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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Historical Overview

Since the Jewish people have passed the major part of their post-biblical existence as minorities within Christian or Muslim societies, and have been considerably affected by their relationship to the dominant culture, a brief overview of this history will help establish the framework for the forms of Jewish interpretation that emerged.

After Jewish national life was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, Jews were widely dispersed (Diaspora), though the process had already begun in the wake of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. Large Jewish communities existed as far apart as Babylon/Persia, Syria, Antioch, Rome, Athens, and Alexandria. At the height of the Roman Republic communities could also be found in Spain, France, and Germany. Following the Arab conquest in the seventh century, communities in the Middle East and Mediterranean came under the sway of Islam. The Jewish community in Spain experienced a golden age, in a symbiotic relationship with a flourishing Islamic culture, only to come under persecution at the hands of the Almohades at the end of this period. Those who took refuge in Christian Spain were subsequently to experience the Inquisition and ultimately expulsion in 1492. The refugees found a home in the Ottoman Empire, but also gathered in new communities in Amsterdam, London, and other European cities. These groups, preserving their Judaeo-Spanish language and customs, were known as Sephardim. The other major Jewish grouping, the Ashkenazim, lived in Germany and Eastern Europe under Christianity. From the time of the First Crusade in the eleventh century, they experienced successive expulsions and massacres, one result being a massive flight of German Jews to the Polish provinces. Yet, despite this overall negative picture, under constant pressure to give up their faith and accept Christianity, particular times and circumstances enabled communities and individuals to flourish, and dialogue to take place across the boundaries, particularly amongst scholars.

In the period preceding and following the American and French revolutions, Jews gradually acquired equal citizenship rights. The price that was paid for this opportunity for the individual was the loss of the coherent, self-regulating, collective Jewish identity that had preceded it. Different religious and secular ideologies struggled to retain the loyalty of individual Jews to Judaism as a faith or to the Jewish people. The destruction wrought upon one-third of the total Jewish population of the world by the Holocaust, and the subsequent emergence of the State of Israel, introduced radically new issues that are central to any Jewish self-understanding today.

All these different historical and geographical experiences of almost 2,000 years of Diaspora existence have coloured the Jewish response to the Hebrew Bible, the one document common to all Jewish experience. The continuing process of reinterpretation of the Bible was one of the mechanisms that helped the Jewish people to understand the meaning of their existence and develop strategies for survival. It is against these often radically different backgrounds that the rich variety of approaches to biblical interpretation evolved.

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