The Rabbinic Sage Who Dismembered His Adversaries


Talmudic and aggadic lore offers many episodes of rabbinic sages intellectually defeating the luminaries of the Hellenistic world. Far less common are instances of rabbis dismembering their pagan nemeses. So 2nd-century Rabbi Joshua Ben Hananiah really stands apart.

As recounted in the Babylonian Talmud (Bekhorot 8b-9a), acting on Roman Emperor Hadrian‘s dare to abduct Athens’ top philosophers, Ben Hananiah traveled all the way to the celebrated city-state and coerced a local into revealing the secret location of the philosophical academy.

Upon reaching the heavily defended abode, the esteemed rabbi tricked the academy’s elders into killing the guards.

In a match of wits, Ben Hananiah demonstrated his intellectual superiority while exposing the vapidity of Greek wisdom. After kidnapping 60 of Athens’s best, he brought the scholars before Hadrian, who placed their fate in the sage’s hands.

Using what can only be called magic, Ben Hananiah caused the philosophers’ shoulders to be violently wrenched from their bodies. All of them were killed. Other sages, like Hillel the Elder, have been praised for almost superhuman patience.  But Ben Hananiah’s actions present another view of the sages: as people who were extraordinary, but flawed.

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