Category Archives: Midrash

Peshat and Derash

Jews study the Tanakh (Bible) on multiple levels: The two basic levels of Tanakh study are termed peshat and derash.

The first is the פְּשָׁט‎ “peshat”, taking the story of the text at face value. It should not be translated as “literally”, as the peshat level of analysis takes into account idioms, metaphors, personification, etc. The peshat is the message that the original author intended to get across to the original audience.

The second level is the distinctively Jewish דְּרַשׁ “derash” method: the way that Ḥazal (חז”ל‎‎) – the rabbis of the Mishnah, Midrash and Talmuds – interpreted the text: In derash we ask why the text is phrased the way that it is: we uses rabbinical literary techniques to plumb the depths of the text to find new meaning, or bring out connections and lessons that may not have been intended by the original authors. Sometimes the results are imaginative, and not the meaning intended by the original author. Indeed, some parts of the midrash literature are clear that the authors knew this. They were teaching lessons and writing Biblical homilies.

In the Mishnah and Talmud itself, some discussions show that rabbis felt that the derash was the original meaning of the text, while other discussions clearly understood the derash as filling-in-the-blanks, and creating meaning, laws and structure.

Even during the medieval era both schools of thought continued: Some meforshim (classical Bible commentators) such as Rashi, often accepted the derash as literally and historically true, while others (Rashbam, Ibn Ezra) felt otherwise.

Conflating the derash with the peshat later became a defining characteristic of more fundamentalist versions of rabbinic Judaism. Understanding that they are not identical became characteristic of non-fundamentalist versions of rabbinic Judaism.

Ari Marcelo Solon writes “Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir) clearly
distinguished between peshat and derash. His terminology relating to the peshat category is well-defined. Rashbam consistently interpreted in accordance with the peshat method; that is to say, he limited himself to the text itself, interpreting it according to its vocabulary, syntax and context, in relation to biblical parallels, according to common sense as well as derekh eretz (what is customary). Unlike Rashi, Rashbam did
not integrate biblical text and Midrash. It was Rashi who paved the way towards a clear distinction between peshat and derash in the writings of his successors. Yet in his commentaries, such a distinction still remains unrevealed.”

Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) may deny that there is any difference between peshat and derash, and they characterically teach that we are obligated to accept the derash as if it is the literal, original and only interpretation of the Bible. They may refer to any other approach as heretical.

In contrast, rabbis who appreciate great medieval Bible commentators such as Ibn Ezra and Rashbam, or who follow philosophical rationalism, often have exactly the opposite approach: Such rabbis are found within much of Modern Orthodoxy and non-Orthodox Judaism.

Modern Orthodox Rabbi Shalom Carmy (Yeshiva University) explains the difference between peshat and derash like this

1. Peshat–what text meant for first generation audience. Derash- what it may mean in retrospect. (Rabbi D.Z. Hoffmann says this).
2. Peshat– what’s in the lines; Derash- what’s hinted at between the lines, OR
2′. Peshat–what’s in the text; Drash- “filling in gaps” of what’s not explicit in text.

The relations between these levels is complicated & function differently in Halakhic and narrative contexts.
There are also ambiguities–what’s written in the first chapter of a book often has one meaning when you read the book the first time and another meaning when you get to the end. Likewise what a pasuk means in Shemot may appear different after you have reached Dvarim.


Correctly Construing Biblical Verses Upon which Halakhot Claim to be Based, Professor Rabbi Marty Lockshin

Ibn Ezra vs. Rashbam –  Can The Torah Contradict  Halacha (Jewish Law)?

Does Halakha Uproot Scripture? Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin

Peshat and Derash: Plain and Applied Meaning in Rabbinic Exegesis” by Rav Prof. David Weiss Halivni (Oxford U. Press 1991)

The Religious Significance of the Peshat, Uriel Simon. Tradition 23 (2), Winter 1988 also here at

Book: Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra: Studies in the Writings of a Twelfth-Century Jewish Polymath, Edited by Isadore Twersky and Jay M. Harris. Chapter Abraham Ibn Ezra as an Exegete, by Nahum M. Sarna

What do we do when a verse in the Torah says one thing but halakha, Jewish law, attributes a very different meaning to it? Some people engage in fundamentalist wordplay to conclude that there’s no difference between the peshat of the Torah, and Halakhah. But such differences exist; Even the Talmud notes this:

