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$k Jmsh ^ttarterlg %evkw. 



APRIL, 1892. 



SPIRIT AND LETTER IN JUDAISM AND 
CHRISTIANITY. 

.ntnjl ^D 'TVS — " Let us bring the book and see." 

(Talmudic Saying.) 

Among those whom the Mishnah (Synhedrin, xi. 1) declares 
to have forfeited eternal life, the following are enumerated : 
— He who says that the Resurrection is not taught in the 
Torah ; further, he who affirms that the Torah does not come 
from God (min-ha-Shamayiin) ; also the Epikuros. This is 
immediately followed by, "R. Akiba says, He also who 
reads in strange books, and he who utters incantations over 
wounds " (literally " wound "). Although I am here only 
concerned with the assertion (italicised in the text) regard- 
ing the man who denies the divine origin of the Torah, I have 
cited the other dicta as well, because, from their being 
classed together, it is evident that, as regards their origin, 
they all belong to one and the same epoch. This can have 
been no other than the period which is marked on the one 
hand by the party divisions of the Sadducees, Pharisees 
and Essenes, and, on the other, by the birth of Christianity. 
The proof of this statement lies — apart from the impres- 
sion produced by the collocation of instances — in the 
reference to the " Epikuros " and the " Strange Books." 
Both conceptions point unequivocally to the period in 
question, and can only be comprehended in connection 
therewith. 

VOL. iv. A A 



346 The Jewish Quarterly Review. 

If this view of the matter is kept in mind, then the 
assertion regarding the denier of the divine origin of the 
Torah has an interest attaching to that age, which I shall 
here endeavour to make clear. To this end it is necessary, 
in the first instance, accurately to define the above declara- 
tion, for, taken in the general terms in which it is 
enunciated, it suffers from a certain indistinctness that 
opens the door to the most diverse questions. What is to 
be understood by denial of the divine origin of the Torah ? 
Is it that the Torah was not revealed by God, but is the 
work of man ? This opinion is no doubt included in the 
statement of the Mishnah, but there is not the least justi- 
fication for the assumption that in Jewish antiquity such 
an opinion had ever sprung up and spread so as to neces- 
sitate its resistance by the imposition of a penalty. All 
antiquity, including the Jews, was more inclined to refer 
extraordinary appearances, marvellous discoveries, teach- 
ings and writings, directly to the Deity than to contest 
the .intervention of God in the development of the human 
race ; and it would be an anachronism without parallel to 
believe that the divine origin of so extraordinary a book 
as the Torah had to be established by means of a law, and 
to be protected against the attacks of sceptics and un- 
believers by threats of punishment. As a fact the contrary 
appears from the discussions in Sabb., 30 b : it was easier to 
pronounce in favour of the divine origin of certain writ- 
ings than successfully to deny such origin to others. It 
required no little trouble to finally establish the canon and 
exclude therefrom the numerous apocryphal writings, so 
readily were people disposed to acknowledge the divine 
origin of everything for which such a claim was put forth. 
Accordingly, the denial of the divine origin of the Torah, 
of which the Mishnah treats, cannot refer to the contents, 
but to the letter of the Torah. Its intention is to establish 
the divine authorship of the text of the Torah, and hence 
the denier of this claim is threatened with the loss of 
" eternal bliss." In this sense also the statement of the 



Spirit and Letter tn Judaism and Christianity. 347 

Mishnah is explained by the Talmud (Synhedrin, 99a) : 
He who asserts that the Torah is not from God, or denies 
the divine authorship of even one single verse of the Torah, 
and affirms that not God but Moses of his own accord 
pronounced it, is guilty of the transgression referred to 
in Num. xv. 31, and will incur the punishment of excision 
thereunto attached. 1 It is now no longer open to doubt 
that the dictum of the Mishnah has for its object 
to give a sanction to the verbal text of the Torah, 
and that on this account it condemns the denial of its 
divine origin as a sacrilegious act to be avenged by the loss 
of future bliss. 



II. 

