Prof. Nahum M. Sarna, z"l

March 27, 1923-June 23, 2005

Encyclopedia Judaica (Revised Edition, forthcoming)


SARNA, NAHUM (1923– 2005), Bible scholar. Born in London, Sarna received his training in rabbinics at Jews College, London, and his B.A. and M.A. from the University College London (1946–1949). After living in Israel for two years, he settled in the United States in 1951, and received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and Semitic languages from Dropsie College, Philadelphia. He taught at Gratz College in Philadelphia from 1951 to 1957 when he was appointed librarian of the Jewish Theological Seminary and member of its faculty. In 1965 he joined the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis University .   Sarna was a translator for the Kethuvim (Writings) new Jewish Publication Society translation of the Bible and the general editor of its Bible Commentary Project, and, after retiring from Brandeis University in 1985, academic consultant for Judaica. He was a departmental editor of the Encyclopaedia Judaica for Bible—the period of the Pentateuch, the Desert, Joshua and Judges— and also contributed major articles to the Encyclopaedia Britannnica, the Encyclopaedia Hebraica, the Encyclopaedia Biblica Hebraica, the Encyclopaedia of Religion, and the Oxford Companion to the Bible .   He has written over 100 scholarly articles, some of which were collected in Studies in Biblical Interpretation. One of the major thrusts of his work has been to make the Bible and biblical scholarship available to the broad Jewish community. For example, his Understanding Genesis (1966) has served as a general introduction to the Bible .   This was followed by Exploring Exodus (1986) and his Commentary on Genesis (1989) and Commentary on Exodus (1991), and Songs of the Heart: An Introduction to the Book of Psalms (1993), a study of selected psalms

            Sarna’s range was extraordinary—as a student of Cyrus Gordon, he was acquainted with the major Semitic languages of the ancient world, as a student of Isidore Epstein and Arthur Marmorstein, he had mastered rabbinic and classical medieval Jewish texts, and as a product of the British university system, he had a strong classical training and was attuned to the literary merit of texts .   He was extremely close to the Israeli Bible establishment, and was deeply influenced by Kaufmann’s magisterial History of Israelite Religion .   But he was more interested in interpreting texts and less interested in history of religion than Kaufmann .   In his work, Sarna rarely cited the documentary hypothesis, and often highlighted the moral values of the biblical text and the meaning of the final form of the text .   His training allowed him to develop the idea of inner-biblical interpretation, namely the manner in which late biblical texts are rabbinic-like in how they interpret earlier biblical texts; this method was further developed by his students, especially Michael Fishbane. Sarna, with his deep understanding of rabbinic texts, also wrote several articles that explored medieval Jewish biblical interpretation and its value for modern biblical scholars, and he offered special insight into the process of canonization, discussed in several difficult and enigmatic rabbinic texts.   

            Sarna taught in a variety of institutions for sixty years .   During much of his career, there were very few institutions that offered the Ph.D. in biblical studies, and even fewer where Jews, especially those interested in both critical and classical Jewish study, felt comfortable .   Therefore, Sarna played a major role in training a generation of American Jewish Bible scholars, and interested many more in the serious study of biblical texts .   He was a masterful teacher, engaging, witty, and demanding.



Jeffrey. H. Tigay, “Preface” to Nahum M. Sarna, Studies in Biblical Interpretation (JPS Scholars of Distinction Series; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2000), ix-xx; Marc Brettler, “Sarna, Nahum,” in Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, ed. John H. Hayes (Nashville, Abingdon, 1999), 438-9; Michael Fishbane and Marc Brettler, “Preface” to Minhah l-Nahum: Biblical and Other Studies Presented to Nahum M .   Sarna in Honour of his 70 th Birthday, ed. Marc Brettler and Michael Fishbane (JSOTSup 154; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), 9-11.

Marc Z. Brettler