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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Bible Interpretation.


All texts require interpretation, but Scripture, since it contains the words of the living God, requires it more than most. Scripture is created by canonization which inevitably engenders a secondary literature of commentary. Much of the literature of Second-Temple Judaism can be loosely classified as interpretation of Scripture. The interpretation was presented in a variety of literary forms.



There were commentaries in the strict sense of the term, which took a section of Scripture and worked more or less systematically through it, quoting phrases or verses and glossing them with explanations. The earliest representatives of this subgenre, whose basic form is lemma (i.e. biblical quotation) followed by comment, are the Qumran Pesharim (Anthology (ANTH A.1)). Written in Hebrew, the Pesharim take certain biblical texts and find in them predictions of events in the Pesharist's own times, particularly events affecting his own religious community. He treats the words of the biblical prophets as a code which can be deciphered only by inspired exegesis (1QpHab 2:8–10; 7:4–5 ). Hence his description of this mode of interpretation as pēšher—a technical term derived from the interpretation of enigmatic dreams (cf. Akkadian pašaru, ‘to interpret a dream’; Dan 4:6, 9 ). This type of fulfilment-exegesis was adopted by the early Christians and probably also by other eschatologically oriented groups in early Judaism. The ‘searching of the Scriptures’, undertaken by the post-Resurrection church in order to integrate the death of Jesus, and the events that followed it, into God's purposes as revealed by the prophets was largely a programme of pesher-exegesis (cf. Lk 24:25–7, 44–8 ). Pesherstyle exegesis sometimes occurs also in the later rabbinic Midrashim. The Pesher Habakkuk, though palaeographically dating from the late first century BCE (comparatively late in the history of the Dead Sea community), is probably one of the earliest of the Qumran Pesharim. (Text García Martínez and Tigchelaar (1997: i. 11–21); tr.: Vermes (1997: 478–85); commentaries: Brownlee (1979); Horgan (1979: 10–55).)


For the Pesharists the key to biblical prophecy lay in the history of their own times. For Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BCE–c.50 CE), however, a major representative of Hellenistic Judaism, the key to Scripture lay in the writings of Plato. Moses and Plato, he believed, were fundamentally saying the same thing: Plato had almost the status of an inspired prophet; he was ‘Moses writing in Attic Greek’. Philo, who seems to have known the Bible only in Greek translation, composed in highly sophisticated Greek two great series of interpretations of the Torah of Moses, the Exposition and the Allegory, in which he expounded the text in the light of Platonic philosophy. Neither of these is now complete and their original extent is unclear. The Allegory is largely in the lemma plus comment form, whereas the Exposition comprises a series of discursive exegetical essays, which may go back to the style of lecturing that Philo used in his school. In addition he seems to have written a series of notes on Scripture in the catechetical form of question and answer (his Questions on Genesis and Exodus have been preserved in Armenian). This was a type of exegesis widely practised in the Greek schools. In order to achieve his exegetical ends, Philo, like the Qumran Pesharists, had to treat the text of Scripture as being, at times, in code: there is a deeper meaning than appears on the surface. This method of reading texts, which was well known in the Greek world (where it was applied especially to Homer), was called allegorēsis, and the reading which resulted from it allegoria. ANTH A.2 quotes an extract from Philo's On the Creation of the World. For text and tr. see Colson and Whitaker (1971: 1. 6–137); tr. alone: Yonge (1993: 3–24). For introductions to Philo see Sandmel (1979); Runia (1990); Siegert (1996: 162–89).


The most extensive and intellectually impressive corpus of Bible commentary in early Judaism emerged from the rabbinic schools of Palestine between the third and seventh centuries CE. This corpus, written in rabbinic Hebrew, embodies a close and endlessly inventive engagement with the biblical text, the purpose of which was to demonstrate that the Bible supported the rabbinic world-view, particularly as expressed in the Mishnah (c.200 CE), the law-code which served as the manifesto of the rabbinic party (see further Major Genres (MAJ GEN B.11). The most general term for this style of exegesis is ‘midrash’, and the commentaries that embody it are known as Midrashim. The rabbis, to a degree unparalleled in early Judaism, believed that the text of Scripture is polysemic, that is to say, it contains multiple levels of meaning, all of which are simultaneously true. Thus they will sometimes interpret a text according to its simple, surface meaning; at other times they will find hidden in it allegorical, or homiletic, or even mystical senses. They divided the text of Scripture into two broad categories: aggadah (narrative) and halakah (law). Midrash aggadah could be freer and more fanciful than midrash halakah, though there was a strong tendency to insist that the simple sense (the pešat) should always be given primacy, and that no one should attempt to disclose meanings in Scripture that are contrary to halakah.


