David Kimchi’s response to Christianity in his Psalm commentary

David Kimchi’s response to Christianity in his Psalm commentary

Paper by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple at the Australian Association of Jewish Studies Conference, Sydney, 15 February 2010

Book of Psalms with the commentary of the RaDaK, Frankfurt am Main, 1712

The Kimchis were a famous medieval family of Judaic scholars, particularly active in Hebrew linguistics, Bible commentary and theological controversy. The three leading names are Joseph b. Isaac (c. 1105-1170) and his sons Moses (d. 1190) and David (c. 1160-1235). David Kimchi, known by the acronym RaDaK, is said to have “eclipsed both his father and elder brother in his scientific achievements” (Hartwig Hirschfeld). RaDaK had an influence on Biblical translations into other languages including English – his “plain sense” (p’shat) commentaries were utilised by the compilers of the Revised Version of the Old Testament, and he is quoted in Boswell’s biography of Dr Johnson. Though he was a teacher of Talmud, his Biblical commentaries are often critical, rationalistic and radical. A modern scholar says, “In this rather daring critical approach, the more scientific background of Spain seems to have prevailed over the more fundamentalist northern strain of the French talmudic schools” (Casper).RaDaK’s exegesis of the Psalms shows a wide acquaintance with Christian beliefs and writings, and offers an important refutation of Christian interpretations, important for the history of Christian-Jewish polemic. Concluding his commentary on Psalm 2 he explains that he has aimed to equip Jews with the ability to handle Christian arguments; his particular concern is to show that the Christians have misread the text and read into it a series of irrational interpretations.

This paper will give a general picture of the Kimchis and their works, followed by an interactive study of Psalm 2 with special reference to the claim that it depicts the struggle of a messianic king to break down opposition to his rule, that it has Jesus in mind when it says, “You are My son: this day have I begotten you”, and that nash’ku var pen ye’enafmeans “kiss the son lest he be angry”, a christological rendering which Kimchi indignantly rejects.


Sir Francis Galton’s Hereditary Genius (1869) depicts great families in which genius manifested itself over many generations. A Jewish version could be called Z’chut Avot, “Ancestral Merit” or, in the Talmudic expression, Ma’asei Avot Siman L’Banim, “Deeds of the fathers seen in the children” (Sotah 34a). A paradigm example of hereditary genius among Jews may well be the tannaitic family of Judah HaNasi, but the story neither begins nor ends there. It would certainly include the Kimchis, who were towering figures in Jewish scholarship from the 11th to at least the 15th century.

Their name, sometimes spelt under Arabic influence as Kamchi, must have a connection with kemach, which means flour – maybe because some of the family were engaged in the flour or bakery trade; or perhaps metaphorically, since wheat is a symbol of Torah: man needs food for his body and Torah for his soul. The Talmud says, “Everyone needs the supplier of wheat” (Ber. 64a); the sages also aver, “Without kemach there is no Torah” (Avot 3:17). The Talmud records a female name Kimchit, borne amongst others by the mother of seven high priests (Y. Meg. 1:72a).

The Kimchi family spread from Spain to Italy, Turkey, Syria and England, as leaders in Hebrew linguistic and grammar studies, Biblical exegesis and polemics with Christianity. The crucial nucleus of the family genius was seen in a 12th/13th century father and his two sons, all grammarians and exegetes. The father, Joseph ben Isaac Kimchi (RIKaM), lived from 1105-70. The older son, Moses (ReMaK), died about 1190. The younger son, David (RaDaK), was also known as Mai(s)tre Petit and HaS’faradi (The Spaniard), since though he lived in France, he epitomised the Spanish school of interpretation. David was born in Narbonne in about 1160 and died there in 1235.

Joseph paralleled Abraham Ibn Ezra in bringing Hebrew knowledge to Christian Europe. His Hebrew grammars, Sefer HaZikkaron (“A Record Book”) and Sefer HaGalu’i (“An Open Book”) analyses the structure of the Hebrew language, arguing that the study of the Bible is impossible without a knowledge of its linguistic principles. His exegesis, of which we possess only a part, stressed the simple meaning of the text, omitting aggadicfancies. His work on Proverbs was a moral guide that even quoted examples from Arabic literature. His polemical work was Sefer HaB’rit, “The Book of the Covenant”, a dialogue between a ma’amin and a min – a believer and a sectarian. This work was utilised by his son David for the anti-Christian sections of his Psalm commentary.

