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Nahum Sarna

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Nahum Sarna

Nahum Mattathias Sarna (Hebrew: נחום סרנא; March 27, 1923 – June 23, 2005) was a modern Biblical scholar who is best known for the study of Genesis and Exodus represented in his Understanding Genesis (1966) and in his contributions to the first two volumes of the JPS Torah Commentary (1989/91). He was also part of the translation team for the Kethuvim section of the Jewish Publication Society's translation of the Bible, known as Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (The New JPS Translation according to the Traditional Hebrew Text).


Nahum Sarna was born in London in 1923 to Jacob J. Sarna and Milly (Horonzick) Sarna, and received his M.A. from the University of London in 1946, and a degree from Jews College in 1947. He married Hebrew College librarian Helen Horowitz on March 23, 1947, and was a Lecturer at University College London from 1946 to 1949.[1] Sarna emigrated to the United States in 1951, and received his Ph.D. from Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning in 1955. He studied at various times under Cyrus Gordon, Isidore Epstein and Arthur Marmorstein, and was strongly influenced by the work of Yehezkel Kaufmann (as can be seen, for example, in his discussion of apostolic prophecy on p.xxviii of Understanding Genesis.)

He was a lecturer at Gratz College in Philadelphia from 1951 to 1957, a librarian and then associate professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, respectively, from 1957 to 1963, and from 1963 to 1965. He then moved to Newton, MA to be associate professor at Brandeis University from 1965 to 1967, Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies from 1967 on, and chair of department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from 1969 on. He was also a visiting professor at Columbia University, Andover Newton Theological School, and Dropsie College at various times throughout the 1960s. He left Brandeis in 1985 to teach at Florida Atlantic University and live in Boca Raton, where he died after a long illness in 2005. He is buried in the Baker Street Jewish Cemeteries in West Roxbury, Boston, Massachusetts.

Sarna's son Jonathan is a historian of the American Jewish community.


Among Sarna's extensive publications were a large number of works intended for a popular audience, and through these works he succeeded in introducing many laypeople to the modern study of the Bible. Some of these works are listed below:

  • Understanding Genesis, McGraw, 1966.
  • Genesis: The Traditional Hebrew Text with New JPS Translation, Jewish Publication Society (Philadelphia, PA), 1989.
  • Exodus: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation, Jewish Publication Society (Philadelphia, PA), 1991.
  • On the Book of Psalms: Exploring the Prayers of Ancient Israel, Schocken Books (New York, NY), 1993.
  • Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel, Schocken Books (New York, NY), 1996.
  • Genesis: World of Myths and Patriarchs, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1996.
  • Studies in Biblical Interpretation, Jewish Publication Society (Philadelphia, PA), 2000.
  • Songs of the Heart: An Introduction to the Book of Psalms (1993)

Sarna's approach to Biblical studies

On understanding Biblical narrative

Sarna's approach to study of the Bible appears to be founded on the following question: What was the purpose of the Biblical narrative for the people in whose benefit it was composed? Thus, the question of why the Torah presents a particular account in a particular fashion is to be answered by considering the purpose which the narrative is set to achieve. Thus, for Sarna, the prospect of judging the "scientific" merits of the account of Creation is misguided, and literalism especially is to be utterly rejected if an honest interaction with the texts is to be achieved (Sarna 1966, p. xxiii). With reference to his Understanding Genesis, he writes:

