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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Pre-Modern Biblical Interpretation and the Challenge of New Historicism

While the debate may continue over what is really new in New Historicism, Stephen Greenblatt and other advocates for the approach he first named have certainly made a lasting impact on the study of text, culture, and history in a number of very concrete ways. One substantive contribution has been the expansion of the range of "objects" read and interpreted, as well as the manner in which their significance is assessed. While the standard literary and historical documents remain of central importance, they are surely "jostled now by an array of other texts and images." As Greenblatt frames it: "There has been in effect a social rebellion on the study of culture, so that figures hitherto kept outside the proper circles of interest -a rabble of half-crazed religious visionaries, semiliterate political agitators, coarse-faced peasants in hobnailed boots... -have now forced their way in, or rather have been invited in by our generation of critics."[1]

Determinations as to what constitutes "significant" or "less worthy" documents are more complicated than at first apparent. It is not simply a matter of recognizing truth in the old adage that the winners of history have been those most able to dominate the writing of history. Especially when it comes to pre-printing press eras, it is also a matter of recognizing that the winners of history had extraordinary power over which documents would be preserved and which would perish (a trend that continues into our own day, albeit, with somewhat different economic causes). My concern here is quite specifically the portrayal of the history of biblical interpretation as it pertains to critical questions of composition and authenticity. To write this history based on the highly selective exegetical canon of a given era is essentially to privilege the partisan perspective of those who influenced the selection process. Can we not do better?

Even where opportunities to bring about "social rebellion on the study" of Bible interpretation avail themselves, scholars have been reticent to explore the possibilities (albeit, with some noteworthy exceptions). Despite some remarkable "new" old texts, the dominant portrait of biblical hermeneutics has remained rather static for some time. A barometer of this stasis emerges when we contrast the enthusiasm with which the Dead Sea Scrolls literature has been (legitimately) championed by biblical scholars in contrast to the relative (illegitimate) apathy toward Cairo Geniza manuscripts.

This is particularly prevalent in those digests that summarize the approach to biblical literature in the trajectories of both Jewish and Christian exegetical traditions. Numerous examples could be provided, but let me briefly note two. William Baird's entry on Biblical Criticism in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (1990: I, 726-27) jumps from Augustine to the Renaissance. The ABD has no listing under "Cairo Geniza" other than to direct readers to an article on the "Damascus Rule" (I, 807). Julio Trebolle Barrera's large introduction to the history of the Bible considers Jewish and Christian biblical studies from the Second Temple Period through modern times (with an emphasis on antiquity).[2] Regarding the medieval era, the outline is determined by the standard listings in Rabbinic Bibles (Miqra'ot Gedolot) and includes a few early Spanish philologists as they would prove valuable to the rebirth of Renaissance era Christian Hebraists. Christian exegesis is traced mostly along theological lines, without a word about non-mainstream sources. The Cairo Geniza does not appear in the index.

The scholarly prejudice against documents judged "tangential" to the history of biblical criticism has significant repercussions. Two examples from the Cairo Geniza, both originally published more than eighty-nine years ago, prove instructive. "The Oldest Collection of Bible Difficulties, by a Jew" was brought to light by Solomon Schechter in 1901. It was subsequently reprinted with punctuation by A. Kahana (1906), who provided the name "The Ancient Questions," which has stuck to this day. In 1948, Judah Rosenthal published an improved transcription and ordering of the pages, with extensive notes. Subsequently discovered folios were made public by Alexander Scheiber and Ezra Fleischer. In short, the document has been around for some time and rehearsed by prominent scholars on multiple occasions.[3]

Written in a scholastic (if not turgid) Hebrew verse, the extended poem is arranged along a series of variated acrostics (first letter to last, last to first). The stanzas entail a series of "questions" that identify theologically troubling and thematically implausible aspects of biblical narratives. Many queries point to impossible dates, errant calculations, or distorted narrative sequences. Yet others treat more abstract issues, such as theodicy, or the moral character of biblical personalities, or contradictions in legal stipulations, both ritual and civil. Indeed, many of the questions posed are impossible to resolve short of appealing to apologetic theological explanations.

