[This entry contains three subentries, Introduction, Hebrew Bible and Jewish Scriptures, and New Testament.]
The term “rabbinic literature” refers to the writings produced from the second to the seventh centuries C.E. by sages who understood themselves to stand in a chain of tradition that stretched back to God's original revelation to Moses at Sinai, beginning in Exodus 19. In the view of the rabbis who emerged in the first centuries and beyond as leaders of the Jewish community, this revelation produced both the Written Torah, that is, the Five Books of Moses or Pentateuch, known to all of the people of Israel, and an oral Torah, passed down through a chain of tradition beginning with Moses and ending in the first centuries with the rabbis themselves. It is this tradition—the Oral Torah—that the rabbis understand themselves to have preserved in the books that today constitute rabbinic literature, specifically, the Mishnah, Tosefta, the Talmud of the land of Israel, and the Talmud of Babylonia, and a wide range of compilations of scriptural interpretation, called Midrash. Judaism thus deems the rabbinic writings to be more than simply the products of the distinctive approach to law and the interpretation of scripture of this literature's rabbinic authors. Rabbinic literature is believed, more importantly, to embody half of God's revelation to Moses at Sinai, to stand, this is to say, alongside and to be equally authoritative to the Written Torah, preserved in the Bible.
In line with rabbinic literature's claim to have the status of revelation, and in keeping with its rabbinic authors’ authority as leaders of the Jewish community, for almost two thousand years rabbinic literature has remained the central foundation of both practice and belief in Jewish communities throughout the world. The specific meanings of scripture, the characterization of scripture's law, and even the distinctive methods of legal and biblical exegesis set out by the rabbis stand behind subsequent statements of Jewish law and theology. Rabbinic literature thus continues today to serve as the foundation of the practices and beliefs of the Jewish people throughout the world.
The Documents of Rabbinic Literature.
Rabbinic literature comprises diverse documents marked by distinctive rhetorical styles and varied substantive programs and produced over a period of more than five hundred years in many different genres. Despite this literature's diversity, it can be most easily conceived as divided into two main categories. On the one side stand writings that are concerned with setting out scripture's law. The Mishnah is located at the foundation of this group, and it is followed by documents that interpret and develop the legal program initiated in the Mishnah, specifically, the Tosefta and the Talmuds. On the other side stand the midrashic writings, works that are entirely devoted to scriptural exegesis, including verse by verse and occasionally word by word interpretations of biblical books (e.g., in the Rabbah Midrashim), and books of exegesis organized around the lectionary cycle or the liturgical Torah readings associated with specific holidays (e.g., Pesiqta de Rab Kahana).
The division between legal and exegetical documents is not precise. The “legal” documents, especially the Talmuds, contain substantial amounts of midrashic interpretation of scripture, and some of the “exegetical” documents are dedicated to working out the sources and details of the law. Still, the distinction between legal and exegetical is useful in that it captures an important difference between the two categories of writing. The documents of the midrashic corpus focus directly on scripture, and they use a distinctive rhetorical approach designed to set out scripture's meaning, whether through sequential exegesis or in the examination of scripture's larger passages or themes. The legal literature, by contrast, explores legal topics from a perspective quite independent of direct interpretation of the scriptural passages from which the law might emerge. The Mishnah, which is the foundational document of this part of the rabbinic literature, seldom cites scripture at all, and the Talmuds are organized as commentaries on the Mishnah, not on scripture, as would be the case for midrashic texts. While the Talmuds cite scripture frequently, and reflect on it in order to explain or develop the Mishnah's ideas, scripture is not a sustained focus and does not serve as the document's organizing principle. This being the case, we would do well to examine independently these two categories of rabbinic writing, the Mishnah and its successor documents, on the one side, and the midrashic exegetical texts, on the other.
The Mishnah, the earliest document of rabbinic Judaism, is a discursive law code, composed in Hebrew, that preserves the legal opinions of rabbis active in the first two centuries C.E. In its completed form, the Mishnah is the product of significant editorial intervention, the work of authors who, in a manner not entirely known to us, collected and formulated into a cogent literary work the ideas and sayings of individuals who had lived over the preceding two centuries. As a result of these authors’ work, the Mishnah is rhetorically unified and topically organized. In it, a small number of fixed rhetorical forms serve to present the ideas of many different rabbis speaking on a wide range of carefully set-out themes. This means that the Mishnah does not preserve the actual words of those it cites, nor does it present anything near complete transcripts of the debates in which these rabbis had participated. We find here, rather, a highly formalized and rhetorical work that represents the topical and theoretical interests of those who formulated it, the result of editorial processes that took place as much as two hundred years after the lives of the people whom the Mishnah quotes.
The Mishnah was promulgated circa 200 C.E. under the auspices of Judah the Patriarch, the Roman-appointed Jewish authority of the land of Israel. In the following centuries, in particular as it became the foundation for rabbinic authority under the sponsorship of the Sassanian appointed Exilarch in Babylonia, it essentially became the constitution of rabbinic Judaism, the foundation of the mode of Judaism set out by the rabbis that took shape in this period and that has come to define Jewish practice to the present.
In its rhetorical form and substantive content, the Mishnah is different from what we normally expect of a legislative code. It is best conceived as a “philosophical” law code because, while the Mishnah deals with law, it does not set out that law in the manner expected of a book of legislation. Rather, in the Mishnah, named authorities (sages or rabbis, known in subsequent rabbinic documents as Tannaim, “repeaters,” or “memorizers,” for the form in which their sayings were transmitted) alongside anonymous sayings offer opinions on controverted questions of law. A defining trait of the Mishnah is that it almost never indicates which opinion regarding a disputed practice—whether it be in the area of ritual, tort, or criminal law—is correct and to be followed. Rather, the Mishnah's editor or editors set out the range of opinions on each topic, leaving it, presumably, to the reader and, especially, to later rabbinic tradition to determine the practical law. The Mishnah thus is as much an invitation for the reader to think about the law as it is a demand that the community observe the law in one way and not another.
The Mishnah encompasses six topical divisions (Sedarim), and each division is divided into between seven and twelve sub-units, called tractates (Masekhtot). This yields a total of sixty-three tractates dealing with individual themes relevant to the Mishnah's six larger topics. These topics are: (1) Agriculture (Zeraim), on growing foods in conformity with God's will, especially as this pertains to the laws of the sabbatical year, the prohibition against planting together mixed kinds of seeds, and the setting aside of tithes and other agricultural offerings that support the priests, Levites, and poor; (2) Holy Seasons (Moed), on the observance of holy days, including Sabbaths, pilgrimage festivals, and New Year and the Day of Atonement, with particular attention to the Temple rituals for these days; (3) Women (Nashim), the rules for marriage, divorce, and family affairs; (4) Damages (Nezikin), civil and criminal law and communal governance; (5) Holy Things (Qedoshim), the slaughter of meat for secular consumption and the conduct of the sacrificial cult in the Jerusalem Temple; (6) Purities (Torohot), ritual purity, as it applies in and outside of the Temple.
The sixth division, on Purities, comprises by size approximately a quarter of the Mishnah. In it, and in the other divisions as well, topics of interest to the priesthood and the Temple—priestly tithes, worship, management and upkeep of the Temple, and rules of ritual purity—predominate. Striking in this selection of topics is the Mishnah's focus on matters that were not, by the time of its formulation more than a century after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., matters of practical concern. Sacrifices no longer were offered, the system of Temple purity could not for the most part be maintained, the tithing law largely supported a Levitical class that no longer had a concrete role in the religious life of the nation, and, with Israel under Roman rule, even the system of courts and communal self-government was largely a matter of only theoretical interest. Like the Mishnah's rhetorical form, its content suggests that, more than a practical code of conduct intended as the foundation for governing the Israelite nation, the Mishnah is a utopian statement. In it, the rabbis assert that the divine law set out in scripture and once articulated in God's Temple and in the Israelite monarchy would some day again serve an Israelite nation sovereign in its own land and worshipping in a rebuilt Temple. In the view of the Mishnah's authorities, this messianic Israel would observe the law correctly and fully, in the manner in which that law was set out not by the priests who once controlled the Jerusalem cult but by the rabbis themselves, based upon their exclusive knowledge of the Oral Torah set out in the Mishnah.
The Post-Mishnaic Legal Literature: The Tosefta and Talmuds.
Upon its completion, the Mishnah apparently served as the law code of the administration of the Roman-appointed patriarch in the land of Israel and of his counterpart, the exilarch in Iranian-ruled Babylonia. In this period, rabbinic statements that had not been included in the Mishnah were organized in a parallel compilation. Edited about a generation after the Mishnah, circa 300 C.E., the Tosefta, which like the Mishnah is written in Hebrew, preserves supplementary sayings that are organized under the same rubrics—divisions and tractates—as the Mishnah itself. The Tosefta thus presents glosses, secondary paraphrases, and, in preserving Tannaitic legal materials not found in the Mishnah, a legal complement to the earlier document.
In the period following the completion of the Mishnah and Tosefta, a different rhetorical form developed and advanced the growing rabbinic agenda of setting out a system of law through which the rabbis could govern the Jewish people. This form appears in two separate rabbinic writings, both called Talmud, both written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and both presented as partial commentaries on the Mishnah that explain the Mishnah's law, identify the scriptural foundations of the Mishnah's statements, and illustrate the application of the Mishnah's principles in diverse situations not envisioned by the Mishnah's authorities themselves. The first of these two documents is the Talmud of the land of Israel, called also (incorrectly) the Jerusalem Talmud (Yerushalmi) and, sometimes, in English, the Palestinian Talmud, which reached closure circa 400, and which comments on most of the Mishnah's first four divisions. The second is the Talmud of Babylonia (Bavli), substantially completed circa 600, which provides a sustained commentary on most of the tractates of the Mishnah's second through fifth divisions. When reference is made to the Talmud without further specification, it is always the Bavli that is intended. The foundation of the later Jewish legal codifications and the main subject of study within the academies of Jewish learning from antiquity and until our own day, the Talmud of Babylonia is the magnum opus of rabbinic literary production.
While the two Talmuds are independent works (even the later Talmud of Babylonia does not know the earlier Talmud of the land of Israel), they have a largely shared purpose in interpreting the Mishnah. Jacob Neusner phrases matters as follows:In a word, the Talmuds propose to state in writing the basic rules of the social order and to show us how to discover the right rule, based on the principles God has made known in the Torah, for the affairs of everyday life. The Talmuds are documents full of debates on erudite and esoteric questions. But in the debates about fine points of law, ritual, and theology, “our sages of blessed memory” formulated through concrete examples the rules of right thinking and accurate formulation in words of God's will for the here and now. For they held that the Torah is given to purify the hearts of humanity and that what God really wants is the heart. But there, in the center of life, in the streets and homes of the holy community, Israel, what does that mean? It is through close and careful thinking about little things that “our sages” brought the Torah's great principles into the everyday world of ordinary people (Neusner 2000, pp. 102–103).
The Talmuds accomplish their purpose through sustained and systematic amplifications and analyses of sequential lines and passages of the Mishnah and, to a lesser extent, other Tannaitic teaching that do not appear in the Mishnah (some of these appear in the Tosefta; others, called baraita, while assigned to authorities from the period of the Mishnah are known only from the Talmuds themselves). Its ultimate achievement is to turn those esoteric debates and rhetorical arguments into paths to God's mind and concrete desires for the Jewish people.
Beyond their shared topical foci, the Talmuds for the most part share an exegetical program as well. Each seeks to identify the common principle of law that stands behind seemingly contradictory statements found in the Mishnah. Both seek to uncover the scriptural sources of the Mishnah's rules, thereby demonstrating that the Mishnah indeed comports with and so represents an equal part of the Sinaitic revelation. The two Talmuds even share a larger topical agenda, focusing on those sections of the Mishnah that have the greatest implications for post-Temple Jewish life: Holy Seasons, Women, Damages, in particular—in addition to individual tractates of immediate interest that are found in other divisions, for example, the one on prayer, in the Division of Agriculture, and the one that covers menstrual impurity, in the Division of Purities. (Note that the Talmud of the land of Israel comments on the entirety of the Division of Agriculture, pertinent to life in the land of Israel, while the Bavli covers only the first tractate of that division, on prayer. But the Bavli covers the entire Division of Holy Things, which, beyond the tractate on the slaughter of meat for secular consumption, has no contemporary practical relevance and which is not treated in the Talmud of the land of Israel at all). In all, we see in the Talmuds at least the beginning of the rabbis’ shift from the utopian and philosophical approach of the Mishnah to an approach to thinking about law that can ultimately regulate life in real Jewish communities dedicated to observance of the laws of Torah in the here and now.
Scripture and the Exegetical Tradition of the Written Torah.
