30 August 2007

Who Were the Boethusians?

Indeed, who were the Boethusians? A year and a half ago at the YU library, I found the May 1995 PhD dissertation of Raymond Harari, entitled Rabbinic Perceptions of the Boethusians. For now, I just wanted to quote an excerpt from the introduction and an excerpt from the conclusion.
From pp. 11-12 in the introduction:

In all, however, it appears that the Baytusim may be authentically traced to twelve different contexts. Some of these contexts include two rabbinic sources that mention the Baytusim, while some have parallel passages that do not refer to the Baytusim at all. In sum, the Baytusim passages include one from the Mishnah, seven from the Tosefta, two from the Palestinian Talmud, four from the Babylonian Talmud, two from the Scholion to Megillat Ta’anit, and one from Avot de-Rabbi Natan.

The traditions assign, often with polemical overtones, views or actions to the Baytusim or to one of the members of the group on a broad array of topics. While most of the traditions present views or actions of the Baytusim on halakhic matters, at least one tradition presents the argument of the Baytusim in what may be regarded as a theological context. The halakhic contexts within which we find the views or actions of the Baytusim expressed include Temple-related items such as the incense-offering of the high priest on the Day of Atonement, judicial issues such as the punishment deserved by the zomemim (refuted) witnesses and ritual issues such as the willow branch ceremony celebrated in the Temple on Sukkot (Tabernacles).

and from pp. 320-322 in the conclusion:

In search of some unifying characteristics, some historians have proposed sociological explanations of the views of the Baytusim. More often, however, the Baytusim have been portrayed as having taken a literalist approach to Biblical verses and as having rejected the general validity of the Oral Law. Virtually every rabbinic passage which refers to the Baytusim has been interpreted in this light. The Baytusi interpretation of three Biblical verses in the Scholion to 4 Tammuz clearly presents the Baytusim as advancing a literalist position. The ARN portrayal of the Seduqim and Baytusim as having departed from the Torah has also been taken as equivalent to a rejection of the Oral Law. Moreover, most of the other traditions – dealing with the status of the Baytusim with respect to ‘eruv haserot, their understanding of the manner of incense offering on Yom Kippur, their rejection of the sages’ Sukkot ceremonies, their alternate dating of the ‘omer ceremony and the festival of Shavuot, and their disagreement with the sages regarding two court procedures – have also been understood as emanating from a general rejection of the Oral Law. This approach has found support amongst medieval commentators as well as modern historians.

In truth, however, while it is clear that the conclusions of the Baytusim are presented as differing from those of the sages or the Perushim, it is not clear that rabbinic sources view the Baytusim as having offered a sweeping rejection of the Oral Law and as having adopted a consistently literalist approach to the reading of the Bible. First, two of the three literalist interpretations attributed to the Baytusim in the Scholion are offered by tannaim elsewhere in rabbinic literature. Secondly, the ARN assertion that the Baytusim “departed form the Torah” appears to mean that they departed form the mainstream of the sages; it does not appear to imply any rejection of a general methodology or direction. Thirdly, in each of the other passages, there is never even an allusion to a rejection of the Oral Law. Rather, the arguments of the Baytusim are presented as independently-formulated opinions with which the sages or the Perushim took issue. Fourthly, in at least one case – T. Kippurim 1:8 and P. Yoma 39a-b – historians have recognized that the opinion of the Baytusim is not more literal than that of the sages. Finally, if the Baytusim were indeed viewed by the rabbis as being literealists, it is somewhat puzzling to understand why they are not presented as citing and explicating more Biblical verses. In point of fact, the Baytusim are perceived as having offered Scriptural proof in only three instances: the Scholion to 4 Tammuz, T. Kippurim 1:8 and P. Yoma 39a-b, and the Scholion to 8 Nisan. Indeed, even the parallel passage to the Scholion to 8 Nisan – B. Menahot 65a-b – does not cite the Biblical verse.

8 comments:

wouldnt you like to know said...

you may be interested in reading schremer and zusman.

Drew_Kaplan said...

That's correct - I've already read Schremer's 1997 piece on this topic - I might post excerpts from that article.... As far as the Sussman article(s) (I believe there is an Hebrew article or book of his and subsequent English translation of it), I have not seen it yet.

Anonymous said...

Overall, cute. But I think that are a few things that need serious clarification.

1. There was no such "mainstream group of sages," as you imply. The only "Mainstream" worship was the Temple sacrifice, and the "sages" (especially the Pharisee one) had very little impact on that.

2. The Boethusians were the "High Priests" mentioned by Josepuhs, as opposed to the lower priests, which comprised the Sadducee and Essene party. They were installed into the Priesthood by Herod in a politically astute move; Herod was very fearful of the High Priesthood and the sway held by that position. (Think about how many Hasmoneans, including his own wife and children he executed) He deliberately imported the Alexandrian branch of the Priesthood, that had left Jerusalem prior to the Hasmonean rebellion against Antiochus. They left because they were allied with the Egyptian Hellenist party and were enemies of the Hasmoneans. This group had no natural allies in any of the Judean political establishments at the time. Their power was solely dependent upon the Herodian family. This was the "safest" group for Herod to apppoint. He needed a legitimate priestly lineage, but one unlikely to foment any popular unrest.

Drew_Kaplan said...

Anonymous,
I didn't imply anything - these are Dr. Harari's words.

Research Writer said...

I appreciate the work of all people who share information with others.

College Research Papers

ivanmessinger said...

I need to reread...but my biggest concern is that when people write on these groups they often take opinions from rabbinic literature as the standard ... the tapestry of political life was so complex i'm not really sure we fully understand it if we ever will at all--the sources are scant and i wonder if many of the ones we need to fill in the gaps for a complete understanding weren't totally lost...i'll tell you this, though: I personally believe that the Kohanim were observing the solar calendar and the Boethusian belief that "Lemaharat haShabbat" litterally means following the Shabbat after the festival makes plenty of sense...You will frequently see "litteral interpretation" in reference to some of these groups, however, who is to say that they did not have their own oral tradition about how to interpret Torah she be'al Peh?

ivanmessinger said...

I should say, interpret the Torah through use of their own Torah she be'al Peh

Evangelist Edi Nachman Bsc. PGCE said...

Is there anyone who suggests that Simon ben Boethus was the Simon the holy man in the gospel of Luke? He ends his ministry in 5 B.C. and Jesus is born around 5 B.C. so could he be the guy who prophesied Jesus would be the sign for the rising and falling of many in Israel?