Whose Bible Is It?
Jaroslav Pelikan

These pages:
Whose Bible Is It?

Introduction–Chapter Four
Chapters Four–Eight (here)
Chapter Eight–Afterword



index pages:

Whose Bible Is It?

Copyright © Jaroslav Pelikan, 2005




Beyond Written Torah: Talmud and Continuing Revelation

Glosses and Paraphrases of the Sacred Text

With the sacred text of the Tanakh in a language that was increasingly unintelligible to the worshipping congregation, Jewish liturgical practice had to resort to the use of Aramaic paraphrase and translation, known as Targum (meaning “translation”), which also became part of the normative tradition. [...]

These Targums, too, were originally oral. Pupils received them from their master, and apprentices from their mentors, and often sons from their fathers, as part of their training for the rabbinical office. In spite of the linguistic affinity and similarity between Hebrew and Aramaic—or, rather, precisely because of this similarity and affinity—such a “translation” had to be far more than a simple letter-for-letter transliteration. [...] Therefore it often required paraphrase or circumlocution to say in Aramaic what the original Hebrew had said, which unavoidably made the Targum into a biblical commentary of sorts.

Among glosses and paraphrases there was some effort by the rabbis to distinguish between Targum as translation-cum-explanation and Midrash as comment-cum-addition. A central feature of Midrash was the application of the biblical text to circumstances and needs that differed in some way from the original context of the passage. This often called for an explanatory gloss or addition to the original text. It is amusing to note that the early Christian exegetes, while often objecting to rabbinic methods of interpretation as artificial and arbitrary, actually created their own Targum and Midrash, as when they quoted the words “The LORD reigns” with their addition, “from the tree”—that is, from the tree of the cross, which is not in the Hebrew or even in the Septuagint. And then they accused the Jewish interpreters of having distorted the biblical text by deleting this addition from the Psalms because it was such an obvious prophecy about the crucifixion of Christ.

Applications and Amplifications of the Law

Even within the biblical period itself, divine commandments that had originally pertained to a nomadic people without a fixed home were often difficult to apply to the urban society of the late Jewish monarchy. But at least the Judaism of that later biblical period was able to count on the living voice of the prophets as a guide to conduct in accordance with the Law. Now it had to rely on the tradition of Halakhah, which means “the right way to walk.”

Halakhah, then, is the body of interpretations of the Law.

Legends of the Jews and “Sayings of the Fathers”

Halakhah, as containing interpretations of the biblical Law, is generally distinguished from Haggadah, “narrative” or “biblical interpretation.” Therefore, the materials of the Haggadah often have a direct appeal also to readers who do not stand in the Jewish tradition, including Christians, in a way that Halakhah, concerned so much with those aspects of the Pentateuch and its legislation that are not shared by other traditions, does not. The Tosefta is an especially rich source of Haggadic texts and, like most of the other materials being discussed in this chapter, has recently become available in English translation.

In a class by themselves among these interpretations of the sacred text of the Torah are the speculative mystical systems identified with the Kabbalah, which became a force also in Christian thought during the Renaissance and which continue to arouse interest among non-Jews. At their center is the contemplation and reflection on the Divine Name as revealed to Moses at the burning bush, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,” [...] For the Kabbalah and its practitioners, the Tetragrammaton is the key to the mystery of all Being, divine or created, but also the key to the meaning of the Bible.

The Universality of the Torah?

To identify the pre-Mosaic Law as it came to Noah, the Talmud singles out seven violations of the will of God: worship of idols, profaning the name of God, murder, unlawful sex, theft, eating the meat of a living animal, and failure to enforce laws. In this identification the Talmud was setting forth the content of what would come to be known in later philosophy and theology as “natural law,” that part of the content of the Law that did not depend either for its knowledge or for its force on the authority of a unique historical revelation from God, whether through Moses or through Jesus Christ, but that was knowable (and had historically been known) also to the Gentiles. This was a Christian as well as a Jewish concept and extended well beyond the orthodox boundaries of either of these communities, as the reference to “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the American Declaration of Independence shows.

If this natural law did not depend on revelation, it had to have come through a universal tradition and/or through the use of human reason. In its more extreme form, such an appeal to the power of reason in relation to the Torah was an anticipation of the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah. But already in the Talmud, and then in the commentators on the Talmud, there was much attention to the capacity of the human mind to discern the divine will on the basis of the structure of the universe and the cumulative experience of the human race. The very processes of reasoning that were at work in the questions and responses of the Talmudic sages, as well as the methods of analysis that were at work in the Jewish exegesis of the Tanakh (and in the Christian exegesis of Scripture), implied that the divine revelation of the Law, though written on tablets of stone for Moses, was intended to be received through the more sensitive, though less durable, instrumentality of human speech and human thought.

Combined with the consistent emphasis of the Talmud on the oneness of God and the universality of the will of God for all humanity, this recognition prepared the students of the Talmud for an emphasis on the transcendent Law that was present within the written Torah and the oral Torah, but also beyond them.


