On Farmers and Other Robbers

5 01 2009

In 1961, Martin Hengel wrote a rather influential work on the history of the “Zealot movement” at the end of the second temple period¹. I enclose the phrase, “Zealot movement”, in parentheses because there are not a great many scholars today who would conceive of it as a particular group. The evidence is rather fragmentary and, in addition to its highly tendentious nature, it uses four different words to describe the people that Hengel all considered members of one and same sect. The first of these words, and perhaps the most important, is Zealot itself. This appears, in Greek, as ζηλωτης and primarily finds expression in the writings of Josephus. Josephus first begins to use this term in reference to (what he presents as) a particular group in his depiction of the siege of Jerusalem. Another word that he uses in the same context, as well as elsewhere, is Sicarii – a Latin word. This word is often considered to be the plural of the Latin sicarius, meaning “murderer”, or “assassin” (in relation to sica, “dagger”). According to Josephus, these were men who concealed daggers about their person and assassinated their enemies in broad daylight.

The other two words are a little bit more difficult to relate to one another, as they both seem to be very general. One is the Hebrew לסטים (listim), meaning “robbers”. The word is employed throughout the Rabbinic literature in a broad number of contexts, though often in relation to a violent crime, and certainly not always with a particular motive that transcends the exigencies of the moment. The other word, and the one that requires the most definition of the four, is the Aramaic בריונא (baryona). This word is especially important for Hengel, given that it is used in the Talmudic literature as synonymous with לסטים (“robbers”), but that it also appears in the Talmudic version of a story that Josephus also relates, but that he credits to the Zealot movement.

So, what does baryona (בריונא) actually mean?

Marcus Jastrow, in his seminal work on Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic, defines the word בריונא as “rebel, outlaw, highway-man”. He relates it to the noun בריותא (baryuta, “rebellion”) and derives it etymologically from the word בראי, meaning “outside”. Hengel, in turn, relates this to the Syriac barya, the primary meaning of which is “foreigner, outsider”, and suggests that this is the most plausible etymology. This is in contradistinction to the theory of Krauss (as quoted by Hengel, op.cit., 55), who reads בריונא as a phonetic spelling of praetoriani: the Latin for “palace guards”.

Jastrow’s interpretation is certainly superior to the interpretation of Krauss, in that it posits a morphological etymology rather than a purely phonological one. Nonetheless, it is still not ideal. Aside from any linguistic consideration, the primary problem lies in the nature of the textual instances in which this word appears. There are only four such instances and it is only in two of them that the individuals under discussion could be perceived as constituting a group of any description. Both of those instances occur on the same page of Tractate Gittin (bGit 56a) and both of them are concerned with בריונא who are preventing Jews from leaving Jerusalem and who burn the storehouses of grain and wheat (קלנהו להנהו אמברי דחיטי ושערי) in order that the Jews of whom they disapprove may not eat. The leader of the group is referred to as the ריש בריונא, and we are told that he is Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s nephew (בר אחתיה דרבן יוחנן בן זכאי). While the title attributed to him does presuppose a certain sectarian mentality, his subsequent denial of any actual authority would seem to undermine the assertion that they constituted a consolidated political faction.

This text, composed by those who venerated Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and denigrated his nephew, has a particular tendenz that is very evident in the manner of its composition. By deliberately attempting to undermine the unity of this group, the text itself does not necessarily deny the existence of that very unity. Nonetheless, whether they were really a group or not, the word בריונא is the word deliberately chosen by the authors of this narrative in order to convey that lack of unity in the first place. For that reason, while the individuals of whom the text speaks are “Zealots”, the word בריונא itself cannot mean that. It would appear, on the basis of these two instances, that Jastrow is correct in labelling them as “highwaymen” and “bandits”.

Nonetheless, the other two instances demonstrate that any identification with the “Zealot movement”, or even with banditry in general, would be facile. One of these, in Tractate Berachot (bBer 10a) shows Rabbi Meir being harassed by בריונא who were living in the area; the other, in Tractate Sanhedrin (bSan 37a) shows Rabbi Zera being harassed by בריונא. Both texts feature the subsequent repentance of those involved, and can therefore both be seen to be highly stylised accounts, designed to serve a particular hortatory function. The בריונא in both instances are highwaymen, although neither narrative presupposes that the reader knows that before they are told. In other words, בריונא may have constituted a familiar narrative trope, featuring in stories that involved banditry, but the word itself does not actually mean “bandit”. For that reason, no identification between this word and the political Zealot movement can actually be made.

One might even go further, and suggest a linguistic obstacle to adopting Hengel’s (and Jastrow’s) position. Jastrow’s suggestion makes the assumption that בַריון constitutes a nominalised form of the verb √ברא. Its form, with the –on ending, would distinguish it from the corresponding nominalisation, בריא (plural, ברייתא), which refers to external things or places, though never people. The problem with this theory is that בריון might better be explained as a gentilic from the noun ברא (= Heb. בר): “field, open space”. A בריון, rather than somebody who necessarily sets themselves in opposition to anybody else, would best be defined as a resident of the countryside.

