On Comparative Biblical Exegesis—Interpretation, Influence, Appropriation
Over the last thirty years, the study of ancient and medieval Biblical interpretation—Jewish and Christian alike—has undergone a sea-change. Forty years ago, if a scholar in Bible studies were asked about pre-modern biblical exegesis and its value, the answer would almost certainly have been dismissive; at best, it would have acknowledged the historical significance of these texts as putative sources for their authors' lives or theology. Only rarely would an ancient or medieval commentary have been treated as genuine exegesis, and even more rarely as possessing an enduring value. As late as 1970, the eminent Origen scholar R. P. C. Hanson, could write in regard to the Church Fathers (early and late) that "no admiration of the beauty or skill displayed in their typological and allegorical interpretation should be allowed to disguise the distorting effect which these ideas [about exegesis] has upon [the Church Father's] understanding of the Bible."
Today it would be difficult to find such sentiments stated so baldly and categorically. Ancient and medieval biblical commentary alike have undergone a large-scale rehabilitation, and are now appreciated both for their value in elucidating the Bible (with obvious qualifications, of course), and as literary documents worth reading in their own right. Several reasons lie behind this decisive change. In the first place, there has been a growing disillusionment with historical criticism of the Bible and its positivistic approaches to the text as self-sufficient guarantors for understanding the meaning of the biblical text. So, too, the increasing sophistication of general hermeneutics and literary studies has worked to undermine the positivism of historical scholarship, and to justify on philosophical grounds some of the more outlandish or seemingly dated characteristics of pre-modern exegesis (which on occasion turn out not to be so un- or pre-modern after all). Indeed, as literary theory has increasingly emerged as a field in its own right, some literary theorists have looked back upon the history of exegesis to discover their own past. A prominent theorist once remarked to me personally that he now recognized that modern "literary criticism" was the mere tip of an iceberg whose gigantic foundations lay submerged beneath the surface in the vast shoals of the history of ancient and medieval biblical exegesis. The second major change that has occurred in the field of biblical exegesis has been its growing enlargement and inclusiveness. Forty years ago, pre-modern biblical exegesis (ancient and medieval) meant, essentially, Christian exegesis. Robert M. Grant's A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible (1963) has all of about three paragraphs on "Jewish" interpretation in the time of Jesus and Paul; and not a mention of Qumran or any later Jewish exegesis. Less than ten years later, in 1970, the three-volume The Cambridge History of the Bible—perhaps the first major project in English to attempt to situate the development of biblical exegesis within the Bible's larger history—gave the space of a full chapter to Geza Vermes to write on "Bible and Midrash: Early Old Testament Exegesis," but in the space of some twenty pages, under the rubric of "midrash," Vermes had to cover all ancient Jewish exegesis from Philo to Qumran, the targumim (or Aramaic translations of the Bible), the various pseudepigraphic and apocryphal texts, and of course all rabbinic literature
Now compare those publications with a more recent one like Mikra (1988)—the Hebrew term for Scripture—which has separate chapters by different scholars on Josephus, on Hellenistic Jewish authors, on Samaritan exegesis as well as rabbinic, and chapter-length treatments of Gnosticism and (of course) multiple chapters on early Christian exegesis in its various types and schools. And even more impressive are the massive two first volumes of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (1996/2000), a multivolume series that will eventually cover all of the history of interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament and whose first two volumes alone (nearly 1600 pages) treat exegesis until the year 1300. These volumes have chapters on everything found in Mikra (and lengthier ones at that) as well as extensive coverage of early medieval Jewish exegesis from the Geonim through all the various schools of peshat in both Ashkenaz and Sefarad (with individual chapters devoted to figures like Moshe Ibn Ezra, Nahmanides, and the Kimhis). Needless to say, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament's coverage of Christian exegesis is no less comprehensive.
The two volumes of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament are an impressive indication of the field's maturation. Yet they also reflect its growing pains, and what remains most problematic about it. For all the excellence of its many individual chapters, the two volumes as a whole lack what one might call a controlling vision, an idea of what the history of biblical interpretation means beyond all its particular moments. Rather than a continuous history of the development of Jewish and Christian exegesis, the two volumes present fragments of a history. This problematic has not escaped the notice of the volumes' editor, Magne Sæbø. In an epilogue to the first volume, in attempting to sum up the history covered in the volume, he writes, "In the end, then, a long double story . . . has been followed. . . . These two main roads [of Jewish and Christian exegesis], with several minor deviating paths, have mostly been kept apart by the ancient Synagogue and Church—who have moved forward in relatively great isolation from one another, with only few signs of combining tracks."
On strictly historical grounds, Sæbø is correct that there are not many moments when Jewish and Christian biblical interpretation openly intersect. But is the story of Jewish and Christian exegesis a long "double story?" Perhaps it is really two essentially separate stories (which is what the volumes actually seem to present). Or, alternately, is it one story, with both Jewish and Christian scriptural exegesis deriving from a single set of reading practices that first develop in the aftermath of the Bible's canonization (if not earlier, within the Bible itself, in inner-biblical exegesis) and then diverge on seemingly separate tracks as the two religious traditions also separate and diverge? If such is the case, is it possible to write a single history of biblical exegesis, to look at Jewish and Christian (not to mention Islamic) exegesis in tandem? On the other hand, if their subsequent development has so little to say to each other, what is the point of studying them together? Or to phrase these questions from a different vantage point, namely, that of reading practice as it develops and changes historically and in different cultural centers: How do Jewish and Christian traditions of biblical interpretation and their reading practices resemble the reading practices applied to other books? How does this resemblance (or lack of it) affect the difference between the two interpretive traditions? And finally, how does the history of Bible-reading fit into the history of reading practice in Western culture? But in that case, whose story are we telling? The story of biblical interpretation? Of Western reading practices? Of their intersection?
