Same Topic Different Program No Encounter

When they read the shared Scriptures—the Old Testament/Written Torah— the two sides in fact worked different agenda. The twin agenda cover two matters: the hermeneutical issues that would generate meanings of verses, and the canonical theory that would identify the character of the whole corpus ("Scripture," "Torah"). To say the whole thing in one sentence, When God revealed God's will to humanity, precisely what did God mean—and where did that will come to writing, where not? I begin with a simple question: Why was Rome a pig? Sages' answer is that Rome showed some kosher traits, some not kosher. The kosher trait of the pig is the cloven hoof. And what (speaking all the time out of homely analogy of Leviticus Rabbah, because Jerome understood it and turned it on Israel) is the cloven hoof of Christianity? In sages' view, it is the Scriptures of ancient Israel, the Old Testament. From Jerome's perspective, Israel too showed the cloven hoof, but it did not ruminate on the Scriptures and therefore did not gain their full nourishment.

So the agreement—the confrontation—is exact. On that point, the compilers of Leviticus Rabbah and Christian exegetes such as Jerome came to explicit agreement: each saw in what the other cherished something that, for their side, they too cherished. And for both it was the same thing, Scripture. In identifying the principal, the fundamental point in common, therefore, looking backward, we do not have to impose our own judgment. Both parties to the debate in the age of Constantine, in thinking about the other, said precisely the same thing, in referring to precisely the same passage of Scripture. On the face of it, the little test of falsification proves positive: we really do have two sides talking about the same thing, in the same way, producing the same arguments about the same facts. So, it would appear, an entirely non-political topic yields the debate that I held takes place solely on matters of public policy, theologically expressed. But, happily for my larger case, the exercise must encompass more ground than a single verse in common.

To frame our specific inquiry we wonder whether with reference to Scripture the two parties asked the same questions, adduced the same facts in evidence, worked out the same logic, or whether they asked different questions, dealt with different evidence, and thought in differing logical patterns. If the answer is negative, then we must further ask why Scripture did not provoke a confrontation in the way in which the categories of history, Messiah, and Israel clearly produced a conflict over those categories. For, after all, the Judaic sages and Christian theologians did resort to the same Scriptures. The two parties certainly shared the same premises about God's role in the making of the Scriptures, by which the Israelite Scriptures assumed authority for both parties.

I take up two distinct issues concerning Scripture, one exegetical, the other canonical. How to read Scripture? How to identify scriptures as canon, as Scripture? These are distinct, if related, questions.

Exegesis. When the Christian exegetes planned a systematic program for the exegesis of Scripture, did they present matters in terms that Judaic exegetes understood? Did the two groups intersect and carry on the sort of confrontation as to issues that we have seen in other settings? Or did each set of exegetes pursue issues generated within the internal logic of its own setting, so that, as to the exegesis of Scripture, different people found themselves talking about different things to different people? The cogency of the question on exegesis hardly requires explanation. When exegetes of each party proposed to read and explain the sense of Scripture, they assuredly dealt with the same topic, namely, the meaning of Scripture, and they certainly did so in the same way, namely, through commentaries on that meaning. The form of confrontation self-evidently coheres between the two groups. The intersection at Leviticus 11 has shown us that possibility of a genuine argument: reading the same texts in the same way, coming up with diametrically opposed answers would add up to a confrontation as clearcut as whether or not Jesus was and is Christ, and whether or not Israel will be saved in the future. So the possibility of debate about the same texts and modes of thought, assuredly existed. But did debate on exegesis take place, or did the exegetes talk about different things to different people?

Canon. When the Christian theologians worked out the idea of "the Bible," consisting of "the Old Testament and the New Testament," and when the Judaic theologians worked out the idea of "the dual Torah," consisting of "the Written Torah and the Oral Torah," did each group propose to answer a question confronting the other group as well? Or did each party pursue a problem particular to the internal logic and life of its own group? The question on the canon does not enjoy the same self-evident pertinence to each party. Why should we imagine that when the one party asked the question of the canon, it considered the same issue that the other did? The answer derives from the character of the canonical issue. Each party had to designate within the larger corpus of scriptures deriving from ancient Israel those writings that it regarded as authoritative, therefore divinely revealed. But did the one side do so for the same reasons, and within the same sort of theological logic, that the other did? Each party had further to explain to itself the end-result, that is, the revealed words as a whole. What are they all together, all at once? The one party characterized the whole as a single Bible, book, piece of writing, and the other party characterized the whole as a single Torah, revelation, in two media, writing and memory. Do these characterizations of the result of revelation, that is, of the canon, constitute intersecting statements? Or are the issues essentially defined by considerations internal to the respective groups?

