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a more biblical, more scriptural, more theological, more Jewish Bible

November 23, 2011

Theophrastus usually gets me thinking by lots of things he says.  This is especially true when he wrote:

“Judaism usually views itself as having no theology at all;”‘

This makes me ask, What is Judaism, and what is theology?  Then I wonder about the Bible, the Hebrew scriptures and their Greek translation by diaspora Jews in an Egyptian kingdom in the Alexandrian Empire.  I’m re-reading some things Adele Berlin wrote.  She says this (and I just have more questions):

“So, we may conclude that the Septuagint is, on one hand, more biblical than the Masoretic Text, but on the other hand it is more Hellenistic, both in respect to Jewish identity and practice and in respect to Hellenistic storytelling.”

It’s not just the Septuagint but the version of Esther in this Bible that presents the questions.  Are these anomolies really?  Listen to a little more from Berlin:

Making Esther More Biblical

The Greek versions, especially the Septuagint, have a different tone and reflect a different view of the Jewish characters from the Masoretic Text. David Clines (The Esther Scroll: The Story of the Story), who believes that the religious elements were originally absent and were added in the Septuagint, has perceptively argued that the Septuagint added the religious dimension in order to “assimilate the Book of Esther to a scriptural norm.”

That is, the Septuagint sought to make the book sound more biblical, more like the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel, where God’s presence is felt in the events that unfold and where the characters engage in religious activities (praying and invoking God’s name). Mordecai’s dream and its interpretation is also similar to what we find in Daniel. And thirdly, the inclusion of the contents of the edicts also resembles the practice in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel, which include what purports to be verbatim copies of Persian documents. We have discussed above how the Masoretic Text of Esther sought to fashion itself, in part, on the model of earlier biblical writings, now we see that principle carried further, for different effect, in the Septuagint.

We’re not even getting to how Esther in either Hebrew or Greek deserves a feminist re-reading. Now read the rest of what Berlin proposes here. Is Esther, in Greek, more biblical, more scriptural, more theological, more Jewish? What is the Bible? What is theology? What is Judaism usually? Are you scratching your head as much as I am?

17 Comments leave one →
  1. November 23, 2011 5:26 pm

    Well, I read Berlin’s commentary on Esther and I think you are missing her point.

    The classic rabbinic struggle with the Book of Esther has been that it is entirely post-Biblical; there is no reference to God in the work nor is there any explicit reference to divine agency. Instead, the entire work relates to main thread of the Hebrew Bible by being an illustration of severe consequences of Saul’s apparent “compassion” in refusing to execute God’s explicit commandment to exterminate the Amelekites. Structurally, the novella is a perfect comedy as well — one of the most literary books in the Hebrew Bible.

    Berlin, in her commentary, discusses the literary and comic features of the Esther story. The Septuagint is certainly, from a literary standpoint, a less satisfactory work; it has extra heapings of piety added in, but fails to work as a literary structure.

    It seems likely that the Septuagint version contains later additions; and as with most ancient tampering of texts, is inferior to the original.

    Compare Berlin’s analysis with Levenson’s analysis, since both Levenson and Berlin approach the work from contemporary observant Judaism.

  2. November 23, 2011 5:30 pm

    By the way, I believe you would very much enjoy both Berlin and Levenson’s commentaries because of their literary focus. They are short and you can easily read either in less than a day (I read them in less than a day each.) They are probably available at your library.

  3. November 24, 2011 6:56 am

    Thank you, Theophrastus. I will read Levenson to compare his commentary with Berlin’s, which I will re-read again.

    I think I do get Berlin’s point, at least her point that the Septuagint makes Esther more literary and at the same time more theological.

    Doesn’t she say this? Are we missing her point really?

    the Jewish characters are more religious [in the Septuagint than they are in the Masoretic Text], for it is religious practice that defines one as a Jew.

    Take the practice of circumcision. No mention is made of it in the Masoretic Text of Esther, but in the Septuagint at the end of chapter eight we read, “And many of the Gentiles were circumcised and became Jews.” Circumcision is an ancient biblical practice, and was practiced by other peoples beside Israel, but in the Hellenistic world, circumcision was taken to be the distinctive sign of (male) Jewish identity. It was, along with the observance of the Sabbath and kashrut (especially the prohibition on the eating of pork), the most outstanding mark of the Jew in relation to other religions or nationalities.

    In the same vein, we find Esther, in her prayer in Addition C, saying, “I abhor the bed of the uncircumcised and of any alien,” and that “Your servant has not eaten at Haman’s table, and I have not honored the king’s feast or drunk the wine of libations.” The Septuagint has made Esther into a pious Jewess of the Hellenistic (early rabbinic) period, who disdains marriage with a non-Jew, eats only kosher food, and does not drink wine used for libations to pagan gods (yein nesekh).