Herewith, however, the difficulty involved in that 
dictum is rather increased than removed. While, on the 
one hand, as I have shown, it was not rendered neces- 
sary by any denial of the divine character of the Torah 
itself, no such attempt ever having been made, there is, on 
the other hand, still less reason to believe that the divine 
origin of the wording of the Torah was even questioned. 
Had any such thing ever occurred, the inviolability of the 
text of the Torah would have had to be affirmed much 
more distinctly than has actually been the case, 2 and it 
is then hardly likely that people would have been con- 
tent with a legal declaration of a purely eschatological 
character, such as the one under consideration or even 
with the whole Mishnah in which it is found. But textual 
criticism, especially biblical criticism, was unknown to the 
ancient Jews. This fact is not contradicted by the circum- 
stance that the greatest importance was placed upon the 

' Maimonides rOlBTl *?n regards as a denier of the Law (mifQ *1S13) 
whosoever says JinN n3T1 I^DN "HIK plDS l^&N H DVD miDH )W. 

2 The views of the Talmud on this point, mainly attached to our 
Mishnah, are collected in DHBID nnBB'D by Rosenfeld (Wilna, 1883), 
p. 6, *eq. 

AA 2 



348 The Jewish Quarterly Review. 

preservation and propagation of the traditional text, and 
that even in ancient times a special department of study, 
the Soferic or Massoretic, dealt with these tasks. Such 
criticism as was in vogue did not proceed from any doubt 
as to the divine origin of the text, but rather presupposed 
it, and nothing but the piety springing from such belief 
renders the care bestowed on the biblical books explicable. 
Josephus expressly says (Contra Ap. i. 8), " What credit we 
give to these books is also well known. In all these ages 
past no one has been so bold as to add anything to them, 
or to take anything from them, or to change anything in 
them. But it is natural to all Jews immediately and from 
their birth to regard those books as the teachings of God, 
and to persist in them, and, if occasion be, to die for them. 

Who among the Greeks would suffer the least harm 

for such a cause, or even for the loss of all their writings ? " 
If according to this evidence hardly any doubt concerning the 
divine origin of the text of the Torah could ever have been 
entertained, then, as I have remarked, the dictum of our 
Mishnah is rather darkened than illumined by its Talmudic 
explanation, and it is clear that the key to the com- 
prehension of both passages must lie in some definite 
motive which it is for us to discover, since only by this 
means can we hope to overcome the difficulties referred to. 

III. 

Before, however, I undertake this task, I must draw 
attention to another circumstance which is closely con- 
nected with our inquiry. The use which both Talmud and 
Midrash make of the formula, " Read not thus, but thus " 
(. . . HbN . . . *npn bN) is well known. This formula, by 
means of which, for the purpose of supporting a particular 
opinion, a variant is proposed to the received reading, 
keeps the Bible text in a constant state of fluctuation, and 
the boldest conclusions of an arbitrary criticism do not 
touch the authenticity of the text in anything like the 



Spirit and Letter in Judaism and Christianity. 349 

same measure as does its frequent and capricious use. It 
will be said that in such cases no seriously-meant altera- 
tion of the text is intended ; and this is doubtless the case, 
though the suggestions introduced by that formula are at 
times as similar to the emendations of modern criticism as 
one pea is to another. 1 Indeed, there can be no question 
that many a critic of the present day, who, by his venture- 
some emendations, raises a storm in theology, might, in 
Talmudic times, have proposed the very same things with- 
out hesitation under cover of the formula. Be that as 
it may, we must at all events allow that its use 
even by way of Hagadic diversion or Halachic associa- 
tion, could not possibly have asserted itself to the 
extent it actually has done if every alteration of the text, 
however much it might commend itself and however lofty 
might be the object with which it was proposed, had been 
regarded as the grave sin which the dictum of our 
Mishnah and its Talmudic explanation declare it to be 
according to the view hitherto entertained. It is even 
reported that in the Torah of Rabbi Meir several variations 
upon the received reading had been found, presumably due 
to his own hand. Granted that these remarks were only 
intended as " humorous " 2 marginal notes, still such treat- 
ment of the Bible text — which, as the witty Frenchwoman 
observed of chess, was too serious for play, and too playful 
for a serious occupation — must occasion surprise, and all 
the more so, seeing that such a proceeding is in marked 
opposition with the severity with which our Mishnaic 
dictum and Talmudic explanation guard the text against 
all injury. Let us picture to ourselves what would be 
the result if, not in some comic journal, but in serious 

1 Comp. Soto, lib, where, instead of D^IJJ HJ?, it is proposed to read 
D'VIJ? '•Tiy, which R. Samuel Edels (Chiddushe Hagadoth) seems to take 
as a seriously meant interpretation of the text. 