In the nineteenth century, Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal; 1800-1865) developed a new way of solving the peshat-halakha dilemma, suggesting that midrash halakha (rabbinic interpretation of biblical legal texts) often represents rabbinic legislation, and NOT biblical commentary. He makes his clearest and most detailed statement on the topic in his commentary on Parashat Tzav…. Shadal’s approach to the peshat–derash issue is novel and simple: Whenever the peshat says one thing and the midrash says something very different, Shadal says that the peshat is what the Torah means and the midrash represents rabbinic legislation, not biblical interpretation…. From a halachic point of view, this approach may be problematic: these laws that were connected to biblical verses by means of a derashah were standardly considered by the rabbis to be of Torah, not rabbinic, origin (דאורייתא, not דרבנן), as Shadal’s approach apparently implies. Remarkably, for Shadal, the classical rabbis were religious reformers who changed the laws of the Torah, making them less stringent. Shadal lived in the early days of Reform Judaism and took issue with its innovations. Accordingly, he takes pains to distinguish the motivations of the classical rabbis from what he understood to be the motivations of his more liberal contemporaries [Classic German Reform Judaism]

Peshat vs. Halakha Dilemma: Shadal and Tradition


Midrash מדרש (pl. midrashim מדרשים) is the way that the classical Jewish sages interpreted the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), especially those in the Land of Israel in the first six centuries of the common era.

The word comes from the Hebrew root drsh (דרש) meaning “to search, examine.” The word midrash can refer to:

  • a process: the method by which one interprets the text

  • a teaching: the result of this method may be an interpretation of a verse, or a lesson drawn from it.

  • a book: a collection of midrash statements by an author(s), on a particular book of the Bible.

There are many different midrash collections (e.g. Genesis Rabbah, Sifre Numbers, Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, etc.) Each was written by a different authorship, for a different purpose.

Just as an artist creates an original pictures with different paints, the rabbis wrote midrash with different verses of Scripture.

Jacob Neusner writes:

…when our sages of blessed memory proposed to compose their statements… it was an appeal to serve a purpose defined not by Scripture, but by a faith under construction… Scripture formed a dictionary, providing a vast range of permissible usages of intelligible words. Scripture did not dictate the sentences that would be composed through the words found in that (limited) dictionary. Much as painters paint with a palette of colors, authorships wrote with Scripture. The paint is not the picture….”The Midrash” is a vast painting, begun in the age in which the Judaism of the dual Torah took shape, continued from then to now. But the painting is made up of a large collection of completed paintings, a collage of perfect compositions. [p. x, xi]

– Jacob Neusner “The Midrash: An Introduction”, Jason Aronson Inc, 1990

Midrash rabbah set

Why engage in midrash?

Once a canon (approved scriptural text) is closed, the problem facing the community is the problem of “searching out” the canon. Midrash is a method of reading the Bible as an Eternal text, and is the result of applying a set of hermeneutical principles evolved by the community… The ultimate goal of midrash is to “search out” the fullness of what was spoken by the Divine Voice.

In developing midrash, there are two schools of thought on how to handle the language of Torah:

One is that the language is the language of human discourse, and is subject to the same redundancies and occasional verbiage that we all encounter in desultory conversation.

The other view holds that since Scripture is the Word of God, no word is superfluous. Every repetition, every apparent mistake, every peculiar feature of arrangement or order has meaning.

Midrash minimizes the authority of the wording of the text… It places the focus on the reader… While it is always governed by the wording of the text, it allows for the reader to project his or her inner struggle into the text. This allows for some very powerful and moving interpretations which, to the ordinary user of language, seem to have very little connection with the text. The great weakness of this method is that it always threatens to replace the text with an outpouring of personal reflection. At its best it requires the presence of mystical insight not given to all readers.

–  from Charles T. Davis, Appalachian Statue University, Philosophy and Religion Department, NC

Are Midrash literally and historically true?

No, and they clear were written in such a way to make this clear. Rabbi Moshe Shamah writes:

Rab Hai Gaon also stated: “You should know that aggadic statements are not like those of shemu‘ah (“heard,” a passed-down statement). Rather, they are cases of each individual expounding what came to his mind, in the nature of ‘it can be said,’ not a decisive matter. Accordingly we do not rely on them” (Otzar ha-Ge’onim to b. Haggigah, Siman 67).

Rab Shemuel ben Hofni Gaon (960–c.1034, head of the Sura Academy), in his Introduction to the Talmud (published in the Vilna edition at the end of Massekhet Berakhot, erroneously attributed to Shemuel Hanagid, translated and abridged by Rab Shemuel ben Hananya in the 12th century), stated: “Aggadah constitutes all the explanations in the Talmud on any subject that does not refer to a mitzvah. You do not learn from them except what seems acceptable to the mind…. Concerning the expounding on scriptural verses, each [sage] expounded what chanced to him and what he saw in his mind, so what is acceptable to the mind we learn from and the rest we do not rely upon.”

Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1164) in his Bible commentary often alludes to the importance of recognizing the inapplicability of Midrash to understanding the intention of the Torah. For example, concerning the variant between the two Decalogue passages in the Torah, wherein one states “zakhor (remember) the Sabbath day to keep it holy” while the other has “shamor (observe) the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” he comments:

…The sages said that “zakhor and shamor were said in the same pronouncement” (b. Shebuot 20b)… Heaven forbid saying that they did not speak correctly for our minds are meager in comparison to their minds, but people of our generation think that their words were intended to be taken literally which is not the case…

The formulations of the sages teach all sorts of valuable lessons. Frequently, they use the Torah text as a springboard to elaborate an idea or as a mnemonic device to anchor an insight and assist in its being remembered. In doing so they are often engaging in moral education and inspirational edification that in their days would have been difficult to accomplish in a straightforward manner. As long as the reader or listener realizes that a proposed interpretation of a text is not necessarily its true meaning, the interpretation often having no genuine (peshat) connection to the actual intention of the relevant verses, and that the highly improbable, often fantastic and sometimes impossible realities portrayed are not literal, no harm is done and a benefit is derived from the lesson.

Moshe Shamah, Recalling the Covenant: A Contemporary Commentary on the Five Books of the Torah, Ktav, 2011. On Interpreting Midrash.


What was the mindset of the Midrash authors?

In chapter 3 of “The Midrash: An Introduction” Neusner proposes that we can discern the unstated assumptions of the midrash authors:

“What premises can validate my intervention, that is, my willingness to explain the meaning of a verse of Scripture? These seem to me propositions that must serve to justify the labor of intrinsic exegesis as we have seen its results here:

1. My independent judgement bears weight and produces meaning. I – that is, my mind – may therefore join in the process.

2. God’s revelation to Moses at Sinai requires my intervention. I have the role, and the right, to say what that revelation means.

3. What validates my entry into the process of revelation is the correspondence between the logic of my mind and the logic of the document.

Why do I think so? Only if I think in accord with the logic of the revealed Torah can my thought processes join issue in clarifying what is at hand: the unfolding of God’s will in the Torah. To state matters more accessibly: if the Torah does not make statements in accord with a syntax and a grammar that I know, I cannot understand the Torah enough to explain its meaning. But if I can join in the discourse of the Torah, it is because I speak the same language of thought, syntax and grammar at the deepest levels of intellect.

4. …Since a shared logic of syntax and grammar joins my mind to the mind of God as revealed in the Torah, I can say what a sentence of the Torah means. So I too can clarify, amplify, expand, revise, rework: that is to say, create a [midrash collection] document. [p.105/106]

Example of a midrash

Katz, Michael, and Gershon Schwartz. Searching for Meaning in Midrash: Lessons for Everyday Living. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002.

Searching for Meaning in Midrash

Go forth and learn

How Does Midrash Work? A library of articles from MyJewishLearning

Filling in the Gaps: Midrash allowed the rabbis to explain and expand on the Torah–and in doing so, they revealed much about themselves.  By Rabbi Iscah Waldman

Midrash article from the Encyclopaedia Judaica

Midrash reading list from the Soc.Culture.Jewish FAQ

Missing years in the Hebrew calendar

There is a serious chronological discrepancy between the Seder Olam (Rabbinic Jewish) dating system and the archaeologically proven historical record. The dating problem appears after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, in 423 BCE – which is traditionally recorded in the rabbinic calendar as having occurred in the year Hebrew 3338 (3338 years after the creation of the world.) This discrepancy results in a large discrepancy between the two systems for all periods before the Persian period.

Among the right wing Orthodox, it is believed that Jews must use the Seder Olam chronology, and that all historical and archaeological records must either be wrong, or grossly misinterpreted.

However, there is actually no consensus in rabbinic Judaism as to which chronology to adopt. Many Artscroll books and other right wing works follow the Seder Olam chronology. However, other Orthodox works use the conventional system, such as: The Soncino edition of the Bible, the J. H. Hertz Pentateuch, the  Da’at Mikra edition of the Bible (published by Mossad ha Rav Kook in Jerusalem), and Adin Steinsaltz’s edition of the Talmud.

