Midrash Tanhuma Volume I: Genesis

Review of “Midrash Tanhuma Volume I: Genesis”

Translated into English with Introduction, Indices and Brief Notes
Author: John T. Townsend. Hoboken, N.J.
Publisher: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1989
Pages: xvii + 334 pp
RRP: $39.50 (cloth)

This century has witnessed an explosion of traditional rabbinic works translated into English by Anglicans. Of particular note are the classic translations of The Mishnah by the Rev. Canon Herbert Danby, of The Chapters of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) by Travers Herford and by Charles Taylor, and the translations by W. H. Lowe. The most recent contribution to this unusual phenomenon is John Townsend’s English translation of the rabbinic commentary known as the Midrash Tanhuma, a contribution worthy of its fine predecessors.

Several recensions exist under the name of the Midrash Tanhuma, one of which is the recension edited by Shelomo Buber (grandfather of Martin Buber) in 1885. Townsend claims that little is known of Buber’s recension, or its relationship to the other extant recensions. Townsend summarizes certain minimal information about that version which Buber used, suggesting that it dates from southern Italy, some time after the mid-eighth century.

Townsend’s introduction would have been of great deal more value had he translated extensive portions of Buber’s introduction, for Buber is thorough, scholarly, and provides much critical information which Townsend simply ignores. For instance, Townsend makes nothing of the relationship between Tanhuma and the Yelammedenu homiletic literature, a relationship critical to understanding the antiquity of this composition (see the Buber edition, pp. 24ff, where Townsend would have been able to draw a great deal of material, and the important work of Hannanel Mack). Rabbinic compilations usually contain a great deal of earlier material, though no ur-text of the Tanhuma (either the vulgar or the Buber editions) has yet been identified. Rabbinic authorities cited in the Buber Tanhuma lived in the fourth century or earlier, but it is always difficult to tell with such compilations whether the attributions are pseudepigraphic or not.

This volume is the first of a projected three; volume two is in the press, and volume three is still with the translator. Here volume one covers the lectionary readings from Genesis.

One fascination of such early rabbinic documents is that both Latin and Greek are mixed in to the Hebrew text, along with “new” Hebrew words which are merely an attempt to render loan-words into Hebrew characters (the original Buber edition has an 11-page list of these loan-words). One such interesting word, which appears with some frequency in the Tanhuma, is the word matrona. Townsend makes little of the way the word is used, though it obviously refers to a non-Jewish woman of patrician class, indicating that the rabbis, while generally restricted in their contact with women other than their wives, would suspend their reservations in order to respond to questions from foreign women in positions of power (see Buber edition p. 68).

Some parts of the Tanhuma read as being influenced by Christianity, or at least as a reaction to Christian thought. For example, section Bereshit 1.7 opens with the story of some “sectarians” questioning Rabbi Ishmael: “How many deities created the world?” These sorts of questions are quite probably recorded in rabbinic literature as an excuse to argue against developing Christological doctrines. Rabbi Ishmael lived prior to the 3rd century, contemporaneous with developing patristic doctrines about the participation of the Christ/Logos in the creation of the world.

Notes at the bottom of each page include both a summary of certain pertinent Buber notes, plus additional comments and clarification by Townsend. In numerous places, this reviewer wishes that Townsend had been more aggressive in pointing out New Testament parallels. For example, at Noah 3.4 to Genesis 12:1, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi says “Throw away your life in this world,but in the world to come your reward is prepared for you.” The obvious Gospel parallel is Matthew 10:39, “One who loses his life for my sake will find it,” but Townsend neglects to point out the parallel. At Lekh-Lekha 3.20 to Genesis 17:1, the question is asked whether it is permitted to heal on the Sabbath; the obvious New Testament parallel, again un-noted, is Matthew 12:10. At Wayyera 4.3 to Genesis 18:1, the text discusses the meaning of the term “lowly hearts” (levavot nemukim); Townsend could have made a connection to the Beatitudes and to Matthew 11:29. Eight or ten additional places might have been noted, thus improving the usefulness of this text for Christian readers.

Though a minor criticism, on occasion Townsend fails to allow a context to dictate his correct word choice. For example at Wayyetse 7.14 to Genesis 29:31, he translates one Hebrew form of the Greek word “demos” as “pardon,” when it should more properly be translated “acquittal,” since the point is that Reuben was never guilty of a crime in the first place. Townsend is probably misled by Buber’s own misunderstanding of the text (p. 76a, note 91), and perhaps as well by Jastrow’s (p. 300a) mistake. A correct interpretation can be found in Lowe’s Fragment of Pesachim Babli, p. 70, note 4. Townsend also fails to distinguish properly between Holy Spirit and The Spirit of Holiness. The first is a personification, ultimately taken over by Christian theology; the second is a graced characteristic, attributed in rabbinic literature particularly to the pious and the prophets.

But these criticisms are minor, in comparison with Townsend’s over-all excellent conveying of a difficult Hebrew text into intelligible English. The book will be useful almost exclusively to scholars, and to Christian and Jewish students of rabbinics who cannot handle the Hebrew original; many others will probably find rabbinic thought too foreign to Christian categories to know how to make proper use of this important resource.

While this volume is indexed, it is poorly done; Townsend promises a complete new index at the end of Volume 3.

Review by Philip Culbertson
Published in Anglican Theological Review 73:2 (1991), 205-207.

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