The essays in this volume do not offer definitive answers to these questions, but they address them by exploring intersections between the three exegetical traditions and the problems that study of these intersections entails. Before turning to these individual explorations, however, it is worth tracing the background to the field of comparative exegesis as it has emerged in scholarship over the last half-century. Most of the scholarship I will discuss deals with the earlier periods of biblical interpretation in Judaism and Christianity in Late Antiquity but its relevance can easily be extended to the medieval and even early modern periods about which I will write more at the conclusion. So, too, virtually all the scholarship I will talk about deals with the intersection of Jewish and Christian interpretation but the problematics are largely identical for Islam and its intersection with Jewish (and Christian) exegetical tradition.
We can begin with the term "comparative exegesis" itself. To the best of my knowledge, the first person to write about "comparative exegesis" in connection with the scholarly study of ancient scriptural interpretation was the French scholar, Renee Bloch, in a 1955 article entitled "Note methodologique pour l'etude de la literature rabbinique." Bloch's aim in that article was to demonstrate the importance of rabbinic literature for understanding the Bible and its interpretation in postbiblical tradition and to set forth a method for pursuing such scholarship. According to Bloch, the major challenge a scholar faces in using rabbinic texts vis-à-vis the Bible—beyond penetrating their inherent obscurity—is dating its various texts and placing them in sequence so as to be able to trace the development of an exegetical motif or theme. These motifs or themes were the specific focus of her study, and it was specifically to solve the difficulty of situating their different versions in various postbiblical texts that Bloch first conceived of what she called her "comparative" method. In order to illustrate the method, Bloch presented in the article a sample exercise in which she traced the motif of the prophecy of Moses's birth by Pharaoh's magicians through various ancient exegetical works. Beginning with the targumim, she proceeded through Josephus, classical rabbinic midrash, and even late medieval midrashic compilations like Yalkut Shimoni and the Chronicle of Moses, situating each version in relation to its predecessors and later successors, and setting methodological guidelines for doing so. She concluded her study with the impact of the motif upon the story of Jesus's birth.
To be sure, Bloch was hardly the first to study the history of traditions in ancient Jewish literature. From the inception of the Wissenschaft des Judentums (Science of Judaism) at the beginning of the nineteenth century such studies were among the favored preoccupations for Jewish scholars. Perhaps the greatest example of the genre is Louis Ginzberg's monumental Legends of the Jews (1909-38) many of whose footnotes remain to this day the definitive monographs on their subjects. Bloch, however, was (to the best of my knowledge) the first scholar to attempt to study such traditions systematically, and it is here that her importance lies, as well as that of her foremost student, Geza Vermes (who, after Bloch's premature death in an airplane crash in the fifties, continued her work in numerous studies that applied and developed her methodology). Their common work remains to this day the model for what is still probably the most widespread type of scholarship on biblical exegesis—namely, the tracing of interpretive motifs and their development through early postbiblical literature (particularly the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha) into subsequent Jewish and Christian interpretation in Late Antiquity through the Middles Ages.
Bloch herself came out of French biblical studies; she was a student of A. Robert who was among the first to discuss what we today call "inner-biblical exegesis." Bloch herself was a firm believer in the biblical origins of midrash, or more accurately, of "the midrashic genre," which she defined as "an edifying and explanatory genre closely tied to Scripture, in which the role of amplification is real but secondary and always remains subordinate to the primary religious end, which is to show the full import of the work of God, the Word of God." For Bloch, as for Vermes, midrash was very much a fully-fledged literary genre with a lengthy career in ancient Jewish literature—that is to say, not just the name for a particular type of scriptural study or exegesis practiced by rabbinic sages in Palestine in the first five or six centuries in the common era. "Nothing could be more wrong than the idea that midrash is a late creation of rabbinic Judaism," she wrote— the key word here being "late." Writing in the wake of the publication by Paul Kahle of the Palestinian targumim from the Cairo Geniza, Bloch (and after her, Vermes) followed Kahle in giving the Palestinian targumim a very early dating which preceded the rise of rabbinic Judaism. In Bloch's eyes, the targumim were indeed the first real flowering of the midrashic genre after the close of the biblical canon. Because she saw midrash as an "early" phenomenon, she also included in her comparative studies much late Second Temple material, placing great emphasis in particular on the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and the New Testament. Indeed, when Bloch wrote about the utility of midrash to illuminate the Bible, she meant the New Testament as much as—perhaps even more than—the Old. This was her Bible.
Which is to state, simply, that Bloch and Vermes' method had a not-always-explicit agenda that can be seen best in the historiography of ancient exegesis that the two scholars proposed. Not only were the origins of the "midrashic tendency" within "the inspired Scripture themselves," Bloch wrote, but they reached their real culmination and full fruition in the New Testament. "With Paul, especially in the major epistles," she writes, "we find the most characteristic and authentic form of midrash, what might be called the great midrash: confronted with the immense problem of a change in economy—salvation by faith in Christ, the call of the Gentiles, the rejection by official Judaism—the Apostle, guided by the Spirit, searched ceaselessly in the ancient Scriptures to find divine answers to the questions posed by the new situation."
