This article interrogates the historiography of the field of classical Judaism and suggests what a revisionist feminist historiography of this foundational period might look like. Feminist analysis of gender, class, and race in antiquity allows us to see how scholarly biases today reinscribe and even exceed ancient prejudices. Building on Blossom Stefaniw’s essay “Feminist Historiography and Uses of the Past” and deploying Saidiya Hartman’s method of critical fabulation to analyze synagogue inscriptions and rabbinic texts, this article offers counternarratives of Jewish daily life in the period of Late Antiquity. Through investigation of evidence for enslaved, manumitted, and fostered people in the households of the late antique Jewish patriarchs, this article emphasizes the contribution of ostensibly nonnormative Jews to late antique synagogues, rabbinic learning, and Jewish society in Late Antiquity. It argues that our imaginings of Jewish society and the Jewish household in premodernity must change to accommodate the evidence of these heretofore marginalized Jews and the challenges posed by their enslaved status and/or gendered identity. This restoration of excluded perspectives and traditions represents a more ethical historiographic practice, which produces more inclusive and accurate representations of the past, sets the stage for recognizing continuities through the medieval era, and, finally, enables a different present, one with subjects empowered to construct more ethical social norms within and outside the academy.

The narratives that scholars use to frame the history and foundation of classical Judaism rest on a few watershed dates: the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (70 CE), the redaction of the rabbis’ foundational documents in Roman Palestine and in Sasanian-Persian Mesopotamia (the Mishnah, ca. 200 CE, and the Babylonian Talmud, ca. 500 CE). The established narrative is that the end of Jewish Temple–centered practice marks the beginning of the transition to text-centered rabbinic Judaism.1 These dates are conducive to a perception of the past that focuses the transition of power from one class of men (priests) to another (rabbis), but, as most scholars would readily acknowledge, this narrative quickly falls apart under scrutiny. The redaction of the foundational documents of rabbinic Judaism were the activities of a minority movement and were imperceptible to most Jews. The way of life found in these rabbinic texts would become socially ascendant among Jews only circa 1100 CE.2 It took the rabbis hundreds of years to gradually persuade and, at times, forcefully compel Jewish men and women to follow their strictures.3 All the traditional dates, while significant, are misleading because they direct our gaze toward authorities at exactly the time when the majority of Jews were least oriented to those Jewish institutions.4

A more accurate account, grounded in the evidence, would highlight the fact that Jewish communities spread over three continents lacked uniform, central, or stable governance structures for the first 1000 years of the common era. Diverse Jewish practices—diasporic, liturgical, synagogal, ritual-magical, gendered and embodied, decentralized, regional, and contested—characterized Jewish communities scattered throughout North Africa, West Asia, and Europe. Jews had local leaders (and not just male ones5), informal networks of communication with each other, and customs that cannot be easily generalized but which certainly did not resemble those of the communal structures that are known from the European Middle Ages. The evidence for this diversity is best captured in synchronic analysis, not diachronic narratives that make historical developments seem inevitable. However, the powerful narrative of transition from one group of elite men to another is difficult to dislodge, even as the evidence against it has been stacking up for decades. When archaeological evidence emerged that challenged conceptions of rabbinic leadership in the Byzantine era, it was, for the most part, judged through the eyes of an imagined ascendant rabbinic elite that tolerated this deviation. The findings of two generations of feminist scholars on the presence, contributions, and leadership of women in ancient Jewish communities have remained largely ignored, devalued, or segregated to the “gender” section of volumes on Jewish history.6 If one trusts in the story of academic progress, then this scholarly stagnation is difficult to comprehend. And it bodes ill for any intellectual endeavor that attempts to construct a more inclusive historical narrative.

Two scholars illuminate how we arrived at this moment and how we might move forward: Bonnie Smith and Blossom Stefaniw and their interventions deserve close attention. Smith’s book The Gender of History traces, over the last three centuries, the gendered nature of the foundation of the historical profession, whose practices and norms would be adopted by Bible and religion scholars using the “historical-critical” methods, in turn.7 Smith demonstrated how the study of political history came to be naturalized as objective, scientific, and neutral whereas the study of cultural history (labor, ethnic, and gender history) was deemed subjective and feminine, biased and frivolous, inferior and unworthy of study.8 As she explains, in the development of the field of history, it became taken for granted that “truth was where women were not—some invisible and free territory purged of error by historical work; purged of superficial, trivial, and extraneous detail.”9 She goes on to say that that realm was historical writing in service of the nation state. Smith’s monograph illuminates the unspoken and deeply gendered biases that structure prevailing historical accounts. The exclusion of women from the imagination of the Jewish past can be seen as another iteration of what Smith calls the fantasy “of an exclusively male subject of historical truth.”10 While the profession revels in exploring the variety and nuances of male authority in antiquity, explication of such evidence related to women’s authority is deemed feminist fantasy. If the subject is enslaved, they are even more invisible from historical accounts. Despite some progress in diversifying academic guilds, the exclusion of all subject matter deemed feminine still exerts a powerful force on the study of the past, especially in late antique Jewish studies.

Writing over 20 years after Smith, Stefaniw offers a searing critique of the sexism, classism, and racism that persist in adjacent fields, like late antique studies, and outlines how historiographic practices must change:11

Feminist historiography poses questions which patriarchal historiographies cannot answer. Feminist historiography requires grappling with foundations of the discipline, with problems of archives, representation, and textual practices of translation, editing, and other acts of preservation and valorization, including academic study. That grappling must take place with a force proportionate to the absurd profundity of patriarchy. It must be executed on a scale appropriate to a world in which half of the population is routinely ignored and de-valued and excluded as bit-parts in a story where only men can be main characters. It is not radical, it is simply accurate, to take very decisive steps toward fully feminist historiography given that patriarchal historiography ignores not just half the population, but is necessarily also colonial and racist and homophobic and ableist and classist historiography, treating the vast majority of the earth’s population, past and present, as the scenery through which great men stride.12

Though she writes about late antique Christian historiography in particular, Stefaniw’s insights are equally applicable to the distorted historiography of classical Jewish studies. Beyond a few notable exceptions, the field of early Jewish studies has also resisted the “new consensus” on slavery, which acknowledges both its prevalence and brutality in the Mediterranean world, including in the foundations of rabbinic communities.13 The problematic ways of viewing the past cannot be separated from the problems of the profession itself, where certain classes of men are credited as worthy of attention and the rest are ignored. The continued significance accorded to rabbinic sources in Jewish studies has meant that most scholars of Judaism have constructed their views of the past with these belated victors in mind: they have imagined an exclusive, Ashkenazi male scholarly elite, which conveniently mirrors the makeup of the Jewish studies’ profession for most of the 20th and 21st centuries.14 Evidently, it is still challenging for the gatekeepers of the discipline to allow ancient people who do not look or sound like normative male Jews to take the place of rabbis in foundational Jewish narratives.15

Stefaniw argues that producing better historical accounts requires an effort “with a force proportionate to the absurd profundity of patriarchy.” She writes that scholars of religion in Late Antiquity must draw on other disciplines, those less “enmeshed with dehumanizing racial and gendered orders.”16 Drawing inspiration from critical race theory (CRT), Stefaniw writes:

The act of telling, archiving, collecting, and persistently repeating counter-stories must be the central act of feminist historiography. If the received story is manifestly false, then it is impossible to see what academic merit or intellectual value there could be in continuing to repeat that story. In other words, all historiography must be feminist and anti-racist historiography to have a hope in hell of being accurately human historiography. Counter-storytelling, the final core tenet of CRT, is a key ethical requirement and a key methodology which can change how we use the past and build the sort of world it is worth using the past for.17

Stefaniw calls for a powerful investment in counter-narratives opposed to traditional patriarchal accounts of the past. Such counter-narrative must be powerfully reorienting, disorienting even, to exert a force proportionate to established patriarchal narratives; accuracy is not at odds with ethical commitments here but rather dependent on them. Applying Saidiya Hartman’s critical fabulation to late antique sources provides a way of enacting feminist historiography that can produce more accurate and ethical historiography.

In building a case for counter-storytelling, Stefaniw cites Hartman’s famous essay “Venus in Two Acts” as a model for future scholarship. Focusing on the archives of Atlantic slavery, Hartman observes that few stories survive about hundreds of thousands of girls who experienced horrific conditions of enslavement and that “the stories that exist are not about them, but rather about the violence, excess, mendacity, and reason that seized hold of their lives, transformed them into commodities and corpses, and identified them with names tossed-off as insults and crass jokes.”18 Only brief mentions in court proceedings, ship manifest lists, or ledgers attest to the lives of enslaved girls named Venus, Rachel, or Sara, their biblical or mythological names belying their powerlessness. To provide a fuller cultural history of these erased lives in the archive, Hartman deployed a method that she terms critical fabulation:

The intention here isn’t anything as miraculous as recovering the lives of the enslaved or redeeming the dead, but rather laboring to paint as full a picture of the lives of the captives as possible. This double gesture can be described as straining against the limits of the archive to write a cultural history of the captive, and, at the same time, enacting the impossibility of representing the lives of the captives precisely through the process of narration…. By playing with and rearranging the basic elements of the story, by re-presenting the sequence of events in divergent stories and from contested points of view, I have attempted to jeopardize the status of the event, to displace the received or authorized account, and to imagine what might have happened or might have been said or might have been done.19

To displace the authorized account of an enslaved girl’s death, for example, Hartman rearranges and re-presents events from multiple perspectives, foregrounding the “clash of voices,” albeit with “narrative restraint.”20 She carves out a space for this analysis at the edge of historical practice, in the fissure between history and storytelling, eschewing purely literary, fictive, or creative composition. Hartman admits that her practice is “an impossible writing which attempts to say that which resists being said (since dead girls are unable to speak). It is a history of an unrecoverable past; it is a narrative of what might have been or could have been; it is a history written with and against the archive.” In this essay, Hartman offers a new approach to walking the tightrope of academic historical writing and the feminist inclination to read against the grain.

Hartman herself, when she deployed the term fabulation in that essay or fabula as a basic element of a story, cited Mieke Bal, a well-known scholar of comparative literature who also wrote several books on the Hebrew Bible.21 Bal is most famous in religious studies for engaging with the book of Judges, the most violent book of the Bible, which had been read mainly as presenting the political, monarchical, and national agenda of the ancient Israelites. Bal demonstrated, quite convincingly, that Judges is not about “political coherence,” “military and political chronology,” or honorable men and their sons (Sirach 46.11–12) but rather, at its core, is a book about gendered social strife.22 Decades after publication, Bal’s scholarship still stands out for affirming that every ancient story that features sexual violence is about gendered violence. Deploying what she termed feminist philology, Bal closely analyzed biblical terms with fraught gendered background (e.g., virgin, maiden, concubine) alongside anthropological evidence to offer lucid readings of otherwise opaque stories.23 She argued that choppy biblical narratives reflect memories of a traumatic age shifting from matrilocal to patrilocal marital practices. Bal uncovered not the historical experience of any one woman but a plausible episode in the history of gender relations. Bal argues that close reading of biblical stories can reach back into history to recover something of women’s struggles and women’s language, even if their full expression and their names were lost in transmission by male tradents who did not care to preserve their stories or experiences. Bal’s feminist philological approach is productive for unpacking hints of women’s experiences and language as accidentally preserved by later sources, especially rabbinic ones. Where rabbinic writings record terms, rituals, and traditions associated with women that stand in tension with their own norms, alternative storytelling opportunities abound for careful readers.24

Scholars of classical studies are already deploying Hartman’s approach productively in their analysis of ancient sources. In a chapter titled “Epigraphy and Critical Fabulation: Imagining Narratives of Greco-Roman Sexual Slavery,” Deborah Kamen and Sarah Levin-Richardson analyze and elaborate on manumission inscriptions from Delphi and a graffito from a brothel in Pompeii, imagining the different perspectives that produced the inscriptions. By deploying critical fabulation, they challenge current traditional historical and philological approaches in classical studies, with this explanation:

If this seems a radical step, we might consider that scholars routinely fill in gaps in the historical and epigraphic record, especially when reconstructing the lives of famous individuals or the chronology of famous events from Greco-Roman history. We extend the same courtesy to less famous individuals and events, taking seriously the lives of those on the margins rather than relying on lacunae as an excuse not to explore the past. If the narratives that this methodology conjures from the past are multiple, conflicting, and unverifiable, they also reveal that all narratives from antiquity are, to some degree, fictions and fantasies created by agendas past and present.25

