Literature, Religious

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The Pentateuch and the other books of the Bible are the sacred books par excellence for the Jewish religion although, traditionally, the Pentateuch was not treated as a human composition at all and the other biblical books were also acknowledged as being the product, in varying degrees, of divine inspiration. Yet while the Bible was studied chiefly for its religious message and was not held to be like any other literature, the medieval biblical commentators, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Kimhi, and Abravanel point to the stylistic elements in the Bible, treating it, to some extent at least, as if it were a literary work and adapting for this purpose the Rabbinic saying: ‘The Torah speaks in the language of men.’ The books of the Apocrypha, on the other hand, whatever their literary value, were excluded from the canon of sacred Scripture because they were not held to be inspired works. The consensus at work in the Jewish community of believers decided that these books and works such as those of Philo of Alexandria were undoubtedly religious works, in the sense that they were composed by religious men with a religious aim, but they were not held to belong to sacred, inspired literature. These works were never used as part of the synagogue liturgy and Philo was not even mentioned at all in Jewish writings until the sixteenth century. The clear distinction between form and content in a book was continued throughout Jewish history. A book was judged by what its author had to say, rarely by the way he said it.

The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible, was largely unknown to Jews until modern times. The Targum, the Aramaic translation (Targumim, ‘translations’, would be better, since there are more than one), took its place early on as a companion to Scripture and is printed together with the text in most editions of the Hebrew Bible. Among the standard commentators to the Bible, in addition to those mentioned above, are: Rashi, Rashbam, Nahmanides, Bahya Ibn Asher, Gersonides, and Sforno in the premodern period, Mendelssohn and his Biur, S. D. Luzzatto, Samson Raphael Hirsch, and J. H. Hertz in the modern period. All these, in greater or lesser degree, belong in the traditional camp. From the nineteenth century onwards, the Bible had been studied objectively and a host of scholarly works on it have been produced by Jews. It is a moot point whether these many works can be said to be religious literature, since their authors claim, rightly or wrongly, that they engage in their task without any religious bias, simply studying the Bible as they would any other great literary work. These works of modern scholarship do, however, have important implications for the Jewish religion (see BIBLICAL CRITICISM).

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.

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