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Cambridge University Library

Book: An Anonymous Karaite Commentary on Hosea from the Cairo Genizah, by Friedrich Niessen

Hosea fragments
This leaf of the commentary was pieced together from four separate fragments: T-S NS 261.11, T-S NS 261.38, T-S NS 241.18 and, the thin strip on the left, from T-S NS 261.59.
Joseph Habib
Fri 17 Sep 2021
An Anonymous Karaite Commentary on Hosea from the Cairo Genizah ● By Friedrich Niessen ● Cambridge Genizah Studies Series, Volume 13 ● Brill 2021

In his preface to his commentary on the book of Hosea, St. Jerome, one of the greatest Biblical scholars of his time (5th century C.E.), wrote desperately,

If, in the exposition of all the prophets, we need the Holy Spirit’s intervention in order that — by whose inspiration they were written — they may be explained through revelation … how much more should the Lord be begged in the case of the interpretation of the prophet Hosea, saying, with Peter, ‘Explain this parable to us!’ (Matthew 15:15).

Judging from the vast amount of literature devoted to the book of Hosea, it seems that this book still puzzles interpreters and scholars today. Indeed, Hosea scholars have observed that the first three chapters of the book have generated more scholarly literature than the whole of many other Biblical books combined! The culprits here are Hosea’s terse language, unique words and, above all, steady stream of metaphors.

The Karaites would have it no other way.

These medieval Jewish scholars initially flourished from around the middle of the 9th century until the end of the 11th century. They were a key part of a literary shift in Judaism which took place around that time— a shift from primarily legal literature to Biblical exposition as its own genre. The Karaites were ideologically driven by the conviction that the Bible was the sole arbiter of law and life since it was the only bearer of divine inspiration. This distinguished them from their Rabbinic neighbors who afforded the status of divine inspiration to the Mishnah and the Talmud in addition to the Bible.

The Karaites’ Bible-centered orientation entailed that the key to understanding the Scriptures was a thorough understanding of its language. As a result, they have also left behind a rich tradition of linguistic scholarship in the form of grammars and dictionaries. But the goal was always to interpret the Bible on its own terms — a then-nascent movement in Jewish exegesis known as peshat ‘plain sense’. Formally, this way of interpreting the Bible meant a literal interpretation where possible. In practice, however, explicitly non-literal language was always filtered through Scripture itself producing what Friedrich Niessen aptly calls a ‘literary-contextual exegesis’ (p. 11) approach to interpretation. In short, the hallmark of Karaite exegesis, generally, was that Scripture interpreted Scripture. This approach was facilitated by the Karaites’ virtually encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, allowing them to draw fascinating parallels and arrive at elegant solutions to some thorny interpretational issues.

Many such Karaite commentaries have finally begun to appear in the past few decades, and now to the list we may add this impressive volume, An Anonymous Karaite Commentary on Hosea from the Cairo Genizah by the late Friedrich Niessen. Niessen was able to piece together this work from 131 manuscript fragments, ‘some no bigger than a postage stamp’ (p. xii)! Based on its content, style and technical terminology, Niessen identified the commentary’s author as Karaite and suggested a 10th-century provenance.

The book’s preface contains a brief biographical sketch of Niessen's life and career by Prof. Geoffrey Khan who prepared the book for publication. This is followed by an introduction in which the manuscripts and their writing are carefully described by Niessen. Prof. Khan also incorporates in this introduction one of Niessen’s older articles on the work describing its content and background. This is then followed by the edited Judaeo-Arabic text of the Karaite translation and commentary, accompanied by an English translation. Niessen’s extensive textual notes make up the final section of the volume.

In the main body of the work the Judaeo-Arabic text – much of which Niessen diligently reconstructs – is translated into English on the following page. Niessen’s translation is faithful to the grammar and semantics of the original, yet very readable.

The Karaite author arranges the commentary according to their typical ‘three-fold’ structure: a Hebrew word or phrase is followed by an Arabic translation and commentary. All the translations for a given section are grouped together and the exegetical comments for those translations are grouped together in a separate section. The exegetical comments are then followed by the Karaite author’s grammatical notes. Niessen helpfully provides headings to all three of these sections.