Vermes, in his Cambridge History of the Bible essay on midrash, gave a far more nuanced and subtle presentation of what was essentially the same argument. He, too, began with the biblical origins of postbiblical Jewish interpretation, and then divided its later history into two periods, that of "pure exegesis" and "applied exegesis." "Pure exegesis" was "organically bound to the Bible;" its purpose was "to render every word and verse in Scripture intelligible and its message acceptable and meaningful to the interpreters' contemporaries," and it was mainly to be found (on the basis of the works Vermes cites) in the targumim, the Septuagint, Qumram texts (like the Genesis Apocryphon), the Apocrypha and Pseuedepigrapha, and, on a few occasions, in rabbinic literature. In contrast, the point of departure for "applied exegesis" "was no longer the Torah itself but contemporary customs and beliefs, which the interpreter attempted to connect with scripture and to justify." This type was anticipated in Qumran literature and in the New Testament but it was found most extensively in rabbinic literature. One of the differences between "pure" and "applied" exegesis is that where the former is closer to what we call exegesis—which derives meaning out of the Biblical text—the latter more closely resembles eisegesis, which reads meaning into the text. The earliest, most authentic practitioners of the "midrashic genre" were exegetes who interpreted meaning out of the Bible. In contrast, the rabbis were eisegetes who used midrash to read whatever meanings they wanted (or needed) into Scripture.
The work of Bloch and Vermes remains foundational for all scholarship concerned with comparative exegesis, but there have been several important changes in scholarly conceptions and assumptions about the field since their time. For one thing, scholars today think very differently than did Bloch and Vermes about tradition and the way it develops. Bloch and Vermes had a very linear notion of tradition; for example, it was axiomatic to their work that the simpler and shorter version of a motif was always earlier than a more elaborate or lengthier version. We now know that this is not always the case. So too we know that the oral does not always or necessarily precede the written, nor that the written phase always or necessarily follows the oral. A tradition can be transmitted orally, then committed to writing, then pass back into oral transmission. The written and the oral can also coexist. Further, the written stage of tradition can exhibit many of the same features that were once exclusively attributed to the oral.
What has changed most since Bloch and Vermes, however, is a shift in focus from tradition itself, or a particular motif of tradition (like the birth of Moses), as if it were a kind of objective datum with an independent existence, to the reading practices of ancient interpreters as the producers of tradition and traditional motifs. This shift in particular has been the contribution of James Kugel, the most recent practitioner of 'comparative exegesis" (even if, to the best of my knowledge, he has never referred to himself that way). In several books, Kugel has eloquently argued that ancient Israel's greatest contribution to the West was not solely the Bible but equally so, a way of reading the Bible, namely, the earliest set of reading practices, or what we call "early Biblical interpretation." Of all these practices, the most basic is the fact that "ancient Biblical interpretation is an interpretation of verses, not stories"—that is to say, the smaller textual units (like a verse, a phrase, even an unusual word) that would be remembered in a culture that was essentially memorial, to use Mary Carruthers phrase. In addition, Kugel argues, all ancient interpreters of the Bible shared four basic beliefs about the Biblical text—first, that it is "fundamentally a cryptic document;" second, that Scripture "constitutes one great Book of Instruction, and as such is a fundamentally relevant text;" third, that it is "perfect and perfectly harmonious," that is, without contradictions or inconsistencies or superfluities; and fourth, that it is of "divine provenance." These four assumptions or presuppositions were, according to Kugel, brought to the Bible by all its ancient interpreters, and were the practices that created most early postbiblical "traditions." As a result, nearly all ancient biblical interpretations—including all those preserved in the varieties of Second Temple period literature, not to mention rabbinic and early Christian exegetical tradition—share a profound common ground.
In making this case, Kugel has been one of the major proponents of the view that ancient biblical interpretation should be appreciated as a legitimate mode of reading (once, that is, its assumptions are understood) rather than a product of imaginative fancy or a reflex of theological or ideological baggage that ancient readers brought to and read "into" the text. Hence Kugel's insistence that every ancient interpretation derives from a "problem" or "difficulty" in the biblical text, and that "the formal starting point" of all ancient exegesis "is always Scripture itself." Indeed, Kugel's virtually telepathic ability to transport himself into the minds of ancient readers and to look at the text through their eyes may be the closest that many of us today, Kugel's own readers, will ever come to witnessing how ancient Jews (and Christians) read the Bible.
Even so, Kugel's almost exclusive concentration upon reading practice comes at the expense of accounting for extra-textual motivations and predispositions that ancient interpreters brought to their reading of the Bible—in the case of the rabbis, for example, the axiomatic conviction that the Written Torah and the Oral Torah will always be complimentary and never in contradiction; or for Qumranic readers, the belief that the Bible is essentially oracular and prognostic and directed to the history of the community itself; or for (at least for some) early Christians, that the meaning of the Old Testament will always be in some way christological. Kugel himself is not unaware of these factors, but his approach, if only because of its emphasis on the exegetical side, never fully accounts for the extra-textual motivations. It thus inevitably ends up reducing the very real differences that distinguish ancient interpretations even when they derive from a common exegetical problem.