Jerome and the Christian Exegetical Tradition

Hard-working, prolific, and remarkably intelligent, Jerome produced prefaces to various biblical books, a vast corpus of letters, lives of Paul, Hilarion, and others, dialogues, and on and on. Our interest in Jerome as an exegete transcends specific remarks about passages of Scripture, since agreement on a minor detail—e.g., how to explain the symbolism of the pig in Leviticus 11 — may obscure disagreement on the task at hand. We ask a more general question. It is whether, as exegetes, Jerome and the authorship of Sifre to Numbers2 found themselves guided by Scripture to ask one set of questions rather than some other. With Jerome we have a case in which a Christian theologian did enter into interchange with Judaic counterparts. Jerome testifies that discourse among Judaic and Christian intellectuals on the meaning of Scripture took place. "The only person from whom he could learn Hebrew was a Jew; the only copies of the Hebrew text available to him came from the Jews; and, when he met with difficultues in his translation, he turned to a learned Jew from Tiberias for assistance" (Wilken 1983, 83). But Jerome's interest, as we shall see, brought to the text a less theological and a more philological program than did the authorship of Sifre to Numbers. As a translator, he will have found himself more at home with the Targumists, who translated Scripture into Aramaic. But we do not know that the Targumists found a place in the larger rabbinic circles under discussion (except, of course, for the authorship of Onquelos), so we cannot venture such a comparison. In fact, even though at

2. Sifre to Numbers reached closure after the time of the Mishnah, to which it makes reference, but a terminus ante quern is not entirely evident to me. So we assign, for convenience, a date of somewhere between 200 and 400. It is not an ideal choice, but it brings us closer to the kind of exegesis of a verse-by-verse character that was carried on by Christian exegetes than do Genesis Rabbah or Leviticus Rabbah. There I find the comparison not possible, there being no shared foundation at all.

particular points Jerome and sages may have produced something like an intersecting comment, Jerome's interest in the matter—determining the correct text of Scripture, the correct meaning of the Hebrew words—did not produce an exegetical program that at any point corresponded to one we can identify with Judaic exegetes, e.g., those whose work we have examined in Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus Rabbah.3 Jerome pursued a powerful interest in the translation of the text in terms of its simplest layer of meaning, much like the authors of some of the Targumim. Sages, for their part, followed a program of typology, such as we saw in Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus Rabbah, or a program of polemic directed toward issues particular to their own circle. In sages' compilations we find no sustained interest in the level of a simple statement of the plain sense of a given passage.

Born in 331 in Dalmatia, Jerome spent much of his life, from 372, in the Near East, in Antioch, Constantinople, the Syrian desert, and, from 386, in Bethlehem. Even before reaching there, he had begun to study Hebrew as well as Syriac. Earlier Jerome had translated Eusebius from Greek into Latin, so supplying the Christian West with a universal history of its own. From 383-84 he began his labor of translating the Bible into Latin, working from the Hebrew rather than from the Greek or earlier Latin version(s). The work went on for twenty-two years. Jerome made extensive use of contemporary Jewish biblical exegesis, avoided mystical or allegorical exegesis, and, in general, strove to say in Latin what the text said in Hebrew (Kelly 1975, 73-74, 156-57).4 Jerome's program and that of the framers of the Judaic sages' treatments of books of Scripture, exemplified by Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus Rabbah, simply are not the same. The Judaic sages, as we shall see in the case of Sifre to Numbers, brought to Scripture their own questions, generated by issues internal to their movement, and answered them in their own way. Their questions were not Jerome's, and his interests were not theirs. In fact Jerome's translation bore directly on the confrontation with the Jews. What interested him were questions of no pertinence to the Judaic exegetes of Scripture, who undertook no explicit confrontation with Christian exegesis. Jerome had in mind a translation that would permit a confrontation with Israel and Judaism on the question of conversion. Nothing could have been further from the minds of the authors of Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus Rabbah than the con

3. But the exegetical program we shall compare to Jerome's does not derive from documents already examined for a different purpose. The reason is that neither Genesis Rabbah nor Leviticus Rabbah forms a counterpart, as exegesis, to the kind of word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase commentary characteristic of such exegetes as Jerome, for whom, after all, the principal exegesis constituted a translation.

