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

Medieval Jewish Exegesis

Saadiah Ibn Joseph Al-Fayyumi (882–942) was the head (Gaon) of the rabbinic academy of Sura. He was the first rabbinic scholar to introduce the use of philology into the study of the Hebrew Bible, the author of a lexicon of Hebrew grammar and an Arabic translation of the Bible. His major philosophical work, Book of Beliefs and Opinions, was part of a struggle against the influence of the Karaites, who rejected the rabbinic concept of the Oral Torah. His approach revolutionized Jewish Bible exegesis and ushered in what Wilhelm Bacher characterized as ‘the period of the Peshat’ (1903: 166).

The impact of these new directions was particularly felt in Muslim and Christian Spain, which saw the development of Hebrew grammar and lexicography. Menachem ben Saruk (c.960) composed his Machberet (Dictionary) in Hebrew, beginning the research that led to the recognition of the triliteral theory of Hebrew roots developed by his opponent Dunash ibn Labrat (c.920–90) and completed by Judah ben David Hayyuj (c.945–c.1000), writing in Arabic, and subsequently Jonah Ibn Janah (eleventh century) in his Hebrew Book of Roots. Hayyuj's studies were translated into Hebrew by Moses ibn Gikatilla (eleventh century), whose observations were to influence the most significant Spanish biblical exegete of the period, Abraham Ibn Ezra (c.1092–1167). Born in Tudela, Spain, Ibn Ezra was a typical representative of the learned figure of the time, a poet, philosopher, and grammarian, who wrote books on astronomy, astrology, and mathematics. He spent the latter part of his life travelling, including extended periods in Italy, France, and England, composing commentaries to most books of the Hebrew Bible. His style is succinct, and thus at times obscure, leading to a multiplicity of super-commentaries being composed on his writings within his lifetime. Though firmly within the tradition, he noted what he saw as glosses added to the Pentateuch and hinted that Isaiah 40 was written by a different author.

Ibn Ezra is clearly to be located within the rational trend within Jewish exegesis indicated above. In his introduction to his commentary on Genesis he provides a snapshot of the methods used by his contemporaries with whom he is in disagreement: 1. Those who introduce an excess of extraneous matter into their commentary—a critique of the methods used by the Geonim, the spiritual leaders of Babylonian Jewry. 2. Those who entirely reject tradition and rely solely on their own reasoning—the Karaites, whom he calls ‘Sadducees’. 3. Those who delight in mysticism and reject the literal sense of the text—this probably applies to the Christians, who, he writes elsewhere, treat the laws of the Pentateuch as allegories. 4. Those who value the peshat but mistakenly give preference to midrashic explanations that were only meant to be understood figuratively—though not named here he seems to mean those like Rashi (see below) who profess to be concerned with the peshat but whose commentaries are largely Midrash. (In his commentary on Lamentations he compares the peshat to the body and the Midrash to the clothing, adding that some of the latter are like fine silk, while others are like thick sackcloth!) Ibn Ezra considers himself to belong to a fifth class of commentator, who explains the grammatical form of every word and pays attention to the traditional explanation of the laws even when his own reasoning leads him to a different conclusion (based on Friedländer 1877: 120–2). (For a detailed investigation of the approaches of Saadiah, the Karaites, Moses Ibn Gikatilla, and Abraham Ibn Ezra to the Psalms, see Simon 1991.)

To illustrate Ibn Ezra's approach, in the longer of his two commentaries on Exodus he includes an excursus on the two versions of the Ten Commandments. The problem of the different wordings of the sabbath commandment (‘Remember the sabbath day’ (Exod. 20: 8) and ‘Keep the sabbath day’ (Deut. 5: 12)) had been resolved in rabbinic tradition with the statement that they were expressed ‘in a single utterance’. Ibn Ezra takes issue with those who take this rabbinic saying literally on the basis that God might be able to say two things simultaneously, though no human being could understand them! He argues that in the Deuteronomy version Moses explains elements that are not clear in the Exodus version. As to the occasional differences in wording (and cases where the same word is spelt slightly differently), he argues that this is not significant provided the different words express the same idea, for ‘the words are like the body, but the meaning is like the soul'. In an excursus on Ecclesiastes he tackles the apparent contradictions within the book: ‘no sage would write a book and contradict himself within it!’ He dismisses the view that it was a collective work compiled by the teacher's students and tries to reconcile the contradictory statements with reference to the inner struggle within the soul.

