BMCR 2005.02.47

Bound by the Bible: Jews, Christians and the Sacrifice of Isaac

, Bound by the Bible : Jews, Christians and the sacrifice of Isaac. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xii, 222 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 0521835429 $75.00.

In this book Kessler, director of the Cambridge Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, examines whether there was an ‘exegetical encounter’ between Jewish and Christian interpreters of the Bible during the first six centuries CE and, if so, what this may tell us about relations between Jews and Christians in late antiquity. He focuses on the interpretations of the story of Genesis 22 (the ‘binding [or: sacrifice] of Isaac,’ also known as the Aqedah, ‘binding’), an obvious choice since Jewish tradition increasingly attributed atoning value to the ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac whereas Christians attributed such value only to Jesus’ death. K. argues that there was a two-way encounter and that neither Jewish nor Christian interpretations of the Aqedah can be understood properly without reference to the other. This encounter (to be distinguished from shared interpretation), K. says, was probably more than just a literary one, as happens when one or more of the following criteria are met: an explicit reference to a source (of the opposite party), the same scriptural quotations, the same literary form, and the same or opposite conclusions. The more criteria are fulfilled, the greater the chance of hitting upon an exegetical encounter in which the interpreters reacted to each other’s work.

K. next reviews and compares the various Jewish and Christian interpretations of Gen. 22 verse by verse (pp. 37-152). For those who are interested in the differences and agreements between ancient Jewish and Christian exegesis of the Bible these are very interesting and illuminating pages. The present reviewer has been convinced by K. that it is most probably evidence of an exegetical encounter when, e.g., the Jews identified the place where the sacrifice of Isaac was to take place (mount Moriah) with the site where Solomon later built the Jerusalem temple, whereas Christians identified it with the place of Jesus’ crucifixion. And it is also very probable that the fact that Jews mostly portray Isaac as an adult, whereas Christian sources depict him as a child, has to do with the idea that the willingness of an adult to die for others is superior to the passive attitude of a child in Isaac’s situation (one rabbinic commentary even says that when Abraham had placed the wood of the burnt-offering on Isaac, the latter carried it ‘like a man who carries his cross [!] on his shoulder’). It is for the same reason that the rabbis have Abraham inform Isaac beforehand of his impending death (contrary to what the biblical text says), thus making his decision a conscious and courageous one, while the church fathers deny that. It is clear that here the rabbis have internalized Christian ideas. They wanted to picture Isaac no longer as the passive victim of the biblical story but as a hero whose self-offering was of a voluntary nature (as was the case with Jesus). In view of the soteriological aspects of this debate it is regrettable that K. pays little attention to the fact that as early as the late first century CE, the anonymous Jewish author of the Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum states that God has chosen the people of Israel on account of Isaac’s blood (! pro sanguine eius, 18:5), which may imply that the debate about the soteriological function of the Aqedah began very early. Later rabbinic sources repeat that Isaac did really suffer, which the church fathers deny (only Jesus Christ suffered), a clear case of exegetical encounter. More examples could be given, but these may suffice to show that K. makes a convincing case.

A final chapter deals with Jewish and Christian visual artistic interpretations of the Aqedah, such as the Dura Europos wall-paintings, synagogue mosaics, and catacomb frescos. I will leave this chapter aside but do point out the intriguing detail that in Jewish figurative art from antiquity Isaac is always portrayed as a child not an adult man (contrary to what one finds in Jewish literature).

There are some minor errors in the book. I for one cannot see how the LXX translation of Genesis could have been influenced by the later book of Jubilees (87). The LXX of 2 Chron. 3:1 does not offer an ‘addition’ (88) to the Hebrew text but simply an interpretive rendering. How could ideas of Cyril of Alexandria be ‘repeated’ (97) by Athanasius who lived much earlier? There is certainly no ‘increased formality’ (103) in the way the LXX translates v.7 (‘where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’). K. consistently misspells the Greek word synêgoria as synagoria. And I do not see how rabbinic references to ‘the ashes of Isaac’ can be interpreted in any other way than by the assumption that at least some rabbis thought Isaac was actually killed, burned, and resurrected (128-130), again like Jesus.

K.’s knowledge of the primary sources and of the secondary literature is wide, but even so he has missed some very important publications. As to the secondary literature, the most elaborate study of the interpretation of the Aqedah story ever published is Lukas Kundert’s Die Opferung/Bindung Isaaks, 2 vols. (Neukirchen-Vluyn Neukirchener Verlag, 1998), an important work of nearly 600 pages that K. should not have overlooked. As far as the primary sources are concerned, the publication of Papyrus Bodmer 30 by A. Hurst & J. Rudhardt in Papyrus Bodmer XXX-XXXVII: “Codex des Visions.” Poèmes divers (München: Saur, 1999), a striking new instance of a Greek early Christian interpretation of Genesis 22, is duly mentioned but only in passing and in vague references at that (78, 107-8), but it is not dealt with in any depth, let alone exploited (for an English translation and commentary see P. W. van der Horst & M. F. G. Parmentier, “A New Early Christian Poem on the Sacrifice of Isaac”, in A. Hurst & J. Rudhardt (eds.), Le Codex des Visions [Recherches et rencontres 18], Genève: Librairie Droz, 2002, 155-172). This poem sheds more light on the problems under consideration than appears from K.’s pages. Classicists of course will hope that K. has investigated the parallels between Isaac and Iphigeneia, the more so since Josephus makes an explicit comparison between the two ( Ant. Jud. 1:223); the parallels are noted briefly by K. (101, 139) but not elaborated upon. Nevertheless, on the whole this is a very instructive and sympathetic book, richly documented and a pleasure to read. For that reason I wish it into many hands of both classical philologists and Judaic scholars.