    This is the stuff of [the more literary, of, for example,] Greek romances (and modern ones, too), and it is in utter contrast to the sparseness of the Masoretic Text at this point in the story. So, we may conclude that the Septuagint is, on one hand, more biblical than the Masoretic Text, but on the other hand it is more [literary as it’s more] Hellenistic, both in respect to Jewish identity and practice and in respect to Hellenistic storytelling.

    This description of how the Septuagint reshaped the story should make clear that it is a form of early [Jewish, theological] biblical interpretation. The relationship between it and the Masoretic Text is not simply that of an original Hebrew text and its translation, although even a translation is a form of interpretation, since the translator must decide on the meanings of words and verses in order to translate them.

  4. November 24, 2011 10:45 am

    Well, I suppose that it depends on how you define “literary” and “theological.”

    In the first quote of your comment, you have displayed a common misinterpretation of “religious,” which Berlin is clearly using in a certain Jewish sense.

    For many Protestants, “being religious” means “believing.” For many Jews, being “religious” means “abiding by Jewish law” (halacha). This is the sense that Berlin is using the word above.

    More detail: In the classic statement of Christianity (for example, the fourth gospel) the defining characteristic of “being religious” is having “beliefs.” (Thus, a “systematic theology” or a “dogmatic theology” is a statement of beliefs, not a law code. And, the system of beliefs is dogmatic, and thus non-optional.)

    However, “religious” (or “pious”) in the sense that Berlin is using it means “observant” — that is abiding by halacha. When you quoted me above as saying “Judaism usually views itself as having no theology at all” I linked to a comment in which I mentioned the title of a book by Kellner: Must a Jew Believe Anything?

    Rabbinic writing is divided into two groups: halacha (Jewish law) and aggadh (homilies). As Nachmanides famously stated in the Barcelona disputation, belief in the aggada is optional. In fact, most of the aggada is wild tales.

    The Talmudic dilemma with the book of Esther is that Esther does not seem very observant. She has an ethnic relationship with Judaism, but it seems she is willing to marry Ahasuerus. In Talmudic descriptions of the gentile spouses of other Biblical heroes, there is a belief that they converted to Judaism, a la Ruth. However, this is clearly not a possible interpretation for Ahasuerus. So how did Esther stay in the canon? From the Talmudic point of view, it is because of one verse — Esther 9:27 — which the Talmud interprets as a collection Jewish acceptance not only of the Purim holiday but of all the Torah. (Why is it necessary to reaccept? Because in Exodus 19:8 the Israelites obligated themselves to observe Torah before they heard it — they committed to do first and listen second — in other words, they did not know what they were signing up for. Further, the acceptance was made while the Jews were “under the mountain” [Exodus 19:17] — not at “the foot of the mountain.” A rabbinic understanding of Exodus 19:17 is that God suspended the mountain above the Israelites, and that the Israelites were forced accept Torah under penalty of being crushed. Since the obligation was not freely given, the verse in Esther reaffirming the obligation was seen as central.)

    But, obviously Jews from Maimonides (“Thirteen Articles of Faith“) to Eugene Borowitz have developed Jewish belief systems. But those belief systems are not mandatory. For example, one does not need to believe in resurrection of the dead, even though Maimonides states it is a mandatory belief. In fact, for many Jewis, one can still be considered an observant Jew if one does not believe in God — the halacha is that one cannot state that God does not exist; there is no halacha on the individual belief. This is true even for those Jews who recite Maimonides Thirteen Articles of Faith as part of the morning prayer service (the recitation is mandatory for those have that nusach, but the belief is optional.)

    The Protestant religions are different. For many conservative Protestants, religious law is minimal — most of the commandments (even at least one of the “Ten Commandments”: sabbath observance) have been lifted. But a belief system — such as a Nicean creed — is mandatory.

    So, when I say “Judaism does not have a theology” I mean the consensus Jewish view is that an abstract belief system is not mandatory (although Jewish legal observance is mandatory.)


    Turning now to the meaning of “literary,” again you and I are using terms differently — and I think my use is similar to Berlin’s.

    For example, you equate Hellenistic with “literary”, but Berlin does not write this way. I won’t elaborate on this at length, except to say that by the criteria you give, the fourth gospel would be the most literary book in the New Testament and Mark would be the least literary book in the New Testament. Some people do talk this way, but others (for example, Frank Kermode) consider Mark to be more literary than the fourth gospel.

