Genesis Rabbah, a rabbinic midrash (work of homiletical exegesis) compiled in Byzantine Palestine relates a fascinating story about the great Roman emperor, Diocletian (224–311 CE). According to the legend, Diocletian began his career as a simple pig herder in the area of Tiberias in the Galilee. The children who played in front of the academy of Rabbi Judah Nesiah, the Patriarch of the Jews, would throw stones at him, and the great rabbi did nothing to stop them. After many years Diocletian ascended to power and returned to the region to seek vengeance. He set up his headquarters in Caesarea Paneas (Philippi), the pagan city named for its famous shrine to the god Pan. The Emperor sent a message on Friday afternoon to the Patriarch in Tiberias, demanding that the rabbi report to him at Paneas first thing Sunday morning. Given the length of the journey, there was no way the Patriarch could arrive at the appointed time without violating the Sabbath. God sent salvation in the form of Agrintin, a daemon who appeared to R. Judah and magically transported him to Paneas in time for the meeting, subsequently saving R. Judah from Diocletian’s efforts to kill him.  The emperor was forced to concede that indeed God protects his people, but he warned the rabbi to take heed in his dealing with even the lowliest Romans.

On the surface this story would appear to present a straightforward conflict between pagans and monotheists, and, more specifically, between the mighty Romans and God’s chosen people. These are indeed some of the fundamental categories in which the rabbis of the period constructed Jewish identity. But in reading the story, I became intensely curious about the identity of this spirit named “Agrintin.” I found previous scholars’ efforts to identify him with various Greco-Roman mythical figures to be unsatisfactory. After an extensive investigation I became convinced that “Agrintin” was to be identified with the Greek “agreus, another name for none other than the Greek god Pan, the very divine figure whose city represents Greco-Roman cultural and imperial political hegemony in the story.  This discovery upends not only our understanding of this story but the theological boundaries of rabbinic Judaism itself. It means that at least some rabbis accepted the existence of the Greco-Roman gods to some degree. Like their Christian contemporaries, the authors of this story did not deny the existence of the gods, as did the biblical prophets and most contemporary rabbinic texts. Rather, they demoted these gods to lower level supernatural beings. But unlike the church fathers, the rabbinic authors of our story did not see the gods as evil demons, but as potential agents of divine salvation. This story thus undermines the very distinctions between pagan Romans and monotheistic Jews that, on the surface, it appears to reinforce. My reading of the story is part of a wider trend in recent scholarship that seeks to see the rabbis, for all their resistance to Roman culture and identity, as being, in some ways, very Roman themselves. The rabbis were enmeshed in Roman culture and constructed their worldview and practices within this context. Their Judaism was but one of the dizzying array of sub-cultures that made up the Roman Empire at its height.

Get free access to “Did the Rabbis Believe in Agreus Pan? Rabbinic Relationships with Roman Power, Culture, and Religion in Genesis Rabbah 63″ from Harvard Theological Review until September 7th, 2018.

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