Ancient Jewish Thought

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The rabbis assumed the leadership of the Jewish people after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE and are often seen as heirs to the Pharisaic school. They continued the process of recording the teachings of their predecessors, which came to be known as the Oral Law and was regarded with as much reverence as the Written Law (Hebrew Bible).†

This period witnessed the compilation of two major works of Oral Law, collectively known as the Talmud: the Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic law edited in 200 CE and the Gemara, a commentary on the Mishnah compiled a few centuries later. At roughly the same time, we witness the rise of midrashic literature, that is, a body of homiletical interpretations of the Torah. Unlike the Talmud, which was organized by subject, midrash follows the order of the Torah, and further connects the Oral and Written Torah.

The rabbis were not prophets, but scholars, who according to historian Robert Seltzer "resembled philosophical sages of the Hellenistic world [seeking] to enlighten and guide students in right living." In this tradition, rather than simply stating the law, rabbinic literature preserves the legal discussion, including minority opinions and conflicting views on virtually every subject.

The study house or bet midrash was the primary rabbinic institution of higher learning. In early rabbinic literature, the bet midrash probably refers to a group of disciples rather than a permanent institution; when a sage died, his school ceased and his students studied elsewhere or began their own schools. Permanent academies began to appear in the 3rd century, in larger cities like Tiberias and Caesarea.

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