Judaism has had its Rabbinic Study Bible since the second generation of printing in Europe (1516). Most recently, for English-language readers, The Jewish Study Bible presents the Jewish Scriptures as the product of Israelite times but also as reverently set in the long history of Jewish life and liturgy.
The Rabbinic Bible, the Miqra’ot Gedolot (the Great Readings), was first printed in Venice in 1516, giving the Hebrew text of the Bible surrounded by the Aramaic translation (the Targum) and the Medieval commentaries of Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and others. A second edition was published in 1525. These were the Hebrew Bibles the Reformers and early Protestant scholars read and used in place of the Latin Vulgate to translate the Old Testament into the colloquial languages of Europe.
The picture below shows a page from a Rabbinic Bible printed in Poland in 1907, shown on page 1875 of The Jewish Study Bible.
Outline of the Review
From Hebrew to English
Earlier Study Bibles: Hertz
The New JPS Version
The Jewish Study Bible
Goals of the Study Bible
Arrangement of the Biblical Books
The Biblical Books
The Contributors and the Books
The Ages of Jewish Interpretation
The Bible in Jewish Life and Thought
The Gem of the Essays: The Religion of the Bible
From Hebrew to English
The Hebrew-Aramaic Great Bibles have continued as the mainstay of Jewish Bible study through the Guttenberg era. (The Miqra’ot Gedolot I purchased at Hebrew Union College in 1960 is a 10-volume work from Pardes Publishing House in New York dated 1951.) The main texts are in the Semitic languages because Jewish worship and study is in Hebrew, though other languages of the people have also accompanied Hebrew since the days of Aramaic and Greek. Thus, in time the need came for English-language versions of the Jewish scriptures to accompany the Hebrew and Aramaic. Here’s how Max Margolis described that time (somewhat dramatically), in his Preface to the 1917 translation of the Masoretic Text:
The greatest change in the life of Israel during the last two generations was his [Israel’s] renewed acquaintance with English-speaking civilization. [The Jews had been banned from England in the 14th century.] Out of a handful of immigrants from Central Europe and the East who saw the shores of the New World, or even of England and her colonies, we have grown under Providence both in numbers and in importance, so that we constitute now the greatest section of Israel living in a single country outside of Russia. We are only following in the footsteps of our great predecessors when, with the growth of our numbers, we have applied ourselves to the sacred task of preparing a new translation of the Bible into the English language, which, unless all signs fail, is to become the current speech of the majority of the children of Israel.
(The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text, Jewish Publication Society, 1917, “Preface,” p. vi.)
As Jews settled into American culture, the ubiquitous King James Version (KJV) of the Bible came along with the language they learned. Soon, however, an alternative to the Christian version of the scriptures was needed, and by the middle of the nineteenth century there was published a Jewish translation of the Bible that became very popular in the United States, published by an immigrant from Germany named Isaac Leeser. He put out a Hebrew-English Torah in 1845, and the Twenty-Four Books of the Holy Scriptures in the 1850s.
These were basically just Jewish adaptations of the KJV, and by the end of the century American Jewish scholars wanted a more current English version. After some false starts, the Jewish Publication Society finally released in 1917, The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text, the work of a seven-man editorial board that had spent seven years on the project. (See Margolis’ account in the “Preface,” and the Jewish Study Bible article, “Jewish Translations of the Bible,” pp. 2013-14.)
Earlier Study Bibles: Hertz. In the course of the twentieth century, the JPS translation of 1917 provided the English text for Jewish study Bibles. The Soncino Press in London was especially prolific in Hebrew-English works on Bible and Talmud, including The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, ed. J.H. Hertz, Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, 1st ed 1936, 2nd ed 1960. The format of this work, going back to ancient times, gives the Hebrew text of the weekly readings of the Torah accompanied by the English translation. Rabbi Hertz wrote introductions to each of the readings and gave verse-by-verse commentary on the entire Torah, plus commentary on the prophetic readings that traditionally accompany each weekly Torah section (the “Haftorahs”). He also gave Additional Notes on scholarly topics along the way, such as, “Israel in Egypt—The Historical Problems,” and “Reward and Punishment in Judaism.” (The Soncino Press published, in the following decades, a series of commentaries in matching format on the rest of the books of the Hebrew Bible.)
