Umberto Cassuto

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Umberto Cassuto

Umberto Cassuto, also known as Moshe David Cassuto (16 September 1883 – 19 December 1951), was an Italian historian, a rabbi, and a scholar of the Hebrew Bible and Ugaritic literature,[1] in the University of Florence, then at the University of Rome La Sapienza. When the 1938 anti-Semitic Italian racial laws forced him from this position, he moved to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Early life and career[edit]

Cassuto studied there at the university[which?] and the Collegio Rabbinico, where its principal Samuel Hirsch Margulies had a profound influence on him.[1] After getting a degree and Semicha, he taught in both institutions. From 1914 to 1925, he was Chief Rabbi of Florence. In 1925 he became professor of Hebrew and literature in the University of Florence and then took the chair of Hebrew language at the University of Rome La Sapienza. When the 1938 anti-Semitic laws forced him from this position, he accepted an invitation to fill the chair of Biblical studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.[1]

Ugaritic translation and commentary[edit]

Cassuto was one of the first scholars who understood the importance of the archaeological finds from Ugarit in Syria, and the similarities between the Ugaritic texts and the Hebrew Bible. His Ugaritic studies thus throw considerable light on the literary structure and vocabulary exegesis of the Bible. His treatise Ha-Elah Anat (1951, 19654; The Goddess Anath, 1970), a translation with introduction and commentary of Ugaritic texts, particularly the epic of Baal, is of special importance.[1]

Origins of the Pentateuch[edit]

For two hundred years prior to Cassuto's works, the origin of the five books of Moses (the Torah) had been one of the most-argued subjects in biblical scholarship. The 19th century in particular had been a time of great progress, but also of great controversy, with many theories being put forward. The one which eventually emerged to dominate the field was a particularly comprehensive version of the documentary hypothesis put forward by Julius Wellhausen in 1878: indeed, so great was its dominance that by the first half of the 20th century the Wellhausen hypothesis had become synonymous with the documentary hypothesis, and the issue of Pentateuchal origins was regarded as settled.

Cassuto's The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch (Hebrew, Torat HaTeudot, 1941; English translation, 1961) was one of the first mainstream works to offer a detailed critique of Wellhausen, rejecting both the central idea of the documentary model – that the Pentateuch had its origins in originally separate documents which had been combined by an editor into the final text – and Wellhausen's dating, which saw the four sources being composed between 950 and 550 BC with the final redaction around 450 BC. In place of this, Cassuto proposed the Pentateuch was written down as a single, entirely coherent and unified text in the 10th century BC and not thereafter altered in any meaningful way.[2] However, the question of when the Pentateuch was finally written does not affect any element of Cassuto's radical critique of the dominant theories about its actual make-up, which was his chief concern, and so he treats the historical question only at the end and as a secondary issue in The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch. Cassuto insisted throughout this work that it was merely a summary, in eight lectures, of his much more detailed and thorough examination of the documentary hypothesis in his La Questione della Genesi (1934). He refers all serious students to the latter work in almost every chapter. Some idea of that more thorough consideration, however, is available in English in his Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Part I) from Adam to Noah (1961) and (Part II) from Noah to Abraham (1964), and also his Commentary on the Book of Exodus (1967).

The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch undertakes a critical examination of the "five pillars"[3] of the documentary hypothesis: 1 the claim that the use of the divine names Yahweh and Elohim testified to at least two different authors and two entirely distinct source documents; 2 the claim that each literary style and distinctive use of language found in the Pentateuch must be viewed as the product of a different writer and distinct document; 3 the claim that there were different world-views, theologies and ethics in each of the hypothesized documents, each independent and not complementary to each other, proving their different authorship and provenance; 4 the claim that the existence of repetitions and even seeming contradictions proved there were different documents cut-and-pasted into the text, sometimes even as bits and pieces within single sentences; 5 the claim that descriptive passages can be analyzed into composite narratives drawing upon overlapping but separate documents. Cassuto argued first of all that the supposed terminological, grammatical and stylistic traits indicative of separate documents actually were common in Hebrew language and literature and were shared with other biblical and post-biblical Jewish literature whose essential unity was not seriously questioned, including liturgical, midrashic, medieval and even modern Jewish religious writing. Additionally, he asserted that precisely the supposed divergencies—stylistic, grammatical, theoretical and theological—within the narrative, when analyzed in context and in connection not only with cognate literatures in the ancient Near East but especially with similar passages elsewhere in biblical literature, all served an easily demonstrated and consistent common purpose whose unity and thrust tended to be qualified or to be denied altogether under the application of the documentary hypothesis, thereby weakening our understanding of biblical literature and worldview generally.

