Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
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Meir Levin

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Shemos 5765

Yahnes and Mamre.

Last week we discussed the fact that midrashic literature can be seen as belonging to a continuum of oral tradition that was widely known among Jews of all kinds of backgrounds and religious affiliations. Many works have been written in the Second Temple period, most of them tinged with Hellenic culture or incorporating various sectarian leanings and they were therefore not accepted as Scripture. What sets Midrash apart from apocryphal and pseudo-hagiographic writings is, of course, that it was written with Ruach Hakodesh and is faithful to the world-view of Chazal. It is remarkable, however, to discover the extent to which the wide range of disparate extra-canonical writings agree with much later Midrashic literature on the level of detail and specific textual interpretation, if not in theology and overall approach. To me this remains the strongest proof of the existence of Oral Tradition many centuries before it was written down, just as Rabbinic tradition contends.[1]
An excellent example for this kind of proof is the identity of the wise men who opposed Moshe in Pharaoh's court. The Chumash itself tells us nothing beyond the fact that they were "wise men of Egypt", so presumably there must have been at least two of them.[2]

The oral tradition fills in their names.

Then Yahnes and Mamre, the chief wizards spoke up and said to Pharaoh. A son is going to be born to the people of Israel and through him they will bring the land of Egypt to ruin (Targum Yonasan to Shmos 1,14).

Said Yohnes and Mamra to Moshe:" Are you bringing straw to Hafaraim (i.e., are you importing magic to the birthplace of magical arts)? (Menachos 85a)

These Yahnes and Mamre were associated with Balaam, who is said to have participated in the counsel to oppress the Children of Israel.[3]

Pharaoh called for Balaam the magician and his sons, Yahnes and Mamre (Yalkut Shimoni 173)

...and the angel of the Lord stood on the road to oppose him and he was riding on a donkey and his 2 servants Yahnes and Mamre were with him (Targum Yonasan to Numbers 22,22)

Interestingly, Yahnes and Mamre were known as great magicians even among the nations. They are mentioned as associated with Moses and Zoroaster by Numenius, Apuleius, and Pliny the Elder (Natural History 30.2.11).

Among the extra-canonical works, these magicians are said to have opposed Moshe by the Testament of Solomon, a fragment entitled Yahnes and Mamre, and the gospels.[4]

The earliest datable source appears to be the Damascus Document from the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran (5:17-19).

...Moses and Aaron arose by the hand of the Prince of Lights but Belial in his cunning rose up Yahnes and his brother when Israel was saved for the first time.

The Damascus Document is the constitution of the Qumran sect. This group of sectarians led by their Priestly leader, the Teacher of Righteusness, isolated themselves from other Jews and the Temple in Jerusalem sometime around the time of Yochanan Hyrcanus, the Kohen Gadol. Their traditions probably date at the latest to somewhere around that time.

We see that what may appear as a late rabbinic legend is in fact a very early and almost universal tradition that was widely shared by all groups of Jews and that is datable to early in the Second Temple period.

1 As we noted last week, once Oral Tradition can be traced to the time of Ezra or shortly thereafter, an unbroken connection to the Pentateuch can be established on the basis of evidence of oral law present in later prophetic books when they treat matters covered in the Pentateuch.

2 Most of the sources quoted here come from James Kugel, The Bible as it was, Harvard University Press, 1997

3 Sota 11a

4 Timothy and Nicodemus, See Kugel ibid.