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A Comprehensive Survey on Babylonian Jewry in the Sasanian Era

This project is perceived as part of a broader direction of reassessment of the socio-cultural life of the diverse religious communities that inhabited the Sasanian Empire, and, more particularly, of the unique cultural reality of Sasanian Mesopotamia. It aims to prepare a new comprehensive survey on Babylonian Jewry in the Sasanian era, both incorporating new developments in scholarship and methodology and addressing new questions. It will involve the examination of the primary sources, be they from the Babylonian Talmud, Syriac literature, and the Pahlavic sources, as well as others, and also incorporate the results of the scholarship of others. The new perceived study aims to focus on five major issues that have not been sufficiently addressed in earlier research. First and foremost is the necessity to integrate the major methodological shifts that have occurred in the scholarly approach to rabbinic literature, be it the greater sophistication in the analysis of the strata of the Talmudic sources, the critical use of manuscript variants in reading Talmudic sources, and the genre-sensitive reading of the more narrative sources within the Babylonian Talmud. Next, it will stress the contextualization of Sasanian Jewry within the realm of the study of the Sasanian Empire. While Sasanian Jewry (as Persian Christianity) can no longer be studied in isolation, it is important to attempt to understand, and indeed integrate the developments known to have occurred within Babylonian Jewry within the context of the historical and political framework of the dynamics of the Sasanian Empire. As Sasanian history will contribute towards a deeper appreciation of the Jewish sources, so these Jewish sources must be exerted to yield their contribution towards the general history of the Sasanian Empire. It is noted that Sasanian history, in general, has been undergoing extensive re-evaluation, both on the basis of considerable material finds, new sources, (e.g. GYSELEN, CERETI) and a reevaluation of the methodology in the use of the available sources (e.g. GIGNOUX). This study intends to be closely involved in the new research in the history of the Sasanian Empire. To a degree related to the direction of contextualization, but important in its own right, is the identification of Sasanian Jewish culture as unique, distinctive, and separate from Jewish culture as developed in the contemporary Roman Empire. This culture must be studied as an integral part of the broader culture that permeated the Sasanian realm. A valuable contribution towards a deeper appreciation of this perspective has been made by studies by ELMAN and others in recent years. This field of research studies the Sasanian Zoroastrian texts alongside their Jewish contemporaries, seeking commonalities in approach and Zeitgeist, as well as probing possible intercultural influences. The greater integration of "non-canonical", meaning, non-talmudic, and in particular, material sources for understanding Sasanian Jewish society, refers primarily to the contribution of the culture of the magic bowls, a ritual practice that probably embraced all the religious communities living in Sasanian Mesopotamia. As these artifacts have been discovered and published in far greater quantities in recent decades this field has been slowly demanding a greater part of our understanding of Sasanian Jewry, and indeed, what has sometimes been referred to as "popular religion". It is precisely this field that offers much in developing a more cross-cultural understanding of religious life in the Sasanian Empire. In my recent research I have sought to demonstrate the value for our understanding of Sasanian Jewry of in-depth study of Persian Christianity, not as an embellishment, but rather within the very fabric of the study of the Jewish sources. This literature, written mostly in Syriac, has much to contribute to our understanding of broader issues such as the relationship between non-Zoroastrian communities and the dominant state-supported Zoroastrian community.

This project aims towards a new, broader and up-to-date narrative of Sasanian Jewry. It desires to draw the Babylonian Jew out of the Talmud page and set him down on the colourful multicultural mosaic setting that was the Sasanian empire. Whilst ultimately advocating a study of one religious community, Sasanian Jewry, it aims to delve deeper into cultural and social life in Sasanian Babylonia as a whole. Benefiting from a cross-cultural approach, it will bring to play valuable evidence from non-Jewish sources from the region, be they from the literature of other religious communities such as Christian, Manichaean, or Zoroastrian. It will thereby be a contribution towards a new understanding of the Sasanian Empire, in general, and also serve scholars of the Sasanian society.