To buttress this internal analysis, Cassuto also endeavored to show that the adherents of the documentary hypothesis tended to ignore or misinterpret the cognate literatures and archaeological evidence and were, in addition, insufficiently aware of cultural tendencies in modern thought that produced identical formal results in other unrelated areas, e.g., in Homeric Studies. In short, the credence given the documentary hypothesis served extraneous cultural tendencies and biases.

An example of Cassuto's style of argument can be seen in his discussion of the divine names—one of the main criteria by which the documentary hypothesis distinguishes between separate sources—where he argued that Yahweh and Elohim are each consistently employed within a particular context and for a specific purpose, "Yahweh" signifying the personal God of revelation and Israel and "Elohim" the more impersonal God of nature and the world: to construe the two names as evidence of two authors was, according to Cassuto, to ignore the overwhelming evidence of Jewish literature itself on this matter. E.g., the prophets who emphasized the personal God revealed at Sinai, also usually emphasized the term "Yahweh" unless speaking of other cultures and universal forces in nature, while the wisdom literature which drew upon other cultures showed a consistent emphasis on the universality of God as the unity of the divine forces, almost always naming him "El" or "Elohim." But the historical and narrative portions even within the Prophetic and Wisdom literature made use of each term in its appropriate setting, or both together to point to the unity of both aspects within God. Cassuto then attempted to demonstrate that the Pentateuch itself follows this wider intentional pattern, applying each term within its proper context, quite consistently, to make specific points, but considering both part of the same reality of God; therefore it could use both together when appropriate to underline this unity (e.g., in the Shema itself, Deut. 6:4–9, the central affirmation of biblical and post-biblical Judaism, which states that "Yahweh" and "Elohim" are One). To sever the universal God of nature that was according to the Pentateuch also known in other cultures, behind their varying cults, from the personal God of history revealed at Sinai to Israel, as the documentary hypothesis implicitly did, was to distort one of the fundamental messages of the Pentateuch and Israelite religion itself.[4]

According to Cassuto, then, each of the five pillars of the documentary hypothesis crumbles to dust when approached more closely and "touched."[5] In his last chapter, Cassuto counters the claim that while the individual pillars may be weak, the documentary hypothesis is sustained by the common thrust of them all. He suggests that since as he has shown there are no pillars at all remaining after close examination, this cannot be so: "The sum of nought plus nought plus nought ad infinitum is only nought."[6]

Although each of the "five pillars" receives its own chapter or even two chapters of consideration, the relatively brief eight lectures of The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch can only present a few choice and representative instances to buttress each of the major points Cassuto makes, selected as he says in his Introduction from amongst the parade examples used by advocates of the documentary hypothesis to substantiate their case. In La Questione della Genesi, however, he provides for the Book of Genesis a much more detailed examination even of these instances, and extends the analysis also to many other significant instances in Genesis used to justify the documentary hypothesis, showing how his evaluation and approach coherently resolves the problems they allegedly represent. He presents there also a detailed consideration of the scholarly literature relating to these issues. The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch was intended only as a more accessible overview drawn from that earlier work.[citation needed]

Cassuto's criticisms, while influential amongst many Jewish scholars, were dismissed by the overwhelming majority of Christian scholars at the time. Others however argued along parallel lines.[7] It cannot be said, however, that many of them were really familiar with his work. Very few make reference to it at all, and hardly any of these to his La Questione della Genesi. Most who do cite Cassuto in this connection do not actually take up his assertions and attempt to refute them but merely add the title of The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch to their footnotes listings.[8][page needed] It cannot therefore be said that his assertions about the unity of style and grammar, theme and worldview, in the Pentateuch have been dealt with fully and seriously by most scholars. Often, when citing critics of the documentary hypothesis or debating specific issues within it, these scholars tend to refer not to Cassuto but to such other non-Jewish scholars as Ivan Engnell, whose discussions have different premises and are not as systematic as Cassuto's. In regard to the historical question, Cassuto suggested in passing that it was likely the author of the account in Genesis and Exodus drew upon a much wider Israelite culture, and wove insights from acceptable earlier writings and oral folk traditions lost to us into his own brilliant synthesis. But Cassuto did not attempt to discuss this suggestion at any length or substantiate it in detail in The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch since it did not affect his key points. Scholars such as Rolf Rendtorff and John Van Seters have put also forward theories on Pentateuchal historical origins very like Cassuto's, at least insofar as their views on its mode of composition are concerned. Modern ideas about the dating of the Torah, however, have not endorsed Cassuto's specific early historical dating, and the trend today is for the final act of composition to be seen as lying in the period 500–400 BC, or even later.