2 In this way Graetz (History of the Jews, iv. 2, p. 469) understands the 
" letter changes " of B. Meir there cited. Comp. Rapopprt, Ereeh Millin, 
p. 8. 



350 The Jewish Quarterly Review. 

writings, and with a good motive, the texts of ancient and 
modern classics were treated in the same manner as the 
Bible text is in Talmud and Midrash; what confusion 
would be certain to ensue in course of time, and what 
censure such license would call forth from all earnest- 
minded men. Out of this dilemma there is in my judg- 
ment only one way of escape, viz., the assumption that in 
antiquity, philological fidelity to the letter was unknown, 
and that men did not hesitate to sacrifice a letter here and 
there, when the object was to find a home in the Torah 
for some religious idea, and to shelter it under its sacred 
authority. This fact, which ought not to cause surprise* 
since the early students of Scripture were certainly lacking 
in a sense for etymology, and in a profounder appreciation 
of grammar, perhaps gave rise to the legend that when 
the first Tables of the Covenant were broken the letters 
flew into the air (Pesackim, 87b). Whatever view may be 
taken of the matter, so much is certain, that this legend 
could only have arisen and spread among those to whom 
the letter was no rocher de bronze. This circumstance also 
explains the occasional occurrence of inexact citations of 
Biblical passages in the Talmud (B. Earn., 55a, B. Bathra, 
113a, and Toss. ibid.). It has hence been inferred that 
many a Talmudic sage was but little conversant with the 
Bible (Toss., ibid.), an inference, however, which can hardly 
be sustained, seeing that searching the Scriptures formed 
the life's labour of the Talmudic doctors. Their minute 
acquaintance with the Bible text is made evident in almost 
every page of the Talmud. The truth is rather that they 
were not greatly concerned for the letter as such, and that 
in their naivete' they were free from that anxiety which 
fastens upon the letter of the Scripture, even the sages of 
the Tossaphistic age exercising a much freer and more un- 
biassed judgment, at least, in respect of the vowel signs, 
than later piety would have ventured to permit. 1 

* Comp. Rapoport in hie preface to Frennd's "OT NS1D1 -\2~\ B>"0E> 
(Vienna, 1866), p. 7. 



Spirit and Letter in Judaism and Christianity. 351 

Now this state of things is only explicable on the assump- 
tion that our Mishnaie dictuin, which, according to the 
explanation of the Talmud, gives especial authority to the 
letter, was never transmuted into the flesh and blood of the 
learned world, which circumstance, again, can only be 
accounted for on the supposition that the assertion of the 
Mishnah had in view a particular object which was based 
upon certain contemporary conditions, but which lost its 
significance in the altered relations of succeeding ages. 
Upon this object, however, the true light appears to be 
thrown from a quarter to which I shall now direct the 
attention of the reader. 

IV. 

In the second epistle to the Corinthians the Apostle 
obviously sets himself the task of proving the continuity 
of the old teaching and the new, or of deriving the latter 
from the former. One can understand the endeavour to 
find in the soil of the Old Testament the foundation for 
the teaching of Christ. Equally natural was it that 
such an endeavour should incur the charge of falsifi- 
cation. Now to attack an opponent has been from of 
old a mode of parading one's own innocence; on that 
account the Apostle levels from his side the charge of 
falsification against those from whom he had to expect 
the same accusation against himself. He designates the 
many (ol iroXKoC), i.e., the Jews, as corrupters of the 
word of God (ii. 17), and asserts of them that they do 
not understand the word of God at all, as " even unto this 
day, when Moses is read, a vail is upon their hearts " (iii. 15). 
But what guarantee does the Apostle offer for the accuracy 
of his conception of the divine word, i.e., the Old Testament ? 
It is contained in the sentence, " For the letter killeth, but 
the spirit giveth life" (iii, 6), to which the thesis is 
subsequently added, " Now the Lord is that Spirit ; and 
where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty " (iii. 17). 



