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An Interview with Sara Japhet

Biblical scholar Sara Japhet has been a leading authority on the two books of Chronicles since the publication of her landmark works The Ideology of the Book of Chronicles and Its Place in Biblical Thought (Hebrew 1977; English translation 1989), followed by I and II Chronicles: A Commentary in 1993. In an interview with Professor Marc Zvi Brettler of Brandeis University, Professor Japhet explains how she became interested in the Chronicler, which she describes as "a fresh, critical spirit with the courage to look at Israelite history in a different way." This emphasis on new and critical perspectives, she explains, helped to frame her career, and was fitting given her appointment as the first tenured woman in the Bible Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In addition, Japhet discusses how her early experiences with Chronicles informed her ongoing work on the larger issues of exegesis and historiography.

An audio version of this interview also appears on the OUPBlog.

Marc Brettler: This is June 25th. I am Marc Brettler, sitting with Professor Sara Japhet. This interview is being conducted in the National Library in Israel1, which Professor Japhet directed after she retired from the Bible Department at Hebrew University. You did retire?

Sara Japhet: At that time I was not retired. I was still at the Department.

MB: Okay, [Laughter] which she directed while she was in the Department. Prof. Japhet, thank you very much for agreeing to meet with me this morning. I'm very curious. What teachers had the most lasting influence on you and in what way did they influence you?

SJ: This is a very, very simple question. I studied with almost all the teachers of the Department of Bible at the Hebrew University, and each of them influenced me in some way, but the greatest influence was exerted by Professor Seeligman, Isac Leo Seeligman2, who was my supervisor in my master's thesis and then in my doctoral thesis and was responsible for my being accepted as a lecturer to the Department, and so on. He was the teacher.

MB: Tell me a little bit about him.

SJ: Oh, I thought it was about me. [Laughter] So, anyhow, he was a Holocaust survivor; he came from Holland. He spent the last two years of the war in Theresienstadt3, and—but remained alive—and came to Israel, I believe, in 1950, but I could check it to be more precise. He was a rabbi by education and of course a PhD from Brill, from Leiden University. So he was a very rare combination of full Jewish education and full university education, and this is an interesting historical fact, but I won't go into it. And he came here and was very different from everything I thought and knew until that point about Bible studies. He really was a critical soul, and the search for truth was—I mean, these sound like slogans—but for him it was the most important thing. And even there are some anecdotes about it, how critical he was. And I think that these ways of him, or characteristics of him—it's not so much his teaching but his model, which of course was seen in his teaching—was his search, and, you know, endless search, for the truth, which he knew that not always could be reached, but at least the attempt should be made. I remember having debates about it with him. And, his sincerity and honesty and straightforwardness that made this impact on me. Also, I think he also, in a way, adopted me as a student. And, not just me, I was not singular in that. All his devout students he adopted. He invited us for Friday night meals and he wrote to us letters. If I would ask him a question in one of the seminars he would say, "Okay, I'll think about it," and then would send me a postcard [Laughter] with detailed answer from a question, and so on. So, the more year[s] that passed, I feel more strongly the impact he had on me.

MB: Was he responsible for your choice to study the Book of Chronicles? Was that your choice? How did that come about because you really are not only the Chronicles woman, but the Chronicles person?

SJ: [Laughter] Okay, thank you for these definitions. You may say so. You see, I think it was in my third year at my undergraduate studies, and he gave a seminar on biblical historiography, and in that seminar he spoke, among other things, about Chronicles, and we discussed Chronicles, and we studied Chronicles in this framework, and suddenly a new world was revealed to me. I didn't know anything about this book. I didn't know even that it existed, so suddenly there is a book that I didn't know of, and perhaps it appealed to me because of its non-dogmatic—what I thought was non-dogmatic, it had a dogma of its own, but relative to the earlier books of the Bible, its non-dogmatic—its critical…views. Now we all speak about inner biblical interpretation and rewritten Bible, and all these are accepted phenomena. But at that time, although I grew up as a secular Israeli, in the general education we were all very conservative in spite [of] all these traits, you may say. And, suddenly, inside the Bible, someone, that's the Chronicler, who is the opposite of what I thought about the Bible—a fresh, critical spirit with the courage to look at Israelite history in a different way. So it attracted me. I wrote first a seminar paper, then I wrote a master's thesis. And, then, when I was about to write my dissertation, I thought to myself, "Perhaps I will take another path," and this was biblical law. At that time, I studied Akkadian very, very intensively, and I thought to do something about the Book of the Covenant, which later on I realized Shalom Paul4 did, and, but because of reasons that I won't go into now, it didn't come about, and I stayed with Chronicles and that's it; and I wrote my dissertation on Chronicles. After that I said to myself, "That's enough, no more Chronicles," but people would not let me. Then the Old Testament Library approached me to write a commentary on Chronicles, and I said to myself, "I invested so much work in it, why shouldn't I take it?" So I took it and I worked on it for ten years. And so on, but I did many other things, and I'm not only Chronicles.

