Migrating Tales: The Talmud's Narratives and Their Historical Context

Migrating Tales: The Talmud's Narratives and Their Historical Context

by Richard Kalmin

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ISBN-13: 9780520958999
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/05/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 312
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Richard Kalmin is Theodore R. Racoosin Chair of Rabbinic Literature at The Jewish Theological Seminary. He is the author of the award-winning Jewish Babylonia between Persia and Roman Palestine and several other books about the literature and history of the Jews of late antiquity. The research and writing of Migrating Tales was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Migrating Tales

The Talmud's Narratives and their Historical Context

By Richard Kalmin


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95899-9


"Manasseh Sawed Isaiah with a Saw of Wood"


THIS CHAPTER EXEMPLIFIES OUR CLAIM in the introduction (1) that the fourth century began a period of eastern provincial Romanization of Jewish Babylonia, and (2) that the Jews and Christians of late antique Mesopotamia were culturally linked, although at present we are unable to determine how close these linkages were. So close is the relationship in this one case that a story told in a Syriac Christian source holds the hermeneutical key to the interpretation of a Babylonian rabbinic story, or vice versa, since the two stories utilize the same constellation of motifs and themes to teach strikingly similar lessons. This commonality does not necessarily indicate that the rabbis borrowed these motifs from the Mesopotamian Christians, or vice versa, although neither possibility is out of the question. Rather, it is one small but significant demonstration that the literature of the two groups formed part of a common cultural sphere, although the differences between the motifs and how they are utilized are potentially as interesting as the similarities. Analysis of this narrative reveals no indication of polemical interaction between the two communities.

This chapter approaches these issues via examination of the Babylonian Talmudic story of Manasseh's execution of Isaiah against the background of Christian, Jewish, Arabic, and Persian literature from the first to the eleventh centuries. The Bavli's version of the tradition depicts Moses as superior to the prophet Isaiah in response to other ancient depictions, notably by Christians, of Isaiah as Moses's superior. In addition, the Bavli's version of the tradition perhaps uses Isaiah (in Hebrew, Yeshayahu) as a stand-in for Jesus (in Hebrew, Yeshu), depicting Isaiah as executed according to God's will with the aid of a tree, for the crime of casting aspersions on the Israelite people. In evaluating this hypothesis, it is important to bear in mind that ancient Christians attempting to prove Jesus's messianic status quoted Isaiah's prophecies more frequently than those of any other biblical prophet. It is even more important to bear in mind that biblical words formed from the Hebrew root yud, shin, ayin, the basic components of Isaiah's Hebrew name, are routinely interpreted by the early Church fathers, including Church fathers who flourished in Palestine, as references to the Christian messiah, Jesus. Also striking is the fact that Origen and Jerome, Church Fathers who flourished in Palestine, attributed precisely such a scriptural interpretation to a Jewish Christian and a "semi-Christian" respectively, and if the claims of these Church Fathers are reliable, we can easily understand how the Babylonian rabbis would have had access to them. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that the rabbis should have viewed Isaiah as a stand-in for Jesus.

The Bavli's account also emphasizes God's continued close relationship with the Jewish people, insisting that Moses was correct when he said that God is available to the Jewish people whenever they call upon Him, in the face of claims by competing groups that God had abandoned the traditional people of Israel. While it is likely that the Bavli is responding in part to Christian claims against Judaism and the Mosaic revelation, this chapter takes pains not to overemphasize the Talmud's exclusive focus on Christianity. Examination of the full range of relevant traditions from the first to the eleventh centuries will reveal that closely related ideas were also expressed in the literature of other groups, including the literature of Jews produced at other times and in other localities.


The sections of the Ascension of Isaiah that form the basis for our discussion (that is, those that have the closest parallels to rabbinic traditions) describe Manasseh's execution of Isaiah and relate the reasons for his execution:

Ascension 1:7–10:

Isaiah said to Hezekiah the king ... "And Sammael Malkira [that is, Satan] will serve Manasseh and will do everything he wishes, and [Manasseh] will be a follower of Beliar [that is, Satan] rather than of me. He will cause many in Jerusalem and Judah to desert the true faith, and Beliar will dwell in Manasseh, and by his hands I will be sawn in half."