Rabbi Hertz’s commentaries were conservative in their Biblical scholarship, and reflected the popular piety and morality of Britain in the early twentieth century.
Cohen. In the 1950’s, Soncino found it appropriate to issue an alternative edition of their Pentateuch, called The Soncino Chumash, ed. Dr. A. Cohen, 1956. (“Chumash” is a nick-name for “the five fifths” of the Torah, thus penta-teuch, five-scroll work.) This work had the same format as Rabbi Hertz’s, but instead of having commentary from the Chief Rabbi, the commentaries were selections from the classic Medieval Jewish commentators, Rashi (11th century French), Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century Spanish), David Kimchi (12th century Spanish), Rashbam (12th century French), Nachmanides (13th century Spanish), and Obadiah ben Sforno (16th century Italian).
The result is a large volume of succinct samples of Jewish interpretation of the Torah by its great classical commentators.
Plaut. More recently, after the Jewish Publication Society had published its new Torah and Nebi’im translations, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reformed Judaism) has published The Torah: A Modern Commentary (1981), ed. W. Gunther Plaut. The format is the same as the Hertz and Cohen volumes, Hebrew text with English translation arranged in weekly Torah units, accompanied by running commentary and little essays on special topics.
This edition has two noteworthy additions: Each Torah unit is followed by a section called “Gleanings,” which are little quotations or vignettes of homiletic relevance to the topic of that reading. Also, enhancing the scholarly value of the work, there are five essays written by William W. Hallo of Yale University, one on each book of the Pentateuch, examining its ancient Near Eastern background: “Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern Literature,” and so on. These are excellent essays.
(It should be mentioned that in the Plaut Torah, the book of Leviticus receives completely different treatment from the other four. It is introduced and commented on by a separate specialist in the sacrificial and holiness systems, Rabbi Bernard J. Bamberger, deceased at the time of publication.)
The New JPS Version. Beginning in 1953, the Jewish Publication Society projected an entirely new English version of the Hebrew scriptures. (The Christian world had just come out with the Revised Standard Version.) It was a slow process, involving different groups of scholars on each of the three parts of the Jewish Bible: the Torah coming out in 1962, the Prophets (Nevi’im) in 1978 (though a few books were published separately earlier), and the Writings (Kethuvim) in 1982 (though Psalms and Job had earlier separate editions). Finally, a revised complete work appeared as Tanakh (Torah-Nevi’im-Kethuvim) in 1985, supplemented by minor revisions in 1999. In 2000, JPS issued the very convenient JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, printing the leading scholarly Hebrew text (the Leningrad codex of BHK and BHS) alongside the 1999 revision of the NJPS translation.
Broadly, the NJPS translation occupies a middling position on the spectrum of translation styles: it is less word-for-word that traditional English versions, but not so idiomatic as to be paraphrastic. It is only a little more thought-for-thought than the Revised Standard Version or the New Revised Standard Version. Mostly, this translation makes no accommodation for inclusive gender, such as turning masculine singulars into plurals, as in Psalm 1:1 (“Happy is the man…” NJPS; “Happy are those who…” NRSV).
This version has a generous use of the footnote, “Meaning of Heb. uncertain,” which is unfortunate in that it doesn’t even suggest the nature of the problem—such as divided testimony among versions, as some other recent English versions do.
The Jewish Study Bible (2004)
The Jewish Study Bible is published by the Oxford University Press—not the Jewish Publication Society, which brought out the various editions of the NJPS translation. The Study Bible was a project of Oxford—in fact a spin-off of Oxford’s flagship Study Bible, the New Oxford Annotated Bible, 2001 edition. One of the Associate Editors of the NOAB 3rd ed. (2001) was Marc Z. Brettler, and he serves as the editorial link between the Oxford Annotated Bible and the Jewish Study Bible.