In the field of religion studies, only Robert Kraft has come close to expressing similar sentiments. In his presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature in 2006, Kraft, a scholar of early Judaism and Christianity, described three overlapping directions for future research, which he termed para-scriptural, para-textual, and para-historical.26 With para-scriptural, Kraft challenged scholars to think beyond the category of the Bible, reminding hearers that such a singular book and defined set of scripture did not exist in the minds of ancient Jews or Christians before the fourth century CE (at least). He reminded scholars that women as well as men took part in the transmission of scriptural texts as copyists through the ages (a gendered intervention that shouldn’t be controversial but still is). By para-textual, he challenged scholars to think about what was transmitted alongside texts that have come down to us, “embracing also the materials studied through art and archaeology, liturgy and song.”27 Finally, with what he calls the “para-historical world,” Kraft called on the members of the profession to pay attention to the life setting in which ancient people encountered scriptural stories. Importantly for my endeavor, Kraft further noted that “the complex para-historical world is perhaps best represented through the imaginations of well-informed novelists, who attempt to recreate a feeling for what it may have been like ‘back then.’”28 Kraft asserted that a novelistic approach could provide deeper historical analysis of the daily life and struggles of ancient people. Very few scholars have heeded his call or reflected on it further.29

Informed by Smith, Stefaniw, and Hartman’s approaches as well as Kamen and Levin-Richardson’s example, in the rest of this essay I demonstrate what critical fabulation with Jewish sources could look like and how it might improve our analysis of both material and rabbinic evidence and enrich our understanding of late antique Jewish culture and society. I analyze two sources from late antique Roman Palestine, which happen to take us into the milieu of the Jewish patriarchs, in particular the enslaved members of their households. I revisit the mosaic floor of the Hammat Tiberias synagogues to highlight the differences between the established scholarly narrative that valorizes the rabbinic perspective while explaining how, with critical fabulation, we can bring to the foreground the perspective of a Jewish freedman instead. Subsequently, I examine a cluster of rabbinic traditions about a so-called handmaid in the house of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch and suggest that a more accurate and ethical reading would highlight her enslaved status and the circumstances of similarly enslaved women in Late Antiquity. Certainly, the sources I work with are very different from Hartman’s and Bal’s. Where I have embellished details in my fabulations, I have been careful to draw on local or regional sources, especially contemporary epigraphic and material evidence. Like Hartman, I am not claiming to “give voice to the slave” or to claim that this story really happened in this way but rather create a space for imagining the lives of the many people, perhaps most people, who have been excluded from our imagining of the past.

Uncritical Fabulations

As is well known, the excavation of a number of late antique synagogue mosaics from Byzantine Palestine, a number of which depict a zodiac with a personification of the sun at their center, challenged scholars to make sense of evidence that did not accord with prevailing understandings of Judaism, where Judaism was understood as synonymous with rabbinic Judaism. The ancient rabbis prohibited making icons, especially of a figure holding the cosmos in his hands, exactly like the Helios figure found in the synagogue mosaic shown in Figure 1.30 Much ink has been spilled trying to harmonize the evidence without displacing the rabbis,31 including by prominent historian Oded Irshai in the following story:

On an early spring morning in the fourth century C.E., the Palestinian sage Hanina entered the service in the new and small but elaborately decorated synagogue of Hamat Tiberias. On his way out, he was intercepted by a certain Pinehas, a wood merchant from the nearby village of Kifrah, who asked Rabbi Hanina how he could have set foot in a House of God whose floor was adorned with a figure clad like an emperor, holding a scepter and a bronze globe, with seven rays coming out of his head. Hanina was not entirely surprised by this query, for he had been perplexed when he discovered, some months earlier, this iconographical ornament. Now he replied to Pinehas that, in his judgment, the figure, though resembling the usual representation of the pagan sun god Helios, might be interpreted simply as a personification of the sun. On second thought, Hanina added, the imperial figure could be regarded as the personification of the Messiah, whom the liturgical poets of the day described as the “Light of Israel,” “the Eternal Sun.” And, he went on, he had heard that some of the Jews’ most bitter opponents, the Christian Preachers, faced the same dilemma concerning the adoration of the sun among their own flocks—and had come up with similar interpretations.

Figure 1.

Mosaic nave of Hammat Tiberias Synagogue, Israel, late fourth century CE. Photo by Zev Radovan, Bible Land Pictures.

Figure 1.

Mosaic nave of Hammat Tiberias Synagogue, Israel, late fourth century CE. Photo by Zev Radovan, Bible Land Pictures.

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Irshai composed this story for the influential multivolume work Cultures of the Jews: A New History (2002) and republished it in Jews in Byzantium: Dialectics of Minority and Majority Cultures (2012).32 Irshai asserts that this “fake episode encapsulates vividly the sentiments of the Jews encountering this and similar icons on the floors of some half-a-dozen synagogues in Byzantine Palestine.”33 Several features of this “fake episode” should raise red flags for readers: Irshai imagines only two male interlocutors as representing all Jews, one a rabbi and one a man with views more conservative than the rabbi’s, voicing the questions of contemporary Orthodox Jews with reference to rabbinic norms.34 These male characters do not represent figures known from the inscriptions of this synagogue. In his story, both ancient Jewish men are perplexed by the depiction of the personified sun, a standard feature of the zodiac mosaics found in late antique Galilean synagogues. Why would Jews be perplexed by a standard visual trope? Perhaps this is why Irshai characterizes this synagogue as “new,” as if it were a departure from the past (as alien then as it seems to some Jews now). The two imagined Jews discuss the figure at the center of the zodiac mosaic, likening him to the emperor or pagan sun god Helios (implying political or foreign religious connotations) while ignoring the figure’s location within a visual context that brings up astrological or astronomical knowledge, a source of wisdom shared by traditional polytheists, Christians, and Jews.

All details in a story (even a so-called fake one) have the power to convey a sense of the horizons of history by details of inclusion or omission. In several details, Irshai misrepresents the social dynamics of the age and the composition of the Jewish people. For example, the ordinary man is identified as a Jewish wood merchant and villager named Pinehas. A wood merchant is known from a synagogue in Gaza;35 here the choice of merchant as profession seems to justify this man’s being confronted with choices of city folks outside his home village and taking issue with the rabbi’s behavior. Notably, even rural Galilean synagogues contained the same zodiac imagery in Late Antiquity, so the city/village contrast isn’t relevant. The Hebrew name Pinehas (Phineas) evokes the biblical story of the eponymous zealous priest who stabbed and killed an Israelite man and Midianite woman engaged in coitus (Num 25): this name is synonymous with zealous boundary policing in Jewish tradition; it is not a common name in Late Antiquity.36 In addition, this stand-in for the ordinary Jew turns to the rabbi as the arbiter of correct practice. The Rabbi Hanina in this story quotes the synagogue poets to make meaning of the mosaic, a gesture that elides the fact that the rabbis (strikingly!) never quote the poets in their massive corpus and rarely allude to synagogue practice for precedent.

Furthermore, in this account, Christian preachers are depicted as “bitter enemies,” retrojecting sharp boundary lines between the religious communities at a time when Jewish-Christians persisted and resisted such simple categorization. Irshai begins his account by placing the synagogue mosaic in the early fourth century, which brings it into closer proximity with rabbinic documents and creates the pretext for apparent conflict.37 His essay then positions the synagogue mosaics as a reflection of Jewish society in decline in Roman Palestine, with the patriarchs and rabbis losing ground: “the cultural center of gravity shifted over time from the intellectual elite of the academy to the ‘masses’ in the synagogues.”38 The Jewish individuals among those “masses” remain unnamed, even though they did inscribe their names and ideals in the synagogues. Presented as neutral and harmless, this fake story, as he calls it, reinscribes the (male) institutional victors of the history, the cultural-religious divisions of later periods, and the violence lurking beneath the surface of men celebrated from biblical times and onward.

A better historical account is possible through critical fabulation. As I shall show in my own retellings, critical fabulation begins with close reading of the evidence and exposes implicit power dynamics, with particular sensitivity to the perspectives of underrepresented figures who have been marginalized in contemporary scholarship. Critical fabulations foregrounds their perspectives using linguistic terminology that would have made sense in their historical, social, and cultural context. To echo Stefaniw’s argument, reconstructing the experiences of marginalized people from ancient evidence in this way “is not radical, it is simply accurate,” and moreover, such critical fabulation can “build the sort of world it is worth using the past for.”39

Critical Fabulation and Material Sources

Inspired by Hartman and Stefaniw’s work, my approach seeks the perspectives and lives of marginalized Jews, especially enslaved persons, whose existence has been omitted from historical narratives. Irshai dwelled on the Helios figure at the center of the mosaic as a problem, but the mosaic floor composition as a whole, including the donor inscriptions, deserves attention. Abutting the central zodiac panel are Greek inscriptions framed in nine black squares, featuring eight donors that facilitated the creation of this mosaic: Maximus, Aboudemos, Zoilos, Julus, Kallinikos, Eiortasis, Severus, and someone whose name was obscured by later damage.40 Some of these names are Greek, some are Roman, one is Semitic, and none are Hebrew.41 At the center this panel, Severus’s inscription stands out by traversing across two squares and with its unusual content. It states, “Severus, the foster son [θρεπτός, threptos] of the illustrious patriarchs made [this mosaic], blessings upon him, Amen.”42 In case anyone wandering the main floor missed this donor inscription, in the east aisle of the synagogue another inscription similarly states, “Severus, the threptos of the very illustrious patriarchs, has completed [the work]. A blessing upon him.”43 The primary meaning of the Greek term threptos is a “slave bred in the house” or an “adopted foundling,” hence foster son or ward.44 Moshe Dothan, the archaeologist who first published the archaeological reports of the Hammat Tiberias synagogue excavations, rejected this primary meaning of household slave, and successive publications have followed suit, upholding the secondary meanings of threptos, including pupil, student, or servant.45 Certainly, the translation of threptos as student is more palatable, calling to mind rabbinic disciples rather than the prevalent conditions of slavery in late antique society. This translation also redirects our gaze to an elite perspective that is already overrepresented in historical accounts.46

According to Marijana Ricl, however, who has published several analyses of the term threptos, including a recent survey of the term in 1200 inscriptions and papyri, “threptos denotes any person, slave or free(born), nurtured by someone other than their natural parents.”47 Ricl distinguishes two major categories of threptoi: in the first are slaves and those in the process of being manumitted, while in the second are freed slaves and natural and illegitimate children, foundlings, and adopted orphans.48 As Ricl explains, threptoi was not a legal status but a relational term, describing “one’s informal standing in the family which was not altered by manumission.”49 Another apt translation is ward, which is not intended to conjure the modern state-sponsored foster system but rather to remind readers that such adopted children could be impoverished, exploited, and left as dependents indefinitely.50 Ricl found “no unambiguous cases of the term threptoi applied to disciples and apprentices.”51 If her analysis of evidence from the Greco-Roman Mediterranean applies to late antique Roman towns like Tiberias, then the more evidence-based translation is foster son or ward.

In her book on Jewish Slavery in Antiquity, Catherine Hezser surveys the evidence for Jewish children called threptoi and concludes that Severus was likely formerly enslaved, probably born to an enslaved mother, raised in the household of the patriarchs, and subsequently adopted by the patriarchal family.52 In an essay on exposed and abandoned infants (Hebrew, asufim; Latin, alumni) in Roman and rabbinic law, Hezser further explains that the term threptos “was most often used for abandoned children who could be reared as either slaves or foster children or something in between.”53 In contrast, Dothan asserted that “because of the plural which follows and connects the threptos with the Patriarchs,” the primary definition of the term (foster son) does not apply here; hence, he chose the translation pupil or disciple.54 It is indisputable, however, that households in the late antique Roman Near East—whether Jewish, Christian, or polytheistic—possessed slaves, which could be owned by multiple members of a household and passed down from one generation to the next.55 That is why, I argue, Severus relates himself to the patriarchs in the plural: perhaps he lived on the cusp of two generations of heads of household. Though others have examined the patriarchal perspective to understand the synagogue mosaics, the implications of Severus’s particular positionality for the meaning of the synagogue mosaics has not been explicated.56

If we read the inscription about Severus the threptos in light of a background of a child fostered, perhaps even raised from slave to free status, we can reorient our perspective on this synagogue to produce another view of the past, pointing to neglected historical actors in the foundational period of classical Judaism and a fuller and more accurate social and religious history. Severus the threptos is known only from the epigraphic evidence, but he is not the only enslaved person known from the patriarchal household. Using the inscriptions and the entire synagogue mosaic floor as my starting point for critical fabulation, I proceed with three perspectives: the patriarch who adopted Severus, Severus himself, and ancient visitors to this synagogue.

