Late Antiquity / Mishnah / Tannaitic Literature

“A comparison between Avot and Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists underscores striking similarities and differences between the compositions…”

A comparison between Avot and Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists underscores striking similarities and differences between the compositions and thereby functions as a natural springboard into the analysis of Avot in light of the Second Sophistic.

The patriarch edited Avot in the early third century, and Philostratus most probably wrote Lives of the Sophists in the 230s while Diogenes Laertius, in a similar vein, composed a history of philosophy also in the early third century. Thus, three scholars reviewed the stories of their respective intellectual traditions within just a few years of each other and thereby displayed a common interest in composing an historical overview of their respective disciplines. In addition, all three authors took care to link their traditions to an ancient golden age and an esteemed founder. While Rabbi (or his son) employed the chain of Torah transmission to trace the halakhic discourse of his day to Moses on Sinai, Diogenes presented each philosophical school in relation to its founder, and Philostratus connected the Second Sophistic to Aeschines and the Sophists of classical Greece. Moreover, each author used the teacher-pupil transmission to create links between generations. Avot and Diogenes employed the ‘succession’ model that is discussed below in Chapter 6, while “the structure of Philostratus’ Lives depends to a large extent on the idea of a progression between teachers and pupils which preserved Hellenism from one generation to the next”. In short, it appears that the early third century was a time to reflect back upon the history of intellectual traditions. In accordance with the norms of the time, a discipline was portrayed as the transmission of ideas through a teacher-pupil conduit.

Another significant parallel between Avot and Lives of the Sophists is that the years of the Second Sophistic roughly coincide with the tannaitic period outlined in Avot. Avot portrays Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai as the bridge between the Pairs of Second Temple times and the tannaim. Similarly, Philostratus marks the beginning of the Second Sophistic with Nicetes of Smyrna, a sophist who was active, like Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai, in the second half of the first century CE. Thus, both Avot and Lives of the Sophists review the history of a movement in the East that thrived from the mid-first century until, at least, the early third century. In addition, although the rabbis studied halakhah and the sophists practised rhetoric, both movements thrived in a scholastic setting. In terms of social structures, the scholastic setting denotes the disciple circles within which both halakhah and rhetoric were taught during this period.

Amram Tropper, Wisdom, Politics, and Historiography: Tractate Avot in the Context of the Graeco-Roman Near East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 146-147