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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.



Jewish Interpretation of the Bible

Jonathan Magonet

Definition

Certain problems of definition of the term ‘Jewish’ need to be clarified in order to address this subject. The work, in particular, of Michael Fishbane (1985) has emphasized the way in which even within the Hebrew Bible itself there is evidence of ‘interpretation’, whereby earlier materials are reworked in later passages for specific purposes. Where this activity is a post-exilic exercise, it may be possible to speak of it as being ‘Jewish’ biblical interpretation, though the subject of inner-biblical developments is outside the remit of this chapter: Similar problems of definition arise with the works of Philo and the pseudepigraphical writings and, for that matter, the New Testament itself. All of them operate within a Jewish context, but were marginal to, or departed from, what was to become mainstream Judaism. Again, they are treated separately within this Handbook.

Thus for the earliest period of Jewish interpretation we will confine ourselves to such translations, interpretations, and commentaries as emerged out of and served the needs of Jewish communities. (The Septuagint and Targums, as Jewish translations, will be addressed elsewhere.)

At the other end of the historical spectrum, with the rise of modernity, particularly after the emancipation of European Jewry, definitions of ‘Jewishness’ itself and questions as to what constitutes a particularly ‘Jewish’ approach to the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible are not easily resolved (Magonet 1995). Thus today Bible study per se is most actively pursued within the various synagogue-based Jewish religious movements and an emerging secular/humanist movement. However, an overlapping but different orientation can be found within the State of Israel, where the Hebrew Bible is additionally studied and interpreted as a national treasure and cultural artefact, as well as a ‘political’ document. The Hebrew Bible is also studied as an academic discipline within universities and seminaries. Here it may be taught by scholars who happen to be Jewish but who may have little commitment to their Jewish identity, and hence to its implication for their approach to the Bible, and varying degrees of access to or interest in classical Jewish methods of exegesis. I will address the question of what might constitute contemporary Jewish approaches in the final part of this study.

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