We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more

An Interview with Shalom M. Paul

Shalom M. Paul is the Yehezkel Kaufmann Professor Emeritus of Bible Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His most recent work, Isaiah 40–66: A Commentary is regarded as the premier resource on the topic of "Second Isaiah", the distinctive voice that scholars believe was added to the prophecy years after it was first written. In this interview, Professor Marc Zvi Brettler discusses with Paul his interest in Isaiah and the Near Eastern context from which it emerged.

Marc Brettler: I am sitting in the office of Shalom Paul at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on Mt. Scopus.1 Prof. Paul, thank you for making the time to speak with me. So let's just start. I'm curious––at what point did you develop an interest in biblical studies?

Shalom Paul: My serious interest actually came about when I was at Gratz College2 in Philadelphia, under the influence of the late beloved Professor Nahum Sarna.3 Prof. Sarna was then writing his dissertation at Dropsie College4 and was also teaching a class on the Book of Job to the seniors at Gratz, and I was captivated by his knowledge and methodology.

MB: And at what point did you decide you wanted to become a professional biblical scholar?

SP: When I came back from a year of graduate studies at the Hebrew University, I was planning on going to Dropsie, but in a conversation at the Port Authority in New York with Prof. Sarna, he said: Come to JTS5 and study with Professor Ginsberg.6 That was the decisive moment that changed my life. I had the opportunity after that to work and study with three renowned giants in the field. I was the last research assistant of Professor Albright,7 served as a research assistant to Professor Ginsberg, and studied simultaneously with Professor Speiser8 at the University of Pennsylvania. So Albright, Ginsberg, and Speiser altogether fashioned my future.

MB: Can you talk a bit about each of these giants, what you took from each of them, and in what way each fashioned your academic life?

SP: Albright had an all-embracing comprehensive knowledge of the ancient world. While working with him, he would give me the articles he was writing at the time and said, "Shalom, tear them apart."

The doyen of scholars, said that and, accordingly, anything that I commented upon he put into the notes of that article. Louis Finkelstein9 had invited Albright to JTS to write The History of the Israelite Religion,10 and Albright said, "How can I write on it if I don't know what Kaufmann has to say about the various subjects involved?11 So I'm going to tell you what I wish to write about, and I want you to read to me what Kaufmann has to say because you're the one here who has this expertise." I said, "Fine, but how do you want me to do it?" He replied, "What do you mean? Read it to me in Hebrew!"

I exclaimed, "What?" And he retorted, "Shalom, did you forget that in 1929 I taught at the Hebrew University?"And that's it; he did not have to explain. That was his brilliance!12

As for H. L. [Ginsberg], I was helping him with his research [while] he was writing his commentary on Qohelet.13 And it's interesting to see what he took for granted. He said, "I want you to check the manuscript." And he took it for granted that I knew the various languages that appeared in his book (Akkadian, Ugaritic, Greek, Latin, and Aramaic).

I'll tell you what [else] I got from H. L. When he would propose an emendation or a resolution of a problem, [he] would just give the bottom line and one would have to reconstruct his thinking and understand his logic. Professor Yohanan Muffs said: "H. L. is the incarnation of Ehrlich,14 who is the incarnation of Ibn Gana?." Professor Abraham Halkin15 said, "H. L. doesn't read the text, he hears the text." We read and study it, but he heard the Hebrew text! And that's why he was able to do what he did.

With Speiser, it was a straight four years of reading cuneiform texts16 and studying Genesis while he was writing his commentary on this book in the Anchor Bible series. The wonderful thing about Speiser was his textual scope, for we read many Akkadian literary genres, and he thereby instilled in me the love of the Mesopotamian culture and language, and the understanding of how important it is to be au courant with the entire world of Mesopotamia. He said that when translating, you do not translate words, but a civilization.

MB: So given those teachers, I now understand a little bit more why you've written so much on the Bible and Mesopotamia, on law in the ancient Near East, and biblical prophecy. Do you see these as three distinct areas of research or do you see any interconnections between them?

SP: Eventually, they're all interrelated when one applies exacting methodology to understand and investigate both their origins and subsequent developments in order to distinguish between their commonality and uniqueness. Herein Mesopotamia is of prime importance since we all came from Ur Kasdim.

