The Ring of Polycrates in Ancient Religious Narratives
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The literature of the ancient rabbis has come down to us as parts of compendia that evolved over many generations, beginning around the middle of the first century CE and continuing for more than half a millennium. In spite of their vastness and the striking diversity of their contents, most of the works in the corpus deal with a very small number of genres, chiefly: the intricate analysis of questions of religious law (talmud) and expositions of the sacred scriptures (midrash). These works are confined to two geographical regions, the land of Israel and Babylonia (Mesopotamia). The literature collects statements by Jewish sages and embeds them into literary structures that are often quite complex.
The compendia of Talmud and Midrash are collective works,1 more probably the products of institutions rather than of identifiable authors or editors. Jewish tradition has attached to some of them personal names that historical scholarship has interpreted as if they were the identities of their redactors; however, knowing those names, even if we choose to give credence to their historical reliability, tells us very little about the distinctive qualities of the works. Those works follow rigid formal conventions of discourse that demonstrate no substantial signs of editorial or theological individuality. The same applies to the specific rabbis in whose names the sayings and opinions are cited. Whether in their scholastic debates or in their homiletical rhetoric, their sayings conform to conventional norms of discourse that make it all but impossible to...
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