Interpreting The Bible

The growing importance of the biblical texts in the life of Jewish communities coupled with their often enigmatic language spawned a host of interpretations. The translations discussed above are themselves one form of interpretation. In addition, the Second Temple and early rabbinic periods were inundated with far more expressive and imaginative examples. While diffuse in method, each one attempted to infuse the ancient texts with new meaning, and thus allow them to speak to a contemporary audience. The rewriting of biblical stories functioned as an early and enduring form of interpretation. The Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo, Genesis Apocryphon from Qumran, and Josephus' Jewish Antiquities rework the accounts of creation, the ancestral narratives, the Exodus from Egypt, and other biblical stories. The results are not so much paraphrases as new versions, with significant expansions and deletions of the original. Many other works developed around minor biblical characters. Several documents describe the heavenly journeys of Enoch, the obscure antediluvian figure who, according to Genesis 5:22, 'walked with God'. Another impetus for rewriting the Bible was to explain an obscure passage or remove something problematic about the text. Joseph's Egyptian wife, Aseneth, whom Genesis mentions in only two verses (Gen. 41:45; 46:20), becomes the central figure in a romance usually entitled Joseph and Aseneth. In the story, Aseneth converts to Judaism, thus eliminating the theologically embarrassing situation of having the biblical hero marry a foreign woman. In these and many other examples, the language, literary style, and thought are heavily influenced by the effects of non-Jewish cultures, especially Hellenization.

Other types of interpretation were more sophisticated in their method. In the Dead Sea Scrolls appear several examples of a method referred to as pesher, from the Hebrew meaning, 'to interpret'. The structure of these documents follows a typical form. The work cites a brief biblical passage, no more than a few verses, and follows with its explanation, often indicating the significance of the passage for the author's contemporary situation. The commentary on Habakkuk offers a clear example of how pesher worked. The biblical text (Hab. 1:5) reads: 'Behold the nations and see, marvel and be astonished; for I accomplish a deed in your days but you will not believe it when told.' About this verse, the author of the commentary writes:

[Interpreted, this concerns] those who were unfaithful together with the Liar, in that they [did] not [listen to the word received by] the Teacher of Righteousness from the mouth of God. And it concerns the unfaithful of the New [Covenant] in that they have not believed in the covenant of God [and have profaned] his holy name. And likewise, this saying is to be interpreted [as concerning those who] will be unfaithful at the end of days. They, the men of violence and the breakers of the covenant, will not believe when they hear all that [is to happen to] the final generation from the priest [in whose heart] God set [understanding] that he might interpret all the words of his servants the prophets, through whom he foretold all that would happen to his people and [his land].

Understanding this method of interpretation requires that we suspend our rationalist assumption that the words of the late seventh-century prophet could have nothing to do with circumstances that arose 450 years later. For the author, and for the way pesher functioned generally at Qumran, prophecy first and foremost relates to the time and context of the community. The members of the community regarded these interpretations not as guesswork or idiosyncratic readings, but the result of a God-given ability that helped to explain the community's history and validated its ideology.

One of the more complicated forms of interpretation comes from the allegorical writings of Philo of Alexandria. Philo was an Alexandrian Jewish philosopher and a great intellectual of his day. Though he was hardly representative of the majority of Jews, his opinions give hints about a large group of Hellenized Jews whose beliefs would otherwise be mostly unknown. A product of first-century Alexandria, roughly contemporary with Jesus and Paul, Philo's literary purpose was to show that Scripture and Greek philosophy were in complete harmony, and that Jewish ethics and morality were superior. Since this agreement is not evident from a literal reading of Scripture, he had to adopt a systematic method of interpretation, allegory, which had been developed by the Greeks in order to understand the Homeric epics and hymns. By allegory, Philo means the use of a story to symbolize the development of the soul's moral virtues. Abraham's journey from Ur to Canaan, for instance, is interpreted by him as the soul's migration towards the more perfect realms of being. For Philo, stories like that of the Garden of Eden and the other creation accounts are allegorically but not literally true. The story properly understood reveals how God created the world of ideas before he created the material world and other parts of the cosmos. In his interpretation of Jewish law, Philo explains the higher truths embodied by the physical practices. Circumcision, for instance, accomplishes not only the cutting of the flesh, but the excision of harmful passions. Understanding the spiritual dimensions of the law, however, does not obviate the need for physical observance. While circumcision and other physical acts have a higher, more spiritual meaning, Philo insists that all the laws in the Bible are to be carried out as they were written.