The Illustrious Patriarch

As the patriarch and his entourage left the Synagogue of the Council after Sabbath morning prayers, he thought of the synagogue of his foster son Severus to the south. He’d been right to manumit him when he sent away his own son for schooling in Antioch. Many upwardly mobile members of the city had joined with Severus to construct a new synagogue with a mosaic design that would surely set the standard for others. Severus had turned out to be more serious, reliable, and self-disciplined than his own son, who had abandoned his schooling with Libanius and was now gallivanting around the cities of the eastern empire. What an embarrassment! While his heir took his fortune for granted and wasted his schooling, Severus had actually paid attention all those years as a pedagogue to his son. His threptos continued to be a reliable manager of the patriarch’s estate, made every effort to honor the whole family in public works, and behaved as model citizen. He’d have to visit his foster son some Sabbath soon.

This fabulation is focused on bringing the cultural and social milieu of the freedman and foster son Severus into view. Tiberias, named for the second Roman emperor and founded in the first century CE, was both a Roman and Jewish place and long had been by the time the synagogue with its Greek, Roman, and Semitic donor inscription was dedicated. Though Aramaic was the vernacular language of Jews at this time, inscriptions in this synagogue suggest this was a multilingual and educated Jewish community: inscriptions were predominantly in Greek, with one Aramaic inscription, and there were Hebrew labels for the zodiac signs and four seasons (plus a few dashes of Hebrew in the Greek and Aramaic inscriptions, e.g., “Shalom,” “Amen Selah”).57

This story situates the synagogue of Severus as just one of many synagogues in ancient Tiberias and probably not the most prominent one. One rabbinic tradition states that 13 synagogues could be found in Tiberias (b. Ber. 8a). Rabbinic sources mention the names of a few of these in passing: the Ancient Synagogue (beit knesset ha-‘atiq); the Synagogue of the Council (knysta dbuly; note the Greek loan-word βουλή); the Synagogue of the Babylonians; and the Synagogue of the Tarsians (trsyym, or “bronze-workers” per Rashi).58 The significance of the synagogue of Severus in scholarly discourse is partially an accident of the survival of this mosaic floor, which remains the earliest example of a zodiac panel in a synagogue. It is also the most vivid and sophisticated of the zodiac mosaics to survive. I follow the consensus of archaeologists who date the synagogue to the later fourth century.59 The patriarchal family itself likely attended a more central and established synagogue in Tiberias.

Although which patriarchs Severus’s inscription refers to cannot be determined, it is useful to remember that one of those late fourth-century patriarchs was in regular correspondence with the famous Greek rhetorician and Sophist Libanius of Antioch. Libanius chaired the leading school of rhetoric in Antioch, and his surviving corpus attests to his widespread network of influence.60 In one of his letters, Libanius urges the patriarch to forgive his wayward son, who apparently had abandoned his schooling with Libanius to tour the Roman Near East.61 Libanius and the patriarch likely shared a classical education and found common ground in an increasingly Christian empire.62 Incidentally, Libanius’s letters attest to rival teachers of rhetoric (as well as one successful Sophist of his training) working in Caesarea, the Negev, and Gaza in Roman Palestine.63 As Martin Jaffee has compellingly argued, the development of rabbinic texts can be understood fruitfully in the context of ancient Greco-Roman rhetorical training, wherein a chreia (a unit of thought, a principle, or a story) was at once both its written version and multiple possibilities of oral variation.64 The members of the household of the patriarch may have learned from rabbinic sages and disciples, but they were equally if not more connected to the Roman traditionalists by education, at home in Palestine yet also in other regions of the late Roman empire.

An adopted son of the patriarch like Severus, especially if he was a home-born slave and pedagogue to the patriarch’s sons, would have been exposed to Greek and Jewish learning all his life. In Daily Life in Late Antiquity, Kristina Sessa recounts the story of Andarchius, an enslaved Gallo-Roman boy who was adopted into a senatorial family near Marseilles and absorbed the learning of his freeborn charge, probably his contemporary in age. After being manumitted, Andarchius managed to rise high above his station, even serving royalty, before being murdered.65 Andarchius’s life and death was turned into a morality tale about how the enslaved should know their place in the household.66 Several parallels between Andarchius and Severus’s lives stand out. In the late fourth century, the patriarchs held the rank of clarrisimimus and inlustrius, on par with the senatorial class.67 We know of the worldly education of one son of the patriarch: he and his enslaved pedagogue would not have limited their studies to Tiberias but likely trained elsewhere in Roman Palestine if not further afield. In contrast to Andarchius, Severus, with his obsequious dedicatory inscriptions in the synagogue, emphasized his ongoing devotion and subordination to the patriarchal household in not one but two inscriptions. Ricl’s observation that the status of a threptos carried lifelong obligations of filial piety is relevant here: “Not only was such behavior regarded as morally incumbent on them, but it was often imposed as a condition of manumission.”68 Severus’s contributions to the synagogue need to be understood in light of this privileged educational background on the one hand and more conditional status on the other.

Severus and his collaborators in the synagogue can be seen as exemplars of late antique provincial social mobility.69 The donor inscriptions of this synagogue suggest fulfillments of dedicatory vows by visitors to Hammat Tiberias in search of healing, but they stand out from other contemporary synagogue inscriptions in lacking patronymics and recognizable priestly, rabbinic, or synagogue titles. Most Greek inscriptions from late antique synagogues describe familial relations or the donor’s place of origin or occupation, or they include a title like synagogue leader or priest.70 The four titles found in this synagogue—threptos for Severus, προνούμενος and προνοητής (supervisor) for Julus, and μιζότερος (the greater or elder) for Profuturus—are unparalleled among synagogue inscriptions. If threptos is understood as foster son of the patriarchs, then Severus does follow the convention found in other synagogues of describing familial connections. The title associated with Profuturus was found in a marble epitaph in Beth She‘arim, where it describes Calliope, the freedwoman of Procopius; there, the editors understand the term to mean she was a steward or household manager for Procopius.71 Julus is ascribed two different titles that both suggest he was a supervisor of some sort. I wonder if these titles might indicate a group of men who were freedmen themselves and could not claim traditional titles of leadership or lineage. It is plausible to imagine this synagogue as the collaborative effort of upwardly mobile men who inhabited provincial Roman and Jewish identities in Tiberias. Their backgrounds need not indicate that Late Antique synagogues were a popular response to Jewish political and rabbinic decline, as Irshai suggests.72 Instead, they are indicative of creativity and innovations from heretofore unacknowledged segments of the Jewish population.

With this background in mind, I center Severus’s potential background, agency, and contributions in the next fabulation, especially as it relates to the mosaic floors. If treated as a Jewish freedman, Severus’s donor inscription brings into view another perspective: a lower-status individual who became an insider and whose vision was innovative in challenging traditional rabbinic understandings of Jewish practice. Though the normative Jew is often imagined as freeborn, male, and rabbinic, his example necessitates the consideration of other normative Jews who inhabited more complex identities: perhaps enslaved, manumitted, fostered or adopted, or of mixed lineage, at home in late antique cultural trends and living Jewishly adjacent to the patriarchs, priests, and rabbis.

Severus the Foster Son of the Patriarchs

Fate and Fortune. As Severus stood in the center of the synagogue, he thought about how God had blessed him from birth with a better fate than most slaves. His foster father, the leading patriarch, would visit this afternoon and he wanted the synagogue, especially its well-crafted mosaic floors, to sparkle. He, Profuturus, and Julus had chosen images that would speak to every visitor: the innermost panel with the most sacred symbols of the descendants of Israel and the past and future Temple; the central panel with the ordered universe of God, the most finely crafted and illustrated map of the heavenly realm and its sacred divisions yet made; and the panel by the entranceway with his and his fellows dedicators’ names, flanked by lions to illustrate their might. He could have been born and died nameless, anonymous like so many, but thanks to God’s intervention in his fate, thanks to the illustrious patriarchs, he’d left his mark. Reading his inscriptions, he hoped that the blessings that lifted him up and set him apart would continue.

This story centers Severus’s life experience and what the synagogue’s images might have meant to a classically educated Jewish freedman who happened to be raised in the household of the patriarchs, adjacent to the members of the rabbinic movement but in a different social position altogether.

Ancient writers like Cicero, Publilius Syrus, Seneca the elder, Seneca the younger, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus ascribed the condition of slavery not to biological inferiority but to fate (Latin, fortuna; Greek, tyche; Hebrew, mazal).73 Severus might have thought of his own fate in terms of Greek tyche and/or Hebrew mazal within a Jewish monotheistic framework: a Greek inscription from a synagogue mosaic in Huldah wishes good fortune (eutyche) upon its three founders.74 Rabbinic sources demonstrate that Jews from Roman Palestine to Babylonia pondered the question of influence of the constellations’ (mazalot) on the people of Israel.75 Notably, Severus’s inscription in the nave requests that “blessings [Greek, eulogia] come upon him, amen,” combining Greek and Hebrew terms.76

Severus and his collaborators commissioned the nave of the Hammat Tiberias synagogue to have three registers: the northernmost panel by the entranceways featured the nine donor inscriptions with Severus’s central among them. The southernmost register (the wall facing Jerusalem) depicted the architectural façade of a Torah shrine modeled after the Tabernacle (God’s earthly dwelling place), flanked by two menorahs, shofars, incense shovels, etrogim, and lulavim against a field of flowers. As Steven Fine has explained, this panel type is found in many later basilical synagogues (just below the apse of the synagogue), and such panels mirror and spotlight the built-in Torah shrines and the freestanding menorahs above them, much like a reflecting pool in a Roman building.77 The Torah shrine, menorahs, and vessels from the Temple cult were distinctive to Jewish art. The central panel depicted the circular zodiac with its 12 signs, labeled in Hebrew, which would have been read counterclockwise; at the zodiac’s center, the sun was personified alongside a crescent moon. The corners of the zodiac panel featured personifications (usually female) of the four seasons, each labeled and properly aligned with their three respective zodiac signs (e.g., Aries, Taurus, and Gemini are aligned with spring).78

Unfortunately, the image of Helios has overshadowed the rest of the zodiac panel and other parts of this synagogue, especially its intriguing founding members. I agree with the many scholars who have analyzed the zodiac panel variously as reflecting the interest of Jews in the divinely ordered heavens, the creation of the world in the distant past, their own destiny and salvation in the future, and the festal calendar and sacred time—no one meaning need prevail.79 My views most align with Fine’s, who writes that “the presence of Helios is nothing more prosaic than the image of the sun set within a more complex zodiac pavement.”80 Moreover, as Hezser argues, “the sun symbol, especially in connection with the biblical and traditionally Jewish motifs, seems to have been chosen wisely because it would have been able to accommodate the beliefs and sensibilities of most members of the local community and visitors to the synagogue, whatever their religious, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds.”81 My fabulation of Severus’s perspective endeavors to highlight the wide range of meanings as well as the accessibility of zodiac imagery in Late Antiquity.

In general, scholars seem more willing to admit that Jews had communal interests in the heavens than personal investment in their zodiac signs. Interest in astrology is at times read as incompatible with ancient Jewish identity, and this is largely a retrojection of modern discomforts into the past. As Nicholas Campion explains in his Cultural History of Western Astrology, following Plato’s influential conception of a moral cosmos, ancient people did not distinguish between astronomy (“the law of the stars”) and astrology (“the order/mind/logic of the stars”); rather, they understood that the movement of the stars had implications for the natural world, for the polity, and for individuals.82 The stars, properly understood, had practical implications for aligning the calendar with the seasons, establishing the dates of holy days, organizing the ideal state (cf. 12 tribes), and guiding individual behavior toward enlightenment.83

The popularity of personalized horoscopes from Hellenistic and Roman times, for ordinary people as well as emperors, suggests that ancient people sought to harness clues for navigating their own lives from the placement of the sun in the zodiac at the time of their birth (an interest that continues to this day across religious lines).84 Roman astrologers carried boards illustrated with the zodiac circle in the same format as we find in late antique synagogues (see Figure 2). This material object likely introduced the circular zodiac into the popular visual vocabulary. It may be a coincidence that the closest and earliest parallel to the Hammat Tiberias zodiac mosaic is found in a floor in Antioch.85 As previously discussed, Antioch and Tiberias were late antique cities with an educated elite linked by correspondence and patronage, and surviving letters from Late Antiquity directly link the patriarchs of Tiberias with Libanius in Antioch.

Figure 2.

Astrologer’s zodiacal boards (second century CE, found in France, likely of Egyptian origin). Courtesy of Musée Départemental d’Art Ancien et Contemporain, Épinal (Vosges, France). Photo by Guido Petruccioli, copyright Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.

Figure 2.

Astrologer’s zodiacal boards (second century CE, found in France, likely of Egyptian origin). Courtesy of Musée Départemental d’Art Ancien et Contemporain, Épinal (Vosges, France). Photo by Guido Petruccioli, copyright Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.

