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Jewish commentaries on the Bible

This is an outline of exegesis. Discussed are the salient points of Jewish, patristic, medieval, and modern commentaries, starting with the Jewish writers. The topic starts with the Targums, Mishna, and Talmuds. While these are not regarded as Bible commentaries in the modern sense of the word, they provide the foundation.


That Greek literature, in general, got its inspiration from Moses was an uncritical idea that dated back as far as Philo, the great Jewish writer of Alexandria. Around 30 AD a million Jews in Israel were using the Septuagint as their Bible, and could enter the Great Synagogue. Whoever had not seen it was not supposed to have beheld the glory of Israel. The members of their Sanhedrin, according to Sukkah, were seated on seventy-one golden thrones valued at tens of thousands of talents of gold; and the building was so vast that a flag had to be waved to show the people when to respond. At the head of this assembly, on the highest throne, was seated the Alabarch, the brother of Philo.

Philo himself was a man of wealth and learning, who mingled with all classes of men and frequented the theater and the great library. Equally at home in the Septuagint and the Greek classics, he was struck and perplexed by the many beautiful and noble thoughts contained in the latter, which could bear comparison with many passages of the Bible. As this difficulty must have frequently presented itself to the minds of his co-religionists, he endeavored to meet it by saying that all that was great in Socrates, Plato, etc. originated with Moses. He set about reconciling Pagan philosophy with the Old Testament, and for this purpose he made extensive use of the allegorical method of interpretation. He taught that many passages of the Pentateuch were not intended to be taken literally. In fact, he says that they were literally false, hut allegorically true.

He did not make the distinction between natural and revealed religion. For example, Pagan systems may have natural religion highly developed, but, from a Judeo-Christian point of view, with much concomitant error. His exegesis served to tide over the difficulty for the time amongst the Hellenistic Jews, and had great influence on Origen and other Alexandrian Christian writers.

The Targums

In order to get on the main lines of Jewish interpretation it is necessary to turn to the Holy Land. Farrar, in his "Life of Christ", says that it has been suggested that when Christ visited the Temple, at twelve years of age, there may have been present among the doctors Jonathan ben Uzziel, once thought the author of the Yonathan Targum, and the venerable teachers Hillel and Shammai, the handers-on of the Mishna. The Targums (the most famous of which is that on the Pentateuch erroneously attributed to Onkelos, a misnomer for Aquila, according to Abrahams) were the only approach to anything like a commentary on the Bible before the time of Christ. They were interpretative translations or paraphrases from Hebrew into Aramaic for the use of the synagogues when, after the Exile, the people had lost the knowledge of Hebrew. It is doubtful whether any of them were committed to writing before the Christian Era. They are important as indicating the character of the Hebrew text used, and because they agree with the New Testament in interpreting certain passages Messianically which later Jews denied to have any Messianic bearing.

The Mishna and Talmuds

Hillel and Shammai were the last "pair" of several generations of "pairs" of teachers. These pairs were the successors of the early scribes who lived after the Exile. These teachers are said to have handed down and expanded the Oral Law, which, according to the uncritical view of many Jews, began with Moses. This Oral Law, whose origin is buried in obscurity, consists of legal and liturgical interpretations and applications of the Pentateuch. As no part of it was written down, it was preserved by constant repetition (Mishna). On the destruction of Jerusalem several rabbis, learned in this Law, settled at Jamnia, near the sea, twenty-eight miles west of Jerusalem. Jamnia became the head-quarters of Jewish learning until 135. Then schools were opened at Sepphoris and Tiberias to the west of the Sea of Galilee. The rabbis comforted their countrymen by teaching that the study of the Law (Oral as well as Written) took the place of the sacrifices. They devoted their energies to arranging the Unwritten Torah, or Law. One of the most successful at this was Rabbi Akiba who took part in the revolt of Bar-Kokba, against the Romans, and lost his life (135). The work of systematization was completed and probably committed to writing by the Jewish patriarch at Tiberias, Rabbi Jehudah ha-Nasi "The Prince" (150-210). He was of noble birth, wealthy, learned, and is called by the Jews "Our Master the Saint" or simply Rabbi par excellence. The compilation made by this Rabbi is the Mishna. It is written in New Hebrew, and consists of six great divisions or orders, each division containing, on an average, about ten tractates, each tractate being made up of several chapters. The Mishna may be said to be a compilation of Jewish traditional moral theology, liturgy, law, etc. There were other traditions not embodied in the work of Rabbi, and these are called additional Mishna.

