Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Rabbinical exegesis: purloining from Christianity

My program in these religion pieces is to examine, without fear or favor, the reality of the Abrahamic traditions. Regrettably, the story is often a tawdry one. I will shortly shift my main attention from Judaism to Christianity, which deserves at least equally close scrutiny.

By way of transition, though, I address yet another one of the ways in which medieval and modern Judaism have silently purloined from Christianity. This borrowing has to do with hermeneutics, the principles that govern interpreting the sacred texts.

In today’s Jewish exegesis, the Pardes typology describes four different approaches to Biblical interpretation. The term, sometimes also rendered PaRDeS, is an acronym formed from the name initials of these four approaches, which are:

Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — "plain" ("simple"), or the straightforward meaning of a verse or passage;
Remez (רֶמֶז) — "hints," or the deep meaning beyond the literal sense;
Derash (דְּרַשׁ) — from Hebrew darash - "to inquire" or "to seek,” the comparative meaning; unraveling the midrashic meaning by comparing words and forms in a passage to similar occurrences elsewhere;
Sod (סוֹד) — "secret" ("mystery") meaning of passage, as given through inspiration or revelation.

Levels two, three, and four of the Pardes method examine the extended meaning of a text. As a general rule, the extended meaning never contradicts the base or literal meaning. In summary, Peshat means the literal interpretation. Remez is the allegorical meaning. Derash includes the metaphorical meaning, while Sod represents the hidden meaning. There is often considerable overlap, for example when legal understandings of a verse are influenced by mystical interpretations, or when a "hint" is elicited by comparing a word with other instances of the same word. [Needless to say, my own preference is for the Sod method.]

The Hebrew noun "Pardes" is cognate with our word “paradise,” both terms stemming from Persian.

Similarities with the earlier Christian fourfold system are too numerous to be a coincidence. In fact, the Christian Middle Ages recognized four types of allegorical interpretation, a method which had originated with the Bible commentators of the early Christian era. As in the later Jewish system, the first level is simply the literal interpretation of the events of the story for historical purposes with no underlying meaning. The second level, the typological links the events of the Old Testament to the New Testament, for example, by drawing allegorical connections between the events of Christ's life with the stories of the Old Testament. The third level is the moral (or tropological), focusing on how one should act in the present--pointing up, as it were, the "moral of the story.” The fourth level is anagogical, dealing with the spiritual or mystical dimension as it relates to future events of Christian history, heaven, hell, the last judgment; it deals with prophecies.

Thus the four types of allegory treat past events (literal), the connection of past events with the later ones (typology), present realities (moral), and the future (anagogical).

A well known exposition of the four levels of interpretation stems from Dante Alighieri, in his epistle to Can Grande della Scala (early 14th century). However, as Henri de Lubac has shown in great detail, the method goes back to early Christian times.

The first influential model of multiple levels in the interpretation of Scripture stems from the prolific patristic writer Origen of Caesarea of the third century. Origen maintained that the Bible discloses three levels of meaning, corresponding to the threefold Pauline (and Platonic) division of a person into body, soul and spirit. The bodily level of Scripture, the bare letter, is helpful as it stands to meet the needs of the more simple. Great care must be taken before even considering whether to discard it. However, the other two levels are essential. The psychic level, corresponding to the soul, assists progress in perfection. Finally, the spiritual interpretation deals with “ineffable mysteries” so as to make humanity a “partaker of all the doctrines of the Spirit's counsel.”

Later exegetes improved on Origin’s typology in two ways. First, they held that the literal interpretation may not be set aside; instead, one must assume a harmony with the others. In addition, they expanded the number of levels from three to four, as noted above.

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. If so, the Pardes system represents a clear homage to the developed fourfold system of modern Christian exegesis. Let us look at the parallels in more detail. Both systems agree in placing the literal sense first. Christian Typology, examining correspondences linking different parts of the canon of Scripture, broadly corresponds to Derash. Less close, perhaps, is the simllarity of the moral level to Remez. The mystical or anagogical level is similar to Sod. Since the rabbis do not recognize the authority of the New Testament, some modification was required. But purloining and adaptation unmistakably took place.

It is not known exactly when this derivation took place. However, a version of the Pardes typology appears in the Tolaat Yaakov, a kabbalistic text stemming from the early sixteenth century. This would situate the borrowing in the later middle ages, the very period in which Christian fourfold exegesis was at its height.

This is but one of the many ways in which evolving Judaism has borrowed from Christianity, usually without acknowledgment, as in this case. A hundred and fifty years ago, the Christian allegorical method, with its four levels, withered under the impact of the Higher Criticism. Few Christian pastors or exegetes would resort to the outdated method nowadays. Dwelling in the past tense, it belongs to the arcana of intellectual history. The situation is different in the eclectic world of Neo-Judaism, where this creaky mechanism is alive and well. What Christianity has wisely shed, Judaism has kept.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think you've shown that the Jewish exegetes were influenced by Christians. It is more reasonable to say that they derive from the same exegetical tradition. There is much scholarship on this. There is no doubt that the 4-fold system was current among Rabbinic exegetes of the 13th Century, when both Aquinas and Dante lived.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

James L. Kugel holds, correctly I think, that the allegorical method of interpreting Scripture began in late Hellenistic Judaism, that is in the second and first centuries BCE. So I would agree that there is a common exegetical background of a generic nature. However, to the best of my knowledge, the fourfold system was a specific creation of Christian exegetes in the wake of Origen, that is in the Patristic era, long before Aquinas and Dante. I know of no Jewish parallels in Patristic times.

7:01 PM  

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