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Rather than insisting on one fixed meaning for the zodiac panel, the illustrated zodiac can be understood as a synecdoche of a broad field of knowledge in Late Antiquity, ranging from the philosophical pursuit of Platonic enlightenment to the practical necessity of establishing a calendar, and even to the drawing of personalized horoscopes. For an educated late antique Jew—like a man raised in the household of an illustrious patriarch—these pursuits were not in conflict with each other or with biblical Jewish heritage. Severus and others collaborated to commission these mosaics, and each of the three panels in the central floor (from the Temple imagery through the zodiac to the dedicatory inscriptions requesting life and blessings) cohered in their minds and made sense in the Jewish setting of the synagogue.

Being able to analyze the zodiac was a sign of erudition and may have been particularly important to a man of Severus’s social standing. In Petronius’s Satyricon, during the famous dinner scene, the ostentatious freedman Trimalchio presents a dish displaying the 12 signs of the zodiac and then launches into a speech about the characteristics of those born under each sign: his speech deliberately mixes data from astrological manuals with fictions, puns, and jokes that mock his ostensibly learned guests, who are too cowardly to correct their host.86 Astrology’s role in culture should not be underestimated. As Radcliffe Edmonds puts it, “astrology reached into every level of society, providing a cosmological model and a set of associated terms, entities, and images everyone could recognize.”87 Severus and the fellow donors of synagogue floor mosaics chose the image of the zodiac as their central image, alongside the distinctive Jewish temple imagery, likely knowing that it conjured a multiplicity of meanings that depended on the education of the viewer. Without their texts, we can only speculate about their intentions. I posit that Severus, as an adopted member of the most noble family in late antique Galilee, one within the orbit of the senatorial class and privileged to access Greek education, was conversant in both Jewish and Hellenistic learning. A man of that background would have seen this mosaic composition as reflecting late antique wisdom, welcoming to all visitors yet signaling pious Jewish ideals and proper filial duty toward one’s patrons. He likely considered his own fate blessed yet still dependent on a benevolent God. Notably, no rabbinic sage appears in the inscriptions of this synagogue nor in this fabulation. In the context of a story about this synagogue, there’s no reason to center the rabbis as arbiters of Jewish behavior, especially when so many others are mentioned instead. Scholarly imaginings of the sages and their hypothetical reservations about Hellenistic imagery are no less speculative than the scenario I have presented in which Jews had no reservations employing traditional Jewish imagery and popular celestial imagery to express their sense of self in Late Antiquity.

Ancient Visitors to the Hammat Tiberias Synagogue

Salome and her fellow travelers were delighted to visit Tiberias, famous for its healing waters, Roman baths, and Jewish learning. They decided to visit several of the city’s renowned synagogues. As Salome entered the first synagogue on their circuit, she felt transported with awe: the ceiling of blue and golden stars was above her, a map of the heavenly realms was beneath her feet, and the richly painted walls surrounded her. The Torah shrine at the opposite end drew her forward, but she paused at the vivid zodiac panel, lingering over the depictions of women as the seasons in the four corners. They made her recall Sukkot, Passover, and solstices observed with other daughters of Israel. An attendant welcomed her with Hebrew and Greek greetings. She responded in Aramaic and expressed her admiration for the space, so much richer than her austere synagogue back in Ein Gedi. The attendant looked gratified and gestured toward the donor inscriptions. Salome nodded in thanks and regarded the rest of the floor, thinking about how God created and steered the stars of the heavens and the earth, and the redemption of all would take place in good time.

Difficulty in imagining women as subjects alerts us to our own biases and those of the extant written records. There is no evidence for gendered spatial divisions in ancient synagogues, despite the best efforts of modern authorities and scholars to find them.88 It is not speculative to write that Jewish women existed, wandered into synagogues, visited sacred sites outside their hometowns or villages, and perceived the world with at least basic cultural knowledge.89 This short counter-story is an attempt to correct for the absence of over 50 percent of the population from historical accounts.

Jewish women traveled as much as other women in antiquity: a letter from Egypt circa 117 CE gives a glimpse of a network of women who work, employ others, and travel for business; their husbands or chaperones go unmentioned.90 One thousand years later in the same region, evidence from the Cairo Genizah attests that Jewish women traveled “for a variety of reasons and to a larger extent than we would expect.”91 Shlomo Dov Goitein explains that because families were dispersed, women often traveled unaccompanied by husbands to visit relatives and make pilgrimages to holy sites. The evidence for Christian women who toured Byzantine Palestine is well known, and yet this evidence has not been applied to imagining Jewish women’s horizons of mobility and activity in Late Antiquity.92 Judith Baskin’s survey of the evidence from medieval Egypt and Ashkenaz in “Mobility and Marriage in Two Medieval Jewish Societies” details women of all ages and marital statuses who traveled in groups, unaccompanied by male guardians, many of them indigent and driven by necessity as well as many on excursions to visit family or sacred sites.93 In European Ashkenaz, Baskin observes that women were breadwinners, traveling for business and personal reasons. She points to an example of a woman who toured cities of Europe, specifically to pray in their various synagogues.94 Salome in this story is inspired by the reality of late antique women pilgrims and their medieval successors.

In my short story, Salome paraphrases an idea found in biblical and Jewish liturgical texts that God ultimately steers the heavens and hopes for redemption for all.95 This is a basic postbiblical Jewish attitude found in many synagogue inscriptions.96 Rituals and images are powerful precisely because they hold multiple meanings within one tradition. Scholars often forget that floor mosaics were just one aspect of the experience of late antique synagogues, which had walls and ceilings too and contributed to a sensory experience that was aural, visual, and tangible.97 This fabulation aims to evoke that sensory experience and allows the imagined well-traveled Salome to reflect on differences among late antique synagogues, without needing to see them as in conflict with each other. In the Ein Gedi synagogue of the desert south, a textual list of the zodiac signs and a list of the Hebrew calendar months replaces the visual zodiac, suggesting that within a century or so of the Severus synagogue’s construction, all synagogue attendees were expected to encounter and internalize this knowledge.98 What the archaeological evidence makes clear is that Jews conceived of their monthly calendar through astrological signs, which were legible to all inhabitants of the Mediterranean world as well (see Figure 3). As Rachel Hachlili put it, “the zodiacal signs symbolize the equivalent Hebrew months, as they do also in Jewish thought, art, and literature.”99 In some synagogues, the name of the month is stated alongside the zodiac sign.100 But in other extant zodiac mosaics from late antique synagogues, the month names are not listed, suggesting Jews could recall the Hebrew month for themselves. This knowledge continued to be important among Jews into the medieval and early modern periods (see Figure 4). Astrological data and numerology were intertwined and used as predicators of fortune in daily life.101

Figure 3.

Mosaic of the zodiac sign of Scorpio and the Hebrew name of the sign accompanied by the personification and name of the Hebrew month Marheshvan in the Sepphoris Synagogue, Israel, fifth century CE. Photo by G. Laron, courtesy of Prof. Zeev Weiss, The Sepphoris Excavations, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Figure 3.

Mosaic of the zodiac sign of Scorpio and the Hebrew name of the sign accompanied by the personification and name of the Hebrew month Marheshvan in the Sepphoris Synagogue, Israel, fifth century CE. Photo by G. Laron, courtesy of Prof. Zeev Weiss, The Sepphoris Excavations, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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Figure 4.

Detail of the zodiac sign and name of Scorpio alongside the Hebrew month name of Heshvan from a Jewish marriage contract dated 1796 from Iōannina (Greece); British Museum OR 12377 A. Courtesy of the British Library.

Figure 4.

Detail of the zodiac sign and name of Scorpio alongside the Hebrew month name of Heshvan from a Jewish marriage contract dated 1796 from Iōannina (Greece); British Museum OR 12377 A. Courtesy of the British Library.

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In this critical fabulation, Salome is drawn to the feminine personifications of the seasons. Sarah Fein’s recent research on the Dura Europos synagogue highlights how the depiction of heroines in the synagogue frescoes suggests that they served important pedagogical functions intended for women viewers.102 I apply her insight to the Hammat Tiberias synagogue, pondering how they also drew the attention of women visitors. The four feminine personifications of the seasons have drawn less attention than the personified Helios in the center of the zodiac. In late antique Palestinian synagogues, these personifications were labeled specifically as seasonal equinoxes or solstices (both terms in Hebrew are tekufah, plus the corresponding month).103 The equinoxes and solstices were significant liminal days in the ancient world associated with distinctive ritual practices: they were used to calculate calendars and holy days and signal seasonal agricultural transitions.104 Two of the most important Jewish festivals (Passover and Sukkot) coincided with the spring and autumn equinoxes and began on the night of the full moon.105 Notably, the only written record we have of specifically Jewish observance of the four equinoxes and solstices is from the medieval period, where rabbis mention that old wives tales associate these four transitional days with women’s ritual celebrations. According to Elisheva Baumgarten, a popular custom on equinoxes and solstices in Ashkenaz and Sepherad was for women to abstain from drawing water and to retell stories of biblical women (particularly the tragic story of Jephthah’s daughter).106 Though we do not have a record of such practices in Late Antiquity, it is worth considering how Jewish women interpreted these synagogue images. When ancient women came to synagogues, they saw representations of feminine figures and made sense of them somehow.

The Greek name Salome (Hebrew, Shlomit, meaning peace) was chosen with care. In the first centuries of the common era, Shlomit/Salome was the second-most popular name among Jewish girls, popularized by the Jewish queen Shlomzion Alexandra, and generations of Jewish parents named their daughters after her.107 The rabbis gradually wrote that eponymous queen out of rabbinic traditions,108 even as the gospels vilified her great-granddaughter Salome, and 18th and 19th century writers made the name Salome synonymous with transgressive femininity.109 As such, Salome is a suitable stand-in for the challenges of recovering the history of Jewish women in particular and with recovering women’s history in general.

Through these critical fabulations, I have explored three perspectives on the Hammat Tiberias synagogue, each grounded in surviving sources and aligned with the ancient social and cultural context. The first makes explicit the acculturated Jewish elite households of the patriarchs that adopted enslaved children like Severus; the second centers Severus as a manumitted dependent as well as the founder of the synagogue; and the third foregrounds Jewish women and their interpretation of the synagogue’s program. Taken together, these fabulations can reorient our view of late antique Jewish society, expanding the category of the normative Jew and our imagination of the past.

Saidiya Hartman’s attention to enslaved girls mentioned in the written record prompted my rethinking of several traditions found in the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds about an anonymous handmaid in the household of the Rabbi (Judah the Patriarch, ca. 200 CE). Over 25 years ago, Tal Ilan recounted some of these traditions, observing that the handmaid of the patriarch “is depicted as the prototypical, perfect maidservant for a rabbinic sage” and “is mentioned with him more often than his wife.”110 This individual is termed shifḥah in the Palestinian Talmud and shifḥah or ammeta in the Babylonian Talmud. Often translated as maidservant, shifḥah is most famously the term used for Hagar in Genesis 16. While traditional biblical commentators quibble about how to translate shifḥah (maidservant, handmaid, or concubine), womanist and Black feminist scholars like Wilda Gafney have emphasized how the shifḥah Hagar was “on the underside of all of the power curves in operation at that time … female, foreign, enslaved” (emphasis added).111 In rabbinic studies, Ilan and Hezser have drawn out the enslaved connotations of such terms as maidservant and handmaid.112 As with threptos, a more palatable translation was chosen over a more accurate one that reflects the ubiquity of enslavement in antiquity.

Altogether, five rabbinic traditions portray an anonymous servile woman from vulnerable youth to venerable old age: a person who spent her life serving the patriarchal household was likely enslaved. The English translation of handmaid or servant obscures the reality of slavery in Jewish societies, especially among the urban elite during the foundational period of classical Judaism.113 Slavery was as common among Jews as it was among the rest of the people of the Mediterranean world from antiquity to modernity.114 As Hezser points out, “the triad ‘women, slaves, and minors’” was not just a “theoretical construct” for the sages: this category was common precisely because it depicted the subordinate familial relationships of the free male “Israelite” in the rabbinic movement.115 In highlighting that shifḥah/ammeta was an enslaved woman, I align my study with the new consensus in Roman history and classical studies that acknowledges the prevailing and brutal institution of slavery among all Mediterranean peoples, including urban Jews in Roman Palestine.116

Though it is impossible to know whether the scattered traditions refer to one and the same enslaved person or several women, bringing these stories together foregrounds marginalized lives omitted from traditional historical accounts and our imagination of the past. The rabbinic redactors recorded and preserved these stories about an enslaved handmaid, yet modern scholars have paid little attention to them. To my knowledge, these stories have never been gathered together.117 For the sake of brevity, I summarize these traditions before dwelling on the example most conducive to modeling better historiographic practice.

