What Were the Early Rabbis?: An Introduction from a Sociocultural Perspective

By Jack N. Lightstone

An introduction to the earliest rabbinic moment, this book sheds light on this social and religious phenomenon.

ISBN: 9780227180525


Over the first eight centuries of the Current Era, the religious cultures of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and many European lands were transformed by the worship of YHWH and the development from Judaism to Christianity and Islam. What were the Early Rabbis? explores the changes wrought after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, and the impact of this on the new ‘masters’ of law, life, and practice, the ‘rabbis’. Offering the reader an introduction to the earliest rabbinic movement near and soon after its initial movement, Jack N. Lightstone separates the book into two parts that consider early Rabbinic self-definition and how the Rabbis may have thought of themselves or were perceived.

What views did these rabbis promote about their emerging authority? What in the surrounding and antecedent sociocultural context lent legitimacy to this profile? Addressing these and other questions, What were the Early Rabbis? sheds light on this social and religious phenomenon for the non-specialist reader.

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About the Author

Jack N. Lightstone is Professor Emeritus of history at Brock University, and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Religion at Concordia University. Across his four decades of teaching and research, he has focussed on the social-scientific study of religion in society.



1 Introduction

Part I: What the Early Rabbis Were, Thought They Were, or Wished to Be: Mishnah and the Social Formation of the “Mishnanians”
2 The Myth of Mishnah and Early Rabbinic Self-Definition
3 Mishnah Study and the Shaping of a Shared, Early Rabbinic, Professional Profile
4 Extra-Mishnaic Aspects of the Early Rabbinic Profile

Part II: What Did the Early Rabbis Think (or Might Others Have Perceived) They Were Like?
5 Elements of Judah-ite, Homeland Culture That Underpin the Early Rabbinic Profile
6 Elements of Greco-Roman, Near Eastern, and Diaspora Jewish Culture and the Currency of the Early Rabbinic Profile

Appendix: A Brief Account of the Historical Development of the Early Rabbinic Movement (extracts from Jack N. Lightstone, In the Seat of Moses, chapter 2)
Subject Index

Endorsements and Reviews

Jack N. Lightstone is in top form as he guides the non-specialist reader to his vision of the origins of rabbinic Judaism. The author utilises all his considerable academic and pedagogical talent to create a lucid and cogent introduction to the rabbis of late antiquity and the movement they spawned. In doing so, he contributes to a better, more nuanced understanding of a crucial era in the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam alike. Ira Robinson, Professor Emeritus of Judaic Studies, Concordia University

What Were the Early Rabbis? addresses intriguing questions and provides stimulating and challenging analyses. The special focus is on the broad emergence of Rabbinic Judaism using social science perspectives but without the burdens of its jargon and always connected to historical and literary contexts. With analytic clarity, Jack N. Lightstone identifies rabbinic culture, its legitimacy, and provides the reader essential ways to understand and study the core rabbinic text, the Mishnah. Calvin Goldscheider, Professor Emeritus of Judaic Studies, Brown University

This book is a very readable introduction to the core profile and expertise of the cadre of the rabbis just before and after the turn of the third century CE, a seminal era in the evolution of the group that later became the most influential institution in Jewish religious and civil life. Jack N. Lightstone skilfully places the early rabbis in their Judean, Middle-Eastern, and Greco-Roman social and cultural settings. Based on sound scholarship, the book adopts an engaging style of an experienced teacher and storyteller. Simcha Fishbane, Professor of Jewish Studies, Touro University Graduate School of Jewish Studies

What Were the Early Rabbis? both translates the best of current academic scholarship on the early phases of Rabbinic Judaism and offers non-experts and scholars alike a fresh and insightful approach to tracking these developments. By drawing upon social-scientific approaches, Jack N. Lightstone moves away from a typical focus on individuals and ideas alone to social institutional factors that led to and sustained the formation of a group that over time changed the lives of Jews and others in the West. Joel Gereboff, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Arizona State University