4. In this regard, as I said, we should have to compare Jerome to the framers of the Aramaic translations of Scripture, the Targumim. But the policy of translation of the Targumim favored paraphrase and insertion into a "translation" of extensive materials not found in the original. I cannot point to a Targum into Aramaic so closely tied to the received Hebrew text as Jerome's translations into Latin were.

frontation with Rome and Christianity on the question of conversion. Their issues and Jerome's did not intersect at the exegetical level.

In 390 Jerome undertook a completely fresh translation of the Hebrew Scriptures directly from the Hebrew into Latin. The motive, as Kelly explains it, is instructive:

It became translucently clear to himself and certain close friends that their only hope of demolishing the arguments of Jewish critics was to take their stand on a text of the Old Testament which both parties agreed was authentic. ... He wished to deprive them of their present vantage-point for deriding Christians and to refute them on their own ground by appealing, when controversy arose, to a version which they had to acknowledge as indisputably accurate and which nevertheless spoke unmistakably of the coming of Christ. (1975, 160)

If, then, we ask about Jerome's larger hermeneutical program, we see that it derived from the argument with Judaism.

The work lasted until 405-6. His commentaries distinguished the factual or historical level from the allegorical or spiritual. But he held open the door to contemporary meaning of the ancient Scriptures, as when he dealt with Zephaniah's warning on the day of the Lord as a day of wrath:

Zephaniah's horrifying imagery finds its fulfillment in the wretched plight of the Jews of Jerome's own day, virtually excluded from the city that was once their pride and admitted once a year, on the anniversary of its capture and destruction, and then only for a fee, to gaze, weeping and wailing, under the watchful eyes of Roman guards, at the ruined Temple site with its shattered altar. For them this is the prophesied day of calamity and misery, of darkness and gloom. But in the midst of their shame the Church of the Resurrection shines resplendent, and the cross rises triumphant on the Mount of Olives. (Kelly 1975, 166-67)

His selection of biblical books for his prefaces provides a clue as to his purpose. Here, while he worked on Joshua, Samuel and Kings, Chronicles, Esther, Job, Psalms, and so on, his more important prefaces address Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the other prophetic books. These prefaces are like those we expect today: descriptive, factual, focused on problems of text, language, and plain meaning. His emphasis lay upon the accuracy of his translations, his selection of manuscripts, the perfidy and ignorance of his critics: "I beg you to confront with the shields of your prayers the mad dogs who bark and rage against me and go about the city and think themselves learned if they disparage others" (Fremantle et al. 1961, 490). Introducing his translation of Job, he says, "My detractors must therefore learn either to receive altogether what they have in part admitted, or they must erase my translation." His preface to Jeremiah states, "I pay little heed to the ravings of disparaging critics who revile not only my words but the very syllables of my words." In short, Jerome writes like a scholar, with a keen interest in problems of learning and in proving his claim to say what the text really means. One looks in vain for a statement of a theological agendum, such as we shall shortly address in Sifre to Numbers.

This is not to suggest that in other aspects of the task Jerome ignored theological issues. Within the Church, he confronted Origenism and Pelagianism, and his letters and treatises take up issues involving both theological movements. Addressing himself to the Jews, he advanced the established and conventional polemic against the Jews' unbelief (as he would put it). These debates in no way intersected with Jews' interests in the exegesis of Scripture, the inner-facing issues, by definition. Where Jerome argued with Jews, the shaping of the question derived from issues particular to his side. We look in vain for sages' confrontation with that same set of issues. Let me give one example. Part of Jerome's task was to determine which books were canonical. Here too the dialogue with Judaism proved determinative, as Kelly says: "What chiefly moved him was the embarrassment he felt at having to argue with Jews on the basis of books which they rejected or even . . . found frankly ridiculous" (1975, 161). But I know of not a single passage in the fourth-century Jewish writings that addresses the issue of a canon with reference to acceptance or rejection of a given book of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jerome's polemic in the translation emerges in his emphasis on the messianic or otherwise Christian implication of passages in which the Hebrew did not require or sustain that theme (Kelly 1975, 162). Obviously, no comment of a sage addressed that matter in a direct way.

