Late Ancient Knowing: Explorations in Intellectual History

Late Ancient Knowing: Explorations in Intellectual History


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In this collection of essays, scholars from a range of disciplines explore the activity of knowing in late antiquity by focusing on thirteen major concepts from the intellectual, social, political, and cultural history of the period. They ask two questions about each of these concepts: what did late ancient people know about them, and how was that knowledge expressed in people’s actions? Late Ancient Knowing integrates intellectual history, post-structuralist literary theory, and recent trends in cognitive science to examine the ways that historical thought-worlds both shaped individual lives and were in turn shaped by the actions of individuals. Each chapter treats its main concept as a problem both of knowledge and of practice or behavior. The result is a richly imagined description of how people of this time understood and navigated their world, from travel through the countryside and encounters with demons to philosophical medicine and the etiquette of imperial courts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520277175
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/12/2015
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Catherine M. Chin is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Davis and author of Grammar and Christianity in the Late Roman World.

Moulie Vidas is Assistant Professor of Religion and Judaic Studies at Princeton University and author of Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud.

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Late Ancient Knowing

Explorations in Intellectual History

By Catherine M. Chin, Moulie Vidas


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96092-3



Mira Balberg

In the book of Leviticus we find a lengthy description of the procedure for inspecting an afflicted house—that is, a house in which mildew was seen in one of the walls. Once a house has been rendered impure on account of such affliction, the Pentateuch stresses, everything that is in it is immediately rendered impure as well. Thus, in order to protect one's property from impurity, prior to official inspection by a priest the house should be cleared of all its contents—namely, furniture and utensils, clothes and bedding, cushions and boxes, and everything else a person may own. The creators of the Mishnah, a formative Jewish rabbinic codex that was compiled around the turn of the third century c.e., took note of the biblical text's attention to what may seem like an entirely trivial matter: everyday household objects. A mishnaic tradition attributed to Rabbi Meir (a mid-second-century sage) presents the care for such articles as a heartening indication of the Torah's compassion for human beings:

Said Rabbi Meir: What is it that might be rendered impure for him?

If you will say his wooden articles and his clothes and his metal articles—he immerses them, and they are then rendered pure!

Rather, what is it that the Torah spares?

His clay articles, his pitcher and his ewer.

If this is how the Torah spares his negligible property, all the more so his precious property; If so for his property, all the more so for the lives of his sons and daughters; If so for that of the wicked, all the more so for that of the righteous.

According to Rabbi Meir, in regard to most articles there is no real reason to be concerned that they may contract impurity, since they can be purified by a simple act of ritual immersion. The only articles that will actually become unusable if they contract impurity are clay articles, which cannot be immersed and must be broken down if they have become impure. However, since clay was a cheap and ubiquitous material in the rabbinic period, clay objects (such as pitchers and ewers used for oil) were of relatively little importance and were easily replaceable. If God spares even such lowly and disposable articles, says Rabbi Meir, then all the more so he spares the lives of human beings.

This passage powerfully makes the point that household objects, even of the most mundane kind, are an inseparable part of human life. Clearly, utensils and furniture are not as important to persons as the lives of their children; but nonetheless persons have some sort of personal investment in them—which, according to Rabbi Meir, scripture remarkably acknowledges and respects. To understand the human habitat, to be attentive to human needs and concerns, is also to be conscious of the array of things that inhabit the world in which human beings work, sleep, cook, eat, sew, plow, dress, paint, write, and perform various other activities—which all involve, at least in most cases, some artifact. This applies to the affluent modern world as much as it applies to the world of second-century Palestine: although we rarely take heed of the fact that there is hardly any facet of our daily life in which we do not make use of various artifacts, the most banal and mundane objects are what allow us to perform the most basic tasks as well as the most elevated and highly esteemed activities. As the French sociologist Bruno Latour put it, if you are convinced that inanimate objects make no difference in human lives, try "hitting a nail with and without a hammer, boiling water with and without a kettle, fetching provisions with or without a basket, walking in the street with or without clothes, zapping a TV with or without a remote," and so forth. The realm of everyday life, then, is laden with and defined by artifacts.

