Focus on Rabbinic Exegesis

Proper exegesis demands understanding the historical context of the author. An interpreter does a better job when they understand how the author thought, their worldview, their cultural background, etc. By extension, because the New Testament was largely written by Jews and within a Jewish context, NT exegetes need to understand Jewish exegesis and interpretation. A well-known facet of Jewish exegetical practices are the seven rules of Hillel the Elder. Generally classified as techniques of rabbinic exegesis, these rules are found in exegesis and literature contemporaneous with Jesus, the early Church, and beyond. I thought it would be a great exercise to walk through those seven rules and highlight examples of them from the New Testament, so my next several posts will focus on those rules and biblical examples which utilize them. Please comment with additional examples of each rule that you would like to add. But first some background: These seven rules are traditionally ascribed to Hillel, a rabbi who lived in Jerusalem during the first century B.C. We can't say whether he invented these rules, but they are certainly associated with him from an early time. In a Jewish rabbinic mindset, the rules govern exegesis and interpretation, providing support for interpretive conclusions. They are not the only ways Jewish exegesis was done, but they are common and important in much of the Jewish literature we have. For reference, here are the seven rules, Hebrew name first then an explanation. (This list with explanations is modified from J. Bowker, Targums and Rabbinic Literature, 315):

  1. Qal wahomer: What applies in a less important case will apply in a more important case.
  2. Gezerah shawah: Verbal analogy from one verse to another. Where the same words are used in separate verses, the same considerations may apply to both.
  3. Binyan ’ab mikathub ’ehad: Building up a family from a single text. When the same phrase is found in a number of different passages, then a consideration found in one of them applies to all of them.
  4. Binyan ’ab mishene kethubim: Building up a family from two texts. When a principle is established by relating two texts, the principle can then be applied to other passages.
  5. Kelal upherat: A general principle may be restricted by a particularization of it in another verse; conversely, a particular rule may be extended into a general principle.
  6. Kayoze’ bo bemaqom ’aher: A difficulty in one text may be solved by comparing it with another that has points of general (though not necessarily verbal) similarity.
  7. Dabar halamed me-‛inyano: A meaning is established by context.