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[A Christian looks at Jews]
Geddes MacGregor
The Bible in the Making

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Jews -- People of the Book

The Jews are called the "People of the Book."

From the time of the Exile they learned to depend much upon the Scriptures for inspiration and nourishment. After the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the Scriptures acquired an even greater significance for Jewry. In their wanderings in many lands, the dispersed Jews found in their sacred literature a common bond. The rabbis were often deeply learned in it.

The medieval Jew in Europe lived more often than not in extremely unnatural conditions. In the daytime, he might move in the "ordinary" world outside the ghetto to which he had to return every night at curfew, and within which he was cut off from the main currents of the civilization of his time and forced to find intellectual nourishment within his own highly inbred society. Within the ghetto he was sheltered from the Gentile world. Hence the development among these ghettoed Jews of certain specialized interests -- their preoccupation with intellectual and artistic quests. But even when the medieval Jew left this atmosphere in the daytime, he was by no means any better off. For then he felt acutely conscious of the difference between himself and the Gentile world, which in turn threw him more than ever back upon his Jewish traditions. The keystone of these traditions was, of course, the Scriptures. Though often he read them through a mist of Talmud and Midrash, they remained the symbol, par excellence, of all his Jewishness meant to him.

When, at last, in 1789, the French Revolution brought the Jew in Europe a greater measure of emancipation from such conditions than he had been for centuries accustomed even to hope for, he emerged deeply conscious that throughout the centuries of persecution it had been the Scriptures that had guided his fathers in their sufferings. Nor could he be expected quickly to identify himself with the Gentile world that was now open to him. It was a world that had set his fathers apart. He still felt apart. Long ostracized from Gentile society, he could not but continue to look with love and pride upon the pages of those writings that meant so much to every Jew worthy of the name.

The Jewish ghetto in the Middle Ages was an institution fully recognized by the medieval state. It was a segregated society, and theoretically it was an elective representative democracy, though it was seldom if ever this in practice. Prominent among the officials of the ghetto were the rabbi, the cantor, the beadles, and the ritual slaughterer. The rabbi had a pre-eminent role. The ghetto was governed by a small council which, through various committees, administered synagogues and schools, organized charities, and assessed and collected the taxes that had to be raised both for the Gentile state and for the ghetto itself. The decisions of the council were nevertheless subject to review by the rabbi, who exercised judicial functions in civil matters. He was rarely if ever allowed by the Gentile authorities to exercise criminal jurisdiction. The larger ghettos often employed a liaison man to negotiate with the Gentile authorities.

Conditions varied, of course, from time to time and from place to place, especially in regard to the extent to which the Jew was cut off from the rest of society. But even where they permitted him to absorb a good deal of the "secular" influences of "ordinary" society, he was usually disinclined for the enjoyment of such culture, and the more this culture reflected the influence of the Christian Church, which it inevitably did, the less he liked it. Moreover, the more the Jew was desegregated, the unhappier was his lot in the long run. His condition in Spain, for instance, compared very favorably with his lot in other countries. But it was in Spain that he eventually had to face the bitterest persecution that Jewry ever suffered before the rise of Hitler in modern times. In 1391 and in 1411 Jews throughout the Iberian Peninsula were cruelly massacred, with the result that many who escaped that fate lost heart and sought physical safety by resorting to an external submission to Christian Baptism. This only created a new problem, the problem of the crypto-Jew, and it was chiefly to deal with this that the notorious Inquisition was instituted in 1478. At last, in 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain where they had for long enjoyed greater liberty than had ever been their lot in northern Europe. Worse was to follow. Within a century they had been expelled from every country in western Europe with the exception of a few regions in Germany and northern Italy, and certain papal possessions in France. From the ashes of these fiery persecutions eventually sprang the Jewish communities founded in England, Holland and America.

The cultural life of the ghetto was lively but inevitably narrow. Every Jewish boy learned to read; but in the elementary school his reading was confined to religious matters. For instruction in other subjects he had to find private teachers. There was ample encouragement for promising boys to pursue their religious studies at schools designed to train them for the rabbinate. These rabbinical academies were, of course, the fountainhead of Jewish culture. In them Hebrew lore was preserved and Hebrew studies diligently fostered.

