Palestinian Rabbis’ Encounter with Graeco-Roman Paganism: Rabban Gamliel in the Bathhouse of Aphrodite in Acco (M. A.Z. 3:4)


  1. Historical context of the source
  2. Source
  3. Discussion of the source
  4. Questions for discussion
  5. Selected bibliography
  6. Further reading
  7. Useful web resources
  8. Images

1. Historical context of the source

Jews who lived in the Land of Israel in the first four centuries C.E. were constantly confronted with Graeco-Roman culture, of which paganism constituted an important aspect. From the time of Herod onwards, temples, theatres, stadia, and bathhouses were established in various parts of the Land of Israel. Together with statues of gods and goddesses and monuments to the Roman emperors, these institutions must be seen as expressions of the Romanization of the Near East. The Graeco-Roman impact would have been most noticeable in the cities (poleis), and the process of Romanization was accompanied by an increased urbanization of Roman Palestine in the period under discussion here. Cities such as Beth Shean (Scythopolis) and Caesarea had mixed populations of Jews and non-Jews. They were cosmopolitan centres, in which people from many different social, cultural, and religious backgrounds lived and interacted on a daily basis, although the nature of such contacts remains unknown. Cities such as Gaza, Ashqelon, and Acco were seen as “pagan” cities by rabbis and would have had a pagan majority. Nevertheless, some Jews would have lived there and even some rabbis may have visited them occasionally, for example, in order to conduct business there.

Rabbis were the main Jewish religious figures who emerged after the destruction of the Temple and the end of the priestly leadership in 70 C.E. In the rabbinic literary sources (the Mishnah, Tosefta, Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, and Midrashim), they present themselves as Torah scholars, with different sized circles of students, who formed allegiances with like-minded individuals. Unlike the pre-70 priestly hierarchy, the rabbinic network was not centrally organized, and was democratic rather than hierarchically structured. Rabbis propagated Torah study as the most important Jewish religious practice, and applied the values and ideas of the Torah to everyday life situations, thereby providing their sympathizers with a rabbinically defined way of life (halakhah). Rabbis were not unanimous but disagreed about amost all halakhic issues; they “agreed to disagree”, as Shaye Cohen has succinctly said.

Therefore rabbis’ attitudes towards Graeco-Roman culture and definitions of what constituted “idolatry” were also ambiguous and diverse. Some rabbis may have stayed away from the urban centres of Roman Palestine and from overtly Roman events and institutions. Others would have tried to reach a compromise which allowed them to live in cities such as Caesarea, purchase goods at fairs, and visit the Roman institution of the bathhouse. They came up with various interpretations of “pagan” phenomena that allowed them to live their daily lives in paganized and Romanized contexts. Even the ancient synagogue and private and semi-private buildings provided evidence of an adaptation of pagan images, such as Dionysiac and Nilotic imagery, figures taken from Greek myth (e.g., Odysseus, Leda and the Swan, the Amazons, the Medusa), and Helios and the Zodiac. The question of how rabbis and non-rabbinic Jews would have interpreted such images is heavily disputed amongst scholars. It seems, though, that certain motifs were part of a common artistic vocabulary that was shared by Jews, Christians, and pagans in late antiquity. Images may have been the same, but the meanings given to them would have varied.

The bathhouse was a Roman institution that seems to have constituted a particular attraction for some rabbis. Numerous stories tell us about prominent rabbis’ visits to the famous hot water spas of Hammat Tiberias and Hammat Gader. Obviously, the rabbis who went there did not fear meeting non-Jews and bathing naked alongside women at these internationally renowned tourist attractions. Roman baths were oases of well-being, where visitors alternated between pools of various temperatures, received massages by slaves, ate lavish meals, played ball games, and socialized with their friends and business partners. They were open to anyone irrespective of his or her social status, gender, ethnic and religious origin. Hammat Gader was particularly luxurious and believed to be surpassed in beauty by Baia in Italy only.