Ascension 3:6–10:

And Belkira [a Samaritan false prophet] accused Isaiah and the prophets who [were] with him, saying, "Isaiah and the prophets who [are] with him prophesy against Jerusalem and against the cities of Judah that they will be laid waste, and also [against] Benjamin that it will go into captivity, and also against you, O lord king, that you will go [bound] with hooks and chains of iron (2 Chr 33:11). But they prophesy lies against Israel and Judah. And Isaiah himself has said, 'I see more than Moses the prophet.' Moses said, 'There is no man who can see the Lord and live' (Ex 33:20). But Isaiah has said, 'I have seen the Lord, (Isa 6:1) and behold I am alive.' Know, therefore, O king, that they [are] false prophets. And he has called Jerusalem Sodom, and the princes of Judah and Jerusalem he has declared [to be] the people of Gomorrah."

Ascension 5:1–2:

Because of these visions, therefore, Beliar was angry with Isaiah, and he dwelt in the heart of Manasseh, and he sawed Isaiah in half with a wood saw. And while Isaiah was being sawed in half....

Ascension 5:6–7

And he said this to him when he began to be sawed in half. And Isaiah was in a vision of the Lord, but his eyes were open, and he saw them....

Ascension 5:11:

And they seized Isaiah the son of Amoz and sawed him in half with a wood saw....

Ascension 5:13–16:

And to the prophets who (were) with him he said before he was sawed in half, he did not cry out, or weep, but his mouth spoke with the Holy Spirit until he was sawed in two. Beliar did this to Isaiah through Belkira and through Manasseh, for Sammael was very angry with Isaiah from the days of Hezekiah, king of Judah, because of the things that he had seen concerning the Beloved, and because of the destruction of Sammael that he had seen through the Lord, while Hezekiah his father was king. And he did as Satan wished.

Ascension 11:41:

Because of these visions and prophecies Sammael Satan sawed Isaiah the son of Amoz, the prophet, in half by the hand of Manasseh.

We cannot be sure where and when the story of Manasseh's murder of Isaiah originated, but the earliest attestation of it is evidently in the Ascension of Isaiah. While there is no unanimity on the subject, most scholars today date the Ascension of Isaiah to the end of the first and the beginning of the second century C.E. It is also not entirely clear where the Ascension was authored, although according to the consensus of scholars it derives from western Syria or Palestine, and several scholars express a cautious preference for the latter. This scholarly consensus makes it likely that the legend of Manasseh's murder of Isaiah originated in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, a conclusion supported by the fact that crucial aspects of the legend are also attested by several second- and third-century Church Fathers from the Greek and Roman world. These facts will be crucial for establishing our claim that the legend originated in the Roman East, and traveled from there to Mesopotamia and Persia in subsequent centuries.


The most extensive rabbinic parallel to the Ascension's legend of Manasseh's execution of Isaiah, in b. Yevamot 49b–50a, reads as follows:

(A) A Tanna recited: Shimon ben Azai says, "I found a scroll of genealogical records in Jerusalem and in it was written, 'So-and-so is a mamzer from a married woman.' ... and in it was written, 'Manasseh killed Isaiah.'"

(B) Said Rava, "He judged him and killed him."

(C) [Manasseh] said to [Isaiah], "Moses your rabbi said, 'For man may not see Me and live' (Ex 33:20); but you said, 'I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne' (Isa 6:1). Moses your rabbi said, '[For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand] as is the Lord our God whenever we call upon Him?' (Deut 4:7); but you said, 'Seek the Lord while He can be found' (Isa 55:6). Moses your rabbi said, 'I will let you enjoy the full count of your days' (Ex 23:26); but you said, 'And I will add 15 years to your life'" (2 Kgs 20:6).