I would like to suggest that the primary meaning of בריונא is actually something akin to the English “yokel”. I believe that the word denotes an agriculturalist, living outside the city, but that it is used in a pejorative fashion in order to indicate their uncouth nature and, in many instances, barbarism. That is not to suggest that the word בריונא, despite its usage in several Rabbinic type-scenes involving bandits, specifically implies violence, but I would suggest that it does specifically imply a lack of refinement. A further case study may suffice to prove my point.

In the Gospel according to John (Jn 1:42), the disciple Simon (aka Simon Peter) is referred to as “Simon son of John” and nicknamed Cephas (כיפא, “rock”). The patronymic, “you are Simon son of John”, is a word-for-word translation of the Greek: συ ει͗ Σιμων υι͑ος ͗Ιωαννου (su ei Simon huios Iohannou). Nonetheless, there are many who believe that the Greek is a mistranslation of an underlying Aramaic – which is not to suggest that the Gospel according to John was composed in Aramaic, but simply that Simon Peter was known as Simon Baryona, and that “Baryona” was incorrectly parsed as בר (bar, “son of”) + יונא (yona, “John”). Considering the fact that Matthew (Mat 16:17) refers to Simon as “Simon Barjona”, this would appear to be the most reasonable suggestion.

As per my understanding of the word, I would like to take this even further and suggest an error on the part of (the author of) the Gospel according to Luke as well. In Luke 6:15, the evangelist refers to Simon and notes that he was also known as Zelotes (ζηλωτης, “the Zealot”). One might indicate the manner in which Simon readily removed a sword that he was carrying with him in order to attack a Roman guard in John 18:10, although it is worth noting that this act is recorded in both the gospels of Matthew and Luke (Mat 26:51; Lk 22:49-50) as being perpetrated by simply “one of [the disciples]”. The Gospel according to Mark, on which the gospels of Matthew and Luke are believed to have been based, makes no reference to the incident at all. The Gospel according to John, which mentions Simon Peter by name, is the most theologically developed of the four gospels and, presumably, the latest in composition. Attitudes towards the בריונא after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE may have influenced the evangelist’s understanding of the word (despite having mistranslated it), and the reference to Simon Peter being a Zealot in the Gospel according to Luke may have affected his understanding of that particular protagonist.

Be that as it may, there are a number of scholars today who do believe that Simon Peter was a Zealot. Similar accusations have also been raised by scholars against Judas, whose nickname Iscariot was perceived by some as being a Greek version of the Latin Sicarii. To my mind, this is not so dissimilar to the manner in which everybody started becoming an Essene the moment that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and scholars believed that they knew more about the movement than they actually did. In light of the fact, as it would seem to be, that the Zealots never constituted an organised political faction, the assertion that individuals amongst Jesus’ retinue of disciples belonged to this movement is a little too neat. However, irrespective of how one wishes to read the Zealot reference in Luke 6:15, I would like to suggest that Simon Peter was labelled in both the Gospel according to Matthew and the Gospel according to John as a yokel. His impetuous nature throughout both of their accounts would fit well with this idea, and it would provide some much-needed evidence to the fact that, contrary to the Rabbinic literature, not all people from the countryside were necessarily criminals.

¹ M. Hengel, The Zealots: Investigations into the Jewish Freedom Movement in the Period From Herod I Until 70 AD (trans. D. Smith; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989).



8 responses

12 01 2009

Or perhaps, bumpkin?

In any event, “biryon” is used in modern Hebrew to mean “bully”. Nice to know the word has such an elaborate heritage.

12 01 2009
Simon Holloway

That’s very interesting! Interesting, too, is the fact that biryon may be a different word altogether. WordPress is a little bit funny with Hebrew vowels, but the word that I was presenting was baryon, with a patakh. Biryon, with a khireq, also appears in the Talmudic literature and means “palace soldier” (acc. to Jastrow). It stems from the word בירה (“fortress”) instead.

Do you think that biryon, in Modern Hebrew, comes from that root perhaps?

15 01 2009

Why, I couldn’t say, my good fellow.

15 01 2009

Hmmm … seems like it’s just us here. Want a beer?

18 01 2009
Simon Holloway

Somewhat humorous that we should go from בריון (baryon), through בריון (biryon), to בירה (biyrah, “beer”), but there you go… Perhaps this is what they call pilpul?

19 01 2009

Quite a Balashon comment on your part, if you ask me.

10 02 2009

Nice post. I doubt most scholars would identify Simon of Luke 6:15 with Simon Peter (from v. 14). I like, however, the connection with br (field) and hence the meaning of ‘peasant’ which is ‘uncivilized/uncouth.’

I believe the same is true of the German ‘bauer’ which means ‘peasant/boor’ and becomes in Romanian ‘paur,’ loosing the meaning of peasant and becoming something very close to the English yokel (an uncivilized rustic fellow)…

10 02 2009
Simon Holloway

Thankyou, Evedyahu – a nice comparison. Another, and one I’d previously overlooked, would be the English “villain”, from “villa”. According to Klein, the development of the word is similar to the development of “bauer”, although the final outcome is somewhat more pejorative than simply “boorish”.

Thankyou as well for your observations regarding Simon Peter. I shall look into this in greater depth.

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