How did this discrepancy come about? Mitchell First writes:

“..the chronology of the Sages can be completely explained. What happened is that the Sages saw [what they thought was] a prediction in the book of Daniel [9:24-27) that a certain time period would span 490 years. The beginning and end points of the 490 year period referred to are ambiguous. For various reasons, the Sages interpreted the beginning and endpoints to be the destruction of the First Temple and the Destruction of the Second Temple. Once they adopted this interpretation…and believed that the prediction must have come true, they were constrained by other data known to them regarding the length of period from the destruction to the rebuilding (70 years), and the total length of the Greek, Hasmonean and Roman periods (386 years). This forced them to state a length for the period from the rebuilding under Darius until the beginning of Greek rule that was shorter than they otherwise should have..”

Comparison of the Seder Olam (Rabbinic) chronology with the conventional (archaeological and historical) chronology.

Event  Seder Olam chronology  Conventional historical chronology
  King David captures Jerusalem and makes it his capital  867 BCE  1000 BCE (+/- 5 years)
 Building of the First Temple  831 BCE  965 BCE
Josiah repairs First Temple 458 BCE 622 BCE
 First Temple destroyed  421 BCE  586 BCE
 Beginning of Persian rule in Israel  368 BCE  539 BCE
 Reign of King Ahasverosh , according to Book of Esther. Compared to the historical King Xerxes.  366-362 BCE  486-465 BCE
 Commencement of the rebuilding of the Second Temple  351 BCE  520 BCE
 End of Persian rule. Beginning of Greek rule in Israel.  317 BCE  332 BCE
 Destruction of the Second Temple  70 CE  70 CE

All dates after this point are identical in both systems.

The best book on this subject is Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology by Mitchell First.

“According to Seder Olam Rabbah, the work that forms the basis for almost all rabbinic chronology, the period from the defeat of the Babylonians by the Medeo-Persians until the beginning of Greek rule, encompassed 52 years and spanned the reigns of three Persian kings. According to the chronology that is universally accepted by historians today (conventional chronology), this period of Persian rule over the land of Israel encompassed 207 years (539 to 332 BCE) and during this period more than ten Persian kings reigned. This discrepancy between the traditional Jewish chronology and conventional chronology has not gone unnoticed. The purpose of this study is to collect and categorize the variety of Jewish responses to this discrepancy, both by Jewish scholars and rabbinic authorities. Part I provides an introduction to the discrepancy. Part II contains the earliest Jewish responses to the discrepancy. In the major part of the study, Part III, the responses to the discrepancy from the time of Azariah de Rossi (16th century) to the present time are collected and categorized. This unified collection and categorization of the many responses will enable students and scholars to have easy access to what has been written by Jewish scholars and rabbinic authorities about the discrepancy and will facilitate scholarly evaluation of the responses.”

Below is an amazing debate between an ultra-Orthodox Jew, who believe that the dating system of Midrash Seder Olam is historically correct, and a Jewish secular trained historian, who has a masterful understanding of the primary historical sources. This debate took place on a Usenet newsgroup – for younger readers, Usenet was a worldwide, massive bulletin board system, the first major set of discussion forums on the internet

Subject: Re: 3761 B.C.E.? March 3, 1996
Subject: Re: Historicity of Aggadah June 4, 1996
From: D S Levene (
Newsgroups: soc.culture.jewish

Lisa Aaronson wrote:
: Well, the Babylonian destruction was 490 years before the Roman
: one (70 years of exile and 420 years for the Second Temple), and
: since the latter was in 70 CE and there’s no year 0, the former
: was in -420, or 421 BCE. The difference is in the duration of the
: Persian period (and the very beginning of the Greek period).
: Jewish sources have Alexander conquering Persia 52 years after the
: Persians conquered Babylon. And a total of 4 Medean and Persian
: kings during this period. The Greeks gave the same period a total
: of 208 years and 10 kings.
: A lot comes down to who you consider more reliable. The Greek
: stories were collected folklore, basically. Lots of hearsay from
: people in foreign lands. Herodotus actually admits that he heard 4
: different and conflicting stories of the coming to power of Cyrus
: the Great, only bothering to tell the one he thought most likely.
: Greek stories that didn’t fit the consensus synthesis are
: considered, a priori, to be unreliable. For example, Xenophon
: records the rise of Cyrus in a way almost identical to the Jewish
: version, but since this contradicts Herodotus, it is dismissed as
: “an early historical novel”.

This is, I’m afraid, almost total nonsense. We do not get the standard Persian chronology from “Greek stories”: it is the one overwhelmingly supported by *all* sources – Persian, Babylonian and Greek alike. The rabbinic chronology, by contrast, is attested only centuries later, and is utterly unsustainable against the Babylonian and Persian documentation.