(D) Said Isaiah, "I know that he will not accept whatever I say to him. If I say [that is, respond] to him I will make him an intentional murderer."

(E) Isaiah said [God's] name and was swallowed by a cedar tree. [The corner of his blue fringe remained outside.]

They brought the cedar tree and they sawed it. When he reached [Isaiah's] mouth, he died, because [Isaiah] said, "And I live among a people of unclean lips" (Isa 6:5).

(F) Nevertheless, the verses [cited in part C] contradict one another.

(G) "I saw the Lord" (Isa 6:1), as it is taught [in a Baraita], "All of the prophets looked in a speculum that does not shine; Moses our rabbi looked in a speculum that shines." "Seek the Lord while He can be found" (Isa 55:6); this verse refers to an individual, the other verse (Deut 4:7) refers to the community.

(H) Regarding an individual, when [can God be found]?

(I) Said Rav Nahman said Rabbah bar Abuha, "These are the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur."

What is the relationship between the Bavli's and the Ascension's portrayal of Isaiah's execution by Manasseh? Certainly the authors of the Ascension and Bavli Yevamot responded in part to biblical and second Temple texts (see below), but it is no less certain that either (a) the Babylonian rabbis drew upon the traditions preserved in the Ascension, or (b) both the Bavli and the Ascension drew upon a common fund of preexisting source material. Suffice it to say in the present context that the Bavli's and the Ascension's accounts differ in significant respects, with the Ascension, for example, saying nothing about Isaiah being swallowed by a tree, and the Bavli making no mention of Satan or the Beloved, to name only a few of the most obvious differences.

The most obvious similarity between the accounts in the Bavli and theAscension is the depiction of Manasseh killing Isaiah by sawing him in half. Equally significant, however, is the fact that the Ascension and the Bavli depict the execution as the result of specific accusations brought by Manasseh against Isaiah, one of which is identical in the two accounts. To be specific, according to both accounts Manasseh's charge that Isaiah claims, in contradiction to Moses, to have seen "the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne" (Isa 6:1) provoked outrage and led to his execution. According to the Ascension no less than according to the Bavli, therefore, it is appropriate to say that "[Manasseh] judged [Isaiah] and killed him," although these exact words are recorded only in the Bavli's account.

Rava, the mid-fourth-century Babylonian rabbi who authored the statement "[Manasseh] judged [Isaiah] and killed him," clearly knows at least some of the material that the Bavli shares in common with the Ascension. Rava clearly knows that "Manasseh killed Isaiah" (part A). He might also know the accusations against Isaiah (part C), since the contradictions between Moses and Isaiah are the basis upon which Manasseh judges Isaiah. Rava might not know all three accusations, but it is likely that he knows the first one ("Moses your master said, 'For man may not see Me and live' [Ex 33:20]; but you said, 'I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne' [Isa 6:1]"), given that it is well attested in antiquity, since it is found already in the Ascension of Isaiah and in the writings of several early Church Fathers. According to Origen, for example: "They say that Isaiah was cut apart by the people, as one who depraved the law and spoke beyond what Scripture authored. For Scripture says, 'No one shall see My face and live,' but he says, 'I saw the Lord of Hosts.' Moses, they say, saw Him not, and you saw Him! And for this cause they cut him apart and condemned him as impious." It is also possible, of course, that the three accusations against Isaiah postdate Rava in this context and were placed here to elaborate on his brief remark.

It is unclear whether or not the Bavli's account of the sin that actually caused Isaiah's death (part E: "When he reached [Isaiah's] mouth, he died, because [Isaiah] said, 'And I live among a people of unclean lips'") owes anything to earlier versions of the legend. The Bavli's explanation for Isaiah's death is similar but not identical to the reason given in the Ascension, since in the Ascension Satan becomes furious because of Isaiah's prophecies about (a) the wickedness of Jerusalem and the princes of Judah and Jerusalem, and (b) the destruction that awaits Jerusalem and the cities of Judah. According to Ascension 3:6–10, Isaiah's prophecies are of catastrophes that will befall Israel and the king, and Isaiah also angers Manasseh because "he has called Jerusalem Sodom, and the princes of Judah and Jerusalem he has declared [to be] the people of Gomorrah." So it would appear that for the author of the Ascension, part of Isaiah's "crime" (according to Beliar [= Satan] and his minions) was his denunciation of the Israelites. The Bavli is unique among all extant versions of the Isaiah legend, however, in characterizing as Isaiah's crime his assertion that he dwells among a people of unclean lips, and in making his punishment measure for measure.