While the rich Islamic culture with its scholarly and intellectual traditions nourished Ibn Ezra and his contemporaries, the most celebrated and beloved Jewish exegete Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, Ra[bbi] Sh[elomo] I[tzhaki], 1040–96) lived in the very different climate of Christian Europe. Born in Troyes, he studied in Worms, which, alongside Mayence and Speyer, were centres of Talmudic learning from the tenth century. Returning home, he established his own school in the city that was a major centre of Christian scholarship. Little is known about his life, though he probably earned a living from viticulture. His three daughters married Talmudic scholars, and his grandson, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam, c.1085–1158), also wrote biblical commentaries in which he debated with his grandfather.

Rashi is rightly renowned for his commentary on the Talmud, which became an essential tool for studying the often difficult text. His commentary on most of the Bible had a very special appeal to the Jewish masses, and his commentary on the Pentateuch was the first Hebrew work whose place and date of printing are known, Reggio in 1475. His commentaries had a significant influence on Christian scholars who sought the plain meaning of the Hebrew. Erwin Rosenthal notes:

[H]e was aptly called by Reuchlin ordinarius Scripturae interpres. Nicholas of Lyra quoted him so often that Reuchlin remarked that not many pages would remain over if one took away references to ‘Rabi Salomon’ from Nicholas's Postillae. His exegesis figures largely in the Latin translation of Sebastian Münster, who so decisively influenced the Puritan scholars and translators. Rashi's comments can be detected in Tyndale, Coverdale and the Genevan and Bishop's Bibles, important forerunners of the King James Version, whose chief architect, John Reynolds, refers to him—as Reuchlin had—as ‘the author of their ordinary gloss’ in his commentaries on Haggai and Obadiah. (Rosenthal 1969: 261–2)

What characterizes Rashi's commentary is the mixture of peshat and derash, the precise significance of which has been the subject of scholarly debate. In a detailed study of Rashi's use of the terms, Sarah Kamin concluded that they were not used by him as exegetical categories. Rashi accepted both the rabbinic view that the text contained many possible meanings, but also that the ‘plain’ meaning had to be retained. Thus in places where the text contained features that invited a number of interpretations he would select the traditional one that best fitted the context and linguistic features. He thus created a comprehensive view of the text as a whole, integrating the rabbinic understanding into what he regarded as the ‘plain’ meaning. It was his grandson, Rashbam, who distinguished clearly between peshat and derash, who ‘limited himself to the text itself, interpreting it according to its vocabulary, syntax and context, in relation to biblical parallels, according to the common sense as well as derekh eretz (what is customary). Unlike Rash, Rashbam did not integrate Biblical text and Midrash’ (Kamin 1980: 32).

Rashbam, in a celebrated remark, characterizes the openness of his grandfather as a scholar:

And Rabbi Solomon, my maternal grandfather, the light of the eyes of the Diaspora, who commented on the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings, devoted himself to explaining the Peshat of the scriptures; and I, Samuel son of Meir, his son-in-law (may the name of the righteous one be a blessing), debated with him and before him, and he confessed to me that if he had had the leisure, he would have had to have provided other explanations according to the plain meanings (Peshat) that suggest themselves anew every day. (Rashbam commentary to Gen. 37: 2)

Rashi introduced grammatical comments when appropriate, basing himself on the work of Menachem ben Saruk and made particular use of Targum Onqelos. Because he often provided a translation of a particular word, his writings are a valuable source for the study of old French. It is evident that among his concerns, something even more emphasized in the commentaries of the grammarian and exegete Rabbi David Kimchi (Radak, c.1160–c.1235), were the ongoing debate with Christianity and the eschatological hopes of Jewish contemporaries. Thus Rashi explains Ps. 22: 27, ‘the humble shall eat and be sated’, as, ‘at the time of our redemption in the days of our Messiah’. The ‘suffering servant’ of Isaiah 52–3 he explains as the Jewish people as a collectivity suffering at the hands of the nations. In his commentary to Ps. 2: 12, Radak explicitly refutes the Christian view that the opening phrase, translated as ‘Kiss the son’, refers to Jesus, arguing that all such language as ‘the mouth of the Lord, the eyes of the Lord’ and ‘the son of God’ or ‘the Sons of God’, must be understood figuratively.