When Schechter first brought the text to light, it was greeted with amazement. Scholars such as Bacher, Poznanski and Porges related to it as the most important Geniza find to date. M. Sulzberger wrote regarding this first collection of Bible difficulties: "There were Wellhausens even before Wellhausen discovered the Bible and Haupt disfigured it."[4]

Fragments from two manuscripts survive. Fleischer (1967) delineates the author's approach to the biblical text as that of a rationalist who bypassed ancient rabbinic exegetical traditions. Though writing in the Land of Israel, Fleischer's comparative study suggests that he was trained in the Spanish school of exegesis. The author's name appears to have been "Yitzhaq" (based on the breaks in the acrostic). Fleischer speculates he may be the very "Isaac" referred to repeatedly by Abraham ibn Ezra, and always derisively at that, sometimes as "The Terrible" (hamavhil, e.g., on Gen 36:32), and other times as "the crazy one" (e.g., on Exod 19:12), "the dreamer" (e.g., on Gen 29:24), or "the one struck by blindness" (e.g., Hos 1:1, cf. Exod 2:2). Despite such derision, all concur that the author was quite learned, apparently knowledgeable of Saadia Gaon's rendering of polemics in verse, and beholden to no known exegetical or theological school.

Cautiously, Rosenthal emphasized that what we have in this document are, technically speaking, nothing more than questions. We do not have the author's "answers," which the poem suggests were written (or planned). Scholars indicate that while many of the questions had been previously framed in Rabbinic literature, there is much that appears here for the first time. Similarities with other Spanish exegetical works notwithstanding, the genre itself hails from no known paradigm from among Jewish, Karaite, or Christian sources. Further exploration of this document's relevance to contemporary Muslim, Karaite, and Christian intellectual circles is warranted. I think it fair to say that except for glimpses in Abraham ibn Ezra's own work, the Jewish and Christian worlds would not again experience such piercing biblical criticism before the Enlightenment.

A second document, equally sidelined in standard histories of biblical interpretation survives only in terms of the shadow it cast on its day. Here I speak of the infamous Hiwi al Balkhi, whose original composition is the subject of Saadia Gaon's poetic refutation edited and translated in Israel Davidson's 1915 publication, Saadia's Polemic Against Hiwi al Balkhi: A Fragment Edited from a Genizah Manuscript.[5] Unfortunately, we have not a trace of Hiwi's composition, but it is not difficult to discern the character of his challenge to the Tanakh's theological cogency. Saadia (882-942) paraphrases (sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly) his adversary's barbs through his answers, all of which, incidentally, conform to "traditional" exegetical and philosophical explanations found elsewhere in rabbinic sanctioned literature (including his own writings). Despite his prodigious rhetorical prowess, Saadia's "refutation" failed to constitute a deathblow. Abraham ibn Ezra thought of Hiwi as a worthy adversary in his own 12th century Torah commentaries, suggesting that the composition was still in circulation on the European mainland two centuries after Saadia penned his rhyme in Persia. Ibn Ezra cites Hiwi by name, caustically rearranging the letters of the gentilic alBalkhi to read haKalbi ("the Dog").

Between Hiwi's challenge to early tenth century biblical interpreters, and the "Ancient Questions" taken up by intellectual circles along the Levant, we gain a rare glimpse into the intellectual foment of the very period that witnessed the final stabilization of the Masorah. Just how much influence these documents held among common religionists is extremely difficult, if not impossible to ascertain. On the other hand, Hiwi was clearly successful enough to warrant a refutation by the greatest and most institutionally mainstream scholar of tenth century Babylonia, and both documents considered here were still in circulation at the end of the twelfth century. Their Hebrew parlance suggests that the immediate audience was limited to the intelligentsia among Jews and Karaites, who alone would have been able to decode their intricacies in a world whose scholarly and colloquial dialectics were otherwise conducted in Aramaic and Arabic. Indeed, the choice of language is itself of cultural significance.[6]

Even so, I would maintain that these authors hoped and intended for their message to reach further than its form, language, and genre would otherwise suggest possible, perhaps even to include non-Hebrew readers. Spinoza, after all, wrote his Theologico-Political Treatise in Latin, but there can be no doubt that Jews were as much an intended audience as Dutch Reformation Christians, despite their relative isolation from Latin literatures.[7] Whether the writer of the "Ancient Questions" and Hiwi al Balkhi thought of themselves as able to change the course of biblical studies -as Spinoza had hoped, and of course, unknown to him, did -cannot be established with certainty. Nonetheless, such speculation should be relevant to the way we depict the history of biblical interpretation today.

Minimally, what is important for today's historian is the very notion that the seventeenth century may have drawn upon intellectual undercurrents already extant some 650 years earlier; alternatively, we must account for how ideas of the tenth century were forced underground and reappeared (or emerged anew?) only half a millennium later. Whatever the original purposes of these two documents, their significance for the history of biblical scholarship should be located in the fact that tenth-century scholars dared to ask questions as poignant vis-à-vis the Tanakh's authenticity, authority, and meaning as are normally only ascribed to the early Enlightenment period. How these sidelined documents should reshape our presentation of the history of biblical interpretation needs to be considered.