The second stream of writings that constitute rabbinic literature consists of documents, like the two Talmuds written in Hebrew and Aramaic, dedicated to sustained commentary on the Written Torah. While, as noted above, episodic commentaries appear in the Mishnah and Tosefta and, more frequently, in the two Talmuds, in that literature, biblical commentary in no case serves as the organizing principle of these documents. By contrast, in the Midrash compilations that make up this segment of the rabbinic literature, each document is purposefully organized as a commentary on a book or part of a book of the Bible, whether one of the books of the Pentateuch or a biblical writing that plays an important role in the synagogue liturgy: Ruth (read in the synagogue on the holiday Shavuot), Lamentations (read on the Ninth of Av), and Song of Songs (read on Sukkot). A variety of such compilations was produced in the period under discussion here, the third century C.E. through the sixth or seventh century, the same period as the creation of the Mishnah and two Talmuds. But just as the legal work that comprises the Mishnah and Talmuds continued in the post-Talmudic period, yielding commentaries and legal codes, so too did the work of midrashic exegesis continue, in this case yielding a literature of scriptural exegesis that extends into the medieval period and, beyond, to modern times.
Exegesis of the Israelite scriptures as a way to undergird later articulations of Jewish practice and theology became a convention of the Jewish community even before the completion of the canon, and continued for the following hundreds of years and even up to our own day. Whether in the writings of the Essene community at Qumran, in the Gospels’ and early church's depiction of Jesus, or in the portrayal of Judaism by Hellenistic writers such as Philo and Josephus, descriptions of “authentic” Judaism always begin in an encounter with the Written Torah. What marks the work of the rabbis as distinctive and new is their program of organizing entire documents around the systematic interpretation of particular scriptural works, thereby creating an entire literature of biblical commentary such as exists in no other manifestation of Judaism in their period or before.
The earliest manifestation of the rabbinic proclivity for systematic exegesis of scripture responded to a question that was left open by the Mishnah itself. While plainly dependent on scripture for topics and underlying legal principles, the Mishnah only rarely indicates the specific statement of the Written Torah that accounts for its law. This fact—one might say, this problem—was addressed in the earliest midrashic compilations, products of the third century C.E., which deal with the legal materials found in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and which seek to show how, absent the specific statements of scripture, one could not through logic alone derive the rules codified in the Mishnah. Thus Sifra, on Leviticus, and the two compilations called Sifre, one on Numbers and the other on Deuteronomy, all support the centrality of the Written Law as the foundation of Judaism and make the case that, even in places in which the Mishnah does not indicate its basis in the Written Law, it does in fact reiterate a single and unitary revelation.
A similar approach to the sequential reading of verses of scripture is found in other early Midrash compilations, in particular Genesis Rabbah, which presents a verse-by-verse reading of the book of Genesis. This mode of exegesis stands alongside a different one, which, rather than a sequential treatment of the underlying text, uses that text as a stepping stone in the elaboration of independent propositions that emerge, for instance, from the needs of a specific holiday or liturgical occasion. Here a single verse might be the starting point for a long thematic discourse, with the result that the underlying text, as is the case in Pesiqta de Rab Kahana, is not so much interpreted as it is used in the setting out of a message and meaning quite unrelated to its own contextual sense. In this way Leviticus Rabbah, for example, presents topical essays, anchored to specific verses in Leviticus but ranging widely in the citation of diverse books of the Bible and in the making of its own point about themes—God's attitude towards the poor, the perils of drunkenness—that are separate from anything that Leviticus, as a cogent work of literature, presents as a sustained focus.
The Midrashic Compilations.
The main substantive and rhetorical traits of the Tannaitic midrashic compilations—Sifra, on Leviticus, and Sifre to Numbers and to Deuteronomy—are as indicated above. To those texts of the early period may be added the Mekilta of R. Simeon b. Yohai, a presumably Tannaitic commentary to the book of Exodus that in 1905 was reconstructed by David Hoffman, who used fragments interspersed in the medieval collection Midrash HaGadol and three sets of Cairo Genizah fragments. The existence and content of the Mekilta of R. Simeon b. Yohai has subsequently been verified by additional research into Cairo Genizah materials, which serve as the foundation for the edition of this text published in 1955 by J. N. Epstein and E. Z. Melamed. The following briefly reviews the midrashic texts of the later, Talmudic period; for more detail see Neusner and Avery-Peck, 2000.
A verse-by-verse interpretation, produced around 400 C.E. in the land of Israel, that reads the biblical book of Genesis as a sacred history of the people of Israel, their future as well as the past that is actually detailed in the biblical book. The book of Genesis thus is made to speak not only of the nation's historical enslavement and redemption but of the future Temple in Jerusalem and of the nation's exile and salvation at the end of time. Genesis Rabbah proclaims that history unfolds in a single line of development, leading to an end of time that will witness the salvation of the people of Israel and, through them, of all humanity. This message is achieved through the consistently applied perspective that the deeds of, and what happened to, Israel's patriarchs and matriarchs are paradigmatic of what is going to occur in the future. The biography of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob thus is read as a protracted account of the future history of the Israelite nation.
Unlike the verse-by-verse treatment in Genesis Rabbah, Leviticus Rabbah comments on episodic verses of the book of Leviticus, forming thirty-seven conceptual compositions that read Leviticus's rules of priestly sanctification as a statement about the salvation of all Israel. Leviticus is interpreted as the story of how the people of Israel, purified from sin and sanctified, will achieve salvation. At base the message of this Midrash compilation is that Israel's fate is controlled by its moral character. Leviticus Rabbah probably dates from the land of Israel in the fifth century C.E., though this is uncertain, and it may be later.
Pesiqta de Rab Kahana.
“The Chapters attributed to R. Kahana” is similar in rhetorical form to Leviticus Rabbah. Thirty-three (or thirty-four; the work appears in two different editions) propositional discourses range through assorted verses of scripture and ultimately arrive at the single verse that is meant to be the focus of the particular midrashic unit. Those verses are all tied to the synagogue lectionary calendar, signaling, that is, the Torah or Haftarah (prophetic) reading for special Sabbaths, holidays, and the prophetic readings for the periods of rebuke and comfort preceding and following the Ninth of Av. Pesiqta de Rab Kahana thus breaks from the more common midrashic model, in which the exegetical activity is fixed to a sequence of biblical verses or, at least, to a particular biblical book. Here, rather, the association is with the liturgical calendar and the life of the synagogue, the changing themes of which the Pesiqta identifies within the biblical texts chosen for reading on each particular day. Again, dating is uncertain, but the completed work appears to derive from before the end of the Talmudic period, in the fifth or early sixth century, probably in the land of Israel.
Song of Songs Rabbah.
A collection of love poems, the Bible's Song of Songs finds a place in scripture because the early rabbis understood it to speak metaphorically about the love between God and the people of Israel. Song of Songs Rabbah interprets the biblical book in ways that justify that reading, seeing in common human experiences, for instance, in the relationship between a husband and wife, an image of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. The love of Israel for God and vice versa is depicted here as urgent and profound, well represented by the longing for each other of the two lovers in the biblical book. Dating is uncertain, and Song of Songs Rabbah may not derive from before the end of the Talmudic period, in the land of Israel.
Focusing on the central theme of the biblical book of Ruth, Ruth Rabbah concerns the outsider who becomes the central figure in the history of Israel, the Davidic messiah whose ancestor was Ruth, a Moabite woman. According to Ruth Rabbah, such a transformation can occur only as a result of Israel's mastery of the Torah. Thus Ruth Rabbah sets out the idea that Israel must follow its appropriately determined leaders, that outsiders are accepted into the community according to the rules of the Torah, and that once accepted into the people of Israel, a proselyte is respected by God and must be treated as equal to all other Israelites. By taking shelter under God's presence, the proselyte comes to stand in the royal line of King David and, thus, of the messiah. This work appears to derive from the end of the Talmud period, 500–600 C.E. Its main sources are the Talmud of the land of Israel and other land of Israel midrashic texts.
Lamentations Rabbah (also called Eikha Rabbati).
Lamentations Rabbah focuses on Israel's relationship with God, showing that, even in the face of the apparent estrangement of God from Israel, depicted in the book of Lamentations, the covenant still and always governs that relationship. This suggests that everything that happens to Israel is meaningful, reflecting God's justice and larger plan for the Israelite nation. The people of Israel, accordingly, are not helpless. Rather, through their determination to abide by the covenant, they control their own destiny: the nation suffers as a result of the people's sins, but, as the covenant promises, God will respond to their atonement and to future faithfulness. In the end, when Israel has attained the merit that accrues through the Torah, God will redeem Israel. This message is presented through what is largely a verse-by-verse amplification, paraphrase, and exposition of the underlying biblical book. Lamentations Rabbah dates to the sixth century C.E., probably in the land of Israel.
Alongside these texts that are dated to the Talmudic period, a number of post-Talmudic midrashic collections, more broadly construed as part of rabbinic literature, deserve mention: Mekilta of R. Ishmael is a commentary devoted to the book of Exodus, probably compiled sometime after 600 C.E. (whether in the land of Israel or Babylonia is disputed); Pirqe de R. Eliezer, of the eighth century or later, possibly in the land of Israel, interprets the central events of history related in the Torah; the collections know as Tanḥuma, on the entirety of the Pentateuch, derive from no earlier than the ninth century. Finally, within the ten compilations designated Rabbah (“Great”) commentaries, only the ones referred to above are from the Talmudic period. Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy Rabbah all derive from the tenth to twelfth centuries.
The Rabbinic Literature as Oral Torah.
The rabbis of the first centuries understand that God taught the oral tradition to Moses on Mount Sinai, who repeated it to Joshua. After Joshua, the chain of tradition extended through “elders” and the biblical prophets. Ultimately, the oral materials were passed into the hands of rabbinic authorities (m. ʾAbot 1:1). To assure that this revelation would not be lost as a result of war, national strife, or other physical or intellectual calamity, beginning with the Mishnah in the second century C.E., the rabbis codified the oral materials and preserved them in written form.
In this theory, the rabbinic literature of which we speak here stands alongside the Written Torah as part of a single, uniform revelation. In the setting out of Jewish belief and practice, rabbinic literature thus is of equal authority and importance to the Written Torah. When a second-century rabbi in the Mishnah or a fifth-century sage in the Midrash or Talmud responds to a question from his own day, his judgment does not comprise his own thinking and analysis. Rather, it is part and parcel of the divine revelation of Torah at Sinai. Even though the sage's comment is expressed in his own words and responds to a question or issue raised in his own day, it is understood to derive, in detail, from what God told Moses at the time of the original revelation. The statement, like the document of which it is a part, in every respect has the authority of divine revelation.
This concept of Oral Torah is uniquely rabbinic; other postbiblical Jewish writings know of nothing comparable. This is evident, for instance, from the way in which non-rabbinic Jewish writers refer to the source and status of “traditions.” Writing in the first century C.E., in his Jewish War, Josephus describes the Pharisees, whom the later rabbis understand to be the direct recipients of the Oral Torah. But Josephus here says nothing about their knowledge of inherited traditions, only that, of the several Jewish philosophical schools, the Pharisees are the more accurate interpreters of Judaism's laws. Josephus's later work, the Antiquities, reworks his earlier descriptions, encouraging the Roman government to support the Pharisees as leaders of the Jewish people. To substantiate the case that the Pharisees are the nation's legitimate rulers, Josephus notes that they preserve and follow certain traditions developed in accordance with their distinctive philosophical doctrine:They follow the guidance of that which their doctrine has selected and transmitted as good, attaching the chief importance to the observance of those commandments which it has seen fit to dictate to them (Ant.13:171, in Marcus, p. 311).
A similar idea, that a group preserves and follows some traditions received from past generations, is found throughout the works of Philo, who focuses upon the Jews’ adherence to laws and traditions handed down from Moses, their law-giver. But this is different from the claim that stands at the foundation of rabbinic literature, that the legal and exegetical dicta produced and presented by the rabbis themselves derive from divine revelation. Outside of the rabbinic writings, such a notion is absent from Jewish discussions of tradition.
Clearly the rabbinic theory of Oral Torah legitimates rabbinic statements that set out the rabbis’ own understanding of the meaning of scripture and the content of Jewish law. Under the theory of Oral Torah, the canonical rabbinic literature has the authority of the word of God. At the same time, the concept of Oral Torah delegitimizes writings that derive from outside of rabbinic circles, which are viewed as (simply) the work of fallible human intellect. By establishing the rabbis as the only authoritative source for correct practice and understanding of the divine word, the rabbinic theory of Oral Torah and the literature that sets out that Torah promote and justify the rabbis’ leadership of the Jewish people.
