I have this topic stuck in my head today in the wake of some conversations with folks about the Dead Sea Scrolls. But it could just as well be about interpreting any passage in the Hebrew Bible. I’ve grown weary of people (especially in Christian Middle Earth) appealing to rabbis to “prove” some idea they have about Scripture.
You have to realize appealing to rabbis is no substitute for interpreting Scripture in its ancient (pre-rabbinic) contexts. Rabbinic thought, biblical thought, and scholarly work in understanding the text in its ancient contexts are miles apart. For Christians who affirm that Jesus is messiah the notion of appealing to rabbinic thought for interpreting Scripture is especially odd, especially since rabbinic Judaism changed its theology (namely, the two powers in heaven doctrine) in response to Christian teaching about the deity of Jesus and a Godhead. For sake of illustration, if you’ve ever listened to Ben Shapiro (I’m a fan of the show) you know what I mean. He often does “Bible time” on his podcast. But what you get isn’t exegesis of the text in its ancient context. What you get is rabbinic opinion (with all the contrarian rabbinic opinions shelved to the side). In other words, if you listened to that sort of explanation on a given passage it would sound quite different than if you read a scholar situating a passage in its ancient Near Eastern context for the purpose of interpretation.
A Christian analogy might help. If you put 100 evangelical Christian pastors in a room and asked them what a given passage meant and why, and then recorded their debates and codified them in writing you’ve have “evangelical Christian rabbinics.” That is what rabbinic literature does — it records the debates among rabbis about a given passage or interpretation. Both the Christian illustration and the content of something like the Talmud would bear little resemblance to an academic discussion about interpreting a passage in its original ancient contexts.
I think many Christians don’t realize that “Rabbinic period” and “biblical period” do not overlap chronologically. The classic rabbinic period (“Rabbinism”) dates from the 6th century AD forward. That’s a full millennium after the close of the Old Testament. The rabbinic community wasn’t (and isn’t — at least for those who also are not biblical scholars) commenting on the text in its original environments (e.g., the ancient Near East and even what can be known today about the Second Temple period material from texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls). They didn’t have access to the material. The same is true of the early church fathers. Without being able to situate the biblical text in its original contexts, you aren’t going to be able to understand a lot of things. That means the majority of rabbis (like Christians who filter the Bible only through their own denominational preferences or wider church tradition) aren’t authorities in biblical exegesis. That takes specialized training. It’s true that we might find a Christian pastor who is a trained scholar in our hypothetical analogy, whose opinions would therefore be more informed. It’s also true we might find a rabbi who’d have the same sort of scholarly training I’m talking about. The point is that “rabbi” is no more a synonym for “Hebrew Bible scholar” than “pastor” is a synonym for Bible scholar. You’ll occasionally find overlap, but that isn’t the norm.
The problem is (my perception) that people who don’t read Hebrew literally get mesmerized by “the rabbis” and their opinions. They feel like they can’t object because they don’t know Hebrew, or that they can’t know better, because they don’t know Hebrew, and so on. WRONG. Someone who doesn’t know Hebrew can know better — if they know how to tap into serious academic resources produced by real scholars in relevant fields. This is what I try to expose people to in my books and the Naked Bible Podcast. Reading Hebrew is no guarantee to expertise in the Hebrew Bible. That may sound strange, but think about it with respect to English. Any native English speaker who’s at least in middle school could sight read the Bible. That hardly makes them a skilled interpreter of the Bible. This is true even of adults. Reading is not exegesis in context. Just because a college educated person can read Shakespeare, for example, doesn’t mean they can interpret Shakespeare well (or at all). It takes years of sustained study of Shakespeare to interpret him well — and a major part of that study is an intimate knowledge of Shakespeare’s own context. This is how it works with Bible interpretation as well. Sight-reading an English Bible doesn’t produce skilled interpretation. Sight-reading a Hebrew text doesn’t either. As I said a moment ago, reading is not exegesis.