Marc Brettler is a fixture of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He did his undergraduate study there with high honors, went on to a Ph.D. in 1986, after which he served on the Brandeis faculty in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies as an Assistant, Associate, and then (1999) as full professor. He served as Chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from 2001 to 2006, and as Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies since 2001. He has received awards for outstanding teaching as well as for publications, especially in Jewish adult education programs.
His doctoral dissertation was published in revised form as, God is King: Understanding an Israelite Metaphor (SJSOT, Sheffield, UK, 1989), and later works continued presenting ancient Israelite writings to modern, historically-conscious, readers. In the late 1990s he was appointed Associate Editor for Old Testament (excluding Prophets and Apocrypha) of the Third Edition of the New Oxford Annotated Bible (Michael D. Coogan, editor, 2001), and continued in that role for the Fourth Edition in 2010. This OAB editorial work involved him in presenting serious Biblical interpretation at a popular but academically demanding level. It also qualified him preeminently for editing a Jewish Study Bible with standards comparable to those of the OAB editions.
Between the two editions of the Oxford Annotated Bibles, Marc published a work aimed particularly at Jewish readers who wanted a critically based introduction to the Jewish Scriptures. This was How to Read the Bible (Jewish Publication Society, 2005), which was then republished by Oxford for a wider audience and titled How to Read the Jewish Bible, 2007. This publication is a general introduction to the Jewish Bible, an ideal preparation for reading The Jewish Study Bible.
Marc Brettler’s most recent continuation of serious Study Bible editing is a joint venture with Amy-Jill Levine, of Vanderbilt University, The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Oxford, 2011. (The bookseller blurb: An international team of scholars brings out how Jewish practices and writings [particularly the Septuagint] have profoundly influenced New Testament writers. Too, there are 30 essays on such topics as Jesus in Jewish thought, parables and midrash, and Messianic movements. An illuminating, unusual approach. 700 pages, hardcover. Oxford University.)
Adele Berlin. Marc Brettler is only the Co-Editor of The Jewish Study Bible! In alphabetical order, as listed on the title-page, the first Co-Editor is Adele Berlin.
If Marc Brettler is a fixture of Brandeis University, Adele Berlin is a fixture of the University of Maryland. Having gotten a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s, Ms Berlin was appointed to the English faculty at the University of Maryland in 1979. There in time she served on “Area Groups” for Literary Theory and Mythology and Folklore, but she also had a joint appointment in Jewish Studies and herself developed the program in Biblical Studies. She was eventually appointed Robert H. Smith Professor of Hebrew Bible, and has recently received emeritus status.
Early publications were Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Sheffield, 1983), The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism (Indiana, 1985), and interpretations of the Biblical books of Zephaniah (Anchor Bible, 1994), Esther (Jewish Publication Society, 2001), and Lamentations (Westminster John Knox, 2002). She served on many editorial boards and in professional societies, being President of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2000. Among her activities at Maryland, she served as Director of the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies, chair of the Senate Faculty Affairs Committee, chair of the Internal Review of the Women’s Studies Department and Program, and she held the position of Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs in 1994-1997.
Serving as an elder statesman for the Study Bible project was the Consulting Editor, Michael Fishbane, who had served on the Brandeis University faculty from 1969 to 1990, and since then has been Nathan Cummings Professor of Jewish Studies in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. An early landmark publication was Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel, Oxford 1985.
Goals of the Study Bible. The overall goal of the Study Bible is to present a full and academically responsible reading of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings interpreted by Jewish scholars. In their Introduction the editors state two goals more specifically:
The first goal is to convey the best of modern academic scholarship on the Bible, that is, scholarship that reflects the way the Bible is approached in the university. This desire comes from a strong conviction that this approach does not undermine Judaism, as leading figures of previous generations had argued, but can add significant depth to Jewish belief and values.