Yet, as we have seen, what the rabbis conceive as an oral tradition originating at Sinai in fact takes the concrete form of arguments and discussions among rabbinic sages of the first six centuries C.E. The earliest of these discussions, found in the Mishnah, took place for the most part in the aftermath of the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. and the Second Jewish Revolt of 132–135 C.E. During this decisive period in Jewish history, rabbinic sages studied and interpreted scripture, working out a program of ritual and legal practice that eventually reshaped Judaism according to the rabbis’ own ideals and aspirations. This is to say that the legal and exegetical statements under discussion and debate in the rabbinic documents described here only at some later point in the emergence of the rabbinic literature came to be associated with the Sinai revelation. As suggested by its statement of the process of transmission of this material from God and down to the rabbis, this point—the turning point in the rabbis’ own conceptualization of their work—appears to have been the promulgation of Mishnah Tractate ʾAbot, generally understood to derive from the very end of the period of the redaction of the Mishnah. But contrary to Mishnah Abot 1:1's claim of a tradition going back to God and Sinai, what later Jewish thinking imagines as Oral Torah in fact is substantially the product of the rabbis’ own day and of their own distinctive attitudes and philosophies.
This is not to suggest that traditions of law and exegesis were not known and incorporated into later rabbinic literature. From a variety of historical sources it is clear that, from the time of scripture itself, many Jews observed the laws introduced in scripture. However, since these biblical laws were often contradictory and incomplete, they had to determine what those laws meant and how they were to be followed. Indeed, the Mishnah for its part assumes a range of details not available in scripture and presumably transmitted to the rabbis from past generations. Accordingly it is clear that, at some point prior to the inception of the discussions later recorded in the rabbinic literature, unidentified individuals carefully read scripture and delineated the meanings of its often laconic statements.
Thus, it is not the case that traditions regarding ritual practice and the meaning of scripture did not in all probability exist in late antiquity and that some of these traditions did not in one way or another find a path into rabbinic literature. Yet, so far as the literary evidence indicates, the rabbis did not simply take up and preserve such traditions, using them as central, or even simply significant, components of their own legislation and biblical interpretation. Rather than a compendium of prior oral traditions, the rabbinic writings that have come down to us are the independent intellectual and literary creations of the rabbis themselves. These documents do not preserve an existing, ancient tradition of law and commentary, but, rather, develop themes and ideas suggested by scripture and worked out by the rabbis themselves in response to the distinctive needs and ideologies of their movement and of their own day.
In the minds of the rabbis, the Oral Tradition of Sinai took shape in the Mishnah and in the successive documents of rabbinic Judaism, in what we know collectively as rabbinic literature. But this rabbinic notion of Oral Torah cannot be equated in any concrete sense with a corpus of laws and interpretations that actually existed throughout Israelite history. Clearly, Jews in different historical periods and places observed scripture's dicta according to specific interpretations of the biblical text, some of which may have been transmitted from generation to generation. But there is no evidence that such traditions ever constituted a unitary tradition stretching back to Sinai. Rabbinic literature is, rather, the product of its rabbinic authors, lawyers and exegetes who pursued their own independent program in order to create a system of practice and belief that would undergird Judaism from their day to our own.
[See also TARGUMIM.]
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- Epstein, J. N., and E. Z. Melamed. Mekhilta d'Rabbi Sim'on b. Jochai: Fragmenta in Geniza Cairensi reperta diggesit apparatu critico, notis, praefatione instruxit. Jerusalem: Meḳitse nirdamim, 1955.
- Hammer, R. Sifre: A Tannaitic Commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986.
- Hoffmann, D. Z. Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simon b. Jochai: Ein halachischer und haggadischer Midrasch zu Exodus. Frankfurt am Main: Koyfmann, 1905.
- Josephus. Antiquities. Translated by Ralph Marcus. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957.
- Lieberman, Saul. Midrash Devarim rabbah: yotse la-or pa'am rishonah ‘al pi ketav yad Okford kovets 147. Jerusalem: Sifre Ṿahrman, 1974.
- Lieberman, Saul, ed. The Tosefta According to Codex Vienna with Variants from Codex Erfurt, Genizah MSS. and Edition Princeps. 4 vols. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1955.
- Lieberman, Saul. Tosefta Ki-Fshuta: A Comprehensive Commentary on the Tosefta. 7 vols. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1955.
- Midrash Rabbah…Translated into English with notes, glossary and indices under the editorship of H. Freedman and Maurice Simon. 10 vols. London and New York: Soncino, 1983. (Genesis Rabbah is available at: www.archive.org/details/midrashrabbahgen027557mbp)
- Neusner, Jacob, et al. The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary. 22 vols. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2011.
- Neusner, Jacob. “The Canon of Rabbinic Judaism.” In The Blackwell Companion to Judaism, edited by Jacob Neusner and Alan J. Avery-Peck. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.
- Neusner, Jacob. The Components of the Rabbinic Documents. From the Whole to the Parts. I. Sifra. 4 vols. Atlanta: Scholars, 1997.
- Neusner, Jacob. Genesis Rabbah: The Judaic Commentary on Genesis: A New American Translation. 3 vols. Atlanta: Scholars, 1985.
- Neusner, Jacob. Judaism and Scripture: The Evidence of Leviticus Rabbah. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
- Neusner, Jacob. Sifre to Numbers: An American Translation and Explanation. 2 vols. Atlanta: Scholars, 1986.
- Neusner, Jacob. The Talmud of the Land of Israel: A Preliminary Translation and Explanation. 35 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982–1994.
- Neusner, Jacob. The Tosefta: Translated from the Hebrew. 6 vols. New York: Ktav, 1977–1986.
- Neusner, Jacob, and Alan J. Avery-Peck, eds. Encyclopedia of Midrash: Biblical Interpretation in Formative Judaism. 2 vols. Leiden, Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2005.
- Rabbinics: Online Resources for the Study of Rabbinic Literature. www.rabbinics.org
- Talmud Babylonicum Codicis Hebraica Monacensis 95. Edited by Hermann L. Strack Leiden, 1912; reprint: Jerusalem, 1971.
Alan J. Avery-Peck
Hebrew Bible and Jewish Scriptures
The rabbis refer to scripture with a variety of terms. Two sets prevail: those related to the root ktb (“to write”), and those related to the root qr' (“to read”). Among the former, kitbê haqodeš (“holy writings”), hakātûb (“the scripture”), and the plural hakĕtûbîm (“the scriptures”) are common. These uses of the Hebrew root ktb underline the written nature of the biblical text. The term miqrā' (“that which is read, reading”), emphasizes the oral mode of study and the central role of public reading of the scriptures in the synagogue. The name Tanak (TaNaK), already found in rabbinic sources and increasingly popular in the Middle Ages, is an acronym of the first letters of each of the three sections that constitute the Jewish Bible: the Torah, the Prophets (Neviʾim) and the Writings (Ketuvim).
The Rabbinic “Canon” of the Bible.
The notion of a tripartite Bible must have originated in the last centuries B.C.E., or the first century C.E. Some early rabbinic sources (t. B. Meṣi‘a 11:23) refer only to “The Law and the Prophets,” as is also the case in the Prologue to Sirach, in many New Testament texts and in the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QS 1:2–3). In the rabbinic view, the Torah has a prominent place among the three parts of Tanak, because it is considered the direct word of God, received by Moses at the revelation on Mount Sinai (Exod 19–20). The books of the prophets are also considered divine revelation, but delivered by a human agent and “refracted through the human prism” (Paul 2007, p. 567). The extent and name of the third section seems to have remained uncertain for a longer time. The rabbinic discussions about the “canonicity” of some now-biblical books all deal with works that would become part of the third section of the tripartite canon. A variant name for Writings was “Psalms,” as is testified, among other places, by Luke 24:44. This indicates that the canonicity of the Psalms was established before that of some other works now known as “Writings.”
Even though the delineation of a canon of scripture is an important issue in rabbinic literature, there is no specific term for it—canon is a Greek term used in New Testament study, and was borrowed by Hebrew Bible scholars. An expression that is close to the idea of a canon is “works that defile the hands” (m. Yad. 3:5, 4:5, 6). It is this term that is used in the rabbinic discussion about the “holiness” of the books of Proverbs, Song of Songs, Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes), and Esther (m. ʿEd. 5:3; Yad. 3:5; ʾAbot R. Nat. 1:2). The explanation for the term stems from rabbinic law. According to it, hands that came into contact with any sacred book contracted uncleanness in the second degree, which could render the offering of the priestly tithe (tĕrûmâ) unclean if it were touched by these hands without prior ritual washing. This may also indicate that the writing of the Torah text, and the Torah scroll as an artifact, were perceived as venerated objects, containing symbolic and even magical powers.
The ongoing discussion about the status of some now-biblical works confirms recent scholarly insight that the alleged canonization of the Bible at the “synod” in Jamnia in the first century C.E. did not end rabbinic discussion as to which books were included and which not.
Readings from the Bible in the Synagogue in Rabbinic Times.
Evidence for regular readings from the Torah and the Prophets is found in first century C.E. sources (Philo, Josephus, New Testament), and it may go back earlier. By the third century C.E., the custom of readings as part of the synagogue service was fully established. The Mishnah reflects a regular pattern of Torah readings (e.g. m. Meg. 3:4, 6, 4:1–2) for the Sabbath morning, Sabbath afternoon, Monday, and Thursday. M. Meg. 4:10 and t. Meg. 3:4 imply that prophetic texts were also read on a lectionary basis. This does not mean that the division of the Torah text into lectionary sections (parashot), and the choice of prophetic readings (haftarot) were either fixed or the same in all locations.
Jews in Palestine in antiquity read the Torah according to a triennial cycle, finishing the entire Torah in three years. The reading was done by seven people who each read no less than three verses. According to b. Meg. 23a, the prophetic reading should be at least twenty-one verses long in order to correspond to the length of the Torah reading, though in later times this was not always practiced. The hegemony of the Babylonian Geonim in the Middle Ages led to the replacement of the triennial lectionary cycle by the Babylonian custom of an annual cycle in all but a few locations. Earlier scholars saw traces of a fixed triennial lectionary cycle in the division of the textual units in the Tannaitic as well as in much later Midrashim (Zunz 1832; Theodor 1885; Mann 1940). The midrashic evidence for a fixed triennial lectionary cycle, uniform in all locations, is, however, uncertain and needs to be treated with critical caution (Heinemann, 1968, 41; B.-Z. Wacholder, in Mann 1940, pp. xiii–xv; Teugels 2001, pp. xix–xxiii).
All rabbinic literature somehow relates to the Jewish Bible, be it in the form of interpretation of stories, or as explanation and actualization of the religious rules (halakah) laid down therein. The rabbinic sages themselves called these interpretations, additions, and actualizations “Oral Torah,” in contradistinction but also as a parallel to the “Written Torah.” According to the rabbinic tradition, besides the (Written) Torah, Moses also received some principles of interpretation of the Torah and some specific rules of the Oral Torah at Sinai (Neusner calls this the “Torah-myth involving the dual Torah”; see Neusner 2005, vol. 3, p. 1707). In m. ʾAbot 1, known as the manifesto of Oral Torah, the authority of the rabbis is demonstrated by means of a chain of tradition which links the rabbinic sages to Moses: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and committed it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets committed it to the men of the Great Synagogue …Hillel and Shammai received the law from them.” Thus rabbinic literature is identified by the rabbis themselves as (part of) the Oral Torah. The concept of Oral Torah is first found in rabbinic literature. It was not used by the Pharisees or earlier Jewish groups such as the Essenes. Among the Pharisees, the term “traditions of the fathers” referred to their rulings and new interpretations of Torah, which coincides more or less with the Oral Torah of the rabbis. The term “traditions of the fathers” is attested by Josephus in his Antiquities 13: 297.
“Torah” and “Oral Torah” remain slippery categories. Depending on the date and nature of the rabbinic document in which the term Torah is found, it can refer to the two tablets of law received by Moses at Sinai, to the Pentateuch, to the whole Tanak, to the works of the rabbinical canon, to individual rulings therein, to certain principles of interpretation of the Bible, and even to what experienced students in the future are going to conclude, thus accentuating the fact that a definitive human interpretation of God's word is impossible in the rabbinic view.
Rabbinic Interpretation of Scripture.
Rabbinic literature is replete with passages that are inspired by scripture, or that draw in some other way upon scripture, such as apodictic rabbinic laws, anecdotes, and parables. These genres cross the borders between the rabbinic works and are found in the Mishnah, the Talmudim, and the Midrashim. They are forms of rabbinic responses to Torah that do not cite or explicitly refer to scripture. Midrash, which does explicitly cite scripture, is not the only form of rabbinic interpretation of scripture, but it is the most explicitly interpretational rabbinic form.
The Form “Midrash.”
“Midrash” derives from the verb daraš, meaning “to search out,” “to investigate.” The term midrash refers to at least three things: first, the process of scriptural interpretation; second, a single interpretation of a shorter or longer biblical passage (a midrash, plural: midrashim); and third, the compilations in which these single midrashim are collected (Midrashim). The latter category is treated elsewhere in this work. The first two, the process of rabbinic interpretation, and, to a lesser degree, its concrete result, the individual midrashic unit, are central to the discussion of the rabbinic relationship to scripture. They are the concrete textual reflection of the rabbinic way of relating to the Bible and therefore appear in all rabbinic works, not only in the collections called “Midrashim,” but also in the Mishnah and the Babylonian and the Palestinian Talmuds.
