“Why did the rabbis in the early period (for the most part) divide people based on righteousness and virtue, and in the later period based on ethnicity?”

Why did the rabbis in the early period (for the most part) divide people based on righteousness and virtue, and in the later period based on ethnicity? This is a question I hope to treat in fuller detail in a later publication. For now, at least, let me propose the following three suggestions. The first is the growing cultural and religious influence of Christianity on Judaism in late antiquity. In Greco-Roman culture, the standard to achieve salvation had been living a moral and righteous life, as attested in the writings of Plato (428–348 BCE), Virgil (70–19 BCE), and Plutarch (46–120 CE). With few notable exceptions, they do not regard the criteria for salvation as dependent on joining a particular community. Greeks and Romans do not advocate soteriological favoritism. By contrast, with the rise of Christianity, a new soteriological model emerged: for many early Christians, escaping hell’s tortures can be achieved only by joining the community of Christ. In his battle with the Pelagians, Augustine (354–430 CE) often cited Cyprian of Carthage’s (210–258 CE, Tunisia) famous expression: “There is no salvation outside the Church.” This new religious exclusivist sensibility might have made its mark on Palestinian Jews who were highly acculturated. As Seth Schwartz has noted, “starting in the third-century the Jews, especially in Palestine … engaged in extensive cultural borrowing from their … Christian neighbors.” This “cultural borrowing” related not only to the architectural, aesthetic, and literary sphere but also, as Guy Stroumsa has maintained, to the theological and doctrinal sphere. We also have evidence that, beginning in the third century, particular rabbis and church leaders corresponded with each other on exegetical matters. Thus, I would argue that Christian soteriological discourse possibly played a role in reinforcing the rabbinic move toward greater exclusivism. In other words, both groups now regarded salvation as determined by communal affiliation rather than (the previous model’s) moral uprightness. On the Christian side, that community was made up of believers; on the Jewish side, it was determined largely by ethnicity. My claim here builds on, but also nuances, Israel Yuval’s assertion that the Mishnah’s insertion of “All of Israel have a share in the world to come” is a polemic against Paul’s soteriology. Whereas Yuval regarded the Mishnah’s guarantee of Jewish salvation as a second-century polemic, I would see it as part of a larger third- to fifth-century soteriological realignment among the rabbis that might have been, partially at least, effected by similar language within patristic discourses. In other words, I would not limit the Christian “influence” to one mishnaic phrase alone, as Yuval does, nor would I date this new rabbinic soteriology to the second century. Yuval also does not notice that the new ethnic-based rabbinic soteriology worked in tandem with an intensified anti-gentile soteriology.

Dov Weiss, “Jews, Gentiles, and Gehinnom in Rabbinic Literature” in Studies in Rabbinic Narratives, vol. 1, ed. Jeffrey L. Rubenstein (Providence, RI: Brown Judaic Studies; Atlanta, GA: The Society of Biblical Literature, 2021), 369-371.