Moses was erudite in all fields of Jewish literature, but he was not a prolific writer. His Hebrew grammar, which varies some of his father’s linguistic views, was spread by Elijah Levitta, the early 16th century Renaissance grammarian, and reprinted many times. Moses took on responsibility for teaching his brother David who was five years old when their father Joseph died. David became a teacher of Bible and Talmud and an effective preacher. His writing career began at 40, the age at which both Moses and Rabbi Akiva commenced their public activity.

The highlight of David’s linguistic works is his Michlol (“Compendium”), a textbook of Hebrew grammatical history and structure edited by William Chomsky in 1933, which came with a Hebrew dictionary called Shorashim(“Roots”). Chomsky (page 2) calls RaDaK’s grammar “crude and antiquated” and says “digressions and excursions abound”. Hartwig Hirschfeld’s Literary History of Hebrew Grammarians and Lexicographers(1926) says in a more positive appraisal (page 83) that David “eclipsed both his father and his elder brother” and that the work is marked by “thoroughness and critical manner” (page 85). David claims no originality, calling himself “a gleaner after the reapers” who summarised the work of others. Despite Chomsky’s criticisms he says Kimchi shows “an independent treatment… a deep insight” (page 1). Another important linguistic work by Kimchi is his Et Sofer – a guide for Bible copyists.

His exegesis covers Chronicles, Nevi’im, Psalms and Genesis and possibly other Books. He believes that Bible commentary is not merely an academic exercise but a mark of piety. He has a holistic approach to the text, seeing individual words as bricks that make up the overall structure. He is often critical and radical, for example in rationalising the parallels in the text. Where appropriate he uses the aggadah. He reflects the relatively scientific Spanish approach as against what B.M. Casper calls “the more fundamentalist northern strain of the French talmudic schools”. Sometimes he is philosophical, generally following Ibn Ezra and Maimonides. In Maimonidean fashion, for example, he makes individual providence subject to intellectual effort and attainment. In some instances he goes further than Maimonides, e.g. on the possibility of a prophet being a gentile. Immanuel of Rome, however, criticises his philosophical deficiencies.

Not only did he bring Jewish exegesis to his fellow Jews, who found his commentaries next to Rashi and Ibn Ezra in their Hebrew Bibles, but he made it available to the Christian world by medium of Latin and other translations. His influence on Christian Europe may be compared with Rashi, whose interpretations were conveyed to Christian readers through Nicholas de Lyra. Translators and scholars (e.g. S.R. Driver’s work on the Books of Samuel) do not, however, always acknowledge their debt to RaDaK. His influence in England is seen in parts of the King James Version of the Bible and his interpretation of the Psalms is quoted by Boswell in hisLife of Johnson. M.H. Segal calls him “the original fountain-head of Hebrew learning in the Protestant church”. Christians liked his easy Hebrew and his literalist approach.

Our interest in this paper is his anti-Christian polemics, especially in his Psalm commentary. Though aware that Christians would read his work, he was addressing his fellow Jews in the first instance. The rule, “Know how to answer the apikoros (one who denies God and His Torah)” refers to both the Jewish and the gentile apikoros (Avot 2:14; in the parallel text in Sanhedrin 38b Rabbi Yochanan applies it to gentiles, which in this context probably means Christians). At the end of his discussion of Psalm 2, Kimchi says, “I have instructed you what to reply to them” (i.e. the Christians). On Psalm 15 he says, “I have written at length so that you may have a ready answer to the Christians”.

As to which Christians need a reply, he uses the phrase, “If they say to you…”, which indicates conversionists bent on persuading Jews to enter Christianity. It cannot mean today’s form of polite dialogue, which would be anachronistic in the circumstances of the time. Even though RaDaK’s intended audience is Jewish, he allows himself to direct this bitter remark to the Christians: “Because I have put my trust in Him (God), (I) am saved by Him this day while you perish” (commentary to Psalm 2:12).

The censors combed Kimchi’s commentary (as they did to other Jewish works) for anti-Christian material. They deleted what they found, though after his death it was rescued and preserved in a work entitled T’shuvot HaRaDaK LaNotz’rim (“RaDaK’s Answers to the Christians”). He is also credited with writing Vikku’ach (“Refutation”), published in J.D. Eisenstein,Otzar HaVikkuchim. It is supposedly a record of Kimchi’s dialogue with a Christian but the dialogue is probably a literary device and the book is possibly not Kimchi’s work at all.