Characteristic of midrash is that the biblical text and the rabbinic interpretation are formally separated, often but not always through the use of various formulae that distinguish the biblical text from its rabbinic interpretation. In the form-analytical approach initiated by Arnold Goldberg (1999, p. 215 and passim) this is almost mathematically formulated as L:o: → D (a lemma [L] is interpreted by means of a hermeneutic operation [o], the result being a dictum [D], i.e., an utterance about the lemma). Even though the rabbinic mind cannot be squeezed into modern Western categories, let alone logical formulas, this formal delineation of midrash makes sense in that it highlights the specific rabbinic attitude to scripture that distinguishes between written and oral Torah. Early Jewish literature knows other forms of scriptural interpretation, notably the “rewritten Bibles” of the Second Temple period in which this distinction is not explicitly made (see Steven Fraade, “Rewritten Bible and Rabbinic Midrash as Commentary,” in Bakhos 2006, pp. 59–78). In midrash, a concrete textual sign (letter, word, sentence) in the biblical text, usually explicitly quoted, always triggers the interpretation: finding the textual “peg” may be hard but its presence is essential. With this formal distinction between lemma and interpretation, midrash resembles the pesher texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The hermeneutical differences between the two genres are treated below in the section “Pre-Rabbinic Forms of Midrash?” Despite its formal appearance rabbinic midrash is at the same time exegesis and eisegesis. While interpreting biblical texts, the rabbis’ religious ideas about the nature of the Bible and their own contemporary social and ethical values are simultaneously “read into” the biblical text.
A very specific form of rabbinic scriptural interpretation is Targum, an interpretative Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible. Among the Targumim, various types can be distinguished, from almost “literal” translations to highly periphrastic renderings of the biblical text with many additions. Philip Alexander (1985) distinguishes between type A Targum, displaying a one-to-one base translation with explanatory additions (mostly in the pentateuchal Targumim), and a type B Targum (e.g. Targum Lamentations, Canticles) in which the biblical texts can hardly be distinguished from its targumic paraphrase. Translation, narrative additions, and interpretations are commingled, so that the interpretation cannot be formally distinguished from the biblical text. The fact that especially the latter type of Targum hereby appears to pass over the rabbinic distinction between Written Torah and commentary could be seen as a sign that the whole targumic text, translation and interpretation, both rendered in Aramaic, are marked as Oral Torah. However, unlike the Rewritten Bibles, which often paraphrase the source text, each and every element of the biblical text is present in Targum, although be it in translation.
In his treatment of Targum, Philip Alexander makes a useful distinction between the “midrashic form” and the “midrashic method” (1984, pp. 2–3). Much material is shared between the Targumim and the Midrashim, and the same general rabbinic view of the world and of scripture underlies both genres. The distinction made between the two rabbinic genres therefore purely concerns the “midrashic form.”
Similar to midrash, scholars have been discussing whether Targum originated in or outside the synagogue (see below “The Origins and Many Purposes of Midrash”). In his summary of the state of research on Targum, Willem Smelik (1994, p. 25) mentions three possible settings for Targum in general: private study, synagogue, and school and academy.
The Rabbinic View of the Bible and Its Effect on the Nature of Midrash.
The view of the Torah as the direct divine word has important implications for rabbinic interpretation, specifically in its midrashic form. Arnold Goldberg perceives this pointedly in his article Die Schrift der rabbinische Schriftausleger (included in his 1999 collection): because the Torah—and this is the case, with some modification, for the entire Tanak—is conceived as the literal word of God, much of rabbinic interpretation focuses on signs: letters, words, full or defective spelling, etc. Equally important is the notion that interpretation is the purpose of all “occupation with Torah” as the rabbis call it, and that it is a religious duty to do so, thereby contributing to the divine meaning of the text. Because of its density, its “gaps,” its at first view incomprehensible passages and seeming contradictions, the biblical text “calls out” to be interpreted by humans. As the word of God, such gaps, doublets or contradictions are always apparent and need to be “filled in” and explained. The fact that the biblical text was transmitted without vowels is also an important factor. Without vowels, it remains somewhat indeterminate, but because it is a divine text, it is also loaded with meaning. This explains the presence of multiple interpretations of the same passage by various sages in midrash: multi-interpretability is a necessary result of the character of the biblical text as perceived by the rabbis. On the one hand, no human is capable of grasping the entire meaning laid in the text by the divine and no human language is capable of expressing this. On the other hand, the notion of Oral Torah entails that the Torah has been given to humans to be interpreted and, in a sense, completed. This process is never finished. Therefore there cannot be one “final” interpretation of a biblical text.
Prerabbinic Forms of Midrash?
A textual corpus that is often seen as the closest precursor of midrash is the pesharim found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in caves at Qumran and dating from the last centuries B.C.E. to the first century C.E. Formally, the pesharim resemble rabbinic midrash in that the interpretation, introduced by pēšer (“interpretation”) or pĕšārô (“its interpretation”), follows the quotation of the biblical text. Hermeneutically, however, a very different worldview underlies the pesharim, which are generally apocalyptic and prophetical, relating the biblical text to the situation of the Qumran community that identified itself as an eschatological community. In other words, pesher is especially interested in how the biblical text's meaning is being actualized in the here and now.
The question as to the presence of midrash in the New Testament, which also predates rabbinic literature, is closely related to this. Much of the New Testament can be considered as early Jewish literature and it contains forms of biblical interpretation that are comparable to rabbinic interpretations of scripture. Some of these, notably the “formula quotations” in Matthew, closely resemble the midrashic form (see Stendahl 1954). The difference in religious outlook between these New Testament texts and rabbinic literature is similar to what was said about the Pesharim. For this reason, if not just for the sake of clarity, it is preferable to reserve the term “midrash” for rabbinic literature, where it was first used as a technical term. (In the Bible, it occurs only in 2 Chr 13:22, where it means something like “story,” and 24:27, where it probably means “commentary” or “expansion.”)
The Three-part Tanak and Some Formal Characteristics of Rabbinic Midrash.
A rabbinic hermeneutical principle frequently invoked by the rabbis is that there is “no before and after in the Torah” (e.g., b. Pes. 6b), meaning that texts can be called in to highlight and explain other biblical texts, even if they are in a different book, an entirely different context, and apparently unrelated to the topic at hand. For this reason rabbinic interpretation is sometimes called “atomistic” in that it treats textual elements quite isolated from their literary context. Torah texts and verses from the Writings and the Prophets are commonly used as prooftexts in the interpretation of texts from another section of the threefold Tanak. A famous adage that applies to this is Ben Bag Bag's in m. ʾAbot 5:22: “Turn it, and again turn it; for everything is in it.”
The idea of the congruency of the three-fold Tanak is reflected in the form of many Midrashim, on the level of the individual midrashic unit as well as on the level of larger units, such as homilies and even entire midrashic collections. A medieval rabbinic commentary on Genesis, Aggadat Bereshit is structured according to this threefold division, alternating chapters on “Torah” (Genesis) with chapters on “Prophets” and a chapter on “Writings,” which, as in the earlier sources mentioned above, in fact contains only Psalms. This highlights the interrelationship between the three parts of the Tanak in the rabbinic mind (Teugels, 2001, pp. xv–xvi).
The use of a “remote” prooftext to explain a verse from the Torah is institutionalized, as it were, in the form of the petiḥta, which often opens a large midrashic section. In a petiḥta, immediately after the quotation of the main verse to be interpreted (often the first verse of a parashah, a larger textual unit, identified with a Torah portion read in the synagogue), a second verse, often from a different section of the threefold Torah, is cited. After a frequently long elaboration of the second verse, the midrash eventually gets back to the original main verse, demonstrating the link between the two verses, and then goes on with the interpretation of the main text.
The Origins and Many Purposes of Midrash.
The occurrence of many petiḥta'ot in Midrashim has led scholars in the past (most notable Joseph Heinemann) to conclude that the phenomenon of midrash originated in the synagogue, the petiḥta being a mini-sermon or the introduction to a larger sermon. This opinion is, however, disputed by many modern scholars (for a short overview see Stemberger 1996, p. 245), who point to the highly intellectual and literary character of midrash, claiming that it must have originated in the rabbinic academies. Recently scholars have taken a more nuanced middle position and argue that the character, the date, and the literary features of each individual midrash should be taken into account (e.g., Anisfeld 2009, pp. 7–9).
This discussion about the Sitz im Leben or social setting of midrash is a consequence of the many facets and uses of rabbinic biblical interpretation. A common, though not watertight, distinction is that between “homiletical” and “exegetical” midrashim. This division bears on some formal characteristics of midrashic texts, but also on their alleged function. Roughly the oldest, Tannaitic Midrashim (Mekilta, Sipra, Sipre) and the earlier amoraic collections (Gen. Rab.) are more exegetical in nature: they follow the order of the biblical text and explain its verses accordingly. Homiletical Midrashim (Lev. Rab., Pesiq. Rab Kah., the Tanḥuma Midrashim, and Exod. Rab. and Deut. Rab.) use the first verse of a biblical pericope rather as a starting point for ethical or didactic exhortations, without bearing on the meaning of the following verses. Because of these different outlines and features, an academic context is usually assumed for the exegetical Midrashim, and a synagogue-context for the homiletical collections.
The individual midrashim, the smaller units of interpretation in those collections, can however deviate from the common nature of the collection, thus accounting for exegetical units in homiletical Midrashim and vice versa. This confirms a growing insight among scholars that rabbinic literature cannot be squeezed into the neat nineteenth-century categories of earlier scholars, and that we have to reckon with fluid boundaries between genres and schools.
Midrash Halakah and Midrash Haggadah.
Another common distinction is that between “halakic” (legal) and “haggadic” (nonlegal) midrash and midrashim. Halakah and haggadah are modes of text that are already found in scripture. Halakah refers to the legal parts of the scriptures, the laws and rules that are especially, but not exclusively, found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Haggadah refers to the narrative parts of scripture. Similarly, rabbinic literature contains halakah as well as haggadah, not all of it being midrash (biblical interpretation). Much halakah that is not midrash is found in the Mishnah and the Talmudim.
Midrash haggadah interprets and expands (usually but not always narrative) parts of scripture in a narrative way. For the rabbis, the biblical figures became paradigms and prototypes, examples to be followed or eschewed, often presented in black-and-white pairs, characterized with much sharper contrast than in the Bible (examples of good-and-bad pairs are Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Jacob and Laban; examples of rather neutral figures in the Bible that are portrayed in an unfavorable way in midrash are Laban and Balaam). Biblical stories likewise are “read” to display the ideals and institutions of the rabbinic world, such as the value of Torah study (e.g., the Torah school of Shem), the synagogue (hated by Esau even in his mother's womb), the persistence of God's love for Israel despite the calamities of the loss of the Temple and the dispersion, the eventual reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked, and the hope for messianic redemption. The division between haggadic and halakic midrash crosses the line between exegetical and homiletical midrash, even though most homiletical midrashim are haggadic in nature. This is especially striking in Lev. Rab., which is full of homiletical midrashim despite the fact that the biblical book of Leviticus contains mostly halakic material.
The function of midrash halakah is to extract halakah from the Bible by means of midrashic interpretation and to match the new rabbinic legal needs to the old biblical laws without abolishing them, which would be unacceptable as they are the word of God. Often the biblical laws will no longer function in the Roman-time rabbinic context; often not enough details are given in the Bible to make the laws applicable. Recent scholarship has shown, however, that midrash halakah is often a post-facto exercise, formally linking already existing rabbinic rulings found in apodictic form in the Mishnah and the Tosefta to scripture (Safrai 1987, pp. 154–155; Azzan Yadin, “Midrash and Halakhah in the Halakhic Midrashim” in Bakhos 2006, pp. 35–58). This shows that it became increasingly important for the rabbinic sages to demonstrate that scripture is the main source for rabbinic law-making, and that much effort was exerted to relate rabbinic laws to scriptural laws.
Rabbinic Hermeneutics and Hellenistic Parallels.
Much of midrashic methodology is a logical consequence of the rabbinic view of scripture as described above. Biblical passages are linked together, in order to explain one another. Interpretations are based upon analogy with another, more transparent, text. The rabbis themselves already tried to get a grasp on their own modes of interpretation of scripture by means of lists of rules called middot (see Stemberger, pp. 15–30; Jacobs and Derovan 2007, for extensive listing and discussion of the rules).
The Seven Rules of Hillel and the Thirteen Rules of Rabbi Ishmael.