Rava's claim that Manasseh "judged him and killed him" and the accusations against Isaiah that follow (parts B–C) compose a surprisingly sympathetic, or at least ambiguous, portrayal of Manasseh. M. Sanhedrin 10:2 contains a Tannaitic dispute about whether or not Manasseh fully repented and thereby inherited a portion in the world to come, and Bavli Yevamot may reflect the opinion that the king did repent. Contributing to this sympathetic or less than clearly negative portrayal is the fact that Bavli Yevamot portrays Manasseh as innocent of murder, since Isaiah deliberately says nothing in response to Manasseh's charges. Manasseh's objections against Isaiah are serious and demand a response, however, as indicated by the fact that the Bavli's anonymous editors (parts F–H) feel the need to respond to them.

Perhaps in tension with this idea of a sympathetic or ambiguous portrayal of Manasseh is the fact that the king consistently refers to Moses as "your [that is, Isaiah's] rabbi," implying that he is not his own (that is, Manasseh's) rabbi, thus reading himself out of the rabbinic movement. In addition, Isaiah in part D definitely presupposes a less than fully repentant Manasseh, since Isaiah is certain that Manasseh will not listen to reason and will kill him even if he satisfactorily responds to his objections, and will thereby be rendered an intentional murderer. The fact that Isaiah expresses his certainty, however, does not guarantee that he is correct, and in the ensuing discussion I argue that the author of the story in the Bavli probably does not share Isaiah's clearly negative opinion of the king.

Support for this interpretation emerges when we examine the importance in the story of motifs of speech and the mouth. Everything that happens in the story is effectuated through speech, casting doubt on Isaiah's claim that nothing he would have said would have had any effect on Manasseh. After all, his words have all kinds of effects. He "says" God's name, which causes him to be swallowed by a tree (although his tsitsit are showing, revealing his hiding place, suggesting that God wants him to receive his just deserts, that is, his punishment for having insulted the Israelites). In addition, Isaiah "said," "I live among a people of unclean lips," which is the sin for which he is punished with death, and his death is via his mouth. He "said" things that appear to contradict what Moses "said," which gets him into trouble with the king and causes his death. And as a prophet, when he says God's word he puts it into effect. Perhaps Isaiah is punished not only because of what he said, but also because of what he refrained from saying, namely, the reasons why his (Isaiah's) words do not contradict those of Moses. In addition, when Isaiah says that he chooses to die rather than make the king guilty of premeditated murder, perhaps we are meant to be unsympathetic, in line with the rabbis' tendency in the Bavli to view with suspicion those who prefer martyrdom to escaping with their lives by means of subterfuge. Rabbinic traditions in the Bavli frequently favor the trickster who saves his life and avoids a noble death to the "hero" who chooses martyrdom.


Excerpted from Migrating Tales by Richard Kalmin. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Manuscripts and Early Editions  
1. "Manasseh Sawed Isaiah with a Saw of Wood": An Ancient Legend in Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Persian Sources  
2. R. Shimon bar Yohai Meets St. Bartholomew: Peripatetic Traditions in Late Antique Judaism and Christianity East of Syria  
3. The Miracle of the Septuagint in Ancient Rabbinic and Christian Literature  
4. The Demons in Solomon’s Temple  
5. Zechariah and the Bubbling Blood: An Ancient Tradition in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Literature  
6. Pharisees  
7. Astrology  
8. The Alexander Romance  
Summary and Conclusions  
General Index  
Index of Primary Sources

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