Classical Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament [sic], was already out of everyday use by the time of Christ, when, in the synagogues of Palestine, the Torah or Law would be expounded in Aramaic. In later times it was possible to distinguish between the Hebrew of the Old Testament, on the one hand, and, on the other, the Hebrew used by scholars who wrote the learned commentaries on them. The latter Hebrew was a sort of outgrowth of the classical kind. The two sorts of Hebrew are not sharply different: indeed, the later books of the Bible are already moving into a style that is not quite classical and yet is not quite the later Hebrew. Classical Hebrew did not suddenly go out of use. Old and beloved words and phrases continued, and the Bible was quoted in the original long after its language had become archaic for ordinary purposes.

Nevertheless, there was a tendency for the Bible to be lost under the vast bulk of the enormous literature written upon it by the rabbinical scholars. Gradually there was a revolt against this, a desire to get behind the weight of the Talmud to the relative simplicity of the Bible. The Talmudic scholars themselves were not unaware of the dangers. Gaon Saadya, in the ninth century A.D., perceived more than did many of his contemporaries that the Scriptures must be the cornerstone of Jewish thought and learning, and that their premier place must not be jeopardized by excessive preoccupation with other literature, however important or useful this might be in its own way. [For more See article] Saadya was a great scholar who, in order to improve the knowledge of classical Hebrew in the Jewry of his day, compiled a Hebrew dictionary and grammar. But he also made a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Arabic. Neither too literal nor too periphrastic, Saadya's Arabic translation, with the commentaries he appended to certain books, was designed, of course, for the Jews in the Arab world. It is still read by the Yemenite Jews. But it also served generations of Jewish scholars in many parts of the world.

The first complete Hebrew dictionary was devised and completed by Menahem ben Saruk in Tortosa, Spain, about the middle of the tenth century A.D. Its shortcomings were pointed out by Dunash, a pupil of Saadya's, and the disputes which arose as a consequence stimulated interest among Jewish scholars far beyond the original area of controversy. In the next century, Solomon ben Isaac, better known as Rashi, wrote commentaries on the Bible and the Talmud that have ever since had a great influence on Jewish learning. Rashi's exposition of the Pentateuch became a standard work, the reading of which was expected of every educated Jew. Its appeal lay, apparently, in its moderation: it was neither too extreme in its conservatism nor too bold in its concessions to the rationalism of the day. Rashi was of such immense repute as a scholar that he was sought out even by Christian priests. His commentary was in part translated into Latin by Nicholas de Lyra in the early fourteenth century. The latter's Postillæ Perpetuæ, printed in 1471-72, exerted some influence on Luther's German translation of the Bible.

By this time Jewish scholarship had greatly extended. But the conditions under which Jews lived in the Middle Ages imposed great limitations upon them. In Provence were three pioneers, Joseph Kimhi and his two sons, Moses and David. David Kimhi (1160-1235) was the compiler of a Hebrew grammar and dictionary that were for long influential -- so influential that when Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522), the first non-Jewish scholar to attempt a Hebrew grammar and dictionary, sought the help of learned Jews for his task, it was to David Kimhi's work that they chiefly directed him. Kimhi's influence on the King James Version, though indirect, is not inconsiderable. His influence was also exerted on a Persian translation made by a Jew about the year 1400.

Translations of the Hebrew Bible into various languages, begin to appear about that time. In 1422 Rabbi Moses Arragel translated the Scriptures from the Hebrew into Spanish, for the Christian Church and with the assistance of Franciscan scholars, and it is upon that version that the Ferrara Bible, printed in 1553, was based. This famous Spanish Bible was intended to serve the needs of both Jews and Christians. Certain deviations were made in the copies intended for Christian readers. For example, where the copies destined for Jews read "young woman" [Isaiah 7:14], the copies set aside for Christian use put "virgin."

See Jimenez' Polyglot - crowning glory of the University of Alcalá

Of about the same date as Arragel's Spanish translation is a manuscript of part of the Hebrew Scriptures translated into the Yiddish of the period -- a German dialect with an admixture of Hebrew. At Constance, in 1543-44, a translation of the Pentateuch by Michael Adam, a baptized Jew, was printed, and in 1545 was published, at Venice, a translation of the Psalms by Elias Levita. The Teutch-Homesh or Yiddish Pentateuch, said to be in use to this day in eastern Europe, was first printed in Amsterdam in 1649. In that city also, in 1676-78, appeared the first complete translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Yiddish. It was the work of Jekuthiel Blitz. There was a later version by Joseph Witzenhausen, published in 1679, likewise at Amsterdam.