This internal strengthening of Jewish self-understanding through the commentaries, sometimes expressed through hints alone because of the fear of Christian censorship, was clearly needed. One public manifestation of the pressure to abandon their faith was in the forced public ‘Disputations’ (Paris, 1240; Barcelona, 1263, and Tortosa, 1413–14). The third great Bible commentator of this early medieval period, alongside Rashi and Ibn Ezra, Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides, Ramban, 1195–1270), represented the Jewish people in the Barcelona disputation before King James of Aragon. Hyam Maccoby describes the background:

The fact that the disputation was held at all was a sign that the position of the Jews of Spain was beginning to deteriorate; yet enough remained of the confidence and élan of the Jewish ‘golden age’ to make it into a real occasion, when Jewish attitudes towards fundamental matters such as the meaning of the Messiah, the scope of Original Sin, and the semantics of Biblical and Midrashic exegesis, were expounded in the manner of one giving instruction and enlightenment, not, as at Tortosa, in desperate self-defence. Even Nachmanides was forced to some extent to take a defensive role, as he himself complained; for he was not allowed to put questions against Christianity, but only to answer questions put to him by his Christian opponent. (Maccoby 1982: 12)

Born in Gerona, Nachmanides studied with teachers reflecting the different centres of Jewish learning of his time, ‘the glory of the Babylonian academies of which he is the heir, together with the philosophical grasp of the school of Maimonides and the subtlety of the French school of Rashi—not to mention the esoteric mysticism of the Kabbalah [see below], which had recently achieved a new development in Spain, and of which he was a master’ (Maccoby 1982: 13). His commentary on the Pentateuch frequently begins by citing the comments of Rashi and Ibn Ezra before taking issue with them. He debates the rationalistic approach of Maimonides, the greatest Jewish medieval philosopher, who sought in his Guide for the Perplexed to reconcile biblical teachings with Aristotelian philosophy. For example, Nachmanides challenges Maimonides on the view that all scriptural references to people seeing angels should be understood as prophetic visions rather than as actual events (commenting on Gen. 18: 1–15).

The Hebrew term ‘Kabbalah’ refers to tradition that has been handed down, and was used in a general sense before being applied to Jewish mysticism. Though present from earlier periods (Hekhalot (Palaces) and Merkavah (Chariot) literature date from the time of the Talmud and Midrash), there was a new impetus at the end of the twelfth century in Provence and in Spain. The principal text that emerged at the end of the thirteenth century was the Zohar (Book of Splendour), the composition of Moses de Leon, which he claimed contained ancient midrashim with interpretations and homilies on the Scripture from the hand of the second-century Palestinian rabbi Shimon bar Yohai. Composed in Hebrew and Aramaic, it is a commentary on the Pentateuch which addresses selective verses from the weekly portion read in the synagogue and creates homilies, stories, and dialogues amongst the sages familiar from the Talmud. This collection of writings exerted an extraordinary power over the Jewish mind, by the sixteenth century sharing pride of place alongside the Bible and the Talmud. (For an introduction to Kabbalah and further reading, see Fine 1984, and for an anthology of Zohar texts, Tishby, and Lachower 1989).

For completeness, it is important to mention other medieval commentators whose works were regularly published and studied in Jewish circles, though there is no space here to examine their individual contributions: the mystical approach of Hazzekuni (thirteenth century, France) and Bahya ibn Asher (Rabbenu Bahya, d. 1340, Spain); Jacob ben Asher (Baal ha-Turim, fourteenth century, Spain), whose commentary was devoted to Gematria, the use of the numerical value of Hebrew letters; Levi ben Gershon (Gersonides, Ralbag, 1288–1344), who summarized at the end of each biblical section the philosophical lessons; Isaac Arama (born in Spain, d. 1494 in Naples), who used Talmudic, kabbalistic, and philosophical authors to create a coherent account of different biblical sections; Don Isaac ben Judah Abravanel (born in Spain, 1437, died in Venice, 1508) who introduces each section of his commentary on the Pentateuch with questions addressed to the text which he answers with reference to wide-ranging areas of knowledge; Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno (Italy, d. 1550), author of a philosophical commentary on the Pentateuch and the teacher of Johann Reuchlin, the Christian defender of Jews and Jewish literature. (An introduction, commentary, and sampling of the above and other ‘traditional’ commentators till the nineteenth century can be found in Jacobs (1973) and through comparative citations of different biblical verses in Leibowitz (1976). For further studies of the commentaries of, among others, Rashi and Ibn Ezra, see Sarna (2000).)

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