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Reviewed by:
  • Studies in Ancient Midrash
  • Charlotte Fonrobert
Studies in Ancient Midrash, edited by James L. Kugel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Center for Jewish Studies, Harvard University Press, 2001. 169 pp. $31.00.

This collection of essays is the product of a one-day conference on ancient biblical interpretation held at Harvard University. The volume contains six conference essays by scholars who are among the most well-known in their respective fields, supplemented by two additional essays to fill out the volume. Due to its multi-lingual references and citations it is designed primarily for an audience of scholars, but a cross-disciplinary audience of scholars in early Judaism and Christianity.

In his programmatic introductory essay, Kugel assembles some of his earlier thoughts on the rise of ancient biblical interpretations (see especially The Bible as It Was, 1997) and connects them to the world of ancient Near Eastern wisdom. He argues that there are essentially four underlying assumptions with respect to Scripture that are shared by all ancient interpreters of the Hebrew Bible: that it is a fundamentally cryptic document, that it is a relevant text, that Scripture is perfectly harmonious, and that it is divinely inspired. But rather than adopting the last assumption as the root for the first three, Kugel argues that all four assumptions are the legacy of what he calls the wisdom mentality. In fact, for Kugel, the historian of ancient biblical interpretation, it is the wisdom mentality universally shared by ancient Near Eastern sages that explains the various points of connection between the world of wisdom and biblical interpretation. Such connecting points are represented by an attention to language and rhetorical surface of the text, or a tendency to view biblical narrative as providing timeless lessons.

Kugel concludes the volume with another essay (“Some Instances of Biblical Interpretation in the Hymns and Wisdom Writings of Qumran”), in which he once again exhibits his fine-tuned exegetical sensibility. Here he selects three text fragments from the Qumran corpus to prove their exegetical character and to trace the movement of interpretive motifs that connect these texts to Second Temple literature “as a whole.” [End Page 159] Thus, Kugel’s case-studies demonstrate that “this literature as a whole, and the Scriptural interpretations contained within it, must be the starting point for a reckoning with any single text from within it” (p. 169).

The other essays in this collection discuss more specific thematic aspects of ancient biblical interpretation, but generally they are all wedded to Kugel’s approach above, albeit perhaps each in its own way. Thus the volume includes two short, but insightful essays by Menahem Kister, the first on the motif of ignoring one’s family for the sake of Heaven (“Leave the Dead to Bury Their Own Dead”), and the second, more or less connected essay on “Law, Morality and Rhetoric in Some Sayings of Jesus.” Kister specifically discusses the connection of Jesus’ polemical statements against the Pharisees in the gospels to the halakhic and exegetical literature of the Second Temple period and the early rabbinic corpus. While this material is indeed integral to understanding the depiction of the Jesus, as Kister beautifully demonstrates, he is sometimes not entirely exacting in his choice of rhetoric to distinguish his own approach from the earlier, theologically quite problematic Strack-Billerbeck type of approach that strove to identify the “Jewish background” for Jesus.

Marc Hirshman (“Qohelet’s Reception and Interpretation in Early Rabbinic Literature”) and Gary Anderson (“The Garments of Skin in Apocryphal Narrative and Biblical Commentary”) present two further case studies. The former remains mostly within the confines of rabbinic literature and discusses the ways in which early rabbinic texts, specifically the tradition attributed to Rabbi Yishmael, integrate Qohelet into the rabbinic exegetical canon in order to overcome the theological problems of that contested biblical book. Beyond the immediate textual work, however, Hirshman’s discussion of the juxtaposition between Rabbi Akiva’s preference for the Song of Songs and Rabbi Yishmael’s acceptance of Qohelet is extremely rich in the theological underpinnings of this debate. Gary Anderson’s substantial study of the interpretive motif of the garments of the first humans, along with its theological and anthropological...

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pp. 159-161
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