Jewish Interpretation of the Bible: Ancient and Contemporary

What characterizes Jewish tradition, perhaps more than anything else, and establishes continuity from the Hebrew Bible through rabbinic Judaism to modern Jewish denominations, is the emphasis on the need for constant cautious interpretation of the Bible in order for it to remain relevant.

See Also: Jewish Interpretation of the Bible (Fortress, 2012)

By Karin Zetterholm
Associate Professor
Lund University
January 2013

Continuity and Change

The book was originally written in Swedish with a general Swedish audience in mind, and to a large extent it has evolved around questions about Jewish tradition posed to me over the years by students and the public at large. These questions typically revolve around the ability of Jewish tradition to change and adapt while at the same time preserving a commitment to the Bible and its traditional interpretations. The combination of a seemingly free and at times even creative interpretation and reinterpretation of the Bible together with an insistence on the importance of and adherence to tradition within Judaism appears puzzling to many people with a background in Protestant Christian tradition. Why is it, for instance, that it is possible to interpret away certain explicit biblical commandments, but still insist on having separate dishes for meat and dairy products, and refrain from driving, writing and knitting on the Sabbath, commandment and prohibitions that are not stated in the Bible?

In order to comprehend this ostensible paradox, we must go back to the rabbinic perception of divine revelation that, according to which humans are seen as God’s partners in interpreting his word. This idea of an ongoing dialectical process between divine revelation and human interpretation is the key, I believe, to understanding the character and development of Jewish tradition down to our own day.

The Hebrew Bible was subject to interpretation from the moment it was considered a normative text, and this interpretive process reached its apex during the rabbinic period (ca. 70–600 C.E). Some Hebrew words were no longer understood because they had fallen out of use or had taken on a different meaning, others needed to be given a precise definition in order to function as rules in every-day life, and some stipulated behaviors could not be reconciled with the worldview and morality of the rabbis and needed to be given new meanings or simply interpreted away. As a result, Jewish tradition developed into something quite different than the Hebrew Bible. The discrepancy between the Bible and rabbinic tradition is readily acknowledged and even celebrated by the rabbis:

By what parable may the question [of the difference between Scripture and oral tradition] be answered? By the one of a mortal king who had two servants whom he loved with utter love. To one he gave a measure of wheat and to the other he gave a measure of wheat, to one a bundle of flax and to the other a bundle of flax. What did the clever one of the two do? He took the flax and wove it into a tablecloth. He took the wheat and made it into fine flour by sifting the grain first and grinding it. Then he kneaded the dough and baked it, set the loaf upon the table, spread the tablecloth over it, and kept it to await the coming of the king. But the foolish one of the two did not do anything at all. After a while the king came into his house and said to the two servants, ”My sons, bring me what I gave you.” One brought out the table with the loaf baked of fine flour on it, and with the tablecloth spread over it. And the other brought out his wheat in a basket with the bundle of flax over the wheat grains. What a shame! What a disgrace! Need it be asked which of the two servants was the more beloved? He, of course, who laid out the table with the loaf baked of fine flour upon it (Seder Eliahu Zuta 2).

It is the servant who utterly transforms what he was entrusted with who is called wise, so obviously he is the one who acts in accordance with God’s will. What God desires is active human participation in interpreting his word, resulting in a transformed, refined product. The passage ends by saying: “The truth is that when the Holy One gave the Torah to Israel, He gave it to them as wheat out of which the fine flour of Mishnah was to be produced and as flax out of which the fine linen cloth of Mishnah was to be produced.” According to this parable, then, interpretation is an ongoing process that transforms the meaning of the biblical text, sometimes beyond recognition, and this is in accordance with the divine intention.

Divine Revelation and Human Interpretation

What characterizes Jewish tradition, perhaps more than anything else, and establishes continuity from the Hebrew Bible through rabbinic Judaism to modern Jewish denominations, is the emphasis on the need for constant cautious interpretation of the Bible in order for it to remain relevant. According to early rabbinic sources human interpretation started already at the moment of divine revelation at Sinai and is thus part of the revelatory event itself:

Rabbi says: This is to proclaim the excellence of the Israelites. For when they all stood before Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah they interpreted the divine word as soon as they heard it (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael Bahodesh 9 (Lauterbach 2:267).

