Posted by Fr Nelson Madathikandam MCBS on November 2, 2012
There are varieties of methods, criticisms, interpretations, approaches, and theologies in biblical and theological interpretations. It is very easy for anyone to get confused. The plurality of methods, approaches, interpretations, Biblical books are complex in their text, language, culture, and history. So a variety of competencies is needed to interpret them. All the methods, approaches, and theologies help us to better understand the deeper meaning of the biblical texts. It was in the search for the true meaning of these texts that theological hermeneutics developed. From the 17th century onwards we see the development of ‘Hermeneutics’ as an important and independent discipline in classical philology and interpretation in general. In contemporary philosophy and theology ‘Hermeneutics’ plays a vital role. This is mainly due to the influence of the works of Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur.
There was a time when biblical interpretation was left entirely to theologians, historians, and philosophers. Now biblical interpretation is considered as an integral part of biblical studies. The Bible is not just an ancient text; it is the most translated of all books. It is sacred Scripture that was read in liturgical assemblies and was preached and commented upon for thousands of years by thousands of people. In our discussion we will look at these realities.
1 Why is biblical interpretation necessary?
Often people say: “Just read the Bible and do what it says!” The problem with this attitude is that different people, even though they read the same Bible, come to very different conclusions about what it actually says! Many people also tend to think of the Bible as “God’s little instruction book for life.” While this statement has a kernel of truth – the Bible certainly does contain much teaching on how to live – it is far more than just an instruction manual. It is the written record of God revealing in history who He is, what He is like, who we are, what we are like, and what He expects of us. This is the overall message of the Bible in a nutshell. The necessity and goal of Biblical interpretation are explained below:
v The Bible was originally written to people who lived in a different place, in a very different culture, at a different time and period of history, and who spoke different languages. It also contains several different types of literature (called genres).
v Because the Bible is God’s word in history revealed to people in history, each passage has n historical context – an particular author, audience, purpose and occasion. On the other hand, since the Bible is also the word of God, its contents are also eternally relevant.
v The goal of interpretation is not to come up with the most unique interpretation (unique interpretations are usually wrong), but to discover the original intended meaning of a passage – the way the original audience understood it. The task of discovering the original intended meaning is called exegesis.
v The key to doing good exegesis is reading the text very carefully, paying close attention to the details it describes, and asking the text the right questions. This is critical to finding the correct interpretation. Bad interpretation results directly from bad exegesis.
The terminologies frequently used in Hermeneutics are explained in this section.
The term hermeneutics comes from the Greek verb hermeneuein, meaning ‘to interpret, translate, explain, declare’ and from nominal hermeneutike meaning [‘the art of’] interpretation’. Its Latin equivalent is the verb interpretari, from which comes the noun interpretation. Hence, hermeneutics reflects the Latin plural ‘hermeneutica’ meaning the science of interpretation.
The term “hermeneutics” is derived from the name of the god Hermes, who in Greek mythology acts as the messenger between the gods and human beings. In this process Hermes makes intelligible to human beings God’s message which otherwise is not intelligible to them. In Listra, Paul was taken for Hermes (Acts 14:12) for between the crippled man and Barnabas it was Paul who spoke.
In the broader sense hermeneutics is the quest for meaning. In this broader context, the word hermeneutic has three meanings:
a) Interpretation by speech itself: Language expresses and interprets what is in one’s mind or even that which constitutes one’s identity, being and person. In biblical discussion we have to deal with the capacity of human language to express God’s mind, will, and person.
b) Interpretation through the translation: The process of translation from one language to another is a process that goes beyond the mechanical equivalents of words. It is concerned with the transference from one culture and worldview to another. This can also be a translation from an unintelligible language to an intelligible one (hermeneia of tongues, in 1 Cor 12:10, is a charistmatic gift with a revelatory dimension).
c) Interpretation by commentary and explanation: It is a more formal aspect. Here the interpreter gives systematic comments and explanations on the texts.
In the narrower sense, hermeneutics refers to the principles, method, and techniques used to interpret written texts. The biblical hermeneutical theory is in contact with the philosophical reflection on hermeneutics, it has, however, assumed its own itinerary due to the special nature of the biblical texts as an inspired normative book of faith.
The function of the interpreter consists in seeking for “that meaning which the sacred writer. in a determined situation and given the circumstance of his time and culture intended to express and did in fact express through the medium of contemporary literary form” (DV 12). Inasmuch as the intention of the author is found in the sense of the text, we must try to find the sense present in the text, because it is what the sacred writer intended and did express. What is important is what the text actually says and not that which the author may have thought but did not write.
The Greek verb Exegeomai means to draw out, to develop, to explain. Thus exegesis explains the text of the scripture drawing out its message and significance.
Until recently hermeneutics meant a theoretical reflection on meaning as distinct from exegesis, an art where the rules detected in hermenutics were applied practically. For us here, exegesis, refers to the analysis of a particular text of scripture to discover what the author wanted to say to his contemporaries, and hermeneutics refers to what the same text says to us today in a context different from the original one. Further, it is within the competence of hermeneutics to establish the principles, method, and techniques used to interpret written texts.
3. Text and the Process of Communication
The Bible contains texts almost 2950 years old, which were produced over a span of 1100 years. Even through the same methods and criteria used for the understanding of any ancient book are necessary and indispensable, for the Bible these are not sufficient. One must consider also the aspect of faith, as there are divinely inspired books of faith which are bequeathed to the Church as the norm and the nourishment of her life. So to understand the true significance that the Word of God is to have for us, we must also consider this added dimension in the interpretation of the biblical text.
Scripture reveals the will of God. Interpretation is essential in discerning this will. Morses, Prophets, Scribes, and many others have acted as interpreters of God’s will. Jesus himself is the supreme interpreter and revealer of God’s will. The NT writers interpreted the OT and the Christ Event. Even after the formation of the canon, the need for interpretation continued. Today, guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church discerns the will of God as it is revealed in the Bible.
Phases of Biblical Interpretation
A discussion of biblical hermeneutics can be undertaken only against the background of a discussion of a general introduction to the Bible which includes a study of its inspiration, the unity of the Testaments, the Canon, the textual criticism, the manuscripts and the formation of the Bible, the history of biblical times, and the literary forms found in the Bible. Biblical interpretation follows from the understanding of the Bible as the Word of God expressed in the words of men. Therefore, our discussion must follow certain norms which account for this fact without overemphasizing or minimizing one or the other aspect.
Different literary genres (kinds of literature) are interpreted in different ways, so the first question to ask is: “To which category of literature does the text you are interpreting belong? Below are brief descriptions of the different genres found in the Bible:
Historical Narratives. These describe actual historical events from God’s perspective. They tell us what God is like (His character and nature), what God likes/dislikes, how He deals with people who obey and honour Him, and how he deals with those who disobey and hate Him. Narratives give us principles and lessons, not commands, patterns or laws. Historical Narratives are found in Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther. In the New Testament, they can be found in parts of the Gospels, and the book of Acts.
Poetry and Songs. These are expressions of emotion to God. They allow us to express to God our feelings of happiness, joy, trust, hope, security, as well as feelings of discouragement, guilt, suffering, fear, anger, despair and repentance. They also assist us in expressing our love and appreciation for God or our need for forgiveness. Poetry and Songs allow us to relate to God on our own level. They show us how to communicate with God and how to honour and worship Him. In the Old Testament, these writings are found primarily in the Psalms and Song of Songs.
Legal Writings. These writings indicate God’s high moral standard, His idea of justice, principles of common sense government, principles of common sense health and safety, and His pattern and order for acceptable worship. These laws are NOT directly applicable to Christians today i.e. they are not meant to be legalistic instructions and commands to Christians. Such legal writings can be found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Wisdom/Wise Sayings. These writings indicate God’s view of wisdom as opposed to man’s view of wisdom. They contain wise sayings, and practical advice on how to live life and avoid trouble and hardship. Wisdom literature can be found primarily in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job.
Prophecy. Prophecy is God’s message to a particular person, a particular group of people and sometimes to all humanity. It is not necessarily foretelling the future – in fact the vast majority of prophecy in the Bible speaks of the present. Prophecy is found primarily in the Old Testament, from Isaiah to Malachi.
Teachings of Jesus. These are direct statements of truth from Jesus concerning the nature and character of God the kingdom of God/Heaven, what God expects of us, principles of righteous living, and the ways in which Jesus fulfils the OT prophecies. They are not exhaustive ‘DOs and don’ts,’ but rather, serve as examples and paradigms (patterns) from which we can derive underlying principles to apply in other situations. These teachings are found in parts of the Gospels i.e. Matthew – John.
Parables. Parables are stories with a punch-line. Parables are not so much illustrative, but rather, provocative. They are designed to draw people in and hit them with something unexpected, in the same way a joke does. Most parables have only one message or central idea, and even if multiple messages are present, one of them will be the chief idea. Note also that they are not perfect analogies! Parables are also found in parts of the Gospels.
Letters. These are generally occasional documents i.e. they were written with a clear purpose to a well-identified audience. However, some letters (called epistles) were written to a larger people group. The letter/epistle writer presents arguments to correct, rebuke, defend, instruct, praise and encourage their readers. Letters/epistles form the vast majority of the New Testament from Romans to Jude.
Apocalypse. This includes the book of Revelation, and also large parts of Ezekiel and Daniel. Revelation is a vision of warning and encouragement to the early church as it was going through immense persecution.
The most important factor in exegesis is context. Understanding the context is the key to understanding what you are reading. Gordon Fee and Doug Stuart also point out “[t]he only proper control for hermeneutics is to be found in the original intent of the biblical text.”
There are two aspects of the context of a passage: the historical context and the literary context.
Historical Context. The Bible was written over a period of time dating from approximately 2000 BC (Job) to 95 AD (Revelation). It was set in a different country/continent and a vastly different culture and society from our own, therefore we must be careful not to make 20th century assumptions about the situation. Consult Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias and handbooks in order to find out about the manners and customs of the various nations at that time in history. Use your imagination and try to put yourself in the shoes of the people involved. Make observations about who? what? when? where? and how?
Literary Context. This is the position of the text you are reading in relation to other texts. What verses come before? What verses come after? What situation, event, statement or argument led up to this passage? What situation, event, statement or argument followed or resulted from this passage? What book is the text in? Whereabouts in the book? What testament is it in? Why is the text in this position? Why is it in the Bible at all? What difference would it make if it was left out? Following are some suggestions on making observations depending on the genre of the passage you are interpreting:
Historical Narratives. Choose a complete narrative and read it in a single sitting. Make (mental) notes as you are reading, and ask: What is happening? To whom? When? Where? Why? (The most important question!) What can I learn about God? What can I learn about the other characters involved?
Poetry and Songs. Read a complete Psalm or Song in one sitting, taking (mental) notes as you are reading. What is being said about God? What is being said about humanity? Is the writer pleading for something? Are they pouring their heart out? If so, about what? Are they praising God? Are they angry with God? What mood does the writer seem to be in? Joyful? Happy? Angry? Fearful? Anxious? Distraught? Discouraged? Does the writer’s mood change?
