- A Rivalry of Genius: Jewish and Christian Biblical Interpretation in Late Antiquity
Marc Hirshman, professor of midrash and Rabbinics at the University of Haifa and specialist in the study of the Midrash on the book of Ecclesiastes, has written a book which will serve the growing appreciation of scholars for the pre-critical biblical interpretation of the Rabbis and Church Fathers. In this book of fewer than two hundred pages, Hirshman raises the question of “mutual influences and patterns of cross-fertilization” between the Rabbis and Fathers on their interpretations of scripture as well as on the literary forms those interpretations took. Hirshman argues that, although the literary forms in which they communicated their exegeses and the reasons they studied scripture to begin with, differed, the Rabbis and Fathers were not only aware of each other but influenced the ways in which the other read certain biblical texts.
Before demonstrating mutual influences in specific rabbinic and patristic texts, Hirshman claims that polemics contributed to the Jewish and Christian study of scripture and asks why the Rabbis and Fathers were polemical and how they were polemical. In chapter one, Hirshman claims that the Rabbis and Church Fathers had not only to contend with pagans as well as with gnostics in their midst but had also to defend against each other their own understanding of the Old Testament. Furthermore, they did so in different forms. The Rabbis confined themselves to the midrashic form of commentary, while the Fathers took advantage of all the forms of Greco-Roman culture available to them. In chapter two, Hirshman describes the reasons for the complexity of the hermeneutical controversy between the Rabbis and the Fathers, who fought over the inheritance of biblical Israel and the Old Testament, including Christianity’s rapid spread among the nations and consequent adoption of numerous languages and literary forms. In chapter three, he briefly treats the implications of the rhetorical characteristics of patristic interpretation in contrast to the midrashic form of rabbinic exegesis, and he sets the methodological parameters for his investigation of specific texts in the rest of the book.
Hirshman limits his study of patristic texts to those by the Fathers writing in or near Palestine during the writing of the Mishnah and the Palestinian Talmud. In chapter four, he raises two issues in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, which explicitly quotes Jewish interpretations of scripture. Justin criticizes the Jews’ observance of the commandments; since the elements of nature do not cease on the Sabbath, he claims, God does not observe the commandments. In chapter five, the author examines the rabbinic response in Genesis Rabbah to the kind of questions raised by Justin Martyr. The Rabbis claimed that even God ruled nature within the guidelines set by the Jewish law. In chapter six, Hirshman takes up the second issue in the Dialogue, Justin’s reading the Old Testament as [End Page 316] a prophecy of Christ, by comparing the interpretation of Exodus 17:11, Moses’s guarantee of Israel’s victory over the Amalekites, in the Dialogue to its interpretation in the Mekhilta, a legal midrash on the book of Exodus. The respective interests of the Fathers and Rabbis can be seen clearly in these interpretations, since Justin attributes Israel’s victory to Moses’ making the sign of the cross of Christ, while the Rabbis attribute it to Moses’ pointing to the God who gave Israel the commandments of the Torah.
In chapters seven and eight, Hirshman turns to Origen, the compiler of the Hexapla, who also cites Jewish biblical interpretations, but without the polemical overtones of Justin. Origen’s knowledge of Hebrew allows him to perceive deeper meanings in the scripture as well as more easily to interpret one verse in light of another, a method common to the Rabbis. In his homilies on the book of Exodus, he equates the bitterness of the water at Mara in Exodus 15:23–25 with the...