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Jewish Commentary on the Bible


1. Philo Judaeus

2. Targum

3. Midrash

4. Talmud

5. Karaites

6. Middle Ages

(1) Saadia ben Joseph

(2) Rashi

(3) Joseph Kara

(4) Abraham ibn Ezra

(5) Qimchis

(6) Maimonides

(7) Maimunists

(8) Kabbalists

(9) The "Zohar"

(10) Isaac Arama

7. Modern Times


8. The Bi’urists

(1) Mendelssohn

(2) Zunz, etc.

(3) Malbim, Ehrlich, etc.

(4) Halevy, Hoffmann, Mueller

(5) Geiger, Graetz, Kohler


The following outline alludes to the leading Jewish commentators and their works in chronological order. However widely the principles which guided the various Jewish schools of exegesis, or the individual commentatom, differ from those of the modern school, the latter will find a certain suggestiveness in the former’s interpretation which well merits attention.

1. Philo Judaeus:

Philo Judaeus: A Hellenistic Jew of Alexandria, Egypt. Born about 20 BC; died after 40 AD. By his allegorical method of exegesis (a method he learned from the Stoics), Philo exercised a far-reaching influence not only on Jewish thought, but even more so on the Christian church. We have but to mention his influence on Origen and other Alexandrian Christian writers. His purpose in employing his allegorical method was, mainly, to reconcile Greek philosophy with the Old Testament.

See Judaeus Philo.

Josephus cannot be called a Bible commentator in the proper sense of the term.

See Josephus.

2. Targum:

Targum (plural Targumim): The Aramaic translation of the Old Testament. Literally, the word designates a translation in general; its use, however, has been restricted to the Aramaic version of the Old Testament, as contrasted with the Hebrew text which was called miqra’. The Targum includes all the books of the Old Testament except Daniel and Ezra-Nehemiah, which are written in part in Aramaic. Its inception dates back to the time of the Second Temple, and it is considered a first approach to a commentary before the time of Jesus. For the Targum is not a mere translation, but rather a combination of a translation with a commentary, resulting in a paraphrase, or an interpretative translation--having its origin in exegesis. The language of this paraphrase is the vernacular tongue of Syria, which began to reassert itself throughout Palestine as the language of common intercourse and trade, as soon as a familiar knowledge of the Hebrew tongue came to be lost. The Targumim are:


(1) Targum Onkelos or Babylonian Targum (the accepted and official);

(2) Targum yerushalmi or Palestinian Targum ("Pseudo-Jonathan"; aside from this (complete) Targum there are fragments of the Palestinian Targum termed "Fragment Targrim").


(1) Targrim Jonathan ben Uzziel (being the official one; originated in Palestine and was then adapted to the vernacular of Babylonia);

(2) A Palestinian Targrim, called Targum yerushalmi (Palestinian in origin; edition Lagarde, "Prophetae Chaldaice"). Other Targumim (not officially recognized):

(1) To the Psalms and Job;

(2) to Proverbs;

(3) to the Five Rolls;

(4) to Chronicles--all Palestinian.

See Targum.

3. Midrash:

Midhrash: Apparently the practice of commenting upon and explaining the meaning of the Scriptures originated in the synagogues (in the time of Ezra), from the necessity of an exposition of the Law to a congregation many of whom did not or might not understand the language in which it was read. Such commentaries, however, were oral and extempore; they were not until much later crystallized into a definite form. When they assumed a definite and, still later, written shape, the name Midhrash (meaning "investigation," "interpretation," from darash, "to investigate" a scriptural passage) was given. The word occurs in 2Ch 13:22 where the Revised Version (British and American) translates "commentary." From this fact some have drawn the inference that such Midhrashim were recognized and extant before the time of the Chronicler. They are: Midhrash Rabba’ on the Pentateuch and the Five Rolls (the one on Ge occupies a first position among the various exegetical Midhrashim, both on account of its age and importance). Next comes the one on Lamentations. (Zunz pointed out that the Midhrash Rabba’ consists of ten entirely different Midhrashim.) On the same ten books there is a similar collection, called ha-Midhrash ha-gadhol (the "Great Midrash"), being a collection of quotations from a good many works including the Midhrash Rabba’. Other Midhrashim are: The Midhrash Tanchuma’ on the Pentateuch; the Mekhilta’ on Exodus (this has been (Leipzig, 1909) translated into German by Winter and Wuensche; the latter also published, under the main title Bibliotheca Rabbinica, a collection of the old Midhrashim in a German translation with introductions and notes). Further, Ciphra’ on Leviticus; Ciphre on Numbers and Dr; peciqta’, which comments on sections taken from the entire range of Scriptures for various festivals. There are also extant separate Midhrashim on the Psalms, Proverbs, etc.

