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

Literary Analogies

One consequence of the shared biblical and Graeco-Roman context of rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity are certain literary forms which appear in both rabbinic literature and the New Testament and have been adapted by the two communities in partly similar and partly different ways. Before describing these literary forms, it is necessary to stress, however, that the larger literary genres found in the two corpora differ from each other considerably. No biographical narratives like the gospels, which focus on one particular teacher, are to be found amongst rabbinic documents. In striking contrast to the focus on and elevation of one particular sage, rabbinic documents present rabbis as basically indistinctive from each other, suppressing individual traits. The editors, who remain anonymous themselves, try to give the impression of the rabbinic movement as a democratic and pluralistic community of Torah experts who all have the same status and whose legal opinions and biblical interpretations are all equally valid. Rabbinic literature is therefore characterized by what can be called inter-subjectivity, in contrast to the emphasis on individual personages and authors in early Christian writing.

Similarly, no commentaries written by individual rabbis, comparable to those written by the Christian church fathers, exist. Rabbinic midrashic works are skillfully constructed collections of multiple alternative and partly contradictory interpretations attributed to many different rabbis or transmitted anonymously (see Porton 1979; Boyarin 1990; Stern 1996). Nevertheless, comparisons with Christian Bible exegesis are possible (see Visotzky 1995).

Other characteristics of rabbinic literature are the unsystematic presentation of the material and the lack of narrative and thematic development. Although Tal-mudic sugyot (thematic units) and midrashic homilies evince a certain internal logic and coherence, they do not develop their subject in a systematic way. The meaning of the argumentation often reveals itself to the initiated scholar only; that is, it presupposes a broad knowledge of both the Torah and rabbinic tradition. Therefore we must assume that rabbinic literature was school literature, meant for further discussion amongst rabbinic scholars and students, rather than popular literature written for a broad and more or less uneducated public.

Despite these differences with regard to the genres of rabbinic and Christian writings, analogies in the usage of smaller literary forms, which may have had their origins in oral transmission, exist. One such form was the chreia, or apophthegma, which was particularly suited to express the views of the sage and to present him as a model which others could emulate (see Fischel 1968; Porton 1981; Avery-Peck 1993; Hezser 1996). It consists of a narrative introduction and culminates in a poignant saying which reveals the difference between the sage and mainstream society. Such stories were first told about Graeco-Roman philosophers and later about Jesus, rabbis, and desert monks. They were transmitted by these sages' students and meant to commemorate them as models of practical and moral wisdom.

Another literary form which appears in both the gospels and New Testament writings is the parable. Particularly common in both philosophical and rabbinic writings, especially midrash, are the so-called king parables in which the king stands for God (see Ziegler 1903). In the parables of the gospels the king has usually been replaced by a householder. The images and details of the parables are usually taken from everyday life, not only the royal court but also the world of the slave, peasant, and day labourer (see Hezser 1996). In their midrashic context parables are used to illustrate the biblical verses which frame them (see Stern 1991). Prior to their inclusion in the literary genre midrash, these parables, like the parables of the gospels, seem to have been transmitted orally, however, without a biblical verse or an interpretation. The listener had to determine their meaning for him or herself by applying their message to the specific context, the Sitz im Leben, in which they were told.

Other literary forms which are shared by the New Testament and rabbinic writings are the wise (moral or legal) saying, the list, the exemplum, and the anecdote. All of these forms also appear in (Stoic) philosophical texts, and it is likely that they were common forms used by both philosophers and Jewish and Christian religious teachers in antiquity (cf. Fischel 1977). Their particular adaptation in both rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity deserves further study. Unfortunately, no form history of rabbinic literature exists, yet all of these and possibly other, not yet detected literary forms need to be studied carefully with regard to their transmission and redaction history (see Hezser 2000).

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