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A Classical Ethical Problem in Ancient Philosophy and Rabbinic Thought: The Case of the Shipwrecked*

  • Katell Berthelot (a1)

The story found in Sifra Behar 5.3 and in the Babylonian Talmud, Baba Meṣi'a 62a, about two persons traveling in a desert and having a quantity of water that allows only one of them to reach civilization and survive, is well known and frequently referred to in books and articles dealing with Jewish ethics. The rabbinic texts raise the question: Should the travelers share the water and die together, or should the person who owns the water drink it in order to survive? This story reminds one of the case of the two shipwrecked men who grasp a plank that can bear the weight of only one person and therefore enables only one of them to reach the coast, a case referred to in philosophical texts from the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The similarities between the issues dealt with in the rabbinic texts and the Greco-Roman ones have indeed been noticed by several scholars working on rabbinic literature (whereas specialists of ancient philosophy generally ignore them). However, a systematic comparative analysis of the rabbinic tradition and the philosophical texts has not been undertaken so far, nor have previous studies paid much attention to the issues at stake within the Greco-Roman texts themselves, to their inner logic and relationships with one another.

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I would like to thank very warmly Marc Hirshman, Zeev Harvey, and Ron Naiweld for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. Moreover, special thanks are due to Chaim J. Milikowsky, whose careful and acute critical reading has been of invaluable help to give this article its final shape. I alone bear the responsibility for any mistakes that may remain.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Malcolm Schofield , “Stoic Ethics,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, (ed. Brad Inwood ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 233–56

Mary W. Blundell , “Parental Nature and Stoic Οἰκείωσις,” Ancient Philosophy 10 (1990) 221–42

Malcolm Schofield , “Two Stoic Approaches to Justice,” in Justice and Generosity: Studies in Hellenistic Social and Political Philosophy (ed. André Laks and Malcolm Schofield ; Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 191212

Pierre Couissin , “L'origine et l'évolution de l'ἐποχή,” REG 42 (1929) 373–97

Anthony A. Long , “Carneades and the Stoic telos,” Phronesis 12 (1967) 5990

E. Margaret Atkins , “‘Domina et Regina Virtutum’: Justice and Societas in De Officiis,” Phronesis 35 (1990) 258–89

Katell Berthelot , “Assistance to the Shipwrecked as a Paradigm of Humaneness in the Ancient World,” in The Quest for a Common Humanity: Human Dignity and Otherness in the Religious Traditions of the Mediterranean (ed. Katell Berthelot and Matthias Morgenstern ; Leiden: Brill, 2011) 311–26

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Harvard Theological Review
  • ISSN: 0017-8160
  • EISSN: 1475-4517
  • URL: /core/journals/harvard-theological-review
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