The Babylonian Talmud and the Paikuli inscription

Herman, Geoffrey . 2014. Insurrection in the academy: The Babylonian Talmud and the Paikuli inscription. Zion 79(3). 377–407.

In the Sasanian Empire Persian court culture cast its shadow well beyond the palace walls in Ctesiphon. Palatial or imperial custom was ubiquitous and smaller courts, as indeed the Divine Kingdom in heaven, acquired for themselves many of the characteristics of the royal court. Court culture impacted greatly on diverse realms of life including not just political thought, but also Sasanian art, literature, and religion.
The Jews of Babylonia lived within this imperial context and it shaped their outlook. They looked upon royal palace culture in admiration as an ideal worthy of imitation. The Babylonian rabbinic academy and the literature woven around it may therefore be conceptualized and interpreted in light of this imperial context.
The rabbinic academy is, indeed, portrayed as a ‘kingdom’, a microcosm of the royal palace. Here, its leaders presided over assembles sitting in a dignified and luxurious manner. They ‘reigned’ as doormen guarded the entrance, and certain court ‘rituals’ were observed.
This article traces ways in which Babylonian rabbis employed Sasanian imperial themes when portraying the contemporary rabbinic academy, and when developing tales of court intrigue and usurpation narratives set in the rabbinic academy.
Focusing on the Babylonian Talmud’s revision of the Yerushalmi’s account of the deposition of Rabban Gamaliel from the patriarchate (BT. Berakhot 27b-28a), the article suggests that specific images within the story evoke Sasanian imperial culture and literature. Indeed, its revision mirrors in many ways the themes and structure of a contemporary source – the monumental Paikuli inscription, a late third century CE royal inscription that describes a struggle over the Persian throne. This inscription, while describing a historical event, is itself inspired by, and partially caste in accordance with mythical and epic Iranian models and literary patterns. It can therefore serve to exemplify the genre of usurpation accounts to which the Talmudic authors were also exposed. More generally, these parallels highlight the impact of the Sasanian literary heritage on the Babylonian Talmud.
Notwithstanding the fictional nature of many of the sources explored in this paper, they are nevertheless illustrative of the way in which the Babylonian academy was imagined. They are, in fact, suggestive of the actual dimensions of this institution of higher education when these sources were being created.