Kimchi’s anti-Christian views are found mostly in his Psalm commentaries. This is to be explained by the fact that christological reading of the Hebrew scriptures places much emphasis on the Psalms. The New Testament contains more than four hundred Psalm references, generally utilising the Greek versions. Jesus often quotes Psalmistic texts, for example, in Matt. 21:42, the praises known as Hallel. Verses were interpreted as prophecies or descriptions of Jesus’ life and death. Psalm 22 was taken as an indication of the Passion. Psalm 2 was understood as proof that Jesus was the son of God. Psalm 110 was seen as evidence of Jesus as “lord”. The early Church came into being at a time when Jewish preaching was placing emphasis on the K’tuvim (“Writings”) of which the Psalms were a part; the Christian preachers built many homilies on the Psalms, though there was not yet a standard Christian commentary and the preachers probably derived their own lessons from the text without the aid of a normative version to expound.

The Psalms did not assume a regular liturgical role in Christianity until the 3rd century. The monastic movement read or sang the whole Psalter every month, every week or every day. After the Council of Nicea in the 4th century the Psalter became the Church’s hymn book, often by means of metrical versions. Independent hymns were greatly influenced by the Psalms. The Church had its own view of what the texts meant, but Origen, its outstanding translator, was well-read in Hebrew and had many Jewish contacts in Caesarea. Jerome rejected Jewish teaching but also had resort to Hebrew and consulted Jewish scholars and mentions some by name. The result was a paradox – Christians and Jews openly hostile to each other but engaging in intellectual exchange.

Some Christians (certainly including Jewish proselytes to Christianity) remained familiar with Hebrew and had access to Jewish commentary, whilst there were also Jews with the linguistic skills that allowed access to Christian translations. The reciprocal trading of hostile stereotypes is depicted in chapter 6 of Amos Funkenstein, Perceptions of Jewish History, 1993, a chapter with the revealing name, “Polemics, Responses, and Self-Reflection”.

Kimchi was aware of the New Testament and some of the anti-Jewish polemical works. Presumably he had a knowledge of Latin. He must also have had at hand a number of Hebrew summaries of Christian beliefs. He insisted that the Christians deliberately misconstrued the Hebrew and read impossible things into and out of the Hebrew texts. He did not write an anti-Christian tract but attached his polemics to the Biblical text, which helped Jews who were drawn into debate with Christians, whose method was to cite proof-texts and then dispute the Jewish interpretation.

His approach is sharp and unambiguous, though he is generally careful to keep the discussion rational. On occasion he engages his heart as well as his mind, for example on Psalm 15 which refers to not lending money on interest. Recognising the realities of life in a Christian world which excluded Jews from most trades apart from money-lending, Kimchi insists that Jews have a right to charge interest to gentiles “because on the whole the gentiles hate Israel”. Nonetheless the interest charged to a gentile must never be excessive. A medieval Jew could not pretend that he was not hurting, but he was still not ethically permitted to exploit even an oppressor by charging exorbitant interest.

The Hebrew text of Psalm 2, with a translation by myself, accompanies this paper. There are many problems in the text, including the relationship of Psalm 2 to Psalm 1, but we will not be examining those matters which do not appear germane to Kimchi’s anti-Christian polemics. We do, however, need to ascertain the context of the psalm.

The overall theme of the psalm is the struggle of a Divinely-appointed king to establish his authority against hostile rulers. The Hebrew calls the king’s opponents goyyim and le’umim, “nations” and “peoples” – led bymelachim and roz’nim, “kings” and “princes”. One possibility is that this points to a historical event in which tribes or regimes seek to overthrow an actual king, probably David, at the beginning of his reign (see Psalm 89:21-38; II Sam. 5:17 depicts the Philistines opposing David’s assumption of the throne). Others see it as a prophecy of the problems the future Messiah will have in establishing himself. Both approaches are found in Jewish commentary, though Rashi rejects the messianic theory, saying, “Our rabbis expound it as relating to King Messiah, but according to the plain meaning it is proper to interpret it in connection with David”. Some writers see the psalm as a combination of the historical and the messianic.