The Mishnah, from which the passage I quoted above is taken, is perhaps best described as a treatise on the everyday—an everyday that is designed, shaped, lived, and reflected upon in accordance with Jewish law as the rabbis who created the Mishnah understood it. It is a lengthy and systematic attempt to encompass every single aspect of the human world—from the manufacture of wine and oil to the upkeep of one's henhouse, from building a staircase to hiring workers—insofar as all these aspects are in some way mandated by halakhah. With this tremendous attention to the details of which daily life consists, it is not surprising that we find in the Mishnah recurring references to artifacts—both to specific items and to artifacts as a general category. I am using the word "artifacts" as a less-than-perfect translation for the Hebrew term kelim(sg. keli), which serves in rabbinic literature to denote usable objects of all kinds—furniture, clothes, utensils, and so on. I choose the word "artifacts" (rather than "articles" or "vessels," sometimes proposed as translations for kelim) to emphasize both the inclusive nature of this category and the most critical quality of a keli as the rabbis understood it—namely that it is an object made by and for human beings. Objects that have not been in any way given form or processed by human beings, such as rocks or logs of wood, do not fall under the category of kelim, and the rabbinic science of artifacts, which will stand at the center of this chapter, does not apply to them.

It is easily understood why the Mishnah, as a text that applies norms to every aspect of daily life, closely engages with various artifacts and their functions: the attempt to legislate what people should or should not do in specific circumstances closely involves the question what they should or should not do with specific artifacts. When discussing the Sabbath, for instance, as a day on which no labor may be performed, the question which artifacts may or may not be used is crucial; likewise, when setting down detailed rules regarding the retrieval of lost objects, this entails a consideration of different kinds of artifacts that people may lose; and other similar examples are abundant. In this respect, artifacts are of concern to the rabbis of the Mishnah insofar as they play a part in the various actions and behaviors that the Mishnah is trying to regulate. However, the rabbis did more than occasionally refer to artifacts in the course of developing other halakhic topics; they also dedicated an entire tractate in the Mishnah, and a very sizable one, solely to the topic of artifacts.

Tractate Kelim, which is the second largest in the entire Mishnah, introduces a remarkably meticulous, systematic, and extensive categorization and classification of hundreds of artifacts that are commonly and uncommonly found in the human lived world—from pots and pans to needles and pipes, from weaving looms and shovels to toilet seats and shoe racks, from baskets and mantles to flutes and helmets, and many, many more. For each and every one of these artifacts, the tractate's purpose is to determine its susceptibility to impurity—namely to decide whether a particular artifact may contract impurity or not, in case it had contact with a source of impurity (such a leprous person, a menstruating woman, a dead body, an afflicted house as we have seen above, and several other sources). The normative function of this tractate, then, is to give the readers or listeners guidelines as to how they should manage their belongings in case these belongings have had contact with a source of impurity (that is, what they should take the trouble to purify and what does not require purification); but in order to do so, the rabbis develop an extremely elaborate body of knowledge, which I will refer to here as a "science of artifacts." This knowledge entails not only inventorylike information about all the artifacts that conceivably inhabit the human world, but also—much more important—fundamental principles for inquiring what an artifact is and how it functions. In other words, the halakhic system of purity and impurity serves for the rabbis as a template through which they map the material world as they know it—to the extent that the material world is processed by human beings.