The second goal is to reflect, in as broad a fashion as possible, the range of Jewish engagement with the Bible over the past two and a half millennia…. [The contributors to the Study Bible] employ state-of-the-art scholarship and a wide range of modern approaches; at the same time, they are sensitive to Jewish readings of the Bible, to classical Jewish interpretation, and to the place of the Bible in Jewish life. In this respect they are actually quite “traditional,” in that Jewish interpreters have a long history of drawing on ideas and methods from the non-Jewish world in which they lived and incorporating them into Jewish writings. (Pages ix-x.)
To some extent, the second goal—to keep the Bible focused within Jewish life—is carried out in all parts of the work, with interpretation of particular Biblical passages constantly referring to post-Biblical Jewish traditions and practices. However, this goal is especially served by the series of Essays at the back, of which more below.
The book is organized into two parts, the Biblical books, with their introductions and running annotations, and twenty-four Essays on the Bible in Jewish history and other background materials.
Arrangement of the Biblical Books.
The editors make a point in their Introduction that the Jewish Bible is not just a shortened version of the Christian Bible. The Jewish Bible is complete in itself, has an integrity of its own, and it is that integral Jewish Bible that the contributors always have in view. That Jewish Bible consists of three parts: Torah, Prophets (Nevi’im), and Writings (Kethuvim). The common acronym for the Bible in Hebrew is TaNaK, which is the unity of these three parts.
By the time of Rabbinic Judaism (first century of the Christian Era), the Scriptures were judged to consist of twenty-four scrolls. (Greek-speaking Judaism in Egypt had a different, longer list.) Five scrolls made up the Torah, the Law of Moses. Eight scrolls made up the Prophets, commonly divided into the Former Prophets (historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) and the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve—all twelve on only one scroll). The latest in history, and the most conglomerate group, were the eleven scrolls of the Writings. Since all these were separate scrolls, there was no precisely fixed order of the writings. The order of the Writings used in the Study Bible is Psalms, Proverbs, Job, the Five Scrolls, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah (one scroll in Hebrew-Aramaic), and Chronicles (also one scroll).
(A Note on Scrolls. “The Scriptures” in New Testament and early Rabbinic times consisted of a large collection of scrolls, requiring considerable cabinet space in which to store the separate scrolls, arranged according to the preferences of the custodian of each particular library. For the size and character of these scrolls, see pictures of the big Isaiah scroll from Qumran, 1QIsaa. NOTE: See the Isaiah Scroll in an unroll-it-yourself presentation.
People used to the traditional Protestant Bible will have some re-orienting to do. The prophets are in the middle of the book, not the end. The Psalms are in the last third, not the middle. Ruth is toward the back, in the Five Scrolls, not after the book of Judges. Daniel (not originally a prophetic book) stands between Esther (last of the Five Scrolls) and Ezra, appropriate to its actual Second Temple historical context. And Chronicles appears at the very end, not as a supplement following the books of Samuel and Kings.
Transitional Introductions (by editors).
While introductions to the Biblical books are written by individual contributors, the larger units of the Bible—and sometimes special units in it—are introduced by Marc Brettler and Adele Berlin. The Torah (7 pages), the Nevi’im (11 pages), and the Kethuvim (5 pages) have general introductions by Marc Brettler covering matters concerning the larger unit.
For example, the Torah introduction has sections entitled,
Terminology, Contents, and Traditional Views of Authorship;
Modern Source Theories;
Compilation and Redaction of the Torah.
The introduction to the Nevi’im has sections on,
Terminology and Content;
The Historical Books and Historiography [sacred histories];
The Former Prophets and the Deuteronomistic History;
The Historical Books and Historicity [sources for historians];
The Latter Prophets and Their Order;
The Nature and Composition of the Prophetic Books;
The Phenomenon of Prophecy.
The introduction to the Kethuvim contains the following comments.
