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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 Middle Ages

The classic Midrashim form the bedrock of all subsequent Jewish Bible interpretation. There was a late flowering of Midrash in the seventh and eighth centuries, in part inspired by the rediscovery by Jewish scholars of Second Temple-period traditions. (In many ways the quintessential work of this later Midrash is the innovative work known as Pirqei de Rabbi Eliezer [The Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer]). The Midrashim continued to be studied and great Midrashic compilations (such as the Yalqut Shim'oni and Midrash ha-Gadol) were being produced as late as the thirteenth century, but Midrash as a creative mode of Bible exegesis effectively came to an end in the ninth century CE, and new styles of exegesis took its place.

The reasons for this change of direction are complex, but they can all be traced back in one way or another to the new intellectual and religious climate inaugurated by the rise of Islam. In the early Middle Ages Jewish scholars for the first time began to show an interest in the grammar of biblical Hebrew and in philological solutions to biblical problems. The Midrashists of the Talmudic period were, in their way, fine Hebraists with great sensitivity for the nuances of biblical Hebrew, but they had little scientific understanding of the workings of Hebrew grammar. The inspiration for this new interest in grammar was the work of the great Islamic grammarians who were, with astonishing sophistication, laying the foundations for the scientific description of Arabic. Arabic and Hebrew are closely cognate languages and it became clear to Jewish scholars that much of what was being said about the former was equally applicable to the latter.

This new interest in philology went hand in hand with a concerted attempt to fix in all its aspects the text of the Hebrew Bible. The Torah scroll as used in synagogue contains basically only the consonantal text. It does not mark vowels nor does it indicate the punctuation of the verse. The reader is supposed to supply these from memory in accordance with oral tradition. A group of Jewish scholars, known collectively as the Masoretes, began to devise ways of marking the vowels and the punctuation by using tiny symbols that were written in around the consonantal text. The Torah scroll as used in synagogue was left in its traditional form, but great master-codices were produced (such as the St Petersburg and Aleppo codices) which gave the text fully vocalized and accented (to show its sense-units), together with an elaborate series of marginal notes highlighting unusual words and grammatical forms. These master-codices form the basis of all modern printed editions of the Hebrew Bible. The work of the Masoretes went well beyond merely recording how the Hebrew was pronounced in synagogue. Their system of vowel notation is actually much more refined than any cantor could ever reproduce, at least consistently. Behind it lies a profound attempt to systematize the phonetics of Hebrew and to regularize its grammar.

Badische Landes-bibliothek, Karlsruhe.

The Jewish religious movement known as Karaism played an important role in mediating Islamic philology to the Jewish world and in forcing orthodox Rabbanite scholars to take an interest in Hebrew grammar. Karaism, supposedly founded by Anan ben David in the eighth century, rejected the authority of the Talmud and advocated a return to the Bible as the sole arbiter of faith and practice. The Karaites seem to have been particularly open to the Islamic science of their day and used it effectively to attack what they saw as the naïveté and illogicality of rabbinic literature. Karaism made significant inroads into rabbinic Judaism in the ninth and tenth centuries and forced a response from the Orthodox establishment. Orthodoxy found a doughty champion in Saadia Gaon (882–942). Born in the Fayyum in Egypt, Saadia, after a period of study in Galilee, ended his life as the head of the great rabbinic academy of Sura in Baghdad. Though a defender of rabbinic orthodoxy, Saadia was no mere traditionalist. He was a master of Arabic and participated fully in the great cultural renaissance which was going on in Baghdad in his day under the patronage of the Abbasid caliphs. He decided to fight the Karaites with their own weapons by showing that Rabbanism was fully compatible with the best contemporary philosophic and scientific thought. He advocated a more philological approach to the Hebrew Bible and reflected this interest in a series of biblical commentaries which can be taken as marking the beginning of medieval Jewish Bible exegesis.