The first lists were initially meant only for the regulation of halakic midrash, haggadic midrash allowing for much freer interpretation. The oldest list, mentioning seven rules, is attributed to Hillel (early first century C.E.). They are:
- 1. Inference a minori ad majus (also called an “a fortiori” argument; in Hebrew qal wāḥōmer)
- 2. Inference by analogy (gĕzērâ šāwâ)
- 3. Constructing a “family” on the basis of one passage (i.e., a specific regulation that is found in one biblical passage is extended and applied to more biblical passages; Heb. binyan ʾāb mikkātûb ʾeḥād)
- 4. Constructing a “family” on the basis of two passages (Binyan ʾab miššĕnê kĕtûbîm)
- 5. The qualification of the general by the particular and the particular by the general (kĕlāl ûpĕrāṭ ûpĕrāṭ ûkĕlāl)
- 6. Exposition by means of another similar passage (keyōṣēʾbô bĕmākôm ʾaḥēr)
- 7. Deduction from context (dābār hallāmēd mēʿinyānô).
These seven middot were not invented by Hillel but represent the main types of interpretational techniques current in the Pharisaic era. Many of them have close parallels in Hellenistic rhetoric and were also adopted in Roman legal interpretation (see Lieberman 1950, pp. 53–82; Stemberger, pp. 17–20). Thus the term gezerah shawah is explained by Lieberman, as the translation, etymologically and logically, of the Hellenistic expression synkrisis pros ison, which by the second century C.E. served as a technical term in the works of the Greek rhetoricians. Daube (1949) in particular, posits direct influence from the Greek rhetorical school of Alexandria on the rabbis. Direct influence, however, often cannot be established. Such parallels rather indicate a common milieu (Visotzky 1995, p. 9; Lieberman, 1950 pp. 54, 57, 61 and passim). Parallels between certain rabbinic hermeneutic methods and Mesopotamian interpretive principles have been established by Stephen Lieberman (1987). Based on these findings he argues that such techniques were not adapted synchronically from Greek culture but were already present, with a different name, in native Near Eastern cultures.
The list of thirteen rules attributed to Rabbi Ishmael (late first to early second century C.E.)—attached as a preface to the third-century Midrash on Leviticus, Sipra, as the so-called Baraita of Rabbi Ishmael—is well-known (a baraita is an “external” tannaitic tradition, i.e., an early rabbinic tradition that is not included in the Mishnah). Some of the thirteen rules are further developments of the seven rules of Hillel, notably the first two. These rules also have parallels to contemporary Hellenistic interpretation techniques. Lieberman refers to similarities with the Greek allegorical interpretation of Homer and Hesiod. In their reading of scripture, the rabbis were often confronted with the same problems as the Alexandrian philosophers, who could not identify with the atrocities and immoralities of the Greek gods. On both sides a system of allegorical interpretation was developed to explain away such passages. For the interpretation of legal texts, techniques similar to those used by the rabbis can be found in Roman legal classics. Hence the rabbis would certainly have been influenced by interpretational techniques used in non-Jewish sources that could help them make their point.
Rabbi Ishmael's contemporary, Rabbi Akiba, was famous for his far-reaching modes of interpretation. His exegetical techniques are nowhere listed but his reputation as an atomizer is legendary. Akiva saw scripture as a divine code of which the smallest signs and individual words should be interpreted individually. Examples of Akiba's hermeneutics are the rules of ribbûy and mi‘ût—attributing “reducing” meaning to such prepositions as ’ak (“but”) and raq (“only”), and “expanding” meaning to gam (also) and ’et (the definite object particle). Also famous are his interpretations based on the use of an infinitive absolute. For example the expression “utterly cut off,” Numbers 15:31, is construed in Hebrew by means of a double use of the same verb hikkārēt tikkārēt; Rabbi Akiva would see this as an indication that there is “additional meaning” conveyed in this expression, for example, “cut off in this world and cut off in the coming world.” See Visotzky 1995, p. 32 about Sifre Num 112 which contains a discussion between Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiba about such an interpretation.
The Methods of Midrash Haggadah.
The techniques used for haggadic midrash were less restricted because haggadah, in contradistinction to halakah, was considered nonbinding. Many different readings of the same texts are accepted as equally valid, demonstrating one aspect of what the divine author intended, as long as the rabbinic view of the world, God, and the nature of scripture was not violated (the latter serves as an important limit to the so-called open-endedness of midrash that is sometimes seen as a model for modern forms of interpretation by postmodern theorists). A selection of the rules for haggadic interpretation was laid down in a medieval list of thirty-two middot attributed to the second-century Rabbi Eliezer. These rules also include modes of interpretation known from Hellenistic sources such as notarikon (which treats a word as shorthand for several words or a phrase). The thirteen rules of Rabbi Ishmael were also applied in haggadic interpretation. However, many techniques are found in midrash that are not included in any list or do not fall into one neat category. The main purpose of midrash is to make a point (eisegesis) based on a reading of scripture (exegesis). If this could be attained by using a certain technique, it was done, regardless of the originator or the list in which the technique belonged.
Rabbinic and Patristic Interpretations of Scripture: Schools, Common Features, and the Question of Interaction.
The saying attributed to Jesus in Matthew 5:18 that “not one jot, not one tittle (lit.) will pass from the law until all is accomplished” testifies to the early Jewish attitude that nothing in scripture is arbitrary. If the meaning of a text is not immediately clear, it asks to be discovered. Among various rabbinic sages, however, there is some difference of opinion as to how far one should go in this. According to Rabbi Akiba and his school, the “Torah speaks in a divine language,” which means that each sign, even one that looks redundant in human eyes, and each word, even one that does not seem to have much meaning such as a preposition, bears meaning and is the possible object of interpretation (see above). The Talmud relates that Rabbi Akiba extracted from each and every tittle in the text piles and piles of halakot (b. Menaḥ. 29b). According to the school of Rabbi Ishmael, “the Torah speaks in human language” (b. Ber. 31b), meaning that God used human speech to convey his message to people; otherwise they wouldn't understand it. Thus, the text may not be analyzed in as close a fashion as advocated by Akiba's school. (Interestingly enough, the list of thirteen middot of Rabbi Ishmael mentioned before is found in the Sipra, a work that is traditionally attributed to the school of Rabbi Akiba).
A similar difference in opinion about the use of far-fetched exegetical techniques to extract meaning from the biblical text developed among Christian exegetes in the third century. Notably Origin explicitly favored interpretational techniques that rabbinic literature identifies with the school of Rabbi Akiba. He wrote that “there is not one jot and tittle written in the Scripture, which, when men know to extract the virtue does not work its own work.…The saint is a sort of spiritual herbalist who culls from the sacred Scriptures every jot and every common letter, discovers the value of what is written and its use, and finds there is nothing in the Scripture superfluous” (Philocalia 10.1, 10.2, quoted by Visotzky 1995, p. 30). In line with Akiba's school, he attributed extra meaning to an infinitive absolute (references in Visotzky, p. 32). Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.E.–50 C.E.), the Greek Jewish interpreter who was an important influence on Origin and other early church fathers, is known to have used the same technique. Scholars distinguish between an “Alexandrian school” of patristic exegetes, and an “Antiochene school” that arose in the late fourth to early fifth century in opposition to what they considered the far-fetched allegorical interpretations of the Alexandrian school. The difference of opinion is similar to that between the schools of Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva.
It is, however, unlikely that there was direct significant interaction between the parallel rabbinic and patristic schools: apart from the fact that rabbinic legend has it that Akiba visited Antioch and not Alexandria (Lev. Rab. 5:4), the reaction of both more literal schools is logical in view of the often far-fetched interpretations of the allegorizers who hung entire theories upon a “jot or a tittle.” Moreover, the division of both schools on the rabbinic and patristic side was not so neat as scholars might have it: interpretations using “Ishmaelian” techniques are frequently attributed to Rabbi Akiba and vice versa, and the Antiochene and Alexandrian church fathers agreed on more scriptural interpretations than they disagreed. The techniques of Greek interpretation that were part of the cultural baggage of the time inspired Jewish scholars as well as early Christian exegetes.
Tanak; Rabbinic Canon of the Bible
- Beckwith, Roger T. “Formation of the Hebrew Bible.” In Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, edited by M. J. Mulder, pp. 39–136. Compendia rerum iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum 2.1. Assen and Maastricht: Van Gorcum, 1988.
- Paul, Shalom. “Prophets and Prophecy.” In Encyclopaedia Judaica, second ed. edited by Michael Berenbaum, vol. 16, pp. 566–580. New York: Macmillan, 2007.
- Sanders, James. “Canon: Hebrew Bible.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, vol. 1, pp. 837–852. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
- Sarna, Nachum. “Bible: The Canon, Text and Editions.” In Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2d ed., edited by Michael Berenbaum, vol. 3, pp. 574–579. New York: Macmillan, 2007.
- Teugels, Lieve M. Aggadat Bereshit. Translated from the Hebrew with an Introduction and Notes. Jewish and Christian Perspectives 4. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2001. The introduction treats the unity of the tripartite Tanak in midrash and the role of extant Midrashim in the establishment of the Triennial Lectionary Cycle.
Lectionary Cycle; The Relation of Midrash to Synagogue Homilies
- Aageson, James W. “Lectionary. A. Early Jewish Lectionaries.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, vol. 4, pp. 270–273. New York: Doubleday, 1992. See also the bibliography for the different opinions about the Jewish Lectionary Cycles (Buchler, Heinemann, Jacobs).
- Heinemann, J. “The Triennial Lectionary Cycle.” Journal of Jewish Studies 19 (1968): 41–48.
- Mann, J. The Bible as Read and Preached in the Old Synagogue: A Study in the Cycles of the Readings from Torah and Prophets, as well as from Psalms, and in the Structure of the Midrashic Homilies. 2 vols., Reprint New York: Ktav, 1971. Vol. 1 reprint from the Cincinnati 1940 edition, with Prolegomenon by Ben Zion Wacholder. Vol. 2 reprint from the 1966 edition, which was completed by I. Sonne.
- Perrot, Charles. “The Reading of the Bible in the Ancient Synagogue.” In Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, edited by M. J. Mulder, pp. 137–149. Compendia rerum iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum 2.1. Assen and Maastricht: Publisher, 1988.
- Theodor, J. “Die Midrashim zum Pentateuch und der dreijährige palestinensische Cyclus.” Monatschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 34 (1885): 351–366.
- Zunz, Leopold. Die gottesdienstlichen Vorträge der Juden historisch entwickelt. Frankfurt a. M., 1832 (Reprint Hildesheim 1966). The pioneer work on rabbinic midrash by one of the founders of the Wissenschaft des Judenthums.
- Hezser, Catherine. “4. Religion and Literacy. A. The Written and the Oral Torah.” In Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine, edited by Catherine Hezer, pp. 190–209. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 81. Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2001. This chapter contains overviews of the discussion as to whether Judaism is a “book religion,” the complex relation between oral and written transmission of the Bible and rabbinic sources, and about the so-called canonization of the Bible at Javne. The whole book gives a good overview of the impact of literacy on the early Jewish relation to the biblical text and the Bible as an articfact.
- Neusner, Jacob. “Midrash and the Oral Torah: What Did the Rabbinic Sages Mean by ‘the Oral Torah’?” In The Encyclopaedia of Judaism, edited by J. Neusner et. al., vol. 3, pp. 1707–1716. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2005.
Rabbinic Interpretation and Midrash
- Alexander, Ph.S. “Midrash.” In A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, edited by R. J. Coggins and J. L. Houlden, pp. 452–459. London: Trinity, 1990
- Anisfeld, Rachel. Sustain Me With Raisin-Cakes: Pesikta deRav Kahana and the Popularization of Rabbinic Judaism. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism, 133. Leiden, Netherlands, and New York: Brill, 2009.
- Bakhos, Carol. Current Trends in the Study of Midrash. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2006. Collection of essays by specialists on various aspects of midrash. Includes Bakhos own “Methodological Matters in the Study of Midrash.” Especially relevant for this entry are Azzan Yadin “Resistance to Midrash? Midrash and Halakhah in the Halakhic Midrashim;” Steven Fraade, “Rewritten Bible and Rabbinic Midrash as Commentary;” and Burton Visotzky, “Midrash, Christian Exegesis and Hellenistic Hermeneutics.”
- Elon, Menachem. “Interpretation.” In Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2d ed., edited by Michael Berenbaum, vol 9, pp. 814–821. New York: Macmillan, 2007.
- Goldberg, Arnold. Gesammelte Studien II. Edited by M. Schlüter & P. Schäfer. Tübingen: Mohr, 1999. Many of the studies included in this volume were previously published as articles in the Frankfurter Judaistische Beiträge. Includes the English article “Form-Analysis as a Method of Description,” pp. 80–95.