Kethuvim has no central theme or idea, in the way that the Torah (or Hexateuch) might have the land promise and its fulfillment as its center, or the Prophets as a whole might illustrate the significance of heeding the mediated divine word. In fact, with the exception of Psalms and the five scrolls, which have significant liturgical uses, Kethuvim has not received much attention within Jewish tradition. (Page 1279.)
Berlin and Brettler also provide a brief introduction to the “Five Megillot (Scrolls).” These five little works, though small, are traditionally counted as separate items and not lumped together as were the twelve smaller prophets. The five scrolls have been arranged differently in different textual traditions, but eventually they were given a liturgical order, the order in which they are read during the year at Jewish festivals and observances (starting with the First of Nisan in the spring, see Exodus 12:2). That order, given in the Study Bible, is:
Song of Songs, read on Passover in April;
Ruth, read on Shavuot (Weeks, Pentecost) in May-June;
Lamentations, read on the Ninth of Av (Fall of Jerusalem) in July-August;
Ecclesiastes, read on Sukkot (Booths, Tabernacles) in September-October;
Esther, read on Purim (March).
The Biblical Books
The Contributors and the Books. The twenty-four books of the Bible (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah are each single books for interpretation purposes) are introduced and given running commentaries by twenty-one scholars. The credentials, institutional bases, and particular religious affiliations (Conservative, Reformed, Orthodox) are not given in the Study Bible. There is no List of Contributors; they are identified simply by name—no titles—at the end of each Introduction to a book, and in the Table of Contents attached to their respective books. Many of these are prominent scholars, likely to be recognized by people relatively familiar with current Biblical scholarship at large.
At considerable risk of important omissions, the present writer will single out a few contributors and the books they have written about.
Genesis. Jon D. Levinson, Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, where he has taught since 1988. Levinson focuses on the literary and theological character of Genesis, but his Introduction has a summary on its historicity, and its general orientation can be taken as typical of the approach and spirit of The Jewish Study Bible.
Because the action of the primeval story [Creation to Abraham] is not represented as taking place on the plane of ordinary human history and has so many affinities with ancient mythology, it is very far-fetched to speak of its narratives as historical at all. In the case of the succeeding three large sections of the book, the matter is more complicated… At best, we can speak of accurate local color, although this may mean only that the Israelites knew something about the lands in which they placed their legendary forebears… Negative evidence, however, is not necessarily evidence of a negative, and historians are likely to continue examining the reports of Israel’s Mesopotamian origins and Egyptian sojourn for the foreseeable future. (Page 11.)
Exodus. Jeffrey H. Tigay, Emeritus A.M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania. Tigay has taught at Penn from 1971, right after receiving his Ph.D. from Yale. He also teaches in the Jewish Studies Program at Penn.
On the structure of the Exodus narrative, Tigay makes the first major break in the book at 15:21—as is common in modern treatments of the book. This seems particularly unfortunate in a work especially attentive to Jewish tradition, because it is clear that the ancient text made the big break at Exodus 13:17. The narrators completed their summary of the sojourn in Egypt and the religious observances related to it prior to 13:17, and at 13:17 the characteristic actions of the wilderness period begin (guidance by cloud and fire, murmuring that the exodus was a bad thing). Most of all, in the context of the Jewish Study Bible, the break for Sabbath reading comes at 13:17! Both the original editors of the text and the later liturgists saw the major break in the narrative at 13:17.
On the other hand, the traditional Hebrew text makes no special break at 15:21 at all. The only traditional ground for breaking there is to include the Red Sea victory in the story of the Exodus, thus keeping it in the Passover Haggadah.
Leviticus. Baruch J. Schwartz, A. M. Shlansky senior lecturer in Biblical History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, noted for his work The Holiness Legislation (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1999), emphasizes the interpretation of Leviticus, with the Holiness Code as a separate stratum of the Priestly work, in the context of the whole narrative structure of the Priestly Work, Exodus 25-Numbers 10.
