Research at Boston University

Ancient Interpretations

By Katherine Calver

The tale of Abraham, his wife Sarah, and her Egyptian handmaiden Hagar is one of the narrative cornerstones of the Hebrew Bible. As the story goes, Sarah, thinking herself infertile, gives Hagar to Abraham as a second wife in order to bear a child. But when Sarah has a child of her own, Isaac, and sees him playing with Hagar’s son Ishmael, she banishes Hagar and Ishmael from Abraham’s home, dissolving any association they had with Abraham. “Anyone familiar with the Bible knows that everything descends from Sarah,” explains Associate Professor of Religion Deeana Klepper. According to the narrative, one of Sarah’s descendants was Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt; his story sets up the events that led to Moses and the Exodus.

As a biblical scholar, Klepper’s research into the cultural intersections between Christians and Jews in medieval Europe has recently taken her reading of this story in some surprising directions. She suggests that certain interpretations of it may have been useful to Christians as a justification for the systematic expulsion of Jews from France, England, and elsewhere in Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. These practices had a profound impact on the cultural landscape of medieval Europe, evidence of which can be found in many of the biblical treatises that were produced at the time.

Klepper’s work is rooted in the notion that biblical scholarship provides insight into the culture that produces it. “I’m interested in making a connection between a study of and engagement with the Bible and the impact this might have had on how medieval people lived their lives,” she says. “Obviously, the study of the Bible was also affected by what was going on in the outside world.”

Tentatively titled “Banishing Hagar: Christian Conceptualization of Jewish Exile and Expulsion,” Klepper isn’t sure if her most recent research will lead to a book or a series of articles, but she is poised to make some compelling arguments about the centuries-old story. In her examination of medieval commentaries, she noticed several discussions of the expulsion referred to Hagar as the mother of the Jews. Klepper has found references to this association throughout medieval biblical scholarship, as well as in art and architecture. “Associating Jews with Hagar and Christians with Sarah comes from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians in the Christian New Testament, written at a time when he was trying to sort out what this new religious community should look like,” she says.

The rub, Klepper notes, is that Jewish tradition claims Sarah as the mother of Judaism, a narrative that has been traced to ancient Judea. In this interpretation of the story, early Arab Muslims were identified with Hagar. She says, “What happens later in medieval Christian tradition is really fascinating because on the one hand they know this tradition of identifying Arabs with Hagar and they also know that, according to Paul, the Christians are the children of Sarah and the Jews are the children of Hagar, so there’s this very ambiguous, permeable, movable genealogical conversation.”

Klepper will extend her research into the ways in which some readings of the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar may have helped medieval Christians to justify the expulsion of Jews because of this association with the banished Hagar. She explains: “These characters are really meaningful tools for Christians to think about their relationship with Jews, with Muslims, and their perception of being God’s chosen.”

Long interested in questions of cultural engagement and conflict, as a graduate student at Northwestern University, Klepper didn’t set out to become a scholar of biblical interpretation. “When it came time to pick a topic for my dissertation, I knew that I wanted to do something in religious history and something that would engage with these ideas of cultural encounter. I had a significant background in Jewish history and I wanted to make sure my dissertation topic engaged that as well,” she says. She elected to examine the widely read biblical commentaries of Nicholas of Lyra, a thirteenth-century Franciscan monk who drew on his extensive knowledge of the writings of legendary rabbis, even as he used them to justify and perpetuate anti-Jewish sentiments. “They weren’t meant to convince Jews of the error of their ways,” Klepper says. “What they were really meant to do was to sort out for a Christian readership a path so that they could dismiss things that the Jews supposedly got wrong and take advantage of all the stuff they supposedly got right.”

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