One unique feature of this commentary is the author’s concern to make the connections between all the sections of the Biblical book explicit. The commentator makes these connections through the formulaic introduction ‘this section is closely related to what precedes since...’ (hāḏa-l-faṣl muntasiq ʾilā al-faṣl al-muttaqadim liʾannahu...). As far as I know, this practice is not formalized in other Karaite commentaries to the extent it is here.  For example, in chapter 1 verse 9, God tells his people ‘You are not my people’, while the very next verse opens with ‘the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the seashore’ (2:1). Our author explains that this jarring change is meant to ease any apprehension that the present state of affairs ‘was meant to be forever’ (p. 19).  The effect of this formulaic introduction is that the reader can reconstruct the outline of the book as the Karaite author conceived it. This is a fresh perspective of the book since most modern scholars insist on a hard division after chapter 3.

Modern commentators also struggle to identify what the precise situation is that is motivating the rich figurative language of the book. For our author, it is clear that the book of Hosea portrays a religious struggle in which the people have forsaken the Lord and turned to the worship of Baal. As punishment, they will be sent into exile at the hands of the Assyrians. But after some time, they will repent and be restored. In keeping with his literary-contextual approach, our author grounds all his interpretations in parallel Scriptures, especially the Torah. For example, in 2:21–22 the Lord says to His people three times ‘I will betroth you.’ Our author relates this passage to the three times the terms of the covenant were announced to the people of Israel in Exodus 21, Deuteronomy 5 and 25. Hosea 5:11, our author points out, fulfills the curses of which Moses warned in Deuteronomy 28:33, namely of being ‘oppressed and crushed’. The eagle of Hosea 8:1 fulfills the warning Deuteronomy 28:49 where Moses warns of a nation that will swoop in like an eagle in the event of covenant unfaithfulness – a connection most commentators today miss. Aside from the impressive command of Scripture such a method presupposes, it is clear that for this Karaite commentator, the book of Hosea is a vivid depiction of what will happen when the terms of the covenant are transgressed. It is mostly through this hermeneutical prism that the commentator shines light on the difficult figurative language contained within the book.

The only word with which I can describe Niessen’s textual notes is ‘inspiring’. In this section of the book, Niessen (1) details why and how certain words of the text were reconstructed, and (2) explains any grammatical, syntactical or semantic transformations with which the Karaite author translated the Hebrew text into Arabic. What makes this section a philological feast, however, is that he constantly situates these two tasks within virtually the whole interpretive tradition of classical and late Antiquity. Niessen does this for nearly every word of the Hebrew text that the Karaite author translated by also documenting how these other traditions dealt with a particular word or phrase. To appreciate this, I will list some of them here (in rough order of frequency):

  • The Karaite Yefet ben Eli (active late 10th century)
  • Saadya Gaon (d. 942)
  • The Septuagint (2nd Century B.C.E.)
  • The Peshitta (2–3 Century C.E.)
  • Aquilla’s translation (fl. ca. 140 C.E.)
  • Theodotion's translation (fl. ca. late 2nd century C.E.)
  • Symmachus (fl. 200 C.E.)
  • Jerome’s Vulgate (3rd century C.E.)
  • David Qimḥi (d. 1235)
  • Ibn Ezra (d. 1167)

This list does not exhaust all the resources to which Niessen availed himself. One also encounters the Babylonian Talmud, Jerome’s commentary on the Bible and the Andalusian Jewish grammarians Ibn Barūn and Ibn Janaḥ; even the 5th-century Byzantine Bishop Theodoret of Cyrus makes an appearance! No part of the history of interpretation or linguistic science is sparred in the analysis of the author’s translation methods. Niessen’s diligence also means that these textual notes double as a quick reference to Hosea’s reception history. What emerges truly is, as Prof. Khan describes in the preface, ‘a brilliant tour de force of philological scholarship’ (p. xii). For the student of philology, not only is this section engrossing, but a nostalgic reminder that the well-rounded Biblical philologist is still sorely needed in the academy today.

I personally never had the pleasure of meeting Friedrich Niessen, but I fail to see how anyone can witness his handiwork in this volume and walk away without feeling his legacy. I know this young scholar has.

May Friedrich’s memory be blessed.

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