In 1910, Solomon Schechter presented the world with the enigmatic Documents of Jewish Sectaries on the basis of manuscripts that came to light from the Cairo Geniza. In the Prolegomenon to a large folio 1970 reprint edition (two volumes in one, published as part of the series edited by biblical scholar Harry A. Orlinsky called The Library of Biblical Studies), Joseph A. Fitzmyer described the Hebrew portions of Ben Sira and the Fragments of a Zadokite Work as "the two most famous publications of texts" yet to emerge from the Cairo Geniza. This proclamation and its publication in The Library of Biblical Studies is quite curious considering that Schechter's Zadokite manuscript has little (if anything) to do with biblical studies. Schechter's original second volume contained Fragments of the Book of the Commandments by Anan, which Fitzmyer described as a "sectarian writing of lesser importance."[8] One can only wonder whether Schechter's "Zadokite Work" would have met the same fate dealt Anan's Book of Commandments, or Hiwi's theological challenges, or the biblical criticism of the "Ancient Questions," had it not been for the incomparable "relevance" lent it by the discoveries of Qumran's Damascus Document (4QDa-g(h)). Of course, Qumran discoveries have been championed by scholars seeking an understanding of the background to Christian origins and by those endeavoring to contextualize the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism-as well they should! But the politics (or inertia) of "historical significance" are only too transparent here. The focus of biblical scholars on these Qumran writings of "half-crazed religious visionaries" has dominated our notion of what is important in biblical studies even while other documents of no less "worth" and greater direct relevance, objectively speaking, have been relegated to the dustbins of historical consciousness. Schechter's Zadokite Fragments were handsomely reprinted; Davidson's small volume of Saadiana is long out of print. The "Ancient Questions" remain untranslated and unattended to in standard histories of biblical scholarship. This should not be a matter of "either/or" but of "and" in our pursuit of a balanced inclusiveness.

In Die froehliche Wissenschaft, Nietzsche tells us that for centuries after Buddha had died, people still pointed to his shadow in a cave.[9] Only a real object standing against a light can caste a shadow, but Nietzsche recognized as ironic the fact that sometimes realities survive in shadows that are perpetuated not by the object, but by the viewers of the object even after the latter had disappeared. Would that such were the case with more texts within the history of interpretation. If New Historicism teaches biblical scholars anything, let it be that our task must entail, to the extent possible, the envisioning of objects even on the basis of faint shadows. For faintness is not an intrinsic characteristic of the original object, but only the result of those dominant historical forces that have invariably shined their own bright lights to vanquish competing shadows from clear view.

David H. Aaron is Professor of Hebrew Bible and History of Interpretation, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, OH.

[1] Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, Practicing New Historicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) 9-10.



[2] Julio Trebolle Barrera, The Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible: An Introduction to the History of the Bible (Leiden / Grand Rapids: Brill / Eerdmans, 1998, originally published in Spanish in 1993) 482-88; Barrera makes no mention of Saadia Gaon, author of the first Hebrew dictionary and the first extensive Bible Commentaries known to us, has only one brief reference to Karaism, and makes no mention of the documents I will discuss below.



[3] Folios have been printed in S. Schechter, Jewish Quarterly Review 13 (1901); A. Kahana, "She'elot 'Atiqot" HaGoren 5 (1906); Judah M. Rosenthal, "Ancient Questions on the Tanakh" [Hebrew, "She'elot 'Atiqot b'Tanakh"] Hebrew Union College Annual 21 (1948); Alexander Scheiber, "Unknown Leaves from She'elot 'Atiqot," HUCA 27 (1956) and "Fernere Fragmente aus She'elot 'Atiqot," HUCA 36 (1965). See also Ezra Fleischer, "The Character of the 'Ancient Questions' and the Problem of the Author's Identity" [Hebrew], HUCA 37 (1967).



[4] See Scheiber 1965, 227, for these and other references to colorful depictions of the text at the beginning of the last century.



[5] The first and only edition was published in New York by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America Press. Saadia apparently wrote in verse because Hiwi's work was itself poetry. Whether this sheds light on the origins of "The Ancient Questions" has been discussed in the scholarship cited regarding that text above.



[6] See my discussion of the early usage of Hebrew as a cultural marker in "Judaism's Holy Language," Approaches to Ancient Judaism (New Series) 16 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999) 49-107.



[7] See Yirmiyahu Yovel, Spinoza and Other Heretics, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989) I, 78-79.



[8] Solomon Schechter, Documents of Jewish Sectaries, 2 vols. in one (n.p.: Ktav Publishing House, 1970).



[9] Friedrich Nietzsche, Die froehliche Wissenschaft, Saemtliche Werke, Kritische Studienausgabe in 15 Baenden, edited by Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1999) III, 467 §108.

Citation: David H. Aaron, " Pre-Modern Biblical Interpretation and the Challenge of New Historicism," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2004]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=260

 
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