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About the program

Jews and Christians Interpret the Bible

Winter 2011 - GS/HUMA 6201 3.0

Professor: Marty Lockshin
Time: Thursday 11:30am - 2:30pm
Locaton: RS 501

Course Description:

Not surprisingly, much of what passed historically for biblical “interpretation” was actually not interpretive in nature.  The major purposes of most Bible commentaries over the years were to uplift and to edify, to prove the superiority of the writer’s faith tradition and the inferiority of others.  Furthermore, writers with new ideas often saw the vehicle of “Scriptural commentary” as the best way to advance some new intellectual or theological agenda.  In a traditional society, if a thinker can read a new theory back into the Bible and claim that it is not really new, but the newly discovered true interpretation of God’s word, then the thinker has more change of having a theory accepted. 

Accordingly Bible commentaries of the classical and medieval world are more often than not of a homiletical nature.  They are still of interest to modern students of religion or of culture.  They teach us much about the world-view and religious mindset of the authors of those exegetical works, while often teaching us little about the Scriptures themselves.  In Christian circles, interpretation of the “Old Testament” was particularly contrived, as Christian authors attempted to read Christological meaning into texts that have nothing to do with Jesus or with a messiah.  In Jewish circles the word midrash, which once meant only searching out the true meaning of the text, came over the years to mean “fanciful or far-fetched readings of biblical texts,” because so many of the midrashic readings were so far from the plain meaning of the text.

And yet, the desire to explain and clarify the true “plain” meaning of the biblical text was never totally extinguished.  In some periods of history, for example in the twelfth century, both Jews and Christians show a surprising sensitivity to the plain meaning – what the Jews called the peshat and the Christians called the sensus littere.  In that sense, one sees in the works produced in that century a surprising level of cooperation and interaction between the competing religions.

But at the same time, exegetical literature is probably the largest repository of polemical literature: Jews trying to show that the Christian reading of the bible is mistaken, and Christians trying to show that the Jewish reading is mistaken.  So much of the difference between Judaism and Christianity hinges on the determination of the correct meaning of Scripture. Bible commentaries were the natural vehicles for advancing that claim. 

This course will examine the many ways in which Jewish and Christian bible commentaries reflect the cooperation between Jews and Christians, and the antagonism between them.  The course will be of interest to students of the Bible, to students of religion, to students of intellectual history and to students of hermeneutics.

The course will be taught in such a way that no knowledge of any language other than English will be required.  Students who can read primary texts in Latin and/or Hebrew will be encouraged to work with those sources in their research papers.