MB: And among the many other things that you did was to do some path breaking work on medieval Jewish interpretation especially concerning the peshat school, especially concerning Rashbam or manuscripts that have been attributed to Rashbam. Can you talk about that for a moment?

SJ: Yes…

MB: And talk about how that may be connected to the work—critical work—that you have done especially in postexilic biblical books?

SJ: Now, first of all…it's not basically different from my work on the critical, on my critical approach to the biblical books themselves. This is a branch of biblical studies, which is biblical exegesis—some call it biblical hermeneutics, I prefer exegesis, it's more to my taste. And the approach to this world, which is really a big world, is as critical as my approach to the books of the Bible themselves. You can do otherwise. It's a historical approach—historical, philological, and so on. I don't want to go into methodological discussions. So, it's just another path of my…main handling of the biblical text. Now, what I saw is that through the work of the interpreters, the commentators—mostly the ancient ones more than the modern ones—you can really understand the problematics of the biblical text. Their presuppositions were different, but their senses showed them all the problems that existed. And, also, a very important thing, from such a faraway perspective you can see the picture very clearly. Sometimes we read a modern commentary and we don't really see the general spiritual context in which he's working and what are his spiritual and intellectual and historical presuppositions. This is very clear regarding ancient commentators. So, in Rashbam it's of course the most interesting of them all, so I cling to him.

MB: And you talked about how these commentators are useful in terms of the questions they ask. Are they also useful in terms of the answers that they provide?

SJ: Yes, yes. But, then, you have to be very sensitive to the answers and the way they were reached and their validity in our days because some of them, they didn't know the Hebrew language as well, they have a different view of Hebrew grammar, they didn't know the ancient Near Eastern world, and so on. Their historical presuppositions were different, not to say anything about their theological presuppositions, which of course could be held from my words but I didn't say it explicitly. So, anyhow, the answers are not always what you would expect…but some of the answers are truly surprising. And there is great benefit in studying them for both, mainly for the methodology and questions, and then also for the answers.

MB: You earlier spoke about yourself as an early person who looked at the Book of Chronicles. I know of at least two other ways in which you were…the first person to do something. To the best of my knowledge, you were the first woman to receive a doctorate from the Bible Department at Hebrew University, and you were the first Israeli-born person to receive a doctorate. I'm wondering if you could just reflect on those two experiences.

SJ: Now, to tell you the truth, when you told me that that's what I am, I thought to myself, "Am I?" [Laughter] Now, about the first doctorate of the Hebrew University, female doctorate in Bible at the Hebrew University, I think you're right. I'm the first. There was no other tenured person—tenured female—at the Department of Bible before me. And certainly there was no woman professor at the Department of Bible before me, although there were women in other definitions of the curriculum. So I think this is true. The first Israeli, I don't know, I didn't look into the biography of all my colleagues. Yes, I think it is important…You know, as I said to you privately, in the social milieu in which I grew up, I was not expected to be a university professor, and so my aspirations were to be a high school teacher, and in this way I was similar to all my friends at the department because there were many girls among us who were very talented and could go on with writing dissertations, but they stopped.

Also, I should mention a very important thing that you didn't ask me about. As you know, in my private life I'm married and have four children. And, to be a wife and mother of four and to develop a career—it's difficult now, but it was much, much more difficult at my time. And if people ask me, "How did you do it?", my answer is, "I don't know and I don't know if I could do it again." So, you see, there had to be something enormously attractive to overcome all these obstacles and all this public opinion. I'll tell you an anecdote. When I decided that I want to go on and write a dissertation, first of all, my supervisor told me that, you know, he can't make any promises as to what would come of me. I didn't ask him, but that's what he wanted to make sure. Okay. So I knew that I was going nowhere. Secondly, and this I didn't know for many years, he called my husband, made an appointment with him, and asked him, if he is, if he agrees that I will go on with doctorate studies. So you see he was so conservative in his views that even for him—for whom I was a cherished student, I mean, it had nothing to do with me—but how can you think about that, at that time I was already a mother of two—"I have to discuss it with her husband." So, my husband said that the way is free for me. And I didn't know about this meeting for many, many years, just to give you a taste of the atmosphere at the time.

MB: Thank you very much, Professor Japhet.

Transcribed and annotated by James D. Moore.


1 The National Library of Israel boasts the world's largest collections of Hebraica and Judaica.
2 Isac L. Seeligman was a professor at the Hebrew University whose interests in the Hebrew Bible were wide-ranging.
3 Theresienstadt refers to the "model" Nazi concentration camp established during World War II in the city of Terezin (Theresienstadt in German) in the current Czech Republic.
4 Shalom Paul is a biblical scholar who earned his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania and was a professor at the Hebrew University; in 1970, he published his dissertation as Studies in the Book of the Covenant in the Light of Cuneiform and Biblical Law .

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