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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 Renaissance and Early Modern Period

Two commentators, Isaac Abravanel (1437–1508) and Obadiah Sforno (1475–1550), can be taken as marking the transition to the post-medieval phase of Jewish Bible commentary. Though both at many points are indistinguishable from their medieval predecessors, both also manifest some rather new features. Abravanel, besides being a scholar, was a statesman and man of the world who successively held positions at the courts of Portugal, Castile, and Venice. His breadth of experience is everywhere evident in his commentaries, and is shown in his knowledge of Christian exegesis and in his willingness to accept Christian interpretations when they do not conflict with tradition. Instead of treating the text atomistically he tried to divide it into thematic sections and to expound the argument as a whole. And he revived the ‘problematic’ style of commentary, which, as we have seen, was first extensively employed by Philo. Sforno was something of a Renaissance man, with an excellent secular education which he drew on to good effect in his commentaries on the Torah. A physician by training and profession, he attempts from time to time to use contemporary science to throw light on scripture.

Abravanel and Sforno promised much, but they proved to be heralds of a false dawn, for their successors, for complex reasons, did little to develop their insights. Instead, the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries were dominated by a deadening spirit of conservatism in Jewish Bible exegesis. They saw the appearance of two large popular works, which deeply influenced the ordinary Jews' understanding of the Bible, but which are largely homiletic compilations of traditional materials. The first of these was the Tze'enah u-Re'enah, a Yiddish paraphrase, with numerous explanatory additions, of the weekly Torah readings and of the Five Scrolls. Compiled in the 1590s by the Polish scholar Jacob ben Isaac Ashkenazi, the work was supposedly intended for women (its title is derived from the exhortation to the ‘daughters of Jerusalem’ in Song of Songs 3: 11 to ‘go forth and behold’), who did not have the benefit of a Hebrew education. It is likely, however, that it was widely read by men as well. Where the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews of Germany and eastern Europe had the Tze'enah u-Re'enah, the Sefardis, descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, had the Me'am Lo'ez. This great encyclopaedic Bible commentary in Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish), begun by Jacob Culi (c.1685–1732), is a miscellany of edifying texts drawn from the Mishnah, the Midrashim, the Talmud, the Zohar, and the medieval commentators, interlaced with anecdotes, legends, and folklore, all arranged so as to illuminate the biblical text. The first volume on Genesis was published in 1730, but the work took over 150 years to complete. Pitched at a higher educational level than the Tze'enah u-Re'enah, the Me'am Lo'ez is commonly regarded as a masterpiece of Ladino literature.

Courtesy Portuguese-Israeli Synagogue, Amsterdam.

Also typical of the generally conservative, traditionalist attitude towards Bible commentary characteristic of the period were the voluminous biblical commentaries of the Sefardi Moses Alshekh (c.1507–1600), and of the Ashkenazis David Altschuler and his son Hillel—the Fortress of Zion (Metzudat Tziyyon) and the Fortress of David (Metzudat David) (both eighteenth century). There were, however, signs of that a radically new approach was emerging. The first glimmerings of this are to be found in the Me'or 'Einayim of the Italian scholar Azariah de Rossi (c.1511–1577). De Rossi, who had an excellent secular education and was something of a polymath, introduced for the first time a genuinely historical and critical spirit to the study of early Jewish literature. He made use of classical Greek and Latin writers, as well as of the Jewish literature of the Second Temple period, the Apocrypha, the pseudepigrapha, and the writings of Philo. He read widely in Christian patristic and medieval texts. He proved that the Book of Josippon, which Jewish scholars relied heavily upon for their knowledge of the Second Temple period, was a medieval composition, only loosely related to Josephus, and was far from historically reliable. He challenged the traditional Jewish chronology of the Persian period, and showed a pioneering interest in archaeology and numismatics. De Rossi was very circumspect in applying his new critical and historical method to the Bible, but it was only a matter of time before it would be extended to Holy Writ as well. The radical spirit of the Me'orEinayim was immediately recognized by the Jewish religious authorities, who put it under a ban as soon as it was published. Over 200 years later, however, it was to have a considerable impact on the scholars of the Jewish Enlightenment.

The other harbinger of a new critical approach to the Bible was Baruch Spinoza (1632–77). Spinoza was brought up in the prosperous and, in some ways, intellectually radical, Sefardi Jewish community of Amsterdam, and may have studied with the most famous Amsterdam Jewish scholar of the day, Menasseh Ben Israel. One of the most uncompromisingly independent thinkers of western philosophy, Spinoza applied his general philosophical principles specifically to the study of the Bible in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670). He laid great stress on free and fearless enquiry, on recovering the historical origins of the biblical books, on determining when they were written, for whom and in what language, and on tracing how they were subsequently received and transmitted. He argued that Moses was responsible for only parts of the Pentateuch, but that most of this work was composed very much later, probably by Ezra. He suggested that the book of Psalms was compiled only in Second Temple times, and that the book of Daniel was not as early as it purports to be. Though Spinoza claimed, with some justification, that he was developing insights already adumbrated by medieval Jewish commentators such as Ibn Ezra (Ibn Ezra had suggested that Moses could not have written the whole of the Pentateuch, and detected the hands of two authors in the book of Isaiah), his rationalist approach to scripture alarmed both the Jewish and the Christian religious authorities. The Jewish community expelled him in 1656, and his works have remained under ban within Judaism ever since. Yet he was read by Jewish intellectuals and exerted considerable influence on some of the thinkers of the nineteenth-century Jewish Enlightenment.

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