TIP of the day: from the blogs Jewish interpretation of scripture

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MJ. Smith | Forum Activity | Posted: Sun, Jan 31 2016 1:42 AM

from Jewish Interpretation of the Bible: Ancient and Contemporary by Karin Zetterholm:

Note the book Jewish Interpretation of the Bible: Ancient and Contemporary by Karin Hedner Zetterholm is available in Logos so you can accuse me of posting an ad.


The Hebrew Bible was subject to interpretation from the moment it was considered a normative text, and this interpretive process reached its apex during the rabbinic period (ca. 70–600 C.E). Some Hebrew words were no longer understood because they had fallen out of use or had taken on a different meaning, others needed to be given a precise definition in order to function as rules in every-day life, and some stipulated behaviors could not be reconciled with the worldview and morality of the rabbis and needed to be given new meanings or simply interpreted away. As a result, Jewish tradition developed into something quite different than the Hebrew Bible. The discrepancy between the Bible and rabbinic tradition is readily acknowledged and even celebrated by the rabbis:

By what parable may the question [of the difference between Scripture and oral tradition] be answered? By the one of a mortal king who had two servants whom he loved with utter love. To one he gave a measure of wheat and to the other he gave a measure of wheat, to one a bundle of flax and to the other a bundle of flax. What did the clever one of the two do? He took the flax and wove it into a tablecloth. He took the wheat and made it into fine flour by sifting the grain first and grinding it. Then he kneaded the dough and baked it, set the loaf upon the table, spread the tablecloth over it, and kept it to await the coming of the king. But the foolish one of the two did not do anything at all. After a while the king came into his house and said to the two servants, ”My sons, bring me what I gave you.” One brought out the table with the loaf baked of fine flour on it, and with the tablecloth spread over it. And the other brought out his wheat in a basket with the bundle of flax over the wheat grains. What a shame! What a disgrace! Need it be asked which of the two servants was the more beloved? He, of course, who laid out the table with the loaf baked of fine flour upon it (Seder Eliahu Zuta 2).

It is the servant who utterly transforms what he was entrusted with who is called wise, so obviously he is the one who acts in accordance with God’s will. What God desires is active human participation in interpreting his word, resulting in a transformed, refined product. The passage ends by saying: “The truth is that when the Holy One gave the Torah to Israel, He gave it to them as wheat out of which the fine flour of Mishnah was to be produced and as flax out of which the fine linen cloth of Mishnah was to be produced.” According to this parable, then, interpretation is an ongoing process that transforms the meaning of the biblical text, sometimes beyond recognition, and this is in accordance with the divine intention.

Divine Revelation and Human Interpretation

What characterizes Jewish tradition, perhaps more than anything else, and establishes continuity from the Hebrew Bible through rabbinic Judaism to modern Jewish denominations, is the emphasis on the need for constant cautious interpretation of the Bible in order for it to remain relevant. According to early rabbinic sources human interpretation started already at the moment of divine revelation at Sinai and is thus part of the revelatory event itself:

Rabbi says: This is to proclaim the excellence of the Israelites. For when they all stood before Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah they interpreted the divine word as soon as they heard it (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael Bahodesh 9 (Lauterbach 2:267).

The very moment the Israelites hear God speak, they interpret his words. Interpretation then, is not a belated activity aimed at reconstructing the forgotten meaning of God’s word, but part of divine revelation itself. Revelation as envisioned here includes both a divine and a human component and human interpretive efforts are seen as imperative and indispensable to the continued revelation of God’s will (Fraade 1991, 60–62; 2008, 263). It is this view of humans as active partners in the revelatory event that allowed the rabbis to derive from the biblical text laws that are not explicitly stated there and formulate laws for new phenomena, which are not mentioned there at all. Throughout this process of interpretation the biblical text always remains at the center, and in this way continuity with the past is preserved even as the Bible is adapted to new circumstances. As long as there is a commitment to the Bible, rethinking its meaning seems to be legitimate and even desirable.

The essence of Jewish tradition, then, can be characterized as an ongoing dialectical process between divine revelation and human creative interpretation, and accordingly, the key to the ability to interpret and adapt lies in the rabbinic perception of the giving of the Torah at Sinai.

Adherents to the Jesus movement likely shared this early Jewish view of human interpretation as being part of divine revelation. Although not clearly articulated, the idea seems to have been prevalent already in the first century, and to underlie much of the theology and biblical interpretation of Paul, allowing him to conclude that through Jesus, Gentile Jesus-believers are included into the covenant with Israel’s God (but not thereby becoming part of Israel!), and to argue that this was the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and thus in accordance with Scripture (Rom 4:1–12; Gal 3:6–18).

Rabbinic Tradition Becomes Wholly Divine

During the fourth century a slightly different perception of revelation developed, likely in response to the various Jesus movements whose adherents claimed to be the legitimate heirs to the biblical promises and blessings and to possess the correct interpretation of Scripture. According to this view the entire rabbinic tradition down to its smallest detail was given to Moses at Sinai as a body of set teachings:

R. Levi bar Hama said in the name of R. Shimon ben Laqish: What is the meaning of the verse, [The Lord said to Moses], Come up to the mountain and wait there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them [Exod 24:12]? “Tablets” [luhot ha-’even] means the Ten Commandments, “teachings” [ha-torah] the Five Books of Moses, “commandments” [ha-mitzvah] the Mishnah, “which I have inscribed” the Prophets and the Writings, and “to instruct them,” the Talmud. This teaches that they were all given to Moses at Sinai (b. Ber 5a).1

According to this view, the divine revelation at Sinai included all future interpretations, which were subsequently transmitted from generation to generation, making humans merely passive transmitters of divinely revealed interpretations, rather than active participants in shaping the content of revelation. In its most radical formulation this view asserts that everything that an astute student will ever say in front of his teacher was revealed to Moses at Sinai (y. Peah 2:6).

This idea is not known to have existed in the tannaitic period and seems to have developed in rabbinic circles sometime in the fourth century (Kraemer 1990,117–118), a period when the pursuit of legitimacy and orthodoxy among Jewish and Christian groups reached its peak. This would seem to indicate that it emerged as a polemical construct in response to various Jesus-oriented non-rabbinic groups (Cf Alexander 2007: 704). These groups were committed to the same Bible as the rabbis but interpreted it differently, rejecting both rabbinic tradition and interpretive authority. Claiming direct access to the divine via Jesus, whom they considered a prophet, they developed their own interpretation of Scripture with the life and death of Jesus as the hermeneutic key (Fonrobert 2001, 483–509; Reed 2007, 189–231). . . .


It is well worth your time to read the entire article and consider:

  • what assumptions are reasonable regarding Jesus' and the apostles' understanding of the Tanakh (especially Paul)
  • how does this understanding of scripture affect our understanding of what the author actually intended (i.e. the "plain meaning" of the text)

Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: "To be a theologian means to have experience of a personal encounter with God through prayer and worship."

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