Natural law

Implicit throughout this chapter and strikingly evident repeatedly throughout this commentary material is the parallelism between these ultra-Jewish methods of dealing with the message of the Bible and the styles of exegesis that have been developed by Christians in isolation from, and in hostility to, Judaism with all its works and all its ways. The more we understand that parallelism, the more profound are the affinities and the more tragic the mutual ignorance and misunderstanding.


The Law and the Prophets Fulfilled

Baptizing the Tanakh as the Christian Bible
Speaking for what must have been a sizeable number of Christians in the second century and therefore gaining many adherents and even founding churches, the heretical Marcion of Pontus was devoted to celebrating the novelty and uniqueness of the message of the gospel. According to him, the God whom Jesus proclaimed as Father was a God of love but not of law, the Redeemer but not the Creator, revealed in the Epistles of Paul and the Gospel of Luke but not in the Jewish scriptures. Although it was an exaggeration when some historical scholars in the nineteenth century, on the basis of Marcion’s idea of a New Testament that would replace the Old Testament, attributed to him the actual invention of a Christian canon of Scripture as distinct from the Jewish canon, he did help to make such a development necessary and to provoke it.

The Jewish translation of Jewish Scripture into Greek, the Septuagint, became the Christian Bible. Its standing within the Jewish community, even in Alexandria where it had originated, gradually declined, at least partly, it would seem, because of the way Christians were using it to prove their distinctive interpretations.

[...] some parts of the Law and the Prophets were seen as “types” and “foreshadowings,” which had been real in and of themselves but were now finding their fuller meaning in Christ. Christ was the Second Adam, undoing by his obedience the mortal damage that the First Adam had done by his disobedience. (Very early this “typology” was extended to Mary as the Second Eve, who said in her obedience what Eve in her disobedience had failed to say: “Be it unto me according to thy word.”)

Many of these “foreshadowings,” however, soon came to be seen as having lost their original validity now that the foreshadowed reality had arrived. [...] What had been “foreshadowed” in the Torah had now been “overshadowed” in him as the fulfillment.

Thus the fundamental category for the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament was prophecy and fulfillment, as applied above all to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Christians who are so accustomed to this identification that they sometimes think of “Christ” as a personal name rather than a title are often surprised to find that it is in fact much less prominent than they might suppose it to be in the Tanakh [...] Nevertheless as early as we have any knowledge of it, the Christian tradition was applying this title to Jesus; moreover, it was also, in unprecedented fashion, equating it with the title of “Suffering Servant” from Isaiah. Jesus the crucified and risen was “Messiah” and “King of glory” and “despised, shunned by men, a man of suffering”—all at the same time.

This baptism of the Tanakh and identification of the church with ancient Israel enabled the exponents and defenders of Christianity to claim a long and distinguished lineage, going back through the prophets to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, thus making the apparent novelty of the Christian gospel, beginning in the first century of the Common Era during the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus, actually the first and most ancient of all religions. Yet at some point this “stupendous claim” of prophecy and fulfillment could no longer function with the combination of written Tanakh and oral tradition as its composite authority, but had to develop its own written authority, which would embody the oral tradition but not exhaust it. That written authority was what we now call “the New Testament.”


Formation of a Second Testament

The one Bible of the two Testaments was a Greek Bible (as can be seen in some of the greatest manuscripts such as the celebrated Codex Sinaiticus) and eventually a Latin Bible. But the idea of a Hebrew Tanakh and a Greek New Testament standing side by side on the bookshelf, which became a commonplace after the “return to the sources” in the Renaissance and the Reformation and still is in thousands of studies and libraries (including the one in which this book is being written), was largely unknown. Thus it was both the canonization of a second, exclusively Christian Testament and the adoption of a version of the First Testament in a language other than the original that added to the separation of Jews and Christians even when they claimed to be obeying the same Law and reading the same Prophets and chanting the same Psalms, and quoting all of these in different languages at—or, rather, against—each other.
The Gospels
If the emphasis of Matthew is on Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, the emphasis of Mark is less on this fulfillment than on Jesus as the worker of mighty deeds.
The Gospel of Luke seems to have been written for Christians of non-Jewish origin [...] One of its purposes seems to have been to show that neither Jesus Christ nor his followers could justly be accused of sedition against Rome.
Many of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels of Thomas and of Philip are parallel to what we have in the New Testament; some of them may well have been part of the oral tradition on which all Gospels drew; and, in the judgment of some interpreters, other sayings reflect the origin and use of these books in communities that stood outside the “normative” Christian movement as this developed during the first two or three centuries. The most striking difference of the Gospel of Thomas is that it does not contain the sort of detailed accounts of the suffering and death of Jesus that dominate Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Whether or not it was for these reasons, these books were not included even in the earliest known collections that became our New Testament. In spite of this—or, in some instances, precisely because of this—they have appealed to those readers who have found the canonical version of the life of Jesus unbelievable or unacceptable or both, while to more orthodox Christians of various denominations these very qualities of novelty have been seen as a vindication of the process of selection through which the early church sorted out its canon.
The Christian Bible in the Christian Church
The task of sifting through the writings purporting to come from the apostolic generation occupied Christians well into the fourth century.