A rabbi’s visit to a bath in Acco is mentioned in our story only. In general, rabbis seem to have preferred the bathhouses in Galilee that were closer to Tiberias and Sepphoris, major rabbinic centres in late antiquity. Yet some rabbis are portrayed as travelling along the northern coast towards Syria, probably for business reasons. Acco would have been a main stopover on that route. The city had an important harbour and fair and would have been frequented by merchants and travellers en route from Syria to Egypt and vice versa. Rabbis considered Acco a “pagan” city at the boundary of the rabbinically defined Land of Israel, in which the dangers of idolatry were particularly great.

How rabbis perceived  contact with and participation in idolatry would have differed from one rabbi to the next. In the Mishnah and the Talmuds, the tractate Avodah Zarah is devoted to the subject. There, rabbis discuss what kinds of contact with “idolators” and “idolatry” were permissible, and which ones were prohibited. They discuss numerous issues such as, for example, a Jewish artisan’s collaboration on a pagan building project, contacts with pagan objects,  and accidental participation in pagan rituals. What rabbis do not do, however, is to define what they mean by “idolatry”, other than associating this practice with the Other, from whom they differentiated themselves. The boundaries between rabbinically defined Judaism and the cultic practices of the Other remained rather undefined and allowed for accommodation and coexistence. These strategies, which allowed rabbis to live in an environment infused by Hellenistic and Roman cultural values and practices and, at the same time, maintain a specifically rabbinic Jewish identity, also become evident in the story about R. Gamliel in Aphrodite’s bathhouse in Acco, which we are studying here.

2. Source

Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:4

2a. Source in Hebrew

שאל פרוקלוס בן פלוספוס את רבן גמליאל בעכו שהיה רוחץ במרחץ שלאפרודיטי
אמר לו: כתוב בתורתכם: ולא ידבק בידך מאומה מן החרם – מפני מה אתה רוחץ במרחץ
שלאפרודיטי? אמר לו: אין משיבין במרחץ
וכשיצא אמר לו: אני לא באתי בגבולה היא באת בגבולי
אין אומרים נעשה מרחץ לאפרודיטי נוי אלא אומרים נעשית אפרודיטי נוי למרחץ
דבר אחר: אם נותנין לך ממון הרבה אי אתה נכנס לעבודה זרה שלך ערם ובעל קרי ומשתין
וזו עומדת על פי הביב וכל העם משתינין לפניה
לא נאמר אלא: אלהיהם – את שנוהג בו משום אלוה אסור ואת שאינו נוהג בו משום אלוה

2b. Translation of the source

Proklos ben Philosophos asked Rabban Gamliel in Acco, who was bathing in the bathhouse of Aphrodite. He said to him: It is written in your Torah: ‘Let nothing of the herem remain in your hand’ (Deut. 13:18), why are you bathing in the bathhouse of Aphrodite? He said to him: One does not respond [to questions about the Torah] in a bathhouse. And when he went out, he said to him: I did not come into her domain, she came into my domain. They do not say: Let us make a bathhouse for Aphrodite, but they say: Let us make an Aphrodite [statue] for the bathhouse. Another matter: [Even] if they gave you a lot of money, you would not enter your avodah zarah [pagan temple, pagan religious practice] naked, polluted [a man who had ejaculated and not yet immersed in the miqveh was not allowed to study Torah], and urinating before her [the statue of the goddess]. And she stands over the water-pipe and everyone urinates before her. It is only written ‘their gods’ [possibly referring to Deut. 12:3: ‘You shall dismember the idols of their gods’], that which is treated like a god is prohibited, but that which is not treated like a god is permitted.

3. Discussion of the source

Rabbinic literature transmits a number of stories about encounters between rabbis and non-Jews. These stories are rather stereotypical in that they adhere to a particular formal pattern and set characters. The non-Jews presented in these stories are usually either philosophers, matrons, or Roman dignitaries. They ask the rabbi one or more challenging questions on topics that were of particular interest to the rabbinic scholars themselves. Therefore, some scholars maintain that rabbis constructed these narratives to deal with internal rabbinic issues rather than to reflect subject matters that non-Jews actually asked rabbis. Whereas Herr assumed that such stories are based on actual meetings and dialogues between Jews and non-Jews, Stroumsa is much more cautious and believes that social encounters that led to serious interreligious and intercultural discussions rarely took place. In the rabbinic stories, the rabbis usually end up as the victors: they are able to overcome the challenge of the questions and remarks by providing answers that their fellow-scholars would find convincing. The non-Jews’ questions merely serve to provoke the rabbis to provide explications and solutions to the problem. By putting particularly challenging questions into the mouth of non-Jews, it was easier for rabbis to tackle them without losing face.

