A Companion to Biblical Interpretation in Early Judaism – keep this “companion” close!

A new book from Eerdmans (2012) caught my attention recently and I think it is an outstanding volume: A Companion to Biblical Interpretation in Early Judaism (ed. M Henze). You may recall that in 2004 Henze edited a book called Biblical Interpretation at Qumran (also Eerdmans). Now, he has collected essays from experts of early Judaism on a range of techniques applied by Jews and Jewish communities in antiquity. This is an extremely valuable collection of trenchant essays – up-to-date, balanced, incisive treatments of biblical interpretation in all its complexity, diversity, and fluidity.

Here is the TOC:

Part I

“The Beginnings of Biblical Interpretation,” (James Kugel)

Part II: The Hebrew Bible/OT

“Inner-Biblical Interpretation” (Yair Zakovitch)

“Translators as Interpreters: Scriptural Interpretation in the Septuagint” (Martin Roesel)

“The Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in the Targums” (Edward Cook)

Part III: Rewritten Bible

“Biblical Interpretation in the Book of Jubilees: The Case of the Early Abram” (J. van Ruiten)

“The Genesis Apocryphon: Compositional and Interpretive Perspectives,” (Moshe Bernstein)

“Biblical Interpretation in Pseudo-Philo’s LAB” (Howard Jacobson)

Part IV: The Qumran Literature

“The Use of Scripture in the Community Rule” (Shani Tzoref)

“Prophetic Interpretation in the Pesharim” (G. Brooke)

“Biblical Interpretation in the Hodayot” (S.J. Tanzer)

Part V: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments

“The Use of Scripture in the Book of Daniel” (Henze)

“How to Make Sense of Pseudonymous Attribution : The Cases of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch” (Hindy Najman with Itamar Manoff and Eva Mroczek)

“The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: A Not-So-Ambiguous Witness to Early Jewish Interpretive Practices” (Robert Kugler)

Part VI: Wisdom Literature

“Biblical Interpretation in the Book of Ben Sira” (Benjamin Wright III)

“Pseudo-Solomon and His Scripture: Biblical Interpretation in the Wisdom of Solomon” (Peter Enns)

Part VII: Hellenistic Judaism

“The Interpreter of Moses: Philo of Alexandria and the Biblical Text” (Gregory Sterling)

“Josephus’s Biblical Interpretation” (Zuleika Rodgers)

Part VIII: Biblical Interpretation in Antiquity

“Biblical Exegesis and Interpretations from Qumran to the Rabbis” (Aharon Shemesh)

In total, the book is more than 500 pages.

There were three essays that particularly caught my attention and I will highlight them below.

Zakovitch on Inner-Biblical Interpretation: He notes that one factor that undergirds Scriptural interpretation in the OT itself is the desire for God’s word to speak freshly in every era: “Interpretation is always relevant; it is an ever-current indicator of a generation’s contemporary concerns” (29). He also points out that giving attention to how extra-biblical texts “use” Scripture might help us see those same methods already at work in the OT, even if they are used only in a rudimentary or implicit fashion (39).

Roesel on the LXX: Roesel’s discussion of the LXX is fascinating. He explains that a certain interpretive philosophy supports the translation assumptions at work in the NETS collection that has recently been released. Editorial director of the project Albert Pietersma guided the translators to follow an assumption of interlinearity – that the original purpose and use of LXX was to be set alongside the Hebrew Scriptural text.

According to Pietersma, many of the translations of the LXX are not meant to be read independently. The Greek text was translated as a tool to understand the Hebrew, a “crib for the study of the Hebrew” [quoting Pietersma]. Only at a later stage in the history of reception were the Greek texts read independently. (p. 71)

If Pietersma is right, this has huge implications for the interpretration of the LXX, namely that the “connotations of the Greek words [should] stay in the semantic range of the Hebrew” (72). Roesel rejects this theory. First, Roesel argues that the “interlinear” trend cannot be traced back to the 3rd century BC. Also, the kinds of interlinear texts we do have knowledge of are “not coherent texts but lists of words and phrases that should be used as examples” (p. 73). Also, Pietersma’s theory does not account for the frequent appearance of neologisms in the LXX. I would be very interested in a response to this essay from Pietersma, because Roesel’s counter-arguments seem to me to be worthy of one.

Najman on Pseudonymous Apocalyptic Literature: Hindy Najman is interested in why writers of apocalyptic texts attribution authorship to a different, usually well-known, figure. She wishes to set aside modern notions of authorship that paint the true author as a forger.

An alternative is to consider the notion of a discourse tied to a founder: a practice of ascribing texts to an ideal figure, in order not only to authorize the texts in question but also to restore the figure’s authentic teachings” (326).

Pseudepigraphy, then, is an author’s attempt to reactivate the teachings of a holy man from the past, whether Moses, or Ezra, or Baruch. This is not just an act of deception, whether pious or deviant. It is a pedagogical choice, not (merely?) an ideological one.

By assuming and emulating such figures as Baruch and Ezra in pseudepigraphal attribution, the writers of these texts become these characters, insofar as they — like the heroes they invoke — struggle to recover a perfect, holy, and idealized past in the face of destruction. (327)

I think Najman is on to something, though I wonder if Revelation is a special case…

While a number of the chapters are illuminating, the most rewarding discussion appears in the introduction (“The Beginnings of Biblical Interpretation”) by James Kugel. Looking at the big picture of how Jews of the second temple period thought about Scripture (based on their own “uses” of it), he isolates four “basic assumptions” that appear to be pervasive.

1. “The Bible is fundamentally a cryptic document;” that is, “Often, when it seems to be saying X, what it really means is Y.” Thus, many interpreters are on the look out for hidden meaning.

2, “The Bible is a great book of lessons” – “Although most of its various parts talk about the distant past, its words are actually aimed at people today.”

3. “The Bible is perfectly consistent and free of error or internal contradiction” – if an error is perceived, it must be an interpretive mistake, not a problem that exists in the text itself.

4. “Every word of Scripture comes from God…Even the psalms, whose words seemed to be directed to God, were nonetheless held to have come from God, indeed, to be a form of prophecy” (see pp. 14-15).

Kugel clarifies that we do not read these assumptions written out anywhere. They were unconscious. 

Nevertheless, a careful reading will reveal that they underlie virtually everything that was written about Scripture during this crucial period and thus had a great deal to do with the ‘spin’ that accompanied the Bible from antiquity through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and — to a great extent — even into our own day (15)


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