Sperber's Dictionary of Greek and Latin Legal Terms in Rabbinic Literature - a Review-Essay

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Malka presents convincing evidence in support of the claim that the rabbinic list is not indigenous but borrowed from the Roman legal institution of infamia, which was also attached to certain professions and also deprived persons of their eligibility for testimony. More important, she shows that this structural parallel is bolstered by a deeper conceptual parallel, for underlying both the rabbinic and the Roman disqualification is a wider Greco-Roman discourse on self-control (with Plutarch providing a four-fold list parallel to the tannaitic list in substance).
Rabbinic literature, the product of the great centers of Jewish learning in Palestine and Babylonia during the first centuries of the common era, contains numerous legal fictions. These fictions are attested in all periods and geographical centers of rabbinic literature, and they address issues of both ritual and civil law, although ritual fictions seem to dominate. In this chapter, I describe the principal characteristics of rabbinic legal fictions, analyze their legal significance, and attempt to account for their origins and development—why they were utilized in the first place, and how later fictions differ from their predecessors. One of the most prominent characteristics of rabbinic legal fictions discussed in this chapter is their frequently scholastic character, which contrasts with the practical use of fictions in other legal systems. Thus, rabbinic fictions often facilitate the theoretical analysis and explanation of the law, rather than aiming to make the law conform with desired legal outcomes. Likewise, rabbinic fictions usually do not account for exceptions to clear-cut, explicit laws of universal applicability. Rather, they emerge in the course of consolidating and generating general rules which are assumed to underlie the law.
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Comparing Ephrem's legal terminology on issues of betrothal, marriage, adultery and divorce with that used in contemporary and earlier Jewish, Christian and Roman sources reveals the deep influence of rabbinic terminology on Ephrem's terminology. This influence is apparent in two aspects of Ephrem's language: his vocabulary and the semantic coverage of his terminology. In both these areas, he has more in common with rabbinic terminology and its usage, than with that of Roman law and Christian writers. Furthermore, in some cases it is possible to determine that Ephrem's legal terminology is closely related to Palestinian terminology in particular. This conclusion emphasizes the distance between Ephrem and his Greek and Latin Christian contemporaries, and reflects his deep ties to Jewish legal traditions, ties which are a result not only of similar language but also of similar legal views.
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