Both the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds contain a tradition about this enslaved woman’s knowledge of esoteric Hebrew terms.118 Evidently, very soon after the Mishnah’s composition, some disciples of the nascent rabbinic movement were unsure about some of its terms. Four examples illustrate the sages listening to this shifḥa/ammeta daily speech and her use of the terms in context to grasp their meanings and thereafter deduce halakhah, proper rabbinic practice. These examples are an important reminder that thinking of learnedness as inseparable from writing or literacy is misguided, especially in premodernity: a handmaid in the household of Judah the Patriarch could have a greater grasp of Hebrew vocabulary than the most elite educated sages who came to study in the household of her owner.

Elsewhere, in a discussion about people’s faculties in their elder years, a short tradition relates that there was an ammeta in the house of Rabbi who was 92 and still tasted the food cooking in the hot pots of the kitchen.119 This tradition reminds us of the lifelong servitude of enslaved or freed individuals who remain tied to their household for life. A long tradition preserved in the Babylonian Talmud relates to the death of Rabbi: as long as his disciples prayed for him, he could not pass on.120 The ammeta at first prayed (in Hebrew) that the desires of those below (the disciples) prevail over the will of those above (the angels) so that Rabbi would not die. But seeing how much Rabbi suffered, she changed her mind and altered her prayer, praying that the angels prevail over the disciples (“May it be His will that those above prevail over those below”). The quotation of a woman’s Hebrew prayer in the midst of this Aramaic story is striking, even if we presume that it is ahistorical and that later redactors attributed this statement to her. According to the story, Rabbi lingered at death’s door until this enslaved handmaid threw a ceramic pitcher from the roof, interrupting the disciples’ prayer and allowing him to pass on. She plays a pivotal role in the ending of Rabbi’s life, beyond the usual association of women with mourning, dirges, and other funeral practices.

The tradition that I wish to focus on here, however, features this same enslaved handmaid at a most disempowered and vulnerable moment, when she is threatened with rape in the household of Judah the Patriarch. This story probably carries some historical kernel—such traumatic events were common in late antique slaveholding societies. Smith observes, “Trauma in most studies is a historical category almost exclusively applied to white men—their experiences of war, of the Holocaust … even of such intangible shocks as ‘modernity.’ Most historians refuse to concede that the rapes, beatings, incest, and other acts of violence perpetrated on racial minorities and women have been traumatic, because the abuse is so usual.”121 With this critical fabulation, I wish to correct this historiographic malpractice: enslaved women’s trauma belong in our historical accounts, especially if they challenge idealized foundational moments of religious history.122

To be clear, like Hartman, I am not trying to recover the voices of ancient enslaved women—I admit the impossibility of such an act. What I can do as a scholar is recount this story to show that mundane acts of sexual violence are part of religious history. Centering such stories enables a more incisive critique of gendered relations at a formative stage of Jewish society and Judaism. I begin with the authorized and transmitted rabbinic tradition about the slave in the household, offer a retelling from the enslaved woman’s perspective, and then retell the tradition from the perspective of adjacent enslaved women who likely transmitted such stories themselves.

The Authorized Tradition: y. Berakhot 3.4 (6c)

It happened that a man came to copulate [lhzqq] with the slave [shifḥah] of Rabbi.

She said to him: “If my mistress doesn’t immerse, I do not immerse.”

He said to her: “Aren’t you like a beast?”

She said to him: “And haven’t you heard that whoever copulates with a beast is stoned? As it is said: Anyone lying with a beast shall be put to death” (Exod 22.18).

Traditional scholars of rabbinics would state that this Hebrew story (maaseh) must be placed in the context of a rabbinic norms regarding ritual immersion and purification before sexual relations. A feminist cultural historian might observe that this is a story about the attempted rape of an enslaved woman and that the rabbinic attitude to it is ambiguous. Although the Hebrew word for rape is not used, the unequal power dynamics between the shifḥah and the aggressor, as well as her resistance, make it evident that he threatens her with sexual assault. While the reasons for the circulation of this story are debatable, the redactors of this section of the Talmud transmitted this story because it served their legal argument.

The regulations for purifications from discharges (for men and women) described in Leviticus 15 are the immediate background of this rabbinic discussion. To illustrate the idea that requirements for ritual immersion can serve as a deterrent to transgression, the redactors of the Talmud offer two illustrative stories, including the previous one, about the enslaved handmaid in the house of the patriarch. The first story features a vineyard watchman and a married woman who want to engage in sex: by the time they find a reclusive spot to immerse, the approach of others interrupts their plans, and thus the sin of adultery is averted. In the second story, quoted here, the enslaved woman argues with the potential transgressor about her status, he rejects her reasoning, and she has the final word, implying either that she shamed him out of his desire or that the argument between these two figures delays his transgression long enough that others stumble upon them and prevent sexual relations from taking place. In the context of the final redacted sugya, the rabbinic storytellers were not concerned with the fate of the woman in this story. Rather, they were focused on upholding an ideal that preoccupation with ritual immersion would undermine impulsive sexual acts. It’s possible that the redactors found this story humorous and convenient: a low-status woman bests a man in argumentation about purity laws, not by challenging behavioral norms but only by diminishing herself. In her analysis of this story, Ilan reads the maidservant’s retort as an example of veiled rabbinic self-criticism attributed to a nonthreatening party.123

Analyzing this story as a reflection of the attitudes of late antique rabbis can contribute to fuller historical accounts of the lived experience of enslaved and free women in Jewish households. Gail Labovitz observes the slippage in rabbinic language on acquiring slaves and acquiring wives; she notes that in rabbinic sources, enslaved women were perceived as sexually available “ownerless property” where paradoxically, “‘the ownerless property’ is in fact owned property…. The enslaved woman has no right to claim rape or coercion, whereas the free wife’s status as a possession should save her from exploitation.”124 Enslaved women lacked the self-possession to control their bodies and deny others access to them. In late antique Jewish society, as in the rest of the Roman world, enslaved women lacked the standing to protect themselves or to express their will, let alone any notion of consent.125 As Labovitz notes regarding this story of the shifḥah, the “ideal enslaved woman protects her virtue at the cost of her dignity.”126 Having no self-possession, the enslaved woman within the cultural and social world of the rabbis cannot directly refuse the attentions of this aggressor: she has to maneuver within patriarchal norms in order convince the man on his own terms that she is unavailable. Regardless of whether this conversation between an enslaved woman and a transgressor ever took place, it reveals important social information from the late antique Mediterranean, with resonances that continue uninterrupted into modernity. Other rabbinic sources reveal that sexual exploitation in some rabbinic households was well known and prompted no intervention.127 No society, community, movement, or institution is immune from the abuse and exploitation that derives from ingrained hierarchical and gendered inequalities.

Critical Fabulation and the Enslaved Perspective

Retelling the narrative in the enslaved individual’s perspective conjures a very different tone: a scene of near sexual assault and rape to which all enslaved people were vulnerable.

As soon as Calliope heard who the visitor was, she retreated deep into the house to hide. But the house was quiet and Yose found her in one of the storerooms. When she heard his footsteps at the threshold behind her, she said as loudly as she could, “What do you want? I’m busy and my mistress will be home soon.”

“She’s not here now. No one is here to interrupt us.”

She turned to face him and lifted her eyes to his. “Stay away from me. I’m in impurity.”

He said “You’re like a beast; your status is irrelevant.”

And she knew not where the answer came from when she said, “And haven’t you heard that if a man lies with a beast, he will be stoned to death?”

A snort from beyond the storeroom saved her—the cook approached and called out, “Your mistress is home. Rush off to her, won’t you?”

In this retelling, it is clear that the enslaved woman is powerless in this household and vulnerable to abuse. As Bal observed long ago, stories featuring gendered violence are concerned with processing social and gendered strife; nowadays we can acknowledge that such stories may also serve to narratively justify and normalize sexual violence.128 Ignoring that reality, intellectually abstracting from it, or redirecting attention to more “objective matters” like the purification rituals, the law, or some genderless realm is no longer intellectually defensible.129 This redirection is deeply unethical, implicitly abandoning victims and siding with the stories of aggressors; it downplays sexual violence in primary sources and teaches people to be silent in the face of instances of sexual violence in their own lives. More ethical historiography produces more inclusive and more accurate representations of the past and simultaneously enables a different present, one with subjects able to recognize and name their abuse, and hopefully change norms of social behavior. This is why I dwell on the potential violence of this story and the power dynamics it naturalizes.

In the original rabbinic text, this enslaved person and the aggressor are anonymous. Naming these figures reminds us of missing social information as well as what has been recovered about marginalized enslaved people from Late Antiquity: the names of a few Jewish individuals described as slaves, freedmen, or freedwomen are known from the literary and epigraphic record of the Roman and late antique Mediterranean: most famously, the empress Livia owned a Jewish slave named Acme.130 I chose the name Calliope because of the Greek epitaph from the late antique Jewish cemetery in Beth She‘arim (famous as Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi’s final resting place) that commemorates Calliope the freedwoman of Procopius; Ilan translates her inscription as the “noble freed slave.”131 In Greek mythology, Calliope was the muse associated with eloquence and poetry, an ironic name for an enslaved woman (much like Venus, Dido, and others that Hartman points to) but also one that happens to suit the eloquent protagonist of this story.132

I do not claim that Calliope was the anonymous shifḥah of the story, nor that we can recover what made the ancient Calliope a distinguished freedwoman, but rather that the existence of Jewish slaves and freedwomen like her is worth restoring to the historical imagination. For the aggressor, I used the name Yose to call attention to Yose son of Zenobia, who commissioned an exceptionally aggressive magical amulet and sought God and the angels’ support in making the inhabitants of his entire town “be suppressed and broken and fallen” before him.133 The coercive nature of many relationships in antiquity can be seen in the common surviving examples of so-called erotic or love magic amulets, which, despite stereotypes to the contrary, were more often commissioned by men than women.134

In my fabulation, it is implied that these two figures know each other. I add a spatial dimension to this story that reflects the layout of elite Roman houses: public at their entranceway to the street and the most isolated with storerooms in the back. If a man had the audacity to avail himself of a slave in the household of the patriarch, he must have felt entitled to the bodies and properties of others and was confident he could elude detection or accountability. He may have been related to the patriarch’s family by kinship bonds. Most sexual assaults today are committed not by strangers but by acquaintances who can manipulate their targets into isolated social, physical, or financial circumstances. Though this fabulation characterizes Calliope as physically isolated, I must acknowledge that this need not have been the case; bystanders may not have intervened to help her.135 As Orlando Patterson explains, an enslaved person inherently had “no independent social or legal existence and no honor to defend, because he was conceived of as a deracinated, socially dead person.”136

In this account, Calliope does not cite her mistress’s practice first but tries to discourage attention by stating that her mistress will be home soon (highlighting her standing in the house with the mistress, mitigating her isolation). Secondly, she declares she is in a state of impurity. Hezser observes that according to rabbinic halakhah, even non-Jewish slave women were required to ritually immerse “as a prerequisite for using them in Jewish households.”137 Still, claiming the status of impurity to avoid sexual relations was the privilege of the free and observant Jewish wife: an enslaved woman could imitate such ritualized language and behavior, but she could not use this status to protect herself.138 That is why Yose could dismiss her objection with the savage statement comparing her to a beast. Calliope responds by paraphrasing the biblical verse prohibiting bestiality and emphasizing his culpability. Just as rabbinic disciples learned from overhearing an enslaved woman speak, so household slaves might have learned from overhearing disciples’ discussions.

In this retelling, it is not Calliope’s self-diminishing words that save her but the intervention of another. The rabbinic story hinted at this resolution but left it unstated. My retelling suggests the significance of bystander intervention as a de-escalation tactic, while also aiming to convey the omnipresence of danger in the enslaved person’s experience, even in idealized rabbinic households. In the next and final fabulation, I wish to dwell on the circles of people who preserved this story beyond the rabbinic redactors. Though this story reaches us solely through the Palestinian Talmud, I imagine such stories of self-preservation circulated among enslaved women and indirectly reached the hearing of the sages, who incorporated these stories into their discussions and into the Talmud for their own ends.

Critical Fabulation and Women’s Oral Traditions

A group of women were laundering clothes by a creek on the outskirts of Sepphoris.

“Did you hear Yose sought out Calliope in the house of Rabbi?”

“No! He’s the worst. What happened? Is she alright?”

“Thank God and the angels, she’s well. I heard the story from our cook who heard it from the Rabbi’s cook: Calli tried to avoid him by hiding in a storeroom, and when he found her, she told him she was in impurity.”

Nearby, Judith, the wife of Rabbi Hiyya, was listening. She remembered seeing that slave girl accompanying Rabbi’s wife when she went to immerse in the mikveh.

“I doubt that impurity was enough to deter a man like Yose.”