How does one decide whether a given tradition derives from an interpretive urge (i.e., a reading practice) or from an ideological or other extra-textual desire that may later take on an exegetical coloration? This problematic, which is actually inherent in all comparative study, becomes only more complicated when the tradition is preserved or recorded in a non-exegetical context (like the narrative contexts so common in Second Temple literature), and still more complicated when there exist multiple versions of a given tradition whose chronological relation is not easily determined (which was, as we have seen, a problem that already bothered Bloch). Further, even a reading practice itself is not necessarily ideology-free. Take, for example, the basic hermeneutical axiom of the Bible's divine origins. Kugel is appropriately cautious about assigning too much weight to this particular assumption (like making it the basis of all the other assumptions, something that is commonly done). But the real problem with divine authorship is that it directly depends upon the nature of the divinity imagined to be the divine author. For example, Philo's middle-Platonic First Principle produces a certain kind of allegorical exegesis that is consonant with its Middle Platonism, and that is very different from the profound anthropomorphism of the rabbis' God which is reflected in the playfulness and intimacy of midrashic exegesis. Similar parallels could be drawn between other notions of divinity and the types of sacred texts and exegesis produced by their divine "authors."
The new attention to reading practice I have outlined is nonetheless the first of several major changes in comparative exegetical scholarship that have taken place since Bloch and Vermes initially defined the field. The second major change since their time is the way scholars now think about the origins and beginnings of ancient biblical exegesis. Bloch was neither alone nor the first to take account of what we today call inner-biblical exegesis, that is, interpretive activity within the Bible itself, as the source for all postbiblical exegesis. Nahum Sarna in America and Isaac Seeligman in Israel as well as others made early important contributions to understanding this phenomenon. Bloch, however, was among the first to integrate evidence of inner-biblical exegesis into studies of postbiblical exegesis, drawing her primary examples from Chronicles which she correctly saw as retellings of the books of Samuel and Kings from a particular ideological/theological perspective; she also included texts like Ezekiel 16 with its allegory of the history of Israel. For Bloch, these compositions were so important as early examples of exegesis both because they proved that her view of midrash as a meditation upon the meaning of the Bible existed even within the biblical corpus as an authentically native modality, and because these examples also anticipated the rereading and rewriting of the Old Testament in the New. As we have seen, the latter document marked for Bloch the real fruition of the midrashic genre. In her reconstruction of the early history of biblical interpretation, between Old Testament protomidrash and New Testament midrash there lay a virtually uninterrupted line of succession.
Scholars today look at inner-biblical exegesis from a completely different perspective. In this field, the most important recent contributions have been made by Michael Fishbane, for whom inner-biblical exegesis is less a "meditation upon the Bible's meaning" as it was for Bloch than a cluster of dynamic tendencies or habits—for lack of a better term—that underlie the Bible's own process of composition and that later, after the closing of the Bible and its canonization, resurface in midrash as full-blown exegetical techniques. Such tendencies include the harmonization of contradictions and inconsistencies, the systematization of diverse and unconnected sources, the recasting of motifs and imagery in new contexts, the transformation of old imagery into new, the historicizing of ahistorical texts (like the addition of superscriptions to the Psalms), and the rehistoricizing of past historical texts, prophecies in particular, into newly historical or prophetic texts. These habits or tendencies have little to do with a particular text "meditating" upon the meaning of an earlier text. Rather, they are more like ways of thinking (or of reading and writing) that underlie the Bible's very own process of composition, a kind of deep dynamics behind the very making of the Bible. Later, they reappear in midrash as explicit if not formal techniques of interpretation which are self-consciously applied to the explication and elaboration of the Bible.
Fishbane's view of inner-biblical exegesis is not unproblematic. Whether or not the presence of these tendencies within the Bible actually constitutes exegesis remains open to question. By definition, exegesis seeks to explain something—a difficulty or complexity—in a primary text; Fishbane's inner-biblical examples rarely elucidate or clarify anything about the passages of old Bible that lie behind the new ones even if they help to compose the latter. Yet even if the tendencies he has identified are more like compositional forces than exegetical ones, Fishbane's claim that they nonetheless lie behind the explicitly hermeneutical tendencies that emerge in postbiblical midrash is compelling. In fact, Fishbane's tendencies explain, in my view, the inner workings of midrash far more cogently than do, say, the middot (or hermeneutical principles) like the kal va-homer (the argument a fortiori) or the gezerah shavah (verbal analogy) which have traditionally been invoked as the logic behind midrash and the primary mechanics of its exegesis.
The connection between inner-biblical exegesis and rabbinic midrash is, for Fishbane, intrinsic—as intrinsic as inner-biblical meditation and midrash in the New Testament was for Bloch. Indeed, for Fishbane, the connection between inner-biblical exegesis and rabbinic midrash is not only indisputable proof of the continuity of rabbinic tradition with its biblical predecessor; it also obviates the need for the intervention of foreign or non-Jewish influence to explain the emergence of rabbinic commentary. "To say, then," he writes in one of his more recent restatements of ancient Israelite exegetical history, "that Rabbinic exegesis was fundamentally dependent upon trends in contemporary Greco-Roman rhetoric or among the Alexandrian grammarians is to mistake ecumenical currents of text-study and the occurrence of similar exegetical terms for the inner-Jewish cultivation of preexistent native traditions of interpretation." Rather, the Hebrew Bible itself is "the product of an interpretative tradition," and midrash is a direct continuation of that tradition.