The various translations, expansions, pesharim, and allegories provide us with a wealth of information on how the Hebrew Bible was read and understood in this period of formative Judaism. By far, however, the greatest amount of interpretive material was generated in the rabbinic communities.

The rabbis devoted innumerable hours to the explanation of the biblical texts, and produced a vast literature known as midrash. The term itself refers not only to the specific comments or commentaries, but more generally to the exegetical approach characteristic of this literature. The rabbis believed the Bible to be a perfect and unified revelation from God, containing nothing that was irrelevant, repetitious, or superfluous. Every verse, word, letter, even parts of letters had potential meaning, in most instances more than one. The rabbis also believed that a verse from one book could justifiably be brought into service to explain another verse from a completely different text. At times, the resulting midrash appears capricious. Even at its most playful, the interpretation of the Bible was one of the most fundamental and reverential types of religious activity.

As with Jews of other periods, the rabbis created their midrash in an attempt to relate the Bible to the issues and concerns of their time. To accomplish this goal the rabbis employed various interpretive techniques. Some, such as qal vahomer (argument from lighter to heavier), have parallels in Greek and Roman literature, revealing intellectual connections between the rabbinic and Graeco-Roman worlds. These rules (middoth) of interpretation would eventually be compiled into lists that were credited to illustrious figures such as the first-century sage Hillel.

The early midrashic commentaries were line-by-line interpretations of the Bible. Several of the earlier works concentrate on the Pentateuchal legal material. These books—the Mekhilta for Exodus, Sifra for Leviticus and Sifre for Numbers and Deuteronomy—describe rabbinic visions of how Jewish life should be conducted. Occasionally we can also catch a glimpse of how Jewish life in the Land of Israel was actually practised in the second and third centuries. Distinguishing historical reality from rabbinic idealization, however, is often a difficult task. Other collections, the homiletical midrashim, are mostly later in time and contain a great many discussions which appear to have been generated in rabbinic homilies and sermons. The major collection is Midrash Rabba, which includes rabbinic interpretations of the Pentateuch and the five scrolls (Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, and Esther).

Rabbinic midrash was an open-ended process that permitted biblical texts to speak to different situations and viewpoints. It allowed for multiple interpretations of what the rabbis refer to as the written Torah. The rabbis also speak of a second Torah and this is the oral Torah. The rabbis conceived that, in addition to the five books traditionally ascribed to Moses, there was another body of precedent and interpretation that had been passed down from Moses in a direct line of oral tradition. The rabbis were the heirs to this great chain of transmission, and thus the authentic arbiters of custom, practice, and thought. According to later rabbinic traditions, midrash forms one part of a triad of the oral Torah. The two remaining segments are law (halakha) and legend (haggada).

As the name indicates, these rabbinic laws, interpretations, and stories were transmitted orally from teacher to student. Not until the third century did large portions of these rabbinic traditions come to be written down. Even then, the rabbis preferred learning the oral law apart from any written text. Rabbis regularly committed large portions of it to memory. In order to facilitate the memorization of immense amounts of material the rabbis employed various mnemonic devices.

The oral law was uniquely suited for rabbinic purposes. Highly legal and highly technical by comparison to apocalyptic or early Christian writing, the oral law gained adherents as the rabbis gained respect. Its principles were derived from experience, reason, and precedent. The rabbis often describe their rulings as coming from God. In practice, however, they were made by the majority. The rabbis sensed the tension between tradition and their creative and often innovative enterprise.