Text of the Hebrew Bible[edit]

Cassuto saw the need to produce the most accurate possible text of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). He realised that the texts generally published had mostly been edited by non-Jews, and Jews who had converted to Christianity. While Cassuto saw no reason to believe that major alterations had been made, it was important to compare these printed editions with older manuscripts as a check.

Thus Cassuto sought out the oldest and most reliable manuscripts of the Tanakh, dating back many centuries before the invention of printing. In particular, in 1944 he managed to visit the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, Syria and study the Aleppo Codex. He was one of the very few scholars to study this key manuscript before most of the Torah section and some of the Prophets and Writings sections disappeared.

His research showed that the printed Bibles generally have an accurate text. However, he corrected the spelling of many words, and made very many corrections to the vowel points and musical notes. He also revised the layout of the text, its division into paragraphs, the use of poetical lines when appropriate (see the books of Psalms, Proverbs and Job) and similar matters. Where he differs from other Bibles in any of these respects, it is likely that Cassuto has better authority. The Bible was published posthumously in 1953.

Bible commentator[edit]

However, his most enduring legacy may be his commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. He wrote a Hebrew commentary on the Bible that is very popular in Israel. He wrote a more detailed commentary on Exodus and at the time of his death had completed chapters 1–11 of a more detailed commentary on Genesis; both of these latter commentaries are available in English and of course reflect his views on the documentary hypothesis and help strengthen his earlier arguments in their defense.

Works available in English or Italian[edit]

  • Cassuto, Umberto. La Questione della Genesi. Firenze: 1934.
  • Cassuto, Umberto. Storia della letteratura ebraica postbiblica. Pp. xvi, 212. Firenze: Casa editrice Israel, 1938
  • Cassuto, Umberto. The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch: Eight Lectures by U. Cassuto. Translated from the Hebrew by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: Shalem Press, Jerusalem, 2006 ISBN 978-965-7052-35-8 [1]
  • Cassuto, Umberto. A Commentary on the book of Genesis. From Adam to Noah. Translated from the Hebrew by Israel Abrahams. Volume 1 of 2 Volumes Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1961–1964 ISBN 978-965-223-480-3
  • Cassuto, Umberto. A Commentary on the book of Genesis. From Noah to Avraham. Translated from the Hebrew by Israel Abrahams. Volume 2 of 2 Volumes Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1961–1964 ISBN 978-965-223-540-4
  • Cassuto, Umberto. A Commentary on the book of Exodus. Translated from the Hebrew by Israel Abrahams. Pp. xvi, 509. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1967
  • Cassuto, Umberto. The Goddess Anath: Canaanite Epics on the Patriarchal Age. Translated from the Hebrew by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1971
  • Cassuto, Umberto. Biblical and Oriental Studies. Translated from the Hebrew and Italian by Israel Abrahams. 2 vols. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1973–1975

All of the above works in English have been published in digitalized versions on by Varda Books and are available to be previewed free "cover-to-cover" on-line and purchased from

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Jewish Virtual Library 2008.
  2. ^ "Personality of the Week entry at Beth Hatfusot". Archived from the original on 9 August 2007. Retrieved 23 October 2009.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link).
  3. ^ The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch. Umberto Cassuto, Joshua Berman, Israel Abrahams. Shalem Press, 2006 (ISBN 978-965-7052-35-8), p. 17 et passim.
  4. ^ The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch. p.29-30. Umberto Cassuto, Joshua Berman, Israel Abrahams. Shalem Press, 2006. ISBN 978-965-7052-35-8. Found at Google Books preview
  5. ^ The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch. Umberto Cassuto, Joshua Berman, Israel Abrahams. Shalem Press, 2006 (ISBN 978-965-7052-35-8), p. 49.
  6. ^ The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch. Umberto Cassuto, Joshua Berman, Israel Abrahams. Shalem Press, 2006 (ISBN 978-965-7052-35-8), pp. 120–121.
  7. ^ Allis, Oswald (2001). The 5 Books of Moses. Oregon: Wipf & Stock. p. 368. ISBN 9781579108519.
  8. ^ Cf. Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (1979). H. H. Rowley, ed., The Old Testament and Modern Study (1951), Herbert F. Hahn, ed., The Old Testament in Modern Research, Expanded Edition (1966), and Douglas A. Knight and Gene M. Tucker, eds., The Hebrew Bible and Its Modern Interpreters (1985). Joseph Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible (1992)


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