Akiva, the shepherd who became a sage

Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmud By Barry Holtz, Yale University Press, £16.99


In this slim, yet packed, volume, Barry Holtz, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, creates a three-dimensional profile of Rabbi Akiva, the greatest sage of the early second century. Akiva was a formative influence on post-Temple Judaism (his name appears some 2,700 times in the Talmud alone). He was also a political activist who endorsed the ill-fated Bar Kochba revolt against the Roman occupation of the Land of Israel and died a martyr at the hands of the consul Tineius Rufus.

The author, an acknowledged expert in reading classic texts, offers an enjoyable exploration of the key phases of Akiva’s life: his transformation from ignorant shepherd to leading scholar, his courtship and marriage, his pre-eminence in the rabbinic world of his time, his transcendent experience in the divine “orchard” and his horrible death.  
Holtz expertly teases Akiva’s core character traits from a plethora of midrashic sources to fashion a complex, yet likeable, religious leader who is at once pragmatist and dreamer, punctilious intellectual and passionate lover.

Yet Holtz’s most significant contribution lies in the way he shapes a credible biography from hagiographic and retrospective sources. Following the methodology of the late Jacob Neusner, he builds a picture of Akiva in context, “a window on to a world from the past”. By acknowledging the inherent ahistoricity of the narratives, Holtz is “imagining a biography of Akiva”, compiling and harmonising conflicting sources to establish a likely picture of the man. 

An interesting and valuable work, both in terms of understanding Rabbi Akiva himself and as an archetype for future studies.

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