Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 10a-11a: Antoninus and Rabbi
The Babylonian Talmud includes a collection of stories about the relationship between Rabbi Judah the Prince and a supposed Roman emperor named Antoninus. Scholars have debated whether to identify this Antoninus with one of the emperors of the Severan dynasty, perhaps Antoninus Pius (ruled 138-161 C.E.), or to understand these texts as relating to some Roman official, but not the emperor. Behind these clearly mythic descriptions lies the notion of a close relationship between the patriarchal house and the Roman government. This passage also deals with other instances of Romans who were said to have befriended the Jews.
Rabbi thereupon brought a man, and having made him ride on the shoulders of another, handed him a dove bidding the one who carried him to order the one on his shoulders to liberate it. The Emperor perceived this to mean that he was advised to ask [of the Senate] to appoint his son Asverus to reign in his stead, and that subsequently he might get Asverus to make Tiberias a free Colony.
[On another occasion] Antoninus mentioned to him that some prominent Romans were annoying him. Rabbi thereupon took him into the garden and, in his presence, picked some radishes, one at a time. Said [the Emperor to himself] his advice to me is: Do away with them one at a time, but do not attack all of them at once. But why did he not speak explicitly?—He thought his words might reach the ears of those prominent Romans who would persecute him. Why then did he not say it in a whisper?—Because it is written: “For a bird of the air shall carry the voice” (Ezek. 10:20).
The Emperor had a daughter named Gilla who committed a sin, 32 so he sent to Rabbi a rocket-herb, 33 and Rabbi in return sent him coriander. 34 The Emperor then sent some leeks 35 and he sent lettuce in return. 36 Many a time Antoninus sent Rabbi gold-dust in a leather bag filled with wheat at the top, saying [to his servants]: “Carry the wheat to Rabbi!” Rabbi sent word to say. “I need it not, I have quite enough of my own,” and Antoninus answered: “Leave it then to those who will come after you that they might give it to those who will come after me, for your descendants and those who will follow them will hand it over to them.”
Antoninus had a cave which led from his house to the house of Rabbi. Every time [he visited Rabbi] he brought two slaves, one of whom he slew at the door of Rabbi’s house and the other [who had been left behind] was killed at the door of his own house. 37 Said Antoninus to Rabbi: “When I call, let none be found with you.” One day he found Rabbi Haninah bar Hama sitting there, so he said: “Did I not tell you no man should be found with you at the time when I call?”
And Rabbi replied, “This is not an [ordinary] human being.”
“Then,” said Antoninus, “let him tell that servant who is sleeping outside the door to rise and come in.”
Rabbi Haninah bar Hama thereupon went out but found that the man had been slain. Thought he, “How shall I act now? Shall I call and say that the man is dead?—but one should not bring a sad report; shall I leave him and walk away?—that would be slighting the king.”
So he prayed for mercy for the man, and he was restored to life. He then sent him in. Said Antoninus: “I am well aware that the least one among you can bring the dead to life, still when I call let no one be found with you.”
Every time [he called] he used to attend on Rabbi and wait on him with food or drink. When Rabbi wanted to get on his bed, Antoninus crouched in front of it saying. “Get on to your bed by stepping on me.” 38
Rabbi, however, said, “It is not the proper thing to treat a king so slightingly.”
Whereupon Antoninus said: “Would that I served as a mattress unto thee in the world to come!”
Once he asked him: “Shall I enter the world to come?”
“Yes!” said Rabbi.
“But,” said Antoninus, “is it not written, ‘There will be no remnant to the house of Esau?’” (Obad. 18).
“That,” he replied, “applies only to those whose evil deeds are like those of Esau.”
We have learned likewise: “There will be no remnant to the House of Esau,” might have been taken to apply to all, therefore Scripture says distinctly—“To the house of Esau,” so as to make it apply only to those who act as Esau did.
“But” said Antonius, “is it not also written: ‘There [in the nether world] is Edom, her kings, and all her princes’” (Ezek. 32:29). 39
“There, too,” Rabbi explained, “[it says:] ‘her kings: it does not say ‘all her kings;’ all her princes: but not all her officers!”
This… excludes Antoninus the son of Asverus.
Antoninus attended on Rabbi: Artaban 40 attended on Rav. 41 When Antoninus died, Rabbi exclaimed: “The bond is snapped!” 42
[So also] when Artaban died, Rav exclaimed: “The bond is snapped!”
“And the Lord said to her: Two nations [Goyim] are in thy womb”(Gen. 25:23). Said Rav Judah in the name of Rav: “Read not goyim [nations] but ge’im [lords]. This refers to Antoninus and Rabbi.” 43
30. I.e., Severus, the dynastic name of the Roman emperors who ruled 193-235.
31. Given special status that extended Roman citizenship to its inhabitants and set up a government under two magistrates.
32. She had illicit sexual relations.
33. Indicating that she had committed this offense. Antoninus and Rabbi both made use of devices to conceal the content of their messages from Antoninus’ messengers.
34. Hinting that she should be executed.
35. Indicating that his progeny would be cut off.
36. Saying that if so, Antoninus ought to be merciful to his daughter.
37. To maintain the secrecy of their meetings.
38. Showing his subservience to the patriarch.
39. Hence, I will not go to the world to come but to the netherworld.
40. Artabanus V, the last significant Parthian king, ruled ca. 213-227 C.E.
41. The early third-century Babylonian amora.
42. Referring both to the personal bonds and to the protection that the Jewish people received as a result.
43. Archetypal representatives of the best of Rome and Israel relating like children of the same mother.