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Misreading the Bible in Antiquity

Sun, December 16, 10:00 to 11:30am, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Cambridge 2

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


Recent work discussing Jewish literary culture in antiquity has increasingly argued that the Hebrew Bible as we know it did not occupy the hegemonic position of authority so commonly ascribed to it. Other scholars have pointed out that even when the Bible was in some way central, it was still viewed with a mixture of suspicion and reverence: a far cry from the construction of Judaism as a “book-centered” religion that pervades the work of many scholars. In this panel, we further dismantle the myth of “perfection” that is so often ascribed to the ancient Jewish conceptions of the Hebrew Bible by examining ancient ideas of “misreading” and “misinterpretation” as they appear in the Bible itself, and later Jewish sources. These range from the grammatical (incorrect genders being ascribed to nouns, verb numbers being more fluid than they might seem) to the visual (easily confused letters and words being misidentified). The contexts of these “misreadings” are sometimes internal and exegetical--they help rabbis get out of particularly tight spots--and at other times polemical: they allow the rabbis and other readers to express a superior knowledge of the text, establishing ownership and expertise over a problematically “prolific,” or even “promiscuous” document.
The first two papers in this panel focus on the rabbinic construction of reading the bible. Rebecca Wollenberg analyzes literary descriptions of moments when rabbis read incorrectly, showing that rather than being viewed as failures, these moments are in fact valorized. Daniel Picus’s paper looks at one specific tradition--the interpretation of Psalm 19:8, which claims that “YHWH’s Torah is perfect”--to show that even statements about the text’s perfection were in fact often seen as references to its ability to be misread and mistaken. Kerry Sonia’s paper turns to the biblical text itself, reading an emendation in the book of Ezekiel as part of a longer tradition of “angelic discourse” surrounding troubling texts. Together, these three papers suggest an ocean of interpretive traditions surrounding the Hebrew Bible that rely far less on the text’s authority and infallibility than is commonly conceived.

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