The story under discussion here addresses the issue of rabbis’ visits to the Roman institution of the bathhouse. How could rabbis visit and enjoy these establishments without compromising biblical monotheism and aversion to idolatry? The non-Jews who saw them there may well have wondered how rabbis could accommodate their monotheistic beliefs with the pagan environment in which they found themselves. It is more likely, however, that the non-Jews did not care. They may not even have recognized a rabbi, who would have looked like any other male Jewish bather. It is therefore more likely that those rabbis who visited the baths found it necessary to justify their behaviour before their more strict colleagues and students, who probably avoided the baths altogether. Rabbinic stories present the most prominent rabbis such as R. Gamliel, R. Yonathan, R. Ammi, and the patriarch R. Yehudah ha-Nasi as keen visitors to the spas, where they would have met non-Jews of various ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. They would have socialized with their colleagues and business partners there, heard news and rumours, exercised their bodies, and relaxed.

The Proklos ben Philosophos featured in this story does not appear elsewhere in rabbinic sources. Instead of understanding “Philosophos” as the Greek name of Proklos’ father, one could also translate ben philosophos as “the philosopher”, as Wasserstein suggests. Wasserstein identifies this philosopher with Proklos of Naucratis in Egypt (ca. 140-230 C.E.) and R. Gamliel with R. Yehudah ha-Nasi’s son of that name rather than with R. Gamliel I, who lived in the first century C.E. Such an identification is problematic, however, since Proklos of Naucratis is known to have moved to Athens at a young age, where he became the teacher of Philostratus (see Philostratus, Vita Procli). It is difficult to imagine how a Palestinian rabbi would have met an Athenian philosopher. In adition, Gamliel the son of Rabbi is not presented as a rabbi in rabbinic sources. The attempt to identify the rabbi’s protagonist historically also misses the point of the story: the focus is on the controversial issue of a rabbi’s visit to a pagan bathhouse; the protagonist remains generic and stereotypical, a mere cipher to lend credibility to the meeting.

That a pagan philosopher would have quoted from the Torah is rather unlikely, even if a Greek translation of the Torah was available and could, at least theoretically, have been consulted by him. Some pagan Egyptian intellectuals do seem to have possessed some knowledge of Judaism, but that knowledge seems to have been based on hearsay rather than on a close reading of the Septuagint. They usually used this knowledge to attack and criticize aspects of biblical history and practice, a phenomenon which Peter Schäfer has termed “Judeophobia”. Proklos, however, is presented as being as knowledgeable of the Torah as a rabbinic scholar: He is able to confront R. Gamliel with an allusion to a biblical verse that prohibits any contact with idols. The biblical passage (Deut. 12:29-13:19) warns Israelites against participating in and adopting Canaanite religious practices. If paganism were practiced in a town within the Israelite territory, the town and its inhabitants should be banned and the idolatrous objects destroyed (Deut. 13:12-17). Nothing that is under the ban shall remain in the possession of an Israelite (v. 18). In the context of the story, the verse is used to criticize the rabbi’s contact with an idol in a pagan bathhouse. The succeeding question implies that bathing in the bathhouse of Aphrodite would compromise the rabbi’s Torah observance and involve contact with an idol.