The questions of what motivated the rabbis of the Mishnah to take on such a taxing enterprise, and why they considered such exhaustive knowledge of artifacts an important part of the education of their real or imagined audience, drive one to the much broader and complicated questions of the rabbis' intentions in creating the Mishnah as a whole and of the nature of this compilation as such, with which I cannot engage here. My purpose in this chapter is not to determine why this knowledge was created and developed but rather to explore what this knowledge consists of and how it is structured. Taking as a given the fact that the rabbis thought that a comprehensive knowledge of the world of artifacts is necessary for the halakhically erudite Jew, I examine, first, what the rabbis considered worth knowing about artifacts and, second, what the rabbis conceived to be the ways of knowing artifacts. What were the conceptual tools with which the rabbis categorized and classified what seems like an endless assortment of objects? More important, what does this system of knowledge tell us about how the rabbis made sense of the world that surrounded them—and of the human beings that inhabited it?

As I will show in the following pages, an examination of the rabbinic science of artifacts reveals a distinct way of knowing—of mentally approaching the material world, reflecting on it, and classifying it. This way of knowing, I suggest, is guided by the underlying view that humans are not wholly separate and detachable from the material objects that surround them, but rather that they experience and perceive their material belongings as extensions of their own bodies. Correspondingly, one knows artifacts not only by taking inventory of their objective qualities (size, shape, matter, etc.) but also by knowing their subjective qualities—that is, what they mean to the individual who owns them or uses them. In other words, for the rabbis knowing artifacts is inextricable from knowing oneself.


As is the case with almost every area of rabbinic expertise, the mishnaic science of artifacts rests on biblical foundations. Several verses in the book of Leviticus provide some basic rules and distinctions regarding the impurity of artifacts, rules and distinctions that the rabbis develop and expand according to their own interpretation of the text and, as I shall argue later on, according to their fundamental perceptions regarding the relation between human beings and the material world. At the core of the knowledge of artifacts, then, seems to stand a hermeneutical enterprise—that is, an attempt to apply the edicts of the Pentateuch in a consistent and methodical manner to the rabbis' own lived world. However, the mishnaic knowledge of artifacts is informed by certain ideas and principles that far exceed the biblical text, and it is these principles that will stand at the center of my inquiry here.

The key text for the classification of artifacts appears in Leviticus 11:31–33, in a passage that discusses the impurity conveyed by creeping and crawling creatures:

Those are for you the impure among all swarming things; whoever touches them when they are dead shall be impure until evening. And anything on which one of them falls when dead shall be impure: be it any article of wood, or a cloth, or a skin, or a sack—any such article that is put to use shall be dipped in water, and it shall remain impure until evening; then it shall be pure. And if any of those falls into a clay vessel, everything inside it shall be impure, and it itself you shall break.

Whereas several biblical texts make the point that various artifacts are susceptible to impurity if they have contact with one of the sources of impurity, the verses above are of particular importance in that they (presumably) make the points that not all artifacts contract impurity and that not all artifacts contract impurity in the same way. In other words, these verses open up a space for the construction of knowledge, insofar as knowledge is based on a set of distinctions and categorizations. I shall begin, then, with an exposition of the rabbinic knowledge of artifacts as based on the categories laid out in the biblical text and then continue on to explore the unique rabbinic take on knowing artifacts, namely on the subjective processes of conceptualization and reflection applied to them.

The first distinction, obviously, is a distinction of material. The passage above mentions only five kinds of material that may contract impurity: wood, cloth, skin (i.e., leather), sackcloth, and clay. This presumably indicates that all other materials are not susceptible to impurity at all. However, another biblical text, which discusses the need to purify all the loot from the Israelites' war with Midyan, mentions other kinds of materials as well, thus indicating that those are also susceptible to impurity: "You shall also cleanse every cloth, every article of skin, and all the work of goats, and every object of wood.... Gold and silver, copper, iron, tin, and lead—any article that can withstand fire—these you shall pass through fire, and they shall be pure" (Numbers 31:20–23). Taking these verses into consideration, the rabbis also included metal articles ("gold and silver, copper, iron, tin, and lead") among the artifacts that are susceptible to impurity. Finally, the rabbis added two more kinds of material to the list: bone, which they derived from the mention of "the work of goats" in Numbers 31:20, taking it to refer to anything that comes from goats (including the horns), and glass, for which they admitted not having any biblical proof text. What is excluded from the rabbinic list, then, are articles made of stone, earth, and dung, which the rabbis considered insusceptible to impurity—not only because they were not mentioned in the Bible but also, as I will argue later on, because they were seen as too close to nature, as not sufficiently man-made.