(1) Let’s start by setting out the basic picture from the king-lists.  The most comprehensive one is the so-called Royal Canon, which gives  astronomically tabulated dates for all the Persian kings. The fullest version of this that we have is very late; but it derives from earlier material, and its dates are confirmed by cuneiform lists of earlier periods. See, for example, the so-called Saros Tablet (in ZA 7 (1892)), which lists the whole period by eighteen-year intervals.

Lists like these enable us to construct our basic chronology for the period, as follows (all dates B.C.E.; for the sake of familiarity I use the Greek names of all these kings):

Nabonidus 556-539 (he was the last king of Babylon before the Persian conquest)
Cyrus 539-530 (he had reigned in Persia for 20 years  before capturing Babylon)
Cambyses 530-522
Bardiya 522
Darius I 522-486
Xerxes (Ahasuerus) 486-465
Artaxerxes I 465-424 (*) See note below
Darius II 424-404
Artaxerxes II 404-359
Artaxerxes III 359-338
Arses 338-336
Darius III 336-331
In 331 Alexander the Great captured Babylon and overthrew the Persian empire.

(*) Note: There were a few months of conflict following the death of Artaxerxes I; two of his sons, Xerxes II and Sogdianos, briefly tried to seize the throne before being killed, and a third son, Darius II, took over. This had an interesting consequence which I discuss below.
(2) That is the basic picture: can we confirm it? Indeed we can, comprehensively and overwhelmingly: there is a mass of supporting documentation. Astronomical data is especially important. We have a large number of Babylonian astronomical records for the Persian period. For example, we have a record of virtually every lunar eclipse in the period, dated by the king’s reign; we have dated records of solar eclipses and planetary conjunctions and observations; we even have “astronomical diaries” – dated diaries in which astronomers recorded their day-by-day observations. The dates of these can be checked astronomically – and comprehensively confirm the total correctness of the standard chronology. There are numerous Babylonian astronomical records, for example – I’ll just mention a few briefly:

Astronomical texts for the period are assembled and described in T.G. Pinches & J.N. Strassmaier, “Late Babylonian Astronomical and Related Texts” (Providence, 1955).

BM 36910+36998+37036 records by date lunar eclipses from Darius I to Artaxerxes II.

The so-called Saros Canon (in ZA 10 (1895)) lists every year from Artaxerxes II onwards, recording every lunar eclipse in the period.

BM 36754 records solar eclipses in the reigns of Artaxerxes III and Darius III.

LBAT 1411-1412 records conjunctions of Saturn and Mars with the Moon for the reign of Darius II and the start of the reign of ArtaxerxesII.

LBAT 1387-1388 records observations of Venus for the reigns of Artaxerxes I and Darius II.

BM 36823 records observations of Jupiter for the reign of Darius I.

LBAT 1394-1395 records observations of Jupiter for the reigns of Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III.

Strassmaier, “Cambyses” No. 400 is a record of various astronomical data for the last year of Cambyses’ reign.

The dates of all these can be checked astronomically (and there are many other such documents also). They all demonstrate the absolute correctness of the standard chronology.

(3) Moreover, a large number of other contemporary Babylonian and Persian documents together confirm this chronology (mostly various sorts of  business records). Once again, I give just a very few examples here  (many hundreds more could be adduced).

Cyrus’ capture of Babylon from Nabonidus is confirmed by the Cyrus Cylinder and the Nabonidus Chronicle.

The Behistun Inscription confirms the Cyrus-Cambyses-Bardiya-Darius I sequence of kings.

A text of Darius II (in JAOS 72 (1952)) confirms the Darius I-Xerxes-Artaxerxes I-Darius II sequence.

The length of reign of Darius I is confirmed by VAS V 110, dating itself to the 36th year of Darius’ reign.

The length of reign of Xerxes is confirmed by one of the Persepolis Treasury texts (in JNES 24 (1965)), dating itself to the 20th year of his reign.

The length of the reign of Artaxerxes I is confirmed by BM 33342; also BE X 4. These documents, unusually, are double-dated by both the 41st year of Artaxerxes I and the accession year of Darius II, a result of the uncertainty surrounding the opening of Darius II’s reign (see above).

The length of reign of Artaxerxes II is confirmed by VAS VI 186, dating itself to the 46th year of his reign.

[By the way, I should just point out in passing that all these kings are attested in Babylonian sources as kings *in Babylon*, thus reconfirming that their reigns post-dated the Persian conquest of Babylon.]
Even more data:

(i) There are documents from Persian kings, describing their own relationships to their predecessors. Thus in the so-called Cyrus Cylinder, Cyrus describes his capture of Babylon from Nabonidus (we also have an independent description of the same events in the Nabonidus Chronicle). The Behistun Inscription of Darius I recounts how Darius seized the throne from Bardiya, who illegitimately (or so Darius claims!) took it from Cambyses, who inherited it from his father Cyrus. A letter of Darius II (first published in “Journal of
the American Oriental Society” 72 (1952)) describes Darius’ inheritance of the throne from his father Artaxerxes I, who inherited it from his father Xerxes, who inherited it from his father Darius I.

