I remember the day I decided to study rabbinic literature. I was graduating with a B.A. in biblical studies, focused on Hebrew Bible, when I learned about the literature of “the rabbis.” I discovered whole Jewish traditions of literature outside of my Old Testament canon that were foreign to my Christian upbringing. No one had taught me in Sunday School about the great medieval scholar, Rashi, and his commentary on the entire Hebrew Bible. No one had mentioned the centuries of rabbinic debate over particular verses. To me, discovering rabbinic literature was akin to discovering a whole new world of the Bible.
But learning this rabbinic literature is not easy. Most of the literature is in Hebrew, with few and dated translations to English that aren’t very useful to beginners. Also the way in which texts like the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud were composed is so complex that it can take a lifetime to master their contents. Especially for Christians, who might only be interested in discussion of Old Testament themes, the task may be insurmountable. Someone with no exposure whatsoever to Hebrew, rabbinic literature, and Jewish medieval commentary may be at a loss of where to start.
To help, I’ve compiled a list of introductory sources and entry-points to Jewish material that might be useful to Christians hoping to learn a little about Jewish interpretations and uses of the Hebrew Bible, as well as rabbinic literature as a whole and its historical context. If you’re not sure why a Christian should care about rabbinic literature, see my post “Jewish Oral Law.”
- To learn torah, is to learn torah with Rashi. Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchaki, acronymized as Rashi, wrote the most famous commentary on the Hebrew Bible in the early 12th century. He synthesized rabbinic tradition with the texts of the Hebrew Bible in order to derive the simplest meaning of the text (peshat). There is an easy online site through Chabad that has the entire Hebrew Bible, in English and Hebrew, and an option to show Rashi’s commentary translated to English.
- The Jewish Study Bible: Featuring The Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation
This is a modern Jewish translation of the Masoretic Hebrew text and includes notes with detailed explanation of tradition, including rabbinic citations of texts. If you’re reading through the Old Testament, this is a good place to start.
- How to Read the Jewish BibleMarc Zvi Brettler discusses how to read the Hebrew Bible in its ancient context. He is also an editor of the Jewish Study Bible above, so it’s an excellent companion to read with your Old Testament.
- The Jewish Theological Seminary puts out a weekly commentary for each week’s portion of torah reading, called the Parasha. Different rabbis in the community offer their commentary on the scripture portion. You can even subscribe to weekly emails!
- The Jewish Annotated New Testament
Everyone who reads the New Testament needs a copy of this! AJ Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler expertly bring in the Jewish context to the Christian sacred text.
If you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about when I say “rabbinic literature,” start with learning a bit about the history and the way these texts emerged in an ancient context. Good introductory sources to the history are:
- Shaye Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Second Edition
- Michael Satlow, Creating Judaism: History, Tradition, Practice
Next step is to get a feel for the kind of literature we’re talking about. No joke, this is very difficult and is only for those truly interested in understanding what “rabbinic literature” means. I’ll write a post in the coming weeks introducing each of the major bodies of rabbinic literature and how they intersect with the Hebrew Bible if you only want a cursory glance. These texts are for those who want to know details!
- Charlotte Fonrobert and Martin Jaffee, The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature (Cambridge Companions to Religion)
- Barry Holtz, Back To The Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts
- Hermann Strack and Gunter Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash
These sources above are technical and go into precise detail, providing you with every thing you’d want to know about the texts, the rabbinic figures, and how their traditions were preserved.
At this point you’re probably thinking, “Now I’ll finally get to actually READ the rabbinic materials.” But unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. The only texts with useable English translations are the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud (click on the title and I’ve provided a link to a downloadable pdf). But one look at these texts, and you’ll realize how difficult they are to read without training. Alas! Training to read rabbinic texts, even in English, requires much time and investment.
Instead, I would suggest reading books by authors who USE rabbinic material to think about issues of the Bible and Late Antiquity. A few of my favorites are,
- Galit Hasan-Rokem, Tales of the Neighborhood: Jewish Narrative Dialogues in Late Antiquity
- Micheal Fishbane, Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking
and The Exegetical Imagination: On Jewish Thought and Theology
- AJ Levine, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us
, and The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus
(I’m looking forward to her forthcoming 2014 book Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi)
- Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ
- Jeffrey Rubenstein, Stories of the Babylonian Talmud
- Peter Shafer, The Jewish Jesus: How Judaism and Christianity Shaped Each Other
Hopefully, this limited collection of links can help you in your reading of the Bible and venturing into the world of rabbinic literature! Leave a comment below if there is a book or resource you’ve found helpful or if you have a question. We’re in this journey together! The Bible is so much more than a book, it is a collection of memories situated in multiple traditions that run wide and deep.
Also, check out my friend Preston’s list, My Top 10 Books for Western Medieval Christian Literacy. According to Preston, “Western medieval Christianity usually is a pejorative catch-all for Roman Catholic; in fact, the period is full of chaos, debates, heresy, struggles between science and religion, and discovery of distinctions in private and public faith. And many of the issues we continue to question today — the white, Western Jesus, women in the Church, atonement theology, spring up specifically around this time period, and the arguments for and against are older than we sometimes realize.” If you want to learn more about the way theology developed around the Bible in medieval Christianity, Preston’s your guy!
Image Source: Plate X. The S.S. Teacher’s Edition: The Holy Bible. New York: Henry Frowde, Publisher to the University of Oxford, 1896.