On the Origins of Peshat Commentary
From Derash to Peshat – The Invention of Literature
Christian scholarship in 12th century northern France experienced what is often described as an intellectual Renaissance, one that incorporated the study of ancient Roman rhetorical texts, both in their own right (for techniques and theory) as well as in applying them to the study of the Bible. During this period, northern French biblical exegetes, both Jewish and Christian, moved away from treating Scripture as only the authoritative basis of religious behavior and ideology (auctoritas) and began to read it also as a literary text (littera). Thus both rabbis and churchmen developed a different set of tools to unlock the Bible’s meaning.
By the 12th century, Christian commentators had regularly begun to include, alongside the traditional allegorical and figurative levels of interpretation, the so-called “literal” reading (ad litteram), what we would call “contextual meaning.” As the twelfth century Christian churchmen wrote treatises and lengthy introductions to their exegetical works, we can readily understand their intellectual and academic appreciation of the Bible and how they understood their project of contextual reading.
Scholars of Christian exegesis generally trace the beginnings of approaching scripture with multiple levels of interpretation to an arc that builds from the third century church father Origen to the fifth century monk, John Cassian. This included a level of reading “according to the letter.” In the 12th century, efforts to clearly define and practice “the plain sense of Scripture” (sensus litteralis) found a home at the Parisian School of St. Victor. There, Hugh of St. Victor wrote a number of important treatises on biblical study. In one of these, he explains the so-called literal sense as follows:
God’s entire word is explained by threefold exposition. The first exposition is the historical sense, which considers the first meaning of words when they refer to things and facts. God’s word has this characteristic, which is different from other writings, that the words that are recited in it first refer to certain things, and that these things themselves then refer to other things… This is history in the proper and strict sense; but history is also understood more broadly as the sense that words have in their first meaning when they refer to things.
We might consider Hugh’s definition, “the first meaning of words when they refer to things and facts,” to be an early Christian effort to define “the plain sense method.”
At roughly the same time and in the same place, rabbinic Jewish commentators in northern France shifted from only derash, or homiletical reading to peshat, or reading according to linguistic and grammatical norms, and in literary (and sometimes historical) context. Nevertheless, in contrast to the Christian exegetes, the rabbinic peshat commentators never precisely defined their key exegetical term peshuto shel mikra. Sarah Kamin (1938–1989), the late Hebrew University Professor of Bible, described the peshat approach as follows:
An explanation (of a biblical passage) according to its language, its syntactic structure, its (immediate) literary context, its literary type, while considering the dynamic interaction among all of these components. Put differently, an interpretation according to peshat is an interpretation that considers all of the linguistic foundations in its literary composition, and assigns to each of them a meaning within a complete reading.
The beginning of peshat reading required a certain amount of pushback against traditional, midrashic reading of scripture, which had been dominant for well over a millennium. The Talmudic Sages described their midrashic approach as תורה שבעל פה, or “oral Torah,” which had been passed from God to Moses to them in an unending chain (m. Abot 1:1).
The northern French peshat commentators did not deny this claim outright, but they believed that in addition to traditional readings, the words of Scripture mean something on their own, i.e., without recourse to ancient authorities and their interpretation of the passages. Stated differently, the French peshat exegetes argued that biblical text was not merely cryptic coded language. Rather, the text has a clear meaning, subject to grammar and philology, in addition to syntax and rhetorical or literary devices.
The Shift from Oral to Written Transmission
The means through which both Jewish and Christian twelfth century exegetes expressed this shift “from derash to peshat” or “from allegoria to ad litteram” was the commentary, or ad locum gloss.
Writing a commentary on a biblical book was foreign to the ancient rabbis. Admittedly, rabbinic works offered interpretation of biblical books, and some of them, such as the Tannaitic midrashei halakhah on Exodus through Deuteronomy, even use a lemmatic, commentary-like style, i.e., a quote of a phrase from the Torah followed by a gloss with a homiletic interpretation. Nevertheless, they do not present a consistent and systematic interpretation of the biblical text. Not only do these works skip large swaths of text, but the commentary form is really secondary. The various interpretations included in the corpus began as independent oral homilies, which were then organized, presumably later in their compositional history, some of them according to a verse-by-verse system.
We don’t have access to the way in which these homilies were transmitted before they were organized in this fashion, since ancient rabbinic sages expressed themselves almost exclusively in oral form. Thus, for rabbinic Jewish writers, the adoption of the commentary mode for exposition is a distinctly medieval genre of discourse, beginning with Rashi in the 11th century.
