Reviews of

Rewritten Bible after Fifty Years: Texts, Terms, or Techniques?

In Brill, Geza Vermes, József Zsengellér, Pieter B. Hartog, Qumran on October 13, 2015 at 6:27 am

2015.10.19 | József Zsengellér. Rewritten Bible after Fifty Years: Texts, Terms, or Techniques? A Last Dialogue with Geza Vermes. JSJSup 166. Leiden: Brill, 2014. ISBN: 9789004268159.

Review by Pieter B. Hartog, KU Leuven.

Many thanks to Brill for providing a review copy.

Few terms have generated such lively debates as Geza Vermes’ “Rewritten Bible.”1 Two major impetuses have informed these debates. First, the recovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These finds brought to light previously unknown writings which some scholars argued must be included in Vermes’ category. Classifying these writings under the header of “Rewritten Bible” had a double effect: on the one hand, the category broadened, as it could now also include halakhic (e.g., the Temple Scroll) and other writings; on the other, the category grew increasingly narrow, as the writings attributed to it became mainly those of Second Temple Judaism (Vermes had included later texts such as Sēfer ha-Yāšār).

Second, there is some ambiguity to Vermes’ notion of “Rewritten Bible.” On the one hand, Vermes appears to think of “Rewritten Bible” as a category of Jewish writings; on the other, he defines “Rewritten Bible” as an interpretative process by which a base text was rewritten. Whilst in Vermes’ work these aspects of the concept are found together, later scholarship tended to argue for understanding “Rewritten Bible” in either one of these two ways. Thus, some scholars came to define “Rewritten Bible” as a relatively well-defined genre of Jewish writings,2 whereas others conceive of the concept as a textual strategy reflected in Jewish writings belonging to different genres.3

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Rewritten Bible,” this volume collects the papers presented at a 2011 conference in Budapest. Its essays deal with various aspects of the history of scholarship on “Rewritten Bible” and seek to provide new perspectives for further study. The volume opens with an intriguing essay by Geza Vermes (who passed away shortly before the publication of this volume), in which he reflects on his development of the term and on fifty years of subsequent “Rewritten Bible” scholarship (“The Genesis of the Concept of ‘Rewritten Bible’”). Seventeen essays follow, subdivided into a theoretical (“Redefining of Rewritten Bible”) and a practical (“Case Studies”) part. Rather than summarising every one of them, I shall discuss some of the issues this volume raises and refer to the appropriate contributions along the way.

1. “Rewritten Bible” and Its Boundaries

Several essays in the theoretical part are devoted entirely to the question how we must conceive of “Rewritten Bible.” Anders Klostergaard Petersen (“Textual Fidelity, Elaboration, Supersession or Encroachment? Typological Reflections on the Phenomenon of Rewritten Scripture”) offers a good overview of past debates on “Rewritten Bible” as either a generic distinction or a scribal process. Petersen himself adopts a broad definition of “Rewritten Scripture,” conceiving of it as “a particularly excessive type of intertextuality which is found not only with respect to texts of Second Temple Judaism but in a variety of other contexts … such as music, painting, sculpture, etc. Rewritten Scripture highlights the phenomenon of texts that borrow authority from scriptural predecessors by rewriting them” (43). Thus, for Petersen, the main characteristic of “Rewritten Scripture” is the intricate processes by which the authority of a scriptural text is appropriated by rewriting it. In line with his take on the concept Petersen calls for further research on these rewriting processes and the different types of authority that inform them.

Whereas Petersen retains the idea of scriptural authority as an important aspect of “Rewritten Scripture,” Jonathan Campbell takes rewriting to be a widely available process of literary production, independent of the scriptural status of the rewritten text (“Rewritten Bible: A Terminological Reassessment”). He writes that “one important procedure by which late Second Temple scribes regularly expanded the ‘long-duration texts’ they received and passed on was through a circumscribed textual process of rewriting. That process can be seen in a range of compositions that has come down to us, irrespective of the status … of either Vorlage or derived work” (73–74).

Whilst Petersen and Campbell rethink Vermes’ use of “Rewritten Bible” from a theoretical perspective, other contributions tend to retain the ambiguity of the concept as Vermes used it and seek to broaden the concept by applying it to new writings. Finn Damgaard (“Philo’s Life of Moses as ‘Rewritten Bible’”) makes a convincing plea for including Philo’s Life of Moses, while Balázs Tamási wonders if Apocryphon of Jeremiah C must also be included (“Apocryphon of Jeremiah C from Qumran: Rewritten Prophetic Text or Something Else?”). Steven Fraade (“Between Rewritten Bible and Allegorical Commentary: Philo’s Interpretation of the Burning Bush”) takes a different route. Drawing from Philo’s Life of Moses, Fraade claims that the passage on the burning bush combines commentary and rewritten Bible and, hence, that these two categories overlap. Fraade’s conclusion that “(we should not allow) the distinction between ‘rewritten Bible’ and ‘(allegorical) commentary’ … to conceal the ways in which they are intersecting partners in the multifaceted dynamics of ancient scriptural interpretation” (231) is an important challenge to scholars drawing too strict a borderline between the two concepts.

