Approach to Interpretation of the Bible Through Recourse to Jewish Exegetical Traditions – Why Is It Still Important?

The document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission Interpretation of the Holy Scriptures in the Church lists, among traditional methods of the interpretation of the Bible, the approach through recourse to Jewish exegetical traditions. We read there, among others: “The Old Testament reached its final form in the Jewish world of the four or five centuries preceding the Christian era. Judaism of this time also provided the matrix for the origin of the New Testament and the infant church” (1,2).

Twenty five years after the publication of the document, it is worth asking whether the method of referring to Jewish interpretative traditions is still important, and if it is, then why.

Eight years later

It seems that the answer to such a question must be positive. This is evidenced by the fact that eight years after the publication of the document, the Pontifical Biblical Commission prepared another one, in which the authors speak explicitly about Jewish methods of biblical interpretation. I mean of course the document The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2001). Its authors state: “the Jewish reading of the Bible is a possible one, in continuity with the Jewish Sacred Scriptures from the Second Temple period, a reading analogous to the Christian reading which developed in parallel fashion” (22).

In the introduction to the document Card. Joseph Ratzinger notes that Christians can learn a great deal from the Jewish exegesis practised for more than two thousand years; in return, Christians may hope that Jews can profit from Christian exegetical research. According to the members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, the use of the achievements of Jewish exegesis may be helpful for Christian exegesis. Why? For several reasons mentioned in the document.


Firstly, the document Interpretation of the Holy Scriptures in the Church mentions the importance of Qumran writings for Christian exegesis: „Numerous studies of the history of ancient Judaism and notably the manifold research stimulated by the discoveries at Qumran have highlighted the complexity of the Jewish world, both in the land of Israel and in the Diaspora, throughout this period” (1,2). In recent years, after the publication of the document of the Biblical Commission, it seems that all the scrolls discovered in Qumran have been published. Over the last several decades the researchers carried out thousands of comparative studies, comparing the teachings of the Qumran community with the teachings of Jesus, John the Baptist or the Apostle Paul.

Judaean Desert

The Dead Sea scrolls enrich the image of Palestinian Judaism with its specific variation, whose image compared to the Christian beliefs may lead to interesting conclusions[1]. Moreover, as prof. Krzysztof Pilarczyk points out some researchers even try to identify certain fragments of the 7th-grotto manuscripts with texts from the gospel according to Matthew, the Acts of the Apostles, the Letter to the Romans, the Letters of Peter, Timothy and Jacob. It seems premature, although it could indicate direct relationships between the Qumran writings and the New Testament, which refers to the Essene doctrine in such themes as faith, eschatology, the struggle between good and evil in the world and in man as well as participation of angels in human life. In any case, today the impact of Essenism on emerging Christianity cannot be excluded, especially since the Essene communities existed in different places of Palestine. Their influence may be found in three areas: literary, institutional and doctrinal[2].

The Greek Bible

Secondly, in the last two decades one can notice growing interest in the meaning of the Septuagint in the development of the early Church. The Pontifical Biblical Commission notes this fact: “One of the most ancient witnesses to the Jewish interpretation of the Bible is the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. […] The ancient Jewish traditions allow for a better understanding particularly of the Septuagint, the Jewish Bible which eventually became the first part of the Christian Bible for at least the first four centuries of the church and has remained so in the East down to the present day” (1,2). At that time Septuagint was already the Bible used by Christians to a much larger extent than the Hebrew Bible[3]. The Palestinian Jews, and after some time also the Jews in the Diaspora, distanced themselves from the Septuagint soon after it became the Bible of Christians. It should be noted that at that time the Hebrew Bible was not yet vocalised, so in the rabbinic environment it was possible to effectively read some words differently than in the previous tradition of Judaism, while at the same time changing the meaning of whole sentences. It may have happened that the reading of a word commonly accepted in Judaism, a word translated in the Septuagint according to this tradition, was rejected in the rabbinic environment and was changed after adopting another vocalisation. Changes in the readings by rabbis were made especially in those places that constituted the base of Christian theology.

Hebrew Bible Apocrypha

Thirdly, the Pontifical Biblical Commission appreciates the Jewish interpretation of the Bible in the intertestamental literature: „The extra-canonical Jewish literature, called apocryphal or intertestamental, in its great abundance and variety, is an important source for the interpretation of the New Testament” (1,2). Apocrypha of Judaic provenience allow to enrich the Judaic image of the coming of the Messiah and the events associated with His arrival[4]. Many of the apocrypha arising from within Judaism were reformulated by Christians and in this way the Jewish tradition finally received Christian interpretation.

Rabbinic literature

Fourthly, rabbinic literature, beginning with the Mishnah, can shed much light on the Christian interpretation of the Bible. The Mishnah shaped itself within rabbinical Judaism and its roots date back to biblical Judaism and then the times in which the first Christian community appeared. Thus, it cannot be excluded that in this work one may catch an echo of the anti-Christian polemics.

We welcome with great joy the initiative taken by Fr. prof. Mirosław Wróbel from the Catholic University of Lublin to translate the Targum Neofiti into Polish. The Targums are an important testimony of the Jewish interpretation of the Holy Scriptures: „The Aramaic Targums represent a further witness to the same activity [of the interpretation of the Bible] which has carried on down to the present. […] The Targums and the Midrashic literature illustrate the homiletic tradition and mode of biblical interpretation practiced by wide sectors of Judaism in the first centuries” (1,2).