Rabbi Eliezer used every argument to substantiate his opinion, but they [the other rabbis] would not accept them. He said, 'If the law is as I have argued, may this carob tree argue for me.' The carob tree uprooted itself and moved a hundred cubits from its place. Some say it moved four hundred cubits. They said, 'From a tree no proof can be brought.' Then he said, 'May the canal prove it.' The water of the canal flowed backwards. They said, 'From a canal no proof may be brought.' Then the walls of the house bent inwards, as if they were about to fall. Rabbi Joshua rebuked the walls, and said to them, 'If the learned dispute about the law, what has that to do with you?' So, to honour Rabbi Joshua, the walls did not fall down, but to honour Rabbi Eliezer, they did not become straight again. Then Rabbi Eliezer said, 'If I am right, may the heavens prove it.' Then a heavenly voice said, 'What have you against Rabbi Eliezer? The law is always with him.' Then Rabbi Joshua got up and said, 'It is not in heaven [Deut. 30:12].' What did he mean by this? Rabbi Jeremiah said, 'The Torah was given to us at Sinai. We do not attend to this heavenly voice. For it was already written in the Torah at Mt Sinai that, 'By the majority you are to decide [Exod. 23:2].' Rabbi Nathan met Elijah and asked him what God did in that hour. Elijah replied, 'He laughed and said, "My children have defeated me." '

(B.Baba Metzia 59b)

The story displays folkloric motifs, but also strongly held rabbinic values. The playful, even humorous narration of Rabbi Eliezer's miracles is emphasized by the meeting of Rabbi Nathan with the prophet Elijah, which exposes even God's amusement. But the moral of the story is serious. It demonstrates rabbinic suspicion of all sources of authority dependent on charismatic or miraculous claims, whether they be outside of the rabbinic movement or even, as here, within it. The story of Rabbi Eliezer is meant to illustrate how to andle conflict with people claiming miraculous support for their religious opinions. The claims of such people, including Christians as well as rabbis, are to be evaluated by the rules of legal discourse and decided by vote. The rule of the majority, not miraculous actions, was to be the basic system for power brokerage.

The classic rabbinic writings were edited in the third century CE and later. They were edited in an atmosphere of confident, albeit incomplete, control by the rabbis of the Jewish community. That sense of control was projected backward to traditions that had been laid down in totally different circumstances, some when Pharisaism was merely a sectarian movement in Judaism. By the second century it was taken for granted that the rabbinic movement had always been the majority movement in Judaism. In reality, however, rabbinic authority took hold only gradually. While the oral law hypothetically applied to all Jews, priests, landowners, and even lay people as late as the third and fourth centuries turned to the rabbis only for a limited range of issues.

The earliest collection of rabbinic legal traditions (halakha) was the Mishnah, codified around the year 200 CE. The Mishnah ('repetition' or 'teaching') was written in Hebrew and contains the legal opinions of over 100 named scholars and many more anonymous ones. It is divided into six orders—Seeds, Holy Seasons, Damages, Women, Holy Things, and Purities. Each of the orders is divided into tractates, sixty-three in all, that cover the major heads of the legal system that the rabbis administered. Under Seeds, for instance, are listed rules of agricultural life but also, surprisingly, prayer. Though the Mishnah makes no attempt to record all disputes, it makes critical distinctions and argues crucial cases. As a code of community procedures, it presents principles and exemplars for cases.

One surprising feature of the Mishnah is its reluctance (in some respects its refusal) to have its authority derived from Scripture. The Mishnah pays scant attention to the written law, and rarely attempts to justify its prescriptive rulings on the basis of Scripture. The authority of the Mishnah derived not from Scripture, but from the rabbis themselves, and its thematic organization reflects their interests. The rabbis recognized the often tenuous connection between Scripture and oral law. 'The [rabbinic] laws of the sabbath, of festival offerings, and of sacrilege are as mountains hanging by a hair; Scripture is scanty but the laws are many' (m. Hag 1:8).

