The last several decades have witnessed a dramatic rise of interest in Biblical interpretation and its history since antiquity. It has been widely recognized that Biblical exegesis was critical to the formation of Judaism and Christianity—and in a somewhat different way—of Islam, and that the genre of Biblical commentary was among the most significant vehicles for intellectual creativity in all three religious traditions. In the case of Judaism, the hermeneutic tradition that begins with Biblical interpretation (if not even earlier, with inner-Biblical exegesis) has been recovered as the central medium for the transmission and renovation of Jewish tradition, and much recent scholarship has been devoted to describing that tradition and its distinctive hermeneutics. Comparable developments have taken place in scholarship on early and medieval Christianity as well as in Islam, including study of Quranic exegesis itself and Islamic exegesis of Hebrew Bible. Finally, recent years have also witnessed a growing interest in the significance of ancient and medieval Biblical exegesis for literary theory and general hermeneutics as well as for the contemporary theological and critical study of the Bible.

As noted, an enormous amount of work has been accomplished in all three fields of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic exegesis. The vast majority of this scholarship has been devoted to each tradition in isolation, often with an eye to showing its singular if not unique features. There have been a few efforts to study instances of the relationships and cross-influences between the three separate traditions. As yet, however, there has been no programmatic or comprehensive attempt to study exegesis as a medium for cultural and religious exchange among the different religions and to investigate the dynamics of influence as it has transpired within and through Biblical interpretation.

We propose a group at CAJS in the year 2001-2 on this topic that would draw scholars from the fields of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic exegesis and from other relevant fields in order to investigate this topic from an explicitly comparative perspective. We anticipate that research projects would focus on such questions as:

  • How has exegesis served (comparably and differently) as a formative factor in the development of these religions? What are the differences in stance towards the Bible in the different traditions? What is the relationship between specific types of hermeneutics and the religious traditions of which they are a part? Is there something distinctively Jewish about midrash, or Christian about allegory? What are the points of similarity between “fundamentalist” exegesis in the three traditions?
  • What have been the lines of influence between the different religious-exegetical traditions, both in terms of hermeneutical procedure and methods (e.g., allegory in Rabbinic midrash; midrashic methods in early Christian exegesis; Quranic plain sense interpretation in relationship to peshat) as well as in substantive interpretive traditions?
  • From a comparative perspective, is it possible to study and analyze the different institutional contexts for Biblical exegesis?
  • How has exegesis served in the different traditions as a focus of heretical, non-normative traditions, and how have heretical or non-normative traditions and their modes of study been treated by different religious traditions?
  • Is it possible to speak comparatively of exegesis in terms of polemical and apologetic discourse and rhetorical strategies?
  • How has art and illustration served in the various traditions as a medium of influence between the different traditions of Biblical interpretation?
  • Why has there been such interest in the retrieval of ancient and medieval exegesis in postmodern literary theory and criticism and in contemporary Biblical theology and scholarship? What are the actual points of connection and relevance between them? How has the modern critical study of Bible used ancient and medieval interpretation?

The group will attempt to solicit research proposals dealing with any period from Late antiquity to the present, although we anticipate that the vast majority of projects will deal either with the period of the first several centuries in the common era (Judaism and Christianity in particular), the 8-10th centuries (Judaism, Karaism, and Islam), the Middle Ages from the 11th century on (all three traditions) , and the modern period. Although projects dealing with specific individual authors will be welcome, preference will be given to topics with an explicitly comparative orientation (taking that term in as wide a sense as possible). Our strong hope is that such a group—with experts in the separate fields working together on comparable problems and issues of common intellectual concern—will indeed produce a new synthesis and perspective on material that heretofore has been treated all too often in isolation. The resources of CAJS are perfectly suited to host an interdisciplinary group of this sort, and we trust that such a group will add significantly to CAJS’s reputation as the premier institution for advanced academic study of intellectual concerns that Jewish culture shares with Western civilization.

We anticipate wide interest in this group from scholars working in all three fields. The following names are solely meant to illustrate the number of significant and interesting scholars working in different aspects of the separate traditions:

Judaism: Jon Levenson, William Horbury, Marc Hirshman, Marc Bregman, James Kugel, Adele Berlin, Daniel Lasker, Uriel Simon, Martin Lockshin, Bernard Septimus, Jay Harris, Elliot Wolfson, David Berger, Avraham Grossman, Sara Japhet, Albert Van Der Heide, Stefan Reif, Jordan Penkower

Christianity: Gary Anderson, David Dawson, Robert Wilken, Michael Signer, Anna Abulafia, Jeremy Cohen, E. Touitou, Paula Frederikson, Howard Kee, Robert Salters, Bridget Bedos-Rezak, Rainer Berndt, Jan Van Zwieten, Judith Frishman

Islam: Reuven Fierstone, Zvi Langerman, Daniel Frank, Steven Wasserstrom, Jane McAuliffe, Gordon Newby, Zev Brinner, Andrew Rippen, Shalom Goldman

In addition, the group will easily attract many Penn faculty and graduate students, since this is one of the areas in which Penn has traditionally been strongest. Aside from the obvious Jewish Studies faculty members—Stern, Kraft, Tigay, and Eichler—the group will interest such other Penn faculty as James O’Donnell, Ann Matter, Barbara von Schlegel, Everett Rowson, Peter Stallybrass, and Rita Copeland, the numerous members of the Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins (based at Penn) as well as other faculty from institutions within commuting distance like Haverford (Naomi Kolton-Frum), Swarthmore (Nathaniel Deutsch), Princeton (John Gager, Martha Himmelfarb), the University of Maryland (Susan Handelman) the Jewish Theological Seminary (Burton Visotzky, Alan Cooper), Gratz College (Joseph Davis, Nahum Waldman), and Catholic University. There are also faculty and students at theological seminaries like Westminster that will certainly be interested as well.

Because of Penn’s past and current strengths in the area of Biblical exegesis (and literary and religious interpretation in general), we also expect that the CAJS group will fit in especially well with academic programs on campus on both undergraduate and graduate levels. For example, it is easy to imagine a course on comparative exegesis team-taught by experts drawn from the CAJS group in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic interpretation. We also think there will be interest in the group from the larger Philadelphia community, and certainly from theologians and Jewish, Christian, and Islamic clergy. The group will certainly provide the occasion for inter-religious dialogue along the lines of the programs planned for the current group on Christian Hebraism.

Submitted by: David Stern (University of Pennsylvania) and Adele Berlin (University of Maryland)

Jon Levenson
William Horbury
Marc Hirshman
Marc Bregman
James Kugel
Adele Berlin
Daniel Lasker
Uriel Simon
Martin Lockshin
Bernard Septimus
Jay Harris
Elliot Wolfson
David Berger
Avraham Grossman
Sara Japhet
Albert Van Der Heide
Stefan Reif
Jordan Penkower

Gary Anderson
David Dawson
Robert Wilken
Michael Signer
Anna Abulafia
Jeremy Cohen
E. Touitou
Paula Frederikson
Howard Kee
Robert Salters
Bridget Bedos-Rezak
Rainer Berndt
Jan Van Zwieten
Judith Frishman

Reuven Fierstone
Zvi Langerman
Daniel Frank
Steven Wasserstrom
Jane McAuliffe
Gordon Newby
Zev Brinner
Andrew Rippen
Shalom Goldman