Divrei ben Abuya

In the Babylonian Talmud, Elisha ben Abuya was a great sage who lost his faith in God. So great was he that his and subsequent generations continued learning from him - to the extent that the authors of the Talmud needed to create a story that would serve to legitimise his teachings despite his apostasy. His lesson is a lesson for us all: that great stature is not contingent upon blind faith, nor high learning upon the observation of Torah precepts.

September 18, 2006

Mistaking the Commentary for the Text

Here are some interesting questions for the Jews in the crowd:

According to the Bible:
1. What was Abraham's father's profession?
2. What did King Ahashverosh ask Queen Vashti to do? (In the Purim story)

And for the Christians in the audience:

1. What was the fruit growing on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? (In the Garden of Eden story)
2. How many wise men visited the baby Jesus?

It's funny just how deeply entrenched Biblical commentaries can become. For myself, I have a great deal of difficulty reading about how King Ahashverosh asked Vashti to parade in front of his guests wearing a crown, and not think that he meant only a crown. If I close my eyes and I picture the Garden of Eden, I must confess to seeing an apple tree growing in its midst. And if I think of the turning point in young Abraham's life, I see him smashing the idols in his father's shop.

These are not details contained within the Biblical text: on the contrary, they are the result of centuries of commentaries that have superimposed secondary ideas over the mainline narrative. The Midrash Rabba is responsible for contextualising Abraham's revelation of godliness, as well as explaining Vashti's refusal to leave the king's harem; Renaissance artists in their glorious realism were responsible for depicting the Garden of Eden narrative in a manner resonant with European communities; and centuries of Christian folk-tales and commentaries have wrought the conception that three kings visited Jesus. They were not kings, and there were not three of them.

With reams of commentaries being written on the Bible today, from books like Diamant's The Red Tent to films like Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, I wonder what the future holds for this ancient text?

4 Comments:

At 5:59 PM , Blogger Billie Jean said...

I remember studying Bereshit in high school. When we got up to the Tower of Babel the teacher asked us to tell her the story before we learned it inside. The whole story as we knew it just wasn't there.

It upsets me a lot that midrashim are presented as fact. But it also encourages me to think that maybe this document is (in a sense) timeless after all, if we can build on it as earlier commentators have done, only for our generation.

 
At 10:10 PM , Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

I was once thinking of writing a book on what's not in the Bible. I'm sure it exists already though. I think 'Apple' was associated through malum (Latin for evil and apple). The number of magi is obviously through association with the number of gifts (and through the propensity of folk tales towards groups of three). There are loads of apocryphal NT names, eg. Longinus, Dysmas, Veronica.

Incidentally, have you seen the comic book Esther?

 
At 11:12 PM , Blogger Simon Holloway said...

Balashon has a really good post about the Hebrew word for apple, within which he remarks upon the tradition of perceiving it as the fruit of the tree in question.

Your idea for a book sounds fascinating but, within the Jewish tradition, such texts already exist. Louis Ginzberg's The Legends of the Jews is probably the best example, being a collection of midrashic tales on the stories of the Bible. Unfortunately, he does not include any of the Talmudic material, but Ein Yaakov has all of these by themselves (for the Babylonian Talmud), presented in order of their appearance within the Talmudic texts.

 
At 9:37 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone think the symbol on the outside of the Talpiot tomb looks like a Ge'ez Lamed? Could this mean "Lamed-Vavnic"?

 

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