In this connection we have yet to mention the YalquT Shim`oni, a haggadic compilation attributed to the 11th or, according to Zunz, the 13th century. The YalquT extends over the whole of the Old Testament and is arranged according to the sequence of those portions of the Bible to which reference is made. Further, the YalquT ha-Maqiri, a work similar in contents to the YalquT Shim`oni, edition Greenup.

See Commentaries; Midrash.

4 Talmud:

Talmud (Talmudh): This term is used here to designate the entire body of literature exclusive of the Midhrash. Ample exegetical material abounds in the Talmud as it does in the Midhrashim. The critical notes on the Bible by some Talmudists are very characteristic of their intellectual temper. Some of them were extremely radical, and expressed freely their opinions on important problems of Bible criticism, such as on the integrity of the text, on doubtful authorship, etc. An Amora’ of the 3rd century AD held the opinion that the story of Job is purely fictitious, both as to the name of the hero and as to his fate. The Talmudists also generalized, and set up critical canons. The "Baraitha’, of the Thirty-two Rules" is the oldest work on Biblical hermeneutics (Philo’s hermeneutical rules being rather fantastic), and contains exegetical notices valid to this very day. Hermeneutics, of course, is not exegesis proper, but theory of exegesis; one results from the other, however. This Baraitha’ calls attention, for instance, to the fact that words occur in the Old Testament in an abbreviated form--a thing now generally accepted.

See Talmud.

5. Karaites:

Karaites: "Followers of the Bible." They are sometimes referred to as the "Protestants of the Jews," professing to follow the Old Testament to the exclusion of the rabbinical tradition. The founder of this Jewish sect was a Bah Jew in the 8th century, Anan ben David, by name; hence, they were first called Ananites. The principal Karaite commentators of the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries are: Benjamin Al-Nahawendi (he was the first to use the term "Karaites," "Ba`ale Miqra’"), Solomon ben Jeroham, Sahl ibn Mazliah, Yusuf al-Basir, Yafith ibn Ali (considered the greatest of this period), and Abu al- Faraij Harum. Of a later date we will mention Aaron ben Joseph and Aaron ben Elijah (14th century).

The struggle between the Rabbinites and the Karaites undoubtedly gave the impetus to the great exegetical activity among the Jews in Arabic speaking countries during the 10th and 11th centuries. The extant fragments of Saadia’s commentary on the Pentateuch (not less than his polemical writings proper) are full of polemics against the Karaite interpretation. And the same circumstance aroused Karaites to like efforts.

6. Middle Ages:

Middle Ages: In the old Midhrashim as well as elsewhere the consciousness of a simple meaning of a text was never entirely lost. The principal tendencies in exegesis were four; these were afterward designated by the acrostic "PARDEC": i.e. PeshaT (or the simple philological explanation of words); Remez (or the allegorical); Derash (or the ethicohomiletical); and Codh (or the mystical). Naturally enough this division could never be strictly carried out; hence, variations and combinations are to be found.

(1) Saadia ben Joseph:

Saadia ben Joseph (892-942), the severest antagonist of the Karaites, translated the Old Testament into Arabic with notes. The parts published are: Pentateuch, Isa, Pr and Job.

Moses ha-Darshan (the Preacher) of Narbonne, France, and Tobiah ben Eliezer in Castoria, Bulgaria (11th century), are the most prominent representatives of midrashic-symbolic Bible exegesis. The former’s work is known only by quotations, and contained Christian theological conceptions; the latter is the author of "Leqach Tobh" or "Peciqta’ ZuTarta’" on the Pentateuch and the five Meghilloth.

