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The Most Precious Possession

The Ring of Polycrates in Ancient Religious Narratives


Eliezer Segal

Finding a precious object – a gem, a ring or a coin – inside the belly of a fish is a favorite motif in western literatures that can be traced back to the Greek historian Herodotus. In Herodotus’ account of the rise and fall of the tyrant Polycrates of Samos, the hero cast his beloved ring, his «most precious possession», into the sea in order to appease or fend off the gods’ envy of his unstoppable successes, but was ultimately disappointed to discover that same ring inside a serving of fish that was placed before him to eat, thereby signaling the beginning of his tragic downfall. The Most Precious Possession: The Ring of Polycrates in Ancient Religious Narratives examines variations on this motif as they appear in ancient religious texts, including the Gospel of Matthew, Jewish Midrash and Talmud, and Augustine’s City of God. It explores how the theme functions in relation to the authors’ respective religious outlooks and literary objectives and what we can learn from these examples about the processes of transmission, interaction and cultural adaptation that occurred among the diverse religious communities of the ancient Mediterranean basin.
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Rabbinic Tales

← 46 | 47 →CHAPTER FOUR


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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