"form criticism" of rabbinic literature


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  • "Form Criticism" of Rabbinic LiteratureAuthor(s): Anthony J. SaldariniSource: Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 96, No. 2 (Jun., 1977), pp. 257-274Published by: The Society of Biblical LiteratureStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3265881 .Accessed: 17/12/2014 09:49

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  • JBL 96/2 (1977) 257-274



    ORM critical methods, with the attendant concern for tradition history and redactional stages, have compiled a long and fruitful record in OT

    and NT studies but they have only recently been seriously applied to rabbinic literature. I shall review several recent studies to see what has been accomplished, the major obstacles yet to be overcome and the most promising paths that lie ahead. I shall treat at length books by W. Sibley Towner and Henry A. Fischel, several by Jacob Neusner and a doctoral dissertation by Dan Ben-Amos. Much of modern Jewish scholarship, for example, work by Saul Lieberman, Louis Finkelstein, Judah Goldin, J. N. Epstein, Abraham Goldberg, Abraham Weiss and David Weiss Halivni is very useful to form criticism, but is not in method or scope form criticism itself.1

    I begin with W. Sibley Towner, The Rabbinic "Enumeration of Scriptural Examples": A Study of a Rabbinic Pattern of Discourse with Special Reference to Mekhilta D'R. Ishmael,2 because Towner consciously

    ' Saul Lieberman has written numerous articles and books, especially Hellenism in Jewish Palestine: Studies in the Literary Transmission of Beliefs and Manners of Palestine in the I Century B.C.E.-IV Century C.E. (2nd ed.; New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1962); Tosefta Ki-Fshutah: A Comprehensive Commentary on the Tosefta (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1955-); Louis Finkelstein also has many works, especially "The Transmission of Early Rabbinic Traditions," HUCA 16 (1941) 115-135; "The Sources of the Tannaitic Midrashim," JQR 31 (1940-41) 211-43; Mabo' le-Massektot Abot we-Abot d'Rabbi Nathan [Introduction to the Treatises Abot and Abot of Rabbi Nathan] (New York: Jewish

    Theological Seminary, 1950); Judah Goldin has a number of articles on Abot and other subjects and a commentary The Song at the Sea (New Haven: Yale UP, 1971); J.N. Epstein, Mabo le Nusah Ha-Miinah [Introduction to the Text of the Mishnah] (2d ed.; Jerusalem: Magnes, 1964); Mebo ot le-Sifrut Ha- Tanna im [Introductions to the Literature of the Tannaim] (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1957); Abraham Goldberg "Dark6 sel Judah Ha-Nasi be-Siddur Ha-Misnah" [The Method of Judah the Patriarch in the Arrangement of the Mishnah] Tarbiz 28 (1959) 260-69; Abraham Weiss, Hithawtit H- Talmtd Bislemuto [The Babylonian Talmud as a Literary Unit: Its Place of Origin, Development and Final Redaction] (New York: Kohut, 1943) and other

    works; David Weiss Halivni, Meq6rot we-Mso6rot [Sources and Traditions] (Tel Aviv, 1968). These last two scholars are ably summarized and evaluated in J. Neusner (ed.), The Formation of the Bablylonian Talmud (SPB 17; Leiden: Brill, 1970). See also J. Neusner (ed.). The Modern Study of the Mishnah (SPB 23; Leiden: Brill, 1973).

    2 SPB 22; Leiden: Brill, 1973. See also "Form Criticism of Rabbinic Literature," JJS24 (1973) 101-18 which is an excerpt from his book dealing with methodology.


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    works from OT form critical studies and adapts that method to rabbinic literature. Furthermore, Towner's study is the most tightly organized and methodologically vigorous that I have found. Towner studies numbered lists, that is, lists of items, verses, places, etc. which are introduced by a sentence which conveys two things: the number of items in the list and the general category which unites all the items. For example, "There are six things which the Lord hates, seven which are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue. . ." (Prov 6:16-19) is a typical numbered list from the bible; "Four are called possessions: Israel is called a possession, as it is said. . ." is a typical rabbinic example.3 The rabbinic example is exegetical in that a biblical verse is provided for each of the four items on the list. Since numbered lists are found in the OT and in many other literatures, Towner is able to begin from a wide base. The enumeration pattern is one type of list and the exegetical form of the enumeration pattern appears only in rabbinic literature. Towner has culled 35 (or 36) examples of this form from the Mekilta de R. Ishmael and analyzed each in detail with its parallels according to their form and tradition history. Though the sample is small, it is varied and the work meticulously done. Towner has been able to show a development in the form by analyzing examples according to functional categories, a result he was not able to achieve using strictly formal categories in his 1965 Yale dissertation. Formal categories arise from differences in the literary patterns of lists, for example, the presence or absence of proof texts. The lists did not vary enough for Towner to trace an historical development among them. Functional categories arise from the purpose for which the lists seem to have been written. Some seem lexical in interest, others homiletical, etc. Towner's hypothesis of a development is based on analysis of a wide range of materials and also on application of several methodological principles which he developed during the course of his studies. Unfortunately, since these traditions are atemporal and ahistorical, no Sitz can be recovered beyond vague references to schools. Consequently, we are dealing with literary and rhetorical patterns, but not with Gattungen.4.

    Towner begins with enumerations (lists with a number indicating how many items are in the list and a description of what kind of items are in the list) which are proverbial and nonexegetical. Proverbial lists seek to preserve, to

    3 Mekilta de R. Ishmael, Shirata 9:118-126. 4 Towner, Enumeration, 33-36. Traditionally form criticism has demanded a repeated pattern

    and also a concrete setting in which that form developed, functioned and possibly changed. E. Gerstenberger, following H. Gunkel and A. Alt, defines a form (of speech) as "a characteristic pattern of language, style, and ideas which is necessitated by concrete and recurring human action in society. Social groups condition and sanction not only the behavior of their members but also their various ways of speaking under given circumstances." (JBL 81 [1962] 249, n. 1) More recently the tenuous nature of many reconstructed Sitzen, the large gaps in sure knowledge of ancient institutions and culture, and a renewed interest in literary and structural analyses have moved scholars away from Sitz and toward formal criteria and relationships among forms. See the recent emphasis on structuralism; also Burke O. Long, "Recent Field Studies in Oral Literature and their Bearing on OT Criticism," VT26 (1976) 187-98.


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    render memorable and available, and to systematize diverse experiences and wisdom concerned with natural and human phenomena (three types of wine; four types of character), law or admonition (seven kinds of thieves) and historical experience (the three things Elijah will restore to Israel in the future). These lists are a widespread phenomenon and, as a form, seem to have been the basis for the later lists which contain scriptural warrants for each member of the list, or scriptural passages as the members of the list. These lists lead to the following generalizations:

    The interpretative rubric tends to be haggadic in character and invites entries which may be hyperbolic, apocryphal, even playful; traditions rendered in the 'proverbial' enumeration pattern are well suited for parenetic purposes, especially when the list exhibits climactic logic... ; the mnemonic function would appear to be marginal, for, as the tradition-histories show, the tradents expanded and altered the lists of data quite freely; the interpretative remark remains the most stable element in the course of transmission; the numerical element is the most stable part of the interpretive remark, but still cannot prevent some fluidity of detail in the recensions (weaker elements being always subject to alternation); this fluidity may have been enhanced in part by the absence of proof-texts.5

    Towner i


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