(2) Rashi:

Rashi (Solomon ben Isaac, of Troyes; born 1040, died 1105) wrote a very popular commentary, which extends over the whole of the Old Testament, with the exception of Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, and the last part of Job. He strives for the PeshaT, i.e. for a sober, natural and rational interpretation of the Bible. His is still a commentary both for the boy and the man among the Jews. Christian exegetes of the Middle Ages as well as of more modern times made Use of his Bible commentary. Nicolas de Lyra (see Commentaries) followed Rashi closely; and it is a known fact that Luther’s translation of the Bible is dependent upon Nicolas de Lyra. Rashi’s commentary has called forth numerous supercommentaries.

(3) Joseph Kara:

An independent and important exegete was Joseph Kara’ (about 1100). He edited and partly completed Rashi’s commentary, particularly the part on the Pentateuch

(4) Abraham ibn Ezra:

Abraham ibn Ezra’s (1092-1168) commentary on the Pentateuch, like Rashi’s commentaries, has produced many supercommentaries. His is very scholarly. He was the first to maintain that Isa contains the work of two authors; and his doubts respecting the authenticity of the Pentateuch were noticed by Spinoza.

(5) Qimchis:

The grammarians and the lexicographers were not merely exegetical expounders of words, but many of them were likewise authors of actual commentaries. Such were the Qimchis, Joseph (father), Moses and David (his sons); especially the latter. The Qimchis were the most brilliant contributors to Bible exegesis and Hebrew philology (like Ibn Ezra) in medieval times.

(6) Maimonides:

Maimonides (1135-1204): Philo employed his allegorical method for the purpose of bringing about a reconciliation of Plato with the Old Testament. Maimonides had something similar in view. To him Aristotle was the representative of natural knowledge and the Bible of supernatural--and he sought for a reconciliation between the two in his religious philosophy. Exegesis proper was the one field, however, to which this great genius made no contribution of first-class importance.

(7) Maimunist:

The Maimunist, those exegetes of a philosophical turn, are: Joseph ibn Aknin, Samuel ibn Tibbon, his son Moses, and his son-in-law, Jacob ben Abba Mari Anatolio, whose Malmadh ha-Talmidhim is the most important work of philosophical exegesis of the period.

Joseph ibn Kacpi, chiefly known as a philosopher of the Maimunist type, deserves attention. Ibn Kacpi is an exegete of the first quality. His exposition of Isa 53 might be the work of the most modern scholar. He refers the prophecy to Israel, not to an individual, and in this his theory is far superior to that of some other famous Jewish expositors who interpret the chapter as referring to Hezekiah.

Through the philosophical homily, which began to be used after the death of Maimonides, Aristotle was popularized from the pulpit. The pulpit changed to a chair of philosophy. Aristotle’s concepts--as Matter and Form, the Four Causes, Possibility and Reality--were then something ordinary in the sermon, and were very popular.

(8) Kabbalists:

The principal commentators with a Kabbalistic tendency are: Nachmanides (1194-1270?) whose great work is his commentary on the Pentateuch; Immanuel of Rome (1270?-1330?) who does, however, not disregard the literal meaning of the Scriptures; Bahya ben Asher (died 1340) who formulated the four methods of exegesis of "PaRDeC." referred to above; he took Nachmanides as his model; many supercommentaries were written on his commentary on the Pentateuch; and Gersonides (1288-1334), a maternal grandson of Nachmanides, who sees symbols in many Biblical passages; on account of some of his heretical ideas expressed in his philosophy, some rabbis forbade the study of his commentaries.

(9) The "Zohar":

We must not fail to make mention of the Zohar (the "Bible of the Kabbalists"), the book of all others in the Middle Ages that dominated the thinking and feeling of the Jews for almost 500 years, and which was in favor with many Christian scholars. This work is pseudepigraphic, written partly in Aramaic and partly in Hebrew. It first appeared in Spain in the 131h century, and was made known through Moses de Leon, to whom many historians attribute it.

(10) Isaac Arama:

Mention must also be made of Isaac Arama (1430-94), whose ’Aqedhah, his commentary on the Pentateuch (homiletical in style), was the standard book for the Jewish pulpit for centuries, much esteemed by the Christian world, and is still much read by the Jews, especially in Russia and Poland.

7. Modern Times:


Isaac Abravanel (or Abarbanel; 1437-1508): A statesman and scholar who came nearest to the modern idea of a Bible commentator by considering not only the literary elements of the Bible but the political and social life of the people as well. He wrote a general introduction to each book of the Bible, setting forth its character; and he was the first to make use of Christian commentaries which he quotes without the least prejudice. Moses Alshech (second half of 16th century) wrote commentaries, all of which are of a homiletical character. In the main the Jewish exegesis of the 16th and 17th centuries branched out into homileties.