The books from Genesis on have felt the impact of Mesopotamian civilization, culture, and thought. As you can see, right behind me17 is my vade mecum—the CAD.18 So when its editor-in-chief requested NEH19 funding to complete the last volumes, she wrote to me and asked if I would write a letter of recommendation. Now, I am not an Assyriologist per se,20 but they wanted someone who uses this dictionary all the time to impress upon NEH its significant value and need in the academic world. So here you see the interrelation between the Bible and Assyriology, and I was very happy to help facilitate this publication.

MB: Many of us are happy.

SP: Thank you.

MB: You've written two commentaries, and you're at work on a third. You've written on Amos; you've written on Deutero-Isaiah.21 Did you choose them? Did they choose you?

SP: That's a very good question. In 1971, when Professor Frank Moore Cross22 started a new [Bible commentary] series called Hermeneia, he invited me to participate. At that time I did not realize that I was the only Jewish scholar, and the first Israeli one at that. And I said, "Frank, I'd be very happy to do it. I have a tremendous amount of material on Second Isaiah." And he said, "Shalom, one of our editors has opted for it, and I have to give him priority" (by the way his commentary came out only 25 years later). So he said, "Would you write the commentary on Amos because you already have some preliminary studies on the book?" So I must say, in this case, Amos was selected for me. And of course I was very happy to write on the first of the classical literary prophets.

As for Second Isaiah, this anonymous prophet is the most lyrical of the Hebrew prophets, the most replete with pathos, the most revolutionary both theologically and ideologically, and the most picturesque. In addition, all would agree that at least chapters 40 to 48 were written in Babylonia. And here I was able to use my knowledge of the Neo-Babylonian culture.23 He was there just at the time of Nabonidus,24 and at the time of Cyrus,25 whom he mentions twice in his book. In his do-it-yourself, make-an-idol chapter,26 we see that he advances step-by-step as we now know from idol-making texts from Mesopotamia. So that was a great connection, to be sure, to apply Mesopotamian know-how to prophecy as well.

MB: Will your commentary on Daniel be similar?

SP: Similar to?

MB: In terms of using Mesopotamian knowledge?

SP: Yes. In fact, I am now in the very advanced stages of my latest work, a commentary on the Book of Daniel,27 for which I have found a tremendous amount of Akkadianisms that help explain conundrums there. In this commentary, I'll follow what I wrote in the Introduction to my commentary on Second Isaiah.

[Professor Paul opens his new book, Isaiah 40–66: A Commentary, to the first page of the Introduction and reads aloud:] "What is unique about this commentary is the exegesis of the Hebrew text (in Daniel, the Aramaic text as well) with its emphasis on the philological, poetic, literary, linguistic, grammatical, historical, archaeological, ideational and theological aspects of the prophecies."

MB: I look forward to that, as you do. Just to finish up. Given that we are sitting in your office on Mt. Scopus looking out over the beautiful Judean hills and over the Temple Mount—You've spent almost your entire academic career teaching in Israel. How do you think that has affected the work you've done?

SP: I'll tell you. I called the decade of the 60s––when I was teaching and studying at JTS in New York and also at the University of Pennsylvania—my Albright-Speiser-Ginsberg Era. And the period since I've been in Israel is my Flourishing Era. The wonderful thing about being here, in Israel, I would say, is the fact that, first of all, there are wonderful resources at one's disposal. But primarily it's the collegial camaraderie with whom one can consult regarding the Septuagint28 and the Dead Sea Scrolls, and even grammatical niceties. Unlike many other universities, where there are only one or two faculty members in the field, here you are just a-knock-on-the-door away from your expert colleagues. There's also the inspiration of writing commentaries and articles on the Bible in Jerusalem.

MB: Thank you very much.