There were also numerous Jewish translations of the Hebrew scriptures into Latin. Jewish scholars were highly critical of the official version approved by the medieval Christian Church. Among these translations into Latin may be mentioned one by Sanctes Pagninus, published in 1541; one by Sebastian Münster, which appeared in 1534-55; one by Chateillon, published in 1551; and one by Immanuel Tremellius, a baptized Jew, which appeared in 1579. Münster's translation exerted some indirect influence on the King James Version. Chateillon also made a translation into French.

While the renaissance of learning in Europe greatly stimulated oriental studies, which made great progress in the seventeenth century both in England and on the continent, the progress of Biblical studies in Jewry was much hindered by the long and widespread sufferings that came in the train of the Inquisition. The Jewish scholar in Spain had profited by his contact with the Moors. It had brought Islamic culture close to him, and it had familiarized him with the Arabic language, the study of which was now pursued increasingly by Christian orientalists. In Italy and Holland there were indeed some Jewish scholars who took advantage of the fact that "secular" thought was comparatively accessible to the Jew in those environments. But these scholars were exceptional men. In German and Poland the Jew relapsed more than ever into the maze of Talmudic lore than once again smothered his Bible.

It was, however, out of that unlikely atmospheere of early eighteenth-century German Jewry that Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) emerged. Mendelssohn is so famous in the annals of Jewry that he has been called the "third Moses." Born in Dessau, he was the son of a poor scribe. A delicate boy -- he suffered from curvature of the spine -- he was educated by his father and the local rabbi. In his youth he bought, out of his meager earnings, a Latin copy of Locke's Essay concerning the Human Understanding, which, with the aid of a Latin dictionary, he succeeded in comprehending. No d oubt it exerted a liberalizing influence upon his youthful mind. At any rate, after attaining considerable literary successes, he was granted by the King of Prussia (Frederick the Great) the title of Schutz-Jude (Protected Jew), affording him unmolested residence in Berlin.

Now devoting himself to the task of securing emancipation for the Jews, he translated the Pentateuch, issued in 1783, and some other parts of the Hebrew Bible, into High German. The effect of this on German Jews was incalculable. It opened up to them the treasures of the German language and inspired in them a taste for the culture from which they had hitherto been barred. Moreover, Mendelssohn, in accord with the mood of his century, [whose intellectual temper was manifested in the opinions of Alexander Geddes -- which see], was incline to look upon all religions as but relatively true, or perhaps, as facets of a religion that would one day be common to all mankind. The effect of his teaching was, therefore, to minimize the importance of adhering to the traditional Jewish faith, with the result that many Jews, notably Mendelssohn's own descendants, exchanged the synagogue for the church, bringing to the latter the "rationalistic" attitudes that were not welcome to those Christians who cared about their own faith. Mendelssohn's progeny was a distinguished one that included his eldest son, founder of the famous Mendelssohn banking house, and his grandson Felix, the composer.

See Baruch Spinoza - forerunner of the Enlightenment

David Friedländer (1750-1834) completed the work of translating the Hebrew Bible into High German, with the help of other friends and disciples of Mendelssohn. A new school of Jewish interpreters of the Bible arose, known as the Biurists, whose scholarship was in the best Jewish tradition but whose theology lacked critical insight into the history of Jewish thought. In their train came an enormous wealth of scholarly researches among German-speaking Jews. There was, inevitably, a reaction towards Jewish orthodoxy. Here one of the foremost names is that of Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), whose German translation of the Pentateuch was published in 1867.

Meanwhile, an Italian Jew, Isaac Samuel Reggio (1784-1855), had published at Vienna an Italian translation of the Pentateuch in 1821. The influence of this work led to the foundation of a rabbinical school at Padua, whose head, Samuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865), became one of the greatest Jewish scholars of modern times. Luzzato's fame as a translator and commentator is matched by the immense repute in which he came to be held as a pioneer in the effort to raise Jewish Biblical scholarship to a higher level in which it could take its place alongside the most reputable disciplines in the academic world.

A very erudite edition of the Bible in French appeared between 1831 and 1851. This, the work of S. Cahen, to which also Solomon Munk and Leopold Dukes contributed, came to be widely known as Cahen's Bible. A French translation of the Pentateuch by Lazare Wogue, which appeared between 1860 and 1869, was the basis of a more popular French version made by the French rabbinate under the direction of Zadoc Kahn. This was published between 1899 and 1906. An incomplet Dutch translation was made by S. Mulder and published between 1826 and 1838. The Pentateuch and Psalter were rendered into Russian by L. Mandelstamm and printed in 1862 and 1864 respectively. The Italian version of the Bible begun by Luzatto was completed by his pupils and published between 1868 and 1875. Hungarian-speaking rabbis prepared a Hungarian version which was published between 1898 and 1907.