Deuteronomy. Bernard M. Levinson (who also did Deuteronomy in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd and 4th eds.) holds the Berman Family Chair in Jewish Studies and Hebrew Bible and is also Professor of Classics, Near Eastern Studies, and Law at the University of Minnesota. His interpretation of Deuteronomy is rigorously historical, seeing the work and it historical background as pivotal in the development of Israelite religion.
Historical Books. Among those treating the historical books are Carol Meyers (Joshua), Grace Wilson Professor of Religion at Duke University, teaching there since 1977. She was a Brandeis alumna, receiving her Ph.D. in 1975.
Yairah Amit, Professor of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, Israel, does Judges. Professor Amit is prominent for her treatment of literary criticism and Biblical narratives.
Ziony Zevit, Distinguished Professor of Biblical Literature and Northwest Semitic Languages at the American Jewish University (University of Judaism), Rockville, Maryland, does the book of Kings. Prof. Zevit is noted for his mammoth The Religions of Ancient Israel (Continuum. 2001). He views Kings as a work originally created in the age of Josiah (640-609 BCE), the deposit of a major religious revolution in Israelite religion, but updated by later writers.
Prophetic Books. Marvin A. Sweeney, Professor of Hebrew Bible, Claremont School of Theology, did two major prophetic books for the Jewish Study Bible, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. (He was later to do Isaiah for the New Oxford Annotated Bible, 4th ed.) He had already published King Josiah of Judah: The Lost Messiah of Israel (Oxford University Press, 2001), developing at length the historical context of the two books he treats here, and more recently he has written a major commentary on the book(s) of Kings for Westminster John Knox (2007).
The Scroll of the Twelve, titled in the JSB, “The Twelve Minor Prophets,” are treated by a single contributor, Ehud Ben Zvi, Professor in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta. A recent publication has continued his focus on the Scroll of the Twelve: Two Sides of a Coin: Juxtaposing Views on Interpreting the Book of the Twelve/the Twelve Prophetic Books (Analecta Gorgiana, 2009). In the JSB, Ben Zvi provides a four-page introduction to The Twelve as a separate collection.
The Psalms. The book of Psalms has been reserved by the editors to themselves for introduction and commentary. This is particularly appropriate because one of Adele Berlin’s specialities has been the treatment of Israelite poetry. (See her publications listed above.) She also contributed the Essay on “Reading Biblical Poetry,” on pages 2097-2104. Their Introduction is straightforward, with numerous references to later Jewish traditions about the Psalms. They are appropriately reserved on the topic of genre, which was a mania of late twentiety-century Psalm study.
One comment seems questionable, however. “Praise is the quintessential nature of psalms, and hymns of praise are the most common type of psalm in the Psalter” (page 1283). By any usual count, laments far outnumber hymns in the Psalms. It is true that laments often have elements of praise in them (“In You our fathers trusted; / they trusted, and You rescued them,” Psalm 22:5, Hebrew verse numbering), but these are only rhetorical elements in an intense complaint and outcry for deliverance.
Other Kethuvim. On other books, this reviewer was disappointed in the treatments of Daniel and Chronicles.
One is not likely to question orthodox scholarly orientations in the annotations of a study Bible, and thus Daniel is still treated with the first literary chop being between chapters 1-6 and chapters 7-12. Just phenomenologically, if one can escape the genre-mania for a moment, the major literary chop in Daniel is that between Hebrew and Aramaic languages, that is, chapters 2-7 and 1 + 8-12. The Aramaic Daniel is an integral and balanced composition with an A-B-C-C’-B’-A’ structure, matching up pairs of episodes according to major issues in Second Temple religious life:
A and A’. The Four Ages leading up to Israel’s Deliverance,
Nebuchadnezzar’s Four-Metal Statue, Daniel 2,
Daniel’s Four-Beast Political Decline, Daniel 7;
B and B’. World Kings Who Violate God’s Boundaries,
Daniel’s Three Friends in the Fiery Furnace, Daniel 3,
Daniel in the Lions’ Den, Daniel 6;
C and C’. World Kings Overcome by Arrogance,
Nebuchadnezzar’s Madness, Daniel 4,
Belshazzar’s Feast, Daniel 5.