These remarks are polemical in intent, aimed at the work of scholars like David Daube and Saul Lieberman who sought to show that rabbinic interpretation must be seen within the context of contemporary Greco-Roman culture. This view, as Lieberman himself indicated, goes back at least to the twelfth century when the Karaite Judah Hadassi first broached the connection in order to disparage and delegitimate midrash as a form of alien wisdom that had contaminated native Israelite biblical tradition. In the nineteenth century, however, the link between rabbinic interpretation and Greco-Roman sources was revived as a productive explanation for the peculiarities of rabbinic exegesis, and Lieberman was only among the last of these scholars to study the connection.
Characteristically, Lieberman gave the argument a subtle spin of his own. In the first place, unlike earlier scholars, he did not believe the rabbis "owed" their exegetical modes to Greco-Roman culture. Many of the techniques they used, he claimed, were universally practiced in the ancient world, drawn from a fund of interpretive techniques that derived from rudimentary legal and literary hermeneutics as well as from still more ancient traditions of dream interpretation that were common to nearly every culture in the larger Mediterranean area. Yet if there was no evidence for substantive influence of Greco-Roman interpretation upon the rabbis, Lieberman showed that the rabbis borrowed the names for some of their exegetical techniques from Greek technical interpretive terminology. This borrowing was not merely nominal. If nothing else, it showed that rabbinic biblical exegesis did not take place in a historical vacuum—that the rabbis were aware of the exegetical activity taking place in the culture around them, and that there must have been some kind of exchange between the rabbis and that culture. Although Lieberman hedged on the question of influence (whether the rabbis actually borrowed anything substantive from the Greeks), he clearly viewed rabbinic exegesis as part of a larger Late Antique, Greco-Roman phenomenon. Even if the rabbis borrowed only the technical terminology of exegesis, this was because they must have realized that these exegetical forms were unprecedented in their native tradition; as a result, they had to consult Greco-Roman culture for what to call these new things. Historians do not generally deal with counterfactuals, but I strongly suspect that Lieberman, as a scholar of ancient Judaism, would have found the idea of midrash inconceivable outside Greco-Roman culture. Not so Fishbane.
Now there is no necessary reason to see a Greco-Roman genealogy for ancient Jewish exegesis and that of inner-biblical exegesis as mutually exclusive. To the contrary: the two genealogies and their respective hermeneutical corollaries seem to be best taken as complimentary—the one, the inner-biblical tendencies, explaining the dynamics underlying midrash; the other, the impact of Greco-Roman exegesis, explaining why these tendencies suddenly change from being mainly compositional forces working within the text and become full-fledged, self-consciously used exegetical techniques operating upon Scripture from outside, as it were. After all, why should an authentically Jewish mode of exegesis, like midrash, be only a purely, genetically, Jewish one, untouched by foreign intervention or influence?
Here, too, then, in this scholarly debate over the origins of ancient Jewish exegesis, we encounter a polemical subtext about the purity of genealogy. In this case, the polemic is not over the theological rivalry between Judaism and Christianity but rather, it seems, a reenactment of the even more ancient struggle between Hellenism and Hebraism. In fact, the polemic touches upon an even more fundamental debate about the nature of change in Jewish tradition. Are new developments (like the emergence of midrash) impelled by imminent internal forces? Or are they shaped by historical context, namely, the influence of the foreign host cultures in which Jews have lived since the time of the Babylonian exile? As this last debate is constructed, midrash essentially comes to serve as a figure or trope for Judaism itself. This may seem an unlikely figuration, but it is one that has come to play an increasingly prominent role, particularly in recent attempts to connect literary theory and classical Jewish exegesis.
The impact of theory upon the study of ancient exegesis—Jewish and Christian alike—has been considerable. For one thing, it has given scholars the lens through which to look at exegesis as literature in its own right, not just as a secondary or supplementary text. The blurring of the distinction between the two orders of discourse, between "literature" and commentary, has enabled scholars to see exegetical activity within the biblical narrative, just as it has enabled them to appreciate the imaginative excess of exegesis. So, too, literary theory has contributed valuable categories like intertextuality that have illuminated the workings of ancient exegesis along with the semiotic tools to connect hermeneutics to other forms of cultural practice, like attitudes towards the body and gender, not to mention theological and political stances.
At the same time, theory has also contributed its own set of polemical polarities to the history of exegesis. Contemporary (mainly poststructuralist) theory's "re-discovery" of ancient and medieval exegesis actually began, somewhat paradoxically, with midrash, and this new fascination was legitimated, if not rationalized, by positing midrash (and classical Jewish exegesis generally) as a kind of antecedent or ancestor for a nonlogocentric hermeneutic of the sort sought by poststructuralist theory itself. This identification, in turn, quickly extended into the positing of an antinomy between midrash and allegory, with the latter representing the hermeneutic of the reigning so-called Greco-Christian logocentrism that heretofore had dominated Western thought and was now about to be dislodged. The opposition between the two went as following: In allegory, meaning was seen as an abstraction lying "behind" the text, grimly awaiting its purported revelation by theologians obsessed with metaphysical presence. In midrash, in contrast, meaning was "in front" of the text, an endlessly playful game of interpretive jouissance (which, contra Derrida, is not always not Jew-issance), less concerned with meaning than with extending the unlimited conversation of textuality. This antinomy, in turn, turned into an even more essentialized opposition with the terms midrash and allegory now becoming virtual code-words for the different, even opposed ontologies that presumably produced them, the homologous "ways of being" in the world that include gender-constructions and social and political embodiments.