- Jacobs, Louis, and David Derovan, “Hermeneutics.” In Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2d ed., edited by Michael Berenbaum, vol. 9, pp. 25–29. New York: Macmillan, 2007. Extensive listing and discussion of rabbinic hermeneutic techniques and lists of such techniques.
- Safrai, Shmuel, ed. The Literature of the Sages. First Part: Oral Torah, Halakha, Mishna, Tosefta, Talmud, External Tractates. Compendia rerum iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum 2, 3a. Assen and Maastricht: Van Gorcum, 1987. Includes Safrai's chapters “Oral Torah” and “Halakhah.”
- Safrai, Shmuel, Zeev Safrai, et. al. The Literature of the Sages. Second Part: Midrash and Targum, Liturgy, Poetry, Mysticism, Contracts, Inscriptions, Ancient Science and the Languages of Rabbinic Literature. Compendia rerum iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum 2, 3b. Assen and Maastricht: Van Gorcum, 2006. Especially relevant for this entry are the chapters “The Halakhic Midrashim”(Menahem Kahana) and “Aggadic Midrashim” (Marc Hirshman).
- Sarason, S. Richard. “Midrash.” In Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, edited by John H. Hayes, vol. 2, pp. 155–157. Nashville: Abingdon, 1999.
- Stemberger, Gunther. Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash. 2d ed., translated and edited by Marcus Bocknuehl. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996. The standard compact reference work for rabbinic literature.
- Visotzky, Burton L. “Hermeneutics, Early Rabbinic.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, vol. 3, pp. 154–155. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
- Zimels, Abraham. “Bible: Exegesis and Study: Talmudic Literature.” In Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2d ed., edited by Michael Berenbaum, vol 3, pp. 640–641. New York: Macmillan, 2007.
- Alexander, Philip. “The Targum and the Rabbinic Rules for the Delivery of the Targum.” In Congress: Volume Salamanca 1983, edited by J. A. Emerton, pp. 14–28. Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 36. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1983.
- Fraade, Steven. “Rabbinic Views on the Practice of Targum, and Multilingualism in the Jewish Galilee of the Third-Sixth Centuries.” In The Galilee in Late Antiquity, edited by Lee I. Levine, pp. 253–286. New York and Jerusalem: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1992.
- Safrai, Zeev. “The Targums as Part of Rabbinic Literature.” In The Literature of the Sages. Second Part: Midrash and Targum, Liturgy, Poetry, Mysticism, Contracts, Inscriptions, Ancient Science and the Languages of Rabbinic Literature, edited by Shmuel Safrai, Zeev Safrai, et. al., pp. 243–278. Compendia rerum iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum 2, 3b. Assen and Maastricht: Van Gorcum, 2006.
- Samely, Alexander. “Is Targumic Aramaic Rabbinic Hebrew? A Reflection on Midrashic and Targumic Rewording of Scripture.”’ Journal of Jewish Studies 45 (1994): 92–100.
- Smelik, Willem. The Targum of Judges. Leiden and New York: Brill, 1995. The first part, “The Present State of Research Reviewed,” gives a good general overview of Targum and Targum studies in general, including many relevant bibliographical references.
- Smelik, Willem. “Translation and Commentary in One: The Interplay of Pluses and Substitutions in the Targum of the Prophets.” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Periods 29 (1998): 245–260.
Pesher and New Testament Parallels to Midrash
- Alexander, Philip S. “Midrash and the Gospels.” In Synoptic Studies. The Ampleforth Conferences of 1982 and 1983, edited by C. M. Tuckett, 1–18. Journal for the Study of the New Testament: Supplement Series 7. Sheffield U.K., 1984.
- Brownlee, W. H. The Midrash Pesher of Habahuk. Missoula, Mont. 1979.
- Stendahl, K. The School of St. Matthew. Acta Seminarii Neotestamentici Upsaliensis 20. Uppsala, 1954.
Rabbinic and Hellenistic Interpretation
- Daube, David. “Rabbinic Methods of Interpretation and Hellenistic Rhetoric.” Hebrew Union College Annual 22 (1949): 239–264.
- Lieberman, Shaul. “Rabbinic Interpretation of Scripture.” In Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, 47–82. New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary, 1994 (reprint of the 1950 edition). Hellenism in Jewish Palestine is still the classical work on the relation between Judaism and Hellenism. Some of it needs reconsideration in view of more recent works such as Visotzky (below).
- Lieberman, Stephen, “A Mesopotamian Background for the So-Called Aggadic ‘Measures’ of Biblical Hermeneutics?” Hebrew Union College Annual 58 (1987): 157–225.
- Visotzky, Burton. “Midrash, Christian Exegesis and Hellenistic Hermeneutics.” In Current Trends in the Study of Midrash, edited by Carol Bakhos, 111–132. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2006.
- Visotzky, Burton L. Fathers of the World. Essays in Rabbinic and Patristic Literatures. Tübingen: Mohr, 1995. See especially “Fathers of the World: An Introduction” (pp. 1–27) and “Jots and Tittles. On Scriptural Interpretation in Rabbinic and Patristic Literatures” (pp. 28–40).
Lieve M. Teugels
Among the greatest accomplishments of New Testament scholarship during the twentieth century was the rediscovery of the Jewish cultural context of its composition. Lost for centuries under the debris of interreligious conflict, the Jewish matrix of Christianity came to the fore of critical discussion just as the state of relations between Jews and Christians was reaching its historical nadir. Although initiated before the Holocaust, the discussion took on a distinct sense of urgency in the wake of its horrors, as scholars both Jewish and Christian looked to the early church as an unlikely common ground between their estranged theological traditions. Occupying a pivotal role in the conversation has been the literature of the early rabbinic sages, whose writings, once a source of bitter contention between Jews and Christians, were transformed into the fabric of a rich and exquisitely textured Jewish archetype of the formative Christian faith.
The idea of a deep intellectual kinship between the rabbis and the authors of the New Testament presents obvious advantages both to the critical historian and to the theologian sympathetic to its conciliatory premise. Unfortunately, the tendency of those scholars who have proffered this view to rely on outmoded critical assumptions about the nature of the classical rabbinic literary tradition has complicated the reception of their work among leading scholars of ancient Judaism. Consequently, the results of their great comparative project have yet to make significant headway into contemporary scholarship on the literature and culture of the early rabbinic sages. Nevertheless, recent efforts by scholars attentive to the critical demands of both fields of study have set a course for a promising new assessment of the literary and conceptual relationships between the New Testament and the early rabbinic tradition. The following survey will compare this new analytical approach to its predecessor while providing some of the more salient examples of its application in current scholarship.
During the early modern era, most of the scholarly conversation as to the application of rabbinic texts toward New Testament exegesis revolved around the discomfiting topic of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. The Mishnah, rich in material on ancient Jewish jurisprudence, and the Babylonian Talmud with its infamous slurs against Jesus fueled endless speculation among eighteenth- and nineteenth-century subscribers to the discipline of Christian Hebraism as to the value of the rabbinic tradition as a witness to the gospels. Efforts by nineteenth-century Jewish scholars such as Abraham Geiger and Heinrich Graetz to advance the discussion beyond this provocative subject matter went largely unnoticed in European and North American academies still largely inattentive to the emerging academic discipline of Jewish studies.
Not until the early twentieth century did the move toward a more comprehensive awareness of the classical rabbinic literary tradition come to the fore of New Testament scholarship. The roots of this movement are typically traced to two major contributions of the period. Published between 1922 and 1928, Strack and Billerbeck's Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch (Commentary on the New Testament from Talmud and Midrash) presented a running commentary on the Christian scriptures drawn from passages and concepts spanning the length and breadth of the rabbinic tradition. Despite displaying an impressive breadth of knowledge on their part, Strack and Billerbeck established an unfortunate precedent in their thoroughgoing lack of consideration for the unique literary and socio-rhetorical qualities of the rabbinic books from which they pieced together their commentary. Its effect, therefore, is that of a bizarre simulation of the New Testament, offering little insight onto the world of the Jewish sages who wrote the rabbinic texts at issue. The authors’ lack of sympathy for the culture of the ancient rabbis was undoubtedly a function of their common disdain for the contemporary practice of Judaism. Strack and Billerbeck did not hide their evangelical motivations in drawing parallels between what they cast as the enlightened Judaism of the ancient rabbis and the similarly idealized Judaism of Jesus and his apostles. This, in contemporary perspective, casts further doubt over the intellectual integrity of their appeals to the ancient Jewish tradition.
A more sympathetic early effort to turn a Jewish light on the New Testament was the American scholar George Foot Moore's equally influential Judaism in the First Three Centuries of the Christian Era (1927–1930). Like his German counterparts, Moore combed the rabbinic tradition for parallels to the New Testament, without consideration of the contexts or functions of the texts he cited. Yet where Strack and Billerbeck aimed to demonstrate the consistency of the New Testament with early Jewish thought, Moore's goal was to articulate a standard of ancient Jewish belief against which to assess the innovative qualities of the formative Christian doctrine. Moore's conception of early rabbinic Judaism as a normative reflection of the religious system behind the New Testament and the early Christian tradition represented a marked improvement over the approaches of earlier scholars such as Wilhelm Bousset and Adolf Harnack, who had construed the Judaism of the rabbis as an errant bastardization of the enlightened Second Temple Judaism of Jesus’ day. But Moore's obvious admiration for the rabbinic sages did not make up for his tendentious use of their writings. His work, therefore, though a worthy counterpoint to that of Strack and Billerbeck, was no less questionable in its method.
The method of selective comparison conceived by Strack and Billerbeck and by Moore set the agenda for the great comparative project that would take hold of New Testament scholarship in the wake of the Holocaust. Its potential for theological controversy effectively neutralized, the notion that the literature of the Jewish sages took shape in the same general environment as the New Testament became a virtual axiom of both their studies. Vital contributions by scholars of diverse disciplines helped shape a new, open academic conversation focused largely on undoing past efforts to erase the common history of the Jewish and Christian faiths. Taking their cues from the fields of history, philology, and literary theory, these scholars and others undertook to explore corresponding aspects of the early Jewish and Christian traditions typically ignored or suppressed in partisan theological scholarship. W. D. Davies, for instance, called attention to the manifest similarities between Paul's rationalization of his mission to the gentiles and the efforts of the early rabbinic sages to define their own religious agenda. David Daube, a legal historian by vocation, explored the halakic precedents behind the conflicts between Jesus and the Jewish communal authorities of his day as recounted in the gospels. Birger Gerhardsson, arguably the most influential of the three, focused on rabbinic exegesis, explaining the varied literary forms and functions of the Christian scriptures as products of the same interpretive genius that yielded the books of the classical midrash.
In these early reassessments of the Jewish background of the New Testament, simply mapping out the appropriate avenues of inquiry was a groundbreaking venture. It was productive as well. Through the decades following World War II, New Testament scholars turned with increasing frequency to the rabbinic tradition as witness to all manner of subjects native to their own discipline. Comparing the Judaism of the New Testament to the Judaism of the early rabbinic sages became a growth industry. In time, however, the analytical presuppositions underlying the project they had initiated would fall under considerable scrutiny. As scholars of the Bible grew ever more wary of the historiographical qualities of its texts, critical readers of the rabbinic tradition began to question the idiosyncrasies of its texts as well. Although customarily transmitted as records of a multifarious oral tradition dating back to the age of Moses, the Mishnah, the Talmud and the midrash were taken to task by those seeking more scientific theories of their origins. Notably, it was the now controversial biblical scholar Morton Smith who first drew attention to the synoptic parallels in the classical rabbinic corpus and their negative implications toward the comparative project already becoming a fixture of New Testament research (1951). Much like the synoptic parallels in the gospels, observed Smith, to acknowledge the very existence of these rabbinic examples naturally compromises the documentary qualities of each.
It was Jacob Neusner, however, a student of Smith, who definitively changed the equation. In a series of case studies (1984–1985), Neusner demonstrated a general absence of consistency between corresponding rabbinic texts as to the identities of the sages who reportedly spoke the words that fill their pages. Where one document, for example, may attribute opinion X to rabbi Y, another may attribute the same opinion to rabbi Z. This simple observation makes it impossible to discern whether opinion X was actually issued by rabbi Y, or, for that matter, by rabbi Z. Given, therefore, our inability to measure the accuracy of a given rabbinic attribution, to construe that attribution as authentic to any socio-rhetorical context but that of the document in which it is preserved would be methodologically unsound. Or, stated differently, one must not presume to locate a given rabbinic passage in history strictly on the basis of the rabbinic authorities named therein. Considering, therefore, that the very earliest documents of the rabbinic tradition—the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and the Tannaitic midrash—were not written until the third century C.E., it is impossible to ascertain whether the ideas, ritual conventions, or cultural values attributed to the Jewish sages in these, and even more so in later rabbinic texts such as the Babylonian Talmud, accurately reflect the Judaism behind the New Testament.
