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Interpreting Scriptures in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: Overlapping Inquiries, edited by Mordechai Z. Cohen and Adele Berlin (Cambridge University Press, 2016), is a comparative study of Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptural interpretation from antiquity to modernity, with special emphasis on the pivotal medieval period. It focuses on three areas: (1) responses in the three faith traditions to tensions created by the need to transplant their scriptures into new cultural and linguistic contexts; (2) changing conceptions of the literal sense and its importance vis-à-vis non-literal senses (figurative, spiritual, midrashic, etc.); (3) the ways in which classical rhetoric and poetics informed—or were resisted in—Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interpretation.  

By concentrating on points of overlap and intersection, the study brings to light aspects of methods and approaches in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that remain hidden until set in relation to one another. Beyond contributing to the study of the stream of interpretation in each faith community, this volume opens new interdisciplinary approaches to the history of scriptural interpretation.

This volume represents the collaborative research of a fourteen-member international team of scholars—each represented within its pages—in a project entitled “Encountering Scripture in Overlapping Cultures: Early Jewish, Christian and Muslim Strategies of Reading and Their Contemporary Implications” that convened at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem from September 2010 till February 2011, with a follow-up conference in July 2012. In their discussions, the members of the group explored not only the interpretation of scripture itself, but also related fields such as literary theory and legal hermeneutics. Developing out of our collaborative project, this volume provides an in-depth investigation of the nexus of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim encounters with scripture.

Table of Contents

Introduction Intersecting encounters with scriptures in three faiths
Mordechai Cohen

Part I Scriptural texts in changing contexts

1     The emergence of biblical interpretation in antiquity
James Kugel

2     Disclosing the mystery: hermeneutics of typology in Syriac exegesis
Sidney Griffith

3     “We have made it an Arabic Qur’an”: the permissibility of translating scripture in Islam in contrast with Judaism and Christianity
Meir Bar-Asher

4     The unmoved mover begins to move: literary and artistic renderings of the Christian Bible
Piero Boitani

5     Deconstructing the dual Torah: a Jewish response to the Muslim model of scripture
Meira Polliack

Part II Conceptions of the literal sense

6     The literal sense of Christian scripture: redefinition and revolution
Jon Whitman

7      Figuring the letter: making sense of “sensus litteralis” in late-medieval Christian Exegesis

        Alastair Minnis

8      Conceptions of the literal sense (ḥaqīqa, ẓāhir) in Muslim interpretive thought
Robert Gleave

9      Emergence of the rule of peshat in Jewish Bible exegesis
Mordechai Cohen

Part III Rhetoric and the poetics of reading

10   Reading Virgil, reading David: poetry and commentary in the medieval school of Rheims
A. B. Kraebel

11   On the figurative (majāz) in Muslim interpretation and legal hermeneutics
Wolfhart Heinrichs

12   Words of eloquence: rhetoric and poetics in Jewish peshat exegesis in its Muslim and Christian contexts
Mordechai Cohen

13   Classical rhetoric and scriptural interpretation in the Latin West
Rita Copeland

14   Robert Lowth’s biblical poetics and romantic theory
Stephen Prickett

15   From scripture to literature: modern ways of reading the Bible
Adele Berlin

List of Contributors

Meir M. Bar-Asher is Max Schloessinger Professor of Islamic Studies and the Chair of the Department of Arabic Language and Literature at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research interests include the Qur’an and its exegesis, Muslim sectarianism, and the interaction between Judaism and Islam. Among his published works are Scripture and Exegesis in Early Imāmī-Shiism (1999) and The Nuṣayrī-‘Alawī religion: an enquiry into its theology and liturgy (2002, with Aryeh Kofsky).

Adele Berlin is Robert H. Smith Professor of Hebrew Bible Emerita in the Department of English and the Jewish Studies Program at University of Maryland. Her research interests include literary study of the Bible, inner-biblical and ancient Jewish interpretation, and modern interpretive strategies. Among her publications are Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (1983), The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism (1985), and The JPS Bible Commentary: Esther (2001).

