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An Interview with Menahem Haran

Menahem Haran is the Yeḥezkel Kaufmann Professor Emeritus of Bible Studies at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He is a leading scholar on biblical religion, especially priestly literature, and the canonization of the biblical texts. In this interview, Professor Marc Z. Brettler discusses Haran's career path and his views on the priestly school and the canonization of Hebrew Bible/OT.

Marc Brettler: How old were you when you made the decision to become a Bible scholar?

Menahem Haran: Well, I concluded my MA studies [at the Hebrew University] when I was around 20 years of age, or somewhat earlier. And the main fields of MA studies then were Hebrew Literature, Geology, and Jewish Studies. Eventually, it turned out that I would study the Bible.

MB: Where were you born?

MH: I was born in Moscow during the regime of Stalin, which was—as we know—an extremely harsh [time]. For instance, it was strictly forbidden to study Hebrew there. The result would [have been] being sent to [do] forced labor in Siberia. However, luckily, or unluckily enough…my late father was an ardent Zionist, and he hired for me a Hebrew teacher.

MB: At what age did you leave Moscow?

MH: I left when I was nine years old. But wait a minute. What I wanted to say is that I studied Hebrew there, which was illegal under the regime of Stalin. And moreover, luckily enough there was a spark of sympathy between the teacher and me. I remember what he taught me. He taught me the Book of Judges. And it fascinated me somehow…When I eventually came back again to Bible studies, it was completing a circle in a way. And then I realized that this should be my main interest. When I realized that, I already had a degree in Geology, Hebrew Literature, and Jewish Thought.

MB: Who were your most important teachers in biblical studies?

MH: In biblical studies, well, that's a story in itself. [Early on,] the most influential figure/personality was undoubtedly Kaufmann1. However, I hardly met Kaufmann…I only read his writings. And reading his writings—I was fascinated, and he bore an impact my thought. In the course of time, I found some discrepancies or problems [in his writings], and I tried to pave out my own way. However, to this day, I highly appreciate his way of thought, and naturally enough, when I came to Ph.D. studies, I chose him as my mentor, my guide. However, this again was problematic because Kaufmann had no students whatsoever. And when I decided to work on the priestly source, [we] clashed with each other. I must admittedly say that he remained very honest, very yashar2. But I insisted on my own [ideas]. The result was that he didn't want to read my thesis. You see he never read it. Great men sometimes have curiosities of their own. And what shall I say? The university decided…that they will compose a team of [three] judges and they will decide whether my Ph.D. [should be granted]. This…simply saved me because otherwise I would have been lost entirely…My thought was diametrically opposed to [Kaufmann's]. This I came to realize only later. I was naïve and the only thing that I was searching for was the truth. And I couldn't imagine that a thesis that I substantiated wouldn't be accepted by him. [But] it was antagonist[ic to] his own thesis, which is that there was no connection whatsoever between the biblical religion and paganism3. I proved, or seemed to have proved…[that] germs of pagan ways of thought are embedded in the biblical priestly writing themselves.

MB: And now everyone agrees with you, not with Kaufmann4.

MH: I do not know. Naturally enough, the one who comes later is more right than the previous. But I still highly appreciate the great push of his approach…which I show in a book, which I published with Oxford University Press5.

MB: Yes, so that book deals with temples and with the cult. How did you first get interested in the priestly issues?

MH: …This was the subject matter, which [I chose in] the beginning to deal with. To be more precise it was Ezekiel. Ezekiel as we know was a direct disciple of the priestly school. In order to comprehend correctly Ezekiel, I had to clarify to myself the assets of the priestly school, which is the father of Ezekiel. And to this day I still have the pages in which I summarized this matter of the priestly concept. Only a part of it was realized later on in my writings6.

MB: I see all the work on your desk. I know you are working on volume four of ha-asupah ha-mikrait7. So could you please, especially since that work is in Modern Hebrew, give us a sense of what your position is on the canonization of the Bible?