There have been many Jewish translations of the Hebrew Scriptures into English. As early as 1789, the year of the French Revolution, a version of the Pentateuch in English appeared, purporting to be an emendation of the King James Version wherever this "deviates from the geniune sense of the Hebrew expressions, or where it renders obscure the meaning of the text, or, lastly, when it occasions a seeming contradiction." This work was dedicated the Bishop of Salisbury, Dr Barrington. In 1839, Selig Newman published a similarly conceived work. A complete edition of the Hebrew Bible for English-speaking Jewry was produced by Benisch and made its appearance between 1851 and 1856. Yet another Jewish attempt at the revision of the King James Version was made by Michael Friedländer and issued in 1884.

[The version of the Hebrew Bible into English which was perhaps longest and most widely accepted for use in synagogues in America and Britain was that of Isaac Leeser. Broadly based on the King James Version, it was published at Philadelphia in 1853. It leaned heavily on the German versions.]

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Geddes MacGregor writes, "Never in the Hebrew bible is there discussed any "spiritual" philosophy disconnected with ordinary life. It is always a fiercely human book about a fiercely human people. The only God it knows is the One who is revealed through the toil and hardship, the sweat and tears, of a life lived precariously on the edge of the death-dealing desert." [p39]

MacGregor continues: "Traditionally, the Hebrews had given little attention to the notion of a future life; their concern was with life on earth." [p47]

The Targums

Targums refers to the Aramaic translations of the Bible. The word is related to the Assyrian targumanu meaning "interpreter," - cf "dragoman." The Talmud (Megillah 3a) concludes from Nehemiah 8:8 that the custom of adding an Aramaic translation to the public reading of the Bible goes back to Ezra; it was certainly well-established in the Second Temple Period. This oral Targum was both a translation and an interpretation adding legal and midrashic details to the text and studiously avoiding anthropomorphism. All Targums are written in a somewhat artificial Aramaic, half-way between biblical Aramaic and the spoken language of Palestine. There are three Targums to the Pentateuch: Targum Onkelos (according to some so called after the proselyte Aquila) showing the most archaic type; Targum Jonathan erroneously so called); and Targum Yerushalmi (or Palestinian Targum), known only in a fragmentary form until 1956 when a complete ms was discovered. The Targum to the Former and Latter Prophets is called after Jonathan ben Uzziel; it is mainly a paraphrase emphasizing the teachings of the text. The Targums to the various books of the Hagiographa are midrashic in character, especially those of the Five Scrolls; they are considerably longer than the text they render and often show little connection with the literal sense. An exception is the Targum to Proverbs, which is literal and couched in a language close to Syriac. The Targum (especially Targum Onkelos) has long enjoyed a sanctity second only to the Hebrew text. The Talmud enjoins the reading of the weekly passage "twice in Hebrew, once in Targum" (Berakhot 8a). The Targum is cited as an authoritative interpretation by Rashi and other commentators, and like the Hebrew text, has a Masorah and numerous commentaries. There is also a Samaritan Aramaic Targum. Targum is the word used by the Jews of Kurdistan to denote their spoken Aramaic language.

As a language Aramaic is closer to Hebrew than the other Semitic languages and has influenced it considerably. It was for many centuries the Palestinian veernacular, and (as stated) biblical readings were translated into Aramaic in the synagogues for the benefit of congregants who did not understand Hebrew. It long persisted as a literary tongue and was the language of the Zohar and of later kabalistic poetry. New Aramaic is still spoken by the Nestorian Christians in the Kurdish districts of Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Persia, ands Russia -- as well as by Jews who have settled in Israel from those regions.

The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia [1970] Roth and Wigoder, eds. pp1834-1835

The Geonim frequently used Aramaic in their responsa and other works. Hymns and prayers were composed in it, some of which, including the Kaddish, remain in the Orthodox liturgy. Perhaps because he felt it had an aura of mystery and solemnity the author of the Zohar wrote in a contrived Aramainc that betrays Spanish influence.