When making use of rabbinic sources, two facts should be taken into account. The first is that the final edition of some of these writings is dated several centuries after the final disunion between the Church and the Synagogue.  It is true that rabbis tried to preserve the accuracy of the teaching of their predecessors (including the Pharisees) with great care and attention, but it does not exclude the possibility of attributing to the teachers of the Torah some statements that may not have been uttered by them[5]. The second fact that should be taken into account when using these sources is the awareness that the discussion among scholars as to which of the fragments actually relate to Christ or Christians has not yet been settled.

The parting of the ways

The approach through recourse to Jewish exegetical traditions can be useful also in the studies on the parting of the ways of the Church and the Synagogue. The expression parting of the ways in relation to the Church and the Synagogue was used for the first time by James Parkes in his book The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue (New York, 1934). This formula became a technical term after the lecture of Philip S. Alexander at the symposium organised by Durham University in 1989. His contribution was entitled„The Parting of the Ways” from the perspective of Rabbinic Judaism[6]. Pointing to the differences between Jewish and Christian interpretations of the same passages of the Hebrew Bible may bring us closer to answering questions: How did the separation of Church from Synagogue come about? What processes stand behind the separation of Christianity from Judaism? What factors have affected the parting of the ways between these two currently separate religions?


The approach through recourse to Jewish exegetical traditions is still important and valid for several reasons. For the last twenty five years, the Christian exegesis has developed considerably studies on the Qumran writings, the Septuagint, apocrypha of the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic literature, and the process called parting of the ways of rabbinic Judaism and emerging Christianity. One of the reasons for development of these studies is using the approach through recourse to Jewish exegetical traditions in Christian exegesis. Studies in these areas have not yet been completed. Using Jewish exegesis will, therefore, still be necessary.

However, using the Jewish tradition of the Bible interpretation, one should take into account the fundamental differences between Judaism and Christianity, which must not be blurred. The Pontifical Biblical Commission reminds about this, stating: “Above all, the overall pattern of the Jewish and Christian communities is very different: On the Jewish side, in very varied ways, it is a question of a religion which defines a people and a way of life based upon written revelation and an oral tradition; whereas, on the Christian side, it is faith in the Lord Jesus—the one who died, was raised and lives still, Messiah and Son of God; it is around faith in his person that the community is gathered. These two diverse starting points create, as regards the interpretation of the Scriptures, two separate contexts, which for all their points of contact and similarity are in fact radically diverse” (1,2)

Zobacz też:

[1]H. Stegemann, Esseńczycy z Qumran, Jan Chrzciciel i Jezus, trans. Z. Małecki, A. Tronina, Kraków-Mogilany 2002, 9.

[2]K. Pilarczyk, Literatura żydowska od epoki biblijnej do haskali. Wprowadzenie religioznawcze, literackie i historyczne, 173.

[3]W. Chrostowski emphasizes that LXX was created in Judaism environment and is a thoroughly Jewish book; Żydowskie tradycje interpretacyjne pomocą w zrozumieniu Biblii, CT 66 (1996) 1, 46.

[4]Those texts, according to M. McNamara, also include Johannine Apocalypse; I Targum e il Nuovo Testamento. Le parafrasi aramaiche della bibbia ebraica e il loro apporto per una migliore comprensione del nuovo testamento, Bologna 1978, 7. See also J.H. Charlesworth, Jesus, Early Jewish Literature, and Archeology, 179-183; C. Dimier, The Old Testament Apocrypha, New York 1964, 20; M. de Jonge, The so-called Pseudoepigrapha of the Old Testament and Early Christianity, in: The New Testament and Hellenistic Judaism, ed. by P. Borgen, S. Giversen, Peabody 1997, 70; E. Tigchelaar, Old Testament Pseudoepigrapha and the Scriptures, in: Old Testament Pseudoepigrapha and the Scriptures, ed. E. Tigchelaar, BETL CCLXX, Leuven – Paris – Walpole 2014, 1-18.

[5]Toledot Jeshu is a late work of anti-Christian nature. It was widespread in the Diaspora environment in Europe and in the Middle East in the 9th century. The text has been preserved in many versions. As a matter of fact, it may be an echo of anti-Christian polemics of the first centuries, but it should not be in any way considered as a reliable source for research on the history of the disunion between the Church and the Synagogue; A. Paciorek, Jezus z Nazaretu. Czasy i wydarzenia, Częstochowa 2015, 49. It ought to be added that it does not provide such information about the early Church, although the same work, according to the authors, was to be a lampoon emulating the Gospel according to Matthew. It seems that among Christian writings contemporary to Toledot Jeshu, there is no counterpart of this work, which would refer to some of the great characters of Judaism in such a repulsive way; W. Chrostowski, Jezus a religijna żydowska tradycja, CT 63 (1993) 2, 93.

[6]The predecessor of Parkes was F.J. Foakes Jackson, editor of a collection of articles published in London in 1912 entitled The Parting of the Roads: Studies in the Development of Judaism and Early Christianity. Further proofs of the usage of the wording parting of the ways with regard to Christian-Jewish relations in the first centuries are as follow: A. Cohen, The Parting of the Ways: Judaism and the Rise of Christianity, London 1954; R. Murray The Parting of the Ways, CJR 20 (1987) 42-44; R. Bauckham, The Parting of the Ways: What Happened and Why, OT 47 (1993) 135-151; and V. Martin, A House Divided: The Parting of the Ways Between Synagogue and Church, New York 1995.

ks. Mariusz Rosik