Katharina E. Keim. Pirqei deRabbi Eliezer: Structure, Coherence, Intertextuality. Leiden: Brill, 2017.
Pirqei deRabbi Eliezer (PRE) is a “thematic discourse” that is organized as a shadow to the Bible (from creation to Sinai) and is made up of an anthology of literary forms pieced together in a “lego-like” (p. 75) structure. These are the major conclusions of Katharina Keim’s study, a 204 page work, with excellent appendices, based on her Manchester dissertation of 2014. This is a project of literary classification, a study of PRE’s structure, themes, genre, sources, and relation to other texts (“intertextuality”), with the goal of defining the type of composition that PRE is in order to know how to best understand the work. This approach follows along the lines of the Manchester-Durham Typology of Anonymous and Pseudepigraphic Jewish Literature. Beyond the implications for how to best situate PRE literarily and historically, this study offers an approach for performing this work in the absence of a critical edition, as well as considerations for how this study may shape a future edition.
The book is organized into five chapters. Chapters one and two provide a methodological introduction, survey of relevant scholarship, and a description of the extant manuscripts and editions of PRE. Chapters three and four comprise the bulk of the work, with chapter three describing the literary qualities of PRE, and chapter four analyzing intertextual relationships. Chapter five summarizes major conclusions and provides some implications on next steps for this project.
In traditional Wissenschaft methods, this analysis would wait until a critical edition had been prepared so as to first collect all available witnesses and not base any analysis on textual corruptions, scribal errors, late additions, or any sort of divergence away from the urtext. In the absence of a critical edition, Keim argues that the literary descriptive project she undertakes is not only possible absent a critical edition but is a prerequisite for preparing one. While the assumption of an urtext is more reasonable in works of Greek and Latin literature (fields from which these methods first developed - p.24), rabbinic literature’s features of multiple authorship, oral transmission, and multiple recensions complicate the idea of beginning and ending dates for texts, and suggest that the search for an urtext may be misguided.
Instead, every text can be read for its own coherency, even while it is true that the text has a diachronic history of textual development (pp. 28-29). By seeing every text as a coherent recension / performance, literary analysis can take place in the absence of diachronic critical work. While the implications of such a study are limited to that recension alone, Keim also argues that reliance on a critical edition creates other limitations, such as obscuring the qualities of each unique recension.
Keim develops her method in the opening two chapters of PRE. These chapters, present in the Börner-Klein edition but absent in others, tell the origin story of Rabbi Eliezer, a riches-to-rags and ignoramus to Torah scholar tale. Including these chapters provides a well told narrative that introduces the character of Rabbi Eliezer and suggests that the following chapters are his discourses. This reading sees unity and coherency in the work as a whole. However, the highly developed form and plot of this narrative is at odds with the rest of PRE and is further out of place thematically, which Keim argues from literary grounds proves that these chapters are not original to PRE. This approach offers a way to read this recension for unity and coherence while also providing tools of a literary sort (structure, themes, genre) for a future scholar who may prepare a critical edition.
Chapter three analyzes PRE’s genre, structural coherence, micro-level construction (forms and patterns), and thematic unity. Keim concludes that PRE is best described as a collection of thematic discourses with a macro-structure. Keim helpfully outlines this structure in appendix A, where the reader can see more clearly that PRE generally shadows Biblical material from creation to Sinai. The discourses are broken into chapters, divisions Keim argues may be original and have a discernible structure (pp. 73-75). These structures include proof-texts, speech reports, question-and-answer, lists, and parables. They are employed in an anthological style with little formal connection between units, such that units could easily be added or removed without much disruption. These forms are collected in Appendix B, an index to the forms of PRE.
Chapter four asks what other texts have a “significant narrative, thematic, or verbal overlap” with PRE, a relationship she terms “intertextual” (p. 141). Keim considers biblical and rabbinic literature, targum, pseudepigrapha, piyyut, and Christian and Islamic traditions. She notes especially a high degree of thematic overlap with Tanna deBei Eliyyahu (late 10th century), as well as similarity in genre to Philo’s allegories of the sacred laws.
Keim insists that privileging a synchronic analysis over a diachronic one respects the coherence of the recension at hand, yet some may be skeptical of her insistence in the face of lacking critical tools for comparative analysis. Surely at least a synopsis would be a boon as Keim could describe other additions and subtractions to the text, as she does with chapters one and two of PRE. If the relationship between manuscripts can be determined, then we might have more insight into the relationship between the provenance of particular forms or themes and the historical moment they entered the text, even while respecting each text as a coherent performance unto itself.
When more analysis of other versions of PRE have been completed along the lines of this study, scholars will be better equipped to determine the best presentation for a critical edition of PRE. Perhaps it should be laid out as two recensions, like Schechter’s edition of Avot deRabbi Natan or else perhaps the differences will be so minor, excepting the opening two chapters, that a diplomatic or eclectic edition should be attempted. This study is a strong step toward accumulating that outlook, but it raises the question of the relationship between the necessary work of text critical analysis and respecting the integrity and unity of each text.
Yoni Nadiv is a PhD Student in Ancient Judaism within the department of Religious Studies at Yale University.