It is clear, then, that many scholars have moved far away from Vermes’ use of “Rewritten Bible.” Vermes himself observes in his introductory essay that “many of the recent researchers did something that I can best describe by employing an English neologism: ‘they moved the goalposts,’ that is to say, after the beginning of the game, they altered the target to suit the interest of their inquiry. The main change of perspective concerned the boundaries of the research, which nowadays is almost exclusively restricted to the Qumran material” (4). The contributors to this volume offer a twofold reaction to these critiques. On the one hand, they agree that the almost exclusive focus of previous research on the Dead Sea Scrolls must be remedied. On the other hand, the remedy they provide implies a different understanding of “Rewritten Bible” from the one proposed by Vermes. The most radical challenges come from scholars like Campbell, who take rewriting to be a generally available process of literary production. This broad understanding of “rewriting” is attractive, though it is also prone to cause the concept “Rewritten Bible” to lose its analytical value as it comes to conflate with larger categories such as “Scripture” or “literature.”

2. New Methodologies

Several essays in this volume develop new methodological prospects in which “Rewritten Bible” plays a role. George Brooke (“Memory, Cultural Memory and Rewriting Scripture”) makes a convincing plea for incorporating concepts of memory (both individual and collective) in our study of rewriting processes. By so doing, Brooke warns against “referring to literary works solely as abstract entities …” (132). Rather, Brooke argues, the literary works and manuscripts in our possession reflect the mental processes of individuals as well as the collective memory of the communities of which these individuals were a part. These mental processes must become part of our research on these writings and the (rewriting) processes they exhibit.

Brooke’s argument against thinking of literary works as abstract entities are echoed in Sidnie White Crawford’s essay (“Rewritten Scriptures as a Clue to Scribal Traditions in the Second Temple Period”). Crawford focuses on the codicological features of Rewritten Scripture manuscripts from Qumran. Her conclusions are largely negative: “there is no certain evidence for a particular scribal school associated with this textual approach” (114). Nonetheless, her contribution does stress the need to incorporate the physicality of Rewritten Scripture manuscripts in our analyses.

Two essays address the issue of how rewritings of Scripture may illuminate the shape of Scripture in the Second Temple era. Emanuel Tov (“Textual Criticism of Hebrew Scripture and Scripture-Like Texts”) helpfully outlines the problems and possibilities in taking liturgical and exegetical materials as witnesses to the text of the Hebrew Bible. Stefan Schorch (“Rewritten Bible and the Vocalization of the Biblical Text”) emphasises that rewritings of scriptural text imply a particular reading of that text. Observing that “to some extent at least, it is the reader who creates the text” (139), Schorch investigates to what extent Second Temple Jewish rewritings of Scripture reflect reading traditions from the pre-vocalisation era. He adduces examples from the Book of Jubilees, which invite further research in this direction.

The methodological innovations in these essays contribute much to the overall value of this volume. Moving beyond the issues that have dominated previous scholarship (and tend to dominate in this volume too), these contributions remind us that, even after fifty years, there is much work still to be done on how Scripture was read, (re)written and interpreted in Second Temple Judaism.

3. Various Methods and Types of Rewriting

One issue receiving increased attention in recent “Rewritten Bible” scholarship is how the variety of scriptural rewritings in Second Temple Jewish literature can be classified and accounted for. Christopher Begg (“Josephus’ Rewriting of Genesis 24 in Ant 1.242–255”) offers a detailed account of how Josephus deals with Gen 24 in his Antiquities. But Begg does not raise the larger issue of how Josephus’ rewriting methods relate to processes of rewriting in other writings commonly classified as “Rewritten Bible.”

Petersen does raise this larger problem when he calls for “the examination of the different types of authority that may exist” (44). But whereas Petersen’s argument remains largely theoretical, Eugene Ulrich offers some “broad, impressionistic” (83) clues as to what such an examination may look like (“Crossing the Borders from ‘Pre-Scripture’ to Scripture [Rewritten] to ‘Rewritten Scripture’”). In his contribution, Ulrich seeks to clarify the distinctive characteristics of “Scripture (Rewritten),” “Pre-Scripture,” and “Rewritten Scripture” and offers surveys of the various types of rewriting found in these categories of literature. In Ulrich’s view, the acceptability of particular types of rewriting are closely connected with the move from pre-Scripture to Scripture: “Apparently, broader freedom was used when dealing with ‘literature,’ but more restricted freedom when dealing with ‘Scripture’” (95).

