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A More Perfect Torah
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A More Perfect Torah

At the Intersection of Philology and Hermeneutics in Deuteronomy and the Temple Scroll

by Bernard M. Levinson 1
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In the final analysis, this short book about biblical literature should challenge scholars of rabbinic Judaism in a number of productive ways. First, the book's daunting melding of hermeneutics with historical linguistics argues against the separation of labor that currently characterizes a great deal of work on rabbinic Judaism. Second, the book convincingly destabilizes the categories of scripture and rewritten scripture. This is not only a helpful reminder that the history of biblical exegesis begins before scripture was fixed. By showing how the earliest exegetical impulses have impacted biblical texts, Levinson is shaking the canonical foundation on which many histories of biblical exegesis begin. Third, the book demonstrates what can be seen by working both forward and backward through time. A great deal of scholarship on rabbinic Judaism is structured chronologically—from the Torah to the Talmud. There are plenty of good reasons for this, and certainly no justification for wholesale change. Indeed, the first chapter of the present work is perfectly chronological. But the second chapter disturbs this all-to-neat structural device, demonstrating that the shakiness of some foundations can best be seen not just by looking down from above but by climbing down and probing deeply and carefully. Finally, Levinson's contribution to our understanding of the Second Temple period quest for a more perfect Torah sheds general light on rabbinic literature, especially by implicit contrast. Rabbinic Judaism—with its belief in the dual Torah, and its employment of explicitly exegetical midrashic styles—developed an entirely different approach, whereby revelation could be regained from a Torah that need not, and no longer could, be perfected by rewriting. — Jonathan Klawans, Review of Rabbinic Judaism 18 (2015) 167?70

The historical-critical method that characterizes academic biblical studies too often remains separate from approaches that stress the history of interpretation, which are employed more frequently in the area of Second Temple or Dead Sea Scrolls research. Inaugurating the new Eisenbrauns series, Critical Studies in the Hebrew Bible, A More Perfect Torah explores a series of test-cases in which the two methods mutually reinforce one another. The volume brings together two studies that investigate the relationship between the composition history of the biblical text and its reception history at Qumran and in rabbinic literature.

The Temple Scroll is more than the blueprint for a more perfect Temple. It also represents the attempt to create a more perfect Torah. Its techniques for doing so are the focus of part 1, entitled “Revelation Regained: The Hermeneutics of KI and 'IM in the Temple Scroll.” This study illuminates the techniques for marking conditional clauses in ancient Near Eastern literature, biblical law, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. It also draws new attention to the relationship between the Temple Scroll’s use of conditionals and the manuscript’s carefully organized spacing system for marking paragraphs. Syntax serves as a technique, no less than pseudepigraphy, to advance the Temple Scroll’s claim to be a direct divine revelation.

Part 2 is entitled “Reception History as a Window into Composition History: Deuteronomy’s Law of Vows as Reflected in Qoheleth and the Temple Scroll.” The law of vows in Deut 23:22-24 is difficult in both its syntax and its legal content. The difficulty is resolved once it is recognized that the law contains an interpolation that disrupts the original coherence of the law. The reception history of the law of vows in Numbers 20, Qoh 5:4–7, 11QTemple 53:11–14, and Sipre Deuteronomy confirms the hypothesis of an interpolation. Seen in this new light, the history of interpretation offers a window into the composition history of the biblical text.

The volume shows the significance of syntax and historical linguistics for understanding how ancient scribes established claims of religious and textual authority. Appendixes on the use of conditionals in biblical law and the Dead Sea Scrolls provide resources for further research.

Product Details

Publisher: Eisenbrauns
Publication date: 2013
Bibliographic info: xx + 142 pages
Language(s): English


Cover: Paperback
Trim Size: 6 x 9 inches



Within biblical studies, where there are so many competing models for understanding the formation of the Pentateuch, the Temple Scroll would seem to offer valuable empirical evidence, not only for the way that scribes worked with texts in antiquity, but also for the hermeneutical issues they confronted in seeking to integrate originally inconsistent sources into a unified document. The categories of "Scripture" and "Rewritten Scripture" are, according to one conclusion of Levinson's insightful study, not so far apart as is often assumed. The fields of "Bible" and "Second Temple/Dead Sea Scrolls" should ideally be more closely integrated than they are today (p. 92). With this, I believe, one can only agree. — Karin Finsterbusch, Henoch 36 (2014) 146-49

A More Perfect Torah is an important contribution to the ongoing dialogue about text and composition. The best feature of the work is the author's effort to bring together two often insular disciplines—biblical studies and the history of Jewish interpretation. — Matthew McAffee, Bulletin for Biblical Research 24.1 (2014)

L. has provided us with two fine detailed studies that nicely demonstrate the interplay of language and hermeneutics. The brief summary presented here does not do full justice to his arguments, which draw parallels from cuneiform law and rabbinics as well as from the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls. — John J. Collins in Theologische Literaturzeitung 139.2 (2014)

[In this book,] Levinson accomplishes his goal with a clarity and specificity that is–in sum–nearly unassailable. . . . [He] states his case clearly, carefully, and brilliantly. . . . Levinson’s argument is so persuasive and his critical skills so sharpened by use that readers may find themselves bewitched into accepting without argument or question the conclusions he proffers. . . . [As a result,] it is so very tempting to surrender and suggest that Levinson has uttered the final word on the subject. The book is just that good. -- Jim West, "Zwinglius Redivivus" blog (2013)

This cutting-edge monograph is the first in the new Eisenbrauns series Critical Studies in the Hebrew Bible. It is presented in two parts, the first of which, "Revelation Regained: The Hermeneutics of ky and 'm in the Temple Scroll", was co-authored with Molly Zahn. By examining the syntax, linguistic forms, and the spacing system employed, the authors explain the replacement of the conditional particle ky ('if') in Deuteronomy with 'm ('if' or 'when') in 11QT as the redactor's desire to resolve the inconsistent arrangement and awkward content of the pre-existing laws. This textual sprucing was further accompanied by re-presenting the speeches of Moses as direct divine revelation, to construct a superior and definitive finished product for the Temple Scroll's audience(s). A separate analysis of the reception of Deuteronomy's law of vows (in Num. 20, Qoh. 5.4-7, 11QT 53.11-14 and Sifre Deut.) is then shown to illuminate the compositional history of the earlier biblical forms. This is a highly persuasive and compelling study, less accessible to non-specialists, but essential reading for understanding the development of authoritative Judaean texts in the Second Temple Period. — Sandra Jacobs, SOTS Book List (2014)

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