Happily, this antinomy, with its hyper-polarized oppositions, has now passed from the academic scene, but its specter—the tendency to view the history of Jewish and Christian exegesis as dueling rivals—remains a temptation and a threat. The specter is Janus-like. On the one hand, if Jewish and Christian exegesis can be seen only as opposites, then there is little chance of viewing exegesis as an arena for productive cultural exchange because there is no real connection between them. On the other hand, if their relationship is viewed solely as a battle over the possession of originality and influence, how can comparative exegesis not be philosophically and hermeneutically a divisive project?
Part of the answer to this question may lie in shifting the terms of the argument. If the study of ancient exegesis over the last two decades has taught us anything, it is the lesson that interpretation is inevitably over-determined. Multiple forces and sources seem always to feed into it— in the case of midrash, for example, inner-biblical compositional tendencies turned into exegetical habits; modes of Greco-Roman literary and legal interpretation; oneirological and esoteric techniques of interpretation; problems and clues in the biblical text demanding explanation and clarification; the rhetorical and ideological needs of ancient interpreters and of their audiences that required authoritative licenses and justifications from the biblical tradition. Nor is this over-determination unique to midrash. It is even more pronounced in the case of medieval Jewish biblical interpretation where, until now, most scholarship has approached the different commentators and their commentaries in terms of their proximity to or distance from peshat, that code-word for the "plain" or "literal" or "contextual' meaning, which is usually treated as a systematic approach to the biblical text. In fact, as Sara Japhet has pointed out in an under-appreciated article, this conception of peshat is a Wissenschaft anachronism. Most medieval Jewish exegetes, far from being systematic interpreters, are powerfully individualist personalities, each with his own unmistakable voice and identifiable way of reading. But rather than seeing these ways of reading as systematic, it may be far more accurate to view them as "negotiations" in which each exegete struggled on his own to juggle various requirements and needs—the words of the text itself, the imputed meanings of tradition, other contemporary interpretations, polemical intents, ideological desires, and so on. To be sure, each negotiation has its own economy (and, accordingly, a balance of profit or loss), but in either case, ancient or medieval, the task of comparative exegetical scholarship today would seem to be to unpack the multiple determinants and factors that went into making an interpretation rather than to set up different interpretations as rivals or competitors.
In this world of exegetical negotiations, every interpretation is also a not-another-intepretation. Although it is not always possible for us to know what the exegetical alternative was, it is safe to assume that, as far back as we can go, every exegesis was an additional interpretation—a davar aher, "another opinion," as the rabbis said—or a refusal of an existing exegesis. This is to say that there will always be an inherently and unavoidable polemical dimension of some sort to exegesis. In most comparative exegetical studies to date, however, there has been a tendency to view the relationship between different traditions of exegeses as being either purely polemical or a matter of ascertainable influence with one tradition of exegesis "subject" to another. In the former case, one interpretation wars against another, refutes it, or "proves" from Scripture that the belief-system upon which its "enemy" exegesis is based is wrong. In the latter case, a given exegesis is viewed as a copy or a borrowing from another exegesis, a so-called "original" interpretation. Where the latter is primary and authoritative, the former—the interpretation under-the-influence—is dependent, secondary, and belated. Inevitably, these characterizations have extended in scholarship to apply to the religious traditions from which the exegeses stem. Thus, Judaism and Christianity have vied for the laurel-wreathe of originality and struggled to be proclaimed the source of influence upon the other. Islam, in turn, has invariably been viewed (by non-Muslims) as under-the-influence, secondary, derivative.
Recent cultural theory has done much to dismantle the privileged status of influence as a critical category. As cultural theorists have noted, influence invariably implies an imbalance of power, and as Peter Schaefer has recently reminded us, Western notions of influence are equally determined by categories of cause and effect which go back to antiquity. Citing the pseudo-Aristotleian Liber de causis, Schaefer summarizes its hierarchy as "the higher a cause, the greater the influence it exerts on its effect." The implied metaphysics of this formulation helps to explain the power that "influence" has exerted in literary studies, not to mention comparative exegesis scholarship, and it also indicates the degree to which the intertextual relationship is essentially one-sided, with the less powerful party, the one influenced, a passive participant in a cultural exchange whose parameters are determined solely by the active, all-powerful source.
If one views the act of interpretation as a negotiation, however, it is possible to flip the perspective, as it were, and to look at the act of exchange called "influence" from the perspective of the recipient of influence rather than from that of the alleged original or source. From the recipient's perspective, the cultural exchange will appear not as a process of influence but as one of appropriation in which he, the less powerful party, nonetheless exercises what power he has and appropriates—literally "makes his own"—what he takes from the more powerful other party. In this case, appropriation is both an act of possession and a reproduction of meaning, which may sometimes involve "killing off" the source; or theft; or friendly borrowing. In all instances, though, it is a creative act in which the agent of appropriation, the less powerful party, the one being influenced, chooses to appropriate and, by making it his own, transforms the new possession. It is that transformed exegesis that now appears as a new exegesis. Further, the agent of appropriation is a human agent. Particularly in the case of early Jewish interpretation from its beginnings through the rabbinic period, because it is nearly all an anonymous literature of interpretation, which preserves at best the names of tradents but little more (since the voices behind the names all pretty much sound alike), it is easy to forget that the exegetes were individuals and not religious traditions or literary texts. By restoring human agency to the equation, appropriation allows us to see interpretation as a genuine work of culture that will always be greater than simply being one exegetical tradition or approach.
