By Translated by Michael L. Rodkinson
THE DESTRUCTION OF THE TEMPLE--THE FALL OF BETHEL--THE MASSACRE OF THE SAGES OF THE TALMUD, TILL THE WRITING OF THE MISHNA IN THE BEGINNING OF THE THIRD CENTURY.
The Temple had been destroyed; Rabban Gamaliel and many of his colleagues were dead; the family of the Nasi extirpated, excepting only his son R. Simeon, who succeeded to his father as Nasi and established a college at Usha; and new persecutions, awful in their extent, were directed against those who were engaged in the compilation of the Talmud. The sages, the chief men of Israel, were slaughtered without pity by Trajan and his successors through the entire period of fifty-two years from the destruction of the Temple to the fall of Bethel. Some of these founders of the Talmud who forfeited their lives for its sake are known to us only by their names: R. Ishmael, Simeon b. Azai, Papus b. Jehudah, Yishbab the Scribe, Huzpeth the Dragoman (interpreter), Jehudah the Baker, Hananiah b. Tradion and Aqiba; the last, the main pillar of the Talmud, and who contributed much to its diffusion and completion, died with joy at being enabled to sacrifice his life for it.
One of the causes of the great revolt against the Romans at this time was the prohibition by the Roman government of the study of the Torah, wherein alone the Jews found comfort, since only in their houses of learning could they enjoy complete peace and freedom. But as the death penalty had been decreed against all who occupied themselves with religious study and observed its precepts, and as this prohibition deprived them of their only source of consolation, they rebelled, led by Bar Kochba. R. Aqiba was the first to become his adherent, who journeyed from town to town, inciting the Israelites to rebel, and bringing them the message that a saviour of Israel had arisen in Bar Kochba, the Messiah. It is not surprising, therefore, that Hadrian, when he had ascended to the throne, was not content barely with the massacre of the sages of the Talmud, but was intent also on the destruction of the Talmud itself. Unable to find a pretext for killing all the sages who kept it tip, he decreed that if any of the old rabbis Should qualify a young rabbi for Israel, both should be put to death, and the place in which such took place should be destroyed, believing that with the death of the elder generation the Talmud would be forgotten and Israel would blend with the nations and its memory be obliterated; because he very well knew that as long as the Talmud existed there was little hope for the assimilation of the Jews with other nations. This decree, however, was not executed, and his murderous plan was further frustrated by R. Jehudah b. Baba, who, forewarned of the decree and comprehending its consequences, betook himself to a place between two great mountains between Usha and Shprehem and licensed six of the older men of R. Aqiba's disciples to be rabbis (i.e., teachers of the Talmud): R. Meir, R. Jehudah b. Elai, R. Jose b. Halaphta, R. Simeon b. Jochai, R. Eleazar b. Shemua, and R. Nehemiah. Having done this, and feeling sure that as long as these men lived the Talmud would be kept alive, he thus addressed them: "Fly, my sons, and hide from the wrath of the enemy. I alone will remain, and will offer my body to satiate their vengeance." And in fact the Romans pierced his body with three hundred iron lances, so that it resembled a sieve; but the newly consecrated rabbis were saved, and with them the Talmud. (See Sanhedrin, p. 30.)
Thus the efforts of Hadrian met with no success, so that at last he said to himself: "Great is the sheep that stands among seventy wolves." He saw the Talmud still existing, bringing to naught his plan for converting the Jews, uniting Israel into one people, and establishing it still more firmly as a national and a religious whole. For the six rabbis named above very soon became the soul of Talmudic study; some of them were with R. Simeon, the Nasi, in Shprehem, and others founded colleges of their own. Through them the Talmud regained its former power and influence, and one of them, R. Ilai, became the chief teacher of R. Jehudah the Nasi, the compiler of the Mishna.
The translation of the Bible (written law) into Greek also contributed very much to the popularization of the Talmud. As long as the Torah was in the sacred language only (for the Aramaic version of the time of Ezra had been concealed or destroyed as early as the time of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, the son of Simeon who had been slain, or probably even during the life of the latter), 1 all Jewish sects and foreign scholars interpreted it in their own way. But a wise Greek, a convert of Judaism, Aquila the Proselyte, who received the doctrines of the Talmud from the disciples of R. Johanan b. Zakkai and also from R. Aqiba, translated the Bible into Greek. This version was not acceptable to the Jewish believers in Jesus (Messianists)--who must already at that period have constituted a large sect--because their construction of many passages in the Messianic spirit was flatly disregarded by the new translation; nor to the Romans, because all expressions seeming to imply the materiality of the Deity were translated in a figurative sense--as for example, "the hand of the Lord"; "the glory of the Lord," which the statue-worshipping Romans could not endure with equanimity, and further because by this translation the nature and doctrines of the Talmud became known to many nations, who found no evil in it. In our opinion the version of Aquila was the sole cause of the despatch of censors from Rome to revise the Talmud, and these censors avowed that its teaching was true. Be it as it may, in studying the history of the Talmud during the first three centuries the reader is easily convinced of the great courage and patience of the sages of the Talmud, For no year of that period passed without trouble from its external as well as from its internal foes, as R. Simeon b. Gamaliel, the Nasi of Jamnia, himself testifies. (See above, p. 9.) For even after the death of Hadrian it enjoyed but a short respite, for Antoninus Pius renewed the decree of Hadrian, and only with much trouble and at great risk of his life did the Nasi succeed in inducing R. Simeon b. Jochai and R. Josi to go with him to Rome to petition the Cæsar to repeal the decree, which, according to the tradition of the Talmud, they effected only through the intervention of "Ben Temalion" (a demon, according to some; a man, according to others). And yet, in spite of this, during this very period, the Talmud became so popular that every town wherein Jews had their habitation possessed also a house of learning for the study of the Talmud; so that everywhere it bloomed and flourished, and bore the fruit of the Mishna, as we shall see in the next chapter.
12:1 See our "Pentateuch, its Languages and Characters," pp. 16-17.