Legal Writings. Read a collection of related rules/regulations in one sitting. What rules/regulations are being put in place? Why? What situations/circumstances do they cover? Are they for moral reasons or are they concerned with administration/ government and personal hygiene? Can you see any pattern being established? Is a feast, offering or ceremony being described? If so, what seems to be its purpose or significance? Never stop asking Why?
Wisdom. Read as much of Proverbs/Job/Ecclesiastes as you can in one go, taking (mental) notes as you read. Consider what you think the central message of the text is.
What advice is given? What warnings are given? What comparisons are made? Compare the proverb you are reading with other similar or related proverbs (similar or related proverbs could be anywhere in the book of Proverbs). If there are similar/related proverbs, how do the proverbs differ? Do they relate to slightly different situations? Do they address different aspects of a problem or situation? If two proverbs say the opposite thing (and there are several) why would this be? Do you think the statement made or the advice given is good? Why or why not? You must also remember that proverbs are not always globally applicable to every person and every situation. They are guidelines and “rules of thumb,” not absolute rules, statements of fact or direct promises.
Prophecy. Read a single prophecy (called an “oracle”) in one sitting. Try and establish the historical setting. What circumstances in history provoked this prophetic word from God? What does it say about God? Is the prophecy positive or negative? Is it a warning? About what? Is it a condemnation? For what? Is it an encouragement or a message of hope? About what? Is it a promise? To do what? Prophecy is some of the hardest literature to read. Knowing the historical context is essential to really to appreciate what is being said. It may be necessary to consult a commentary or Bible handbook if you are struggling.
Teachings of Jesus. Read a complete section of teaching (called a “pericope”) in a single sitting, taking (mental) notes about what is being taught. What message is He communicating? What subject is He talking about? What is He actually saying about it? Is it a command? Is it a warning? Is it an exhortation/encouragement? Is it a promise? Does it give us a better understanding of who God is? Does it give us a better understanding of what we are like?
Parables. Read a single parable and the surrounding dialogue in one sitting. Try to determine the central thought of the parable. What message is it communicating? Keep in mind the context. This is a big clue to identifying the central thought. What events prompted Jesus to tell this parable? How did the hearers react to it? Did they understand it? Focus on the central thought – don’t focus on all the minute details – they are not meant to be important. Read ahead – some parables are interpreted for you by Christ later on in the gospel.
Letters. Read them like any other letter. Start at the beginning – stop at the end. If possible, read a letter right through in one sitting. Identify the major issues/arguments of the letter. Focus on one of the major issues/arguments. What is the point of each paragraph? What does each paragraph contribute to the current issue/argument? Why did the writer include a particular paragraph? What difference would it make if it were not included? Don’t pay too much attention to the chapter and verse divisions or the chapter headings – they’re not inspired! Words/phrases such as “Now about”, “Concerning” and “Finally” often indicate a change of argument/subject.
Apocalypse. Read the books of Daniel and Ezekiel first. Revelation uses lots of imagery from these books. Identify as much as possible, the use of imagery (by comparing Revelation with Daniel and Ezekiel). What is the imagery used to communicate in Revelation? What kind of message is being communicated? Hope? Encouragement? Warning? What does the text say about God and about Jesus Christ? What does it say about Satan? What does it say about the Church (New Jerusalem)? You will definitely want to consult some good commentaries in these matters. Revelation is the most difficult book in the Bible to read and understand.
3.1.3 Prayer, Meditation & Wresting
Prayer, meditation and wresting are things the reader should do throughout the entire interpretive cycle, not just before you begin or when you are about to deliver your talk/sermon/speech.
Meditation does not mean emptying your head of everything – quite the opposite in fact. It means filling your mind with all the information required to make decisions about what the text says, how significant it is and how it should be applied today. When looking at a difficult passage, you may need to really pray about, and wrestle with, the various alternatives.
3.1.4 Determining Meaning
What do the particular key words or phrases mean? Pay attention to those elements that are repeated in the current passage or used elsewhere by the same author.
What is the significance of a particular key word, phrase or sentence? Does the element carry any special significance given the historical and social context? What does it contribute to the overall meaning of the text? How would the meaning of the text be effected if this particular element was left out?
Is there a command to obey? Is there an error to avoid? Does the passage point out sinful behavior or attitudes that may be present in your own life? Is there an example to follow? Is there a promise to claim? Does the passage highlight an aspect of God’s nature and character which you had not seen before?
3.2 Presuppositions & Pre-understandings
No-one is ever completely unbiased. Every understanding presuppose pre-understanding or prejudice. In other words every process of understanding is gripped or conditioned by a prior structure of experiences. In hermeneutics, pre-understanding or prejudice is not something that is negative, but it is the necessary condition which makes understanding possible. In terms of hermeneutics, pre-understanding or prejudice may be described as a body of assumptions and attitudes which a person brings to the perception and interpretation of reality or any aspect of it. From this perspective it is very difficult to think of uniform understanding or knowledge, because understanding varies from person to person in accordance with his or her pre-understanding or prejudice.
Classical philosophers and theologians also acknowledge the role of pre-understanding. For example, Immanuel Kant admits some sort of pre-understanding in relation to perception. He insists in The Critique of Pure Reason that we have no certain knowledge of things in themselves but our mind give shape to them. According to Heidegger, understanding always touches on the whole constitution of being-in-the-world. He asserts further that the meaning does not lie in words; or in things, but in the remarkable structure of understanding itself Rudolf Bultmann a renowned theologian has rightly remarked that every interpretation incorporates a particular prior understanding.
Now the question is “From where does the pre-understanding come?” or “How we possess a particular pre-understanding?”. As we know generally pre-understanding comes from one’s own environment. Then, “what do we mean by environment?”. Environment is a composite of several factors. It includes historical factors, psychological factors, economical factors, political factors, religious factors, social and family relationships, affiliation to group and associations, vocational status, educational
Another two questions that might be raised in relation to pre-understanding are the following (1) “Is pre-understanding common?” And (2) “Is pre-understanding static?”. To the first question answer is both in affirmative and negative. On the one hand, pre-understanding is common in the sense that everybody has pre-understanding. On the other hand, pre-understanding is not common in the sense that the content of the pre-understanding differs from person to person. From the viewpoint of hermeneutics the second question can be answered only in negative. That is to say, pre-understanding is not static. Our pre-understanding is subject to change in every moment of our lives. As our environmental conditions change our pre-understanding also undergo change or transformation.
There are different types of pre-understandings. To have an overview of the different types of pre-understanding, a classification of the same would be appropriate. However, the divisions in this classification overlap each other, for we cannot compartmentalize them exhaustively. Actually what we do here is this, we approach the phenomenon of prejudice from different angles. Accordingly we have four types of pre-understandings.
i) Informational Pre-understanding. It refers to the information that one already possesses about any given subject prior to approaching it. This is pre-understanding of the most basic kind. Terms such as prepossession and to a degree, preconception, prenotion, and predetermination are related to informational pre-understanding.
ii) Attitudinal Pre-understanding. This type of pre-understanding refers to the disposition with which one approaches something or the disposition that one brings to a given subject. The related terms are predisposition, prejudice, bias, life-hearing and life-relation.
iii) Ideological Pre-understanding. It indicates the ideological affiliation with which a person approaches something. This category would include both a general aspect and a particular aspect. The general aspect of the ideological pre-understanding points out the way one views the total complex of reality. And the particular aspect of the ideological pre-understanding shows the way one views a specific subject. The terms like worldview, life-attitude, life-posture, frame of reference, framework, horizon of understanding, etc. belong to the general aspect of the ideological pre-understanding and of view, viewpoint, perspective, stand point ,etc. belong to the particular aspect of the ideological pre-understanding.
iv) Methodological Pre-understanding. This category refers to the actual approach which one takes in the explication of a given subject. For instance, a sociologist approaches something with a methodology proper to sociology a historian approaches an event with a methodology proper to history, and so on. In one sense, the methodological pre-understanding does function in the same way as any other type of pre-understanding and does influence the result of the interpretation. Yet in another sense, the methodological pre-understanding is considered as a tool that avoids the influences of other types of pre-understanding.
We shall conclude our pre-understanding or prejudice by listing how it influence our interpretation and understanding or how does it function in terms of interpretation and understanding.
(1) Pre-understanding may function as either a negative or positive influence on interpretation. It negatively influences our interpretation by distorting or misleading our perception of things. It positively influences our interpretation, as it is the necessary precondition or frame of reference to understanding something.
(2) Pre-understanding may influence our interpretation either in a comprehensive or in a limited manner. A pre-understanding comprehensively influence one’s interpretation when it influences the way one views the total sphere of reality and a pre-understanding influences one’s interpretation in a limited manner when it influences the way one views fragments of it.
(3) Pre-understanding may influence our interpretation either depently or independently. A pre-understanding may influence on one’s interpretation when he or she has one comprehensive pre-understanding that contains within it a number of more limited presuppositions. A pre-understanding functions as an indenpend influence on one’s interpretation when a person is having limited pre-understanding on different subjects.
(4) Pre-understanding may influence our interpretation consistently or inconsistently. If a pre-understanding functions in a similar manner without fail in all the instances of a specific domain, it influences our interpretation inconsistently.
(5) Pre-understanding may influence our interpretation consciously, or unconsciously. When a person is aware of the pre-understanding that is at work in his or her interpretation, that pre-understanding is consciously influencing his or her interpretation. When the situation becomes just the contrary, the pre-understanding influences one’s interpretation unconsciously.
(6) Pre-understanding may function as either a major or a minor influence on our interpretation. If a pre-understanding exerts a major influence on our interpretation. When a pre-understanding determines the conclusions drawn by a person only on a small scale, that pre-understanding is having only minor influence on our interpretation.
(7) Pre-understanding may influence our interpretation rationally or irrationally. If a pre-understanding is formed out of the sound interaction with one’s own environment, it will influence his or her interpretation rationally. Whereas, if a pre-understanding is the outcome of some panic or neurotic reactions, it will influence our interpretation irrationally.
(8) Finally, pre-understanding may be open-ended or closed. If a pre-understanding gives room for further correction and alteration, it is an open-ended pre-understanding. If a pre-understanding does not admit any correction or alternation, it is a closed pre-understanding.
No understanding takes place in isolation. Understanding is not knowing the individual words in a sentence or in a text and their meanings separately, because individual words in a sentence or in a text cannot convey the fullness of its meaning. A text is a web, a well –knit frame in which different words are structured properly. Furthermore, understanding is a whole system of interrelated beliefs and practices. Hence understanding happens only when we realize the interconnections that exist between the words of a sentence or of a text. Then understanding is holistic.
If hermeneutics is taken in its wider sense, that is, not merely as formal rules controlling the practice of exegesis but as something concerned with the total process of understanding, then biblical hermeneutics can only be developed as part of an all encompassing theory of communication. In its most basic form, communication can be described as the interaction between sender, message and receiver.
There are three contexts in which each text needs to be considered: a) the world that precedes the text; b) the world of the text itself ; and c) the world that follows the text.
In the biblical texts, the message/medium is the written word. The text represents the solidification of a previous encounter between sender (Moses/Jesus) and receiver (Israel/Disciples). In the process of becoming a written text, the message may pass through various stages (oral tradition, pre-literary forms, etc.), but the text also represents the first stage in the process of reinterpretation. The reinterpretation has as its aim a new communication event this time between the texts and the contemporary receiver. In the case of biblical texts, the original sender is no longer present and interpretation necessarily comes out of the interaction between the text and receiver.
Today’s main hermeneutical problem arises from the knowledge that every human expression, whether literary or artistic, religious or philosophical, contains a set of meanings given to it by the author, and when this set of meanings moves into the world of another subject, it must be interpreted in such a way as to convey the original intention of the author.
In practice, the texts mediate between two events: the one which produced the text (the prophet, the audience, the scribes etc. come into the picture) and the one flowing from interaction with the text (the reader, the interpreter etc.). Certain considerations are to be made when dealing with the biblical material:
- The biblical texts are historical in a double sense: a) They are historical documents in their own right, with their own history of composition, tradition, and preservation b) They also refer to certain specific historical events (e.g. Monarchy, Exile)
- The present reader is not the first reader of the text. The text, enriched by the redactors, is the text for interpretation.
- Clarity concerning the purpose and the context in which the reading takes place is important. The kerygmatic or proclaiming nature of the text presupposes a new understanding as the ultimate goal of the reading. It is the interpretative community of believers who constitute the context of such a reading.
- Although the text is dependent on prior readings, the text itself functions as a separate entity within the interpretation process.
- As the original author is not present, the interpretative interaction takes place between the text and (present) reader. The present text is both the end of the process of text production and the beginning of the process of reinterpretation.
- Understanding the original speech event is the prerequisite for its appropriation in the contemporary situation.
The process of reading and interpreting the Bible should be cyclic. A reader approaches a passage of scripture with presuppositions (e.g. the Bible is the inerrant word of God) and usually has a pre-understanding about what the particular passage can or cannot mean. These presuppositions and pre-understandings, along with the context, influence the reader’s understanding of the passage, and help them derive their interpretation. This interpretation then effects the reader’s presuppositions, and becomes part of their pre-understandings the next time they read this passage. If our exegetical information, reasoning and judgments are thought through again and reassessed each time we go through the cycle then the accuracy and correctness of our interpretation will improve.
Early Biblical Interpretation
Reinterpretation of the OT in the OT Itself
Israel has always re-interpreted Scripture in the light of new problems and new exigencies, and even the re-interpretations became part of the Scripture. The literary formation of many of the books shows that biblical literature has in fact developed through the contribution of such re-interpretations. For instance, the Yahwistic history of the patriarchs and Moses of the 10th cent. is taken up and re-narrated in the 6th cent. in the manner and according to the theology of the priestly (P) author.
In many aspects the Deuteronomic Code (Deut 12-26) is a re-interpretation, an actualization, and adaptation of the Elohistic ‘Code of the covenant’ (Ex 20:22-23:3), reflecting the changes in the economic and social aspects of the settled life of Israel in the land of Canaan. These changes were characterized by the divine rights upon the land and the people, the preference of the week, and the poor who have to be protected. It reflects the Deuteronomic theology.
The book of Ben Sirach is often an existential reflection on the ancient texts: Sir 3 is a comment on the 4th commandment; Sir 15 is a comment on Gen 3; Sir 17:1-12, on creation (Gen 1); Sir 34;21-35:4 reviews the theme of cult and social justice.
In prophetic literature one can see the superimposition of the interpretation of the original oracles, for example, in the re-interpretation of the exodus (see Is 40:1-11; 17-20; Ps 78;105). In all these, one can detect the meaning sense of the Scriptures which reveals both their ancient and new character at the same time. The sense looked for is not exactly the one which was understood by the first readers; rather, what is looked for is that meaning the current reader can discover in view of his contemporary problems and in the light of the revelation taking place in the time between the ancient writer and the present reader. What is treated is the actualization of the ancient books, which in Judaism took the form of midrash.
Judaism of Inter-testamental Period
The Synagogue and rabbinic school were the ambient wherein the biblical interpretation thrived in Judaism. This reading of the Torah, called darash, meaning investigation/research, is aimed at bringing the meaning of the text up-to-date. The homily and the paraphrasing translation (targum) of the text were the means of actualizing interpretation. The rabbinic schools tried to adapt the Law to the changed circumstance. Their authorized interpreters were the soferim ‘the doctors of the law’ – scribes (Sir 39:1-8) who many times appear in the NT passages (Mt 23; 13:52). They have also left traces in some of the biblical comments found in Qumran.
The interpretations of the Sadducees and Pharisees were different. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, both Qumran and the Sadducees declined in importance, while the pharisaic movement survived. In the interpretation of specific texts, the rabbis employed certain rules, which were authentic hermeneutical principles.
- Targumim: an Aramaic translation often interpretative of the Hebrew Scriptures. It was first oral and then written.
- Midrashim: commentary on scripture, often in homeiletic form. The term ‘midrash’ comes from the term darash (= to seek) and we can distinguish a four-fold meaning: a) a literary form (genre) which uses the biblical text with great freedom (e.g.,the midrash of the book of Wisdom on the book of Exodus); b) a literary form which treats biblical personalities with great liberty, presenting them as historical, although they are either mythological or fictional (e.g., the books of Tobias, Judith, Esther, Jonah and narrative section of the book of Job, etc); c) those Jewish literary works, called midrashim. Which are homiletic or exegetical comments on different books of the Bible; d) Midrash a term which is also applied to the research method used, by the Jewish exegetes. Thus Midrashim includes the totality of principles, techniques, and procedures used by the Jews in the interpretation of Scripture. Midrash is both hermeneutical and theological in nature.
Midrash has two divisions: a) Halakah b) Haggadah
Halakah: Halakah is a commentary on scripture which deals with legal texts (plural halakot. halakah comes from halak, to walk), and therefore, ‘the rule of be having’ or ‘norm’. Usually translated as ‘law’, it denotes a specific ruling, a legal statement or discussion, the general category of legal material which provides rules for moral, juridical, and ritual conduct.
Haggadah: It is narrative commentary on Scripture which deals with morals, ethics, and daily life. The term haggadah is derived from the Hebrew root ngd ‘to show, announce, tell, testify, declare, make known’. Haggadah mainly explains the historical and prophetic sections of the OT, enriching them with legendary motifs with a moral scope. It deals with the non-legal text in rabbinic literature.
- Pesharim: It is a type of line-by-line interpretation often allegorical. In the Qumran, one read the ancient biblical text and applied it to the present, introducing the comment with the words: ‘its interpretation is.’, where the Hebrew word for interpretation is pesher (pesharim; ‘explanation’) and it occurs only once (Ecc 8:1) in the OT. Until the Qumran discoveries this was an unknown type of biblical interpretation. It is used in the sense of interpretation and realization. Now this word is used to signify: a) a Qumran biblical commentary written in pesher-like form; b) the formal term used to introduce the expository section of this kind of commentary; c) the literary genre of these commentaries; and d) the particular exegetical method of the Qumran commentaries.
All these were attempts at actualization of the biblical texts. Elements of the halakic and haggadic modes of interpretation can be seen in the NT. For us Jewish interpretation is especially helpful to understand the interpretation of the Hebrew text of the Bible. To these typically Jewish principles of interpretation we can also add the allegorical method. This method, which is of Greek origin, was used particularly by Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 BC-50 AD) to adapt the Hebrew Bible to the Hellenistic culture of his time. The Christian interpretation of the Alexandrian school followed the allegorical method.
New Testament Interpretation of the OT
Jesus is the true and definite exegesis of the Father: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (Jn 1:18). The Gospels show Jesus as the interprets: ‘Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Lk 24:27). He does not simply explain the Scriptures, but he reveals their sense because they speak of him (Jn 5:39,46). The Scriptures reach their fulfillment in him (Jn 19:28-30) and the newness of his teaching (Mk 1:27) and authority (Mk 1:22) are in tune with the fulfillment theme.
The exegesis of the apostolic Church, especially St. Paul (see Gal 4:21-31-the two wives of Abraham), draws from the rabbinic and Alexandrian sources, halakah, haggada, pesher and allegory.
In interpreting the Scriptures, Jesus used the interpretation techniques and methods of his time. Discussing divorce, for instance, he bases himself on Gen 2:24 with a new halaka. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” Mt 19:6, thus declaring that the Mosaic law and rabbinic tradition which tolerated it has ended. On the discussion of the resurrection (Mt 22:23-32) he appeals to Ex 3:6 (“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”) arguing in the haggadic manner that “He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” In his discussion with the scribes he uses the rabbinic style of argumentation (see Jn 10:34-36).
The NT authors also made use of the interpretation processes of the Jewish people of their time. In addition to the already existing elements of interpretation, the authority of the Word of God and its richness, they introduced something radically new: the fulfillment of the OT in Jesus. The NT interpretation of the OT has its basis in Jesus as the Messiah the Son of God.
The aim of the NT authors was not to present a chronicle of Jesus’ life. Rather, they presented the life of Jesus in such a way that it appealed to the faith of the people, and the Christ Event, with its culmination at Pentecost. Stood as the key to their interpretation. For them Christ is the New Adam, the New Moses, and the Church becomes the New Israel and the Christ Event is the New Exodus. The book of Hebrews uses typological midrash. Jesus is greater than Moses (Heb 4); Jesus is the great high priest (Heb 4-8); Earthly and heavenly sacrifice (Heb 9); Jewish law as a type (Heb 10:1)
The early Church interpreted the OT by using the Christological key as she considered Christ to be the fulfillment and the point of arrival of the OT. Hence, while interpreting the OT, their primary intension was not to understand the original Hebrew text but to understand Christ. And their interpretations were not in Hebrew. There are various models of interpretation that the early church and the later Church fathers used for interpretation:
Typological Interpretation: Some reality or personage of the OT is seen as the type of Christ or of the Church (antitype). (See Rom 5:14;1 Cor 10:6-1 Pet 3:22).
Literal Interpretation: It looks for the explicit sense of the text.
Spiritual Interpretation: Its aim is to understand the hidden meaning of the text. It has its roots in 2 Cor 3:15: “Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed”. Here Paul never intended to contrast between the OT and the NT or between the literal sense and the spiritual sense, although by the 3rd century, it is in this way that this text was made, the spiritual sense came to include both prophetic and typological meanings.
Allegorical Interpretation: Allegorical interpretation seeks something other than the ‘surface’ (literal) meaning. This meaning is ‘deeper or hidden”. The letter to the Hebrews is a classical example of this type of interpreration.
Pedagogical Interpretation: The Law was intended to lead to Christ (Gal 3:24) – a task now completed.
Fulfillment Interpretation: The OT promises and prophesies were fulfilled in Christ, especially the messianic and eschatological prophesies.
Historical-salvific Interpretation: This was used by paul in Rom 9-11 to indicate that God has not changed his way of acting in calling the gentiles.
Apocalyptic Interpretation: This used the OT as a source of allusion to build a Christian apocalyptic vision with the Risen Christ at the centre.
The early church fathers, using quotes from the OT and NT, also added their own interpretations. These had a literal and allegorical sense, as well as polemical and apologetic motives.
Ancient Christian Schools of Interpretation
Theological School of Alexandria
In Alexandria, Philo had already made great use of Greek philosophy to interpret Sacred Scripture as the voice of the Divine Logos, and the Gospel as the fulfillment, or actualization of the law. For the Alexandrian school, the interpretation of the Bible proceeded on two levels: a) the immediate comprehension of the text; b) the hidden or more profound sense of the text, to discover this allegory is indispensable. The Alexandrians considered the historical narrations as pure allegory (e.g. the 30 stages of the exodus of the Israelites in Num 33 are for Origen the successive moments the Christian soul has to pass through from sin to God). Origen (182-254), the greatest exponent of this school, made hermeneutics a proper and true science.
In particular this school tried to find the corporal (somatikos) sense (=literal sense) which could be adapted to the simple and uneducated reader, and the psychic or moral (psychikos) sense which was suited for those who were advancing in perfection, and the spiritual or mystical (pneumatikos) sense meant for the perfect. This system was applied above all to the OT, so that all the personalities and events of the OT were messianically interpreted.
In the allegorical interpretation we see a profound reverence for the Scripture and a desire to find its manifold depth. To this end they used the symbolic method, often disregarding the common significance of the words and resorting to all sorts of speculation. The most important contribution of the Alexandrian school was that of underlining the unity of both the testaments through the allegorical method. This method would reach its maximum influence in the medieval theory of the four senses.
Antiochean School of Syria
The Antiochean School had a hermeneutics much different from that of the Alexandrian school. The Antiocheans interpreted the texts principally using: a) literal sense and b) historical and grammatical sense. The true head and the most important figure of this school was Diodore of Tarsus (+ before 394). For him and for the Antiocheans the fundamental sense is the literal sense, but some events or personalities or realities can also have typical sense and prefigure the messianic gifts. The literal sense, which is unique, opens itself to a new and more profound reality, even though it is not independent of it. Perception of this typical sense was ‘theory’ or ‘vision’. JohnChrsostom (344-407), Theodore of Mopsuestia (350ca – 428), and Theodore of Cyr (+458) were representatives of this school. The great merit of this school is that it gave a scientific basis for biblical exegesis.
The Sense of the Bible
Augustine of Dacia (+1282) sums up the hermeneutical principles of the fathers, distinguishing the four sense as: littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, moralis quid agas, quo tendas [quid speras] anagogia. (The literal sense teaches facts which you have to belive which you have to do and where you are headed). Jerusalem illustrates these principles, which in its literal sense is the historical city, allegorically, the church; morally, the soul; and analogically, the heavenly Jerusalem.
These four senses of the Bible can be classified into two: the literal (historical sense) and spiritual sense of the Bible. This distinction is also found in medieval exegesis as well: storia, allegoria, tropologia (moral), and anagogia. In the global context of Scripture the interpreter can discern a history, as a series of interventions in the history of salvation, and this history itself conceals the mystery of Christ (the spiritual sense of the fathers). This spiritual sense has three levels: allegorical (symbolic, Christological-the truth revealed, ‘that which you have to believe’), tropological (moral – the way of life commended, ‘that which you have must do’), and anagogical (eschatological-the final goal to be achieved, ‘where you are headed’).
According to St. Thomas “all the sense are based on one, namely the literal, from which alone an argument can be drawn, and not from those which are said by way of allegory…. Yet nothing is lost to sacred Scripture because of this, because nothing necessary for faith is contained in the spiritual sense, which Scripture does not clearly pass on elsewhere by the literal sense”.
In the middle Ages sense literals was understood as the meaning conveyed by the words (literate, verba) of Scripture, as distinct from the spiritual sense (sense spiritualis) contained in the Scripture. In modern literary discussion, ‘literal’ refers to the sense perceived in reading, as meaning flows from the dialogue between the text and the reader. We use literal sense as ‘the sense’ which the human author directly intended and which the written words conveyed.
Concerning the books which had a long history of editing and redaction of earlier written works (eg., Isaiah-its composition took 200 years, with new sections being added to the original, some of which modified the meaning of the original text), the search for the literal sense includes both the sense of the original before editing and its sense after the editing.
‘Author’ in this description of the literal sense must be understood rightly. Many of the books are anonymous or pseudonymous; Most of them are the product of complex growth and collective contribution. None of the canonical Gospel writers identified themselves by name.
Despite this, the reference to that author’s intention affirms that those who produced the biblical books had a message for the readers of their times. It is important for us to have this message in mind when we read texts and to ask what they now mean for us. What the text now means may well be more abundant, but it should have some relationship to what it meant to the first readers.
The adverb ‘directly’ when it occurs in the literal sense would distinguish it from those meaning by which the author’s words may have been understood later (in the larger context of the Bible or when read in later times) but of which he was unaware.
Written words conveyed:- Priority must be given to the text. The author’s intension does not become a sense of the Scripture until it is effectively conveyed in writing. Jesus did not write a Gospel, but the evangelists did. Most often we do not know the context in which Jesus actually spoke his words. The literal sense of a Gospel passage is the meaning attributed to Jesus words by the individual evangelist, with the result that the same words can have different meanings according to the different contexts in which each evangelist set them.
The literal sense of the Bible is that which has been expressed directly by the inspired human. As the Bible is the fruit of inspiration, what is expressed in the text is also intended by God, the principal author. Efforts are necessary to know the literal sense. The authors of the Bible used forms of literature typical of their times and hence their literal sense is not as obvious as it is in the works of our own time. Therefore one must make realistic efforts to grasp what the authors of Sacred Scripture is trying to communicate. The principal task of the exegete is to analyse the material, making use of all the resources of literary and historical research, with a view of defining the literal sense with the greatest possible accuracy. There is the need to acquire professional knowledge of biblical geography, archaeology, culture and of the way in which the texts were transmitted.
Even though there usually exists only one literal sense, one must still know that the human author can refer to more than one level of reality at the same time, especially in the case of poetry. Biblical inspiration does not exclude this capacity of human psychology and language. For instance: Jn 19:28 (‘I thirst’- bodily and spiritual level); Jn 19:30 (‘delivered his spirit’- lit. ‘Jesus died’ and the implicit allusion would be ‘He gave the Spirit to the Church’. Giving of the Spirit to the Church is the literal sense in Jn 20:22).
Even when a human utterance appears to have only one meaning, divine inspiration can use the expression in such a way as to create more than one meaning. This is true in the saying of Caiaphas “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50; see also vv. 51-52). Caiaphas meant that the nation could thereby avoid many troubles on the part of the Romans (political reason), whereas John meant “to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (religious reason). Either way, this passage of John belongs to the literal sense, as is made clear from the context itself.
In the attempt to find the literal sense one has to take into account the dynamic aspect of many texts. For example, the meaning of ‘royal psalms’ (e.g., Ps 2;72; 101;110;132) should not be limited to the historical circumstance of their being written. When speaking of the king, the psalmist at one and the same time evokes both the kingship as it actually existed and the idealized vision of kingship as God intended it to be. The text carries the reader well beyond the institution of kingship its historical, actual manifestation.
Ps 110:1 “The Lord says to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool”’ (quoted in Mk 12:35-37). This messianic (prophetic) sentence can be applied to every king of Israel (son of David), but can be applied in a perfect way only to Jesus.
Historical-critical exegesis has too often tended to limit the meaning of texts by tying it too rigidly to precise historical circumstance whereas modern hermeneutics know that human speech gains an altogether fresh status when put into writing. Written text has the capacity to be placed in new circumstances, which will illuminate it in different ways, adding new meaning to the original sense. This is especially operative in the Bible as the word of God. All this does not, however, mean that we can attribute to a biblical text whatever meaning we like, interpreting it in a wholly subjective way. One must reject every interpretation as unauthentic which is alien to the meaning expressed by the human authors in their written text.
4.1.1 Important Auxiliaries to Get to the Literal Sense
a) Knowledge of the history of the biblical era: This history of the people of God must be integrated into the history of the Near East. We cannot divorce God’s action from that of history because God acts only in concrete times and circumstances. This history must also include sociological aspects-not only information on royal courts, international politics and wars – the very structure of the social life of the people involved in the biblical story must be analyzed so as to understand the biblical era in all its ramifications (aspects).
b) Knowledge of biblical languages and literary styles: Some familiarity with the structure and thought pattern of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic is essential. Knowledge of Hebrew tenses, with their undefined time designations and lack of temporal precision opens the prophecies to the present and to the present fulfillment. For instance, words such as hesed (covenantal kindness mercy) and aletheia (truth) receive only a part of their connotation in translation.
Reading the Scripture should involve an understanding of what the original author meant, since his message for his times was certainly part of God’s inspired communication. The primary duty of the human author was to be intelligible in his era. What he writes communicates meaning to us today, but he did not envision our circumstances and he did not write for our times. Hence, in the effort to draw a message from his text for our circumstances, we must ask whether we achieve true communication or only an illusion in which we impose on the text what we want to find (eisegesis).
In the quest for the literal sense of any writing, it is important to determine the literary form the author was employing. The Bible is a library with all the diversity all the diversity we would expect spanning a period of more than 1100 years. Hence it is necessary to classify the books according to the type of literature they represent-this is what is meant by determining the literary form.
The first question we must ask when we open any book is : “What type of literature do we have before us?” (This method of determining the literary form, in fact, existed even in ancient times-the Jewish divisions as Pentateuch, Prophets, and Sapiential literature testify to this).
In the Bible there are also many varieties of poetry: a) epic poetry-some narratives of Pentateuch and Joshua; b) didactic poetry-Prov, Sir, Wis) Iyric poetry-Pass, Cant.
In the prophetic books we meet prophecy and apocalyptic.
There are also many forms of history: a) factual analysis, seemingly by can eye-witness (the court history of David-2 Sam 11-2 Kgs 2); b) court records (Kgs and Chr); c) romanticized and simplified epic history of the national saga (in Exodus); d) tales of tribal heroes (in Judges); e) tales of great men and woman of ancient times (in the patriarchal accounts of Genesis); f) prehistory. This is seen in the Genesis narratives regarding the origin of humanity and of evil which borrow from the lore of other nations, making them vehicles of monotheistic theology.
Apart from these, there are tales, parables, allegories proverbs, maxims, love stories, etc.
Once the reader has determined the literary form of any biblical book or passage, that standard applicable to the form helps to clarify the literal sense (that which the author meant). For instance, if Jonah is understood as a parable, the reader would know that the author is not presenting a history of relationship between Israel and Assyria, nor the story of a prophet in the belly of the whale; rather, it is a prophetic book which communicates the profound truth of God’s love for the Gentile nations; if Josh 10:13 is part of a victory song, readers will judge it not according to rules of strict history nor give it the same historical credence allotted to the history of David’s court.
In the past, for biblical interpretation, the failure to recognize the diversity of literary forms of the biblical books, and the tendency to misinterpret as scientific history pieces of the Bible that are not really historical, or are historical in a more popular sense, created great problems.
The need for determining the type of literature can lead to misconceptions: Some may think that it is dangerous to apply the theory of literary forms to the more sacred sections of the Bible. The fact is the these are classified as belonging to one type of literature or another. There is factual history, mythology, fiction, and almost all the intermediary types in the Bible. If the correctly classifies a certain part of the Bible as belonging to a particular type of writing one is simply recognizing the author’s intension in writing that section. This should not be seen as destroying the historicity. One need not think that this would weaken or challenge its inspiration. DAS (Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, 1943) says: “God could inspire any type of literature that was not unworthy or deceitful, i.e., ‘not contrary to his holiness and truth’.
More than Literal Sense
By ‘more than literal sense’ we mean the scriptural meaning that goes beyond the literal sense, a sense that is not confined to what the human author directly intended and conveyed in the written words. This ‘more than literal sense’ is especially pertinent to the Bible. It is because a) Bible is a collection of books by many authors and b) it is the Word of God.
a) The books of individual authors were joined together into a collection called the Bible centuries after they were written. This was a new arrangement, which could have scarcely been foreseen by the original author (Luke thought of his Gospel and Acts as a unified work, but it was divided in the canonical process. There exists no evidence that the author of John with his claim of unique witness would have thought that his work would be placed alongside and on the same level with the other works called Gospels). The juxtaposition of the books provides connections in the Bible that no single author would have made, thus enlarging the meaning originally intended.
b) The Bible is God’s word to audiences of all times. This continuing biblical engagement of readers/hearers with the Word of God uncovers meaning beyond those which were envisioned by the human author in his local and limited circumstances. The quest for the dynamic aspect of the word should not deviate from exegesis so that it becomes eisegesis (the imposition of a meaning to a text that is alien to it). Exegesis is the meaning that arises from the text.
Both in pre-Christian Judaism and post-Christian rabbinic circles the quest for a ‘more-than-literal-exegesis’ was just as common as in Christian circles. In the early Christian writings of the 2nd cent., we find evidence of a very free spiritual exegesis. Exegetes such as Tertullian and Justin searched the OT for proof texts referring to Christ, and they interpreted these passages in a way that went far beyond the literal sense. Origen did not disregard the literal sense but was interested in a sense that could make Christians see the OT as their book. His allegorical interpretation was based on the thought that the OT was Christological in many passages.
Spiritual (Christological) Sense
Spiritual sense, as understood by Christian faith, is the meaning expressed by the biblical texts when read, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, in the context of the paschal mystery and of the new life which flows from it. The paschal event has established a radically new historical context, which sheds fresh light upon the ancient texts and causes them to undergo a change in meaning. The spiritual (Christological) sense does not change the literal sense, but rather makes it explicit or fulfils it. We cannot exclude from the Bible, especially from the OT, this Christological sense, the possibility of a higher fulfillment.
Gen 3,15: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel”. This is the first promise of a redeemer (and of his mother).
2 Sam 7, 12-13: “…I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”
This text must be now taken literally, because Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom 6:9). Exegetes who have a narrow, ‘historical’ view of the literal sense, will judge this as an interpretation alien to the original. Those who are open to the ‘dynamic’ aspect of a text, instead will recognize here a profound element of continuity as well as an element of discontinuity: Christ rules for ever, but not on the earthly throne of David. It is therefore quite acceptable to reread the Bible in the light of the Christ Event. See also Is 52:13-53:12; cf. suffering servant Acts 8.32.
While there is a distinction between the two sense, the spiritual sense cannot be stripped of its connection to the literal sense; the latter remains the indispensable foundation. Otherwise one could not speak of the fulfillment of the Scripture. In order for fulfillment to be accomplished, a relationship of continuity and conformity is essential. It is also necessary that there be a transition to a higher level of reality. The paschal lamb of Ex 12:46,(Ps 34:20) and Jn 19:36 are examples of such a transition.
Spiritual sense is not to be confused with subjective interpretation stemming from imagination or intellectual speculation. The spiritual sense results from setting a text in relation to real facts which are not alien to it: e.g., the paschal mystery, in all its inexhaustible richness, which constitutes the summit of the divine intervention in the history of Israel, to the benefit of all mankind.
It is “the deeper meaning of the things written about in the Bible when they are seen to have foreshadowed future things in God’s work of salvation”. The typological sense usually belongs not to the Scripture as such, but to the realities (persons, places and events) expressed by the Scripture. The reality which foreshadows is called ‘type’ and the future realty that is foreshadowed is called ‘antitype’. Type and antitype are on two levels of time and only when the antitype appears does the typological sense becomes apparent. Type is imperfect and the foreshadowing is related to God’s plan of salvation.
-Adam (type) as the figure of Christ (cf. Rom 5:14); the flood (type) as the figure of baptism (1 pet 3:20-21)
Actually the connection involved in typology is based on the way in which Scripture describes the ancient reality (cf. the voice of Abel: Gen 4:10; Heb 11:4; 12:24) and not simply on the reality itself. Consequently, in such a case one can speak of a meaning which is truly Scriptural.
1Cor 15:45 (Jesus as the new Adam); Rev 12:1-5 (Mary as the new Eve); Ex 16:4, 15; Ps 78:24 (manna and Eucharist Jn 6:31-32; Rev 2:17). The manna, however, was a miraculous nourishment, but not bread coming down from heaven as is the Eucharist.
-Num 21:9 (bronze serpent on the pole) and the lifted son of man (Jn 3:14). Here one must, however, know that it was not the bronze serpent on the pole that gave salvation, but a vision (act) of faith.
Sense plenior is the deeper meaning of the text, intended by God, but not clearly expressed (intended- R.E. Brown) by the human author. This is known as one studies a text in the light of other biblical passages which utilize it or in its relationship to the internal development of revelation: Unlike the typical sense, but like the literal sense, sensus plenior is primarily concerned with the words of scripture rather than with ‘things’. This concept was first employed by Andre’s Fernandes in 1925. It is used to refer to the idea of the fulfillment of the OT in the NT.
The catholic understanding of biblical inspiration distinguishes between God as primary author and the inspired human author as the secondary author. Such an understanding helps one to see how God could have moved a human writer to formulate an idea, the sensus plenior which would only becomes apparent in the light of subsequent use of such a formulation and of which the original human author would have had no inkling.
Sensus plenior is then a question of:
a) The meaning a subsequent biblical author attributes to an earlier biblical text, using it in a context which confers upon it a new literal sense.
E.g., Mt 1:22-23 “All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us”. The prophecy quoted here is Is 7:14. In the Issaianic text the prophet does not in fact speak of a ‘virgin’. The Hebrew word used is alemah (=young/ adolescent woman, a girl just married), which was the wife of Achaz, who bore Hezekiah. To speak of a virgin Hebrew has another word at its disposal, I betulah (Is 23:4, 12; 37:22). The Hebrew original alemah was translated in LXX with parthenos which really means ‘virgin’. By using the LXX translation, the evangelist gives a fuller prophetic sense to Is 7:14.
b) The meaning that an authentic doctrinal tradition or a conciliar definition gives to a biblical text.
E.g., Rom 5:12-21: the definition of the doctrine of original sin by Trent provided the fuller sense of Paul’s teaching about the consequences of the sin of Adam for humanity.
When the control by an explicit biblical text or by an authentic doctrinal tradition is lacking, recourse to a claimed fuller sense could lead to subjective interpretation deprived of any validity. In effect, sensus plenior is only a modern way of expressing a certain kind of spiritual sense in given instance where the spiritual sense is distinct from the literal sense. It has its foundation in the fact that the Holy Spirit, the principal author of the Bible, can guide human authors in the choice of language so that it will
Express a truth, the fullest depth of which the authors themselves did not perceive. This deeper truth will be revealed in the course of time: a) through further divine interventions which clarify the meaning of the texts-Jn 19:37 clarifies Zec 12:10; Rev 1:7; b) through the insertion of the texts into the canon of the Scripture. In these cases a new contexts is created, which brings out fresh possibilities of meaning that had lain hidden in the original context.
Philosophical and Theological Hermeneutics
The Reformation led by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli (16th c.) considered Scripture as the sole foundation of faith (sola scriptura). This was in line with the earlier thinking of John Wyclif (14th c.). The reformers differed from the overwhelming majority of ancient exegesis in their instance on the right of SS, as literally interpreted, to stand alone. Catholic exegesis relied strongly on the authority of the fathers and the authority of the tradition of the church in interpretation.
Until the 17th century the difference in hermeneutics thoughts were limited to : a) preference for the literal and the allegorical sense; b) acceptance or the non-acceptance of the ecclesial tradition; and c) the ways of interpreting inspiration. But both the Catholics and protestants accepted: a) the existence of a transcendent creator God; b) the datum of revelation; c) the possibility and the fact of miracles; d) SS as a sacred and inspired book to be interpreted according to particular canons/rules; e) a dichotomy between natural and supernatural.
In the 17th and 18th centuries we find a radical change in these: In the philosophical field this was due to rationalism, empiricism, and the enlightenment movement; in the literary field, the discovery of new manuscripts and critical methods; in the scientific field, the progress of positive sciences called into question the old beliefs; in the historical field, the new methods of research and new discoveries made the difference. At this time we find the word ‘hermeneutic’ appearing more frequently as a general science even though the theories of interpretation were used from very ancient times. Now Hermeneutics became a general science of understanding as well as a way of explaining a text.
In the biblical field outside the catholic world, this ideological revolution shook centuries-old axioms and it also opened the doors to a deeper scientific study of the Bible. It was at this period that Scripture began to be considered as a historical document and exegetes became interested in understanding the mind of the authors and their historical context. It is at this time that we find commentators searching for the ipsissima verba of the biblical writers and for the historical Jesus.
The post-reformation interpretation of the Bible gave rise to ‘Protestant Liberalism’ resulting in many negative interpretations of the Bible known as “the accommodation theory’, ‘the naturalist interpretation’ the theory of dialectical development of dogma, and ‘the mythical theory’. J.S Semler (1725-’91) in his accommodation theory claimed that Scripture teachings regarding miracles, vicarious and expiatory sacrifice, the resurrection, eternal judgment, and the existence of angels and demons are to be regarded as accommodation of the superstitious notions, prejudices and ignorance of the times. The supernatural was set aside and the doctrine of divine inspiration of the Scriptures was rejected. This questioned the very nature of SS.
H.E.G Paulus, a rationalist contemporary of Schleiermacher, proposed the Naturalistic Interpretation. He rejected all supernatural activities in human affairs and explained the miracles of Jesus either as acts of kindness or exhibitions of medical skill, or illustrations of personal sagacity and tact, recorded in a manner peculiar to the age and opinions of the different writers. F.C.Baur (1792-1860) under the influence of Hegel’s theory of history believed in the dialectical development of dogma. He argued that the history of early Christianity was to be interpreted in the light of thesis (Judaizers=Jewish) antithesis (Paul and his followers=Gentiles), and the synthesis (the gospels and epistles were a synthesis of both these elements). Baur’s disciple, D.F.Strauss (1808-1874), proposed the mythical theory. He considered the Christ of the Gospel’s as the mythical creation of the early church. At present no serious scholar will subscribe to any these negative interpretations.
Biblical interpretation needs appropriate intellectual tools in order to work with the biblical text. It is the competence of philosophy to provide concepts and tools to guide biblical interpretation. Through the works of Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heideggar, Barth, Bultmann, Gadamer, Ricoeur, etc. ‘hermeneutics’ became a systematic discipline in the contemporary philosophy and theology. In this respect we have different ways of understanding Hermeneutics. a) as a theory of biblical exegesis-whether it is ancient, medieval or modern. b) as a general method, but exclusively linguistic, according to the theories of the new philological sciences of the 18th cent; c) as the ‘science’ of every type of linguistic comprehension as proposed by Schleiermacher; d) as the methodical foundation of the Geistenwissenschaften (sciences of the spirit) understood by W.Dilthey; e) as the phenomenology of existence and existential comprehension (‘philosophy’ of the interpretation) according to Martin Heideggar, Rudolf Bultmann, and Hans-Georg Gadamer; f) as ‘theological exegesis’ as proposed by Karl Barth; and g) as a system of interpretation concerning the meaning of myths and symbols as proposed by Paul Ricoeur.
Schleiermacher is called ‘the fatherof modern hermeneutics’ for the widened the scope of hermeneutics from its being a set of principles governing interpretation of Bible and classical philology into a rigorous science of interpretation. He made a sharp distinction between principles of general hermeneutics and the concerns of a particular hermeneutics, such as biblical hermeneutics and hermeneutics. In this context he understood general hermeneutics, such as biblical hermeneutics. In this context he understood general hermeneutics as the art of understanding any written text and biblical hermeneutics should not contradict these principles of general hermenutics.
There are two major influences on Scheiermacher’s hermeneutics: a) Kant, who gave primacy to epistemology over ontology and positivism; b) Romanticism, which holds that the unconscious human mind is the source of creating ideas and meaning. Under these two influences, Schleiermacher was searching for a living relation between the process of the creation of ideas (Romantic) and of universally valid rules of understanding (Kuntian).
Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics stressed the two principles involved in the act of understanding the text and the author: a) Grammatical principles: The knowledge of grammar helps the reader to reach only the exeriority of the written text. The meaning of the text can be understood only from the author’s idea, context, and the first audience to whom the text is originally addressed. Similarly the part and the whole of an author’s text can be understood only in relationship to each other; b) Technical/Psychological principle: According to this principle, through an act of sympathetic intuitive comprehension, a divinatory comprehension, the interpreter should try to enter into the author’s mind, so as to gain an immediate grasp of the author as an individual in order to understand him. Understanding, for Schleiermacher, is primarily understanding the author.
Kant saw the mind impersonal whereas under the influence of Romantic philosophy Schleiermacher saw the mind as the creative unconscious at work in gifted individuals. Thus his Kantian background gave a critical thrust to his hermeneutics and the romantic philosophy gave a psychological approach. According to Schleiermacher, the task of hermeneutics is to avoid misunderstanding. Misunderstanding, which is casued by the individuality of the writer and the reader, necessitates a universal or a general hermeneutical theory (theory of understanding). He sought to work out a general hermeneutics as the foundation for all kind of text interpretations. He considered hermeneutics as the art of comprehending a text.
Wihelm Dilthey (1833-1911)
W. Dilthey was a philiosopher of history. His hermeneutical theories were influenced by his teacher Schleiermacher and the theories of Kant and Hegel. Kant tried to develop a rigorous theory of the knowing process. But Hegel considered Kant’s philosophy too abstract. Dilthey tried to complement Kant’s critical philosophy with Hegel’s historical interest.
Dilthey distinguishes between Naturwissenschaften (natural science) and Geistenwissenschaften (science of the Spirit/human science). He sought to make hermeneutics the foundational displine of all human science. According to Dilthey, understanding life is different from knowing objects through explanations in natural sciences. He sought to make hermeneutics the foundational discipline of all human science. Man expresses his life through signs, symbols, and works. History is a record of such objectifications. It is only through these objectifications of life that one can understand life. Hence, for Dilthey, understanding is historical and the task of hermeneutics is to understand life from these expressions of life as recorded in history.
According to Dilthey understanding has to do not only with linguistic communication, but also with historical consciousness. Understanding require a conscious effort to overcome historical distance. The interpreter must transport himself out of the present time frame to that of the past. Understanding is conceived as Nacherleben (re-experience) of the original experience (Erlebnis). Nacherleben is not identical with the original; it is co-determined by the interpeter’s own historical horizon.
For Schleiermacher the focus is the individual and the problems related to interpersonal communication. Dilthey goes further and introduce the epistemological perspective and includes history and tradition as part of his reflection in an effort to explore the hermeneutical dimensions of historical consciousness. Both men sought to underline that the interpreter had to rise above his own historical context or situation and place himself in the perpective of the author. For them understanding is the understanding of the author from his text. They conceived hermeneutics primarily as a technique, a methodological and epistemological enterprise.
Karl Barth (1886-1968)
Being a pastor, Barth’s hermeneutical problem was how to proclaim the Word of God so that it would become alive and meaningful for his time. His concept of ‘theological exegesis’ tries to bridge the division between scientific and practical exegesis and to regain the unity of biblical interpretation. From the perspective of incarnation Barth understands the Bible as the unity of the word of God and man. Hence historical exegesis is unavoidable, but it should serve the better understanding of the real subject matter of the text, Jesus Christ. Barth maintains that a completely objective exegesis is impossible and that real understanding requires the exegete’s personal input. For him the guiding principles of biblical interpretation are obedience to the word of God and subordination of human concepts to Divine Revelation.
Rudolof Bultmann (1884-1976)
Bultmann is influenced by Heidegger and hence one can find in him an existential interpretation of the SS.His concern is to unite the question of human existence found in the SS and the questions of human existence found in the situation of the modern interpreter. In interpretation what is important is its content. For him, God’s word is hidden in the SS just as God’s action is hidden in the universe. So the task of hermeneutic is to bring out the hidden word of God from the SS.
Bultmann agrees with Barth that an exegesis without presupposition is an illusion. He considers the biblical text as the result of an existential encounter between God and man, and the subsequent interpretation is aimed at making a similar encounter possible in the present. Bultmann’s whole hermeneutical programme is motivated by the need to communicate the kerygma, the existential message of the NT, to a modern audience. The written text represents only an incomplete rendering of the kerygma because the existential encounter inherent in the kerygma cannot be objectified in any full sense of the word. For Bultmann this opens the possibility to apply the full range of historical-critical operations to the text without endangering its essential kerygma. The latter rests on the text are those in which the very existence of the reader is put on the line. Only in this way can the self- understanding (Selbstverstdandnis) of the reader be challenged.
Bultmann’s hermeneutical method is called demythologizing according to which the NT language is mythological. But the kerygma, the basic message of the NT, is important. This message can be retrieved from the mythological language of the text by the process called demythologizing. For many scholars, demythologizations is an impossibility.
Edmund Husserl (1859-1938)
Phenomenology of Edmund Husseri (1859-1938) had great impact on the hermeneutical thinkers that followed him; namely, Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricoeur and others. Husserl tried to free philosophical thinking from the imposition of all kinds of system, speculation and dogmatism and propagated a return in philosophy to the things themselves. In his philosophy, he inquires how knowledge is acquired by paying attention to the essence of a thing that comes to mind-he called it phenomenon – that one comes to know things. His attempt was to provide a foundational theory for all science, whether empirical or scientific. His attention to consciousness, for the study of the formation of knowledge, influenced later hermeneutical thinkers.
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)
In Martin Heidegger we see a shift from hermeneutics as epistemology (how a subject can know an object) to hermeneutics of being (the very nature of being itself). The question is not ‘how do we understand?’ but the mode of his being (Dasein) which exists only by comprehending (knowing). For Heidegger, knowing is a constitutive element of human existence itself, an existential element, so that to be a human being signifies to know. To exist as a man is to live knowing. Man is essentially a ‘being-in-the-word’, existing in particular culture, history, community, and cosmos. Understanding is closely bound up with Dasein’s possibilities of existence. Thus, understanding does not involve leaving one’s historical context.
According to Heidegger, there are two stages in our process of understanding: a) pre-understanding or presupposition which is the initial pre-understanding or pre-supposition is not a prejudice for Heidegger; rather, it is the very structure that makes understanding possible. Every interpretation which contributes to comprehension must have pre-comprehended that which it interprets. Interpretation is a process. The pre-understanding is challenged when new possibilities for existence are exposed through the event of understanding which leads to modification or revision of the interpreter’s self-understanding. This modified understanding itself can become the new pre-understanding in the next phase of the process.
Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-1986)
Gadamer stresses the historical distance between the text and its interpreter. His hermeneutical circle is: ‘I believe in order to understand. I understand in order to believe’ (credo ut intellegam, intelligo ut credam) and ‘from faith to the text, and from the text to faith’.
A disciple of Heidegger, Gadamer thinks that man is not only projected to the future possibility (as maintained by Heidegger), he is also born of a past. He not only goes towards… but also comes from… Due to his origin the pre-comprehension is nourished by a tradition. Every comprehension presupposes a subject and every subject a historical context. Through man’s participation in history he is related to tradition. He cannot therefore overcome tradition altogether in his life. Hence valid tradition and legitimate authority have a special value for Gadamer. He is of the opinion that tradition and authority are not against reason.
Hermeneutics cannot be only a question of method striving for objectively secured knowledge. It must open up a dialogical process through which possibilities for existence are acknowledged. A dialogue unfolds between the present and the past, between text and interpreter, each with its own horizon. The goal of interpretation is the fusion of the horizons of the text and that of the interpreter (reader), and thus it is a participation in the stream of history, Further, the dialogue is between the interpreter and the text and not with the author. The text is much more than the author, for the text may have accumulated more meaning in the successive interpretations in its history than that which might have explicitly been intended by the author. Therefore Gadamer speaks of the autonomy of the text from the author.
According to Gadamer, comprehension is a lively insertion in a process of historical transmission, in which the past and the present continually come together. Time, which separates the past from the present, is not an abyss that has to be overcome or climbed over because it separates and distance; instead it has to be seen as the basic carrier, in which the present has its roots with the continuity of transmission of the tradition.
Lanuage effects the synthesis of the horizon of the past (of the text and of the tradition that carries it) and the horizon of the present (that of the interpreter and of his pre-comprehension). Language is related to dialogue and consequently of the dialectic of question and answer. The text speaks to us, answers our questions as well as puts questions to us. In Gadamer there is a shift from understanding ‘being’ to understanding ‘language’.
For Gadamer, understanding is complete only by its application or appropriation, making one’s own what one knows. In biblical terms, the encounter with the text can and should lead to metanoia, a change of mentality, a new and better knowledge of oneself and a new communion of experience with Him and with that which is behind the text.
Paul Ricoeur (1913)
According to Ricoeur, a believing contemporary French philosopher of Protestant faith, man expresses himself through signs and symbols, and the creation of text is an important means of this expression. In his view, once a discourse has been written down and takes the form of a book there takes place distancing of two types: a) first, between the text and the author. Once written ,the texts takes on an autonomy of its own, it de-contextualizes with respect to the author and his ambient; b) then, between the text and the successive readers who have to respect the world of the text in its otherness. So the text can be understood only through interpretation.
For Paul Richoeur hermeneutics is a de-condification or discovery of the meaning hidden in an apparent sense. The act of reading consists in connecting the world of the text and that of the reader, establishing a new contextualization (which Gadamer would call a fusion of horizons). Hermeneutics consists not so much in knowing what is behind the text, rather, what is in front of it..
Human existence, in the movement of auto realization, objectifies itself in signs, works, representations and institutions- in culture. Therefore to think means to decipher these signs and understand the human reality in them. The simplest and the most profound form of this objectifying is the symbol which gives origin to myth. At this elementary level, language assumes a symbolic dimension. Ricoeur says that le symbole donne a penser, ‘the symbol promotes thought’. It gives the richness of sense deposited in it. The direct, primary and literal sense indicates an indirect, secondary and figurative sense which cannot be had except through the first. Every symbol has a face turned to the past, towards its own origin, and another one truned to the future of the subject, towards the possibilities which awaits it.
In this the demythologization or demystification has its role but not in the sense of simply recongnizing the myth to renounce it (Bultmann), but to recognize it as myth in order to liberate the symbolic kernel. In the context of faith this demystification is seen in the service of faith. It uncovers all that in faith has not still arrived at maturation and which remains on the level of pseudo-religious affectivity.
The present Need of Biblical Interpretation and the Problems
The scientific of the Scriptures has been facilited especially since the early part of 19th century due to the following factors: a) the growth of related disciplines such as the comparative study of religions and the extra-biblical literature of Akkadia, Egypt, Canaan, Assyria and Babylon; b) renewed interest in the archaeology of the land of Palestine; c) growth in the philological studies of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek languages and their borrowing from other cultures; d) the beginning of the studies in the social science which allowed one to build a broad framework by which the Bible could be investigated historically and thereby some of the enigmas of the past could be solved.
Due to the modern understanding of history and to the use of the historical method, there is a danger of recreating biblical history in man’s own image. The ancient people expressed themselves in mythical categories. Istael lived in immediate proximity with this ambient and even borrowed much of the mythical material from her neighbours. One is reminded of these ideas: God presiding over a heavenly council with other deities (Ps 82); God being a heavenly warrior fighting a battle from heaven above for his people below (Ps 94); God dwelling on a holy mountain called Zion (Ps 46;48); God fighting and slaying the sea-monster typifying the chaos (Ps 74;89).
Many of the Psalms and the prophets who adopted liturgical material for their own purposes have to be seen at times as communicating truths on a mythical rather than on a historical level. Myth was an important vehicle to convey spiritual truths for the ancient mind. However, we must know that even though myth was was certainly used in the biblical accounts, not everything can be described by them. A pan-mythical view can become as false as an estimation of the world-view of the biblical writers as can a pan-historical view. The positive consequence of this realization has been a proper caution in judging the value of mythical language with our modern-day mind set.
Contradictions and Repetitions in Biblical Accounts:
i) In Gen 1:1-1:2:4a (P) and 2:4b-25 (J) we have two different orders of creation. They speak quite clearly of the different ways in which man and woman were created. In Gen 1 man is created as the pinnacle of creation in the image of God, after the creation of the natural order and the animal world; in Gen 2 man is created first out of the earth, to be followed by the animal kingdom, and then out of his rib woman is created.
ii) In the floor stories (Gen 6-9), on the one hand, we read of 7 pairs of clean animals and a pair of unclean animals being taken into the ark (7:1-10), and the flood lasting for 40 days (7:12;8:6) before receding after two periods of 7 days; on the other hand, a few verses later we read that Noah took only two pair of each animal (7:8-9,15), and that the flood lasted 150 days (7:24), receding in another 150 days (8:3).
iii) We also find doublets and repetitions on several different occasions: the Joseph story (Gen 37:28,36) narrates that he was sold first to the Ishmaelites and then to the Medianites and so was taken in different ways into slavery in Egypt.
iv) There is a double version of the Decalogue: the Code of Alliance (Ex 20:1-17) and the Deuternomical code (Dt 5:1-22).
v) The Exodus narratives (Ex 14-15;Ps 78;105) show different versions.
vi) The accounts of the people entering the land are different: Joshua 1-12 speaks of a sudden conquest while Judg 1:1-2:5, of a diffcult and protracted settlement.
vii) The Judean kings, such as Hezekiah, Manasseh, and Josiah, are presented in different lights in 2 Kgs 18-23 and in 2 Chr 29-35.
viii) A typical interpretation of Jer 25:11-14 (Babylon: 70 years) is made by Daniel 9, which becomes the origin of the famous prophecy of the 70 weeks.
In the NT we also see different accounts of miracles, different records of parables, and different emphases (and often variant chronologies) of the events in the life of Jesus. Most significant ones are the different accounts of the resurrection appearances.
These examples show the existence of different traditions and also the attempts to interpret the tradition in new situations. The word of God is dynamic and is not fully exhausted in its proclamation by the prophet or its writing by the sacred author.
The Problem of Religious Language
The new understanding of the nature of religious language invites us to a cautious view regarding the one-sided historical research of the biblical accounts. In so far as it is trying to mediate not only earthly realities but also a transcendental reality, religious language has reference points beyond this language with particular instensity (e.g., in the apocalyptic imageries used in the Gospels and in Revelation) into a category which goes well beyond history. Much of Scripture is couched in different types of religious language, and the recognition of the type which is being used (descriptive or prescriptive) can often suggest whether or not the material in which it occurs is to be understood historically.
The primary dimensions of language are literal, physical or material. To describe a reality or truth which is non-literal, spiritual and transcendental metaphor may be employed. Metaphors point to a reality that is beyond the literal/historical. Such a reading would provide us with the theological meaning (e.g., Christ as Lamb of God, the Prince of Peace, the Living Water, the Alpha and Omega, the King of Kings, and the Wisdom of God-obviously metaphorical language used to convey religious, spiritual insight beyond that which is literal).
There are Obscure and Difficult Passages in the Bible:
Dan 9:2: Reading the prophecies of Jeremiah, Daniel pondered long over what they meant; Acts 8:26-35: The Ethiopian did not understand the passage of Is 53:7-8 and saw the need of an interpreter; 2 Pet 1:20-21: “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation…”; 2 Pet 3:16: Letters of Paul are difficult to understand (“There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures”).
Catholic Interpretation of S. Scripture
In the catholic hermeneutics we see three important elements: Scripture, Church and Tradition. After the Reformation and the Council of Trent (1545-1563) the Catholic Church affirmed the role of tradition and the authority of the church over free and unrestricted interpretation of the Scripture. The Catholic hermeneutics received a breathing space in Leo XIII’s encyclical Providentissimus Deus (1893) although it gave only a critical view of the various approaches of that time. It is from the time of Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) that in the Catholic Church a positive encouragement was given to scientific study and interpretation of the Bible.
6.1 Vatican II
Vatican Council II (1962-’65) encouraged biblical interpretation. This is evident from the Dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum on “Divine Revelation” (1965). DV 12 speaks of: a) the need for biblical interpretation; b) the use of various methods of interpretation; and c) the priniciples of wholistic interpretation. The following are the catholic principles of biblical interpretation.
i) The Bible is the word of God couched in human language and it is to be read and ionterpreted with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
ii) The Bible is an inspired book having authority for the people of Christian faith.
iii) The Bible represents a restricted canon of authoritative texts and the interpretation must take into account the unity of the whole Scripture.
iv) It is given by God to his people for their edification and salvation.
v) The Spirit who inspired the human author also guides the community of interpreters and believers (the Church) to understand its text.
vi) Through the Bible, God continues tp speak to the readers of every generation.
vii) The Bible is properly expounded only in relation to the living tradition of the church from which it has evolved.
Pontifical Biblical Commissin: the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993)
This document was published in 1993 celebrating a double anniversary, the first centenary of the Encyclical Providentissimus Deus of Leo XIII and the 50th anniversary of the Divino Afflante Spiritu of Pius XII which were devoted to biblical studies.
Without claiming any particular method of interpretation as its own, the Church recognizes the Bible as the work of human authors, who employed both their own capacities for expression and the means which their age and social context put at their disposal. Catholic interpretation freely makes use of the scientific methods and approaches which allow a better grasp of the meaning of the texts in their linguistic, literary, socio-cultural, religious and historical contexts.
Catholic interpretation deliberately places itself within the living tradition of the Church, whose first concern is fidelity to the revelation set forth in the Bible. Modern hermeneutics has shown that it is impossible to interpret any text without a pre-understanding of one type or another. Catholic exegetes approach the Bible with the pre-understanding which holds together modern scientific culture and the religious tradition emanating from Israel and the early Christian community. This interpretation stands in direct continuity with a dynamic pattern of interpretation found within the Bible itself and which continues in the life of the Church. Thus it corresponds to the requirement that there be a living affinity between the interpreter and the text.
Theology, Faith, Scripture, Tradition and Revelation
Today there is a growing awareness that all knowledge is interpretative. This is all the more so in the case of theology, which is an onogoing interpretation of the Christian faith in the light of the present day human existence. There are various factors involved in the process of interpretation of the Christian faith such as Scripture, tradition, magisterium, revelation, inspiration, dogma, the theologians and the church community as a whole. Theology as interpretation is the result of a dynamic interaction of these components.
Scripture is the soul of theology. So it must be given prime importance in theology. If the faith of the church is the starting point of theology, it should be based on the narrative witness of the Scripture, the revelation in the Scripture. Revelation is primarily an event of God’s self-communication. Revelation cannot be identified with Scripture or dogma/tradition although there is a temptation to do so. Scripture is a witness to revelation, a testimony in writing, an interpretation of a primary event.
Scripture is the primary witness to revelation. So it has a pre-eminence in theology. This pre-eminence of the Scripture in theology was not always recognized by the church. Instead, tradition, dogma and the authority of the magisterium have often been overemphasized. However, after the second Vatican Council, the unity of Scripture and tradition as a single deposit of the Word of God, the derived character of dogma and the magisterium’s role as a functional one of service have all been stressed.
