On The General Understanding of Talmudic Chronology

Shortly after I returned from my prospectus defense, I found much to my joy that the Second, “Expanded Edition” of Joshua Jacobson’s Chanting the Hebrew Bible The Art of Cantillation had arrived.

As I flipped through it and started reading some of the introductory chapters, I encountered the following description of Chironomy on page 3.

Chironomy is a system of hand signals, predating the graphic symbols, which represent the melodies of the t’amim…the Talmudic passage below attests to the antiquity of this practice. Rabbi Nahman (ca. 350 CE, Babylonia) stipulates that a person should keep his right hand clean, since that is the hand that performs the sacred task of prompting the cantillation…

Why should one wipe with the left hand and not with the right? Rabbi Nahman b. Isaac said: Because he uses it show the t’amim of the Torah. [BT Ber. 62a]

Professor Jacobson is a distinguished professor of Music at Northeastern University and his book is probably the most comprehensive and respected work on the Masoretic vocalization system (certainly of those available in English). The book is published by the Jewish Publication Society in cooperation with the University of Nebraska Press. And Professor Jacobson is not a religious fundamentalist; he is open to the methodologies of modern scholarship.

I mention all this simply because the paragraph above betrays a common outlook even among professionals in the field as to the authenticity and dating of passages found in the Talmud.

In this citation Prof. Jacobson indicates first, that we know as a matter of historical fact that one Rabbi Nahman (b. Isaac) existed, that he can be dated to the middle of the fourth century, and that he has been accurately quoted.

I rate these three claims as likely, possible, and unlikely. I have no particularly good reason to doubt that there was a R. Nahman b. Isaac. The date of 350 CE is arbitrary, worked out by diligent scholars in the 19th century like Hermann Strack. But it is still a guess as none of the materials are conducive to accurate dating. The Babylonian Talmud was edited over a period of a century from about 500 to 600 CE, and our earliest manuscripts date several centuries later than that. The notion that individual comments were accurately transmitted over a period of some centuries is not only contradicted by what we know about human memory and document transmission, but even by our ability to examine parallel passages. On those occasions when we have the same or similar story related in multiple locations, we almost invariably find differences in the parallels. In some cases, identical statements are attributed to different tradents. In others, the same tradent is quoted using different words. There are several examples of this I will provide in my description of the Passover traditions.

The point I am making is that the notion that the Talmud accurately quotes persons said to have lived centuries prior to the final redaction of the Talmud is pervasive even among the scholarly community. What could Prof. Jacobson have said that would have indicated a sensitivity to this nuance? Here is one suggestion I can think of: “Chironomy is attested as early as the 6th/7th century in the Babylonian Talmud where we find a quote attributed to R. Nahman b. Isaac.” It isn’t a lengthy or overly technical change of language, it is simply more accurate.

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