M. Blidstein on S. Miller, ‘At the Intersection of Texts and Material Finds’

Purity in a Slowly Changing World, by Moshe Blidstein

Stuart S. Miller, At the Intersection of Texts and Material Finds: Stepped Pools, Stone Vessels, and Ritual Purity among the Jews of Roman Galilee, Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht 2015.

The book under review here, Stuart S. Miller’s At the Intersection of Texts and Material Finds: Stepped Pools, Stone Vessels, and Ritual Purity among the Jews of Roman Galilee (2015) is part of a general surge of interest in the role of purity in post-70 CE Jewish culture(s).

Miller’s book includes an introduction, eleven chapters, and a postscript, copiously footnoted, all in vigorous and generous conversation with scholarship, much of it of the recent decade. Most of it is on ritual baths and bathing in the archeology of Palestine and in Palestinian rabbinic texts, but there are a number of long excurses: a chapter on P. Oxy 840, a Christian text dated to sometime in the first four centuries which seems to describe a mikveh, a chapter on stone vessels, and a chapter on priests and purities.

In the introduction, Miller outlines the trajectory of the study of the 850 or so ritual baths excavated in Hellenistic and Roman Palestine, especially focusing on and acknowledging the work of Ronny Reich and Yonatan Adler. This leads to the first of the two main negative arguments of the book: since some (though not many) of the baths are post-destruction, and many of them were found in domestic, funerary and/or agricultural contexts, neither 70 nor 135 CE should be seen as decisive and immediate turning points in the history of Jewish ritual purity practices. Rather, as purity rituals always had a double focus, on the temple and on the household, the destruction of the temple only knocked out one of these, while the other continued and was perhaps even enhanced.

The second negative argument, made in chapters 1-4, 6 and 9, is that ritual baths found in excavations have been overdetermined and overinterpreted. Miller argues that it is generally impossible to identify excavated ritual baths as “pharisaic”, “rabbinic”, “priestly” or as belonging to any other group known from the texts, or, even, to identify them as not rabbinic or not sectarian. Architectural markers scholars wrested from the texts and deployed to assign baths to various groups (niẓoq, oẓar, divided stairways) are in fact irrelevant: they do not describe an architectural feature (niẓoq), are a modern invention (oẓar, hashaqa) or may be merely decorative (divided stairways). Ritual baths – water basins large enough for immersion with steps leading into them, commonly found in Palestine but not elsewhere, and therefore “Jewish” – are simply that: basins which could be used for bathing of a ritual nature of various types, but also for secular uses. In parallel, the Mishna and Tosefta and even the Yerushalmi rarely discuss specific structures but rather different types of water, and people who bathe in them in various ways. The overlap between artifact and text is therefore rather slim, leading to the seemingly somber conclusion that the texts do not say exactly who used the artifacts or how they used them, and the artifacts do not provide information on the degree of observation of the regulations of the texts.

These negative observations, however, do not show that archeology and text cannot inform each other, but rather that the questions they can answer must be carefully formulated and their respective domains clearly demarcated. Excavated ritual baths can independently answer general questions such as – in which spatial/architectural contexts did people bathe? What role did these facilities play in certain periods and places relative to others? What type of water did they use? However, they cannot answer questions such as – what meaning did people assign to bathing? What was their identity? Therefore, the discussion has to start with the archeological finds, interpreted as minimally as possible in light of the general cultural context, and not in light of the details of contemporary prescriptive texts. Second, these contemporary texts must be read against the grain in order to locate the common assumptions and customs of the society that produced them, rather than the specific opinions and idiosyncrasies of their authors. Only then can they be integrated with the results of the archeological investigations. These methodological observations are not new, but their systematic application to the purity rituals of the inhabitants of the Roman Galilee is novel.