Statues of the goddess Aphrodite (Greek) = Venus (Latin) were very common in Roman bathhouses. One such statue was found in a second-century C.E. bathhouse in Beth Shean, and is exhibited in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Aphrodite was the goddess of love and beauty, and therefore most suitable for adorning spas. She would have been shown in the nude, preparing for a bath or doing her toiletries, openly revealing her beauty to the viewers. It is possible that Aphrodite worship was particularly common in Acco/Ptolemais. In addition to the statues and images on frescoes, dedicated Aphrodite temples, devoted to her worship, existed in the Graeco-Roman world. No such temple has been excavated in Acco, but this does not necessarily mean that one did not exist in Acco, or its vicinity. Local coins of the third c. C.E. show Aphrodite together with an Eros riding a dolphin. Aphrodite was closely associated with sexuality and prostitution, and ritual prostitution was practiced at the temples of Aphrodite’s Near Eastern predecessors, Ishtar and Astarte, in Syria and Phoenicia, areas that were close to Acco. In the Bible, Israelites’ Astarte worship is criticized (Judges 2:13), which suggests that it was practiced. In the story about Judah and Tamar, Tamar is said to have disguised herself as a sacred prostitute (Gen. 38:15-16) in order to lure Judah to intercourse with her. These associations form the background of the rabbinic story. Against this background, astonishment about a rabbi’s presence in an environment that was associated with idolatry and sacred prostitution seems entirely legitimate.

The focus of the story is on R. Gamliel’s response as evidence of his ability to combine the pleasures received from visiting a pagan bathhouse with a rabbinically defined Jewish identity. He does not provide one response but many, looking at the issue from various perspectives. Within the bathhouse itself, he is unwilling to provide an answer, adhering by the rabbinic rule that Torah is not discussed in places where one is naked and polluted, in contrast to the ritual nudity that was common in some forms of pagan worship in the Near East. This non-answer already implies that R. Gamliel makes a fundamental distinction between the Torah and whatever goes on in the Roman environment of the bathhouse, including meetings and conversations with pagans. The answers he provides outside the bathhouse are much more specific, though:

  1. the bathhouse is not a sacred domain and a temple for Aphrodite – rather, the Aphrodite statue was set up to adorn the bathhouse;
  2. Aphrodite worship is not practiced in the bathhouse where people are naked, unclean, and urinate.

Whereas the first answer refers to the space itself, the second answer concerns the practices within it. The reference to different uses of spaces and to the different meanings of the objects within them, depending on the nature and use of the space, is interesting. At the end of the narrative, a general rule concerning Jews’ relation to idols is derived from this specific incident, namely, that contact with idols which are worshiped is prohibited, but contact with those which are not worshiped permitted. This rule could be applied to a variety of situations in which rabbis/Jews encountered objects which were also used in pagan cultic practices.

What do we make of these answers and the general rule derived from the incident? Are they convincing? Whom are they trying to convince and for what purpose? It is obvious that the answers are formulated from the rabbinic perspective. They are indicative of a rabbi’s perception of a Roman bathhouse, rather than the meanings that pagans may have attributed to statues of goddesses in such environments. As such, they were probably meant for fellow-scholars and served as a self-justification for visiting the baths despite the presence of pagan statuary. As already mentioned above, pagans would not necessarily have worried about nakedness and ejaculation in temples, since this was part of some pagan ritual practices. Only a rabbi, for whom such states were incompatible with the worship of the Jewish God, would have found them offensive and evidence of the absence of cultic practice. Therefore, it is not pagan worship of idols as such, but the rabbis’ perception of what religious worship would have consisted of, that is taken as the criterion for distinguishing between spaces and contacts that are permitted or prohibited to rabbis and their sympathizers. This rationalization allowed rabbis to live in an environment in which vestiges of paganism were pervasive and to enjoy certain aspects of Roman culture without compromising their own religious identity.

4. Questions for discussion

  1. Discuss whether, and to what extent, the story can be considered a historical source.
  2. Who was the intended audience and readership of the story?
  3. What does the story tell us about the rabbis’ attitudes toward paganism?
  4. How would pagans themselves have perceived of the Aphrodite statue?
  5. Would R. Gamliel’s answer have convinced all of his Jewish contemporaries?
  6. How does R. Gamliel define the boundaries between contact with idols and participation in idolatry?
  7. How are the real and the ideal human bodies perceived in the story?
  8. Is the rabbinic answer satisfactory on the basis of the biblical regulations?
  9. What would have been the “Sitz im Leben” of such discussions about pagan environments?
  10. How did the Christian church fathers view the late antique bathhouses, and how did their response differ from that of rabbis?

