Comparative Exegesis in Israel

A unique project hosted by Jerusalem's Institute for Advanced Studies compares early Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptural interpretations.

Chana Ya'ar , | updated: 18:56

Israel news photo: Flash 90

A joint research project headed by Rabbi Mordechai Cohen of Yeshiva University and Professor Meir Bar-Asher at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University has launched a comparative study of early Biblical scholarship in the world’s three major monotheistic faiths.

The study, which began September 1 at the Jerusalem Institute for Advanced Studies, examines early Jewish, Christian and Muslim strategies of Scriptural reading and their contemporary implications.

Researchers are focusing on ways in which Scripture was understood by – and at the same time shaped – the literature, learning and culture of the three faith communities. The project runs through February 28, 2011.

Cohen, a professor of Bible and Associate Dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, is heading the project together with Bar-Asher, who is the Max Schloessinger Professor of Islamic Studies, and head of the department of Arabic Language and Literature at HUJ.

“We now have greater access to texts of ancient, medieval and early modern Jewish, Christian and Muslim commentaries, as well as their intellectual, social and political backgrounds,” Cohen told Israel National News in an exclusive Internet interview this week.

“In Judaism, we need only think of the riches offered by the Cairo Genizah [an accumulation of Jewish manuscript fragments that were found in the store room of the Ben Ezra Synagogue Cairo in the 19th century - ed.], from which extensive exegetical texts have now been published. Similar finds exist in Christian and Muslim interpretation. The time has come to study all of these interpretive traditions comparatively,” he explained.

The study examines the cross-cultural influences that informed Jewish, Christian and Muslim interpretations of Scripture, including their reception of ancient Greek learning. In addition, researchers will examine the internal developments within the three faith communities that were prompted by tensions between ancient, sometimes authoritative, and handed down traditions and new types of learning, methods of reading and perceptions of Scripture.

“By bringing together experts from these diverse areas for an extended period of time we hope to promote greater mutual scholarly understanding, to the point that, in the future, discussions of scriptural interpretation in Judaism, Christianity and Islam will also make reference to the way in which Scripture was understood and interpreted in the other faith communities,” Cohen said.

Although the professor made it clear that the group had no political agenda, he said nonetheless the group believes “cultural and intellectual openness and exchange will have beneficial effects for society as a whole.”

As part of its work, the team will study the basic Hebrew, Latin and Arabic (and in some cases Greek and Aramaic / Syriac) terminology and idioms of pre-modern interpretation.

“Israel is – and always has been – at a unique geographical and cultural crossroads among our three faiths,” Cohen noted. “As such, it is an ideal place to study Jewish, Christian and Muslim intellectual developments.”