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image of Journal for the Study of Judaism

Some of the early rabbinic texts that deal with the martyrs of tannaitic times display an intense concern for the problem of theodicy. A common feature of these texts is that despite their ostensible attempts at a coherent interpretation of the martyr's fate they refuse to abandon any of their basic convictions which are at stake – God's omnipotent governing of the world, the impartiality of the divine judgement and the martyr's innocence. When R. Hanina and his family hear their sentence, the narrative permits them to confess God's justice but not to raise the question of their guilt. R. Shim'on and R. Yishma'el discover some guilt with themselves, but the pointed pettiness of this guilt renders the explanation of their violent death provocatively incredible. When Yose ben Yo'ezer dies, his enemy's hints at the disproportion between his righteousness and his punishment are drowned in a vision of bliss in the world to come. By the conspicuous inconsistency of their answers, these texts demonstrate both the ultimate unsolvability and the inescapable urgency of their problem.


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