Piero Boitani is Professor of Comparative Literature and Head of the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of Rome, “La Sapienza.” His research interests include the Bible and its rewritings in European literature and art; Dante, Boccaccio, and Chaucer; and thirteenth- and fourteenth-century English narrative. Among his published works are The Bible and Its Rewritings (1999), The Cambridge Chaucer Companion (1986, edited with Jill Mann), andEnglish medieval narrative in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (1982).

Mordechai Z. Cohen is Professor of Bible and Associate Dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, Yeshiva University. His research interests include medieval Jewish Bible interpretation in Christian and Muslim cultural contexts; connections with Arabic poetics and Hebrew poetry; medieval Jewish legal hermeneutics and Muslim jurisprudence; and modern literary approaches to the Bible. Among his published works are Three Approaches to Biblical Metaphor: From Abraham Ibn Ezra and Maimonides to David Kimhi (2003) and Opening the Gates of Interpretation: Maimonides’ Biblical Hermeneutics in Light of His Geonic-Andalusian Heritage and Muslim Milieu (2011).

Rita Copeland is Sheli Z. and Burton X. Rosenberg Professor of Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, and a member of the departments of Classical Studies and English. Her research interests include medieval literary history, rhetoric, and hermeneutics as applied to Bible and literary culture, Latin receptions of Greek and Arabic learning, and scriptural interpretation among heretical groups (Wycliffites / Lollards). Among her publications are Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and Translation in the Middle Ages (1991), The Cambridge Companion to Allegory (2010, edited with Peter T. Struck), and Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric: Language Arts and Literary Theory, AD 300 -1475 (2009, with Ineke Sluiter).

Robert M. Gleave is Professor of Islamic and Arabic Studies at the University of Exeter. His research interests include Islamic Law and legal theory (usūl al-fiqh); Muslim theories of interpretation; Shi‘ite legal, political, and hermeneutical theory; Medieval Arabic literature and literary theory. Among his published books are Scripturalist Islam: The History and Doctrines of the Akhbari School of Shii Thought (2007) and Islam and Literalism: Literal Meaning and Interpretation in Islamic Legal Theory (2012).

Sidney H. Griffith is Ordinary Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages at The Catholic University of America. His research interests include Syriac Christian Bible interpretation, early Arabic Bible translations, and their influences on the Qur’an and its interpretation. Among his publications are Faith Adoring the Mystery Reading the Bible with St. Ephraem the Syrian (1997), The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam (2008), and The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the “People of the Book” in the Language of Islam (2013).

†Wolfhart P. Heinrichs was James Richard Jewett Professor of Arabic at Harvard University. His research interests were medieval Arabic literary theory, Islamic legal hermeneutics, the notion of majâz (“figurative speech”) in Arabic poetics and qur’anic hermeneutics, and Neo-Aramaic. Among his books are Arabische Dichtung und griechische Poetik: Hāzim al-Qartāğannīs Grundlegung d. Poetik mit Hilfe aristotel Begriffe (1969), The Hand of the Northwind: Opinions on Metaphor and the Early Meaning of Isti‘āra in Arabic Poetics (1977), and Studies in Neo-Aramaic (1990).

A. B. Kraebel is Assistant Professor of English at Trinity University. His research focuses on medieval interpretation of the Bible and classical Latin literature, as well as book history and manuscript studies. He has published an edition of The Sermons of William of Newburgh (2010), and he is currently preparing a monograph, tentatively entitled The Appeal of the Academic: Biblical Commentary and Translation in Late Medieval England.

James L. Kugel is Professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and Director of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible at Bar-Ilan University. His research interests include the “interpreted” Bible, as reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls, rabbinic literature, New Testament, and Qur’an; liturgical uses of Scripture; biblical poetry and the notion of parallelism as interpreted from ancient to modern times. Among his publications are The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History (1981); The Bible as It Was (1997), and How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (2007).

Alastair J. Minnis is Douglas Tracy Smith Professor of English at Yale University. His research interests include medieval literary theory and notions of authorship; medieval study of the Bible and classical literature; conceptions of Scripture’s multiple senses; scholasticism and its vernacular intersections. Among his published writings are Medieval Holy Women in the Christian Tradition C. 1100-C. 1500 (2010; edited with Rosalynn Voaden); Translations of Authority in Medieval English Literature: Valuing the Vernacular (2009); and Medieval Theory of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages (1984).

