Schumer, Nathan Still. "The Memory of the Temple in Palestinian Rabbinic Literature." PhD diss., Columbia University, 2017.
One thing that has always bugged me is that the Mishnah is often historically accurate. The Mishnah often seems to know a great deal about Second Temple Jerusalem, and you can often corroborate the Mishnah’s claims with sources from the Second Temple period. This is evident as well in the Mishnah’s treatment of Second Temple figures. The Mishnah sheds a somewhat idiosyncratic vision on who these people are, but often in ways that seem plausible. Take, for instance, M. Yoma 3.9, which recalls a set of dedications to the Temple that the high priest sees on Yom Kippur:
The high priest came to the east of the courtyard, to the north of the altar. The assistant to the [high priest] was at his left and the head of priestly clan was at his [the high preist’s] right. There were two goats and also an urn, in which there were two lots. These lots were made of box wood, and Ben Gamla replaced them with gold, and they were remembering him for praise. Ben Katin made twelve spigots for the basin, for there were only two originally, and he also made a machine for the basin so that its water should not be invalidated by being kept overnight. Munbaz the King replaced all the handles of the Yom Kippur vessels with gold. Helena his mother made a lamp of gold for the gate of the sanctuary. She also made a tablet of gold, on which the words of the Sotah ritual were written. Miracles were done for Nicanor’s gates, and they used to remember him for praise (my translation).
With the exception of Ben Katin, the rest (Ben Gamla, Munbaz, Helena, and Nicanor) are all known figures from the Second Temple period. Ben Gamla was a high priest and factional leader during the revolt. Munbaz and Helena are immortalized in Josephus for their piety and are subjects of a long series of stories about their conversion. Nicanor is known to us from his epitaph, which states that he was from Alexandria and made the gates of the Temple.
Historical accuracy is not really what we expect from rabbinic literature. Our a priori assumption has been, and indeed, should be, that the Mishnah (and rabbinic literature more generally) are often inaccurate in their reports about the past. However, we can plausibly identify these figures with individuals from the Second Temple period, which is something that any reader of the Mishnah needs to account for in some detail.
There have been (to be a bit simplistic) two main methods for dealing with the Second Temple period and its depiction in the Mishnah, or to be more precise, the ritual narratives of the Mishnah that describe Temple rituals: pre-Neusnerian positivism and post-Neusnerian rhetorical readings. Pre-Neusnerian positivists used to consider the Mishnah’s ritual narratives as factual descriptions of the practices of the Second Temple. They used the Mishnah and other sources in rabbinic literature to uncritically reconstruct the rituals and practices of the Jerusalem Temple, an argument that was buttressed by the Mishnah’s accuracy.
Reacting to this positivism, Jacob Neusner emphasized the importance of the redactional hand, arguing that rabbinic literature is best understood on a documentary level. Neusner discredited the project of using the Mishnah’s descriptions of the Temple in a historically naïve way. Neusner had his own project, which is not relevant here. But this methodological revelation set the stage for later reimaginings of the Mishnah’s material on the Second Temple period.
More recent scholars such as Beth Berkowitz, Moshe Simon-Shoshan, Ishay Rosen-Zvi, and Naftali Cohn have read these descriptions of the Temple service as discursive rituals that construct rabbinic authority. If you think about the core historiographic claim offered by Berkowitz, Rosen-Zvi, and Cohn, it’s that the rabbis of the Mishnah are wrong about the Temple. This makes sense insofar as these texts, according to the aforementioned authors, are being put to the service of the rabbis’ own agenda (primarily the construction of rabbinic authority). It’s fair to say that this is the consensus view of the Mishnah (and indeed rabbinic literature’s vision of the Second Temple period). However, a major issue for this current model is the historicity of the Mishnah’s memory. Why does the Mishnah get so many historical details about the Second Temple period right? If the Mishnah’s recollection of the Temple is primarily about the construction of rabbinic authority, why recall all of these highly specific and accurate details? If rabbinic authority construction is the main goal, why recall these things at all? The detailed rabbinic remembrance of the Temple is striking, as it contrasts so intensely with the surreal versions of the Temple found in Ezekiel and the Temple Scroll.