  5. November 24, 2011 10:55 am

    Just as I posted this comment I received an eerily relevant e-mail from Joshua Amaru. You may want to look at his series on whether Jews are obligated to believe in God. You’ll see that he reaches a different conclusion from me, but that there is a real dispute here.

    Part one, part two, part three, part four.

  6. November 25, 2011 5:39 pm

    Thank you very much! I appreciate both your interacting with me (around “belief” vs. “halacha” to help define “religious” and more specifically around the fouth gospel) and your sharing what Joshua Amaru has been writing. I’ve read every one of Amaru’s posts now and want to come back to the other topic.

    The distinctions you make I don’t necessarily disagree with so much. However, it’s just the epistemology that you feel so obligated to use that I have more of a problem with. What I mean by that this is: the binary, the “either/ or,” can help us to sift through and to separate out one thing from another. And yet, I’m not so sure that the things you see as different are necessarily or inherently so. What if, to take your example of the fourth gospel, the writer of that gospel saw himself as profoundly and as purely “Jewish”? And what if the Greek stress in what he wrote (i.e., the focus on πιστ*, or on “proofs,” on “beliefs”) is part and parcel of the halacha? Why do we have to make this literary work more like a Protestant Christian’s creed than like, say, Esther in the Septuagint? There are lots of different ways to read πιστ*, I’d say. Homer, for example, and Hesiod too, use the term in relation to covenant, to agreements between mortals and agreements between gods and agreements between both gods and mortals. Then comes Aristotle. The abstracting of a proof, or a compelling belief, from the social work of covenant and agreement is a very recent thing, relatively speaking. It’s a lot more like a protestant Christian creed than it is like the both/and of belief and covenant. Aristotle refined such abstractions, to his credit. And yet, much gets lost when things are taken to be things in themselves.

    (What Berlin seems to be saying the LXX adds to Esther is not so different from what Sylvie Honigman and Naomi Seidman write in different contexts; the former says that the Septuagint was created in a Homeric paradigm that resisted the Alexandrian emperial paradigm — the Jewish community in Alexandria resisting the imperialists — and the latter suggests that it was, according to a Taldumic view, a Jewish act of insider translation. What the LXX does with πιστ* is hardly Christian, and of course not Protestant, at all. There’s reason to believe — pardon my pun — that the translators for very Jewish, somewhat theological reasons were resisting an Aristotelian use of Greek. There are lots of reasons to call it bad Greek, and yet the plays with the Greek in the Septuagint open up meanings that are arguably an intentional Jewish affront to the projects outlined by Plato’s Republic and by Aristotle’s Politics and instituted by Alexander’s conquests.)

  7. November 25, 2011 6:16 pm

    Kurk: at least I hope you understand the sense in which I say “Judaism usually views itself as having no theology at all” while Judaism still can continue to be a religion.

    I cannot but help be embarrassed when I see a public entertainer (for example, the singer who calls herself “Madonna” dedicate one of her albums to God.) (I don’t mean to impugn contemporary works with a truly spiritual content; say John Coltrane’s Love Supreme or Henryck Gorecki’s Third Symphony.) It seems to me that such statements reflect an opinion that one’s personal affection for a deity is the core element of religion; and thus that though-acts are the important criteria in the end. This theological position (that thought-acts are of primary importance) seems to be at the basis of numerous Protestant theologies. The primary commandments for many Christians seem to be thought acts (to “love Jesus,” “to forigve,” etc.)

    As you know, the question of the πιστ word group is among the most controversial in New Testament interpretation, with G. Barth lining up against Dieter Lührmann. (Have you seen Dennis Lindsay’s survey?)

    However, I think that the distinction I make is a valid one. Consider the following thought experiment:

    Each language has its own stylistic conventions. A work like the fourth gospel or LXX Esther is more “greek” — more Hellenistic — than Mark or MT Esther. On that point we seem to agree. Now, suppose that we back-translate Mark, the fourth gospel, and LXX Esther into Hebrew. Which of these would have greatest literary value as Hebrew works? I think that we can agree that MT Esther and Mark seem more (Hebrew) “Bible-like” than the other works.

    It is, of course, possible to read the fourth gospel as a Jewish work, but that is not the conventional reading nor is it the most productive reading. By reading the fourth gospel as a mystical work, we reach the conventional Christian interpretations. By reading the gospel as a work influenced by the Greek mystery religions, we gain valuable historical insights into the work.

    Now, it is true — my bias is that Hellenistic Judaism is less Jewish and less elegant than rabbinic Judaism. (The rabbis themselves share my bias!) Thus, my criticism of the fourth gospel could also apply to a work that has strong Jewish pedigree: e.g., Philo. But it is interesting that Philo was preserved by the Church; not within Judaism, and it is only in the post-enlightenment period that Jewish studies of Philo have begun.

