In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medieval Biblical Interpretation (Jewish)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies and Volumes of Essays
  • Historiography
  • Studies in the Exegesis of Biblical Books
  • Commentaries on the Book of Job as a Locus of Mystical and Philosophical Exegesis
  • Primary Texts and Editions

Biblical Studies Medieval Biblical Interpretation (Jewish)
Yedida Eisenstat
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0247


Medieval Jewish biblical interpretation encompasses the oeuvre produced by medieval Jews from the Geonic period (roughly 800–1000 CE in Iraq) through the Spanish expulsion in 1492 CE. These exegetical texts reflect their production within the majority Muslim and Christian cultural spheres in which Jews lived. As in earlier and later periods, Jewish exegetes adopted, adapted, and innovated genres, media, and ideas from the surrounding cultures and repurposed them for Jewish cultural expression—in this case, the interpretation of Scripture. The primary novel characteristic of medieval Jewish biblical interpretation, as it developed in first the Muslim sphere in the East and then somewhat later in Christian Europe, is an increased sensitivity to grammar, language, context, and literary features, including genre expectations. In Jewish intellectual history, this new exegetical movement is called peshat, which may be roughly described as the unadorned meaning of the biblical text. Earlier rabbinic midrashic interpretation was typically less concerned with immediate context and regularly proffered more fanciful interpretations. In the East, increased sensitivity to context among Jewish biblical interpreters in the medieval period is attributed to growing literacy and rationalism upon the rise of Islam and Qurʾanic exegesis among Muslims, which influenced Jews to pursue similar scriptural exegesis of the Hebrew Bible. In the West, the rise of peshat is attributed to the 12th-century renaissance in northern Europe (c. 1050–1250 CE), increased tensions between Jews and Christians that manifest in biblical polemic, and developing knowledge of Hebrew grammar. Medieval Jewish biblical interpretation is continuous with earlier rabbinic interpretation in that, like their predecessors, medieval interpreters presented their exegesis as one among many possible legitimate meanings of the biblical text, within shifting religiously delimited bounds. Medieval interpreters engaged with different implicit and explicit interlocutors than did their rabbinic predecessors; Jewish exegetes of this period witnessed the rise of the Karaite Jewish sectarian movement, increased engagement with Greek philosophical ideas, Rabbanite exegesis, and growing knowledge of competing Christian biblical interpretation—all of which are reflected in the different Jewish biblical commentaries of this period. These contributed to a general shift in hermeneutic concerns that may be detected in the medieval period from the more fanciful and creative midrashic exegesis of the classical rabbinic period to the more contextual and linguistic interpretive sensibilities of the medieval exegetes, whose commentaries reflect the boundaries of acceptable interpretation within different medieval religious communities. Other commentaries engaged philosophical and mystical concerns. Some of the main questions that researchers of medieval Jewish biblical interpretation investigate include: What continuities and discontinuities in time, ideas, and culture are reflected in a particular text? How might these be accounted for? Is there something besides interpreting Scripture motivating this interpreter? For whom did this exegete compose this commentary? With whom is this interpreter engaging, implicitly and explicitly? Who was the intended readership of this commentary? What defines the acceptable bounds of this exegete’s interpretation? What can we learn about a particular religious community from its biblical interpretations? What hermeneutics were employed by a particular interpreter, and what can we learn about him from his methodology?

General Overviews

Each article or book chapter included here has a slightly different project and casts a slightly different net regarding what is included and discussed in the introduction or overview. Harris 2012 discusses only the essential and major contours of the changes in Jewish biblical interpretation in the medieval period, offers an example of each of the hermeneutic developments outlined, and includes a helpful bibliography. Greenstein 1984, an older and longer essay, also introduces the student to major trends in Jewish exegesis in the medieval period and includes extensive examples and textual discussion. Greenstein’s hermeneutic explanations and illustrations are very clear and perfect for the novice student. Unfortunately, the essay does not include footnotes, but only somewhat dated suggestions for further reading. Both Kalman 2013 and Walfish 2014 offer broader and more inclusive introductions to the field, encompassing relatively longer discussions of Karaite exegesis as well as Maimonidean, mystical, and philosophical schools. Greenstein and Harris are more limited in their treatment, with their focus primarily on the Northern French and Spanish schools. Kalman 2013 is more descriptive and does not offer textual illustrations of the hermeneutics employed in the commentarial schools presented, though Kalman does offer interesting biographical details about some important commentators, and a current bibliography. Walfish 2014 is a lengthier essay that goes into more detail and presents more short illustrative examples of interpretive methods. Of all these introductions, Walfish casts the widest net, beginning his discussion in the 9th century with the shift away from midrashic interpretation among both Rabbanites and Karaites, through the Spanish school, the Northern French school, to later medieval philosophical and mystical exegesis and into the modern world, tracing the transmission of these various medieval exegetical texts into the modern period. Kalman 2008, though, is the fullest available bibliography on medieval Jewish biblical interpretation, accompanied by a discussion of current challenges and controversies in the field of medieval Jewish exegesis.

  • Greenstein, Edward L. “Medieval Bible Commentaries.” In Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts. Edited by Barry W. Holtz, 213–260. New York: Summit Books, 1984.

    An introduction to the hermeneutics employed in primary medieval commentaries found in standard rabbinic Bibles, each of which Greenstein explains with thorough presentation of numerous examples. Good for advanced undergraduates. No footnotes, and the further reading suggestions are dated. Includes historical contextual discussion and a helpful timeline. Short conclusion is a clear and concise formulation of the essential points. Reprinted in 2006 by Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

  • Harris, Robert A. “Jewish Biblical Exegesis in the Middle Ages: From Its Beginnings through the Twelfth Century.” In The New Cambridge History of the Bible. Vol. 2. Edited by Richard Marsden and Ann Matter, 596–615. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    Very readable short essay. Harris traces the origins of medieval Jewish biblical interpretation from its earlier Babylonian and Palestinian rabbinic origins through Karaism and its influence on high medieval Jewish commentary. Discusses mainly the best-known exegetes, does so with footnotes to relevant secondary scholarship, and presents and discusses a single parade example of each hermeneutic phenomenon presented.

  • Kalman, Jason. “Medieval Jewish Biblical Commentaries and the State of Parshanut Studies.” Religion Compass 2 (2008): 1–25.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00099.x

    Most comprehensive bibliography of the field available, along with discussion of developments in the field, its challenges, current controversies, and avenues of future research. Very helpful aid and guide through the extensive bibliography.

  • Kalman, Jason. “Rabbinic Exegesis.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation. Vol. 1. Edited by Steven L. Mackenzie, 177–189. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    Concise overview and outline of medieval Jewish exegetical trends according to “school,” roughly delimited by time and locale. Describes each school’s primary characteristics and literary output within the larger intellectual historical framework. Contains discussion of Maimonidean and philosophical exegesis not typically included in such essays. No footnotes or examples, but a helpful and concisely annotated bibliography at the end.

  • Walfish, Barry D. “Medieval Jewish Interpretation.” In The Jewish Study Bible. 2d ed. Edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, 1891–1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    Includes historical discussion. By exegetical “school,” describes the hermeneutic methodology of the major commentators, including a few of the more philosophical ones. Helpfully divided by school and arranged to show the intellectual historical arc. Includes a few examples as illustrative of particular hermeneutic methods.

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