Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review

Cohen, Mordechai Z. and Adele Berlin, eds., Interpreting Scriptures in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: Overlapping Inquiries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016). Pp. xvi + 381. Hardcover. US $120.00. ISBN 978-1-107-06568-0.

In 2007, Mordechai Cohen and Jon Whitman (soon joined by Adele Berlin and Meir Bar-Asher) conceived a project entitled “Encountering Scripture in Overlapping Cultures: Early Jewish, Christian and Muslim Strategies for Reading and Their Contemporary Implications.” After the full team was recruited, it met at the Israel Institute for Advanced study from September 2010 to February 2011. The contributions to the present volume are a direct result of this inter-disciplinary and inter-religious inquiry into some of the most important questions regarding medieval scriptural hermeneutics.

In chapter 1, well-known Jewish writer James Kugel offers a remarkable introduction to biblical interpretation between the third century BCE and the first century CE. He expertly addresses the interpretive practices within such important literature as the Dead Sea Scrolls, Apocrypha, the New Testament and Hellenistic Jewish writings. The importance of this period is self-evident considering the developments of the notions of religious text, canon, and Scripture, and Kugel's essay is manifestly essential for this volume's project, as it addresses a crucial time in the development and divergence of Jewish and Christian interpretation. Despite their recognizable theological differences, Kugel shows that both Jewish and Christian interpreters engaged the text as a cryptic (the true meaning of the text lying below the surface) and wholly relevant to living life as one should.

In chapter 2, Sidney Griffith continues what Kugel began in chapter 1 concerning the interpretive impulses of the early Christians. Griffith, in particular, is interested in how the Syriac fathers of the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries interpreted the Christian Scriptures in their “applied commentaries” (i.e., those biblical commentaries that “were deployed for liturgical, homiletic, theological, or even polemical purposes,” p. 47). In his analysis, Griffith discusses Ephraem the Syrian, Narsai, and Jacob of Serūg, and shows through their different works their singular concern to understand the Old Testament in the wake of Christ and the teachings of his followers found in the New Testament. What Griffith persuasively argues is that typology and allegory are helpful together—though individually inadequate—to describe the biblical hermeneutic of these early Christian interpreters.

In chapter 3, Meir M. Bar-Asher offers a helpful discussion regarding “the permissibility of translating scripture in Islam” (p. 65). Bar-Asher's essay is especially important because of his clear explanation of the theological concerns supporting the Islamic prohibition of translation, as well as his comparison of these practices regarding the Qur'an and Judaism and Christianity's differing practices regarding their Scriptures. Bar-Asher's essay is not only highly accessible for non-experts in Islamic study but is also to be commended for its deliberate interaction with Christian and Jewish attitudes surrounding translated Scripture.

In chapter 4, Piero Boitani offers a fascinating discussion of the Christian view of a translated Bible that overlaps in interesting ways with Bar-Asher's treatment of the Islamic view of a translated Qur'an. Boitani, with the help of literary and artistic analysis, addresses medieval Christianity's representation of Gen 1:2 and asks important questions regarding the nature of translated Scripture. In the end, the history of Bible translations for Christian audiences as well as medieval, artistic representations of God at creation testify to a belief in deeper meaning and a celebration of nuance and multivalence. As Boitani argues, although Gen 1:2 does not testify to a mobile deity, through years of translation and transmission, the unmoved mover begins to move. Above all, Boitani demonstrates through many well-chosen examples the openness within Christianity for the Bible to be creatively portrayed in art and literature.

In chapter 5, Meira Polliack investigates the way that one religious formulation of Scripture can have a profound impact on members of another religion. In particular, she probes the rise in the tenth century of the Karaite movement that attempted to provide a solution to the crumbling structure of the “dual Torah” (written and oral). As Polliack argues, the post-biblical rise of literacy and an extended interaction with Islam's strong formulation of Scripture led to this structural demise in Judaism. The Karaites, therefore, attempted to reformulate the Jewish understanding of Torah as an answer both to Islamic criticism and to Judaism's contemporary need for a stronger scriptural matrix.

In chapter 6, Jon Whitman opens part 2 and offers the first of four truly fascinating articles on the sensus literalis. Whitman traces the radical shifts that took place in the Christian understanding of the “literal” and “spiritual” senses of the biblical text. Whitman argues that whereas ancient and early medieval interpreters saw the “letter” of the text as the surface meaning, late medieval interpreters such as Aquinas began to associate the “literal” sense with what the biblical authors intended. In this way, the “literal” came to be equated with the “spiritual.”

In chapter 7, Alistair Minnis probes this turning point still further, and does so by looking at such figures as Hugh of St. Victor, Thomas Aquinas, and Nicholas of Lyre. Minnis presents two opposing twentieth-century perspectives of this turn, namely those of Beryl Smalley and Henri de Lubac. In Smalley's assessment, this move represented a departure from an exclusive focus on the spiritual senses in favor of more historical and philological interpretation of Scripture. De Lubac, on the other hand, preferred to focus on Christianity's unwavering privileging of the spiritual sense. Minnis offers an insightful, mediating approach by understanding this medieval interpretive turn in conjunction with contemporary intellectual developments, especially Aristotelian learning.

In chapter 8, Robert M. Gleave offers an insightful treatment of the Islamic understanding of the literal sense. This essay is important for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that it provides a useful introduction to the different hermeneutical terms used within the Islamic discussion with which many biblical scholars will not be familiar. Gleave demonstrates that the varied attitudes to Scripture and interpretation within Christianity and Islam resulted in varied postures toward the literal sense. Whereas in Christianity, the literal sense was often identified as a flawed Jewish approach, within Islam the attitude was entirely different. Because the Qur'an is written in clear Arabic, the literal sense must be accepted unless there is persuasive reason to read the text as being composed of non-literal language. Beyond this simple survey, however, Gleave undertakes to address some of the various attempts to nuance what the literal sense might entail and whether the literal sense can be understood in every case.