In the case of Chronicles, one could wish for more clarity on the structure of the work, given in six short lines at the end of the Introduction (page 1717). The genealogies of I Chronicles 1-9 are clearly minor preliminaries to the great block of David materials in I 10-29. David is clearly important as Preparer of the Temple, though the Chronicler also loves huge numbers of fighting men mustered for the wars of the Lord. One has to go into the subheadings of the annotations to find the main structural achievements of the Chronicler.
Much in the treatments of the Biblical books is not unique to the JSB. The contributors present the best academic work current in the discipline, as taught and published by Jewish scholars. The Essays, however, in part at least, present major topics that are distinctively Jewish. The blocks of Essays are,
Jewish Interpretation of the Bible, pages 1827-1919.
The Bible in Jewish Life and Thought, pages 1920-2020.
Backgrounds for Reading the Bible, pages 2021-2104.
The ages of Jewish Interpretation begin with the Bible itself, “Inner-biblical Interpretation” (Benjamin D. Sommer), where, for example, Daniel 9 contains a re-interpretation of verses in Jeremiah 25 and 29. There is then “Early Nonrabbinic Interpretation” (Hindy Najman), that is, such works as Jubilees, the Greek translations, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, and Josephus. Then Classical Rabbinic Interpretation (Yaakov Elman), Midrash and Midrashic Interpretation (David Stern), Medieval Jewish Interpretation (Barry D. Walfish), Post-medieval Jewish Interpretation (Edward Breuer), and Modern Jewish Interpretation (S. David Sperling). These are substantial essays, averaging 13 pages each, and provide significant orientation for readers unfamiliar with general Jewish history.
The Bible in Jewish Life and Thought contains eight essays, the last of which is the history of Jewish translations of the Scriptures into the local languages of Judaism down through the ages, with special emphasis on the new translation used in the JSB (Leonard J. Greenspoon, 16 pages). Other essays cover the Bible in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Esther Eshel), the Bible in the Synagogue (Avigdor Shinan), The Bible in the Liturgy (Stefan C. Reif), The Bible in the Jewish Philosophical Tradition (Hava Tirosh-Samuelson), The Bible in the Jewish Mystical Tradition (editors and Elliot R. Wolfson), the Bible in Israeli Life (more below), and Jewish Women’s Scholarly Writings on the Bible (Adele Reinhartz).
Here the Essay on The Bible in Israeli Life, by Uriel Simon, is particularly interesting. (This is a shortened version of an article published in Hebrew in 1999 and republished in the journal Modern Judaism, 19.3, also 1999.) The article discusses with some urgency how the use and interpretation of the Scriptures have shifted since the creation of Israel in 1948.
The essay begins, “The Bible, once at the center of the cultural scene in Israel, has become marginalized; its magic has faded” (page 1990). The sections of the essay have the following titles:
Early Days: The Holy Scripture of Secular Zionism
Method of Interpretation: Derash Claiming to Be Peshat [“plain” meaning]
The Crisis of Secular Zionism Undermines the Validity of the National Midrash
Existential Peshat as a Possible Response to Current Needs
Here are two significant quotes from the appeal in the final section:
[The historical interpretation of the Bible by secular Zionism] can protect us from the fundamentalism that uncritically embraces biblical norms (such as political violence) in utterly changed circumstances….
[On the other hand:] The time of arrogant peshat, professing to be the supreme, exclusive, scientific truth, is over; the time has come for peshat which, though conscious of its advantages—rigorous discipline, rationality, consistency, independence, immediacy—is also acutely aware of the attendant disadvantages—clinging to the past, exclusive attention to the rational, and aversion to ambivalence. This [new] peshat, far from disdaining midrash, recognizes its contribution. (Page 1999.)