The main intervention of my dissertation is to attempt to account for what rabbinic literature gets right about the past. It is just as historiographically significant that the rabbis are right about the Temple some of the time as it is that they are wrong. We need models that are able to account for both aspects of rabbinic literature.
I rely on social memory to provide a clearer model for why real memories of the Temple were retained. My claim is that the rabbis did occasionally attempt to recall individuals and figures associated with the Second Temple period and were at times successful in doing so. They recalled the events and figures of the past, but shaped these memories for their own purposes. The broader methodological thrust of social memory is that the past is in the process of being changed for the purposes of the present. This explanation accounts for the historicity of rabbinic recollection of the past, while at the same time acknowledging why aspects of it are biased or wrong. Social memory, thus, allows me to account for how and why these different historical details about the Second Temple period were retained in rabbinic literature. In constructing this argument, I focus on local explanations for rabbinic historicity, rather than some overarching global phenomenon. Each chapter of the dissertation considers a separate problem:
Chapter 1 focuses on the Temple in the first century CE by examining the descriptions of the Temple found in the works of the historian Josephus. This chapter is an explanatory prologue to the main body of my dissertation, which focuses on rabbinic literature.
Chapters 2 and 3 are the heart of the dissertation. Chapter 2 primarily concerns ritual narratives of Temple rituals in the Mishnah. I claim that one purpose of these narratives is to serve as a memorial of the destroyed Temple. Drawing on this account of the Mishnah, I turn to Mishnah Middot, a tractate that provides the measurements of the Temple’s space. I argue that Middot uses the commemoration of individuals and events from the Second Temple period to construct a narrative of the Jewish past, which accounts for its relatively accurate recollections of the Temple as it stood.
Chapter 3 concerns moral exemplarity as a means of commemorating the Second Temple period, focusing on stories Palestinian Amoraic texts. I provide close readings of three stories in which figures from the Second Temple period (who often seem to have been real individuals) are transformed into moral exemplars, that is, embodiments of moral virtues or vices. These stories of moral exemplarity serve as a means of making these memories of the past useful, imbuing them with meaning in the current rabbinic context.
Chapter 4 identifies another discourse around the Second Temple past, which is found in the Yerushalmi and Eichah Rabbah (ER). I argue that this discourse, the “Romanization” of the Second Temple period, uses the Roman convivial meal and the Roman province of Palestine to describe the greatness of the Jews in the Second Temple period, projecting these institutions back onto the Second Temple past. This represents a strategy of displaced anachronism and misremembering the past serves as a strategy for commemorating Jewish greatness in the Second Temple period, a potential form of resistance to Roman rule, but the very means for doing so show the degree to which the rabbis are embedded in their Roman provincial context.
 Epstein, Introduction to Tannaitic Literature, 31. Another example of this sort of scholarship is Louis Ginzberg, “Tamid: The Oldest Treatise of the Mishnah,” Journal of Jewish Lore and Philosophy 1, no. 1 (1919): 33–44. Epstein, at least, was fairly skeptical of these narratives as composite finished Mishnaic projects, arguing that scholars had to unpack and cut out different sources of these narratives in the Mishnah as a means of finding the core historical content (although the positivist assumption remains the same).
 Thus, see Shmuel Safrai, Pilgrimage at the Time of the Second Temple (Tel Aviv: Am Hassefer Publishers Ltd., 1965); Shmuel Safrai, “The Divine Service in the Second Temple,” in Sefer Yerushalayim, ed. Michael Avi-Yonah (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1956), 369–91.
Nathan Schumer received his PhD in Ancient Jewish History from Columbia University in 2017.