A third possibility is that the psalm reflects an internal Jewish struggle between a righteous king appointed by God and a group of nobles whose interests are under threat. Samuel Daiches says that “no foreign nations and no foreign kings are mentioned in it. Psalm 2 is… entirely Jewish, that is, it deals only with the land and the people of the Psalmist” (Studies in the Psalms, 1930, page 38).

In considering the third theory, we need not be too concerned by words like kings and princes, since ancient modes of speech use monarchical terms for people of power and substance, e.g. Kohelet 1:1, where “king in Jerusalem” may be merely a substantial land-owner.

Similarly, goyim in verse 1 need not be “nations” but can be haughty, prominent men (cf. Psalm 7:9-10, though verses 8-9 present a problem in this respect); eretz in verse 2 need not be “the earth” but can denote “the land”, i.e. the land of Israel. The reference to world domination need not be taken literally; Gunkel (Die Psalmen, 1905) says the terminology comes from the king-talk of the ancient empires. Note that many other psalms also echo internal tension between the righteous and their opponents.

Kimchi adopts the historical theory: “Some interpret this psalm of Gog and Magog” (who wage war against the Messiah) “but the better explanation is that David uttered it concerning himself… He composed and recited this psalm at the beginning of his reign, when the nations gathered against him”. Whilst Kimchi admits that the messianic theory has support, the introduction to the book warns against regarding the psalms as prophecies. They manifest the Holy Spirit, but this differs from prophecy. Even if the psalm is messianic, Kimchi indignantly refutes the possibility that it can refer to Jesus.

In handling christological interpretations, his responses appear conventional, but we have the advantage of hindsight after many centuries in which the claims he rejects became the stock-in-trade of the conversionists whose tracts tended to be full of quotations and short on scholarship. The following are the christological issues he deals with in interpreting Psalm 2, followed by a selection of additional topics dealt with in other psalms.

Psalm 2 (translation by Raymond Apple)

1. Why do the powerful rage,
The nobles utter worthless rants?

2. The princes of the land set themselves up,
The rulers conspire together
Against the Lord and His anointed.

3. (Saying,) “Let us snap their cords
And throw off their ropes from upon us!”

4. He who sits in heaven laughs –
The Lord mocks them.

5. Then He rebukes them in His anger,
He frightens them in His wrath:

6. “It is I who established My king
On Zion, My holy mountain!”

7. I relate the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are My son:
This day I have given birth to you.

8. “Ask it of Me,
And I will make the peoples your inheritance,
The ends of the earth your possession.

9. “You shall break them with a rod of iron,
You shall shatter them like an earthern pot.”

10. Now, O princes, be sensible –
Be chastised, O judges of the land.

11. Serve the Lord with awe,
Rejoice with trembling.

12. Worship (Him) in purity,
Lest He be angry, and you perish in the way
When His anger flares up in a moment –

Happy are they who take refuge in Him!

Christological issues

1. God has appointed a king and calls him “My son” (verse 7). Kimchi says no-one can literally be God’s son. Metaphorically, whoever serves God is His son. Israel are called God’s son (Exodus 4:22). Even the stars are called sons of God (Job 38:7).

2. The king is begotten of God (verse 7). Again this cannot be true literally. God is not flesh and blood. “Begotten” is a metaphor and means appointed or anointed.

3. God says, “Ask of Me and I will give the nations for your inheritance” (verse 8). If Jesus is God, how can he ask anything of God? And if God gives the son power, does this not reduce the Almighty’s own power?

4. God intends the king to have power over the world (verse 8). If it means earthly power it cannot apply to Jesus since he was not a political figure. If it means spiritual power, even centuries after his death not all peoples accept him.

5. Even if nash’ku bar (verse 12) means “kiss the son”, the most it indicates is “pay homage (as a servant kisses his master’s hand) to the chosen one (the king)”. Bar can mean to choose, as in I Samuel 17:8. The usual word for son is ben (as in verse 7). Bar is son in Aramaic but the only Biblical instance is Proverbs 31:2. A better translation is “Pay homage in purity”, since bar is pure or clear in other places in the Psalms (e.g. 24:4, 73:1). In any case the verse tells us to worship God, not the son, whoever he may be.