Saadia's advocacy ensured that the philological approach to the Bible was acceptable to rabbinic scholars. This approach, which naturally led to a greater stress on the literal (peshat) sense of scripture, was pervasive in early medieval Jewish Bible commentary and was one of the hallmarks of medieval exegesis as distinct from Midrash. It is widely regarded as reaching its peak in the work of Abraham ibn Ezra and David Qimhi.

Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1146) was born and reared in Spain, but from 1140 onwards he lived a wandering life which took him to Italy, Provence, northern France, and even England. Despite his travels his literary output was prodigious. It probably originally included commentaries on the whole of the Hebrew Bible, though some of these are now no longer extant: Ibn Ezra stressed the role of human intellect in understanding prophetic revelation, and his commentaries show a notable independence of mind, which led later Jewish thinkers such as Nahman Krochmal to claim him as a forerunner of the modern critical approach to the Bible. He usually begins his discussion of a verse with a close analysis of its grammar and language and then proceeds to relate the verse to its context and to the overall argument of the passage. His style, though sharp and often witty, is notoriously obscure, and in places his comments read like preliminary notes (which, given his peripatetic lifestyle, might well be the case). Sometimes he tantalizes the reader by stating ‘There is a mystery here’, without saying what it is. Later scholars provided his work with super- commentaries which attempted to make it accessible to a wider public.

David Qimhi (c.1160–c.1235), whose family hailed from Spain but who lived in Narbonne in Provence, took essentially the same line as Ibn Ezra. However, his style is much more lucid and readable, and this was to make him by far the most accessible proponent of the philological approach. He was highly valued by Christian Hebraists at the time of the Reformation (when his Compendium (the Mikhlol) was the standard Hebrew grammar), and the influence of his ideas on the Protestant Bible translations, such as the Authorized Version of 1611, has been well documented.

Courtesy of the Jewish Museum, London.

A slightly earlier scholar, Rabbi Solomon Yitzhaqi (1040–1105), or Rashi as he is better known, completes, along with Abraham ibn Ezra and David Qimhi, the great triumvirate of medieval Jewish Bible commentators whose work is always included in Rabbinic Bibles. In fact Rashi is universally acknowledged to be the single most influential Jewish exegete of all time. His work was, and largely still is, the first resort for any educated Jew who wants to know what a verse of the Bible means. Whereas Abraham ibn Ezra and David Qimhi represent the Spanish school of commentary, which was shaped essentially in an Islamic milieu, Rashi is the supreme representative of the northern French school, which functioned in a Christian environment less intellectually advanced than the Islamic world, and much more hostile to Judaism. The result of this was that the northern French Jews tended to be more conservative and inward- looking than their co-religionists in Spain, Provence, and North Africa. Rashi was born in Troyes and studied in the rabbinical seminaries of the Rhineland, before returning to his native town and setting up his own school. He taught scripture diligently all his life, and commentaries by him, or attributed to him, are extant for all the books of the Hebrew Bible with the exception of Chronicles. Rather different versions of his commentaries survive in the manuscripts, suggesting that he regularly revised his views. In some cases the texts may have been edited by his pupils. Rashi, like Ibn Ezra and Qimhi, stresses the plain sense (peshat) of scripture, but his grasp of philology is less advanced than theirs, and he cites a great deal more Midrash. However, his choice of derash (the search for deeper and symbolic senses) is noticeably careful: he avoids the more fanciful ideas and selects traditions that are reasonably compatible with the plain sense. His penchant for derash was criticized by his grandson and pupil, Samuel ben Meir, himself a significant commentator, but it gives his work a homiletic edge, and is a major reason for its popularity and influence.

Courtesy Clive Rosen, Israel-Judaica Stamp Club.

Philology pushed medieval Jewish Bible commentary in the direction of the plain sense of scripture. An upsurge of philosophy and mysticism, however, was to push it more in the direction of allegory. Philosophy, which had been introduced into rabbinic Judaism by Saadia in the ninth century, received a major boost with the publication in the late twelfth century of Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed. The fact that Maimonides (1135–1204) was acknowledged to be the greatest Jewish legalist of his day gave his philosophical magnum opus an authority that could not be ignored. The purpose of the Guide was to show that the teachings of the Torah and the teachings of philosophy were compatible. To do so Maimonides had to interpret the Torah at times in a non-literal way, particularly when it spoke of God in anthropomorphic terms. Though Maimonides himself did not write any commentaries on the Bible, his influence in fostering a philosophical approach to biblical exegesis was profound. It is clear, for example, in the writings of Qimhi.

