Departmental Papers (Religious Studies)

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Book Chapter

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Jewish Biblical Interpretation and Cultural Exchange: Comparative Exegesis in Context

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In Roman and rabbinic legal and literary sources from the first centuries of the Common Era, the institution of slavery exhibits a double nature. For both Jews and Romans, slavery is a dreaded state of denigrated non-personhood, and yet in both legal worlds, slavery can be a site of acculturation, even conversion, to the dominant status and ideals of rabbinic and Roman civilization. Initial research into key symbols and ideas on this topic reveal some suggestive similarities--structural and conceptual homologies between Roman and rabbinic constructions of slavery and the modes and cultural valuations of the manumission of slaves. The slave marks the outer boundary of the person and yet, at the same time, provides an exemplum that facilitates a transformation of the slave-self and an opportunity for movement from periphery to center, from thing to citizen, from Gentile to Jew. I will compare ta few aspects of Roman and rabbinic legal thinking on slaves in the first centuries C.E. as a way to think more broadly about rabbinic legal/exegetical self-fashioning in the Roman Near East. In this essay I want to map the narratives of integration that are encoded in Roman and rabbinic slave law. The common features of the legal itinerary from slave to free are several. It is important to note from the beginning that the notion of slavery as paideia that leads to enfranchisement is largely a legal and cultural fiction. For most freedmen in both cultures, past slavery seems to have stigmatized them their entire lives. However, the fact that a part of each culture imagines that its slaves could become them provokes many questions. What does this ideal transformation tell us about the fact of Jewishness or Romanness; and, how, if at all, is the figural "enslavement" of the Jews under Roman power reflected in the Jewish slave laws (or more pointedly, in the rabbinic interpretation and recasting of biblical slave laws)?

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Date Posted: 18 September 2017