The continuing efforts of scholars since Neusner to refine the critical discourse on the classical rabbinic tradition have helped diminish its once pervasive influence over the field of New Testament studies. In view of these efforts, one can no longer simply cite “the rabbis” as witnesses to the early Christian tradition, nor even quote a specific rabbinic authority without encroaching upon the integrity of its textual source. And the newfound necessity to analyze every passage, every word of the rabbinic tradition in the compound contexts of its received literary traditions is undoubtedly forbidding to those not equipped with the specialized linguistic and philological tools required for rabbinic text criticism. Comparing, therefore, the current situation to that of fifty years ago, it seems that many of today's responsible New Testament scholars would prefer to avoid the ancient rabbis altogether rather than risk offending the critical sensibilities of their colleagues in the field of Jewish studies.
Despite these deterrents, constructive steps toward reassessing the relationship between the New Testament and the rabbinic tradition are now being undertaken. In view of the realization that rabbinic texts cannot be read as background for the New Testament, several scholars have begun to explore the possibility of the inverse association, asking whether the New Testament may be read as background for early rabbinic Judaism. E. P. Sanders, for instance, has offered the Christian scriptures as representative documents of first-century Judaism, comparing their statements on Jewish practice and belief with corresponding witnesses in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the works of Philo and Josephus (1992). The composite evidence suggests a “common” Judaism, widely practiced during the late Second Temple period, that influenced both the early Christian tradition and the formative rabbinic tradition that succeeded it. Daniel Boyarin has interpreted the seemingly radical reinvention of Jewish belief advocated by Paul as an early example of the ambivalent discourses on Jewish identity that pervade the rabbinic literary corpus (1994; 2004). These and other contributions conducted along similar lines of inquiry have helped pave the way toward a more general revival of interest in rabbinic literature among leading New Testament scholars. This development may well result in a comprehensive critical reassessment of the relationship between these two seminal textual traditions.
Jewish Law before the Halakah.
Proper understanding of the chronological relationship between the New Testament and the rabbinic tradition allows us to discern in the Christian scriptures valuable witnesses to the evolution of the halakah, or the rabbinic way of the Torah. Although the ideology of the halakah was itself a product of early rabbinic intellectual culture, many of the beliefs and ritual conventions inscribed in its program originated prior to the rabbinic movement itself. Pre-rabbinic examples of rituals and beliefs later articulated as aspects of the halakah abound in Jewish texts of the Second Temple period. That such examples also appear in the New Testament suggests that some of its authors were attuned to the foundational legislative discourse that would later give rise to the rabbinic legislative project. Rather, therefore, than read the legal discourses of the New Testament against the grain of the halakah, one would do better to locate the roots of the halakah itself amidst the legal discourses of the New Testament. This interpretive principle is especially useful in reference to the background of the Mishnah, the early third-century code of Jewish law which is generally regarded as the earliest surviving document of the rabbinic tradition. A few examples will suffice to illustrate.
The doctrine of the oral Torah is one of the principal tenets of the halakah. The rabbis famously imagined the folk customs of the Jewish people as “Torah of the mouth,” which is to say an orally transmitted companion to the actual Torah, the five books of Moses. This oral Torah, like its written counterpart, was supposedly dictated by God to Moses at Sinai and transmitted in oral form by Jewish sages from generation to generation before finally being recorded in the Mishnah, Talmud, and midrash (cf. m. ʾAbot 1.1–2.8). The effect of this dual-Torah ideology is an epistemic equivalency between the ritual ordinances actually recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures and the popular Jewish folkways that the rabbis wished to project as normative. Although the concept of an oral Torah is not articulated as such in any known Jewish texts predating the rabbinic movement, its basic ideology is famously expressed by Josephus in his conception of the paradosis (tradition) of the Pharisees, the putative intellectual forebears of the rabbis (Antiquities 13.297; cf. Antiquities 10.51). The same terminology is applied to the traditions of the Pharisees in the New Testament by Paul (Gal 1:14) and by the evangelists Matthew (15:2, 3, 6) and Mark (7:5, 8, 9, 13). It therefore appears that these apostolic authors bear witness to the currency of the idea of oral Torah among the Pharisees who preceded the rabbis and their conception of the halakah.
The reference to the Pharisaic paradosis in Matthew and Mark is occasioned by a debate with Jesus over the necessity to wash one's hands before eating. This practice, attributed in the gospels to the Pharisees, is also attested in the first two chapters of the Mishnaic tractate Yadayim (Hands) along with a number of other postbiblical Jewish ritual conventions regulating contact with objects deemed unclean. This was reportedly an area of debate between the Pharisees and Sadducees (cf. m. Yad. 4.6–8). While the ritual theory behind the early rabbinic legislation on what constituted cleanliness is not spelled out in the Mishnah itself, it is articulated in the gospels. There, Jesus pronounces that it is not what goes into a person's mouth but what comes out that causes defilement (Matt 15:11; Mark 7:11). It seems that the evangelists understood the Pharisaic practice of ritual purification as a defense against moral impurity, which they reasonably believed to be contracted not through physical contact but through reprehensible speech or behavior. Whether this erroneous equation was native to Pharisaic practice or simply assumed by the evangelists is unclear. But in any case, the antithesis ascribed to Jesus between ritual impurity and moral impurity provides critical insight onto the ideological framework of the early rabbinic halakah.
According to Josephus, another major point of controversy between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was the doctrine of the immortality of the soul (War 2.163–66; Antiquities 18.12–17). The Pharisees reportedly endorsed this belief while the Sadducees did not. This debate appears to be reflected in a noted opinion in the Mishnah condemning those who would deny the eschatological resurrection of the dead (m. Sanh. 10.1). What precisely was at issue in this controversy is stated neither by Josephus nor by the anonymous author of the rabbinic ruling. Yet the stakes in the debate are clearly articulated in the New Testament. The sectarian conflict over the doctrine of resurrection is mentioned in the synoptic story of Jesus’ encounter with the Sadducees (Matt 22:23–33; Mark 12:18–27; Luke 20:27–40) as well as in the account of Paul's hearing before the Jerusalem council in the book of Acts (22:6–10). Both Jesus and Paul are said to assume the position of the Pharisees, each asserting God's prerogative to raise the dead. The gospel account, moreover, suggest that the Sadducean dissent was due the lack of clear support for the doctrine of resurrection in the laws of the Torah. This reasoning sheds light on the background of the Mishnah's ruling, to say nothing of the report of Josephus. This point of agreement between the Christian and the rabbinic traditions suggest some commonality in the first-century Jewish folkways that nourished them both.
One of the best known legal innovations of the gospel tradition is the prohibition of groundless divorce, attributed to Jesus in the gospel of Matthew (Matt 5:32; 19:9). On the surface, this ruling appears to contradict the pentateuchal legislation allowing a man to send away his wife without reservation (Deut 24:1). Jesus, according to Matthew's gospel, stipulated that divorce is to be initiated only if one's wife is found to be unchaste. This sentiment is echoed in the Mishnah in an opinion attributed to the first-century Pharisaic sage Shammai (m. Giṭ. 9.10; cf. t. Soṭah 5.9). His typically more liberal colleague Hillel is said to have allowed one to divorce his wife even if she so much as burns his dinner, a position, of course, considerably more obliging to the husband than to the wife. In the Mishnah, Hillel and Shammai are said to have based their respective rulings on disparate exegeses of Deut 24:1. But as for Shammai's argument, the gospel account provides another explanation. Perhaps the opinion of Shammai, like that ascribed to Jesus, was meant to protect the woman's interests. By restricting a man's right to initiate divorce to cases of his wife's infidelity, the seemingly stricter interpretation of the Torah is actually more liberating than the obvious sense of the verse. The egalitarian ethos behind Shammai's ruling, something rarely seen in the Mishnah itself, is easily discernable when read in the context of Jesus’ social preaching.
The premise of tracing the origins of the rabbinic halakah to first-century texts like those of the New Testament presupposes a coherent exegetical discourse behind those texts. The early rabbinic sages believed the authority of the halakah to derive directly from the divine authority of the Torah. Their efforts to justify their own practices and beliefs as well as those of their forebears relied on scriptural interpretation. The results of these exegetical efforts constitute a genre of rabbinic literature commonly known as midrash, a term connoting the pursuit of a text's meaning. To infer, therefore, a proto-rabbinic halakah behind the texts of the New Testament would necessitate an interpretive agenda corresponding to the exegetical mindset that characterizes the classical works of midrash.
Unfortunately, the existence of a coherent Jewish exegetical agenda prior to the rabbinic movement has proven difficult to ascertain. In the past, for instance, scholars often sought to explain the obscure scriptural hermeneutics practiced by Jesus and Paul on the basis of the lists of exegetical principles or middot attributed in the rabbinic tradition to the first-century sage Hillel (t. Sanh. 7.11; ʾAbot R. Nat. A 37) and the second-century sage Rabbi Ishmael (Sipra, proem). Thus, for instance, scholars have cited the rabbinic principle of gezera shawah (verbal equivalence) as the basis of Paul's intertextual allusions to the Hebrew scriptures in his letter to the Romans (e.g., Rom 4:7–8; 11:7–10). Likewise, the principle of qal wa-ḥomer (light and heavy) is typically cited in reference to the argumentation a fortiori occasionally favored by Paul (Rom 5:10; cf. 2 Cor 3:7–11) and ascribed in one instance to Jesus (Matt 7:11). These, along with many other examples of New Testament exegesis, are often thought to indicate a linear development of exegetical thought between the Jewish interpretive traditions current to the age of the apostles and those later manifest in the classical midrash.
Further research, however, into the functions of these lists has weakened this thesis. In practice, the authors of the classical midrash applied the principles ascribed to Hillel and Ishmael neither systematically nor even on a regular basis. It seems, rather, that the lists were meant to enumerate examples of interpretive tropes rather than to prescribe formal guidelines for reading the Hebrew scriptures. The actual principles of interpretation employed in the midrash are often as obscure as those employed in the New Testament. The tropes, moreover, although ascribed to rabbinic luminaries, appear to derive from the techniques of the Hellenistic grammarians active during the times of the early Jewish sages (Daube, 1953). Consequently, whether there was anything characteristically Jewish about the textual assumptions of rabbinic exegesis is a matter of debate. In any case, to cite the tropes enumerated in these lists as guiding principles of pre-rabbinic Jewish exegesis would require further justification than the lists themselves have to offer.
The interpretive issues affecting the application of these principles toward decoding the exegesis of the New Testament are symptomatic of a more comprehensive critical reassessment of the origins of the midrash itself. Where scholars once assumed that some methods of textual analysis behind the midrash were characteristic to Second Temple Judaism, continuing efforts to demonstrate this hypothesis have yielded few positive results. The Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, although rich in examples of scriptural interpretation, evince few of the assumptions vis-à-vis the relationship between the text of the Torah and its interpretation that would come to characterize rabbinic exegesis. Consequently, the writings of the Qumran sect reveal little of substance about the origins of rabbinic exegesis. The premise of reading pre-rabbinic Jewish texts as witnesses to the evolution of the classical midrash is further complicated by the lack of positive evidence of its unique literary forms. While it is clear that Jewish authors of the Second Temple period were familiar with interpretive tropes later attested in the midrash, it is far from clear whether these tropes were the results of the same exegetical impulses that drove the rabbis. To acknowledge, therefore, a given example of pre-rabbinic Jewish exegesis as an unqualified example of midrash would be methodologically unsound. This, in the final analysis, is what renders the prospect of reading the exegeses of the New Testament in light of subsequent rabbinic models so dubious.
The uncertain nature of the relationship between early Christian exegesis and rabbinic midrash does not necessarily preclude discussion of their commonalities. While the exegeses embedded in the Christian scriptures resemble midrash neither in their forms nor certainly in their rhetorical functions, they often appear to preserve early examples of specific interpretive tropes later attested in the classical midrash. Therefore, much as we have seen in reference to the beliefs and ritual practices underlying the halakah, passages in the New Testament may be read as witnesses to the stock of Jewish folk traditions later drawn upon by the rabbinic sages in their formulations of midrashic narrative. The common threads behind these traditions are not always easy to trace given the disparate genres of the texts in which they are preserved. Their obvious similarities, however, are suggestive enough to warrant some speculation as to their common origins. A few examples will suffice as illustration.
The gospel of John presents a figurative interpretation of the biblical story of the manna widely regarded as an example of pre-rabbinic midrash. In the Exodus narrative, God is said to have delivered this heavenly food to the Israelites during their sojourn in the wilderness (Exod 16; cf. Ps 78:23–25). Jesus, after providing his followers with bread, refers to this episode as a means of explaining his own role as the bread of heaven, sent by God to give life to his people. Those who eat his “manna,” Jesus promises, will attain eternal life (John 6:25–51). In addition to its characteristically midrashic form, the sermon of Jesus outlines a theology of the manna echoed in later rabbinic exegesis of the Exodus narrative. The idea that the manna signified God's spiritual nourishment of Israel in addition to his physical nourishment appears in both versions of the early midrashic treatise Mekhilta (to Exod 13:7; 16:4) and the medieval midrashic compilation Exodus Rabbah (25.7, 9). In these passages, the manna is likened to the Torah, which occupies an ontological role in the rabbinic tradition analogous to that of Jesus in the gospel tradition. Where this notion was once posited as a template of John's theology, the chronological priority of the gospel to its midrashic parallels suggests a connection between the two traditions as to the source of this exegetical motif.
