Penitential Theology in East Late Antiquity: Talmudic, Zoroastrian, and East Christian Reflections

in Journal for the Study of Judaism
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The study attempts to situate the Talmudic theological discussion of repentance—particularly in its Babylonian representations—within the context of Zoroastrian and East Christian traditions. In this regard, the study seeks to provide a cultural framework, in light of which the Talmudic theology of repentance can be seen in the broader context of the penitential discourses that pervaded the cultures of East Late Antiquity. The study focuses on two issues in particular, which underscore the congruent theological engagement of the rabbis and their East Christian and Zoroastrian interlocutors in penitential theology: 1) the relative status of the penitent as opposed to the perfectly righteous. 2) The relative roles of psychological repentance and objective measures of penance and expiation in the process.

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  • 4

    Bilhah Nitzan“Repentance in the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in The Dead Sea Scrolls after Fifty Years: A Comprehensive Assessment (ed. Peter W. Flint and James C. VanderKam; 2 vols.; Leiden: Brill 1998-1999) 2:145-70 at 167 views repentance as a way of life in Qumran and maintains that “in the Qumranic philosophy repentance with faith and wholeness of heart is regarded as the highest virtue a human being can attain.” Lambert has stressed however that the Qumranites did not adhere to the idea of repentance in the sense of human self-transformation as they believed in a more “Calvinistic” notion of external divine intervention in the process; see Lambert “Topics in the History of Repentance” 99-101.

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  • 15

    See for example: Richard KalminJewish Babylonia between Persia and Roman Palestine (Oxford: Oxford University Press2006) 3-17; Daniel Boyarin Socrates and the Fat Rabbis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2009) 133-40; and Boyarin “Hellenism in Rabbinic Babylonia” in The Cambridge Companion to Rabbinic Literature (ed. Charlotte Fonrobert and Martin Jaffee; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007) 336-63.

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  • 24

    See for instance J. Z. SmithDrudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and Religions of Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press1990) 46-53.

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  • 25

    See for instance Daniel Boyarin“Virgins in Brothels: Gender and Religious Ecotypification,” Estudios de Literatura Oral 5 (1999): 195-217.

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  • 26

    See for instance Michael Satlow“Beyond Influence: Toward a New Historiographic Paradigm,” in Jewish Literatures and Cultures: Contexts and Intertext (ed. Anita Norich and Yaron Z. Eliav; bjs 349; Providence R.I.: Brown University Press 2008) 37-54.

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  • 27

    See especially Michel Foucault“Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in Language Counter-Memory Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews (ed. Donald F. Bouchard; trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon; Ithaca: Cornell University Press1977) 139-64; Foucault “What is Critique?” in The Politics of Truth (ed. S. Lotringer; trans. L. Hochroth; Los Angeles: Semiotext(e) 2007) 41-82; and Mark Bevir “What is Genealogy?” Journal of the Philosophy of History 2 (2008): 263-75.

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  • 28

    Michal Bar-Asher Siegal“Shared Worlds: Rabbinic and Monastic Literature,” HTR 105 (2012): 423-56esp. 423 and Bar-Asher Siegal “Literary Analogies” 214.

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  • 30

    On this collection see: Benedicta WardThe Sayings of the Desert Fathers: the Alphabetical Collection (rev. ed.; London: Mowbray1981); William Harmless Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2004) 183-86; Douglas Burton-Christie The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1993); Derwas J. Chitty The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism under the Christian Empire (Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1966); Lucien Regnault “Les Apophtegmes des pères en Palestine aux Ve-VIe siècles” Irénikon 54 (1981): 320-30; Graham Gould The Desert Fathers on Monastic Community (Oxford Early Christian Studies; Oxford: Clarendon 1993) 9-17; and Bar-Asher Siegal “Literary Analogies” 47-76.

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  • 31

    Ernest A. Wallis BudgeThe Wit and Wisdom of the Christian Fathers of Egypt: The Syrian Version of the Apophthegmata Patrum by ʻÂnân Îshô of Bêth ʻÂbhê (London: Oxford University Press1934) 181-82. See also the comments by Ephrem (Apophthegmata Patrum Ephrem 15; in Ward The Sayings 59) who states: “‘God remits the debts of sinners who are penitent for example the sinful woman and the publican but of the righteous man he even asks interest’” and by John Climacus The Ladder of Divine Ascent (trans. Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell; cws; New York Paulist Press 1982) 128 who comments: “It seems to me that those who have fallen and are penitent are more blessed than those who have never fallen and who do not have to mourn over themselves because through having fallen they have pulled themselves up by a more sure resurrection.”

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  • 34

    AphrahatDemonstrations 7.17 (Lehto “Divine Law” 215).

  • 55

    AndersonSin27-39. An excellent illustration of this bifurcated model can be gained from a comparison of the different versions of the Lord’s Prayer in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew’s version reads: “And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12) which probably derives from the Hebrew חוב or the Aramaic חובא. Luke however has: “forgive us our sins” (Luke 11:4). On this issue see Raymond E. Brown “The Pater Noster as an Eschatological Prayer” TS 22 (1961): 175-208 repr. in New Testament Essays (Garden City: Doubleday 1968) 275-320; and Anderson Sin 31-32.

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  • 56

    TertullianPaen. 6.4; translation from William P. Le Saint Tertullian of Carthage Treatises on Penance: On Penitence and On Purity (ACW 28; Westminster Md.: Newman 1959) 24. See also Stroumsa “From Repentance to Penance” 167-78 and Horn “Penitence in Early Christianity” 158-64.

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  • 57

    AndersonSin95-110. Significantly self-deprivation and abstention were commonly perceived as forms of penance and satisfaction. Such practices were widespread in the Egyptian Palestinian and Syrian deserts.

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  • 59

    See especially: E.P. SandersPaul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress1977) 42-43 and Anderson Sin 105-7. While the rabbinic and Catholic discussions of repentance typically underscore human involvement in the process (as opposed to the notion of undeserved divine grace) this does not mean that the entire penitential discourse is reduced to a technical bond of “indebtedness.”

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  • 77

    D. N. MacKenzieA Concise Pahlavi Dictionary (London: Oxford University Press1971) 35 suggests that the verb garzīdan can also mean “confess” which seems to fit the context of the present passage.

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  • 83

    Rav Shmuel ben HofniCommentary on Deuteronomy 4:28-41; cf. Greenbaum “גדרי התשובה” 106-8 and Moses Zucker “Fragments of Samuel b. Ḥōfni’s Commentary on Deuteronomy” Alei Sefer 5 (1978): 5-24 esp. 8-9 [Hebrew].

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  • 89

    Ayoub“Repentance” 102.

  • 90

    GhazālīIḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn4-7; translation in Stern Al-Ghazzali on Repentance 31-32.

  • 97

    See Beer“On Penances and Penitents” 159-181 and Bar-Asher Siegal “Literary Analogies” 205-7.

  • 100

    Bar-Asher Siegal“Literary Analogies” 217-23. The sudden death of the sinner however is emphasized in both stories see ibid. 234-37; Ward Harlots 76-84; and Kiel “Confessing Incest to a Rabbi.”

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