By the early Middle Ages the rabbinic schools had produced commentaries on almost the whole of the HB. The most worked parts of the Scripture are the Pentateuch, and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the Song of Songs. A classic example of a rabbinic Midrash is the Mekilta of Rabbi Ishmael (ANTH A.3), a commentary on Exodus that dates in its present form to no earlier than the 3rd century CE, but which traditionally is attributed to the school of the early 2nd century CE Palestinian scholar Rabbi Ishmael. (Text and tr.: Lauterbach (1933–5 ); introduction: Stemberger (1996: 251–7); see further Neusner (1988 ).) Though the Midrashim were produced long after the biblical period, they are of immense importance for the understanding of the Bible. The exegetical reasoning which they explicitly express often appears to be implicit in earlier interpretations of the Bible, and a knowledge of rabbinic Midrash is essential for an understanding of the whole tradition of Jewish Bible exegesis. Midrashic methods have been found operating within the HB itself in the reinterpretation of earlier layers of tradition, and they throw light on the use of the Old Testament in the New.

Rewritten Bible


Another well-represented subgenre of Bible interpretation is ‘Rewritten Bible’. In Rewritten Bible the interpreter retells the biblical story in his own words with explanatory insertions and additions, some of which can be very extensive. Rewritten Bible mirrors the literary form of the Bible itself, so that, without comparing the retelling with the original the reader will usually be unable to discover what is actually found in the Bible and what has been added by the interpreter. Thus Rewritten Bible differs from Commentary proper, in that in the latter the interpretation is clearly demarcated from the biblical text, whereas in the former it is not. Rewritten Bible is also selective: it emphasizes through expansion certain episodes in the Bible, and totally omits others, and it sometimes rearranges the order of the narrative. It spins a new story out of the Bible, one with its own distinctive message. It can, therefore, appear to be challenging or even replacing the Bible. However, this was probably not the intention. All the Rewritten Bible texts indicate in subtle ways their dependence on the Bible and were meant to be read in dialogue with it.


There are important elements of Rewritten Bible in 1 Enoch, perhaps the single most important non-canonical Jewish text to have survived from Second Temple times. This has been preserved more or less intact only in Ge῾ez, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian church. The Ethiopic version, which was made probably in the sixth century CE, was derived from a Greek version that is partially extant in MS fragments and quotations. The Greek was in turn translated (possibly in the 1st cent. CE) from an Aramaic original, substantial fragments of which, from multiple copies, have now been found among the Dead Sea scrolls. (Ethiopic text: Knibb (1978 ); Gk. text: Black (1970 ); Aram. text: Milik (1976 ); trs.: Knibb (1978 ); Milik (1976 ); see also Charles, APOT ii. 163–281; Knibb, in Sparks (1984: 169–320); Isaac, OTP i. 5–89; commentaries: Charles (1912); Black (1985 ).) However, 1 Enoch was not composed by the Qumran sect. Rather, it was a non-Qumranian work which the Qumran community held in high esteem. It has long been recognized that the current 1 Enoch is a highly composite work made up of separate treatises originating at very different periods. The earliest of these, the Book of the Heavenly Luminaries (chs. 72–82; ANTH D.5), probably goes back to the Persian period (early 4th cent. BCE). The latest, the Similitudes of Enoch (chs. 37–71; ANTH c.3), which is unattested at Qumran, probably dates from the late first century CE. The Book of the Watchers (chs. 1–36; ANTH A.4, c.2), dating probably to the second half of the third century BCE, is rich in Rewritten Bible. 1 Enoch incorporates not only different sources, but also different genres: it includes apocalyptic and wisdom material (ANTH c.2–5, D.5), as well as Rewritten Bible. It claims to go back to revelations granted to the antediluvian sage Enoch, to whom only brief and enigmatic reference is made in the Bible (Gen 5:18–24 ). In choosing as a patron for their teachings a figure who lived well before the time of Moses and the revelation at Sinai, the original Enochic circles may have been quite deliberately challenging the primacy of Moses and of the Mosaic paradigm of Judaism.