The positive results are as follows: Ritual baths are found in Palestine (but hardly at all in the diaspora) starting in the second century BCE and into the sixth century CE, in Jerusalem, Galilee, and the Hebron Mountains. Most of them are from the two last centuries of the second temple, but many are much later, and they are found in diverse domestic contexts. Interpreting these findings on the background of the biblical purification requirements and Near Eastern perceptions of water (ch. 6 & 7) indicates that purification through immersion continued to be frequently practiced even after the Destruction: not only for nidda impurity but also for the impurity of corpses, zav/zava and sexual relations; not only for entering the temple, but also for eating ḥullin; not only by priests or select ḥavverim but also by other Jews. Returning in chapter eight to rabbinic texts (especially y. Ber. 3.4, 6c), as well as to later geonic and medieval texts (ch. 10) Miller finds much evidence for popular practices of immersion and/or sprinkling for purification after sexual relations, even when not required by the Rabbis, as well as of purification from niddah with “drawn” waters not according to Rabbinic halakha. Together, the rituals baths and the texts testify to traditional customs of purification in water, dependent neither on the temple nor on the Rabbis but on the domestic sphere of Jews who were not clearly part of any sect or movement in Palestinian Jewish society of the Roman period. This conclusion is of course part of the wider debate about the place of the “Rabbinic movement” in Jewish society of the time. More generally, Miller calls to turn to “complexity theory” to account for both the fluidity and the emergence of patterns in this society. I think it is unfortunate that this call was not developed to a greater extent, in order to provide a robust theoretical alternative to the flawed methods criticized (rightly, in my opinion) by Miller in the first chapters.

One criticism from the comparative perspective: Concerning popular purity practices, I thought Miller may not have gone far enough. Additional evidence for the purity habitus of the non-Jewish Roman East may have been relevant here: Jews, Christians and Jewish Christians were not the only ones immersing and sprinkling in water for the sake of purity, ritual or other (Porphyry, On Abstinence Book 4 is probably the longest repository of evidence in this direction, with all the problems of its philosophical ideology). Neither are they the only ones who built purpose-made basins for this purpose, though the other examples are in temples, not domestic contexts – e.g., the various water installations in Isis-Serapis temples, and the standard washing basins (perirrhanterion/louterion) in Greek temples. It may be relevant to note that Isiac water installations in the Roman Empire have a purificatory function lacking in Egyptian Isis temples, according to Robert Wild; perhaps this is a parallel case of Hellinization/architecturalization of purity rites? Another case in point is washing in Asclepius shrines, as found, for example, in the medico-religious account of Aelius Aristides: here washing clearly had several dimensions. Turning to Jewish-Christians, witness the multiple types of washing in the Ps-Clementine Homilies and Recognitions – daily washing upon waking, washing after and before sexual relations, both side-by-side with one-time baptism. And moving from texts to artifacts, what does archeological/anthropological theory have to say about the relationship between ritual and non-ritual washing (or: ritual and non-ritual action in general) in other local contemporaneous cultures?

One possible significance of this may be that purification after sexual relations, contact with death or birth, before eating is not necessarily part of a “purities-holiness nexus,” as Miller describes with approval the opinion of Christine Hayes (p. 205), but rather part of a more general, unstructured disgust from sex and other bodily phenomenon (disgust is an important term in contemporary purity studies). If Yair Furstenberg is right and netilat yaddaim originated in Greco-Roman eating practices (p. 222, n. 48), this is an example of a Jewish purity practice which had nothing to do with holiness, at least at first. Although Miller acknowledges general Greco-Roman perceptions of pollution (pp. 231-2) and agrees that washing after sexual relations may have resulted simply from “popular conceptions of sex is dirty” (p. 234) he does not investigate this perception regarding the Rabbis themselves; I think the contrast drawn here between Rabbis and commoners may be too strict in this regard. Furthermore, if popular Jewish purity habitus was part of Greco-Roman culture in the East, perhaps it was not based only, or even primarily, on the bible, as is often claimed here? Thus in one of the stories in y. Ber. 3.4 (6c), a woman who does not wash (after sexual relations? After menstruation?) is compared to a beast. Christian authors, too, often argued that purification (after sex, after menstruation, before worship) was simply the “natural” way of doing things (see Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 2.92-96; Origen, Commentary on 1 Corinthians, frg. 29; Ps.-Clementine Homilies 11.28 [where the one not washing is compared to a dung-beetle; compare Epictetus Disc. 4.11, who prefers a comparison to pigs]).

Notwithstanding these criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. The long and sometimes winding tour is full of insights and leads to follow; I felt part of a lively and thoughtful seminar, in which all participants are treated with respect and intellectual honesty. The careful assessment of the evidence, together with the hesitation to identify artifacts with social groups known from the texts, instills confidence in the conclusions. Miller provides a solid foundation on what is actually known about Jewish purity practices in this period, upon which the more speculatively inclined textual exegetes can build their edifices.

Moshe Blidstein is a postdoctoral fellow at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His main research area is rituals and ritual discourse in the religions of the Roman Empire. His current project is entitled “The Oath, Religious Identities and Mentalities in the Eastern Mediterranean, 0-500 CE.”

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