The very moment the Israelites hear God speak, they interpret his words. Interpretation then, is not a belated activity aimed at reconstructing the forgotten meaning of God’s word, but part of divine revelation itself. Revelation as envisioned here includes both a divine and a human component and human interpretive efforts are seen as imperative and indispensable to the continued revelation of God’s will (Fraade 1991, 60–62; 2008, 263). It is this view of humans as active partners in the revelatory event that allowed the rabbis to derive from the biblical text laws that are not explicitly stated there and formulate laws for new phenomena, which are not mentioned there at all. Throughout this process of interpretation the biblical text always remains at the center, and in this way continuity with the past is preserved even as the Bible is adapted to new circumstances. As long as there is a commitment to the Bible, rethinking its meaning seems to be legitimate and even desirable.

The essence of Jewish tradition, then, can be characterized as an ongoing dialectical process between divine revelation and human creative interpretation, and accordingly, the key to the ability to interpret and adapt lies in the rabbinic perception of the giving of the Torah at Sinai.

Adherents to the Jesus movement likely shared this early Jewish view of human interpretation as being part of divine revelation. Although not clearly articulated, the idea seems to have been prevalent already in the first century, and to underlie much of the theology and biblical interpretation of Paul, allowing him to conclude that through Jesus, Gentile Jesus-believers are included into the covenant with Israel’s God (but not thereby becoming part of Israel!), and to argue that this was the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and thus in accordance with Scripture (Rom 4:1–12; Gal 3:6–18).

Rabbinic Tradition Becomes Wholly Divine

During the fourth century a slightly different perception of revelation developed, likely in response to the various Jesus movements whose adherents claimed to be the legitimate heirs to the biblical promises and blessings and to possess the correct interpretation of Scripture. According to this view the entire rabbinic tradition down to its smallest detail was given to Moses at Sinai as a body of set teachings:

R. Levi bar Hama said in the name of R. Shimon ben Laqish: What is the meaning of the verse, [The Lord said to Moses], Come up to the mountain and wait there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them [Exod 24:12]? “Tablets” [luhot ha-’even] means the Ten Commandments, “teachings” [ha-torah] the Five Books of Moses, “commandments” [ha-mitzvah] the Mishnah, “which I have inscribed” the Prophets and the Writings, and “to instruct them,” the Talmud. This teaches that they were all given to Moses at Sinai (b. Ber 5a).1

According to this view, the divine revelation at Sinai included all future interpretations, which were subsequently transmitted from generation to generation, making humans merely passive transmitters of divinely revealed interpretations, rather than active participants in shaping the content of revelation. In its most radical formulation this view asserts that everything that an astute student will ever say in front of his teacher was revealed to Moses at Sinai (y. Peah 2:6).

This idea is not known to have existed in the tannaitic period and seems to have developed in rabbinic circles sometime in the fourth century (Kraemer 1990,117–118), a period when the pursuit of legitimacy and orthodoxy among Jewish and Christian groups reached its peak. This would seem to indicate that it emerged as a polemical construct in response to various Jesus-oriented non-rabbinic groups (Cf Alexander 2007: 704). These groups were committed to the same Bible as the rabbis but interpreted it differently, rejecting both rabbinic tradition and interpretive authority. Claiming direct access to the divine via Jesus, whom they considered a prophet, they developed their own interpretation of Scripture with the life and death of Jesus as the hermeneutic key (Fonrobert 2001, 483–509; Reed 2007, 189–231).

A common language as well as the close relationship and blurred boundaries between Jews and non-Jews and between Jews and various forms of the Jesus movement in fourth century Syria,2 makes it likely that the various communities were relatively familiar with one another’s claims and responded to them. If some of these groups, made up of Jews and non-Jews, claimed a Jewish, albeit non-rabbinic identity, it would make close interaction with rabbinic Jews even more likely, and the fact that they shared rabbinic hermeneutic techniques would have made them dangerous rivals since this would have made their arguments potentially persuasive and appealing to rabbinic Jews.