352 The Jewish Quarterly Review. 

We have doubtless before us in these sentences the written 
precipitate of a mighty turmoil out of which the Pauline 
doctrine made its way to victory. If, however, we take these 
oft-quoted words in the simple sense that rightly belongs to 
them, they lose all point, and sink to the level of a common- 
place, which certainly expresses a general truth, but which, 
on that very account, is not likely to have ever been con- 
tradicted. Does any one imagine that the idea that " the 
Lord is the Spirit " would have been combated by a Jewish 
contemporary of the Apostle ? This can hardly be main- 
tained, as it was chiefly because this same truth was so 
deeply rooted in the heart of the Jews, that the doctrine of 
the Incarnation encountered their opposition. But, further, 
the sentence " the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life " 
contains in its general sense nothing which would have 
been disputed by the Jewish contemporaries of the Apostle. 
This I think I have proved in the foregoing argument- 
We have seen that the Tannaim and the Amoraim used, 
as it were, to play ball with the letter of the Bible 
for the sake of the spirit, and I may here recall the 
Hagadah above referred to, that at the breaking of the 
Tables of the Covenant the letters flew into the air. What 
can this Hagadah mean, if any meaning is to be assigned 
to it at all, but that it is not the letter of the Bible but 
the spirit that is of value ? I need not, in order to 
establish my contention that in Judaism undisputed pre- 
cedence has at all times been accorded to the spirit over 
the letter, appeal to Hagadic utterances, the interpretation 
of which is a matter of individual taste. The history of 
biblical exegesis from the oldest times furnishes irrefutable 
proofs of this fact. How could the jus talionis (Exodus xxi. 
24 seq.) have been set aside, how could the operations of 
the year of release (Deut. xv. 2) have been annulled, if the 
letter and not the spirit of the Torah had been clung to ? 
This is also proved by the well-known traditional explana- 
tion of passages like Exodus xxi. 19, xxii. 1 ; Deut. xxii. 
17, etc., all of which have reference to the administration 



Spirit and Letter in Judaism and Christianity. 353 

of justice, and on that account demanded the subjection of 
the letter to the spirit. If then these assertions of the 
Apostle do not in their general acceptation introduce any- 
thing which his Jewish contemporaries would not have 
freely conceded, one cannot understand the irritation which 
forces him to speak of the "vail of Moses" as of a bandage 
which prevents the eyes of the Jews from perceiving the 
truth, or the spirit of the word of God. This very irritation 
is an evidence, as is also the whole treatment of the sub- 
ject in the Epistle to the Corinthians, that the Apostle's 
assertions are in no way intended to be taken in their 
general, purely doctrinal sense. As little do they bear this 
meaning as does our Mishnaic dictum which deprives of 
eternal bliss him who denies the divine origin of the verbal 
text of the Torah. The two declarations serve rather to 
mark the respective standpoints of two opposite parties 
in that conflict of opinion, which resulted in the separation 
of Christianity from Judaism ; they can, therefore, only be 
explained by the light they mutually throw on each other, 
as I shall now endeavour to show. 



Where, in the New Testament, the person, life and teach- 
ing of Jesus are read into the Old, or are drawn out from 
it, it is by the employment of symbolism and allegory 
that this is accomplished, neither of which was foreign 
to Jewish modes of thought, the Hagadah itself making 
abundant use of both methods. The 2TDT N"tn of the 
latter (the formula which indicates that a Hagadic 
observation was based upon a Biblical passage), thus 
finds its New Testament equivalent in the icadw 
yeypaTrrai (" as it is written "), or Xva Tr\i}pa>6y 
(" in order that it might be fulfilled "), by which 
phrases certain passages of the Bible are directly 
connected with events in the life of Jesus. This method 
of exegesis was, however, the more dangerous, as being 



