PSCO Presentation: 7 April, 2016

“The Primordial Bull & Original Sin: Sasanian Jews and Christians at the Crossroads of Syrian Mithraism & Indo-Iranian Culture”

Yishai Kiel (Yale)


A cryptic story recorded in the Babylonian Talmud narrates Adam's first encounter with the seasonal and daily cycles of light and darkness. Having realized that darkness was not a punishment inflicted on the world as a result of his original sin, Adam is said to have sacrificed the primordial bull, a mythical creature which is believed to have been a unicorn fashioned by God in its mature form. A related Judeo-Christian magic bowl in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic (M 163),[1] which pays homage to Jesus and the trinity, similarly narrates an ambiguous scene described as the "oppression (איתכביש)" of the primordial bull (תורא קדמאה).

In my lecture, I will illuminate the various versions of this obscure tradition by recourse to its indigenous Iranian context. Based on textual and visual representations of a mythical scene depicting the slaying of the primordial bull — whether by way of sacrifice or at the hands of an evil entity — recorded on several rock-reliefs at Persepolis, Sassanian coinage, Pahlavi literature, and Mithraic depictions of the tauroctony at Dura Europos, I posit that Jews and Christians in Sasanian Babylonia absorbed the symbolism attached to the Iranian myth while adapting it to more familiar Judeo-Christian traditions concerning Adam and the original sin.

Jews and Christians in Babylonian, I argue, did not simply weave together textual and visual depictions of the mythical slaying of the (single-horned) primordial bull, but adapted this complex web of myths to existing rabbinic and Christian traditions inherited from the Roman East. Imbuing these traditions with new mythical symbolism, the bull sacrificed by Adam or oppressed by a manifestation of evil was mythologized, individualized, and reconfigured in the image and likeness of indigenous Iranian traditions.


Yishai Kiel is a lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies and Directed Studies Program at Yale University. He received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was a Harry Starr fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard, a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard, and a Blaustein postdoctoral associate at the Program in Judaic Studies at Yale. Kiel's scholarship centers on legal, exegetical, and theological intersections of Rabbinic, Christian, Islamic, Zoroastrian, and Manichaean traditions in the Sasanian and early Islamicate Near East. His articles have been published in various scholarly platforms, including The Journal of Religion, Harvard Theological Review, Vetus Testamentum, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Journal of Jewish Studies, Journal of Biblical Literature, Bulletin of the Asia Institute, AJS Review, Jewish Studies Quarterly, Journal for the Study of Judaism, and Jewish Law Annual. His forthcoming book is entitled Sexuality in the Babylonian Talmud: Christian and Sasanian Contexts in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).


Note that the external doors of Cohen Hall have been locked some evenings by 7:00 pm. We will post students at the doors between 6:40 and 6:55 to let you in. If you arrive later, please call or text (215-900-5422 or 714-213-5925), and we’ll have someone run down to let you in!

Meeting and Dining

All are welcome! As usual, those interested are also welcome to join us for an informal dinner prior to the session. Those wishing to dine together before the seminar will meet at 6:00 p.m. in the Second-Floor Lounge of Cohen Hall and then walk next door to the food court in Houston Hall. Or, just meet us in the Houston Hall downstairs food-court between 6:00-6:45 p.m.

As usual, the PSCO seminar will begin at 7:00 p.m. and end at 9:00 p.m. We meet in the Second-Floor Lounge of Cohen Hall.