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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The Bible in Judaism

Philip Alexander

The Centrality of the Bible in Judaism

Judaism is now so Bible-centred, so obviously a ‘religion of the Book’, that it takes an effort to remember that this was not always the case. But if we go back far enough into Jewish history, to pre-exilic times (before 586 BCE), there is little evidence that the written word played anything like the central role then that it was later to play. Important religious texts did exist—collections of laws, histories, wisdom literature, prophecies, and oracles—but their relationship to the Bible we now have in our hands is far from clear, they were accessible only to a small literate élite, and their impact on religious life was at best indirect. Religious life for most ancient Israelites would have focused on the crises of the life-cycle (birth, marriage, death) and on the rhythms of the agricultural year, with occasional visits to the local shrine, the ‘high places’ (while these still stood), or to the Temple in Jerusalem. Priests would have verbally dispensed Torah (teaching) in response to specific personal or communal problems, and occasionally prophets or other holy men would have appeared to deliver ‘the word the Lord’.

In the Second Temple period (538 BCE–70 CE), however, sacred scripture became central to Judaism and Judaism acquired its enduring character as a ‘religion of the Book’. The reasons for this development are complex and not yet fully understood. Four interconnected factors played a part. The first was the rise of the scribes to a position of religious authority. There had been a scribal class in Israel going back possibly at least to the time of King David. Scribes worked in the administration of the state, keeping records and archives and dealing with diplomatic correspondence. Increasingly in the Second Temple period, however, they claimed that their competence extended beyond bureaucracy into the religious sphere, and they began to challenge the religious authority of the priests. Secondly, a canon of sacred literature emerged which was regarded by all sections of the community as authoritative for religious belief and practice. The core of this canon, comprising the Pentateuch, the Prophets (including the historical books), and some of the Writings (notably the Psalms), was well established by the end of the Second Temple period, though it remained ‘fuzzy’ at the edges and the texts of the individual books were far from fixed. Thirdly, going hand in hand with the emergence of a canon of authoritative scripture, was a widespread belief that prophecy had come to an end. God no longer spoke directly to his people. He had already said all that Israel needed to know to live life in accordance with his will, which could be discerned by studying the words of the ancient prophets. Finally, these developments on their own would hardly have been decisive in making scripture central to Judaism without a significant increase in literacy. There is evidence to suggest that an elementary school system, based on the study of the Torah, was established in the Palestinian Jewish communities in late Second Temple times. It was probably this, more than anything else, that made possible the application of the Written Torah to the everyday life of the ordinary Jew.

These profound changes, which had begun much earlier, were probably consolidated by the Hasmonaeans (165 BCE onwards), who in forging a new national identity for Jews did much to redefine Judaism and to establish its place in the Hellenistic world of its day. Certainly by late Second Temple times the centrality of the Written Torah is evident in Judaism and all the competing sects and parties that arose in the wake of the Hasmonaean Revolution felt that they had to justify their positions from scripture and to claim to be its correct interpreters. An abundance of Jewish literature survives from Second Temple times, thanks in part to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Most of that literature circles round scripture and can be seen as, in some shape or form, commentary upon it. Scripture played a central role in all areas of Jewish life. The Torah of Moses was regarded as the national constitution of the Jews, the basis of their religious polity and identity. In some sense, though much extended and interpreted, it was applied in the Jewish lawcourts. Torah was publicly read in synagogues and at the great religious festivals in the Jerusalem temple. It was taught and studied in the schools from primary up to tertiary level. It was the ultimate court of appeal for the numerous sects and parties which jostled and debated with each other as they strove to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Jews. The Written Torah was probably even more central to everyday life for the Jews of the farflung Jewish diaspora than it was for their Palestinian co-religionists who lived nearer the Jerusalem temple. The most important of these diaspora centres was at Alexandria in Egypt, where there was a large, prosperous, and well-educated Jewish community. A number of Alexandrian Jews acquired a good Greek education and produced syntheses of Jewish and Greek ideas which were to be of incalculable importance for the subsequent development of European thought.

Z Radovan, Jerusalem.

Commentary on scripture took a variety of literary forms:

  • 1. First there were lemmatic commentaries, that is, commentaries in the normally accepted sense of the term: the commentator quotes a verse of scripture, comments upon it, quotes the next verse of scripture and comments upon it, and so on till he comes to the end of the passage or text with which he is concerned. A good example of this type of commentary are the Dead Sea Pesharim such as Pesher Habakkuk, commentaries on the prophetic books which see them as foreshadowing the history of the Dead Sea Community at the end of days. The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo (c.20 BCE–50 CE) also produced a series of lemmatic commentaries on the Pentateuch in which he attempted to create a fusion of Torah and the philosophy of Plato (see e.g. his On the Giants dealing with Gen. 6: 1–4 , and On the Unchangeableness of God dealing with Gen. 6: 4–12 ).

  • 2. Secondly, there was the lecture type of commentary in which the expositor explains a section of scripture in an integrated way, drawing out what he sees to be its leading ideas without systematically going through it verse by verse. Philo also uses this type of commentary on Torah in his voluminous writings (note e.g. his On the Creation of the World [Gen. 1–3 ] or his On Joseph [Gen. 37–50 ]). The origins of this style may lie in the synagogue sermon, but it is more likely that it derives from lectures delivered in the schools.

  • Israel Museum, Jerusalem, photo David Harris.

  • 3. A third type of commentary, the ‘problematic’, works systematically through a text posing and answering questions (see e.g. Philo's Questions on Genesis: ‘Why did the serpent accost the woman and not the man?’ [Gen. 3: 2 ]; ‘Why does God ask, “Where are you?” [Gen. 3: 10 ], when he knows everything?’). Again Philo is the classic exponent of this catechetical style of commentary which, like the lecture style, probably originated in the schools.

  • 4. A fourth type of commentary is often referred to as Rewritten Bible. This retells a part of the biblical story with omissions and expansions, integrating into it later legends and traditions to form a seamless new narrative. Examples of Rewritten Bible can be found in the Book of Jubilees (originally written in Hebrew), in the Genesis Apocryphon (in Aramaic), and in the biblical sections of Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews (in Greek).

  • 5. A fifth type of commentary is codification. This applies only to the legal sections of the Torah. The classic Second Temple period example of this genre is the great Temple Scroll from Qumran. Based on the book of Deuteronomy, this rearranges the biblical material into a more coherent topical order, integrating into it the other relevant biblical data, together with explanatory expansions and non-biblical laws.

  • 6. A sixth type of biblical commentary is anthology. Scrolls were clumsy and expensive and scholars resorted to the practical expedient of excerpting from the longer texts the verses which particularly interested them. These might be verses linked by a single theme, or proof-texts to support a particular doctrine. The process of extracting and juxtaposing verses from different parts of the Bible (with or without explanation) constitutes a kind of rudimentary commentary. Examples of such anthologies are attested among the Dead Sea Scrolls (e.g. 4QFlorilegium). There is also good reason to believe that collections of biblical testimonies and proof-texts circulated among the early Christians.

  • 7. Finally there is proof-text. This is where a verse of scripture is quoted, introduced by a citation-formula such as ‘as it is written’, or ‘as it is said’, or ‘as scripture says’, in order to clinch an argument. The use of proof-text is particularly common in the Dead Sea Scrolls (note e.g. the Damascus Document) and in the early Christian writings. Its origins lie in the inter-sectarian debates which raged in Judaism in the late Second Temple period.

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