Psalm 7

1. “The congregation of the peoples” (verse 8 ) cannot refer to all mankind because they are so divided; it denotes the twelve tribes of Israel

2. “Return on high” (verse 8 ) is figurative and no proof of God assuming human flesh (Incarnation) or of a second coming.

3. The prayer “Judge me, O Lord” (verse 9) would be in vain if Jesus were Divine; there is no proof that he agreed to be put to death.

Psalm 15

1. The usury rule of the Torah (verse 5) is misunderstood by Christians (see page … above).

2. It is impossible for David to abolish the distinction between Jew and gentile, and to “forbid what Moses our teacher permitted at the command of God”.

3. How does Christianity handle the prohibition of adding to or subtracting from the Torah (Deut. 13:1)?

Psalm 19

1. Since the Torah “endures for ever” (verse 10), how can “the unbelieving Nazarenes”, whose words are “windy, empty and in vain”, say it is valid only until the coming of Jesus?

2. How can the commandments be called allegorical and not to be taken literally, for then they would be uncertain and their meaning would be “too hard… too far off” (Deut. 30:11)?

Psalm 22

1. “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (verse 2) – do the Christians not say that he agreed to be sacrificed?

2. If Jesus is God, how can he complain that God has not answered or saved him?

Psalm 110

1. “The Lord said to my lord” (verse 1) – if Jesus is “lord”, how can God speak to God? The second “lord” here refers to David.

2. “Sit at My right hand” (verse 1) – if the Father and Son are God then they do not need to regard each other as companions nor do they need each other’s help.

Jewish exegesis became part of Judaism. The sages say: “What is Torah? The interpretation of Torah” (Kidd. 49b). What enabled Biblical interpretation to determine Jewish teaching was the hermeneutical rules (with a version inserted in the prayer book), which laid down the rules of exegesis. If an interpretation seemed problematical, a commentator could be asked, “Is yours a valid way of handling the text?”

Though Christian exegetes used the Hebrew scriptures as grounding for belief in Jesus, they seemed to draw on other cultures and to lack hermeneutical norms. They might have said they were not bound by the rules of Jewish interpretation – though they knew and sometimes applied them – and preferred a process of adaptation and allegorisation. C.H. Dodd saw in the New Testament “an original, coherent and flexible method of exegesis”. F.F. Bruce wrote of “a coherent Christian exegesis of self-contained sense units”. Kimchi remained unconvinced, as did other Jewish interpreters. His biographer, Frank Talmage, thinks that to some extent Kimchi’s negative view of Midrash may be motivated by the anti-Jewish use of midrashic method by Christian preachers.

Kimchi’s work is part of nearly two thousand years of theological bickering between Christianity and Judaism. The bickering was generally acrimonious but at times good-natured. It took three main forms. Disputations weighted in advance towards the Christian participants took place in various European countries. There were literary polemics such as Profiat Duran’s sarcastic Al Tehi KaAvotecha and his K’limat HaGoyyim and Yomtov Lipmann of Muhlhausen’s Nitzachon, a sober analysis of Christian doctrine. A more limited agenda drove scholars such as RaDaK who responded to Christian interpretations of scriptural passages and argued that Christianity distorted the texts. Kimchi was followed by several other such works, notably Chizzuk Emunah (“Faith Strengthened”) by the 16th century Karaite, Isaiah ben Abraham of Troki, which was not printed until 1705 but circulated in the meantime in manuscript, and Hermann Adler’sCourse of Sermons (1869), which is calm and rational but minces no words.

Troki’s work was translated into English by Moses Mocatta and printed in 1851, with a reprint in 1971. Adler’s book was never reprinted, perhaps in order not to undermine Jewish integration into British society. It may also be because the late 19th century agenda had broader concerns – not simply Biblical verses but the nature of the Jewish people. Even today when dialogue and co-operation are back on the agenda, the way to read scriptural texts is a limited side issue of interest mainly to preachers and proselytisers. Modern Biblical scholarship tends to reject the old christological interpretations. The debate continues to focus on other issues, especially Zionism and Israel. There are Jewish handbooks that use Kimchi-like material to rebut the Biblical “proofs” used by the street-corner missionaries, and these books echo Kimchi in their contents and approach, but Kimchi has become a mere chapter in history.

Según tomado de, http://www.oztorah.com/2010/02/david-kimchis-response-to-christianity-in-his-psalm-commentary/ el viernes, 1 de mayo de 2015.


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