(ii) Especially revealing are archives which provide us with sequences of documents. Two of the most famous are the Persepolis Tablets and the Murashu Archive. The former gives us several thousand palace administrative documents, mostly dated; most come from the
reign of Darius I, but some carry on through the reign of Xerxes and into the reign of Artaxerxes I. The latter is the complete – and dated – records of a large Babylonian business in the reigns of Artaxerxes I and Darius II. The dates in these confirm the lengths of the reigns and (when we can sequence them) their order.

(iii) There are other sorts of documents that confirm the order and length of reign of various of the Persian kings. With the start of the reign of Darius II, one finds documents which are, unusually, double dated by the 41st year of Artaxerxes I *and* the accession year of Darius II: this is the result of a brief period of uncertainty surrounding the accession of Darius, who was one of three claimants to the throne. This confirms both the length of Artaxerxes’ reign and the identity of his successor. There are also various other examples of business and private documents from the reign of one king that refer back to previous events or documents in the reign of an earlier king. Finally, of course, there are thousands of other dated contemporary documents that, by their dates, guarantee that the king ruled at least that length of time (if a document is dated “the 19th year of Xerxes”, it shows that Xerxes ruled at least 19 years).

All of this material simply provides additional confirmation for what was already known from the king-lists and astronomical texts.  Moreover, there are simply no gaps into which “unknown” kings like those in Daniel could be slotted. The material described above, that directly provides sequences for the reigns of kings, proves this point. For much of the Persian period our evidence is so full that we can date reigns not merely year by year, but month by month, and sometimes even day by day – to the point that even with kings who were not recognised by their successors (as is the case with Bardiya, and the claimants calling themselves “Nebuchadnezzar III” and “Nebuchadnezzar IV” in the first years of the reign of Darius I), documents nevertheless survive that are dated by their brief “reigns”.

A (small) selection of the documents that are relevant for dating in the period are discussed by R.A. Parker & W.H. Dubberstein, “Babylonian Chronology 626 B.C.-A.D. 75” (Providence, 1956).

(4) Please note that these are not “Greek sources”, but Persian and Babylonian – and often contemporary ones at that. All are independent of one another; many provide astronomically checkable dates. This is, as I say, only a tiny proportion of the evidence that I can introduce, but no more should be necessary. This alone is enough to demonstrate  conclusively and overwhelmingly the correctness of our standard chronology, and the utter impossibility of the rabbinic one.

(4) All of this is sufficient to prove the absolute correctness of the standard chronology, and the absolute impossibility of the rabbinic one. But if we need an entirely independent check, one is easily forthcoming from Greece – or more specifically Athens.

Athenian chronology is extremely well attested, on grounds totally independent of Babylonian and Persian chronology. We have complete lists from the early 5th-century BCE until far into the Roman period of Athenian archons – the annual magistrates at Athens whose names provided the year’s official date. We can confirm the accuracy of this by cross-checking against our substantial (though less complete) lists of other Athenian officials, and documentary material of other sorts – annual tribute lists, for example.

From the early 5th-century BCE onwards, Athens had considerable involvement in Persia, and there are numerous references in Athenian writers to contemporary Persian events – well-known examples include Aeschylus, Thucydides, and Xenophon. Needless to say, these contemporary references are exactly what would be expected from the evidence above: they confirm comprehensively the total correctness of the standard chronology derived from our Persian and Babylonian sources.

(5) But I cannot resist a little bit of Greek material as well, not least because Lisa has been so scathing about it.

Thucydides, who was a general in the Peloponnesian War, records at 2.28 a solar eclipse at Athens in the first year of that war; the eclipse can be dated astronomically to August 3, 431. Later (8.58), he quotes a treaty between Darius II and the Spartans at the end of the 20th year of the war – i.e. (dating from the eclipse) spring 411 (Thucydides’ years run summer to spring). He quotes the date on the treaty as the 13th year of Darius II – and, sure enough, if we cross-check the data from our Babylonian sources, we find that the 13th year of Darius indeed began Nisanu 411.

The total correctness of the standard chronology (and, incidentally, of Thucydides’ chronology) is, as always, confirmed by an independent contemporary source.

Lisa Aronson wrote:
: The Jewish version was transmitted generation after generation by
: Sages living in the place where the events actually unfolded.