The Peoples of the Book

Separated by a Common Language

Sometimes it almost seems as though the peoples of the Balkans might get along better if only they could not understand each other’s languages so well.

So also during the “Middle Ages,” both in Western Europe and in the Eastern Roman so-called Byzantine Empire, rabbinical scholars and Christian scholars were kept apart by a common text, whether they called it Tanakh in Hebrew or Graphē in Greek or Biblia Sacra in Latin. [...] It takes a lifetime of trying to make sense of these three ancient languages—not to say, of trying to make English of them— to appreciate fully the vastly different thought worlds (which sometimes seem to be entire universes) that they represent. For example, the system of “tenses” in Hebrew does not really correspond to the ones familiar to us in any of the Indo-European langages, including English.



The Vulgate

Although it became fashionable in the period of the Renaissance and Reformation to ridicule the shortcomings of Jerome’s translation and to challenge the official theological interpretations that were grounded (without a knowledge of the original) in its idiosyncracies, this must not be permitted to obscure its monumental influence or its enormous literary and religious power. [...]

The Vulgate was the Bible of Europe for over a thousand years, and it was the mother lode of the Latin Mass. Those who, from the perspective of the Protestant Reformation with its doctrine of “the Bible only,” criticize the Middle Ages for having neglected the study of the Bible should examine the text of the Latin Mass with a concordance to the Vulgate in hand.

Separate Traditions of Interpretation

Rashi (which is an acronym constructed from “Rabbi Shlomo Ben Itzakh”) combined a profound respect for the Jewish tradition of biblical interpretation, especially as represented by the Talmud, with a philologist’s concentration on the original text of the Tanakh and a careful grammatical exposition of it, verse by verse and word by word. Thus the more fanciful and often extravagant elaboration of allegories and other poetic interpretations that came from the rabbinical tradition was held in check by the primary insistence on what the text actually said. Rashi’s work coincided with the very early beginnings of an analogous shift of emphasis among Christian exegetes, an emphasis of which Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century is the best-known example. According to Thomas, the literal, grammatical sense of a passage of Scripture was the primary one to which any spiritual sense had to be attached and by which it was to be judged.

Medieval Christian Interpretation
The method of biblical interpretation characteristic of the Christian Middle Ages proceeded typically on several levels, sometimes as many as seven, but stabilized at four: literal, allegorical, moral, and eschatological (usually called “anagogical”).

It says a great deal about the medieval Christian reading of the Tanakh that any interpretation which confined itself to the literal sense of a particular passage was criticized for its “Judaizing” tendency, because Saint Paul had differentiated himself from his Jewish past with the formula, “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” The same criticism was likewise directed at the rare case of an interpretation that presumed to correct the translations of the Septuagint and the Vulgate by a reference (often borrowed) to the original Hebrew. For although there were four senses of Scripture, the most avidly sought after was often the allegorical sense—or, as it was called, the “spiritual” sense—which of the four conveyed the richest meaning of a passage, often turning a prosaic reference to a “tree” into a celebration of the cross of Christ or the mention of a “rock” into a treatise on the authority of the pope [...]

Islam as a Third “People of the Book”?
It is normative Muslim doctrine that the Qur’an, just as it stands today in the original Arabic, came directly from God to the prophet Muhammad, who passed it on, undefiled, to those who have “submitted to the will of the One True God” (which is what the name “Muslim” means). The Muslim counterpart to the person of Jesus Christ, therefore, is not the person of Muhammad [...] but the Qur’an, which, like the incarnate Logos, the Word of God, in the Christian creed, came down from heaven to abide on earth as the definitive revelation of the will of the One True God.

the Qur’an



Even without importing all of our problems into the medieval scene, one cannot resist observing that it ill behooves an era of human history like this one to look back at the Middle Ages and think only of jihad or of the Crusades and pogroms without remembering these and similar encounters when, at least for an occasional moment, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, by the power of the Book and in the heritage of Abraham, the father whom they shared, managed to transcend their separations without losing their identities.


Back to the Sources

The Renovatio of Classical and Christian Latin

To a degree that can often easily escape notice by someone who has never had responsibility for creating a critical edition of a historic text, the preparation of the text of the Bible for printing imposed on the editor or printer the obligation to make decisions about stabilizing the text, often for the first time ever. Over and over it became necessary to choose from among two (and often more) conflicting readings in the various manuscripts, of which only one could be the right one, and to decide which of them to print as the authoritative text. Once it was printed, the result of such choices achieved a certain measure of permanency.

Printed books last for centuries, and their mistaken readings will endure just as long as the correct ones.

The Recovery of the Hebrew Bible
Just as the comparison of the Greek New Testament with the Vulgate sometimes suggested variant readings that did not appear in this or that Greek manuscript, so, and perhaps oftener, the printing of the Septuagint showed that its translations into Greek sometimes reflected a reading of the Hebrew, now lost, that was in fact much older than the version that had been so meticulously transmitted by the Massoretes.

text checked (see note) Aug 2008

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