So long as the philosophical approach meant, as in Qimhi or Ibn Ezra, a reliance on reason and intellect to discover the meaning of scripture, it was not necessarily in conflict with the plain sense, even when it insisted on treating scriptural language as metaphorical, or in finding in scripture the ethics of the philosophers. However, when commentators began to find allusions to the metaphysics of the philosophers in the Bible they often resorted to allegory. In a sense, though they were unaware of it, they were returning to a very much older style of philosophical commentary which had been perfected in the first century by Philo of Alexandria. The Provençal scholar Levi ben Gershon (1288–1344) was the most distinguished advocate of this style of philosophical Bible commentary. Though he retained a strong interest in the peshat, from time to time he falls into outright allegory as, for example, when he takes the two Cherubim that faced each other across the Ark of the Covenant (Exod. 25: 20 ) as symbolizing the Active and the Passive Intellect.

Allegory was even more widely and, indeed, indiscriminately used by the mystics. There had been a mystical tradition in Judaism at least from the second century CE which had been anchored in certain key texts in scripture, Ezekiel 1 (Ezekiel's vision of the Chariot of God), Genesis 1 (the Account of Creation), and the Song of Songs. Judaism, however, experienced a powerful upsurge of mysticism in the thirteenth century partly as a reaction to the rationalism of the philosophical movement. There were important schools of Jewish mystics in the Rhineland (the Hasidei Ashkenaz), in Spain and Provence (the Cabbalists), and in Egypt (the Jewish Sufis of the circle of Moses Maimonides' son Abraham). Like the philosophers these mystics used allegory to prove that their ideas were contained in Torah. The most important of the mystical commentaries is the Book of Splendour (the Zohar), which claims to be the discourses of the great second-century Palestinian rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, but is generally believed to have been composed at the end of the thirteenth century by the Spanish Cabbalist Moses de León. The Zohar, which systematically reads the mystical ideas of the Spanish Cabbala into the Pentateuch and the Five Scrolls, is an extreme example of mystical allegorizing. Cabbalistic interpretation also features, in a more sober and veiled fashion, in the important commentaries on the Pentateuch by the Spanish scholar Moses Nahmanides (1194–1270), together with much discussion of the plain and the homiletic senses. Nahmanides' standing as one of the great Jewish legalists of his day did much to make the Cabbala and mystical exegesis of Torah respectable.

By the thirteenth century it had become abundantly clear that a number of very different approaches to Torah had emerged. The need to classify these and to clarify their relationship to each other had become urgent. This was done most systematically by the Spanish commentator Bahya ben Asher (d. 1320). He distinguished four styles of exegesis: the way of peshat (the plain sense), the ‘Way of Midrash’, the ‘Way of Intellect’ (philosophy), and the ‘Way of Cabbala’ (mysticism). Bahya was, in effect, picking up on a fourfold classification of the senses of scripture earlier propounded in the Zohar under the mnemonic PARDES (‘paradise’), in which p stands for peshat, d for derash, r for remez (allegory), and s for sod (mysticism). In keeping with the well-established rabbinic doctrine of the polysemy of the Torah, all the approaches were treated as valid: scripture has many senses and levels of meaning. However, as Bahya and the Zohar make clear, there is a hierarchical relationship between the senses, the mystical being the most profound and significant. The Pardes- schema was intended primarily to privilege mystical interpretation, but at the same time it could exercise restraint upon it. It was always possible to argue that the higher levels of meaning should be approached only through the lower, and, by invoking an ancient rabbinic dictum, that in the last analysis scripture can never depart from its plain sense, the wilder fantasies of mystical interpretation could, in principle, be curbed.

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