Another text which can be classified basically as Rewritten Bible is the Book of Jubilees (ANTH A.5), which retells the story of Genesis and part of Exodus. (Ethiopic text: Charles (1895 ); Gk. text: Denis (1970: 70–102); Heb. text and tr. (1Q17–18, 2Q19–20, 3Q5, 4Q176, 4Q216–24, 11Q12): García Martínez and Tigchelaar (1997 , i. 22–5, 214–15, 226–7, 360–3, 458–79; ii. 1204–7); trs.: Vermes (1997: 507–10); Charles, APOT ii. 1–82, rev. ch. C. Rabin, in Sparks (1984: 1–140); O. S. Wintermute, OTP ii. 35–142; commentary: Charles (1902 ); see further: VanderKam, (1977 ); Alexander (1997: 147–58) on the Jubilees' Mappa Mundi). Jubilees, like 1 Enoch, survives in its entirety only in an Ethiopic version, which was translated from the Greek. Although it seems to have been popular among Greek-speaking Christians, who knew it as The Little Genesis, only portions of the Greek version now survive in the form of citations in patristic authors. That this Greek version, as scholars long ago postulated, was a translation of a Hebrew work written in the Second Temple period has been confirmed beyond any doubt by the discovery of fragments of the original Hebrew, surviving from multiple copies, among the Dead Sea scrolls. Though the Qumran community regarded Jubilees as important (they were influenced by its advocacy of a solar calendar: cf. ANTH D.5), there is general agreement that, like 1 Enoch and the Aramaic Genesis Apocryphon (another retelling of Genesis found among the Scrolls; text García Martínez and Tigchelaar (1997: i. 28–49); tr: Vermes (1997: 448–59)), it was not composed by the Qumran sect. It is usually dated to the mid-second century BCE, to the time of the Hasmonean revolution. Jubilees gets its name from the fact that it imposes on the biblical narrative a schematic chronology that divides it into a series of 49-year periods or jubilees, each comprising seven ‘weeks of years’. Of all the Rewritten Bible texts, Jubilees defines most clearly its relationship to the Scripture. It claims to be a second Torah written by an angel, or rather (alternatively) dictated by him to Moses on Sinai, the first Torah being the well-known canonic text, which was written by God himself (Jub. 1:4–6, 26–9; 6:22). Thus it claims high authority for itself. Jubilees' doctrine of the two Torahs recalls the latter rabbinic doctrine of the dual Torah (which effectively raised rabbinic Bible interpretation to the level of inspired Scripture), save for one significant difference: the Second Torah in rabbinic teaching was, at least in principle, an Oral Torah, that is to say, one transmitted by word of mouth down through an accredited line of tradents from Moses (cf. Mishnah ᾽ Abot, 1:15), whereas Jubilees seems to have envisaged the Second Torah as having been written down from the very beginning.


An extensive retelling of the biblical story can also be found in Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews (ANTH A.6). Josephus (c.37–c.100 CE) was a Palestinian Jew of priestly family who went over to the Roman side during the First Jewish War against Rome (66–74 CE). Later in life he lived in Rome, where he enjoyed imperial patronage. He adopted the role of apologist for the Jews and attempted to explain Jewish history, belief, and practice to the educated Gentile world of his day. His Jewish Antiquities is modelled on the great history of Rome—the Roman Antiquities—by Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Written in very competent Greek, the Antiquities of the Jews was probably composed in Rome in the 90's of the first century CE. Like the works of Philo, Josephus' writings were preserved by the church, which found them of inestimable value for apologetic purposes, and, indeed, interpolated them with a famous testimony to the more-than-human status of Jesus (Ant. 18.63–4). (Text and tr.: Thackeray et al. (1965: iv–ix); tr. Whiston (1737 ); introduction: Rajak (1983 ); see further Feldman (1998 ).)