In other words, it is an oral tradition. Oral traditions are notoriously unstable at the best of times, and they are *especially* poor at preserving chronology – see the study by D.P. Henige, “The Chronology of Oral Tradition”. You could hardly have a weaker basis on which to  found a chronology; it cannot stand for a second against the innumerable documents that demonstrate the contrary.

Lisa wrote:
: Probably the most amusing thing about this whole issue is that the
: documentary hypothesis, which claims that the Bible was composed of
: several disparate and conflicting sources which were eventually
: redacted into the Bible we have today, has no basis in fact. No
: “source” has ever been discovered or is mentioned in the Bible.
: Whereas all of the arguments for this silly theory actually *are*
: true about the Greek accounts of the Classical period. The various
: “historians” (they were actually entertainers who chose the most
: exciting stories so that their patrons would keep patronizing them)
: *do* mention the various conflicting sources, etc.

Oh come now, this is ridiculous. Who was Thucydides’ patron? Who was Xenophon’s? Who indeed was Herodotus’? There is not the slightest evidence for the “patron” theory, and a fair bit against it (what we know of the backgrounds of these writers suggests that they were independently wealthy). The fact that you say this (I suspect retrojecting anachronistically from other genres and later periods) speaks volumes for your ignorance of ancient history.

As for your account of their methodology, all I can say is that it doesn’t work even for an instant for Thucydides, who was mostly writing contemporary history, and is notorious for not citing variants. As for the rest, what Herodotus (say) is doing when he gives an
alternative version is far removed from the “redacting disparate sources” that is alleged by the Documentary Hypothesis for the Torah: it is much closer to a modern historian citing variant sources in a footnote, and trying openly and critically to assess their value.

The point is that (a) in the one case (allegedly) one has actual pre-existing documents which are stitched into something new with only minimal alterations in the originals’ wording; while (b) in the other case you have someone collecting source data – but not necessarily in document form, and not simply taking it over as it stands, but using it actively and critically to create a work that is entirely one’s own.

All good modern historians do (b); but as for (a), while one finds a few examples of it in Greece and Rome at later periods, I cannot think off-hand of a 5th- or 4th-century Greek historian (and certainly not Herodotus, Thucydides or Xenophon) who has written this way –  they are much closer to (b).

Lisa wrote:
: A scholar in Jerusalem came up with a theory about 13-14 years ago
: which successfully fits the Greek tales into the Jewish
: chronological framework. The resulting reconstruction adds
: tremendous depth to our picture of the history of this period. I’m
: working on turning his paper into a book (in English; the paper is
: in Hebrew). God willing, it’ll be available by next year.

Heaven preserve us.

David Levene
Department of Classics
University of Durham

Noah, by Darren Aronofsky

Noah: A very Jewish retelling of the story.
To criticize the film for taking a few plot liberties is to miss its superb message of morality.
By Rabbi Eliyahu Fink , Apr. 3, 2014
Noah movie

Noah: A very Jewish retelling of th

The story of Noah in the Bible is fertile ground for intense theological debate and controversy. Incredibly, the recently released film “Noah” has generated almost as much discussion as the biblical account. It is impossible to review the movie without first addressing some of the criticism directed at it.

The feature film is visually stunning and a technical marvel. Russell Crowe shines in his role as Noah and his co-stars live up to the lofty standard he sets for the cast. “Noah” is a modern retelling of the biblical epic – with a difference. The film does not rewrite the Bible story as much as it retells it by filling in the blanks. The sources and meaning of these gap-fillers have become a thorny issue.

Christian fundamentalists and political conservatives take issue, in particular, with some of the social circumstances of the antediluvian era. But many of these critiques are misguided, like the suggestion that the only sin for which mankind is punished in the film version of “Noah” is harming Mother Nature and that humanity’s many other moral shortcomings are ignored.

Many of the gap fillers are borrowed directly from Midrashic literature firmly anchored in the Jewish tradition. Other plot elements not found in scripture are adapted from the Midrash, other sections of the Bible, and fairly well known Jewish mysticism. The strangest addition to the cinematic story is a lifted directly from “The Book of Enoch,” an ancient Jewish text. Following the Midrashic tradition, director Darren Aronofsky uses inventive ideas to solve problems in the text, like a forest spontaneously appearing to supply wood and magical creatures helping to build the ark. Similarly, the incredible visuals of the creation story as it unfolds in the film are heavy on evolution imagery. Judaism is comfortable reconciling creation and evolution so I was right at home seeing this retelling of creation. Indeed, “Noah” is a very Jewish retelling of the story….