As a means to bolster rabbinic practice and biblical interpretation by declaring them to have been given at Sinai and thus wholly divine, the claim that all rabbinic interpretations and legislations were divinely revealed at Sinai works fine, but it also creates serious problems, and the fact that a number of post-fourth century rabbinic texts continue to embrace the early rabbinic view that human interpretation of God’s word plays a significant role in the development of rabbinic tradition,3 further point to an origin an a polemical situation.

Contemporary Judaism

Both the early and the later rabbinic perception of revelation have left their imprint on the denominations of contemporary Judaism. Although with a few important exceptions, the view that rabbinic tradition was divinely given at Sinai is widely embraced by Orthodox Judaism while the Conservative and Reform movements maintain a modified version of the tannaitic view, arguing that rabbinic tradition evolved as a product of human interpretation. As a result, Orthodox rabbis generally attribute a greater significance to Scripture and tradition than non-Orthodox rabbis among the multiple factors taken into account when legislating on new issues.

Jewish tradition developed a model whereby law is determined through a system based on a combination of legal precedent and moral values, and in this legislative process attention is given also to the environment in which Jewish law functions. Thus, changes in social reality, developments in science and technology, political developments, and moral values are also part of this process. Jewish legislators take all these factors into account, but a legislator who sees the Bible as God’s unmediated word and rabbinic tradition as divinely revealed will naturally tend to privilege them over non-textual factors, while the one who sees them as a human record of an encounter with the divine will attribute equal significance to non-textual factors, or even favor the latter over Scripture and tradition.

The difference in the view of revelation also affects the way contemporary rabbis perceive their halakhic rulings. Whereas those who embrace the tannaitic view acknowledge that interpretations and innovations are the outcome of human interpretation and maintain that such interpretive activity is in accordance with God’s will, many Orthodox rabbis tend to perceive the result of their legislative and interpretive activity as divinely revealed and an explicit articulation of what is implicit in the biblical text (Dorff 1983, 101–150; 2007, 211–243; Gillman 1990, 13–25). Thus, the rabbinic perceptions of revelation not only explain the ability of Jewish tradition to change and adapt, but they also directly influence the halakhic process in the denominations of contemporary Judaism.

What distinguishes this book from other introduction to Jewish interpretive tradition is that the New Testament is treated as part of Jewish hermeneutic tradition, and that it includes modern Judaism, exploring the ways in which the various denominations of contemporary Judaism draw on the heritage of classical rabbinic Judaism when handling the tension between continuity with the past and adaptation to the present.


Hedner Zetterholm, K. Jewish Interpretation of the Bible: Ancient and Contemporary. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2012.

Alexander, P. S. 2007. “Jewish Believers in Early Rabbinic Literature (2d to 5th Centuries).” Pages 659–709 in Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries. Ed. O. Skarsaune and R. Hvalvik; Peabody: Hendrickson.

Dorff, E. N. 1983. Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants. New York: United Synagogue of America.

Dorff, E. N. For the Love of God and People: A Philosophy of Jewish Law. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

Fonrobert, C. E. 2001. “The Didascalia Apostolorum: A Mishnah for the Disciples of Jesus,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 9: 483–509.

Fraade, S. D. 1991. From Tradition to Commentary: Torah and Its Interpretation in the Midrash Sifre to Deuteronomy. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Fraade, S. D. 2008. “Hearing and Seeing at Sinai: Interpretive Trajectories,” Pages 247–268 in The Significance of Sinai: Traditions about Sinai and Divine Revelation in Judaism and Christianity. Ed. G. J. Brooke, et al.; Leiden: Brill.

Gillman, N. 1990. Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

Kraemer, D. 1990. The Mind of the Talmud: An Intellectual History of the Bavli. New York: Oxford University Press.

Reed Yoshiko, A. 2007. “"Jewish Christianity" after the "Parting of the Ways": Approaches to Historiography and Self-Definition in the Pseudo-Clementines.” Pages 189–231in The Ways That Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Ed. A. H. Becker and A. Yoshiko Reed; Minneapolis: Fortress.


1 Compare y. Peah 2:6; y. Hag. 1:8; y. Meg. 4:1; b. Meg. 19b and Lev. Rab. 22.1.

2 E.g., Drijvers, “Syrian Christianity,” 124–146.

3 See e.g. Seder Eliahu Zuta 2; b. Menah. 29b; Exod. Rab. 41.6.

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