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Abstract

What caused the eventual decline in later Jewish history of the vibrant historiographical tradition of the biblical period? In contrast to the plethora of historical writings composed during the biblical period, the rabbis of the early common era apparently were not interested in writing history, and when they did relate to historical events they often introduced mythical and unrealistic elements into their writings. Scholars have offered various explanations for this phenomenon; a central goal of this article is to locate these explanations within both the immediate historical setting of Roman Palestine and the overarching cultural atmosphere of the Greco-Roman Near East. In particular, I suggest that the largely ahistorical approach of the rabbis functioned as a local Jewish counterpart to the widespread classicizing tendencies of a contemporary Greek intellectual movement, the Second Sophistic. In both cases, eastern communities, whose political aspirations were stifled under Roman rule, sought to express their cognitive and spiritual identities by focusing on a glorious and idealized past rather than on contemporary history.

Interestingly, the apparent lack of rabbinic interest in historiography is not limited to the early rabbinic period. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, Jews essentially did not write their political, diplomatic, or military history. Instead, Jews composed “traditional historiography” which included various types of literary genres among which the rabbinic “chain of transmission” was the most important. The chain of transmission reconstructs (or fabricates) the links that connect later rabbinic sages with their predecessors. Robert Bonfil has noted the similarity between this rabbinic project and contemporary church histories. Adding a diachronic dimension to Bonfil's comparison, I suggest that rabbinic chains of transmission and church histories are not similar though entirely independent phenomena, but rather their shared project actually derives from a common origin, the Hellenistic succession list. The succession list literary genre, which sketches the history of an intellectual discipline, apparently thrived during the Second Sophistic and diffused then into both rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity. Thus, even though historiography was not terribly important to the early rabbis or to most Second Sophistic intellectuals, the succession list schematic, or the history of an intellectual discipline, was evaluated differently. Rabbis and early Christians absorbed the succession list from Second Sophistic culture and then continued to employ this historiographical genre for many centuries to come.