Midrash Tanhuma Volume II: Exodus and Leviticus

Review of “Midrash Tanhuma Volume II: Exodus and Leviticus”

Translated into English with Indices and Brief Notes (S. Buber Recension)
Author: John T. Townsend. Hoboken, N. J.
Publisher: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1997.
Pages: 394 pp.
RRP: $79.50.

When John Townsend’s first volume in this set of translations, on Genesis, was published in 1989, it was so highly acclaimed critically that scholars of Judaica have been long anticipating the set’s continuation. They will not be disappointed with this second of three volumes.

The Midrash Tanhuma exists in several recensions, the most famous of which was edited by Shelomo Buber (grandfather of Martin Buber) in 1885. The date and provenance of this commentary on the Torah remains a mystery, though rabbinic authorities cited therein are mostly fourth century or earlier, and in general the scholarly community locates this compilation in southern Italy around the mid-eighth century.

Townsend’s rendering is smooth and elegant, somehow making the anxiety-producing job of rendering convincing translations of multiplex and permanently hypothetical texts look simple. The footnotes are minimalist but solid, offering observations on etymology, parallel sources, variant readings, cross-connections, and even an occasional note of humor. Both the English translation and the scholarly apparatus are invaluable to Biblical and rabbinic, classical and medieval scholars, for until Townsend’s work, this extremely important collection has not been available in a user-friendly English edition.

The commentary as a whole falls within the literary category known as “midrash”. As such it explores anomalies in the Hebrew text (interspersed with Greek and Latin loan words), fills in pieces missing in the narrative, and seeks the halakhic heart of narrative material as well as the narrative heart of halakhic material.

Readers comfortable with rabbinic commentaries can relax here and savor some of the most loved midrashim in the rabbinic corpus, including the Parable of Two Ships (p. 165), the Parable of the Blind Man and the Lame Man in the Garden (p. 196), and the Parable of Hadrian and the Old Man Planting (p. 307). Along the way we catch a glimpse of Pharaoh on the way to his morning toilet (p. 44), an ancient king who wore a wristwatch (p. 65), and instructions on why the faithful need to be sensitive to God’s many moods (pp. 110 and 280).

As was the case with the first volume, with this one I wish the indices were more extensive. Townsend promises a complete index at the end of Volume 3; I hope his publisher supports him in that desire. In the meantime, this volume contains only a simple index of rabbinic authorities cited, and a scripture index limited to Hebrew Bible citations in the body of the text, but not those cited in the footnotes. The corpus here is so dense that without a fuller index, pearls of wisdom seem only to pop up and then disappear again.

Review by Philip Culbertson
Published in Anglican Theological Review 80:3 (1998), 422-423.

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.

Forgiving and Forgiven

Review of “Forgiving and Forgiven”

Author: L. William Countryman, Harrisburg, PA
Publisher: Morehouse Publishing, 1998
Pages: 134 pp
RRP: $10.95 (paper)

The subject of “forgiveness” is rather in vogue these days, with a number of new books appearing from a variety of Christian sources, including the theological (David Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God), the pastoral (David Augsburger, Helping People Forgive, and Marie Fortune, Sexual Ethics for the Rest of Us), and the Biblical (Pamela Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar). To this growing literature must now be added the fine new contribution of Bill Countryman, professor of New Testament at CDSP in Berkeley.

Countryman manages to blend the three approaches mentioned above into a highly readable book which addresses forgiveness as both a spiritual and practical issue. The author offers four ways to cultivate forgiveness, each of which is designed to avoid the denial, re-victimization, simplistic platitudes, and guilt so typical of much of the older literature on Christian forgiveness. Forgiveness is defined as a responsive process rather than an act, deed, or obligation. Forgiveness begins with self-healing, including naming and expressing the anger which so often accompanies shame. As those seeking to forgive grow in their understanding of the graceful generosity of God’s love , their conversion of heart will with time lead them to join the extraordinary flow of love which characterizes God’s caring, a forgiveness offered to all even before they know it is needed. In this manner, Countryman presents a book which is both theologically and psychologically sound, the true meaning of pastoral theology. It is fortunate that the two fields are wed so well here, because they often are not.

What makes the book unique among the literature of forgiveness is the creative scope which Countryman brings to this subject. He speaks not only of individual forgiveness, but also of the opportunity for forgiveness within and by whole communities. He addresses the need of so many to forgive the church for the ways it has hurt them both intentionally and unintentionally. The text is sensitive to the complicated situation of the physically and sexually abused, insisting that those in violent relationships must extract themselves before healing can begin, and reminding the sexually abused of the value of anger which makes us strong, and the danger of anger which consumes and re-victimizes.

This book is not overly scholarly-for example, there is neither bibliography nor footnotes-though it does presume a relatively well-educated readership. Those already deep within the Christian tradition will find delight in Countryman’s use of familiar writers from the spiritual tradition, including C. S. Lewis, George Herbert, William Temple, and Alexander Campbell. The book is dedicated to two of the great Bible teachers of the Episcopal Church: Robert Dentan and Pierson Parker. The frontispiece informs the reader that an on-line study guide is available to support the use of this book in adult Christian education and in continued training for ministry and pastoral counseling.

Review by Philip Culbertson
Published in Anglican Theological Review 81:4 (Fall 1999), 757-758.