The Bible Read through the Prism of Theology

The Medieval Karaite Tradition of Translating Explicit Anthropomorphisms into Arabic

In: The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy

The paper demonstrates that when translating explicit anthropomorphisms in Scripture, medieval Karaites are neither particularly more nor less literal than their rabbinic counterparts. Indeed, they often propose translations similar to those of Targum Onqelos and Saʿadyah Gaon. Moreover, although their lines of argument are different, both Saʿadyah and the Karaites insist that human language is responsible for corporeal descriptions of God in the Bible, and they resort to the linguistic conventions of figurative language and extension of meaning (majāz, ʾittisāʿ) to justify these theologically disturbing expressions. The Karaites’ contribution consists of advancing and refining these linguistic justifications by introducing, for example, the concept of polysemy (or homonymy) to account for certain kinds of problematic formulations. In addition, they are probably the first commentators in the history of Jewish Bible exegesis to cite the rabbinic dictum, “the Torah speaks in the language of man” to explain the presence of anthropomorphisms in Scripture.

  • 9

    See Meira Polliack, The Karaite Tradition of Arabic Bible Translation: A Linguistic and Exegetical Study of Karaite Translations of the Pentateuch from the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries C.E. (Leiden: Brill, 1997); eadem, “The Medieval Karaite Tradition of Translating the Hebrew Bible into Arabic: Its Sources, Characteristics and Historical Background,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, n.s., 6, no. 2 (1996): 189–196; eadem, “Views”; eadem, “Medieval Karaite Methods of Translating Biblical Narrative into Arabic,” Vetus Testamentum 48, no. 3 (1998): 375–398; eadem, “Concept”; eadem, “Karaite Methods in Translating Biblical Narrative: An Examination of Genesis 2:15–22” [Hebrew], in Studies in Bible and Exegesis VI: In Memoriam Yehuda Komlosh, ed. Rimon Kasher and Moshe Zipor (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2002), 217–233; Meira Polliack and Eliezer Schlossberg, “Yefet ben ʿEli’s Translation of the Book of Obadiah” [Hebrew], Peʿamim 89 (2001): 61–82. See also Meira Polliack, “Arabic Bible Translations in the Cairo Genizah Collection,” in The Proceedings of the EAJS Copenhagen Congress 1994, ed. Ulf Haxen et al. (Copenhagen: C. A. Reitzel A/S International Publishers, 1998), 35–61; eadem, “Types of Arabic Bible Translation in the Cairo Geniza Based on the Catalogue of ts Arabic” [Hebrew], Teʿudah 15 (1999): 109–125. The term “essential literalism” was coined by Meira Polliack to describe the complex phenomenon of Karaite literalism (epitomized in Yefet’s works), which aimed to convey the most precise lexical and textual (i.e., structural) representation of the Hebrew source text in the Arabic target language in order to communicate it accurately to readers or hearers, for didactic purposes. See Polliack, Tradition, 280; eadem, “Tradition,” 192; eadem, “Views,” 81. In this sense, and probably in this sense alone, it is possible to speak of the “slavish literalism” or “rigid literalness” of medieval Karaite biblical translations. See Daniel Frank, Search Scripture Well: Karaite Exegetes and the Origins of the Jewish Bible Commentary in the Islamic East (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 12 n. 47; Polliack, Tradition, 40. For Yefet ben ʿEli being considered by many scholars as “the most imitative” Bible translator among his contemporary coreligionists, see below, n. 19.

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  • 10

    See Polliack, “Tradition,” 191. Cf. eadem, Tradition, 280; eadem, “Views,” 81; eadem, “Concept,” 195.

  • 16

    See Polliack, Tradition, 230–233.

  • 19

    See, for example, Birnbaum, Hosea, xxxiii; idem, “Yefet,” 165; Hartwig Hirschfeld, Jefeth b. Ali’s Arabic Commentary on Nāhūm, with Introduction, Abridged Translation and Notes, Jews’ College Publications 3 (London: Jews’ College, 1911), 7; Simone Maurice Lehrman, “A Commentary on the Book of Joel by Jefeth ben Ali the Karaite” (PhD diss., University of London, 1927), 7; Leon Nemoy, Karaite Anthology (New Haven, ct: Yale University Press, 1952), 83; Polliack, Tradition, 40, 247–248; Sasson, “Proverbs,” 159, 204, 207, 259. Cf. also Mordechai Z. Cohen, Three Approaches to Biblical Metaphor: From Abraham Ibn Ezra and Maimonides to David Kimhi (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 75–76. I am grateful to Prof. Mordechai Z. Cohen for sharing some of his inspiring publications with me.

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  • 32

    Cf. Klein, Anthropomorphisms, 7–8; idem, “Anthropomorphisms,” 60; Schochet, “Targum,” 9 n. 7.

  • 68

    See Derenbourg, Œuvres, 5.

  • 81

    See Derenbourg, Œuvres, 46.

  • 82

    Cf. Schochet, “Targum,” 33.

  • 83

    See Derenbourg, Œuvres, 15. Cf. Rawidowicz, “Purification,” 257.

  • 90

    See Zawanowska, “Implicit Anthropomorphisms,” 31–33.

  • 95

    See Derenbourg, Œuvres, 32. Cf. Andrew Rippin, “Saʻadya Gaon and Genesis 22: Aspects of Jewish-Muslim Interaction and Polemic,” in Studies in Islamic and Judaic Traditions, ed. William M. Brinner and Stephen D. Ricks, Brown Judaic Studies 110 (Atlanta, ga: Scholars Press, 1986), 33–46, esp. 39.

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  • 101

    See Polliack, “Tradition,” 191. Cf. eadem, Tradition, 280; eadem, “Views,” 81; eadem, “Concept,” 195.

  • 115

    Cf. Rawidowicz, “Purification,” 249.

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