In Paul's letter to the Galatians, the apostle to the gentiles articulates his conviction that God prefers genuine faith to perfunctory obedience to the laws of the Torah (Gal 3:6–9, 15–18). Central to his argument is his insistence that true believers need not undergo ritual circumcision in the traditional Jewish fashion. To this end, Paul submits the patriarch Abraham, who according to the biblical tradition achieved favor in the eyes of God (Gen 15:6) before his own circumcision (Gen 17) and centuries before the Torah's legislation. Rejecting circumcision of the flesh as a prerequisite of faith, he calls upon his readers to undergo circumcision of the spirit in Christ enabling one to experience the world anew (Gal 6:12–13; cf. 3:3). Paul's allegorical exposition of circumcision as a sort of spiritual awakening is mirrored in the late ancient midrashic treatise Genesis Rabbah (48.1; cf. Num. Rab. 12.10). In the midrash, circumcision is said to have been a precondition of God's revelation to Abraham, whose eyes were opened to the divine presence just as his flesh was exposed by the excision of his prepuce. While the message of the rabbinic homily appears to contradict Paul's argument, their common conception of circumcision as a means toward personal renewal speaks to a deeper intellectual sympathy between the two.
The parables attributed to Jesus in the gospels are well known for their thematic similarities to the rabbinic mashal (parable). While their respective didactic aims coincided only on occasion, the evangelists and the rabbis shared a fondness for illustrating their lessons with examples drawn from a common wellspring of Jewish folk wisdom of indeterminate antiquity. Consequently, while the rabbis typically did not say the same things as Jesus, they often constructed their parables using terms similar to those attributed to Jesus. For example, the synoptic parable of the wicked husbandmen (Matt 21:33–41; Mark 12:1–9; Luke 20:9–16) tells of an absent landlord victimized by his tenants. The force of Jesus’ story is to warn that God had revoked his covenantal promise to the Jewish people on account of their reckless behavior. The image of the Jews as tenant farmers working the land of God likewise appears in the early midrashic treatise Sifre, where God is said to favor Israel as the landlord favors his own son over his inconsiderate tenants (Sipre to Deut 312; cf. y. Ber. 2.7 [5c]; Exod. Rab. 30.6). That the author of the rabbinic text applied the imagery to the opposite effect as the evangelists naturally connotes their divergent rhetorical objectives. Yet the fact that they framed their messages in the same parabolic narrative once again suggests a common source somewhere deep in the consciousness of the pre-rabbinic Jewish culture whence they both derived.
The revised consensus as to the relative dating of the classical texts of the rabbinic tradition has prompted a major critical reevaluation of the anti-Christian sentiment occasionally exhibited in these texts. Where scholars once tried to read the rabbinic references to the life of Jesus as witnesses to apocryphal gospel traditions, it is now generally agreed that these tendentious biographical sketches originated well after the first century and, moreover, with little or no direct knowledge of early Christian culture. Schäfer (2007) has demonstrated that the notorious depictions of Jesus once stricken from the Babylonian Talmud were founded in polemics postdating the era of Constantine and the rise of imperial Christendom. That this development negatively affected the common life of the Jewish people helps explain why the authors of the Talmud might have felt compelled to paint an unflattering portrait of the ostensible founder of the Christian faith. Boyarin has made a similar case for the occasional examples of rabbinic exegesis found in the Talmud and midrash that evidently engage aspects of the formative Christian doctrine. Christianity's emergence as the dominant religion in the world of the rabbinic sages apparently stimulated a discourse concerning Jewish self-definition commensurate with that of Christian self-definition practiced by the church fathers. That each party to the debate took aim squarely at the other speaks to the theoretical challenges faced by each in defining the interrelated theologies of Judaism and Christianity as distinct and mutually exclusive articles of religious identification.
As a result of these developments, to interpret the New Testament in light of any given rabbinic passages implicitly or explicitly referring to Jesus or Christianity must be done with the utmost critical caution. For instance, the Tosefta's identification of Jesus as a teacher of the Torah and magical healer does not necessarily indicate that the early rabbinic sages were intimately familiar with his ministry or its record in the canonical gospel tradition. It simply suggests that they were apprised of Jewish followers of Jesus, whom they dubbed minim, or heretics, who publicly espoused these aspects of Jesus’ career (t. Ḥul. 2.22–24). Likewise, the strange Talmudic story of Jesus’ discipleship under the second-century B.C.E. Pharisaic sage Joshua Ben Peraḥiah, although echoing aspects of the established gospel narrative, must be read as an effort of the anonymous rabbinic author to parody the life of Jesus rather than an authentic document thereof (b. Sanh. 107b; b. Soṭah 47a). The story of Rabban Gamaliel's confrontation with an unnamed philosopher in which the first-century Jewish sage cites a saying of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew clearly suggests the author's previous knowledge of the Christian scriptures (b. Šabb. 116a–b; cf. Matt 5:17). It certainly does not indicate that Gamaliel himself was a witness to the teachings of Jesus.
Acknowledging the complex polemical interplay between the New Testament and the early rabbinic tradition furthermore helps dispel popular misconceptions as to the common history behind them. Such is the case for the birkat ha-minim, the notorious blessing-cum-curse of Jewish heretics attested in several classical rabbinic texts (t. Ber. 3.25; y. Ber. 4.3 [8a]; y. Taʿan. 2.2 [65c]; b. Ber. 28b–29a). Although not originally directed against followers of Jesus per se, the birkat ha-minim came to incorporate an explicit denunciation of Christians, or noṣĕrim, at some point in late antiquity, as attested by Jerome (Epistle 112.13) and in a series of early medieval manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah. That the original formula is said in the Babylonian Talmud to date to the late first century has fueled speculation among many New Testament scholars as to whether the rabbinic enactment of the malediction helped exacerbate the tensions between the proponents of the apostolic mission and their fellow Jews evident in the later gospel tradition (see., e.g., John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2). In view, however, of recent scholarship, the likelihood that the Babylonian narrative postdates the gospels by several centuries would seem to diminish their basis of historiographical comparison. Even if the birkat ha-minim was originally intended in part as an anti-Christian measure, the absence of reliable evidence as to its original phrasing or function, much less to its precise date of composition, precludes any firm conclusions as to its heuristic relevance toward the New Testament.
Similarly, the Tosefta's ruling as to the sacred status of gospel texts, or gilyonim (cf. Greek euangelia), tells us little about what the anonymous rabbinic author knew of their contents aside from their references to God (t. Šabb. 13.5; cf. y. Šabb. 16.1 [15c]; b. Šabb. 116a). Despite the tempting premise, the precise objects of reference in this ruling are too obscure to permit assessment of its meaning toward the Jewish reception of the early gospel tradition. While it would be irresponsible to dismiss these passages as irrelevant to the study of the New Testament, neither is it especially easy to articulate their relevance with enough precision to warrant the type of speculation that has characterized their treatment in some scholarly circles.
- Alexander, Philip S. “Midrash and the Gospels.” In Synoptic Studies: The Ampleforth Conferences of 1982 and 1983, edited by C.M. Tuckett, pp. 1–18. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 7. Sheffield, U.K.: JSOT Press, 1984. The second essay, focusing on the analytical implication of the term midrash and its relevance to the gospels.
- Alexander, Philip S. “Rabbinic Judaism and the New Testament.” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 74 (1983): 237–246. The first of two related methodological essays on the application of rabbinic texts toward the critical interpretation of the New Testament.
- Bieringer, Reimund, Florentino García Martínez, Didier Pollefeyt, and Peter J. Tomson, eds. The New Testament and Rabbinic Literature. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2010. A collection of essays reflecting on recent critical developments in study of rabbinic literature and their implications toward the comparative study of the New Testament.
- Boyarin, Daniel. Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. An exploration of the common intellectual currents evidently underlying key generative concepts of the early rabbinic and apostolic traditions.
- Boyarin, Daniel. A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. An innovative effort to locate Paul's uniquely Jewish theology within the epistemological boundaries of classical rabbinic thought.
- Catchpole, David R. The Trial of Jesus: A Study in the Gospels and Jewish Historiography from 1770 to the Present Day. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1971. A critical review of early modern scholarship predicated on mining the classical rabbinic tradition for testimony to the life and death of Jesus.
- Daube, David. “Alexandrian Methods of Interpretation and the Rabbis.” In Festschrift Hans Lewald, pp. 27–44. Basel: Helbing & Lichtenhahn, 1953. Reprinted in Essays in Greco-Roman and Related Talmudic Literature, edited by Henry A. Fischel, pp. 165–183. New York: Ktav, 1977. An exploration of the Hellenistic background of the exegetical principles traditionally ascribed to the rabbinic sages Hillel and Ishmael.
- Daube, David. The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism. London: University of London, Athlone, 1956. A collection of topical studies interpreting notable features and concepts of the gospel tradition in light of biblical and early rabbinic jurisprudence.
- Davies, W. D. Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology. London: SPCK, 1948, 2d ed. 1955. An early and highly influential effort to draw thematic parallels between Paul's construction of formative Christian doctrine and the theology of the early rabbinic sages.
- Gerhardsson, Birger. Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity. Translated by Eric J. Sharpe. Lund, Sweden: Gleerup, 1961. An influential early study on the rabbinic ideology of midrash and its heuristic application toward decoding early Christian modes of scriptural interpretation.
- Herford, R. Travers. Christianity in Talmud and Midrash. London: Williams and Norgate, 1903. An outdated yet still widely read effort to collect and analyze passages from the classical rabbinic corpus alleged to refer to Jesus, Paul, and the early Christian tradition in general.
- Heschel, Susannah. Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. A study of the life and work of the influential nineteenth-century German Jewish scholar and the impact of his work on the fields of Jewish studies and New Testament studies.
- Moore, George Foot. Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1927–1930. An early and influential effort to view the world of early Christianity through the lens of the classical rabbinic literary tradition.
- Neusner, Jacob. From Mishnah to Scripture: The Problem of the Unattributed Saying with Special Reference to the Division of Purities. Brown Judaic Studies 67. Chico, Calif.: Scholars, 1984. A series of case studies demonstrating the inferior documentary qualities of anonymous pronouncements in classical rabbinic texts.
- Neusner, Jacob. In Search of Talmudic Biography: The Problem of the Attributed Saying. Brown Judaic Studies 70. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1984. A corresponding series of case studies demonstrating the inferior documentary qualities of specifically attributed pronouncements in classical rabbinic texts.
- Neusner, Jacob. The Peripatetic Saying: The Problem of the Thrice-Told Tale in Talmudic Literature. Brown Judaic Studies 89. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1985. A series of case studies demonstrating the inferior documentary qualities of pronouncements independently attested in multiple classical rabbinic texts.
- Saldarini, Anthony J. “Judaism and the New Testament.” In The New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters, edited by Eldon J. Epp and George W. MacRae, pp. 27–54. The Bible and its Modern Interpreters 3. Atlanta: Scholars, 1989. A survey of modern scholarship predicated on reading the New Testament in light of early Judaism, including but not limited to the Judaism of the early rabbinic sages.
- Sanders, E. P. Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE–66 CE. London/Philadelphia: SCM Press/ Trinity Press International, 1992. A compendious series of topical discussions on the rituals and beliefs of the Jews during the late Second Temple period as viewed through the lenses of the New Testament, the classical rabbinic tradition, and other early Jewish texts and artifacts.
- Schäfer, Peter. Jesus in the Talmud. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007. A vital reassessment of the classical rabbinic polemic against Jesus and Christianity reflecting recent critical advances in the study of the Babylonian Talmud and related literature.
- Smith, Morton. Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels. Philadelphia: Society of Biblical Literature, 1951. An important early demonstration of the methodological pitfalls inherent to the textual parallels pervading the classical rabbinic literary corpus.
- Strack, Hermann L., and Paul Billerbeck. Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, 6 vols. Munich: Beck, 1922–1928. An influential attempt at compiling a comprehensive Jewish commentary on the New Testament, and particularly on the gospels, on the basis of corresponding passages picked from the pages of classical rabbinic texts.
As no comprehensive critical treatment of the relationship between rabbinic literature and the New Testament yet exists, readers are referred to the methodological studies of Alexander and Saldarini listed below as well as the more recent topical essays collected in Bieringer et al.
Joshua Ezra Burns