“He said she was like a beast and not like a daughter of Israel whose purity mattered. So Calli said to him, ‘Don’t you know that whoever lies with a beast will be stoned to death?’ And that’s when Rabbi’s cook arrived and called her away.”

“Ha! God’s angels were with her.”

Judith decided to memorize the story to share with her husband.

This retelling takes us out of the all-male rabbinic study room and invokes an alternate space for sharing stories. It seems reasonable to imagine that eventually all of these stories about an exceptional enslaved woman circulated among women of similar status. Among them, perhaps she was heroic and her name well known. Only in transmission was her name erased or lost.

I used the setting of laundering because rabbinic traditions gender laundering as a wife’s obligation and the spaces of doing laundry as ones where men should not intrude, lest they violate “the honor of the daughters of Israel.”139 This retelling hypothesizes that there were at least two layers of transmission before rabbinic redaction: circulation among enslaved people and stories that circulated between enslaved and free women. I imagine that disciples of the rabbinic movement might have heard such stories from their wives before sharing it in their spaces of study. The original rabbinic story is very roundabout in claiming that the enslaved girl immerses and purifies: “if my mistress doesn’t immerse, I do not immerse,” she says, placing the mistress as the subject of purity practices, and leaving her own state of menstrual impurity implicit. This speech may reflect a social reality in which enslaved women who abided by purity practices could only go purify when their mistresses did. Alternatively, I posit this story was passed from lower-status women through rabbinic wives and slaveholders to their husbands in the rabbinic movement. In other words, it was gossip that was elevated to illustrate halakhah. Perhaps in transmission through rabbinic wives, the emphasis on Rabbi’s wife (and pious wives’ behavior in general) was added.

Most rabbinic wives are unnamed in surviving texts: Judith, the wife of Rabbi Hiyya, a disciple of Rabbi Judah the patriarch, is one of the few exceptions, so I drew her in here. Among contemporary feminist scholars and storytellers, the rabbinic Judith is known for maneuvering within and testing rabbinic norms.140 The fact that this Judith shares her name with the apocryphal heroine Judith, excluded from the sacred canon yet enduring in Jewish oral traditions, again alludes to how little we know about Jewish women’s storytelling traditions in antiquity. Her actions in my fabulation are limited to relating a story she overhears to her husband. Hezser observes that in Jewish families, enslaved women’s sexual and domestic obligations would have blurred the boundaries between free-status wives and enslaved women, leading to relationships “ranging from solidarity to jealousy.”141 Sadly, most evidence suggests that wives saw enslaved women as a threat to their status within the household (see the story of Sarah and Hagar in Gen 21.8–21, where Sarah expels Hagar into the wilderness). Free married women were more likely to collaborate with their husbands in the disciplining of household slaves.142 Evidence from the Cairo Genizah demonstrates that sexual relations with enslaved women prevailed through the medieval period, leading to complex and fraught dynamics within Jewish households.143

I began this section with the authorized tradition that centers rabbinic halakhah. Critical fabulation offers the possibility of retelling this tradition from the perspective of the enslaved handmaid and others around her. These traditions about unnamed enslaved woman, well-versed in Hebrew language, prayer, and practice, trouble our accounts of who could be imagined producing and contributing to Jewish culture, norms, and foundational texts in Late Antiquity.

It seems fitting to share a final fascinating story about the shifḥah in the house of Rabbi: according to a Babylonian Talmudic tradition, she once excommunicated a man in the street who was striking his adult son, and the sages accepted her excommunication decree for three years.144 Such a story accords well with what we know of slaves in elite Roman households, who could exercise a great deal of power: evidently, this principle held true even if the slaves in question were women.145 This tradition reveals that there was a time when the sages accepted the excommunication decrees of women, even enslaved ones. The survival of these five disparate stories is remarkable and suggests that, at times, modern scholars may be more predisposed to exclude Jewish women’s contributions to ancient Judaism than the sages themselves were.

I began this essay by lamenting the inertia of the scholarly narratives that shape paradigmatic understandings of Jewish history and imagine Jewish authority as passing from priests to rabbis (to the exclusion of all others). I placed these narratives in the context of deeply gendered historiographic practices that Smith and Stefaniw have described so compellingly in their critiques of the historical profession. I proposed that more accurate historical accounts would highlight local and regional diversity, non-elite Jewish perspectives, ritual-magical and liturgical evidence, and localized leadership that does not mirror the institutional structures that are familiar today. Heeding Stefaniw’s call for counternarratives and Hartman’s exemplary work, I offer critical fabulations centered on two people of ambiguous status in the household of the late antique Jewish patriarchs.

With my critical fabulations on Severus, I sought to displace the traditional view of the idealized late antique Jew: Severus the fostered son, perhaps a formerly enslaved member of the patriarch’s household, was also the commissioner of a spectacular synagogue mosaic featuring temple imagery, the zodiac, and his aspirations—he was as Jewish as the rabbinic disciples he passed on the street or interacted with in the house of the patriarchs. Astrology was also a form of Jewish wisdom in Late Antiquity. Ancient astrological manuals convey significant social and cultural data about non-elite individuals that deserve more attention: for example, ancient astrologers believed that time of birth predicted gendered behavior and sexual orientation.146 Astrological manuals are one of the few sources of evidence that speaks to the presence of people of various genders and sexualities in the Roman world, who are often omitted from scholarly historical accounts.

My retellings of the tradition of the shifḥah in the house of Rabbi sought to highlight stories about gendered strife within the idealized Jewish past, to nuance our accounts of the transmission of rabbinic knowledge, and to affirm the role of enslaved, freed, and free women in generating what survives of rabbinic cultural production. Such critical fabulations can call attention to silences and gaps in the historical record and to the silences and silencing that are intrinsic to the process of historical production.147 Restoring figures like Severus the foster son and the anonymous enslaved woman to the foundations of classical Judaism forces us to grapple with the mechanics of historical production and to question why such figures were omitted (intentionally or not) in the first place. More inclusive accounts of history establish precedents for observing the abundant medieval evidence of fostered and adopted individuals, including foreign and formerly enslaved people by Jewish households in the early modern era.148 Better historiography correlates with more accurate and inclusive historical accounts, which in turn enable recognition of continuities into the medieval period and modernity and have real repercussions for constructing societal norms within and outside the academy.

My thanks to the editors of the Studies in Late Antiquity and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful and generous feedback, especially in the lingering late days of the pandemic. This article benefited from the insights and feedback of many colleagues who were fellows with me at the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington in 2021–22. Special thanks to Simpson Center director Kathleen Woodward for her support, to Sarah Levin-Richardson for sharing her essays on critical fabulation prepublication, and to Sarit Kattan Gribetz for encouraging this work from its earliest stages.


Recounted most recently in John Efron, Steven Weitzman, and Matthias Lehmann, The Jews: A History (Upper Saddle River: Routledge, 2009).


Talya Fishman, Becoming the People of the Talmud (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).


Eve Krakowski, “Maimonides’ Menstrual Reform in Egypt,” Jewish Quarterly Review 110, no. 2 (2020): 245–89.


The last provocative and much discussed alternate history that was written in the field of classical Judaism was Seth Schwartz’s Imperialism and Jewish Society: 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). Schwartz offered another institutionally-oriented history but credited successive external imperial powers with empowering select Jewish leaders and thus shaping Jewish society and Judaism through the ages.


See Bernadette Brooten, Women’s Leadership in the Ancient Synagogue (Chico: Scholars Press, 1982), which surveys inscriptions of Jewish women with many different leadership titles. Among others, Brooten discusses a burial inscription from Venosa, Italy, of Alexsanria the pateressa (female father, or fatheress). To my knowledge, this person whose title defies the gender binary has received no further attention. See transcription in David Noy, Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 84 no. 63. Ross Shepherd Kraemer explains the prominence of women leaders (including the pateressa) as evidence of an adaptive strategy to male absence in the public domain in The Mediterranean Diaspora in Late Antiquity: What Christianity Cost the Jews (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 363–70.


See discussion of this issue in Sara Parks, “‘The Brooten Phenomenon’: Moving Women from the Margins in Second-Temple and New Testament Scholarship,” The Bible & Critical Theory 15, no. 1 (2019): 46–64. Brooten’s research on synagogues, Tal Ilan’s many volumes on women in Second Temple and rabbinic literature, and others’ work remain absent from the curricula of Jewish studies at the undergraduate and graduate level, meaning that almost every scholar with feminist inclinations must train themselves and has difficulty building on the work of their predecessors.


Bonnie Smith, The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).


Smith, Gender of History, esp. Chapter 5: “Men and Facts,” 131.


Smith, 150.


Smith, 13.


Blossom Stefaniw, “Feminist Historiography and Uses of the Past,” Studies in Late Antiquity 4, no. 3 (2020): 260–83.


Stefaniw, “Feminist Historiography,” 282.


Jonathan Hatter, “Slavery and the Enslaved in the Roman World, the Jewish World, and the Synoptic Gospels,” Currents in Biblical Research 20, no. 1 (2021): 97–127, esp. 111. Ilan and Hezser are listed among the notable exceptions; Bernadette Brooten deserves mention, too. See Brooten, ed., Beyond Slavery: Overcoming Its Religious and Sexual Legacies (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010). More recently, see Hezser, “What Was Jewish about Jewish Slavery in Late Antiquity,” in Slavery in the Late Antique World, 150–700 CE, ed. Chris De Wet, Maijastina Kahlos, and Ville Vuolanto (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022), 129–48.


The history and demographics of the profession of Jewish studies in the US is discussed in Shaul Magid, “As Transition Looms, Jewish Studies Is Mired in Controversy,” Religion Dispatches, 11 May 2021,


See Gilah Kletenik and Rafael Rachel Neis, “What’s the Matter with Jewish Studies? Sexism, Harassment, and Neoliberalism for Starters,” Religion Dispatches, 19 April 2021, See also their follow up essay: “Decolonizing Jewish Studies Part II: A Response to the Backlash,” Religion Dispatches, 5 May 2021,


Stefaniw, “Feminist Historiography,” 263.


Stefaniw, 282.


Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (2008): 2.


Hartman, “Venus,” 11.


Hartman, 12.


See A Mieke Bal Reader (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).


Mieke Bal, Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 5, 9. Summarized in Mieke Bal, “Dealing/With/Women: Daughters in the Book of Judges,” in Women in the Hebrew Bible (New York: Routledge, 1999), 317–33.


Bal, Death and Dissymmetry.


Mika Ahuvia and Sarit Kattan Gribetz, “The Daughters of Israel: An Analysis of the Term in Late Ancient Jewish Sources,” Jewish Quarterly Review 108, no. 1 (2018): 1–27.


Deborah Kamen and Sarah Levin-Richardson, “Epigraphy and Critical Fabulation: Imagining Narratives of Greco-Roman Sexual Slavery,” in Dynamic Epigraphy: New Approaches to Inscriptions, ed. Eleri Cousins (Havertown: Oxbow Books, 2022), 201–21.


Robert Kraft, “Para-mania: Beside, Before, and Beyond Bible Studies,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126, no. 1 (2007): 1–27, esp. 23. Thanks to Eva Mroczek for directing me to this source.


Kraft, “Para-mania,” 22.


Kraft, 23.


Two scholars of ancient Judaism appended short stories to their traditional monographs: Philip Esler, Babatha’s Orchard: The Yadin Papyri and an Ancient Jewish Family Tale Retold (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); Hagith Sivan, Jewish Childhood in the Roman World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018). Laury Silvers withdrew from academia and used her training to write historical mysteries set in Medieval Muslim lands (see The Sufi Mysteries Quartet, 2019–21). Two other important feminist works of scholarly storytelling predate Kraft’s address: Ruth Calderon, Hashuk. Habayit. Halev (Jerusalem: Keter, 2001), published in English as A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales, trans. Ilana Kurshan (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2014), and Athalya Brenner, I Am…: Biblical Women Tell Their Own Stories (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005).


According to m. ‘Abod. Zar. 3.1, “All images are prohibited, because they are worshipped [at least] once a year, according to Rabbi Meir. And the Sages say: only that which has in its hand a stick [e.g., a scepter], or a bird, or an orb is prohibited. Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel says: Anything that has anything in its hand [is prohibited].” According to y. ‘Abod. Zar. 3.3 (42d), “In the days of Rabbi Yohanan [third century CE], they [Jews] began to paint on the walls and they [the sages] did not stop them.”


For example, see Stuart Miller, “‘Epigraphical’ Rabbis, Helios, and Psalm 19: Were the Synagogues of Archeology and the Synagogues of the Sages One and the Same?” Jewish Quarterly Review 94, no. 1 (2004): 27–76.


