The Historical Antoninus
Gil at Hirhurim has a post about the identity of Antoninus, a Roman of some stature who is mentioned a number of times in Talmudic literature. Today I happen to come upon an article by Shaye J.D. Cohen, “The Conversion of Antoninus”, found in The Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman Culture vol. 1. In this article Cohen analyzes the traditions found in Palestinian Rabbinic literature with regard to the conversion of Antoninus. I thought that some of his introductory remarks might be of interest to some people since in them he describes different questions that are being asked by scholars about the Talmudic text today as compared to those which were important in the past.
Numerous rabbinic texts mention “Antoninus” (or “Antolinus”), friend, student, and confidante of a sage entitled simply “Rabbi.” Jewish scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries devoted an enormous amount of energy to the analysis of these rabhinic texts, in the hope that the identification of Antoninus would provide a fixed point for the determination of the chronology of the life of “Rabbi,” whom they identified with Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, the editor of the Mishnah. Although these scholars recognized that some of the rabbinic traditions about Antoninus were fanciful and devoid of historical value, they assumed- indeed, insisted - that most of the traditions were truthful and reliable historical accounts of the relationship of the leader of the rabbinic movement with the leader of the Roman empire. If only the rabbinic texts would have made absolutely clear whether Antoninus was Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aure- lius, Lucius Veres, Commodus, Septimius Severus, Caracalla, or Alexander Severus! In retrospect, of course, the naivete of these scholars, for all their erudition, industry, and ingenuity, seems almost humorous. In contrast, contemporary scholars, especially in the USA and Europe, are interested more in the literary shape, function, setting, message, and intent of rabbinic traditions, than in their historicity or “facticity.” Clearly a new study of the Antoninus traditions is a desideratum, a good topic for a doctoral dissertation. Since I have alrcady written one doctoral dissertation and have no desire to write another, I do not intend to fill that lacuna here. In this paper my goals are more modest. I would like to study those traditions, all of them appearing in the Yerushalmi or other sources of Palestinian provenance, which claim that Antoninus converted to Judaism.
Here Cohen claims that today many scholars are not interested in any “facticity” of Rabbinic stories, I would even claim that many feel that the task itself is impossible, but rather in answering different questions about the texts and Rabbinic traditions. So who was Antoninus, go figure, but clearly the study of the traditions about him that are found in Rabbinic texts can be very rewarding.