts, Cohn highlights why it is very plausible to see the Temple Ritual Narratives in the Mishnah as participating in a larger discursive debate in the ancient world, centered on the Temple which had stood in Jerusalem. In fact, as Cohn points out several times, it may have been the very absence of a physical Temple (with authorized ritual actors capable of articulating the meaning and purpose of the Temple) which allowed the various groups of Judaeans in Roman Palestine and beyond to utilize the image of the Temple to delineate competing religious ideas and groupings.

There is a great deal to appreciate in this very well researched and crafted book. The work is strongest in its isolation of discourse about the Temple as a key shaper and marker of identity and authority for a variety of divergent groups in late antiquity. Cohn is in conversation with larger critical theory without letting theory dominate his reading of texts. My brief questions, therefore, are not meant to detract from what is an excellent attempt to utilize early rabbinic material to understand something essential about the emergence of rabbinic Judaism in Roman Palestine and the persistence of Temple discourse in a temple-less age.

In the introduction to the work, Cohn claims that "it is not clear to what extent the text of the Mishnah, whether in written or oral form and whether conveyed precisely or filtered somehow through the process of communication, was conveyed to those outside the rabbinic group" (13). I waited in vain for Cohn to return to this question. If the purpose of the Temple Ritual Narratives was, in fact, to argue for the authority of an emerging rabbinic class, some sense of the mechanisms involved in the communication and reception of the ideology of the rabbinic class would strengthen the argument. Persuasive discourse implies an audience capable of being persuaded; I was not introduced to such an audience in Cohn's work. A related question, and one that Cohn himself identifies, is the value in claiming these texts as "narrative." He states that "some would hesitate to call these texts narratives because, by their very nature, they are not about specific one-time occurrences that happened to particular individuals, and so cause and effect play almost no role. The characters are relatively flat…" (8). I was less concerned with the legitimacy of claiming these passages as narratives, although that is a departure from the way in which much of the Mishnah has historically been classified. The amount of literary theory applied to these passages, however, did give me pause. If there is a legitimate debate about the genre to which the Temple Ritual material should belong, a literary reading of the material must take that into account. His application of literary theory in chapter three certainly takes up the challenge. The question of how these narratives would have been experienced by a purported audience remains, however. These questions aside, Cohn is to be congratulated for re-framing an important question in the study of early rabbinic Judaism. His argument that Temple ritual discourse was a marker of authority and identity certainly supplements—if it does not yet supplant—previous attempts to solve the mystery of the presence of the Temple in the Mishnah.

1 comment:

  1. Most interesting to me, for two reasons. First, I teach an undergraduate course in (what we used to call) the great books, the early weeks of which involve selections from the Hebrew Scriptures and then from the Gospels, with some attention to the historical connections between post-temple Judaism(s) and the Jesus movement.

    Second, I came at this from another perspective, that of an occasional student of Talmud under the direction of a most knowledgeable rabbi. His teaching emphasizes the importance of rabbinical authority (now as then), an authority based on the direct oral transmission of the Law from Sinai to the rabbis. We are given to understand that the Temple rituals described in tbe Talmud are absolutely accurate. Not only that, but there are people in Israel who are crafting Temple implements according to the exact specifications given in the Talmud--against the day (for which we all hope) that the Temple will be restored.