In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Revelation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Revelation in Second Temple Judaism
  • Nature as a Form of Revelation in the Bible and Post-biblical Judaism

Jewish Studies Revelation
Benjamin Sommer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0098


Revelation refers to an act in which God conveys a message, teaching, or truth to humanity or to a group of human beings. A person who receives a revelation that he or she is to proclaim to a larger community is known as a prophet, and thus the topics of revelation and prophecy are intertwined, especially in religions that are based on revelation, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (Revelation may be distinguished from mystical experience in Judaism, in which a human being experiences divine presence without receiving some specific message or teaching to bring to other people.) The notion of revelation is central to the Jewish religion because the authority of the Bible and rabbinic tradition and hence of Jewish law goes back to revelations God vouchsafed to various prophets. That authority especially goes back to the central act of revelation in Jewish tradition, the giving of the Torah through Moses at Mount Sinai. According to the narratives regarding the Sinaitic revelation in the Torah and in rabbinic texts, the revelation at Sinai first and foremost conveyed laws to the nation Israel. Later prophetic revelations through the classical prophets of the Bible typically conveyed messages of several types. Some encouraged the Israelites to obey the law in both its ritual and its moral dimensions; in particular, prophets often warned the Israelites regarding their failures to observe the law. They also conveyed messages of comfort after catastrophes overtook the nation. Written records of these revelations were grouped together and became a significant component of the writings that evolved into the Bible. Most Jews came to believe that prophetic revelation came to an end during the beginning of the Second Temple period (approximately in the 5th century BCE), whereupon the interpretation by sages of the revealed texts found in the Bible took the place of revelation. Religious authority, therefore, shifted from prophets to sages, from new revelations to canonical texts. Some Jews believed, however, that the act of interpreting biblical texts could itself be guided by a sort of secondary revelation. Beliefs of this sort were prominent, for example, in the Judaism of the Dead Sea Scrolls sect, but they are sometimes found (and are also sometimes rejected) in various forms of rabbinic Judaism in Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the contemporary world.

General Overviews

Revelation is a crucial topic for all periods of Jewish studies: biblical, ancient, rabbinic, medieval, and modern. Many studies focus on one period (see the sections below), while others cover several periods at once because they provide overviews or because they discuss how texts and thinkers in a post-biblical era viewed revelation in the biblical period or in biblical texts that narrate revelation. Solomon 2012 provides a comprehensive survey informed by deep Jewish learning and by sensitivity to modern questions and approaches. Ward 1994 discusses various ways to define revelation and examines ideas of revelation in religions throughout the world; on pages 111–134 the author relates Jewish views of revelation to wider discussions in religious studies and theology. Cohen and Mendes-Flohr 1987 provides several essays that discuss concepts related to revelation not only in biblical texts, but also as viewed in later forms of Judaism. Scholem 1971 discusses the ways rabbinic and kabbalistic texts relate revelation to the oral and written traditions that mediate God’s messages to later generations. Gillman 1990 both presents a modern theology of revelation and lays out ways other modern thinkers have conceptualized the ways God communicates with Israel. Throughout Jewish history a productive tension has existed between direct revelation from God and revelation mediated through the process of textual interpretation, which itself can become a type of revelatory experience or divinition for the scholar and the student. This productive tension is discussed in Scholem 1971 and Fishbane 1989. An additional question that reappears throughout Jewish culture in all periods, discussed in Fackenheim 1972, is the extent to which God does or does not speak through historical events—an issue that has become more acute in the 20th century, with its two overwhelming events of catastrophe and rebirth in the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel.

  • Cohen, Arthur, and Paul R. Mendes-Flohr, eds. Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought: Original Essays on Critical Concepts, Movements, and Beliefs. New York: Free Press, 1987.

    Contains several short and readable essays relevant to the topic—not only “Revelation” by Shalom Rosenberg (pp. 815–826), but also “Authority” by Stephen Wald (pp. 29–34), “Commandments” by Yeshayahu Leibowitz (pp. 67–80), “Covenant” by Arnold Eisen (pp. 107–112), “Natural Law” by Jeffrey Macy (pp. 663–672), “Prophecy” by Peter Zaas (pp. 731–734), “Silence” by André Neher (pp. 873–880), and “Torah” by James Kugel (pp. 995–1016).

  • Fackenheim, Emil. God’s Presence in History: Jewish Affirmations and Philosophical Reflection. New York: HarperCollins, 1972.

    Argues that events in history have been interpreted in Judaism as demanding interpretation; 20th-century experience of near-death in the Holocaust and rebirth in the establishment of the State of Israel entail a commanding message of Jewish survival that might be seen as akin to a revelation.

  • Fishbane, Michael. The Garments of Torah: Essays in Biblical Hermeneutics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

    Explores the relationship between revelation and interpretation in biblical and rabbinic texts and the bearing of that relationship for modern Jewish understandings of sacred text.

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

    The first chapter, “Revelation: What Really Happened?” (pp. 1–39), provides an excellent overview of the importance of revelation for Jewish thought. It lays out the philosophical and exegetical challenges that the biblical texts concerning revelation at Sinai present.

  • Scholem, Gershom. “Revelation and Tradition as Religious Categories in Judaism.” In The Messianic Idea in Judaism. By Gershom Scholem, 282–303. New York: Schocken, 1971.

    Emphasizes the crucial role of tradition throughout Jewish history as a central aspect of revelation that applies and expands the divine communication in new historical circumstances. Explores the ways tradition in Judaism mediates, stimulates, preserves, and renews revelation.

  • Solomon, Norman. Torah from Heaven: The Reconstruction of Faith. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2012.

    A comprehensive treatment of Jewish ideas about revelation of the Torah from ancient to modern times, discussing both attacks on traditional views and defenses thereof, with an explicit preference for modern, middle-way understandings of the origin of the Bible and of the law.

  • Ward, Keith. Religion and Revelation: A Theology of Revelation in the World’s Religions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    An excellent treatment of revelation in light of both modern Christian theology and the study of comparative religion. In addition to its instructive treatment of Jewish traditions (pp. 111–133), it contains useful discussions of how to define the term revelation (pp. 15–36, 87–93) and models for understanding revelation (pp. 326–329).

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