Commentary among Christian Exegetes
The situation among Christian exegetes was different, however. They were heir to ancient Greco-Roman literary modalities, and employed the commentary form, both in antiquity and in the earlier medieval periods. Even so, the commentary genre grew exponentially among Christian scholars during the 12th century Renaissance, around the same time that rabbinic Jewish commentary developed.
This surge in commentary among Christian and Jewish exegetes of this period suggests that we should be looking for intellectual and cultural developments in 11th century Christian Europe to understand how this change in approach to Bible came about. But to get the full picture, we need to look even earlier, to the 8th century period under Charlemagne, and to the subsequent cultural revival that took place in the Carolingian period (beginning in the 8th–9th centuries).
Charlemagne – Striving Toward a “Truthful” Understanding of the Bible
Charlemagne began as king of the Frankish state, but extended his rule to much of Western Europe, becoming, in 800 C.E., the first European “emperor” in centuries. In an effort to establish and legitimize their new dynasty, Charlemagne, himself a faithful Christian, endeavored to co-opt the Roman Church and its institutions.
Part of his strategy was creating a learned and literary caste that could serve as the clerks, administrators, diplomats and magistrates, who held his far-flung empire together. To accomplish this, he instituted schools that would teach far greater numbers of people how to read.
For scribal training, Charlemagne used ancient Greco-Roman learning in the service of the Church. Principally, this involved the copying of ancient manuscripts, from both pre-Christian Rome as well as the patristic legacy of the early Church. He and his advisors, such as Alcuin of York (ca. 735–804), sponsored scholars at various centers of learning throughout the Carolingian empire, opening up to them the ancient cultural heritage of Greco-Roman antiquity.
Charlemagne’s interests gave rise particularly to the increased study of the trivium, the first three of the so-called liberal arts: rhetoric, logic and, first and foremost, grammar. As Martin Irvine states, Charlemagne’s influential Admonitio Generalis and other legislative acts “effectively made grammatical culture the law of the land.”
Charlemagne’s efforts to cultivate study and learning in his kingdom encompassed a serious and long-term policy. Specifically, his legislative act known as Epistola (or Encyclica) de Litteris Colendis, “The Epistle on the Cultivating of Letters,” had a profound impact on the development of literary culture in northwestern Europe. In this directive, Charlemagne (or Alcuin, who likely composed it) ordered the study of “literature” (or letters) as the foundation of the learned Christian society to which he aspired.
In Charlemagne’s mind, a great kingdom could not be secured and thrive without great learning. Also, the Epistle notes, scholars must strive towards truth. The engagement in this type of learning led to the development of new strategies for reading, in general, and in interpreting the Bible, in particular.
Charlemagne’s directive to incorporate ancient Roman, pre-Christian tracts in the effort to understand holy scripture initiated a long process of establishing monastic schools and searching for suitable materials for the teaching of Latin and Scriptural Exegesis. The latter in particular led to a systematic search for, and patient recopying of, manuscripts long hidden in the long neglected libraries of Europe. Moreover, the early biblical commentaries that were produced in what is sometimes characterized as the Carolingian Renaissance provided few methodological advances; they mostly took the form of florilegia, that is, condensations and excerpts from ancient patristic allegorical exegesis.
Thus, despite Charlemagne’s “Admonition,” the full blossoming of increased literacy and application of rhetorical considerations to biblical interpretation reached its climax only in the 11th–12th centuries. This period of scholarship unleashed a “truthful” understanding of biblical literature that would be seen (both in Christianity and in Judaism) as at variance with established and authoritative traditions of interpretation.
Rabbis Borrowing from Christian Exegetes?
While the Carolingian revolution may explain how Christian interpretation developed in this direction, how did intellectual developments in the Christian world influence rabbinic exegetes? While some rabbis could converse about Latin scriptures when in the presence of learned Christians (see, e.g., Rashbam on Exodus 20:12), no rabbi could likely have sat down and read a Latin book any more than a 12th century churchman could have read a Hebrew book without help from a Jewish scholar.
It is possible that certain rabbis learned directly from a Christian mentor, nevertheless, given the degree of animus and constructions of power exercised by a dominant Christian majority over northern Europe’s tiny Jewish community, no rabbi in this period would have admitted to such a thing in writing. Whatever the case, more than Zeitgeist alone played a role in the development of peshat. Jews and Christians conducted a lively discourse about biblical interpretation during this period, in a wide variety of social circumstances, certainly in the 12th century, but probably in the 11th as well, and the Christian turn to contextual reading was likely influential in the thinking of their Jewish colleagues.
Peshat/Contextual Commentaries: A Two Step Process
The idea of a peshat commentary did not emerge in one step. The first true rabbinic commentary on the Torah for which we have evidence is that of Rashi. Nevertheless, this commentary is overwhelmingly midrashic in nature.