See the rest of the review here Noah A Very Jewish retelling of the story
– – – – –

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink also writes on his blog:

For Jews, Midrash has such a prominent place in Torah study. There are many kinds of Midrash, and one form of Midrash adds details and background to the Biblical narratives. It’s common for great Torah scholars to learn a new approach or twist on a Biblical story found in a Midrash. Our versions of these stories encompass competing and contradictory views. Even today, long after the closing of the Midrash texts, many great rabbis, especially in Chasidic circles, will derive new lessons and find new twists in the story to teach an important idea. In that sense, Noah takes the Jewish approach. The movie strays very far from the text. In the Bible, the story of the flood is long on construction details and specific dates but short on lessons and drama. The movie contrives much of its drama, but it’s not completely Hollywood imagination. Many of the superimposed conflicts and stories have roots in Torah and Jewish tradition. Whether it’s borrowing from the Book of Enoch or adapting from actual Midrashic teachings, much of the movie, with one giant exception, felt familiar enough to me.

Perhaps the most vocal and most common criticism I’ve seen from conservatives has been their objection to the ecological overtones of the movie. Aside from my personal opinion that worrying about this kind of not subliminal, subliminal message in a movie is silly, the truth is that our tradition supports this idea.
One Midrash teaches us that until Noah saved the animals in his ark, Man was prohibited from eating meat. Adam was a vegetarian. The animal world was protected and Man had no right to kill for his lunch. Only because Noah was responsible for the survival of the animals was he permitted to eat meat after the flood. Another tradition says that we couldn’t eat meat for our personal pleasure until we entered the Land of Canaan in the time of Joshua. According to one stream of Jewish thought, even then, eating meat is not ideal. Rav Kook famously held that vegetarianism was part of the Utopian Messianic era. This is not hippy drippy Hollywood. This is Judaism.
Similarly, in our tradition Noah was named for his farming innovations. One Midrash says that Noah invented the plow. It’s not a disconcerting invasion of foreign modernity to see Noah as a symbol of agrarian life. Another Midrash teaches us that Noah was super sensitive to the needs of the animals in the ark. He was a sort of proto-animal rights activist. That’s not the liberal movie industry, that’s Torah.
Throughout the movie there is a magical light source called zohar. It can be mined like a precious stone and could provide light and fire if used the right way. I thought this was a clever adaptation of the Midrash that explains the “tzohar” that Noah placed in the ark for light. One opinion in the Midrash is that the tzohar was a precious stone that provided light. It seems obvious to me that this is the source for zohar in Noah. The movie simply turned tzohar into zohar (which means radiance) and assumed that these stones were available to everyone.
Here are some other adaptations from Midrash that occurred to me during the movie. Don’t worry, I won’t reveal how these examples are used in the movie. There is a Midrash that says that the animals came to the ark on their own. One Midrash teaches that people began to attack the ark as the rains began and the wild animals surrounded the ark to protect Noah and his family. Some rabbis teach that Noah had little faith and did not enter the ark until the water rose above his ankles. We have a tradition that Og was a kind of stowaway on the ark. There are more examples, but you get the picture. To someone familiar with Midrash, embellishments like these are expected and accepted. To Biblical Literalists, they might be offensive….

Noah Midrash Details


Survivors of Noah’s flood

From the Jewish Encyclopedia

Og, Amorite king of Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth and was conquered by Moses and Israel in the battle of Edrei (Num. xxi. 33), sixty fortified cities, with high walls, gates, and bars, comprising the region of Argob, being taken and given to the children of Machir, son of Manasseh (Deut. iii. 13; Josh. xiii. 31).
Og was one of the giants of the remnant of the Rephaim. His iron bedstead in Rabbath, the capital of Ammon, is described as having been nine cubits in length and four cubits in breadth (Deut. iii. 11).

In Rabbinical Literature:

Og was not destroyed at the time of the Flood (Niddah 61a), for, according to one legend, the waters reached only to his ankles (Midrash Petirat Moshe (Hebrew: מדרש פטירת משה) or Midrash on the Death of Moses, i. 128, in Jellinek, “B. H.” ii.).

Another tradition states that he fled to Palestine, where there was no flood (Rashi to Niddah, ad loc.); while, according to a third legend, he sat on a rung of the ladder outside the ark, and, after he had sworn to be a slave to Noah and his children, received his food each day through a hole made in the side of the ark (Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer, פרקי דרבי אליעזר, or פרקים דרבי אליעזר, Chapters of Rabbi Eliezar, ch. xxiii.). Og was known also as “Ha-Paliṭ” (see Gen. xiv. 13).