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Jewish Views on the Hebrew Bible

One of the principal concerns of classical Jewish thought is the importance of biblical texts and their interpretation.

Jewish thought views the interpretation of biblical texts as very important. Another concern of traditional Judaism is the application of what is known as "halakhah" (Jewish Law) as derived from biblical and rabbinic sources.

With that in mind, "extracting" as much as possible from a biblical passage is of critical importance to a Jewish epistemology. The process of reading, interpreting, and elucidating biblical texts is an ancient Jewish pre-occupation.

The book of Nehemiah provides some insight into ancient biblical interpretation reflective of early Judaism during the Persian period when it mentions that Ezra opened the book (the Torah) and that the Levites "read from the book of the Law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading."(Nehemiah 8:1-8)

Here it appears that the Levites served as expositors of the biblical text. This appears to reflect the pattern of literacy and religious leadership of priests in non-Jewish circles as well during this period of time. Priests and Levites often served in scribal roles as well.

As time passed, scribal classes developed, and by the late Second Temple period, the interpretation of biblical texts was leaving the hands of priestly circles. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE led to the collapse of priestly influence over religious leadership and the interpretation of texts became the purview of the rabbis.

The growing attention to collections of sacred texts in the Greco-Roman era inevitably created the basis for the emergence of sectarian conflict among groups such as the Pharisees and Sadducees. Interpretation and reinterpretation of biblical texts effected a more intense self-understanding of identity among the various groups that arose during the Second Temple period. Philo of Alexandria, for example is best known for his allegorical approach to biblical interpretation.

The community at Qumran that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls also developed a unique form of interpretation. The interpretation of the Bible served as the major factor in shaping varying renditions of an archetypes envisioned in sacred texts. Torah and Halakhah became the primary concern of all sects or movements during the Second Common Wealth of Israel.

The early rabbinic period (circa early 2nd -3rd century CE) saw the emergence of various Aramaic translations of the Torah. These are referred to as Targumim. Some of these translations were fairly "literal" in their approach while others were rather loose in their translation with the aim of elucidating obscure passages. Many traditional Jewish Bibles known as Chumashim (meaning the five books) include the Targum Onkelos.

By the medieval period the process of biblical interpretation reached its pinnacle in the Jewish community with a number of prominent rabbis writing extensive commentaries on the Bible using a variety of hermeneutical techniques. Nevertheless, they typically follow the convention that multiple levels of interpretation are possible- (e.g., "p'shat" (literal or surface meaning"; "drash" (typically a homiletical expoundation); "remez" ; and "sod" (the mystical level). Commentators such as Maimonides approached the biblical text from an Aristotelian philosophical standpointScience Articles, while other commentators such as Nachmanides (or the Ramban) took a more mystical- Kabbalistic approach. Some commentators such as Ibn Ezra were grammarians and experts at the linguistic and stylistic differences in the Hebrew or Aramaic biblical texts.

Article Tags: Biblical Texts, Commentators Such

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Jacob Lumbroso writes articles on history, foreign cultures, and Jewish history. For more information on learning Hebrew see Pimsleur Hebrew Courses or other Jewish symbols, visit

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