Review of @PennPress’s The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis

Naftali S. Cohn (Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania) presents a powerful work inching us towards to the goal of understanding how texts can not only legitimate authority but also create identities. I’m simply unsure if he understands just how close he has come. Cohn writes to convince us the Rabbis used (or created) the memory of the Temple as a way to secure their influence as the proper authority when they wrote the Mishnah. In many places, he comes close to sheer enlightenment, but at times seems to become lost before he arrives.

The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis consists 122 pages of the argument and at least that many in endnotes. It is divided into 5 chapters, complete with an introduction, conclusion, and two appendices. The Introduction furnishes us with the scope of the argument, where Cohn argues “according to the evidence of the Mishnah, the rabbis fashioned themselves as legal experts with erudition in and authority over traditional Judaean law” (3).  For Cohn, the Rabbis are concerned with preserving the memory of the Temple and securing their authority over the Judaean community. They do this by a variety of ways as detailed in chapters 2–4. Chapter 5 sets the wider context for the development of the Mishnah.

A serious issue he does not overcome is the dating of the Mishnah. He allows for it be composed in the late second or early third century, long after the destruction of the Temple. However, he doesn’t speak to the pre-existing material used by the Rabbis in this construction. It is almost as if the Mishnah, and thus the Rabbis, were created wholesale for no real reason nearly 150 years after the Siege of Jerusalem. The one time he could offer an explanation — while discussing the repression of the Temple’s memory and construction by the Romans (chapter 5) — he does not. There has to be some sort of path the Mishnah traveled, but it is a path not mentioned.

It would be nice to have seen an argument on why, after so long of not having a central authority the Rabbis felt like the Jews needed one and why it should be them. The framework is laid given Cohn’s expert analysis of the use of the destroyed Temple to support the Flavians and the successive reigns of Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian. Cohn also avoids discussing Jewish-Christian rivalry during this time as well.

However, Cohn does a marvelous job at connecting the Rabbis to other Jewish groups, including those who believed in Jesus as Messiah. His explorations here are not fully complete as noted above, but must be examined with great care as he takes the Temple in the Synoptics and places it alongside the Temple in the Mishnah. A picture emerges of authority and identity. Cohn, while painting marvelously, doesn’t complete the portrait. Likewise, in the opening pages of the book, Cohn misses the chance to engage the identity of the Mishnah’s audience and identification of “Jews,” simply bypassing how identity politics plays into this discussion.

Several of the positive aspects of this short study consist of memory studies as well as the role a literary text plays in shaping a group. This is where this work becomes essential in studying the ancient Judaisms and what eventually became Christianity. This promised aspect was my hope when I first heard about this book, that it would contribute to some way in discovering how authority was constructing by using the Temple and the text. Here, Cohn delivers remarkably well. Likewise, it casts new light on identify in the Fourth Gospel as well as calling into question how the Gospels use the Temple in their writings.

Like Le Donne and Keith with Jesus studies, Cohn employs memory theorists (such as Barry Schwartz) in analyzing how memory works and the way Rabbis may have used it. Cohn also uses literary theorists (such as Gérard Genette) to carefully analyze the way certain parts of the text works. For instance, he studies the Yoma 4.1 as an iterative narrative. In doing so he is able to establish his point that this particular text is used to demonstrate the Rabbis’ first hand knowledge of the ritual and thus an authority suitable to give pronouncements about what is and what is not correct. He focuses on other narrative segments as well to give us the ability to see the role the Rabbi takes as the Rabbi is placed into the narrative. The literary analysis would be helped by more of it, rather than the few we received.

This book is almost a thoroughly convincing argument although if Cohn had surrendered more pages to the flashes of brilliance, it would be a book shaking up current thoughts on early memory and identity formation in a post-destruction landscape.

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