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Revel Dean Cohen Organizes International Conference on Jewish, Christian and Muslim Interpretation

“Encountering Scripture in Overlapping Cultures: Early Jewish, Christian and Muslim Strategies of Reading and Their Contemporary Implications”—this is the title of an ongoing international research project spearheaded by Revel Associate Dean Mordechai Cohen, with the participation of fourteen distinguished scholars from the US, Israel and Europe.

The initial phase of this project was a six-month seminar that Cohen directed with Hebrew University Prof. Meir M. Bar-Asher in the fall semester of 2010/11, during which all fourteen of the group members convened at the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This group includes world experts on Jewish, Christian and Muslim interpretation of Sacred Scripture (the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qur’an), as well as its implications for religious law (halakhah, shari‘a) and legal hermeneutics, for literature and literary theory, and for the development of religious art. The group’s collaborative work, shared in weekly seminars, produced exciting comparative findings that illuminate similarities and differences among the three faith traditions.

For further details about the six-month seminar, including a full list of participants and their areas of scholarship, click here.

Upon the conclusion of their semester together in Jerusalem, the fourteen group members each committed to write a chapter for a new scholarly volume of collected studies that Cohen would edit together with Prof. Adele Berlin (University of Maryland), a world-renowned Bible scholar and another key group member. Since then, all of the chapters for the volume have been submitted, and are now undergoing editorial revision in order to highlight the nexus of ideas that emerge from this interdisciplinary project.

Revel Associate Dean Cohen returned recently from Israel where he re-convened the group for a conference at the Jerusalem IAS this past July. The purpose of this meeting was to harvest the fruits of the inter-disciplinary research that the members have been carrying out through correspondence over the past year. The conference consisted of five sessions with new presentations on subjects that emerged from a comparative reading of the chapter drafts submitted for the group volume.

  1. Professor Bar-Asher and Prof. Robert Gleave (University of Exeter) presented papers on Qur’an 3, 7, a verse that implies that God’s word—as expressed in Sacred Scripture—must be understood literally. Their presentation explored how this verse was understood by Muslim commentators, and how it led to the value Islam placed on arriving at singular clarity in understanding the intention of God (murād allāh). By contrast, which emerged from the ensuing discussion, Christian interpreters in all ages tended to regard the Bible as multivalent and avidly sought hidden meanings in Scripture.
  1. In his paper, Professor Cohen proposed a new theory for assessing Rashi’s plain sense (peshat) exegesis in light of his intellectual milieu in northern France, specifically the distinctive literary interpretive mode of his older contemporary St. Bruno the Carthusian, an influential master at the Cathedral school at Rheims, just 70 miles from Rashi’s native Troyes. Cohen’s theory was inspired by the chapter of the group volume contributed by Andrew Kraebel (Yale University), which discusses the pivotal role that Bruno’s Psalms commentary played within the eleventh-century Cathedral school at Rheims.
  1. Prof. Rita Copeland (University of Pennsylvania) presented a paper explicating how classical rhetoric, a discipline originally designed as a guide to oratory, was appropriated within the Christian interpretive tradition—from Late Antiquity to the Late Middle Ages—as a tool for interpreting Sacred Scripture. Copeland then pointed to a dramatic application of this very method by the Italian Renaissance Jewish scholar Judah Messer Leon. This opened the door for the two prepared responses that explored earlier Jewish applications of rhetoric to interpret the Hebrew Bible, one in the Jerusalem Karaite school by Prof. Meira Polliack (Tel-Aviv University), the other, by Professor Cohen, on the Andalusian Rabbanite tradition (Moses Ibn Ezra and Radak).
  1. Professor Bar-Asher opened the next session with a summary of the views in Islam on the permissibility of translating the Qur’an, the subject of his chapter in the joint volume of the group. As he noted, the general Muslim belief is that he very language of the Qur’an is essential to its sublimity and spiritual power, and therefore cannot be captured by translation into any other language. Three prepared responses were then presented for comparison. Professor Copeland discussed objections in fourteenth-century England to translating the Vulgate into English—but these focused on the danger of misrepresenting Christian doctrine (and thereby promoting heresy), rather than concern for tarnishing the Bible’s stylistic excellence. In sharp contrast, as Prof. Stephen Prickett (University of Kent) discussed, the translation of the Bible into multiple languages was welcomed in post-Reformation Europe as a means of bringing out the manifold potential meanings of the word of God. Finally, Professor Berlin explored how modern scholars, working with a different set of concerns, seek to overcome the challenges of Bible translation, from issues of accuracy to those of stylistic felicity.
  1. The final session of the conference was chaired by Prof. James Kugel (Bar-Ilan University), a world-renowned scholar of ancient Bible interpretation. It opened with a presentation by Prof. Sidney Griffith (The Catholic University of America) on Syriac typological interpretation, as exemplified in the madrashe (homilies) of Jacob of Serug (451-521). As he showed, the Syriac fathers sought to fathom the pelatha (mysteries; compare the term nifla’ot in Ps 119:18) of the Old Testament through the Gospel narratives, for example, by viewing the sacrifice of Isaac as a prefiguration of the crucifixion. Prof. Jon Whitman (Hebrew University) then provided reflections on the relationship between typological and allegorical interpretation in the Christian West from antiquity to the modern period—when these hermeneutical conceptions substantially influenced modern literary theory.

Plans are underway to incorporate the insights produced by the conference into the revised chapters and editorial introductions of the group’s scholarly volume, thereby crystallizing its unified vision of the implications of the group’s interdisciplinary comparative study of Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptural interpretation in relation to the humanities at large.
For more about this project, see /revel/2011/08/31/a-multi-faith-approach-to-scripture/

See also the photo array on Revel’s Facebook page.