Nine Essays provide broad information about the historical backgrounds of the Biblical writings. As the editors explain in the introduction to this section, several of these are revised versions of essays included in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed.
(It should be mentioned here that the JSB also contains at the back Tables and Charts for Timelines, Rulers, Weights and Measures, Calendar, Table of Biblical Readings, and lists of differences between chapter and verse numbering that differ from common Christian Bibles.)
The editors themselves have provided the main historical essay, “Historical and Geographical Background to the Bible.” The view of the historicity of Israel is moderately “maximal,” tying specific events and periods to archeologically-based data as much as possible. At least major features of David’s era are recognized as historical, and the dynasties of the Divided Monarchies are firmly set in the larger international context. The later periods are treated at more substantial length, the Persian and Hellenistic periods. The historical coverage stops at the Maccabean period.
Other “Background” Essays deal with Concepts of Purity in the Bible, Languages of the Bible, Textual Criticism, Canonization, the Development of the Masoretic Bible, and Modern Study of the Bible, largely adapted from the NOAB.
The Gem of the Essays: The Religion of the Bible
In this reviewer’s opinion, the Essay by Stephen A. Geller on the Religion of the Bible is the best article-length survey of the religion of Israel generally available to students. This is as close as we have come, in brief compass, to an adequate explanation of how early Israelite religion can have been a typical ancient Near Eastern religion and at the same time have produced the distinctive religious orientation that created the Bible as we find it. This is the history of the critical turn that brought ancient Israel into the Axial Age (though this latter point is not explicit in Geller’s essay).
Stephen A. Geller (not to be confused with an M.D. of the same name) is the Irma Cameron Milstein Chair of Bible at The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He graduated from Cornell University in 1960 and Jewish Theological Seminary in 1965, later getting a doctorate from Harvard University in 1976. His essay shows a maturity in dealing with both literary issues and religious issues also reflected in an early more substantial work: Sacred Enigmas: Literary Religion in the Hebrew Bible (Routledge, Chapman & Hall, 1996). [This book is currently selling online for $107 to $191.]
The basic viewpoint of Geller’s essay is stated at the beginning: “Biblical religion was a minority, dissident phenomenon, always at odds, as the Bible itself states, with the actual religions of the small kingdoms of Israel and Judah” (page 2021). The whole essay is too complex to easily summarize, but here is its outline:
Israelite-Judean Religion [pre-“Biblical” religion], 6 pages.
Biblical Religion, 4 pages
Revolution or Reform?
2. Centralization of worship
3. Myth vs. history
5. Text religion and canon
6. Forms of piety
The Development of Biblical Religion: From Prophecy to Text , 1 page
Deuteronomic-covenantal Religion, 2 pages
Priestly-cultic Religion, 2 pages
Other Traditions of Biblical Religion, 4 pages
The Liturgical Tradition [Psalms]
Prophetic Tradition in Biblical Religion
The Wisdom Tradition
Conclusion & Synthesis, 2 pages
This review has been mainly descriptive, with only a few evaluative comments along the way. In case it hasn’t become clear, it is this reviewer’s assessment that this is a superb piece of scholarship and as fine an introduction and reading companion to the Jewish Bible as can be found. Christian readers can get a better presentation of their own “Old Testament” here than in most books offered by their own confessions.
That assumes, of course, that one is open to a historical-critical reading of the Scriptures. As the Essay on the Bible in Israeli Life indicated in passing, literalist-fundamentalist readings of the Bible are apt to end up praising violence and warfare as having divine sanctions—because many Biblical texts present God as commanding and sanctioning death and slavery to non-elect human groups.
The Jewish Study Bible, on the contrary, is a beacon of hope because it shows that top-level scholars in all sorts of institutional and religious settings are presenting Biblical traditions in humane, compassionate, and religiously sensitive ways. It expresses the profound conviction that historical truth is ultimately supportive of the deepest grace and blessing of the God who chose and keeps Israel.