Norman Solomon

Latin "the Seventy" -- often written LXX. The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Bible, so named because its oldest part, the Pentateuch, was -- according to legend -- translated at eh command of Ptolemy II (285-246 BCE) by seventy Jewish scholars, each working independently, whose translations agreed in every word. In fact, it appears that the Septuagint gradually grew up through the practice of oral translation in the synagogues of Alexandria though some books may have been translated or edited by individuals. There is no single Septuagint version, but every ancient ms presented a somewhat different text, departing in its own way from the masoretic Hebrew. The mss of the Septuagint includes the "Great Codices" or Uncials, among them the Alexandrinus (5th century), the Sinaiticus (4th century) -- both now at the British Museum -- and the Vaticanus (4th century) at Rome, and the minor codices or cursives, of which there are hundreds. In the early 3rd century Origen re-edited the Septuagint -- together with the Hebrew text and 3 other Greek translations (by Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion) -- in his Hexapla, adding renderings of words in the Hebrew text which did not appear in the Septuagint. Besides this recension, two others, ascribed to Lucian and Hesychius, were known by the 4th century. Remnants of what seems to be a Palestinian Jewish recension of the Septuagint were found in 1952 in the vicinity of the Dead Sea. The Septuagint was translated into Latin (the "Old Latin" version of Vetus Latina -- as opposed to the Vulgate), into three Coptic dialects, Ethiopic, Arabic, Armenian, Georgian, Church-Slavonic, and Gothic. Parts were translated into the Christian Palestinian Aramaic dialect. The Septuagint column of the Hexapla, with selected notes form other columns, was translated into Syriac ("Syro-hexapla"). As the oldest of all ancient versions, the Septuagint is important for the text and interpretation of the Bible. Of its many deviations from the masoretic text, some evidence a different Hebrew text, traits of which are also preserved in Hebrew in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia [1970] Roth and Wigoder, eds. p 1718


The Masoretes, from Masora. Masora is the tradition (masar = "hand down") of reading and writing scriptures (Hebrew); the Masoretes are the people who, in roughly the sixth and seventh centuries CE, fixed the tradition by determining correct readings and devising a written system for indicating vocalization of the Hebrew text. Both eastern (Babylonian) and western (Tiberian; Palestinian) Masoretic traditions are known. [Norman Solomon]

Early Followers of the Christ

Geddes MacGregor writes:

It is important to bear in mind that the 'Christians' of the first century inherited what is now called the Old Testament (Torah, Prophets, Writings) and having only a slowly growing literature of their own, regarded it as their Bible. neither St Paul nor the flourishing 'Christian' communities to which he addressed his letters knew any other Scriptures: the Gospels ... had not by then been written. If we could open the treasure-chest of one of these early Christian communities, we might find in it perhaps one or two scrolls consisting of copies of the Hebrew Bible; but we should probably find a good many more scrolls of these books in the Greek version (Septuagint), for this was the most widely known in such circles. These Christians read the 'Old Testament' in Greek (Septuagint) with no less devotion than that which their Jewish fathers had read it..... So the 'Old Testament' was the standard reading of the first-century Christians generally. [p69]

The Tafsir of Saadia Gaon

The earliest and best-known translation of the Bible into Arabic was the Tafsir, undertaken in the 10th century by Saadia Gaon.

BACKGROUND: in the 10th century CE Saadia Gaon wrote a Tafsir, an Arabic translation of the Tanakh with a lengthy commentary. These were written in Hebrew characters (Judaeo-Arabic). Much of the commentary is lost, but the translation of the Torah and several other books has survived intact, and even serves as part of the liturgy of Yemenite Jews, who read the Torah in the synagogue with each Hebrew verse translated twice: first to the Aramaic targum and then to Saadia's Tafsir.

As the language of Saadia Gaon's translation became archaic and remote from common speech, most Jewish communities of the Arab world evolved their own translations of the Torah into their local dialects of Judaeo-Arabic. A traditional translation of this kind is known as a sharħ (plural shurūħ), from the Arabic word for "explanation". These translations were generally used for teaching purposes rather than in the synagogue, and many of them were printed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. [chabad Article]

Importance of Judeo-Arabic : Judeo-Arabic displaced Aramaic as the lingua franca in most Arabic-speaking countries, and it quickly became the vehicle for religious as well as secular writing: whereas Rabbanites wrote it in Hebrew characters, Karaites tended to use Arabic script. Geonim composed responsa in it, Maimonides wrote his Book of Commandments, his Commentary on the Mishna and his Guide for the Perplexed in it, and it was the language of most of the great works of medieval Jewish religious philosophy.