In the Second Temple period the standard form of the book was the skin or papyrus scroll. Scrolls, however, are bulky: a complete copy of the Bible amounted to 22 or 24 scrolls, and, as the copy of the Isaiaha scroll from Qumran shows, just one of those scrolls could be well over 20 ft. long. Scrolls are also inconvenient to use: if one is looking for a particular passage, it can be hard to find in a scroll. It was probably a combination of these factors that led from the second century CE onwards to an ever-increasing use of the codex, the forerunner of the modern book, as an alternative to the scroll. It is possible to pack more writing into a codex (since both sides of the skin or papyrus are used), and in general codices are easier than scrolls to handle and consult. A complete Bible in the form of a set of scrolls would have represented a very considerable outlay of money, and few individuals in antiquity, even scholars, are likely to have possessed one. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that anthologies of biblical texts were produced. The existence of such anthologies is well known from later Christian practice, and some had deduced from the recurrence of certain key proof-texts in the NT that they were used by the first Christians (note e.g. the quotation of Ps 118:22 in Mt 21:42; Mk 12:10; Lk 20:17; Acts 4:11; Eph 2:20; 1 Pet 2:7 ). But it was only when actual examples of biblical anthologies were discovered among the Dead Sea scrolls that their existence in Second Temple times was finally proved. The anthologies consist of verses from Scripture, with or without commentary, grouped around a theme or motif. A good example, dated palaeographically to the early first century CE, is 4Q175, which contains a collection of messianic testimonia (Deut 18:18–19; Num 24:15–17; Deut 33:8–11 ). Another example, 4Q174, dated palaeographically to the late first century BCE, contains a collection of verses on the theme of the last days, drawn from 2 Samuel and the Psalms. 4Q174 offers an interpretation of the selected verses, but even where commentary is absent, the simple juxtaposition of different texts from different parts of the Bible involves illuminating Scripture from Scripture and constitutes in itself a kind of elementary commentary. (Text: García Martínez and Tigchelaar (1997: i. 352–7); tr.: Vermes (1997: 493–6); see further: Brooke (1985 ); Lim (1997 ).)



In the Second Temple period the use of Hebrew as a Jewish vernacular steadily declined. Large numbers of Jews in the Greek-speaking Diaspora seem to have had at best a minimal knowledge of the language, and even in Palestine more and more Jews went over to speaking a cognate, but quite distinct language, Aramaic. This created the need for translations of the Bible. The earliest of these was the Septuagint, a Greek version of the Torah, sponsored according to Jewish tradition by the Ptolemy Philadelphus of Egypt (285–246 BCE), who wanted a copy of the Jewish law for his famous library in Alexandria. Aramaic renderings were also produced. Small fragments of an Aramaic translation of Leviticus have been found among the Dead Sea scrolls, as well as substantial remains of an Aramaic version of Job. Aramaic translations, known as Targumim, covering the whole of the HB (with the exception of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel, which are already substantially in Aramaic) are found in medieval Jewish MSS. These Targumim are of various dates, but some at least go back to the Talmudic era and are derived from the translations used then in synagogue simultaneously to render the biblical lections into the vernacular. This practice of rendering the public reading from Scripture simultaneously into Aramaic is well attested in the Talmudic period, but when it originated is still debated. That it goes back in some shape or form to the Second Temple times is probable. Though the extant MSS of the Targumim are all late, many have been shown to contain very early traditions. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to the Pentateuch (so called because it was mistakenly attributed to Jonathan ben ῾Uzzi᾽el the putative author of the ‘official’ Targum of the Prophets), is a case in point (ANTH A.7). (Text: Clarke (1984); tr.: Maher (1992 ); introduction to the Targumim: P. S.Alexander, in Mulder (1988: 217–53)). In its present form it cannot have been composed earlier than the seventh century CE, yet it contains material dating from Second Temple times. The Targumim are invaluable repositories of early Jewish Bible interpretation, which have been used successfully to illuminate early Christian use of the OT. All translations are interpretations, but the Targumim contain more interpretation than most, since they are often very paraphrastic and incorporate additions reminiscent of the Rewritten Bible type of exegesis. Unlike the Rewritten Bible texts, however, the Targumim, as translations, cannot be selective but must include the whole of the original, and follow the original order.

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