Transcribed and annotated by James D. Moore


1 Mt. Scopus is home to the oldest of The Hebrew University's four campuses. Today, the Hebrew University is one of the leading universities in the world for biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies, http://www.huji.ac.il. "Ancient Near East" is the academic designation for the ancient Middle East.
2 Gratz College is a longstanding Jewish institution of higher education for Jewish Studies, located in Philadelphia, PA, http://gratz.edu.
3 Nahum Sarna was a long-time Bible scholar. Among his most noteworthy works are his commentaries on Genesis and Exodus in the Jewish Publication Society's Commentary Series.
4 Dropsie College was a premier Jewish institution of higher education for the study of Bible and Semitic languages. In the 1980s the school merged with the University of Pennsylvania and became The Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
5 The Jewish Theological Seminary. JTS is a well-known Jewish institution of higher education as well as rabbinic training in New York under the auspices of the Conservative Movement. Throughout the last century many notable Jewish Bible scholars have taught or studied there, http://www.jtsa.edu.
6 Harold Louis (H. L.) Ginsberg [1903-1991] taught for many years at JTS. He is known for his work in biblical studies, but also for his scholarship in Ugaritic. (Ugarit [modern day Ras Shamra, Syria] has been undergoing excavation since 1928 and has produced caches of ancient texts written in Ugaritic, which shares linguistic similarities with biblical Hebrew. Ginsberg's work on ancient Ugaritic poetry has greatly enhanced the field of biblical studies.
7 William Foxwell Albright [1891-1971], the leading American biblical scholar in the middle of the 20th century, taught at Johns Hopkins University. His work in biblical archaeology, his influence as a Bible scholar, and his position as editor of influential scholarly publications, such as the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research and The Anchor Bible Commentary Series, casts a longstanding shadow over American biblical scholarship.
8 Ephraim Avigdor (E. A.) Speiser [1902-1965] was professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages at the University of Pennsylvania for many decades in the mid-20th century. He was an archaeologist, Assyriologist, and Bible scholar whose commentary on Genesis in the Anchor Bible Commentary Series (1964) is highly regarded until today. He succeeded in producing another generation of influential scholars, including Shalom Paul.
9 Louis Finkelstein was Chancellor of JTS from 1940–1972.
10 Albright died before completing this book, which is known as The History of the Religion of Israel ; it was never published.
11 Yehezkel Kaufmann [1889-1963] taught Hebrew Bible at the Hebrew University. His multivolume work, The Religion of Israel , helped shape the course of modern Israeli biblical scholarship by arguing for an early date for certain parts of the Bible that European and American scholars thought to be late.
12 It was very unusual in those days for non-Jewish scholars to read Modern Hebrew, which is why it is impressive that Albright was proficient in it.
13 Qohelet is the Hebrew title for the Book of Ecclesiastes.
14 A brilliant biblical scholar, 1848 (Poland) -1919 (NY).
15 Halkin taught Jewish Literature, History, and Culture from 1938-1970 at JTS.
16 Cuneiform refers to the wedge-shaped script used to write many ancient Near Eastern languages, including Akkadian and Sumerian.
17 At that point he gestures to the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary , the main tool for the study of Akkadian, the language of ancient Mesopotamia.
18 CAD refers to the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary , a monumental 21-volume dictionary of the Akkadian language that has taken over fifty years to publish.
19 The National Endowment for the Humanities.
20 A scholar who studies Mesopotamia.
21 Modern scholarship divides the Book of Isaiah into at least two books, calling the first 39 chapters "Isaiah" and chapters 40–66 "Deutero-Isaiah," which means "Second Isaiah." Still others divide it into three books: "Isaiah" (chapters 1–39), "Deutero-Isaiah" (chapters 40–55), and "Trito-Isaiah" (chapters 56–66).
22 Cross [1921–2012] was a student of Albright and became professor of Hebrew at Harvard University. In the generation following Albright, Cross and his students' works greatly influenced American biblical scholarship and continue to do so today. His contributions include publishing and dating many of the Dead Sea Scrolls and writing a treatise on Israelite religion entitled Canaanite Myth and Epic (1973). Cross passed away several months before this interview was recorded.
23 Neo-Babylonian refers to Mesopotamian history from 612-539 BCE. In 612 BCE, the southern Mesopotamian kingdom, Babylonia, conquered the northern Mesopotamian empire, Assyria, ushering in the Neo-Babylonian period. In 586 BCE, the Neo-Babylonian empire sacked Jerusalem and carried off the city's officials and some of its population to Babylonia as prisoners-of-war. This is known as "the Exile."
24 Nabonidus was the last king of the Neo-Babylonian empire from 556-539 BCE.
25 In 539 BCE, Cyrus of Persia (also known as Cyrus the Great) conquered the Neo-Babylonian empire. Cyrus is mentioned by name in Isaiah 44:28 and 45:1.
26 Isaiah 46 is, in part, a detailed taunt against the production and worship of idols.
27 In the Bible, Daniel is said to have been brought into exile by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. The Babylonian empire during his reign had Akkadian and Aramaic literary traditions.
28 The Septuagint is the ancient Greek version of the Bible.

© 2014. All Rights Reserved. Privacy policy and legal notice