I learned about Mendelsohn's translation of the Bible as a young student. Having no idea what it looked like and following my teachers' discourses I imagined it as a typical eighteenth-century book in German. It is not. When you open Mendelsohn's translation, it appears to be a traditional rabbinic book in Hebrew, each page being divided into four blocks of text. One of them is in German but written in Hebrew characters. The Jewish Bible: A Material History spans the gap between conventional content-focused teaching about the Bible and the materiality of the objects that contain(ed) that text. An object-oriented narrative about the physical forms of the Jewish Bible, it reflects a clear focus on the visual organization of text and paratext: Torah scrolls, Masoretic pandects, rabbinic Bibles with commentaries, modern translations, and more. It contextualizes textual, art-historical, codicological, and paleographical information within the cultural history of the Jewish Bible and a survey of the many ways in which it was used. Indeed, the manifold functions of the book can only be explained in terms of its cultural history. One of Stern's intentions is to point out the "impact of the Bible's physical features" (3) and to show that "the intersection of materiality and textuality mattered (6)". His point of departure is thus not traditional text history or book history, but rather an interest in book culture.
Stern's book offers an alternative history of the Bible designed for a diverse audience consisting not necessarily on specialists, and it is the focus on the physical and the visual that matters. The author relies on and refers to an enormous wealth of previous scholarship putting it brilliantly into one lucid context.
The first of the four chapters discusses the Torah scroll as the earliest known form of a Jewish biblical text. Although the oldest extant complete Torah scroll can be dated to the late twelfth or the thirteenth century, the history of this book form reaches far back into antiquity. Stern follows its development carefully: at some point during the Second Temple period Aramaic script (a predecessor of modern Hebrew script) replaced the ancient Hebrew script and animal skin became the preferred material for writing. The Qumran finds are prominent elements in this discussion. Parchment (animal skin that is split into two layers) was not used before the fourth century CE. These developments occurred before the Torah scroll turned into a ritual artifact in the rabbinic period and into an object with iconic features in the Middle Ages. Whereas there have not been any material finds for most of the rabbinic era, there are plentiful textual sources that offer information about the materiality of Torah scrolls and their physical appearance.
The second chapter focuses on codices from the ninth to the sixteenth centuries. By and large, it sketches the history of the Masorah, an early medieval philological and grammatical commentary that eventually led to the vocalization of the Bible and subsequently to the Masoretic Bible. Vocalization and the addition of Masoretic notes determined the visual organization of pages in medieval Bibles and thus played a major role in shaping their physical appearance. Valuable early material finds have come from the Cairo Genizah with its more than 10,000 fragments of biblical books. Some of these do not have Masoretic notes, and Stern concludes that they were used by ordinary people, rather than by scholars. This very brief excursus into the social history of the Bible as a material book is particularly interesting and will hopefully encourage future endeavors into the social aspects of the reception of the Bible's various physical forms. The narrative begins in the Middle East, moves to the Iberian Peninsula, and concludes with a brief section about Ashkenazi codices (by which Stern means books from France, England, and the German Lands). The distinction among Masoretic Bibles, liturgical Bibles (Pentateuchs with haftarot), and study Bibles (to which commentaries were often added) is crucial here as these different types assist in the delineation of the various uses of the book. But Stern is careful to observe overlaps and shared patterns of use.
Decoration is an important aspect of Stern's narrative in this chapter, and he discusses decorative Masorah, the appearance of carpet pages, and illuminations displaying the Temple implements. His focus is clearly on the Middle East and Iberia, as the discussion of figural art in Ashkenazi Bibles is rather brief in comparison. The statement that aniconic decoration has to do with an "aversion to figurative representation," will perhaps not be shared by every reader.
The third chapter is devoted to printed Bibles in the era of incunabula. It was not until 1488, that is, about three decades into that era, that a vocalized text was printed by Joshua Soncino. The early print age saw the emergence of the rabbinic Bible (miqraot gedolot), which offered the biblical text with Aramaic Targumim and various rabbinic commentaries. The late medieval period also saw the rise of Christian Hebraism to which Stern pays a great deal of attention, and rightly so, as indeed it added its share to the material history of the Jewish Bible. He describes the work of Daniel Bomberg in Venice in great detail, in particular the input of his collaborators, both Jewish and convert. Two editions of the rabbinic Bible were printed in Venice within only eight years, their focus on layout and the organization of the text, which was carefully chosen to suit their audiences.
The fourth chapter discusses the modern uses of "the Hebrew Bible as a cultural book." It starts with a discussion of illustrated Esther scrolls from Italy. The longest section deals with Jewish translations into Spanish, Yiddish, German, and English. The audiences for these translations were varied: Sefardi converts who wished to return to Judaism outside Spain and Portugal; Ashkenazi women; post-enlightenment German Jews who sought integration into German culture (here is where the Mendelsohn Bible comes in); and nineteenth- and twentieth-century British and American Jews. But the chapter also reaches back to the Septuagint, the Aramaic Targumim, and Saadia Gaon's rendering of the biblical text in Arabic. Further, it discusses early modern Polyglot Bibles, both Christian and Jewish, with a special focus on the Ferrara Bible. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the Koren Bible, the result of the Zionist effort to produce a suitable edition for citizens of the modern State of Israel, its students, and its soldiers.
Stern's principal thesis, which he develops throughout most of the book (in its first three chapters, to be precise) concerns the relationship of the Jewish Bible and its makers and its users to Christian and Islamic book culture. A dominant theme is the presentation of the Jewish Bible vis-à-vis various Christian uses of and claims concerning the Old Testament. He maintains that the various forms of the Jewish Bible were crucial elements in shaping the nature of the Bible, played roles in Jewish societies, and had impacted the identities of the people who used them. The Masorah is described as a dominant factor in this ongoing effort to shape the Jewish identity of the Hebrew Bible as we know it. Stern argues that the main impetus for developing these material forms of the Jewish Bible was interreligious competition.
Within the drama of both communities claiming to be verus Israel the various material shapes described underscore the Jewishness of the book. This is a very convincing thesis throughout, and there can be no doubt that the Christian claims to the Old Testament had an enormous impact on the forms the Jewish Bible took in reaction. Yet, Stern observes numerous instances of complex entanglement between the different cultures and societies, which, in fact, shed light on more complex dynamics of exchange: the format, the size, and the decoration patterns of Ashkenazi Bibles; the layout of late medieval Bibles with commentaries, which owes a great debt to Christian Bibles with glossa ordinaria; and rituals concerning the Torah scroll and the Gospel book sharing interesting features. Stern's book will undoubtedly lead to further queries about the dynamics of cultural entanglements toward tackling questions that remain open in the discourse about Jewish-Christian competition. His narrative spans an enormous scope and it is only natural that it raises questions that are still unanswered.
The Jewish Bible is written in a very elegant prose that makes for a remarkably fluent read. Its author is a master in mediating complex matters in clear words and merging them with basic information. It is a stimulating and thought provoking, brilliantly written book, handsomely illustrated throughout, and will undoubtedly leave a significant imprint on future scholarship on the Jewish Bible, its physical shapes, its reception, and its place in medieval culture.