In chapter 9, Mordechai Cohen looks at the emergence of peshat at the expense of the midrashic interpretive approach. Cohen's article consists of a rich analysis of the various views toward the rule of peshat that were present in the work of medieval Judaism's most prominent interpreters such as Abraham Ibn Ezra, Rashi, Rashbam, Samuel ben Hofni Gaon, and Moses Maimonides. Each of these interpreters offers his own understanding of peshat, and Cohen argues that much of the development in the Jewish approach to Bible interpretation is the result of developments that were taking place in medieval Christianity.

In chapter 10, A. B. Kraebel opens part 3 of the book, which deals explicitly with the rhetoric and poetics of reading. The presence of such a discussion reflects the fact that all three Abrahamic religions developed an interest in the poetic and rhetorical nature of their religious texts. Kraebel begins this fruitful discussion by addressing the influential approach to reading the Psalms that was developed at the cathedral school at Rheims, where old grammatical and rhetorical approaches to classics were being applied to the Bible, and especially the Psalms. The result, in their case, was an affirmation of the convergence of the Bible's mystical and authorial meaning.

In chapter 11, Wolfhart P. Heinrichs continues to develop this volume's strong discussions of Muslim hermeneutics. For his part, Heinrichs offers both a helpful introduction to key terms and a cogent treatment of the early discussion within the Muslim world surrounding majāz, which amounted to the allowance of non-literal (i.e., figurative) language within the Qur'an. Heinrichs' discussion is assisted by his inclusion of dissenting voices and the arguments that came in response to these deniers of majāz. Unlike the Christian incorporation of arguments from the areas of grammar and poetics, the Muslim discussion of majāz was assisted primarily by arguments that couched such non-literal language as inherently more beautiful, and thus more effective as Scripture.

In chapter 12, Mordechai Cohen turns his sharp eye to a development in the Jewish interpretive tradition that corresponds to those in Christianity and Islam. As Cohen argues, the Jewish engagement with rhetorical and poetic approaches are more akin to those in the Muslim schools rather than the Christian schools, which found their influence in the Latin tradition. As Cohen argues, there was a variety of understandings of peshat thanks to the complex incorporation of poetics into pre-existing approaches to biblical interpretation. Abraham Ibn Ezra would argue that “peshat is the essential idea conveyed by the text of scripture, stripped of its literary forms” (p. 283). Maimonides, taking this view to its conclusion, argued that the poetic form is merely a “husk” (ibid.). For Rashi, the external poetic form remains meaningful and deserves attention of its own.

In chapter 13, Rita Copeland turns from a focus on poetics to a close examination of how medieval interpreters understood the importance of rhetoric. In addition to the practice, discussed in chapters 10–12, of incorporating the study of poetics in scriptural interpretation, members of the Christian interpretive tradition in the Latin West were also keen to pursue questions of rhetoric. Of central concern for these interpreters is whether the sensus literalis is to be identified with the internal content or the external style. Copeland's study is important for her steps to bring to the fore several interpreters who, through the use of rhetorical analysis, were able to bypass the style/content dichotomy and undertake their search for the biblical authors' intended meaning through the authors' words and argumentation.

In chapter 14, Stephen Prickett turns his keen eyes to the eighteenth century romantic Hebraist Robert Lowth. Of special importance for Prickett is Lowth's attempt to communicate—perhaps with the influence of Muslim concerns for a translated Qur'an—the poetic style, indeed the “interior beauties” (p. 314) of the Hebrew original into his English translation of Isaiah.

In chapter 15, Adele Berlin concludes this volume by turning to modern approaches to Scripture, which—although they differ in remarkable ways from pre-modern approaches—share the features discussed in parts 2 and 3 in this volume; namely, modern interpreters both approach the Bible as a piece of literature and aim to arrive at a the authorial intent of the text.

This volume brings together an excellent collection of essays that will prove useful for scholars in many fields including hermeneutics, medieval religious thought, the history of biblical interpretation, and the history of the three Abrahamic religions. The two outstanding qualities of the volume are the various chapters on Islamic interpretive tradition and the four chapters comprising part 2 on the sensus literalis. In the case of this first strength, the chapters dealing with issues within the Islamic interpretive tradition go a long way in both introducing this important vein of scriptural interpretation to the interested reader and showing in a compelling manner the various points of contact between Islamic interpreters and those from Judaism and Christianity. In the second instance, part 2 of this volume represents one of the best treatments of the sensus literalis available to an academic readership. For these reasons, this volume deserves much attention.

By way of critical evaluation, however, the volume as a whole is perhaps not much greater than the sum of its parts. One might well expect a more conscientious interaction between the chapters, or at the very least for each contributing author to use his/her given space to find points of continuity and discontinuity between the three interpretive traditions in question. Unfortunately, this is not the predominant practice of the contributors, and those that do engage in a form of dialogue are to be commended. The editors, likewise, are to be praised for their determination to introduce each chapter and signal points of contact between the chapters. However, to a large degree, these editorial notes are the only evidence of an interaction between the chapters. Perhaps this is why the editors selected the subtitle “overlapping inquiries” rather than something that would reflect a more engaged discussion.

Despite this criticism, the parts which make up the whole of this volume are absolutely worthy of the highest praise. The depth of the scholarship is unparalleled, and this collection of essays will, I hope, reach a wide audience and be the catalyst for further discussion on this important topic.

Stephen D. Campbell, Durham University