Oded Irshai, “Confronting a Christian Empire: Jewish Culture in the World of Byzantium,” in Cultures of the Jews: A New History, ed. David Biale (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 181–222; adapted and reprinted as “Confronting a Christian Empire: Jewish Life and Culture in the World of Early Byzantium,” in Jews in Byzantium: Dialectics of Minority and Majority Cultures, ed. Robert Bonfil, Oded Irshai, Guy G. Stroumsa, and Rina Talgam (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 17–64.


Irshai, “Confronting a Christian Empire,” 17.


Jewish Orthodox extremists have targeted and defaced this site, perceiving archaeological excavations as intrusion upon the sanctity of “rabbinic graves”; this site became a stand-in for violence against secular archaeologists working for the state. See Michal Shmulovich, “Vandals Cause ‘Irreparable Damage’ to 1,600-year-old Mosaics in Tiberias Synagogue,” Times of Israel, 29 May 2012,; also Steven Fine, “The Jewish Helios: A Modest Proposal Regarding the Sun God and the Zodiac on Late Antique Synagogue Mosaics,” in Art, History, and the Historiography of Judaism in Roman Antiquity (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 161–62.


Rachel Hachlili, Ancient Synagogues—Archaeology and Art: New Discoveries and Current Research (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 520.


At least, it does not make the top twenty most popular Jewish male names in Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity: Part II: Palestine 200–650, Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 148 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 47; Ilan’s entry for Pinehas lists appearances of the name in the rabbinic corpus, among Samaritans, and in its Greek version in diaspora synagogue inscriptions (161).


The original excavator, Moshe Dothan, in the 1980s suggested a date “in the last decades of the third and first quarter of the fourth centuries CE.” See Dothan, Hammath Tiberias: Early Synagogues and the Hellenistic and Roman Remains (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1983), 52. More recently archaeologists have pushed the date into the late fourth and fifth centuries (see my note 59).


Irshai, “Confronting a Christian Empire,” 19.


Stefaniw, “Feminist Historiography,” 278.


Lea Roth-Gerson, The Greek Inscriptions from the Synagogues in Eretz-Israel (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi, 1987), 65. Dothan (Hammath Tiberias, 55) reconstructs the eighth damaged inscription as Profuturus, a name that also appears in a separate inscription elsewhere in the synagogue.


Roth-Gerson, Greek Inscriptions, 65–66. Six of these donor inscriptions claim to fulfill a vow, and five of these end with the unusual benediction, “may he live.” Roth-Gerson connected these formulas to the healing hot springs of this town and the vows of people seeking healing.


My translation of Roth-Gerson’s transcription of the Greek in Greek Inscriptions, 65 (no. 16). I have chosen the term foster son based on the discussion in the section “Slaves or Foster-Children” in Catherine Hezser, Jewish Slavery in Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 129–39.


This is Hezser’s translation in Jewish Slavery, 103. Alongside Severus, the donor Julus is also singled out, but less so than Severus (discussed ahead).


See θρεπτός in Henry Liddell, Henry Jones, and Robert Scott, The Online Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon (Medford: Perseus Digital Library, 2011). Kamen and Richard-Levinson’s essay also analyzes a Greek inscription about a threpta, an enslaved girl adopted by the household and conditionally promised manumission in exchange for her continued service to the family; they use the term fosterling in “Epigraphy and Critical Fabulation,” 205, 210. John Eastburn Boswell reads threptos as the Greek equivalent for expositus, writing that these were “abandoned children brought up in foster homes” in “Expositio and Oblatio: The Abandonment of Children and the Ancient and Medieval Family,” American Historical Review 89, no. 1 (1984): 15.


Dothan, Hammath Tiberias, 57. After identifying Severus as a pupil, Roth-Gerson (Greek Inscriptions, 68, 72) does acknowledge that he could also have been a gentile slave in the household of the patriarchs who developed a positive attitude toward Judaism.


For example, see Lee I. Levine, who translates threptos as “disciple” or “protégé” of the patriarchs and focuses on the patriarchs for the rest of his analysis in “Contextualizing Jewish Art: The Synagogues at Hammat Tiberias and Sepphoris,” in Jewish Culture and Society under the Christian Roman Empire, ed. Richard Kalmin and Seth Schwartz (Leuven: Peeters, 2003), 91–132, esp. 100.


Marijana Ricl, “Legal and Social Status of threptoi and Related Categories in Narrative and Documentary Sources,” in From Hellenism to Islam: Cultural and Linguistic Change in the Roman Near East, ed. Hannah M. Cotton, Robert G. Hoyland, Jonathan J. Price, and David J. Wasserstein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 94.


Ricl, “Legal and Social Status,” 96, 98.


Ricl, 102.


I thank the anonymous reviewer who suggested the term ward (i.e., a dependent minor) to avoid the anachronism of foster child. They rightly noted that the connotations of ward are fitting here (though also applicable to foster children). A student who grew up in foster care once asked me if there was evidence of foster children in ancient sources: they made me more sensitive to the ancient evidence for threptoi and, in turn, I hope to make ancient parallels to their status more recognizable and widely known.


Ricl, “Legal and Social Status,” 104. In private communication, Ricl emphasized that the term threptos must be studied in its local regional context and advised me to pay attention to the absence of patronymics (see discussion of titles in synagogues ahead and notes 70–71).


Hezser, Jewish Slavery, 53, 103; the section “Slaves or Foster-Children,” 129–39, surveys Jewish children referred to as threptoi in the Diaspora; and on p. 165, Hezser notes two other references to threptoi, from epitaphs in Syria-Palestine, that also suggest familial relations.


Hezser, “The Exposure and Sale of Infants in Rabbinic and Roman Law,” in Jewish Studies between the Disciplines: Papers in Honor of Peter Schäfer on the Occasion of His 60th Birthday, ed. Klaus Herrmann, Margarete Schlüter, and Giuseppe Veltri (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 17.


Dothan, Hammath Tiberias, 57.


On slaves and freedmen describing themselves in relationship to plural owners, see Paul R. Carey Weaver, “Status Indication,” in Familia Caesaris: A Social Study of the Emperor’s Freedmen and Slaves (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), esp. 62–63. On joint ownership of slaves within households, see Jonathan Edmondson, “Slavery and the Roman Family,” in The Cambridge World History of Slavery, ed. Keith Bradly and Paul Cartledge, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 344. For joint-holding of slaves in Jewish contexts, see m. Pesaḥ. 8.1, discussed by Hezser, Jewish Slavery, 105–10.


Levine (“Contextualizing Jewish Art,” 102) also emphasizes the Greek acculturation of the patriarchal circles and their intellectual connections in order to explain the “strikingly high quality of the Tiberian synagogue mosaics.”


See Roth-Gerson, Greek Inscriptions, 65–75. The Aramaic inscription commends anyone donating to this holy place (atrh qdyšh); see Dothan, Hammath Tiberias, 53–54, plates 21.1, 35.3.


Summarized by Roth-Gerson, Greek Inscriptions, 75.


Jodi Magness closely reviews the numismatic, ceramic, and other material to propose a fourth- or fifth-century construction date for the Severus phase of the synagogue and notes that this phase was in use until 475 CE; see Magness, “Heaven on Earth: Helios and the Zodiac Cycle in Ancient Palestinian Synagogues,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 59 (2005): 1–52, esp. 13. The various proposed dates are summarized in Hachlili, Ancient Synagogues, 598.


Rafaella Criboire, The School of Libanius in Late Antique Antioch (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).


See Libanius, Ep. 1098 (Wolf 1018), in Jews and Christians in Antioch in the First Four Centuries of the Common Era, ed. Wayne Meeks and Robert Wilkin (Missoula: Society of Biblical Literature, 1978), 63. See also M. Schwabe, “The Letters of Libanius to the Patriarch of Palestine” (Hebrew), Tarbiz 1, no. 2 (1930): 85–110.


According to Criboire, School of Libanius, 143–51, esp. 150, the basic curriculum of his school was the works of classical authors like Homer, Plato, and Demosthenes. On the alliances of Jews and Roman traditionalists against Orthodox Christians, see Kraemer, Mediterranean Diaspora, chapters 6 and 7.


Criboire, School of Libanius, 68.


Martin Jaffee, Torah in the Mouth: Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism 200 BCE–400 CE (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), chapter 7, esp. 128–39.


Kristina Sessa, Daily Life in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 100–102.


Sessa, Daily Life, 102, summarizing Gregory of Tours, Ten Books of History 4.46.


An imperial law dated to 17 April 392 CE affirms the right of the illustrious patriarchs alone to police boundaries within the Jewish community; see Codex Theodosius 16.8.8, discussed in Kraemer, Mediterranean Diaspora, 140.


Ricl, “Legal and Social Status,” 99.


Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity: From Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad (London: Thames & Hudson, 1971), 28–40.


See Roth-Gerson, Greek Inscriptions, 69–72 (inscription no. 17–18), and her discussion of titles on pp. 168–169. Cf. Hachlili, Ancient Synagogues, 19.


Moshe Schwabe and Baruch Lifshitz, Beth She‘arim, Volume II: The Greek Inscriptions (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1967), 185–86 (inscription no. 200). There, the adjective is μιζότερας, the feminine form of the term applied to Profuturus. Schwabe and Lifshitz translate the term as “the elder,” which seems too vague to me. See discussion of Calliope in my note 130.


Irshai, “Confronting a Christian Empire,” 19.


Greek and Latin sources gathered and discussed in Henrik Mouritsen, The Freedman in the Roman World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 14.


Roth-Gerson, Greek Inscriptions, 56 (inscription no. 13).


For the rabbinic discussion of the role of mazal in the fate of the people of Israel, see b. Šabb. 156a–b and other sources, discussed in Richard Kalmin, Migrating Tales: The Talmud’s Narratives and Their Historical Context (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 175–199.


Roth-Gerson, Greek Inscriptions, 65; cf. inscription no. 17, p. 69, where amen in Greek is juxtaposed with shalom in Hebrew.


Steven Fine, “Art and Liturgical Context of the Sepphoris Synagogue Mosaic,” in Galilee Through the Centuries: Confluence of Cultures, ed. Eric Meyers (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1999), 231–32.


In his survey of zodiac mosaics, Bradley Erickson notes that this alignment of seasons and zodiac signs is not common among late antique synagogues and has been found only in Hammat Tiberias and in Sepphoris so far; see Erickson, “Cosmological Narrative in the Synagogues of Late Roman-Byzantine Palestine” (PhD diss., University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2020), 159.


Hezser emphasizes the final point most persuasively in “‘For the Lord God is a Sun and a Shield’ (Ps. 84:12): Sun Symbolism in Hellenistic Jewish Literature and in Amoraic Midrashim,” in Jewish Art in its Late Antique Context, ed. Uzi Leibner and Catherine Hezser, Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 163 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 213–36. The historiography is also summarized in Rina Talgam, “The Zodiac and Helios in the Synagogue” (Hebrew), in “Follow the Wise”: Studies in Jewish History and Culture in Honor of Lee I. Levine, ed. Zeev Weiss, Oded Irshai, Jodi Magness, and Seth Schwartz (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2010), 63–80. A concise overview is offered in Fine, “Jewish Helios,” 163–70. Another recent historiographical review with emphasis on archaeological approaches can be found in Erickson, “Cosmological Narrative,” 3–13.


Fine, “Jewish Helios,” 172, expanding on earlier views found in his Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 198–207.


Hezser, “Sun Symbolism,” 214–15.


Nicholas Campion, The Dawn of Astrology: A Cultural History of Western Astrology, vol. 1, The Ancient and Classical Worlds (New York: Continuum Books, 2008), ix.


Campion, Dawn of Astrology, 1:149–72.


Though there’s little discussion of astrology within academia, most people today also “know what zodiac sign contained the sun at their birth and a significant number, probably between 40 and 50 percent, identify with their zodiacal character” (Campion, Dawn of Astrology, 1: x).


Hachlili asserted that the “basic design of the Jewish calendar was probably drawn from the Antioch school” (Ancient Synagogues, 388). In Antioch, instead of zodiac signs, the personifications of the months are featured.


Oliver Schwazer, “Between Amateur Astrology and Erudite Gimmick: A Re-examination of Trimalchio’s Horoscope (Petr. Sat. 39),” Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 56, no. 4 (2016): 459–78. The Cena Trimalchionis can be found in chapters 26–78 of Petronius, The Satyricon, most recently edited and translated by Gareth Schmeling for the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020).


Radcliffe Edmonds, “Mysteries of the Heavenly Spheres: Astrology and Magic,” Drawing Down the Moon: Magic in the Ancient Greco-Roman World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), 243. Edmonds uses Petronius’s Satyricon to make this point as well.


As Brooten observed, previous generations of male scholars assumed women had a separate section in synagogues then looked for the evidence to substantiate their views rather than forming opinions beginning with the archaeological or literary evidence; see “Did the Ancient Synagogue Have a Women’s Gallery or Separate Women’s Section,” in Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue, 103–38.