5. Selected bibliography

  • Eliav, Yaron Z. (2000) ‘The Roman Bath as a Jewish Institution: Another Look at the Encounter Between Judaism and the Greco-Roman Culture’, Journal for the Study of Judaism31, pp. 426-454.
  • Eliav, Yaron Z. (2008) ‘Roman Statues, Rabbis, and Graeco-Roman Culture’ in: Jewish Literatures and Cultures: Context and Intertext, ed. A. Norich and Y.Z. Eliav. Brown Judaic Studies 349. Providence RI, 99-115.3.
  • Hezser, Catherine. (2010) ‘The Graeco-Roman Context of Daily Life in Roman Palestine’ in:The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine, ed. Catherine Hezser. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 28-47.
  • Jacobs, Martin. (1998) ‘Römische Thermenkultur im Spiegel des Talmud Yerushalmi’ in: The Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman Culture, vol. 1, ed. Peter Schäfer. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 71. Tübingen, pp. 219-311.
  • Schwartz, Seth. (1998) ‘Gamaliel in Aphrodite’s Bath: Palestinian Judaism and Urban Culture in the Third and Fourth Centuries’ in: The Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman Culture, vol. 1, ed. Peter Schäfer. Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, pp. 203-217.
  • Schwartz, Seth. (2001) ‘The Rabbi in Aphrodite’s bath: Palestinian Society and Jewish identity in the High Roman Empire’ in: Being Greek Under Rome: Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic, and the Development of Empire, ed. Simon Goldhill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 335-361.
  • Wasserstein, Abraham. (1980) ‘Rabban Gamliel and Proclus the Philosopher (Mishna Avoda Zara 3,4)’ [Hebrew], Zion 45, pp. 257-267.
  • Yadin, Azzan. (2006). ‘Rabban Gamliel, Aphrodite’s Bath, and the Question of Pagan Monotheism’, Jewish Quarterly Review 96, pp. 149-179.

6. Further Reading

  • Blidstein, Gerald. (1973-1974) ‘Nullification of Idolatry in Rabbinic Law’, Proceedings of the American Academy of Jewish Research 41/42, pp. 1-44.
  • Eisen, Arnold. (1986) ‘Homeless at Home and Abroad: Avodah Zarah’ in: Galut. Modern Jewish Reflection on Homelessness and Homecoming. Bloomington, Indiana, pp.  35-56.
  • Eliav, Yaron, Elise Friedland, and Sharon Herbert. (eds.) (2008) The Sculptural Environment of the Roman Near East: Reflections on Culture, Ideology, and Power. Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion 9. Leuven: Peeters.
  • Friedheim, Emmanuel. (2006) Rabbanisme et Paganisme en Palestine romaine. Étude historique des Realia talmudiques (Ier – IVème siècles). Leiden: Brill.
  • Herr, Moshe David. (1971) ‘The Historical Significance of the Dialogues Between Jewish Sages and Roman Dignitaries’, Studia Hierosolymitana 22, pp. 123-150.
  • Schäfer, Peter. (1998) Judeophobia: Attitudes Toward the Jew in the Ancient World. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
  • Schäfer, Peter and Catherine Hezser. (eds.) (1998-2002) The Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman Culture, 3 vols. Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck.
  • Stewart, Peter. (2003) Statues in Roman Society: Representation and Response. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Stroumsa, Gedaliahu G. (1989) ‘Religious Contacts in Byzantine Palestine’, Numen 36, pp. 16-42.
  • Urbach, Ephraim E. (1959) ‘The Rabbinic Laws of Idolatry in the Second and Third Centuries in the Light of Archaeological and Historical Facts’,  Israel Exploration Journal 9,  pp.149-165 and 229-245.

7. Useful web resources

On Aphrodite/Venus

The Cambridge Historian Mary Beard on Baths and Nakedness:

8. Images

Images of Aphrodite statues:


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