If it rejects the literalist approach to Scripture, it is

solely because that approach cannot stand the test of critical scholarly examination. Literalism involves a fundamental misconception of the mental processes of biblical man and ignorance of his modes of self expression. It thus misrepresents the purport of the narrative, obscures the meaningful and enduring in it and destroys its relevancy. At the same time, literalism must of necessity become the victim of hopeless inconsistency. By what quirk of faith or logic has the science of astronomy finally merited indifference or even sympathy on the part of our fundamentalists, whereas the biological, geological and anthropological sciences still encounter hostility? A century after Darwin, some people still reject his theories as heresy, or else find it necessary to attempt some tortuous "reconciliation" between Scripture and evolution. Yet the heliocentric theories of Copernicus and Galileo effectuate no comparable stimulation of the sympathetic system. Phrases like the "rising" or "setting" of the sun occur scores of times in the Bible and were certainly meant and understood literally, in accordance with the prevailing cosmologies, until but a few hundred years ago. Today, no one would dream of citing these biblical phrases to discredit the science of astronomy. A metaphorical interpretation in these instances no longer causes an excessive secretion of adrenalin.

Further, Sarna strenuously argues that the opening chapters of Genesis must not be interpreted as a treatise on science. Approaching the Biblical narrative in this fashion only results in "tortuous reconciliations" that sacrifice both intellectual honesty and the true meaning of the Biblical passages. Thus, the "scientific" interpretation of Genesis is seen by Sarna as the worst of two worlds (Sarna 1966, p. 3):

Hence, it is a naive and futile exercise to attempt to reconcile the biblical accounts of creation with the findings of modern science. Any correspondence which can be discovered or ingeniously established between the two must surely be nothing more than mere coincidence. Even more serious than the inherent fundamental misconception of the psychology of biblical man is the unwholesome effect upon the understanding of the Bible itself. For the net result is self-defeating. The literalistic approach serves to direct attention to those aspects of the narrative that reflect the time and place of its composition, while it tends to obscure the elements that are meaningful and enduring, thus distorting the biblical message and destroying its relevancy.

On the purpose of the Narrative

If the key to understanding the Bible according to Sarna is to ascertain the purpose of the narrative, and if the purpose of the Genesis account is not to present a "scientific" picture, then what indeed is its purpose? According to Sarna (1966, p. 3), the Genesis account is meant to present certain principles of faith that set the Israelite religion apart from the paganism of neighboring nations. Among these key principles that Sarna identifies are the following:

  • There is one God
  • The entire universe is subservient to the one God
  • God is outside the realm of nature
  • God has no mythos; that is, there are no stories about the life of God
  • There is no magic involved in the worship of God
  • Man is a God-like creature who is given responsibility for the care of the world
  • There is a universal moral order that governs human affairs

While Sarna sees a debt for some or all of the principles of the Israelite faith to the beliefs prevailing in surrounding cultures, he claims that these ideas come together and are transformed in the Israelite religion into something genuinely new and profound, even as Shakespeare transformed and re-envisioned the work of prior storytellers.

On the origins of the Torah

Sarna accepts the basic premise of the Documentary Hypothesis, while still recognizing some serious shortcomings in the Graf-Wellhausen school. However, Sarna does not regard the multiple authorship of the Torah as diminishing its divinity (Understanding Genesis, xxiv): "But is it not to circumscribe the power of God in a most extraordinary manner to assume that the Divine can only work effectively through the medium of a single document, but not through four?" Moreover, Sarna does not see the aim of Biblical study as that of doing "source differentiation." He writes,

No study of biblical literature can possibly claim to do justice to the subject if it fails to take account of the world-view of the biblical writers, or if ignores their ideas about God and man and pays no regard to their deep sense of human destiny... Spiritual insight and sensitivity are as indispensable a scholarly ingredient as a faultless methodology.

While identifying the original sources that comprise the Pentateuch is important in Sarna's opinion, it is more important to understand the work as a whole, as a structure which is more than the sum of its parts. This is Sarna's view as well on the Israelite religion as a whole. While it drew from other cultural resources in the ancient Near East, the radical monotheism that emerged from this brew was something completely new and novel, "a revolution in religion."


  • Contemporary Authors Online entry for Sarna, Nahum M(attathias), Thomson Gale, 2005.
  • Encyclopedia Judaica biography for Prof. Nahum M. Sarna, z"l
  • .

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