Leviticus 11:33 also puts forth an important distinction concerning how different articles contract impurity: it maintains that whereas most articles contract impurity from the outside (when a source of impurity has contact with their external surface), clay articles contract impurity from the inside (when a source of impurity falls into them). This curious ruling generated a whole array of rabbinic discussions regarding how impurity is contracted by different artifacts, which we will not get into here; but it also brought forth another criterion that was central to the rabbis' classification of artifacts, which pertains to the ability of the artifact to serve as a receptacle. Since the verse seems to assume that clay artifacts need to have an inside to become susceptible to impurity, the rabbis concluded that at least clay articles must be able to function as receptacles in order to contract impurity. They also attempted to apply this requirement to articles made of other materials (except for metal), for which it is often much more difficult to determine what constitutes a receptacle and what does not. (For example, is a cushion stuffed with feathers, or a hollow pipe, to be seen as a receptacle?) Accordingly the rabbis often stretch and tweak the definition of "receptacle" in different directions. Thus, immediately following the determination of material—which is the organizing principle of the tractate as a whole—the determination whether a particular object is a receptacle or not is the first step that the rabbis take in its classification.

The most important criterion that guides the mishnaic science of artifacts, to which essentially almost all the rabbinic discussions in the tractate are dedicated, and on which I will focus hereafter, lies in one biblical clause that easily goes unnoticed: any ... article that is put to use. In its context in the Leviticus passage, this clause seems to offer merely an explanatory definition to the general term "article" (keli), namely: What is a keli? It is something that is put to use. The rabbis, however, interpreted this clause as restrictive: only those articles that can be put to use are susceptible to impurity. Thus, the most critical thing one ought to know about an artifact (besides the material of which it is made and its shape) is whether it is usable or not; and it is through the definition of usability that the rabbis develop a new conceptual framework and a new way of knowing that leave the biblical texts far behind.

When classifying and categorizing objects according to their usability, the rabbis exclude not only objects that are man-made but nothing conceivable can be done with them (for example, a piece of woven fabric of a size of less than three fingers on three fingers) but also artifacts that are not yet usable and objects that are no longer usable. For example, a pot that is still on the potter's wheel or a sandal whose straps are torn are both insusceptible to impurity, even though pots and sandals as such are by all means usable objects. Accordingly, in order to determine the susceptibility of different artifacts to impurity one must know exactly, first, if and how they are used; second, at which point during their manufacture they become usable; and finally, what defects terminate their usability and thereby their susceptibility to impurity. The determination of susceptibility to impurity thus requires an extremely detailed knowledge of the exact form and function of every artifact under the sun, and it is mainly this knowledge that the Mishnah attempts to construct and lay out. To illustrate briefly the form in which this excruciatingly detailed knowledge is presented, I will quote here a sample of two randomly chosen mishnaic passages. The first attempts to determine at which point various wooden artifacts can be considered usable:


Excerpted from Late Ancient Knowing by Catherine M. Chin, Moulie Vidas. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Introduction (Catherine M. Chin and Moulie Vidas)

1. Artifact (Mira Balberg)
2. Animal (Beth Berkowitz)
3. Language (Jeremy Schott)
4. Medicine (Heidi Marx-Wolf)
5. Cosmos (Catherine M. Chin)
6. Angel (Ellen Muehlberger)
7. God (Lewis Ayres)

8. Emperor (Matthew Canepa)
9. Ordo (Michael Kulikowski)
10. Christianization (Edward Watts)
11. Cleric (Kristina Sessa)
12. Countryside (Cam Grey)
13. Demon (Dayna Kalleres)
Afterword (Maud Gleason)

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