MH: First of all, by way of apology let me say that the first volume of ha-asupah ha-miqrait has to deal with rabbinic and Talmudic materials. And as it happened, I found it much easier to express myself in Hebrew in which you can put one word, which carries behind it a chain of thought [and] associations. You understand? Whereas in English you have to search for expressions… and therefore…I decided to do it in Hebrew. And the outcome was that the second volume and third volume were in Hebrew. And now I'm trying to combine a fourth volume, which will conclude the circle. That's by way of apology.

As for [my] thought [about] canonization: generally scholars speak of "addition, addition, addition" with editorial activity in the Bible [performed] by various editors. Nobody saw them or perceived them8, but the assumption is that they edited. I take that all the way around. My main point is that what is collected in the Bible are remainders [not additions]. If the whole stock of writings during 200 years were to be preserved, we should have expected a much more normal collection. When we come to the Bible, we see—excluding the book of Ezekiel—that everywhere you find only remainders. Every book is a remainder. The Book of the Twelve is a collection of perurim9. And the same applies to the book of Isaiah, excluding Second Isaiah, which is a story in itself10. My thesis is, then, that at a certain stage in history, after much of the stock of the Bible has been lost—at a certain stage there arose a drive to collect the remainders. And this took place in the 6th century [BCE]. It had to do with the Deuteronomistic school11; it has something to do with [them. But] it was not the Deuteronomists themselves who collected [the texts].

And thus at this stage all that was available was collected. And this was the canonization. Canonization, to remind you, is much more than holy writing. Holy writing is found in any religion—in any pagan or non-pagan religion. Canonical writing is much more than holy [writing]. Canonical writings presume that one individual or a community should live by the precepts of that which is inscribed in that text. To live means to exist, that your life should be [modeled after] these canonical writings. [The] canonical phenomenon is to be found only in three religions, in Judaism, in Christianity, and in Islam. Now, the canonization, the process of canonization, which took place in Judaism as a first step, was not termed so; it was not called canonization. They had no word for this. But in actual fact, it was canonization which they practiced. You may well use a non-Hebraic word in order to describe it. It is a good general rule that we find many processes, many phenomena, which are not called by name as yet, and they are to be [so] perceived.

MB: Yes, thank you very much. I am going to now let you continue your work on the fourth volume. And I appreciate the time you have given us all. Thank you.

Transcribed and annotated by James D. Moore


1 Yeḥezkel Kaufmann [1889–1963] was professor of Bible at the Hebrew University from 1949–1963. 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.
2 Hebrew for "upright" or "honest."
3 Kaufmann believed that Israelite religion was diametrically opposed to its contemporary ancient Near Eastern religions, which Kaufmann labeled "pagan." Modern scholars, such as Haran, have criticized this part of his work as a false dichotomy.
4 Here Brettler refers to the mainstream scholarly view of paganism and not Jewish or Christian traditional views.
5 Temples and Temple-service in Ancient Israel: An Inquiry into the Character of Cult Phenomena and the Historical Setting of the Priestly School (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978; 2d ed. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1985).
6 In addition to his insights in Temples and Temple-service in Ancient Israel , he developed his ideas further in "The Law-Code of Ezekiel XL-XLVIII and Its Relation to the Priestly School," Hebrew Union College Annual 50 (1979): 45–71 and in "Ezekiel, P, and the Priestly School," Vetus Testamentum 58 (2008): 211–218.
7 ha-asupah ha-miqrait "the biblical collection" is the Hebrew title of Haran's multivolume work, The Biblical Collection: Its Consolidation to the End of the Second Temple Times and Changes of Form to the End of the Middle Ages (3 vols.; Magness Press, 1996–2004).
8 Unlike some Greek and Latin writers, it was uncommon for ancient Hebrew and Aramaic writers to refer to themselves or their practices when they wrote. In addition, classical and medieval biblical commentators rarely analyze the Bible as a composite text compiled by editors. Thus, theories about the Bible's composition are predominantly a modern scholarly interest.
9 The Book of the Twelve is an ancient designation for the collection of Minor Prophets ( HoseaMalachi ). Perurim is Hebrew for "snippets" (literally "crumbs").
10 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 ).
11 "Deuteronmistic" is a technical term in biblical studies that refers to the writing style of the editor(s) of Deuteronomy and the Former Prophets ( Joshua , Judges , 1 and 2 Samuel , and 1 and 2 Kings ).
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