These essays call for more precise surveys of the types of rewriting encountered in writings commonly classified as “Rewritten Bible” (cf. Begg). They address the important and basic issue how this variety can be accounted for, and invite further and more radical research in this direction. On a more fundamental level, they also make us wonder what is gained by classifying together Second Temple Jewish literary works in which such divergent processes of rewriting and interpretation may be found.

4. The Aims of Classification

Explicitly or implicitly, the issue how we must use the concept “Rewritten Bible” plays a role in almost every contribution to this volume. Surprisingly few essays, however, take the more radical step to wonder if we must employ the concept in the first place. A question that may be in need of more thorough reflection than this volume provides, is: what is the purpose of classifying writings according to the (rewriting) processes they reflect? Which important aspects of works included in the “Rewritten Bible” category may alternative classifications bring out? Or, reversely, which features of Second Temple Jewish works of literary may be concealed when we apply the label “Rewritten Bible”?

Marton Ribary’s contribution (“Josephus’ ‘Rewritten Bible’ as a Non-Apologetic Work”) is particularly illustrative in this regard. He argues against the attribution of apologetic aims to Josephus: “Far from being a defensive work, the Antiquities is a good piece of history” (249). By so doing, Ribary suggests that referring to the Antiquities merely as “Rewritten Bible” conceals important aspects of the nature of this work. This is clearest when Ribary writes that, “from the many possible modes of rewriting the biblical narrative, Josephus has chosen the historical mode, but unlike the ‘Rewritten Bible’ of the Chronicles and, to some extent, that of the Septuagint translation of the Pentateuch, he consciously applied rhetorical as well as critical methods” (258). For Ribary, then, the Antiquities is first and foremost a work of historiography and only secondarily a rewriting of Scripture.

A similar concern underlies Campbell’s contribution. If rewriting was a generally available process of literary production, its use as a distinctive marker of a set of Jewish writings seems limited. Stressing that “the kind of rewriting evident in so-called Rewritten Bible/Rewritten Scripture works fits into a broader scenario in which a wide range of long-duration texts were subjected to the same kind of textual process,” Campbell is surely correct to urge future researchers to engage the question “what core features or key functions, if any, all such texts have in common” (76; my italics).

5. Conclusion

This volume paints a varied picture of earlier “Rewritten Bible” scholarship and offers many prospects for future thinking. If there is one general thing to be learnt from the different essays collected here, it is that scholars may need to look at the Second Temple Jewish literary heritage from a larger distance than has often been the case. When Vermes wrote on “Rewritten Bible” in 1961, few of the Qumran finds had become available. As they were published in subsequent years, the Dead Sea Scrolls had a great impact on the course of scholarly debates over “Rewritten Bible.” With the full publication of the Qumran scrolls now completed, scholars working on Second Temple Judaism are challenged to take a step back and pose some fundamental questions anew. When we survey the whole of Second Temple Jewish literature, to what extent and in what ways does the “Rewritten Bible” or “Rewritten Scripture” concept retain its usefulness? How are processes of reading, (re)writing, and exegesis in Second Temple Judaism best studied, and how may they illuminate the shape of the scriptural text in the Hellenistic-Roman period? By raising these questions and by outlining some directions in which answers to them might be found, this volume is a fitting tribute to the analytical potential of Geza Vermes’ concept, even it is also abundantly clear that Vermes’ goalposts are unlikely ever to return to their original position.

P.B. Hartog
KU Leuven
Barry.Hartog [ at ]

1 Vermes coined the term in his Scripture and Tradition in Judaism: Haggadic Studies (SPB 4; Leiden: Brill, 1961), esp. 95.

2 Most explicitly Philip S. Alexander, “Retelling the Old Testament,” in It is Written: Scripture Citing Scripture: Essays in Honour of Barnabas Lindars, SSF (ed. D.A. Carson and H.G.M. Williamson; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988; repr. 2008), 99–121; Moshe Bernstein, “‘Rewritten Bible’: A Generic Category Which Has Outlived Its Usefulness?” Textus 22 (2005): 169–96; repr. in Reading and Re-Reading Scripture at Qumran (2 vols.; STDJ 107; Leiden: Brill, 2013), 39–62.

3 Particularly Daniel J. Harrington, “The Bible Rewritten (Narratives),” in Early Judaism and Its Modern Interpreters (ed. Robert A. Kraft and George W.E. Nickelsburg; Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1986), 239–47; George J. Brooke, “Rewritten Bible,” in Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls (ed. Lawrence H. Schiffman and James C. VanderKam; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 777–81.


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