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About Moshe Greenberg

By Jeffrey H. Tigay
University of Pennsylvania

Moshe Greenberg was born in Philadelphia on July 10, 1928. Raised in a Hebrew-speaking, Zionist home, he studied Bible and Hebrew literature from his youth. At the University of Pennsylva­nia, where he received his Ph.D. in 1954, he studied Bible and Assyriology with E.A. Speiser; simultaneously, he studied post­biblical Judaica at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Strongly influenced by the comparative Biblical-Assyriological approach of Speiser and by the studies of the Israeli scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann in Biblical thought and religion, Greenberg's scholarship is characterized by the critical integration of ancient Near Eastern and Jewish materials in his explication of the Bible.

Greenberg taught Bible and Judaica at the University of Pennsylvania from 1954-1970 and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from 1970-1996. The first Jewish Biblical scholar appointed to a position in a secular university after World War II, Greenberg has had an important influence on the development of Biblical scholarship, particularly, but not limited to, Jewish Biblical scholarship. He has devoted most of his attention to the phenomenology of biblical religion and law, the theory and practice of interpreting biblical texts, and the role of the Bible in Jewish thought.

In the area of prayer, Greenberg traced the development of Biblical petition and praise away from their roots in the conception that the deity literally needs to be informed of the worshiper's plight and propitiated by flattery, into "a vehicle of humility, an expression of un-selfsufficiency, which in biblical thought, is the proper stance of humans before God" (Studies, 75-108). In Biblical Prose Prayer he showed that the prose prayers embedded in Biblical narratives reflect the piety of commoners. He reasoned that the frequency of spontaneous prayer must have sustained a constant sense of God's presence and strengthened the egalitarian tendency of Israelite religion which led to the establishment of the synagogue. The fact that prayer was conceived as analogous to a social transaction between persons fostered an emphasis on sincerity, and may lie at the root of the classical-prophetic view of worship as a gesture whose acceptance depends on adherence to the values of God. In his "Reflections on Job's Theology" (Studies, 327-333) Greenberg observes that Job's experience of God's inex­plicable enmity could not wipe out his knowledge of God's benignity gained from his earlier experience, and hence he became confused instead of simply rejecting God. Accordingly, the fact that the Bible retains Job as well as the Torah, Prophets, and Proverbs reflects the capacity of the religious sensibility to affirm both experiences: "No single key unlocks the mystery of destiny."

In the area of biblical law, Greenberg argued that "the law [is] the expression of underlying postulates or values of culture" and that differences between Biblical and ancient Near Eastern laws were not reflections of different stages of social development but of different underlying legal and religious principles (Studies, 25-41). Analyzing economic, social, political, and religious laws in the Torah, he showed that their thrust was to disperse authority and prestige through­out society and prevent the monopolization of prestige and power by narrow elite groups (Studies, 51-61).

In his commentaries on Exodus (1969) and Ezekiel (1983, 1997), Greenberg developed his "holistic" method of exegesis. While building on the source-critical achievements of earlier scholarship, the holistic method redirects attention from the text's "hypothetically reconstructed elements" to the biblical books as integral wholes, as the products of thoughtful and artistic design conveying messages of their own. This approach recalls scholarly attention to the "received text [which] is the only historically attested datum; it alone has had demonstrable effects; it alone is the undoubted product of Israelite creativity." In this connection argues that since midrashic and later pre-critical Jewish exegesis operated on the assumption of unitary authorship, they have many insights to offer the holistic commentator.

Greenberg's studies of Jewish thought include important studies of the intellectual achievements of medieval Jewish exegesis (1988 lecture, forthcoming), investigations of Rabbinic reflections on defying illegal orders (Studies, 395-403), and attitudes toward members of other religions (Studies, 369-393; "A Problematic Heritage"). In the latter he argues that a Scripture-based religion can and must avoid fundamentalism by being selective and critical in its reliance on tradition and by re-prioritizing values. In "Jewish Conceptions of the Human Factor in Biblical Prophecy" (Studies, 405-419), Greenberg shows that from the Talmud to the Renaissance, classical Jewish exegetes and thinkers who never doubted the divine inspiration and authorship of the Torah and other prophetic writings nevertheless acknowledged the literary evidence of human shaping of the text.


The Hab/piru. New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1955

The Religion of Israel, abridged English translation of vols. 1-7 Yehezkel Kaufmann's Toldot

ha'Emuna ha-Yisre'lit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960

Introduction to Hebrew. Englewood, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1965

Understanding Exodus New York: Behrman House, 1969; Ben Yehuda Press 2010

Ezekiel 1-20 and Ezekiel 21-37 (Anchor Bible. Garden City: Doubleday, 1983, 1997)

Biblical Prose Prayer. University of California, 1983

Studies in the Bible and Jewish Thought (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1995) includes many of Greenberg's essays. Most notable are the following:


"Moshe Greenberg: An Appreciation," and "Bibliography of the Writings of Moshe Greenberg," pp ix-xxxviii in M. Cogan, B.L. Eichler, and J.H. Tigay, eds., Tehilla le-Moshe. Biblical and Judaic Studies in Honor of Moshe Greenberg. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbraun's, 1997

S.D. Sperling, ed., Students of the Covenant: A History of Jewish Biblical Scholarship in North America (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992), index s.v. "Greenberg, Moshe."

Peras Yisra'el 5754 (Israel Prizes, 1994). Israel: Ministry of Science and Arts; Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sports, 1994), pp. 5-7 (in Hebrew)

Reprinted from the Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, ed. John H. Hayes, Nashville: Abingdon, pp. 464-65, by permission of publisher.

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