Yiddish for Sacred Use
Yiddish, the common language of Ashkenazim, originates in the la'az (cf. Psalm 114:1; the 'foreign language' that is, non-Hebrew) derived from various German dialects by Jews in Lotharingia prior to 1250. In the Old Yiddish period (1250-1500), as Jews moved eastward, Yiddish absorbed Slavic words and grammatical forms, a process taken further in Middle Yiddish (1500-1700). After 1700 Yiddish in the West declined, and a Modern Yiddish on an Eastern Yiddish base, began to form about 1850.

Early Yiddish literature was principally based on the Bible and its interpretations, talmudic legends, and Midrashim; there is a considerable literature of religious poetry, prayer (Techines), and ethical discourses. Yiddish epics appear from the 14th century, and biblical dramas, including the Purim Spiel, from the 17th. The most influential Yiddish religious work was undoubtedly the Tzena v'Rena of Isaac of Janow. Hasidim spoke Yiddish but tended to write their "serious" works in Hebrew; in recent times Yiddish has been primarily the vehicle of secular Jewish literature. [Norman Solomon. p222]

Yekuthiel ben Isaac Blitz translated and produced a complete Yiddish Bible in Amsterdam in 1679. Since Blitz was not an accomplished Hebraist, he relied heavily on other translations into Gerrnanic languages: Luther's German translation and the Dutch Statenvertaling. This went very far: in places the text is closer to either of these texts than to the Hebrew original and the break with the existing Yiddish translation tradition is abrupt. Blitz, who had a penchant for polemics, also inserted attacks on Christianity in his translation. Furthermore, the text is full of Dutch and Low German words (Blitz hailed from Witmund in northern Germany), which would have rnade it hard to understand for the intended Polish-Jewish market.
The first judischteutsche Bibel (Yiddish Bible)

One of the financiers behind the Blitz project, the Sephardi publisher Joseph Athias, withdrew from the enterprise while this translation was being printed because he was unhappy with Blitz's work. Athias ordered one of his typesetters, Joseph ben Alexander Witzenhausen, to produce another translation. Witzenhausen was a more scrupulous translator than Blitz. His translation is closer in style to the traditional Yiddish translations. Nevertheless, it was a great improvement on earlier Yiddish versions. Witzenhausen also made use of the Statenvertaling, but he only consulted the Dutch version to solve translation problems. Thus, two separate Yiddish translations appeared in Amsterdam within roughly a year of each other (1678-1679). reSOURCE

Yiddish (

Original Intent
One perennial dilemma with any literature, and all the more so with the most ancient, is the problem of original intent. What did the authors really mean to say, in the first place. A response that both Judaism and Christianity have proposed has been that God is with us even today, or that He sends his "presence" -- and she goes with us into exile, to interpret and make clear the original. Christianity suggests that the Holy Spirit explains the meaning, or leads us into all truth (the Teacher, the Comforter). But always there have been strict constructionists of one kind or another, both in Judaism and in Christianity. Among Jews there have been "Sadducees" at various times, or Karaites, who cal us back to the letter as written, the unchanging Torah as given at Sinai. Among Christians we have a strong party contending that God speaks only via the Scripture, as written [Sola scriptura). Thus, God's revelation is, as it were, frozen in time. It is not a living dynamic word. It is, so to speak, WRITTEN -- in stone.

The existence in Scripture of baffling words whose meaning is in doubt continues to challenge modern interpreters, especially when the word occurs only once in Scripture. Such a word is a hapax legomenon, or plural, hapax legomena. "Hapax legomena in ancient texts are difficult to translate and decipher, since it is easier to infer meaning from multiple contexts than from just one. For example, many of the remaining undeciphered Mayan glyphs are hapax legomena, and Biblical (particularly Hebrew) hapax legomena pose sometimes difficult issues in translation."

It has certainly helped for biblical studies that a living people has continued to exist alongside their ancient texts. Even still, challenges remain, for the ancient language for many periods of their exile went into disuse as an everyday language. Rather, if preserved by a given community, it was reserved for sacred use only, a language of prayer and liturgy. A huge benefit remained, nonetheless, both in the existence of Talmud and other commentaries, the Targums, and translations like the Septuagint (dating from fairly early periods).

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The Third Temple and the Sacrifice

For many people during many centuries, mankind's history before the coming of Christianity was the history of the Jews and what they recounted of the history of others. Both were written down in the books called the Old Testament, [the Torah] the sacred writings of the Jewish people ... They were the first to arrive at an abstract notion of God and to forbid his representation by images. No other people has produced a greater historical impact from such comparatively insignificant origins and resources ...

John Morris Roberts
History Of The World.
New York: Knopf, 1976