The Christian analogue to Rashi’s commentary is the Latin biblical commentary known as Glossa Ordinaria, meaning “comments in a standard form.” Although the Glossa contains some literal exegesis, it is mostly allegorical (roughly corresponding in Christian ideology to midrash in rabbinic exegesis). Both the Glossa commentary and that of Rashi are composed at approximately the same time, and place, and share a cultural, linguistic, intellectual, and religious milieu.
Thus, in the 11th-12th centuries in northern France, both Jewish and Christian scholars began the creation of a major work of biblical exegesis; both drew on their respective ancient exegetical traditions for approximately 70% of their content (the great Patristic literature for the Christian churchmen and the Talmud and various midrashic collections for Rashi) whereas approximately 30% represented newer, individually-intuited “plain sense” or “literal” interpretations, along with the occasional polemic (either overt or covert). This was the first step.
Once the concept of a lemmatic, i.e., phrase by phrase, commentary was established, within a generation, both Christian and Jewish exegetes made tremendous advances towards developing a truly contextual approach. Among the Christians, the leaders were Hugh and Andrew of St. Victor and Herbert of Bosham, while among the Jews it was R. Joseph Kara, Rashbam, and R. Eliezer of Beaugency.
This newer approach was increasingly characterized by attention paid to features of composition that would in a later age be termed “literary.” These readers were interested in using grammar and rhetoric to unlock the meaning of a biblical text, as opposed to traditional religious instruction. Moreover, these exegetes developed terms to express their awareness of a wide variety of structures and devices in biblical narrative and poetry.
In reimagining what it meant to access/read the biblical text, the 12th century exegetes fundamentally created the terms through which, centuries later, 19th century critics would define “literature.” In so doing, the medieval exegetes at one and the same time transformed the ancient Jewish or Christian “religious truth-seeker” (rabbinic darshan or patristic homilist) into what we moderns call “the reader.”
Put differently, it is only due to the development of 12th century considerations of biblical composition, with its attendant focus on meaning determined by context and by its articulation of devices at play in biblical texts (e.g., parallelistic structure; wordplay; prolepsis and analepsis, and the like) that the very idea of literature could be developed in the first place.
Paradoxically, when these rabbinic scholars composed their ad locum gloss commentaries, they essentially adopted a hermeneutic devised by Christians, which took root and flourished in the Jewish milieu. In distinguishing exegesis from hermeneutics, that is, between the interpretation itself and the reading process through which one approaches scripture , we can see the commonality among 12th century northern French scholars, both Jewish and Christian.
Two Fingered Reading: Rashi Didn’t Study “Chumash with Rashi”!
When we look at the development of peshat commentary in its historical context, we first need to see the arc in the Christian community. The early forerunner of commentary was the revival of Greco-Roman scholarship in the Carolingian period. This was followed by the establishment of the commentary genre in the 11th century, but utilizing traditional allegorical readings. Soon afterwards, independent contextual reading developed. The rabbinic exegetes followed an analogous path, with Rashi representing the first step and R. Joseph Kara and especially Rashbam, the second.
This shift in focus from traditional reading to contextual reading could only have happened once traditions that were long the province of oral discourse were committed to writing, and the study of these newly inscribed texts among a body of readers replaced the relationship between masters and disciples. But this development brought about a new phenomenon, which I call the two-fingered reading approach.
To explain, before commentary became a genre, the biblical text was taught by masters, and the student’s understanding was filtered through the “oral Torah,” namely the homilies and glosses passed on orally from generation to generation. The Bible itself, the “written Torah,” was read on its own, what I call “reading with one finger.”
Once commentary became written, however, it soon took the place of the masters. But it also constituted another written and at least quasi-authoritative text. As new generations continued to grapple with the Bible, and write their own commentaries, they needed to consult with the commentaries from previous generations to borrow from or push back against. These “classic” commentaries, Rashi being the most famous and important among the Jews, thus had to be studied just as the Bible was studied, which I call a “two-fingered reading,” with one finger on biblical text and the second on the commentary.
The process of peshat commenting in northern France began in incipient and somewhat hesitant fashion with Rashi; it developed into full-fledged peshat commentary soon after, and continued unabated and more fully dedicated until persecutions and expulsions of the 13th century and beyond signaled the decline of northwestern European Jewry.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
June 11, 2021
September 9, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Rabbi Robert Harris is professor of Bible at The Jewish Theological Seminary, teaching courses in biblical literature and commentary, particularly medieval Jewish biblical exegesis.
Essays on Related Topics: