Jews and Book Burning
This daf has an interesting example of early Jewish-Christian polemics. The discussion of whether to save the books of the heretics ספרי מינין from a fire on Shabbat brings some very fiery statements itself. Rabbi Tarfon vows to burn all such books, Rabbi Yishmael advocates burning even God’s name in these books and Rabban Gamliel and his clever sister Ima Shalom, have a teasing debate with a “philosopher,” clearly a Jewish Christian as well.
How do we know that these heretical books are Christian ones? The Gemara was censored at a certain point and derogatory references to Christianity were expunged but the manuscripts show us what was really said (and today the Steinsaltz Gemara publishes the censored version so check it out there). At the end of amud alef, we have an interesting note: Rabbi Meir would call them “Aven Gilyon” and Rabbi Yochanan would call them “Avon Gilyon.” What are these mysterious evil or sinning gilyonot? The Tannaim are playing on the word “evangeles” or what is know in English as the Gospels.
Later there is another censored word: when the philosopher speaks to Ima Shalom (amud bet) he tells her that today the Torah is irrelevant and we must follow the “Avon Gilyon.”
The polemics here are between Jews and Jewish Christians. We are still at an early stage in Christianity where the missionizing was mostly aimed at Jews. In Eretz Yisrael, Jews often lived as neighbors with Jewish Christians. A great example of this is the Jewish town of
Kfar Nahum, or Capernaumas it is known in English. If you go there today, you can see, side by side, the imposing synagogue of the town and the remains of Peter’s house where tradition held that followers of Jesus gathered to pray (today a massive modern church is built above). Here is a view of the synagogue from Peter’s house:
And here is a drawing with the house in the top left corner and the synagogue in the bottom right:
Living in such close proximity meant that the Jews had to be militant in guarding against Christian influences. Therefore, the Tannaim of our daf: Rabban Gamliel (and Ima Shalom) of the third generation, Rabbis Tarfon and Yishmael of the fourth generation and Rabbi Meir of the fifth generation – are all from the early years of this Jewish-Christian struggle. Later this issue fades from importance as the two religions separate and become increasingly different.