    If one sits down and reads two equivalent translations of MT Esther and LXX Esther (for example, in the NRSV translation, where the two works are translated independently to similar standards) at least I cannot help but feel that the Hebrew version is superior.

    Your posts have often showed how the LXX translation contains brilliant puns and word-play, and it has persuaded me to the inherent literary value of the LXX. But I’m not sure that I’m willing to say that Hebrew Bible is better in translation than the original.

  8. November 25, 2011 7:31 pm

    “More detail: In the classic statement of Christianity (for example, the fourth gospel) the defining characteristic of “being religious” is having “beliefs.””
    Interestingly, though, the fourth gospel calls also does things like this:
    “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
    Isn’t that more Jewish? Those who believe are opposed by those who disobey. After all, the πιστ word group is controversial and so perhaps it would be best to determine what it means in John by looking at how it is framed in regard to words that are clearer.

    In fact, I’d have avoided citing any of the New Testament books as being part of this idea that you identify as basically Christian (something I also disagree with) since the New Testament books are all disputed in this regard. The danger is that this trend has emerged later and has been read back into the texts.

  9. November 27, 2011 12:00 am

    Eric: my central arguments here are

    (1) that “more Hellenistic” does not imply “more literary”; and

    (2) that thought acts (e.g., theology) forms a lesser (or even completely optional) aspect of Judaism.

    The question of whether the fourth gospel (despite its prevalent anti-Semitism) is a Jewish work or not is a bit of sideline; my point is that Christianity (especially Protestantism) traditionally reads it in a different way.

    Of course, different streams in Christianity read legal obligations in very different ways; and it is an unfortunate fact of that when 19th century Protestant (usually German) theologians were berating Judaism for “legalism” they were actually silently targeting Catholicism.

  10. November 27, 2011 2:07 pm

    Theophrastus, I appreciate your sharing Dennis Lindsay’s survey, which is much better I believe than Greek Rhetorical Origins of Christian Faith: An Inquiry, by James L. Kinneavy, who completely neglects the LXX.

    And thanks for saying “bias” when discussing what “the rabbis” believe (as your shared perspective). My own view is that there cannot be a belief vacuum, that we each have views more or less informed by what is really at stake. I do get, and share with you also, the numerous problems with the sort of easy proclamations for God and about God that celebrities and even sincerely religious people can make.

    I love your proposal for reading MT Esther and LXX Esther against one another in translation by a single translator (i.e., by the NRSV team). There may be a different sort of reading of the Hebrew and of the Greek by this group using an ostensibly consistent standard, nonetheless. I’m just wondering. We may be getting into judgements of taste, of aesthetics, of what “matches” (as David Bellos would use that term for translation practice). The question is whether a translator (now I’m thinking the LXX translators) might be able to pull off sounding Jewish using Greek. Is that their intention? And if so, could we grant them that? The risk is a caricature, and yet the value might be a somewhat “pure” Hebraism made out of the Hellene. (The wordplay of the writer of the fourth gospel might be seen, even productively, as a Palestinian resistance to the Romans. But I tend to agree with you that this sort of reading ignores the anti-Semiticisms that plague the work.)

  11. November 28, 2011 6:07 pm

    Theophrastus: my central argument is that your statement:
    “In the classic statement of Christianity (for example, the fourth gospel) the defining characteristic of ‘being religious’ is having ‘beliefs'”
    presents a particular section within Christianity (more Western, more Protestant, and more fundamentalist [in the “people intellectually descended from those who wrote ‘The Fundamentals'” sense]) as the center of Christianity, and as the ones that have Biblical support. This seems rather insulting to those who are not Western, or, being Western, are not Protestant, or, being Protestant, are not fundamentalists.

    Even my disagreement with you about the nature of John is tangential to my disagreement with effectively agreeing that the fundies understand Christianity best.

  12. November 28, 2011 8:57 pm

    Eric, I did not mean to imply that, and I accept your correction. I was, in particular, referring to pre-Enlightenment views, particularly those of Luther and Calvin (and true, the modern proponents). You are correct that non-Protestants and many contemporary Protestants hold different views — and, in fact, even Luther and Calvin at times say differing things.

    However, I will maintain that the noisiest group of Christians today are those who equate “belief” and “being religious.”

  13. November 29, 2011 10:43 am

    I have no argument with that! In fact, the truth of that statement is probably why I reacted as strongly as I did to you accidentally passing them ammunition.


  1. You be the judge: Part II, “Esther” translations « BLT
  2. You be the judge: Part II, “Esther” translations « BLT
  3. On the literary merits of Hebrew Esther « BLT
  4. On the literary merits of Hebrew Esther « BLT

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