Over the first few centuries of rabbinic Judaism, traditions developed on various subjects. The earliest stages involved the codification of laws dealing with the Sabbath, purity, and tithing. Marriage and divorce were also issues of primary interest to the early rabbis, for along with matters of ritual purity these rules of personal status defined membership in the Jewish community. The deliberations involving the sphere of personal status combined in the Mishnah with an enormous effort to discuss and record matters of the defunct sacrificial system in the Temple, and purity issues that had depended upon the Temple. As it turned out, this whole enterprise was theoretical, for the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 CE) made it painfully clear that the Temple would not soon be rebuilt. Yet the rabbinic commentary on Temple law continued, serving as a model for an idealized temple populated by idealized assemblies of priests and rabbis, when God should choose to accomplish it in the messianic age.

The period of rabbinic activity surrounding Rabbi Judah the Prince (Judah ha-Nasi), about 200 CE, is crucial for understanding rabbinism. It took a century and a half to go from Pharisaic sectarianism and the destruction of the Temple to the Mishnah of Rabbi Judah the Prince as the first canonical, analytically organized codification of law outside the Bible. By 200 CE, the formerly open and growing body of interpretation that the rabbis had rationalized as coming orally from Moses had, like the Bible, become a fixed text. And, like the Bible, the Mishnah of Rabbi Judah would become the subject of intense scrutiny and passage by passage commentary. The structure of the Mishnah in its six orders, subdivided into its sixty-three tractates, would come to serve as the skeleton of this body of expansion, a large collection known as the Talmud.

There is one Mishnah. It is no bigger than a desk dictionary. There are two different Talmuds, each close to the size of a multi-volume encyclopedia. Each Talmud consists of the Hebrew Mishnah of Rabbi Judah plus one of the two bodies of commentary, known as a gemara. One gemara is from the Jewish community living in the Land of Israel, the other from the Jewish community living in Babylonia. The Mishnah and the Palestinian gemara form the Palestinian Talmud, also referred to as the Jerusalem Talmud, though it was most likely not produced there. The same Mishnah together with the gemara produced in Babylonia form the Babylonian Talmud.

In the course of time, the Babylonian Talmud became the more substantial and extensive of the two and would come to be considered the more definitive. This came about because life became increasingly difficult for the Jews of the Land of Israel as compared with those in Babylonia. A deteriorating economic situation, and greater restrictions placed on the Jewish communities in the Land of Israel by the later Roman and Byzantine empires contributed to this situation. In approximately 425 CE, the Christian Emperor Thoedosius II abolished the office of the patriarch, the head of the leading Palestinian academy. Meanwhile in Babylonia, where the ruling Sasanian Persians were more tolerant of Jews, the Jewish community rose in importance and became the centre of Jewish life. Its Talmud thus became the authoritative one for the Jewish community.

Since the text of the Mishnah, the core of the Talmud, is a document of law, a considerable amount of the gemara is strictly prescriptive. Jews speak of such prescriptive discussion as halakha, the study of the proper legal procedure for living life. But there is another style of expansion that is more anecdotal; it is referred to as haggadah, or in Aramaic, agada, meaning narrative. Halakha makes its directives by explicit statement; agada will indicate its preferences by telling a story usually with a moral.

The gemara recorded discussions of over 2,000 sages, arguing over specific ways to resolve a plethora of complex issues. Typically, the text of the Talmud gives a passage (the length of a few scriptural verses, or a short paragraph) from the Mishnah and then follows that with the text of the related gemara, which could be many times the length of the Mishnah text to which it was attached. The gemara often functions as a commentary on a passage from the Mishnah, but more often than not pursues its own wide-ranging agenda. In printed editions this material is in a column occupying the entire centre of the page, while the columns on either side carry later commentaries and helpful notations. References to the Talmud conventionally follow the pagination of an earlier printed edition, produced in Venice in 1520-3. Thus, for instance, 'b. Suk. 52a' would mean Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sukkah, folio 52, side a.

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