In selecting and editing the essays for this volume, my coeditor Natalie Dohrmann and myself have intentionally sought to highlight papers that have chosen to address the appropriative side of exegesis in the ancient and medieval worlds by using the comparative context to explore the different ways in which exegesis can be understood only by understanding one interpretation and its tradition in the context of others. The essays in the volume all derive from a year-long seminar held at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies of the University of Pennsylvania whose participants—visiting fellows in the fields of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic exegesis—constituted a group that was itself a weekly exercise in comparative exegesis. The positive results that such comparative study can produce are, we hope, reflected in the excellence of the papers in this volume and in their implicit dialogues with each other. Because of limitations of space, not all fellows in the seminar are explicitly represented in this volume, but their invisible presence as commentators and critics upon earlier drafts of these papers is acknowledged with gratitude.
In organizing this volume, Natalie Dohrmann and I have chosen to order the essays chronologically (as best as we could) rather than by exegetical or religious tradition. It is our hope that, by "mixing it up" in this way, by mingling exegetes and separate traditions, the reader will also be encouraged to see his or her own connections between the individual essays and their subjects—moments of comparative relevance that may have eluded even the authors of the essays themselves (not to mention the editors). The following remarks about the separate essays should therefore be taken less as summaries of their contents or judgments on their significance than as pointers in the direction of avenues of connection that the reader may wish to explore.
The first two essays in the volume—by Adele Berlin and Israel Knohl—begin, appropriately enough, with biblical exegesis within the Bible and in early postbiblical literature. The common effect of the essays, if they are taken together, is to blur the line between inner-biblical exegesis and early postbiblical interpretation. In her study of Psalm 105, Berlin shows how the psalmist/exegete appropriated earlier Israelite traditions. Rather than viewing the Psalm as historical in genre, as constituting a repository of alternative historical traditions to those preserved elsewhere in the Bible, as scholars have previously done, Berlin approaches the text as an act of creative exegesis, a re-interpretation of past traditions which the Psalmist has deliberately reshaped in order to connect the past to the exilic present in which he lived.
Like Berlin, Knohl also deals with the interpretive dimension of compositional elements within the Bible, as well as with the compositional force of interpretive elements in postbiblical literature. In tracing the lineage of the dual views of Cain as Son of God and as Son of Satan, Knohl offers a speculative reconstruction of the text of the genealogies in Genesis 4 that provides a prehistory for the two traditions which, as he shows, resurface in Second Temple literature and early Christian exegesis only to reemerge a third time (albeit in an even more extreme form) in an early medieval rabbinic text. Rather than proving the antimony of Jewish and Christian exegesis, the history of this motif, in Knohl's reconstruction, demonstrates how the two religious traditions became parallel conduits in transmitting tradition, and simultaneously pushes the inner-biblical exegetical moment back still further, before the Bible, to the traditions that helped compose it.
The next three essays in the book follow biblical interpretation into the Roman imperial and late antique period and into the sphere of formal biblical exegesis in both rabbinic Jewish and early Christian tradition. As each essay demonstrates, biblical interpretation can do much more than just exegesis. In her study of rabbinic interpretation of the biblical laws of slavery, Natalie Dohrmann shows how the rabbis not only reinterpret the biblical injunctions but also their larger cultural experience under Roman imperial rule by appropriating Roman views of slavery in order to define, via exegesis, their own place in the empire. Exegesis here become cultural work in a literal sense.
The next essay by Megan Williams, a study of Jerome's relationship to Jewish exegesis, picks up Dohrmann's argument about exegesis as cultural work and carries it into the early Christian realm. In this case, Williams demonstrates how Jerome exemplifies an early Christian exegete who appropriated Jewish exegesis in order to define his own identity as a Christian in the Empire, both vis-à-vis other Christians as well as towards contemporary pagans. As Williams shows, Jerome proudly appropriated Jewish exegesis precisely in order to represent—or misrepresent—it for his own rhetorical ends. Through his translations and commentaries iuxta Hebraeos, he sought "to take the place of the Jewish teachers from whom he had learned so much"—an almost perfect example of cultural appropriation that seeks literally to eliminate its source
In my own essay, I study ancient Jewish interpretation of the Song of Songs from a double comparative perspective—both within rabbinic Judaism by comparing midrashic and esoteric intepretations, and in relation to early Christian exegesis of the Song. In both cases, I try to shift the focus of scholarly attention from hermeneutics to reading practice arguing that, in all three cases, the same allegorical reading is simply used differently; while the different interpretations have different contents, they share the same structure including—in the case of the rabbinic and early Christian interpretations—a conception of the Song itself as a struggle over being God's true love vis-à-vis the other tradition. As with both Dohrmann's study and Williams', exegesis here does cultural work.
The next group of three essays moves to the Near East and the Islamic world. The first of these, Reuven Firstone's comparative study of the Abrahamic traditions in rabbinic and Islamic exegesis, explicitly interrogates the notion of influence; as Firestone shows, of all the monotheistic faiths Islam generally has struggled most with the burden of influence because it is the latest of the three. As he demonstrates in his comparative study, however, both rabbinic and Islamic interpretations are impelled by parallel polemical motives, and those motives may in fact reflect inner-biblical ambiguities as well as the mutual competition the two faiths felt towards each other, and which produced parallel interpretive approaches.