354 The Jewish Quarterly Review. 

hallowed by tradition, and beloved by the people. There 
is likewise no doubt that many Hagadahs, with Christian 
colouring, were written down, and became the common 
property of the people, even as there is no room to doubt 
that these Hagadahs, which, at the present time form a 
constituent part of the New Testament, led directly to an 
opposition against the Hagadah itself in the world of 
Jewish learning. We are told of scholars who most 
severely condemned the writing down as well as the study 
of Hagadahs, and who boasted of never having looked into 
Hagadic books. 1 However this and similar statements 
may be explained, it is clear that they can all be referred, 
partly to the recognition of the danger in which the 
symbolism and allegory of the Hagadah involved Judaism 
by favouring the intrusion of Christianity, and partly 
to the arrangements designed to obviate tbis danger. 
It is surely not by mere accident that R. Akiba, who in 
our Mishnah denies future bliss to one who reads in 
strange books, did not devote himself to the Hagadah, and 
perhaps even condemned it (Synhedrin, 38 J, 67 J ; Chagigah, 
14a). Akiba, moreover, was certainly not the first to adopt 
this opinion, his utterance in the Mishnah appearing only 
as supplementary to the preceding remarks; but, as I 
shall show, his name stands as representative of that mode 
of regarding the Scriptures, by means of which the in- 
trusion of Christian elements could best be guarded against, 
and which emphasized the letter as the foe of all symbolism 
and allegory. The two latter designate the spirit of which the 
apostle, in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (iii. 6), says 
that God " hath made us able ministers of the New Testa- 
ment, not of the letter, but of the spirit." We only need 
the juxtaposition of the Jewish Tanna and the Christian 
Apostle in order to perceive how much depends upon the 
accentuation of the spirit. The Apostle was concerned, not 
with the spirit of the Biblical text, but with the Christian 

1 Comp. Zunz, Oottesdienstliche Vortrage, p. 335, and Rapoport, Erech 
Millin, article mJX, § 3, seq. 



Spirit and Letter in Judaism and Christianity. 355 

spirit, which was to be breathed into the Old Testament. 
But as this could only happen by adopting the Hagadic 
method of regarding the letter as something unstable and 
movable, the Jewish teachers felt themselves compelled 
to retain their hold upon the letter, not for the sake of the 
letter, but for the sake of the spirit. 

Herein lies also the point of the Mishnaic declaration 
that he who asserts the Torah is not from God (min-ha- 
Shamayim), i.e., that he who, while acknowledging the 
" spirit " of the Old Testament to be Divine, yet treats the 
letter as symbolic or allegoric in the interest of this 
" spirit," would be deprived of future bliss. A vital 
question for Judaism was involved, viz., the purity of 
the Divine teaching, which could only be protected 
by the bulwark of the letter (i.e., the literal sense of the 
word), from any admixture of foreign elements, and it is, 
therefore, comprehensible why he who threatened the very 
life of Judaism, was himself threatened with the loss 
of eternal life. It was the bulwark of the letter, or in the 
language of the Apostle, the " vail of Moses " which 
effectually warded off the invasion of Judaism by a foreign 
" spirit," and preserved the special characteristics of the old 
faith. 

This explanation of the relation between spirit and letter, 
which, on the one hand, is represented by the Second 
Epistle to the Corinthians, and on the other by the 
Mishnah, corresponds in all respects with the doctrinal 
system of R. Akiba, which has rightly become of paramount 
influence in Judaism. R. Akiba is the exact antithesis of 
the Apostle Paul, and although he did not by way of 
opposition to the Apostle declare that the spirit kills and 
the letter gives life, he might well have done so, of course 
with the proviso that he had in his mind a " spirit " 
foreign to the Old Testament. For, that the sentence of 
the Apostle in its general sense, stripped of all notions due 
to religious party feeling, was accepted by R. Akiba as 
well as by Jewish tradition, has been, I think, convincingly 



356 The Jewish Quarterly Review. 

established. Although R Akiba did not make the remark 
just suggested, nevertheless his whole doctrinal system is 
based upon the accentuation of the letter, and it is well 
known that a Midrash 1 having reference to this subject 
is assigned to him. This system is not only calculated 
to unite the oral with the written law, and to obtain rules 
for new juristic cases 2 — although it must be admitted 
that it has been abundantly and even excessively used in 
this direction — but it was founded in the first instance 
with the object of providing in the letter a bulwark against 
Christian symbolism and legend. To this object point also 
certain mystical utterances, such as (Sabb., 89a) that God 
provided the letter with crowns, etc., as well as the say- 
ing frequently to be met with in later Jewish writings, 
that " Letters make wise," 3 the origin of which, it must be 
admitted, cannot be traced in Jewish literature. But the 
evidences traceable in that literature, and our Mishnah 
above all, suffice to prove that in the history of the origin 
of Christianity it was the letter which was made to enter 
the field, for the spirit's sake, against the spirit emphasised 
by Paul. 

M. GOdemann. 

1 xypv '-n nvniK 

2 Comp. Gratz, History, iv. 2, p. 56, seq. 

3 niDOriD T11»niX Comp. Dukes' Zur Raboiniichen Sjiruchkmide, p. 91.