Jerome persisted because the program served the Church, and what he found critical were issues important within the life of the Church. While Judaic and Christian exegetes may have met in confrontation on a given verse, as we have already noticed, each group of biblical exegetes took up its task in its own way. True enough, we find numerous indications of Jerome's knowledge of Judaic exegesis. For example, he knew that the Jews identified Rome with the Edom that Obadiah predicted would be destroyed. That identification is wrong, according to Jerome. Edom stood for the Jews themselves or for heretics. He refers in particular to "the pride of the Jews." But he drew heavily on rabbinic exegesis, especially for what he called his "historical exposition." But, Kelly says, "He was quick to reject, to give one obvious example, specifically Jewish hopes of a splendidly restored Jerusalem dominating the rest of the world." Again, when he read the book of Daniel, Jerome had to confront the Jews' view that the author predicted the destruction in 70 but also the Messiah in time to come. Christians read the book as a manifest prophecy of Christ. These matters had to be addressed. Jerome in general accuses the Jews of blindness, immorality, greed, and "exulting in their present humiliation, which . . . would last until the world's end." None of this, in spirit but also in actual wording, is necessarily original to Jerome; he borrowed heavily from many, especially Origen (Kelly 1975, 222, 292, 300, 301).

A falsification test for the theory of this book now presents itself. Do the Judaic counterparts, writing large-scale and systematic commentaries on biblical books, frame the issues they wish to discuss in order to confront their Christian critics? That is to ask, first, do we find answers to Christian uses of biblical verses? An answer to that question does not derive from my survey of the florilegium of verses used by Aphrahat in his argument with Judaic sages. Judaic sources of the same period do not take up those same verses and counter what Aphrahat says. On the basis of the materials I reviewed in connection with verses adduced in evidence by Aphrahat, I could hardly locate evidence, based on comments on the same verses from different perspectives, of either a rabbinic dialogue with Christianity or a Christian dialogue with rabbis known to us. In the main, neither side confronted the other's scriptural testimonies. The rabbis scarcely paid attention to the verses of Scripture Aphrahat was certain proved Christian belief. Aphrahat found nothing interesting in verses that sages, in the Talmud of Babylonia for example, thought exemplary. The most striking result of my survey is the discovery that the rabbis simply did not interest themselves in the Scriptures that most interested Aphrahat (Neusner 1971, 168).

The second question—do sages frame their large-scale program in response to issues important to the large-scale program of their counterparts?— brings us to an examination of the generative tension of Sifr6 to Numbers. There, as we shall see, what is on the minds of the framers of the document bears no point of contact with the argument over Scripture with Christianity.5 To restate my particular point of concern, it is whether or not the same people are talking about the same things, each to his own group; whether the issues are shared, whether the modes of thought unfold in common. Jerome's exegesis, in part, concerned how Scripture can be shown to prove that Jesus was predicted by the prophets, and that, as the Christ, be legitimately fulfilled those promises that the prophets had made. We know that this issue occupied Christian theologians. But, in the exegetical context, did it occupy Judaic ones?6 If it did, then the program is the same, the confrontation real, the dispute parallel to the ones we considered in chapters 2, 3, and 4. If the Judaic sages, when they composed an exegesis of Scripture, found provocative a set of issues internal to their own life, then, on the surface, we can discern no parallel between Jerome as exegete and a sample of Judaic sages as exegetes.

5. That is not to suggest that the issues of the age do not inform the minds of the Judaic exegetes when they turn to Scripture. The challenge of Constantine's conversion and its effects surely accounts in large part for the intense interest of the framers of Genesis Rabbah in the meaning of the history of Israel. But that concern does not derive from a specific dispute about the exegesis of the verse of Genesis or from a general argument (all the more so) about the canonicity of Genesis. So it is not the same thing as finding that the same people cited the same verses in an argument on the same issue, and that is what we presently seek.

6. I refer once more to my survey, in Aphrahat and Judaism, of the proof-texts adduced by Aphrahat in the argument on the Christhood of Jesus. There I showed that the verses important to Aphrahat scarcely elicited comment from Judaic sages represented in the Talmudic canon. So, on the face of it, the exegetical programs of the two groups did not coincide. But I have in mind a deeper issue, namely, did the large-scale exegetical work of the one party bear any resemblance to those of the other. For that purpose, we proceed not to the comparison of whether each group talked about the texts important to the other, but whether the larger exegetical issue concerning the one defined issues interesting to the other. For that purpose I take up Sifre to Numbers.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment