Prof. Dr. Folker SIEGERT 


A lecture in memory of Boaz Cohen (1899-1968). 

Villa Mirafiori, mercoledì, 8 ottobre, h. 15.00, Piano II



"No idea" said John Lightfoot (1602-1675) "is more familiar to us than the distinction between the spirit and the letter . . . Yet, so far as I am aware, it occurs in St. Paul for the first time. No doubt the idea was floating in the air before. But he fixed it, he made it current coin." Lightfoot is
referring to the celebrated epigram: "for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life" (2Cor 3:6).

In trying to divine the meaning of an ancient writer, the trouble is, to use the words of Whitehead "not with what the author does say, but with what he does not say. Also it is not with what he knows he has assumed, but with what he has unconsciously assumed. We do not doubt the author's honesty. It is his perspicacity which we are criticizing" (Science and the Modern World. Pelican
Mentor edition, p. 25). It is Paul's unconscious assumptions which we wish to bring out into the open in this brief study.

Speech is, as has been aptly said, a complication in nature. The sense and essence of a statement charged with an atmosphere of suggestion, by a mind as volatile as Paul's, can only be rightly apprehended by reverting to the environment in which it was first uttered. Before we proceed to disclose the nature of the dialectic which determined Paul's famous aphorism, let us examine the pattern into which Paul had designed the contrast between Letter and Spirit.

In an epistle to the Roman community, he justified the abolition of the rite of circumcision by the argument that the Scriptural command was only intended to be taken allegorically. To quote his own words (Rom 2:5): "And shall not uncircumcision, which is by nature, if it fulfils the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law . . . And circumcision is of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the Letter (en pneumati, ou grammati). Paul was anticipated in this view by the radical Alexandrian allegorists, who interpreted way the literal sense of the Law, and explained circumcision symbolically. (...)

Secondly, in a letter to an audience in Rome, he proclaims that the new Christians, exempt from adhering to the Law, are required to observe the new dispensation in spirit only, as the old dispensation was to be observed in the letter (Rom 7:6). (...) In an missive to the people of Corinth, he sets forth the thesis that he was divinely appointed to be a minister of the New Testament "not of the letter, but of the spirit, for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth live" (2Cor 3:6; cp. Deut 32:39 and 1Sam 2:17). As is well known, Paul made frequent allusions to Roman law in his writings. In this passage, Paul is playing with the legal notion that a testament (diatheke) may
be abrogated by a subsequent testament, and that a will is to be interpreted according to the spirit and not according to the letter. It is noteworthy that in the celebrated Causa Curiana, in 93 B. C. E., it was the jurist Quintus Scaevola, who defended the letter of the will and the orator L. Crassus who
insisted that it should be interpreted according to the spirit (D. 50.17.12). Similarly, the Hebrew Scriptures or at least the ritual part was abrogated in the eyes of Paul, and the New Testament was to be interpreted according to the spirit. This doctrine of Paul was known to the rabbis who combated it in a very subtle manner. In an imaginary colloquy between the Torah and the Deity,
related by R. Simon ben Yohai, the Torah complains to God: King Solomon has challenged my plain meaning and fastened upon me the stigma of a forgery. You have written in your Law, any Testament (d:jatike) which is partly annulled, is entirely void. Now Solomon has philosophized about the content of your laws and reasoned a thus: Why did God prohibit a king from marrying many wives, lest they turn aside his heart? I can marry many wives without incurring this risk. But in his old age he did succumb to their temptation. To this the Deity replied: Solomon and hundreds like him will pass away, but not a letter of the Law will be abrogated. The polemical tendency of this colloquy is obvious from the fact that the Torah is compared to a testament d:jatike just as was done by Paul.

The twofold argument of Paul that the Torah is a Testament (d:jatike) that was annulled, and that a testament should be interpreted according to its spirit was answered as follows. First, there is the divine assurance that not a single letter of the law will ever be abolished, let alone the entire Law.
Secondly, the interpretation of the Law according to the spirit was attempted by Solomon, the wisest of all men, and he went astray, how much more dangerous is for mortals with less wisdom!

Another attempt to counter Paul's argument may be detected in the statement of R. Abin b. Kahana, who explained that the "new covenant" (Jer. 31:10) refers to the new Torah implied in Isa 51:4. God said: A new law will proceed from me, that is, new interpretations of the Law will proceed in the time to come (...)

The phrase contrasting the letter and the spirit of the law is original with Paul, but the terms of the antithesis were borrowed from Jewish sources. The conception underlying it may be traced to the early Greek writers antecedent to Aristotle, and was a commonplace in the Greco-Roman world in the time of Paul. The term spirit in connection with the Law, not found in Greek and Roman sources, was unquestionably suggested to Paul by Isa 28:5-6, where it is said that the Lord of Hosts will be a crown of glory and a diadem of beauty unto the remnant of his people "and the spirit of law (ruah mishpat) (inspiring) him who sits in judgment". (...)

Paul therefore in this use of the terms "letter" and "spirit" of the Law drew upon contemporary Jewish tradition, but he invested them with significance derived from their equivalents rheton kai dianoia in Greek rhetoric. Paul who was as much concerned with gaining adherents among the Jews as among Gentiles, coined the antithesis between gramma and pneuma instead of availing himself of the commonplaces of the rhetoric of his time.