We will pass over the critical annotations connected with the various editions of the Hebrew Bible, based upon the comparison of manuscripts, on grammatical and Massoretic studies, ete, such as those of Elijah Levita, Jacob ben Hayyim of Tunis (afterward a convert to Christianity), etc.

8. The "Bi’urists":

(1) Mendelssohn:

The "Bi’urists" ("Commentators"): A school of exegetes which had its origin with Mendelssohn’s (1729-86) literal German translation of the Bible, at a time when Christian Biblical studies of a modern nature had made some progress, and under whose influence the Bi’urists wrote. They are: Dubno, Wessely, Jaroslav, tt. Homberg, J. Euchel, etc. They laid a foundation for a critieo-historical study of the Bible among modern Jews. It bore its fruit in the 19th century in the writings of Philippson, Munk, Fuerst, etc.

(2) Zunz, etc.:

The same century produced Zunz’s (1794-1886) Gottesdienstlichen Vortraege der Juden, the book of "Jewish science."

(3) Malbim, Ehrlich, etc.:

It also produced three Jewish exegetes, Luzzatto in Italy, Malbim and Ehrlich in Russia (the latter since 1878 residing in New York); he published, in Hebrew a commentary on the Old Testament, entitled Miqra’ ki-PeshuTah (Berlin, 1899-1901, 3 volumes), and, in German, Randglossen z. hebr. Bibel, two scholarly works written from the conservative standpoint (Leipzig, 1908-). Malbim was highly esteemed by the Christian commentators Franz Delitzsch and Muehlau, who studied under him.

(4) Halevy, Hoffmann, Mueller:

Others are Joseph Halevy, a French Jew, a most original Bible investigator, and D. Hoffmann (the last two named are adversaries of "higher criticism") and D. H. Mueller. M. Heilprin wrote a collection of Bibelkritische Notizen (Baltimore, 1893), containing comparisons of various passages of the Bible, and The Historical Poetry of the Ancient Hebrews (N. Y., 1879-80, 2 volumes), and the American rabbi B, Szold, a Commentary on Job (Baltimore, 1886), written in classic Hebrew, and with accurate scholarship and in which full account is taken of the work of the Massorites. A new Hebrew commentary on the whole of the Old Testament has been since 1903 in progress under the editorship of A. Kahana. This is the first attempt since Mendelssohn’s Bi’ur to approach the Bible from the Jewish side with the latest philological and archaeological equipment. Among the authors are Kahana on Genesis and Jonah, Krauss on Isaiah, Chajes on Psalms and Amos, Wynkoop on Hosea and Joel, and Lambert on Daniel. This attempt well deserves attention and commendation.

There is still to be mentioned the work of M. M. Kalisch (1828-85), whose special object was to write a full and critical commentary on the Old Testament. Of his Historical and Critical Commentary on the Old Testament, with a New Tr, only the following parts were published: Exodus, 1855; Genesis, 1858; Leviticus (pts 1-2), 1867-72. They contain a resume of all that Jewish and Christian learning had accumulated on the subject up to the dates of their publication. In his Le he anticipated Wellhausen to a large extent.

(5) Geiger, Graetz, Kohler:

We conclude with some names of the liberals: Geiger (whose Urschrift is extremely radical), Graetz, the great Jewish historian, and Kohler (president of the Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, O.) whose Der Segen Jacobs is one of the earliest essays of "higher criticism" written by a Jew.


Steinschneider, Jewish Literature, London. 1857; Zunz. Gottesdienstlichen Vortraege der Juden, 2nd edition, Frankfurt a. M., 1892; Jew Encyclopedia (articles by Bacher and Ginzberg); Catholic Encyclopedia (article "Commentaries"); Rosenau, Jewish Biblical Commentators, Baltimore, 1906 (popular); Winter-Wuensche, Geschichte der Juedischen Literatur, Leipzig. 1892-95, 3 volumes (the best existing anthology of Jewish literature in a modern language; it contains very valuable introductions); Wogue, Histoire de la Bible et l’exegese biblique jusqu’ a nos jours. Paris, 1881.

Adolph S. Oko