Galit Hasan-Rokem, Tales of the Neighborhood: Jewish Narrative Dialogues in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003) is exceptional in centering Jewish women’s stories and interactions in late antique Roman Palestine. Her chapter “Building the Gate, or Neighbors Make Good Fences” elaborates on a rabbinic story that presumes women visit the synagogue on Shabbat evenings (Lev. Rab. 9.9); in a parallel to the story found in y. Soṭah 1.4, the women visit a synagogue located in Ḥamata (i.e., Hammat Tiberias, as in Hasan-Rokem, Tales of the Neighborhood, 66). My thanks to the reviewer who suggested this reference.


Victor Tcherikover and Alexander Fuks, eds., “Letter No. 442: A Letter from Eudaimonis to Her Daughter Aline,” in Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 244–246.


Shelomoh Dov Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza: The Family (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 337.


Anne McGowan and Paul Bradshaw, “Pilgrimage in Early Christianity,” in The Pilgrimage of Egeria (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2018), 27–56.


Judith Baskin, “Mobility and Marriage in Two Medieval Jewish Societies,” Jewish History 22, nos. 1–2 (2008): 223–43, esp. 227 and 231.


Baskin, “Mobility and Marriage,” 233.


See Isaiah 45.12. See Yannai’s Qedushtah to Genesis 30.22, especially the last section, where God is celebrated as watching over and steering the firmaments, recalling barren women, and resurrecting the dead. See Zvi Meir Rabinovitz, The Liturgical Poems of Rabbi Yannai, vol. 1 (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1985), 179–80, and following Norman Bronznick, A Corrective and Supplementary Commentary to Mahazor Yanai, vol. 1 (Jerusalem: R. Mas, 2000), 64. This becomes a theme in the fixed Jewish liturgy, especially the evening prayer, going back at least to the medieval period.


For example, see Roth-Gerson, Greek Inscriptions, inscriptions nos. 2, 7, 23, 30.


Ophir Münz-Manor, “In situ: Liturgical Poetry and Sacred Space in Late Antiquity,” in Placing Ancient Texts: The Ritual and Rhetorical Use of Space, ed. Mika Ahuvia and Alex Kocar (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018), 93–106; Karen Stern, “Tagging Sacred Space in the Dura-Europos Synagogue,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 25 (2012): 171–94.


Hachlili, Ancient Synagogues, 521–23.


Hachlili, 382.


In addition to the Sepphoris mosaic, the month names are also given in the zodiac wheel at Huqoq; see Karen Britt and Ra’anan Boustan’s discussion in Jodi Magness et al., “The Huqoq Excavation Project: 2014–2017 Interim Report,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 380 (2018): 61–131, esp. 108–9.


Reimund Leicht, “Toward a History of Hebrew Astrological Literature: A Bibliographic Survey,” in Science in Medieval Jewish Cultures, ed. Gad Freudenthal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 255–91.


Sarah Fein, “‘Part of the Same Miracle’: Women and Visual Art in the Dura Europos Synagogue,” in Material Culture and Women’s Religious Experience in Antiquity, ed. Mark D. Ellison, Catherine Gines Taylor, and Carolyn Osiek (Lanham: Fortress Press, 2021), 97–124.


Lea Di Segni, “The Synagogue Inscriptions,” in The Sepphoris Synagogue: Deciphering an Ancient Message through Its Archaeological and Socio-Historical Contexts (Jerusalem: Hebrew University of Jerusalem Press, 2005), 212–14. One rabbinic tradition suggests orienting cities toward the direction of the sunset on solstices and equinoxes (tekufot; b. ‘Eruv. 56b).


In ancient Greece, city-states used the sighting of the crescent of the new moon nearest the equinox or solstices (local practices varied) as the starting point for their calendars; the Macedonian monarchy’s practice, which eventually spread to the Hellenistic East, was to observe the new year with the sighting of the New Moon after the autumn equinox; see “Calendars,” in The World of Ancient Greece: A Daily Life Encyclopedia, ed. Michael Lovano, vol. 2 (Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2020), 805. Hippocrates considered the solstices and equinoxes particularly dangerous and warned against medical interventions at these “greatest changes of the seasons”; see “On Airs, Waters, and Places,” 11, discussed in Robert Hannah, Greek and Roman Calendars: Constructions of Time in the Classical World (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2005), 46.


Hachlili, Ancient Synagogues, 339. Discussed also in Campion, Dawn of Astrology, 114.


Elisheva Baumgarten, “‘Remember That Glorious Girl’: Jephthah’s Daughter in Medieval Jewish Culture,” Jewish Quarterly Review 97, no. 2 (2007): 180–209.


See Tal Ilan, “In the Queen’s Name,” in Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and Other Jewish Women, Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 115 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006), 259–75. See also Ilan, Lexicon, Part II, 47, 445–46 and Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, Part III: The Western Diaspora 330 BCE–650 CE, Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 126 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 191–93. A third- or fourth-century Greek inscription attests to Salome, who died in Tiberias at the age of 22; see Leah Di Segni, “The Inscriptions of Tiberias” (Hebrew), Idan 11, no. 8 (1988): 77–78.


See Ilan, “Shelamzion Alexandra,” in Silencing the Queen, 35–42.


Rosina Neginsky, Salome: The Image of a Woman Who Never Was (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013); David Flusser, “A New Portrait of Salome,” Jerusalem Perspective 55 (1998): 18–23. Flusser notes that Salome is the only New Testament figure for whom we have contemporaneous historical evidence.


Ilan, Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), 207, 208.


Wilda Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Louisville: WJK Press, 2017), 41, citing Renita Weems, Delores Williams, and “many, many others.”


See Ilan, Jewish Women, esp. 205–11, section “Maidservants”; also Catherine Hezser, “Part Whore, Part Wife: Slave Women in the Palestinian Rabbinic Tradition,” in Doing Gender—Doing Religion: Fallstudien zur Intersektionalität im frühen Judentum, Christentum und Islam, ed. Ute E. Eisen, Christine Gerber, and Angela Standhartinger, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 302 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), 303–23.


The Mishnah takes for granted that enslaved men and women were part of the household (e.g., m. Ter. 3.4). See also collected examples in Hezser’s chapter on “Slaves within the Household,” Jewish Slavery, 123–48.


According to Craig Perry et al., The Cambridge World History of Slavery: AD 500–AD 1420, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 30, “Slavery in the later Roman Empire … was apparently more urban in character than rural. While there were agricultural slaves, and slaves who worked in mines, the surviving evidence suggests that urban populations were likely to comprise up to 7 or 8 percent slaves.” See also Hezser, “What Was Jewish about Jewish Slavery.”


Catherine Hezser, “The Impact of Household Slaves on the Jewish Family in Roman Palestine,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 34, no. 4 (2003): 377. See also Hezser, “Women, Children, and Slaves in Rabbinic Law,” in The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Law, ed. Pamela Barmash (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 489–503.


An excellent summary of the historiography of slavery in ancient Roman, Jewish, and Christian studies can be found in Hatter, “Slavery and the Enslaved.”


See Emily Taitz, Sondra Henry, and Cheryl Tallan, eds., The JPS Guide to Jewish Women (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), 37, which devotes a paragraph to the “Servant of Yehudah Ha-Nasi,” recounting only the positive anecdotes about her knowledge of esoteric vocabulary and her prayer at the time of Rabbi’s death. Ilan discusses three traditions associated with her in Jewish Women, 207–208.


See y. Šeb. 9.1, b. Meg. 18a, b. Roš Haš. 26b.


See b. Šabb. 152a.


See b. Ketub. 104a.


Smith, Gender of History, 38–39.


In her book Unmarriages: Women, Men, and Sexual Unions in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2012), Ruth Mazo Karras reminds readers that the golden age of monogamy never existed and that unequal unions of married freemen and enslaved women prevailed in premodernity.


Ilan, Jewish Women, 207; Ilan observes the double standard in rabbinic laws regarding maidservants, which are preoccupied with upholding the honor of the owner, not the personhood of the maidservant (206).


Gail Labovitz, “The Purchase of His Money: Slavery and the Ethics of Jewish Marriage,” in Beyond Slavery, 98.


For a survey of ancient writer’s perspectives on women’s agency, see Mira Balberg and Ellen Muehlberger, “The Will of Others: Coercion, Captivity, and Choice in Late Antiquity,” Studies in Late Antiquity 2, no. 3 (2018): 294–315.


Labovitz, “Purchase of His Money,” 98.


See b. Giṭ. 38a–b; cf. b. Giṭ. 43b and b. Yebam. 66a These sources are quoted in full and discussed in Labovitz, “Purchase of His Money,” 99, n47. Hezser argues that a few rabbinic traditions reflect disapproval of the abuse of enslaved women (“What Was Jewish about Jewish Slavery,” 139).


Echoing Bal (see my note 23), but also paraphrasing a point made about the classical myth by Vanessa Stovall, “On Dressing Down Myth,” in Finding Nowhere, ed. Stephanie Wong and Sarah E. Bond, special issue, Public Books (10 February 2022),


Both Smith and Stefaniw discuss this pattern in historiography; see Stefaniw, “Feminist Historiography,” 278; Smith, Gender of History, 150.


See Acme in Ilan, Lexicon, Part III, 400; see also Amyntas, 3.211, the manumitted slave of Judah, Greece; Annia, 3.563, Lucia and Judah’s freedwomen, Italy; Thallusa, 3.425–26, slave manumitted in a synagogue, Crimea; and, finally, Zosime 3.424, “Malka’s Slave,” in Egypt. See also Zosime, a freedwoman in Caesarea, in Ilan, Lexicon, Part II, 251–52.


For Calliope, see Ilan, Lexicon, Part II, 254. Cf. Schwabe and Lifshitz, Beth She‘arim, 185–86 (inscription no. 200); this form as applied to Profuturus is discussed in my note 71.


Hartman, “Venus,” 1.


Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked, Magic Spells and Formulae (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1993), 45 (amulet 16).


Ortal-Paz Saar, Jewish Love Magic: From Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 157.


I thank the anonymous reviewer who challenged me to acknowledge this difficult reality.


Orland Patterson, “Paul, Slavery and Freedom: Personal and Socio-Historical Reflections,” Semeia 83/84 (1998): 267.


Hezser, “Part Whore,” 316.


Such speech acts took place not only between married couples in whatever privacy the ancient household allowed but in a community’s ritual bathhouse (mikveh). By the sixth century CE, the poet Yannai was reciting liturgical poetry in the synagogue that valorized the pious Jewish wife who declared herself pure or impure to her husband. See Rabinovitz, Liturgical Poems of Yannai, 430–41; analyzed and discussed in Mika Ahuvia, “A Woman of Valor in the Late Antique Synagogue,” in One of the Glorious Ones: Festschrift in Honor of Martha Himmelfarb, ed. Ra‘anan Boustan, David Frankfurter, and Annette Yoshiko Reed (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, forthcoming).


See y. B. Bat. 1.5 (cf. t. Nid. 6.12, in Tosefta, ed. Moses Zuckermandel (Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1970), 648).


See b. Yebam. 65b and b. Qidd. 12b, discussed in Inbar Raveh, “Judith, Wife of Hiyya: A Story of Woman’s Pain,” Feminist Rereadings of Rabbinic Literature, trans. Kaeren Fish (Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2014), 74–92.


Hezser, “Part Whore,” esp. 318–20.


For a graphic description of wives punishing enslaved girls in collaboration with their husbands, see John Chrysostom, Homily on Ephesians 15.3–4, discussed in Sessa, Daily Life, 103.


Miriam Frenkel, “Slavery in Medieval Jewish Society under Islam: A Gendered Perspective,” in Männlich und weiblich schuf Er sie: Studien zur Genderkonstruktion und zum Eherecht in den Mittelmeerreligionen, ed. Matthias Morgenstern, Christian Boudignon, and Christiane Tietz (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), 249–60. See also Craig Perry, “Conversion as an Aspect of Master-Slave Relationships in the Medieval Egyptian Jewish Community,” in Contesting Inter-Religious Conversion in the Medieval World, ed. Yaniv Fox and Yosi Yisraeli (New York: Routledge, 2016), 143–67.


See b. Mo’ed Qaṭ. 17a. This story too deserves more attention, and I hope to return to it in future publications.


See Dale Martin, Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 11–22. On the high status of the slaves of the late antique Jewish patriarchs, see Hezser, “Impact of Household Slaves,” 408–409.


See Brooten, Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 115–41.


Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015), esp. 26. In Jewish studies, Ilan’s Silencing the Queen tracked this tendency in rabbinic literature most compellingly.


Federica Francesconi, “Jewish Women in Early Modern Italy,” in Jewish Women’s History from Antiquity to the Present, ed. Federica Francesconi and Rebecca Winer (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2021), 143–68.