The next essay, Daniel Frank's study of Karaite halakhic (legal) exegesis, directly confronts what is certainly the most polemically charged exegesis in all medieval Jewish interpretation; even so, as Franks shows, the polemic is restricted to exegesis, not necessarily practice. In tracing Karaite and Rabbanite exegesis of the specific laws regarding permissible fowl (and focusing on the permissibility of chicken), Frank shows in effect how a Karaite "tradition"—independent of the Bible yet with legal authority—came into existence through an accommodation with Rabbinite practice yet without compromising Karaite exegetical principles. This tradition, identified by Karaite legislators with consensus, allowed them to eat chicken yet did not diminish the Karaite ability to tolerate indeterminacy in the Bible in a way that their Rabbanite contemporaries could not.
The final essay in this group, Joseph Lowry's study of how traditions attributed to the prophet Muhammad were elevated to the level of Quranic revelation, is also in effect a study in the creation of an Oral Law next to a Written Law. The specific focus of Lowry's study is the history of interpretation of the word hikma and its identification with sunna, which he explores through every conceivable venue, including the possibility of rabbinic influence on the interpretation. While Lowry is properly cautious about the speculative nature of this suggestion, he nonetheless demonstrates a powerful structural parallel in the two traditions in respect to their creation of an extrabiblical body of tradition with the authority of Scripture itself. This parallel would not be visible without comparative study, which again yields a profound commonality between the two traditions.
The final group of essays in the volume returns to Christian Europe and its exegetical traditions. The first of these, Sara Japhet's study of Rashbam's commentary on the Song of Songs, addresses the question: How does this foremost peshat-exegete deal with a text whose meaning was understood to be allegorical rather than literal? Japhet answers the question by juxtaposing Rashbam's approach to those of Rashi and Abraham Ibn Ezra—that is, through comparative study—and thereby defines the uniqueness of his reading, which sees the Song not merely as a love poem (its "literal" meaning), but as a poetic address to contemporary Jews designed to overcome their despair at the endless travails of exile by recalling the love of their youth.
The next essay by Daniel Sheerin explores a very different aspect of the cultural work of exegesis in the Middle Ages by studying the use of Scripture in the Christian liturgy, specifically in the Mass Proper, where scriptural excerpts were combined montage-like with liturgical passages to create what were essentially new quasi-scriptural compositions. As Sheerin points out, the liturgy was the medium through which Scripture was in fact known by most medieval laypersons; if so, he asks, what does this tell us about knowledge of Scripture and its interpretation? Using the comparative method in an original fashion, Sheerin shows how the methods and procedures of scriptural exegesis were applied to the Mass proper in order to prove its coherence, meaningfulness, and timeliness. In doing this, he shows how comparative exegesis extends beyond even the formal purview of Scripture both as a medium for imparting meaning and for connecting text to the life of its audience.
In the following essay, Deeana Copeland Klepper continues to explore the topic of the reception of the Bible and its interpretation in the late Middle Ages by analyzing the work of George of Sienna, a popular Dominican preacher and exegete of the late fourteenth century. As Klepper shows, George sought to provide biblical proofs of Christianity for a Christian audience, and in doing so, drew upon a venerable tradition of anti-Jewish polemic, but he also insisted that the Christian sense of Scripture lay in the proper understanding of the Bible's literal sense. By reframing Nicholas of Lyra's presentation of Rashi's quasi-literalist commentary in a more polemical vein, George's corpus is a brilliant example of the inadequacy of purely hermeneutical terms like peshat or the literal meaning to capture the uniqueness and richness of creative exegetes who sought to make their exegesis do more things than merely explain the Bible.
The final essay in this volume, Fabrizio Lelli's study of Jewish and Christian interpretation of the figure of Job in fifteenth-century Italy, both brings the comparative study of ancient and medieval Jewish and Christian exegesis to a kind of conclusion, and opens the way to the new types of humanistic biblical exegesis that would shortly mark the early modern period. As Lelli shows, both Jewish and Christian theologian/philosopher exegetes shared a common commitment to revealing the universal truths of "the pristine traditions," thus making possible for the first time a true collaboration between Jews and Christians in interpreting the Bible. The collaboration, however, was not solely philosophical or theological. As Lelli shows, it extended even to the material dimension of the book where both Jews and Christians collaborating in producing and enjoying a common iconography for figures like Job (who, as Lelli illustrates, possessed in fact a double iconography).
The material collaboration that Lelli reveals in Jewish-Christian Renaissance circles only intensifies in the course of the subsequent century. In the printing houses of Venice as well as other European centers, Jews and Christians continued famously to collaborate in producing the Bible, and that material collaboration inevitably left its impact upon biblical interpretation, as the evidence of the rabbinic Bible, the Mikra'ot Gedolot, in both its early sixteenth-century editions, with the increasingly canonical selection of commentaries, manifestly shows. In this new period, the project of comparative exegetical study takes on a somewhat different direction, as both Jewish and Christian exegesis face the assaults of modernity and more critical approaches to the Bible's meaning. Even so, the thrust of exegesis remains powerfully at work in culture. But that story, as the saying goes, is the subject for another book. The rest is commentary.