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The Bible in Translation: Saadia Gaon’s Tafsir

November 11th, 2011

Review of Richard C. Steiner: A Biblical Translation in the Making: The Evolution and Impact of Saadia Gaon’s Tafsīr (Harvard University Press, 2010) 188 pages.

by Shalom Carmy

Within the discipline of Semitics, my colleague Richard Steiner has written on an astonishing range of subjects. Several of his areas of expertise—syntax, semantics, history of exegesis– are on display in this volume. Few readers will be equally interested in all of them; for anyone interested in any of them, what Steiner has to say is essential.

Saadia’s 10th century Arabic translation and commentary is a pioneering effort in the history of translation and in the history of exegesis. Much of the book deals with the nuts and bolts of textual history. These include different versions of Saadia’s text, the question of direct and indirect utilization of Moslem, Christian and Karaite sources, the target audiences of his work and its reception in these circles. This spadework is directly and indirectly pertinent to the questions of Biblical philology and syntax, and the history of Jewish philology and Biblical exegesis that Steiner has explored in many of his articles. It is also pertinent to the study of the Jewish and Moslem polemical literature in the period covered and to the medieval philosophical project of interpreting anthropomorphic language about God in Saadia and in his successors, including Maimonides.

The first four chapters are devoted primarily to freedom versus literalism in translation and the related questions of repetition in Biblical style and abbreviation in translation. Steiner categorizes in detail various types of repetition and how they are justified exegetically in Saadia and contemporary exegetes. He also pays attention to Saadia’s tendency to abbreviate such repetition. This appears to be a merely technical feature of the translation. Steiner demonstrates that was controversial in its time. In the closing chapter he explains why Saadia would have adopted this strategy.

Both Saadia and the Maimonidean tradition rejected anthropomorphic readings of Biblical language about God. Saadia’s typical strategies are different from those of his successors. The later approach is largely accommodationist: the Bible employs human language because of human limitations. Saadia adopts a more strenuous approach, insisting, for example, that secondary non-anthropomorphic meanings of Biblical verbs, which he seeks to identify, should be applied in theological contexts, or that particular nouns that seem to refer to God, refer to something else (e.g. that when God speaks to His “heart” this means that He informs His prophet) or that anthropomorphic verbs referring to God are transitive, and indicate effects caused by God rather than affecting Him.

Theologians, students of the history of Jewish philosophy and Biblical semantics will be interested not only in Steiner’s general observations on these and other phenomena, but also in his detailed examination of crucial examples. Since many of the chapters move back and forth between the textual and intellectual history addressed to specialists in these areas and the often fascinating examples, the index is likely to be especially useful.

Shalom Carmy is the co-chair of the Jewish Studies Department at Yeshiva College, where he teaches Jewish Studies and Philosophy.  He is also the editor of Tradition, as well as an affiliated scholar at the Cardozo School of Law.

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