The antithesis between letter and spirit may be traced back to Protagoras(481-411 B.C.E.), who contrasted dianoia with onoma as Diogenes Laertius (9.S2) tells us: kai ten dianoian apheis pros tounoma dielechthe, "in his argumentation, he by-passed the intention in favor of the literal meaning". Lysias too, argues before the judges that they should be concerned not with
mere words but with the meaning (Against Theomnestus 1.7).

Aristotle, in his reflections upon the nature of law and its relation to justice, was attracted to the theory which contrasted the letter with the spirit of the law, logos and dianoia (Rhet. 1410b 27; 1404a 19 etc.; see below). According to him, considerations of equity should enter into the interpretation of the law, when it is defective because of its generality, or if it is a difficult case, where the law is clear, but its application would result in injustice. This can be done by interpreting the law according to its spirit and not its letter.

With regard to the first instance, Aristotle says: "The law takes into its purview the majority of cases" (Eth. Nic. 1137b; cp. Pomponius, D. 1.3.3). When therefore a case arrives which is an exception to the rule it is right to rectify the defect by deciding, as the lawgiver himself would decide, if he were present.

Hence it follows logically that it is equitable to look not to the letter (ton logon) of the law, but to the intention (ten dianoian) of the legislator (Rhet. 1374b). Secondly, with regard to the hard case, Aristotle says (ibid. 1375a): If the written law is counter to our case we must have recourse to the general law and equity, which are more in harmony with justice, and we must argue, that to decide according to the best of one's judgment does not mean to abide entirely by the written law (ibid. 1374a). Equity is justice that goes beyond the written law (esti de epieikes to para ton gegrammenon nomon dikaion).

The antithesis between letter and spirit, which Aristotle has based on a philosophical understanding of the law, influenced all subsequent thinking on the subject. It is important to recall that the ancient Greeks were reluctant to alter their laws. This was partly due to their belief in its divine ancestry. In any event, the possibility of interpreting the law according to its intention (dianoia) did help much.(...)

Paul is playing with the legal notion current in Jewish and Roman law, that an earlier testament may be abrogated by a subsequent one, and that a will is to be interpreted according to the spirit. (...) The rabbis, on the other hand, for opposite reasons, were extremely wary and chary of employing the notion of Spirit in connection with interpretation because they were fully aware of its many pitfalls. Paul did not merely replace rheton by Letter and dianoia by Spirit, but in imitation of the rhetoricians, he also put them into sharp contrast. 


Il Professor Folker Siegert insegna Scienze Bibliche alla Evangelisch-Theologische Fakultät dell’Università di Münster e dal 1996 è il Direttore dell’ Institutum Judaicum Delitzschianum.

Ha compiuto la sua formazione negli studi teologici a Tübingen, dove è stato allievo di Martin Hengel, al St. John’s College di Cambridge e ad Heidelberg. Ha insegnato Scienze Neotestamentarie alla Facoltà di Teologia di Neuchâtel.

I suoi studi si sono concentrati sull’esegesi e sull’ermeneutica biblica nell’ambito delle comunità giudaico-cristiane dei primi secoli della nostra era e sul rapporto tra questa esegesi e la cultura greca, classica ed alessandrina. Al suo attivo si contano edizioni critiche e prime traduzioni in lingua moderna di importanti testi del giudaismo ellenistico e neotestamentario dall’armeno; nonché traduzioni e indagini lessicali condotte sui testi gnostici copti del celebre corpus di Nag-Hammadi.

Tra le iniziative scientifiche di cui il Prof. Siegert è promotore, va ricordato il Progetto di ricerca su Giuseppe Flavio, nell’ambito del quale ha organizzato 7 Colloqui internazionali a partire dal 1997; il progetto prevede anche l’allestimento di un’edizione greco-tedesca delle opere di Giuseppe Flavio su base informatica.

E’ autore di numerosissime pubblicazioni, tra le quali ricordiamo: la recentissima edizione commentata del Vangelo di Giovanni (Das Evangelium des Johannes in seiner ursprünglicher Gestalt, Göttingen 2008); l’edizione critica con traduzione tedesca e commento della Vita di Giuseppe Flavio (Flavius Josephus: Aus meinem Leben <Vita>. Kritische Ausgabe, Übersetzung und Kommentar von Folker Siegert, Heinz Schreckenberg, Manuel Vogel und dem Josephus-Arbeitskreis des Institutum Judaicum Delitzschianum Tübingen 2001); la traduzione tedesca con retroversione e commento del frammento De Deo di Filone dalla versione armena, del 1988 (Philon von Alexandrien: Über die Gottesbezeichnung “wohltätig verzehrendes Feuer” <De Deo>. Rückübersetzung des Fragments aus dem Armenischen, deutsche Übersetzung und Kommentar, Tübingen 1988); questa prima traduzione in una lingua moderna è seguita, nel 1998, dalla prima traduzione francese pubblicata negli Atti del colloquio internazionale di Parigi su Filone di Alessandria (‘Le fragment philonien De Deo’. Première traduction française avec commentaire et notes portant sur le langage métaphorique de Philon’, in: C. Lévy, Carlos (Hg.) Philon d’Alexandrie et le langage de la philosophie. Actes du colloque international organisé par le Centre d’études sur la philosophie hellénistique et romaine de l’Université de Paris XII-Val de Marne <Créteil, Fontenay, Paris, 26-28 octobre 1995>, Turnhout 1998, 183-227) e dalla prima traduzione inglese (The Philonian Fragment De Deo. First English Translation’, Studia Philonica Annual 10, 1998, 1-33).