Meira Polliack is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Tel-Aviv University. Her research interests include medieval Bible exegesis and translation, Karaism, Judaeo-Arabic Literature, and Judaeo-Arabic sources in the Cairo Genizah; reception history and interpretation of the Bible as a central feature of the cultural history of the Jews of the medieval Islamic world. She has written The Karaite Tradition of Arabic Bible Translation: A Linguistic and Exegetical Study of Karaite Translations of the Pentateuch from the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries C.E. (1997) and edited Karaite Judaism: A Guide to Its History and Literary Sources (2003).

Stephen Prickett is Regius Professor Emeritus of English Language and Literature, University of Glasgow, and Honorary Professor of the University of Kent at Canterbury. His research interests include literature, theology, and history of biblical interpretation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and romantic appropriations of scripture. Among his publications are Words and the Word: Language, Poetics, and Biblical Interpretation (1986); Origins of Narrative The Romantic Appropriation of the Bible (1996); and Modernity and the Reinvention of Tradition: Backing into the Future (2009).

Jon Whitman is Associate Professor in the Department of English of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where for many years he also served as Director of The Center for Literary Studies. His research interests include interpretive and literary allegory; diverse conceptions of the “literal” sense; changing approaches to relations between Scripture and literature; the development of medieval romance; imaginative structures of history and time; and critical theory from antiquity to the modern period. He is the author of Allegory: The Dynamics of an Ancient and Medieval Technique (1987) and the editor of Interpretation and Allegory: Antiquity to the Modern Period (2000) and Romance and History: Imagining Time from the Medieval to the Early Modern Period (2015).


About the Figures

There are 16 illustrations (“figures”) in this volume: 15 artistic representations of creation in Chapter 4, “The unmoved mover begins to move: literary and artistic renderings of the Christian Bible,” by Piero Boitani, and a plate featuring a medieval illuminated manuscript in Chapter 10, “Reading Virgil, reading David: poetry and commentary in the medieval school of Rheims,” by A. B. Kraebel. These figures appear in the volume in black and white, but can be seen below in full color in 2 formats:  1) As individual images and 2) As a slideshow 

Figure 1: Tapiz de la Creación (Creation Tapestry), Girona Cathedral, c. 1100.
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Figure 2: Tapiz de la Creación, restored by el Centro de Restauración de Bienes Muebles, 2012(4)
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Figure 3: Monreale Cathedral, nave, south wall, Creation mosaics, late 12th century, detail of Light and Angels.
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Figure 4: Monreale Cathedral, nave, south wall, Creation mosaics, late 12th century, the Beginning.
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Figure 5: San Clemente, Rome, apse of upper church, mosaic, c. 1130.
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Figure 6: San Clemente, Rome, apse of upper church, mosaic, detail of the Hand of God.
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Figure 7: San Marco, Venice, narthex, mosaic, 1215–35, dome with Genesis scenes.
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Figure 8: Chartres Cathedral, north transept, portal sculpture, 1194–1230, first day of Creation.
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Figure 9: Chartres Cathedral, north transept, rose window, stained glass, 1230–35, Christ creates the cosmos.
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Figure 10: Giovanni di Paolo, Creation of the World and Expulsion from Paradise.

Giovanni di Paolo, Creation of the World and Expulsion from Paradise, tempera and gold on wood, 1445, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Robert Lehman Collection, 1975).

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Figure 11: Perugino, God the Creator, fresco, 1507–08, ceiling of the Stanza dell’Incendio di Borgo, Vatican.
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Figure 12: Raphael, The Prime Mover, fresco, 1509–11, ceiling of the Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican.
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Figure 13: Michelangelo, Separation of Light and Darkness, fresco, 1512, ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican.
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Figure 14: Michelangelo, Separation of Water and Dry Land, fresco, 1512, ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican.
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Figure 15: Michelangelo, Creation of Sun, Moon, and Planets, fresco, 1512, ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican.
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Figure 16: Rheims, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 133, f. 4v, gloss on Psalms 2:13–3:4.
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Interpreting Scripture - Cohen and Berlin