The discussions of later generations of rabbis all centered round the text of the Mishna. Interpreters or "speakers" laboured upon it both in Jerusalem and Babylonia (until 500), and the results are comprised in the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds. The word Talmud means teaching, doctrine. Each Talmud consists of two parts, the Mishna (in Hebrew), in sixty-three tractates, and an explanation of the same (Gemara), ten or twelve times as long. The explanatory portion of the Jerusalem Talmud is written in NeoWestern Aramaic and that of the Babylonian Talmud in Eastern Aramaic, which is closely allied to Syriac or Mandaic. The passages in the Gemara containing additional Mishna are, however, given in New Hebrew. Only thirty-nine tractates of the Mishna have Gemara. The Talmud, then, consists of the Mishna (traditions from 450 B. C. till A. D. 200), together with a commentary thereon, Gemara, the latter being composed about A. D. 200-500. Next to the Bible the Babylonian Talmud is the great religious book of orthodox Jews, though the Palestinian Talmud is more highly prized by modern scholars. From the year 500 till the Middle Ages the rabbis (geonim) in Babylonia and elsewhere were engaged in commenting on the Talmud and reconciling it with the Bible. A list of such commentaries is given in The Jewish Encyclopedia.

The Midrashim

Simultaneously with the Mishna and Talmud there grew up a number of Midrashim, or commentaries on the Bible. some of these were legalistic, like the Gemara of the Talmud but the most important were of an edifying, homiletic character (Midrash Aggadah). These latter are important for the corroborative light which they throw on the language of the New Testament. The Gospel of St. John is seen to be steeped in early Jewish phraseology, and the words of Ps. cix, "The Lord said to my Lord", etc. are in one place applied to the Messiah, as they are in St. Matthew, though Rashi and later Jews deprived them of their Messianic sense by applying them to Abraham.

Karaite Commentators

Anan ben David, a prominent Babylonian Jew in the eighth century, rejected Rabbinism for the written Old Testament and became the founder of the sect known a Karaites (a word indicating their preference for the written Bible). This schism produced great energy and ability on both sides. The principal Karaite Bible commentators were Nahavendi (ninth century); Abul-Faraj Harun (ninth century), exegete and Hebrew grammarian; Solomon ben Yerucham (tenth century); Sahal-ben Mazliach (died 950), Hebrew grammarian and lexicographer; Joseph al-Bazir (died 930); Japhet ben Ali, the greatest Karaite commentator of the tenth century; and Judah Hadassi (died 1160).

Middle Ages

Saadiah of Fayûm (died 892), the most powerful writer against the Karaites, translated the Bible into Arabic and added notes. Besides commentaries on the Bible, Saadiah wrote a systematic treatise bringing revealed religion into harmony with Greek philosophy. He thus became the forerunner of Maimonides and the Catholic Schoolmen.

Solomon ben Isaac, called Rashi (born 1040) wrote very popular explanations of the Talmud and the Bible.

Abraham Ibn Ezra of Toledo (died 1168) had a good knowledge of Oriental languages and wrote learned commentaries on the Old Testament. He was the first to maintain that Isaias contains the work of two prophets.

Moses Maimonides (died 1204), the greatest Jewish scholar of the Middle Ages, of whom his coreligionists said that "from Moses to Moses there was none like Moses", wrote his "Guide to the Perplexed", which was read by St. Thomas. He was a great admirer of Aristotle, who was to him the representative of natural knowledge as the Bible was of the supernatural.

There were the two Kimchis, especially David Kimchi (died 1235) of Narbonne, who was a celebrated grammarian, lexicographer, and commentator inclined to the literal sense. He was followed by Nachmanides of Catalonia (died 1270), a doctor of medicine who wrote commentaries of a cabbalistic tendency; Immanuel of Rome (born 1270); and the Karaites Aaron ben Joseph (1294), and Aaron ben Elias (fourteenth century).


Isaac Abarbanel (born Lisbon, 1437; died Venice, 1508) was a statesman and scholar. None of his predecessors came so near the modern ideal of a commentator as he did. He prefixed general introductions to each book, and was the first Jew to make extensive use of Christian commentaries. Elias Levita (died 1549) and Azarias de Rossi (died 1577) have also to be mentioned. Moses Mendelssohn of Berlin (died 1786), a friend of Lessing, translated the Pentateuch into German. His commentaries (in Hebrew) are close, learned, critical, and acute. He has had much influence in modernizing Jewish methods. Mendelssohn has been followed by Wessely, Aaron Jaroslaw, Herz Homberg, Isaac Euchel, Friedlander, Hertz, Herxheimer, Philippson, etc., called "Biurists", or expositors. The modern liberal school among the Jews is represented by Munk, Luzzato, Zunz, Geiger, Fürst, etc. In past ages the Jews attributed both the Written and the Unwritten Torahs to Moses; some modern Jews seem disposed to deny that he had anything to do with either.

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