Theology is an ongoing interpretation of Scripture, and dogma is the authoritative interpretation of it at different times. The church interprets Scripture; but at the same time it must allow itself to be interpreted by the Scripture.
Exegetical Methods and Approaches
An exegetical method is a group of scientific procedures employed in order to explain texts; this can be: a) The Historical-critical (diachronic) Method: b) New Methods of Literary (Synchronic) Analysis such as Narrative Analysis, Semiotic/Structuralist Analysis, and Rhetorical Analysis.
That the origins and development of a phenomenon contain the key to its understanding is the generic principle behind the various method of historical criticism. The historical critical method is attentive to principle behind the various methods of historical criticism. The historical critical method is attentive to the historical development of texts or traditions across the passage of time, that is , summed up in the term diachronic. In other words, it studies the genesis of the text in its vertical movement. Synchronic understanding of the texts has to do with their language, composition, narrative structure and capacity for peruasion.
An exegetical approach means an enquiry proceeding from a particular point of view. This can be : a) an approach based on Tradition; b) an approach that uses Human Sciences; c) a Contextual Approach; d) a Fundamenralist Interpretation.
Biblical criticism, the study and investigation of biblical writings that seeks to make discerning and discriminating judgments about these writings. The term ‘criticism’ is derived from the Greek word kri,nw, which means ‘to judge,’ ‘to discern,’ or to be discriminating in making an evaluation or forming a judgment. It has come to refer to a form of inquiry whose purpose is to make discriminating judgments about literary and artistic productions. Thus, we speak of literary criticism, art criticism, music criticism, or film criticism as disciplines or fields of inquiry whose purpose is to review productions in their respective areas in order to discuss and appraise their significant features and judge their lasting worth.
Historical-Critical (Diachronic) Method
The Biblical is the ‘word of God in human language’ composed by human authors in all its parts and in all its sources from which it takes shape. The goal of the historical-critical method is to determine, particularly in a diachronic manner, the meaning expressed by the biblical authors and editors. Along with other methods and approaches, the historical-critical method opens up to the modern reader a path to the meaning of the biblical text such as we have it today.
H.Gunkel was concerned with the texture of the different elements of the biblical text and sought to define the genre of each piece (legend, hymn etc.), and its original setting in the life of the community (Sitz im Leben) such as its legal setting, liturgical setting etc. Formgeschichte, the study of forms, was introduced by Dibelius and Bultmann in the interpretation of the Synoptic Gospels. The latter combined form critical studies with biblical hermeneutics using the existentialist philosophy of M.Heidegger. These efforts have shown that the tradition recorded in the NT had its origin and its basic shape within the Christian community, or early Church, passing from the preaching of Jesus himself to that which proclaimed Jesus as the Christ. Formgeschichte was supplemented by Redakionsgeschichte, the critical study of the process of editing, which sought to shed light upon the personal contribution of each evangelist and to uncover the theological tendencies which shaped his editorial work.
i) The Diachronic method is a historical method applied to ancient texts and studies their significance from a historical point of view. It seeks above all to shed light on the historical processes which gave rise to the biblical text: complex diachronic processes that often involved a long period of time.
ii) The Diachronic method is a critical method because in each step it operates with the help of scientific criteria that seek to be as objective as possible, and it tries to make accessible to the modern reader the meaning of biblical texts that are often very diffcult to comprehend.
Even though as an analytical method the diachronic method studies the biblical text in the same fashion as it would study any other ancient text and comments upon it as an expression of human discourse, in the area of redaction criticism above all, it does allow the exegete to gain a better grasp of the content of divine revelation. The steps followed in the diachronic method are as follows:
Textual Criticism is a specialized and technical discipline aimed at restoring the presumed original form of the text as accurately as possible. We see the diversity of copies of the text, sometimes not agreeing one with the other. On the basis of the oldest and the best mss, as well as papyri, ancient versions, and patristic texts, textual criticism seeks to establish, according to fixed rules, a biblical text as close to the original as possible.
Linguistic and Semantic Analysis
Linguistic analysis is conducted on the philogocal, morphological, and syntactical levels. All are intended to attain elementary grammatical and linguistic function of each single component and their inter-relationships in the micro-stucture of the text. Semantic investigation is concerned with meaning.
In textual meaning one looks at the sense of the words and phrases in themselves, as can be found with the help of a dictionary or lexicon.
In the contextual meaning one is concerned with the sense of words and phrases derived from the context in which they are found, whether in a paragraph or a unit, of a text.
Relational meaning tries to find the sense of the text in the work as a whole or in a corpus of writings originating from the same author.
The first words of the Bible begin: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth”. According to the Hebrew construction of the sentence the placing of an element other than the verb at the beginning of the sentence may suggest emphasis. Thus ‘in the beginning’ (bereshit) may indicate the absolute beginning when there existed absolutely nothing other than God. It is Elohim, the subject of the sentence, who created everything when there was nothing. The Hebrew verb bara used for making/producing is used only with God as subject. It suggests the exceptional nature of this whole divine action (of creation). The heavens and the earth (the totality of the universe) are the direct objects (grammatically as well as in reality) of God’s and are separate from him.
Jesus as logos is found not only is found not only in Jn 1:1-18, but also in 1 Jn 1:1-4; Rev 19:13. Flesh, in Jn 1:14 is used to mean ‘incarnation’ and in 6:51-56, to mean ‘Eucharist’
Literary criticism determines the beginning and end of textual units, large and small; it seeks to establish the liternal coherence of the text. In this stage of critical analysis one is also concerned with the existence of the doublets, irregularities, and irreconcilable differences. This inquiry is important because they can be seen as indicators or clues to the composite nature of certain texts.
Literary criticism shows that, once written, any text assumes a life of its own and may convey meaning beyond the original author’s intention.
The detection of what the author meant to say is one aspect of historical criticism. Many times the literal sense is relatively easy to discern; at other times it requires a good knowledge of the ancient languages, grammar, idioms, customs, etc. When the text studied belongs to a historical literary genre or is related to events in history, historical criticism completes literary criticism, so as determine the historical significance of the text, in the modern sense of this expression.
Historical Criticism and Presuppositions
The Bible is an historical book. It records the history of Israel, the life of Jesus of Nazareth and the history of the early church (Krentz 1975, p. 1) in the words of humans who were inspired by God (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 76). Because the Bible is an historical work, it is subject to historical investigation and the results of historical research (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 73-74).
The overall purpose of historical-critical methods is to investigate what actually happened in the events described or alluded to (Marshall 1985, p. 126). Krentz (1975, p. 35-36) gives the following goals of historical investigation:
- Present a body of facts that show what actually happened and why.
- Illuminate the past, creating a comprehensive picture of a culture’s own record of history.
- Understand the significance of events and interpret them.
- Understand motives as well as actions.
Marshall (1985, p. 128-130) points out that reading Biblical accounts raises the following historical problems or questions:
- Discrepancies with parallel Biblical accounts.
- Discrepancies with non-Biblical material.
- Historical improbabilities.
- Supernatural occurrences.
- Creation/Modification by the early church
- Literary genre.
- Insufficient evidence.
These problems and questions may only be resolved by historical study (Marshall 1985, p. 131). Using critical methods it is possible to determine all relevant sources of historical data, the accuracy and credibility of these sources and the development of the material in these sources. Using this information it is possible to determine what is historically probable and form an historical hypothesis which successfully accounts for what the sources say and build a coherent picture of what probably happened (Marshall 1985, p. 127). It is not always possible to arrive at certainty. Complex events are difficult to record in detail and often the sources are missing or incomplete. History is limited – historians only produce a limited or reduced representation of the past (Krentz 1975, p. 37). There may be several possibilities available each of which is equally probable, so reasoned assessments and conjectures are often called for. However, this results in a problem with presuppositions because they will determine what may or may not be possible and probable (Marshall 1985, p. 127).
This is where historical criticism has been abused. Many practitioners take a “purely scientific” view which excludes any possibility of the supernatural and results in a purely naturalistic interpretation of Biblical events and people. Because of these presuppositions, this view is prevented from saying anything at all about God or the miracles and supernatural works of Jesus Christ (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 74). These scholars hold that all supernatural events described in the Bible are inventions of the early church. Therefore they attempt to get behind this mythology and get at the “real” historical Jesus. Schaeffer (1985, v. 1 p. 52) highlights the problem with this approach: “Naturalistic theology has ….. begun by accepting the presupposition of the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system. Thus they rejected everything miraculous and supernatural including …. the life of Jesus Christ. …. they still hoped to find an historical Jesus in a rational, objective, scholarly way by separating the supernatural aspects of Jesus’ life from the ‘true history’. But they failed ….. Their search for the historical Jesus was doomed to failure. The supernatural was so intertwined with the rest that if they ripped out all the supernatural, there was no Jesus left!”
Many liberal theologians have used critical methods to show the Bible is not historically accurate. The authors were primarily theologians not historians so the “Jesus of history” is nothing like the Jesus of the Bible. This means that if there is a discrepancy between the Bible and other historical material, it is the Bible that is most probably in error. A Biblical account must be ‘proved’ historically accurate rather than accepted as so (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 82). But this scepticism is unwarranted since the Bible has shown itself time and again to be historically accurate. Historical criticism should pursue without restriction the explanation that best explains the phenomena in question. This includes supernatural explanations (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 89).
Source Criticism studies the relationship between individual texts in a wider literary contexts and their dependence on source. Here the approach is diachronic which treats language as a historical material. Its most important proponent, Wellhausen, argued that four sources may be found in the Laws of Moses from Genesis to Deuteronomy. This takes the emphasis away from Moses as the author and places new emphasis on the compiler of the sources/documents (this term is used to underline that this is already a written account). Repetitions and double accounts. Narratives of the creation, flood, beginning of the Joseph story, the stories of Abraham (Gen 12-25), Moses and the plagues (Ex 1-11), origins of Passover and crossing of the red sea (Ex 12-15), and God’s appearance on Sinai (Ex 19-24) will be seen as indictors for the existence of different sources.
The first source, which mainly used the name Yahweh for God, was called J (Jahwist) and the second using the name Elohim is known as E (Elohist); the source which is particularly interested in the obedience to the covenant is identified as D (Deuteronomist – less evident in Genesis but more in Exodus); the final source, with a repetitive liturgical style and an interest in priestly matters, is called P (Priestly); Wellhausen labeled them as JEDP (the documentary-hypothesis). Pentateuch was a combination of all four sources, developing from as early as the time of Solomon (J) to as late as the time of the restoration of the people after the Babyloniam exile (P)
Regarding the Synoptics, source enquiries have demonstrated the existence of at least two sources in their composition, i.e., Q (Quelle = source) and Mark as the basic traditions (the two source theory) of the other two Synoptic Gospels of Mathew and Luke.
2.2.1 Explanation of Source Criticism
The author of Luke states that “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” (Luke 1:1-2, NIV) This implies that in the early church period there were many different sources of material concerning the life of Christ. Luke also states that he “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (v. 3), so it is reasonable to assume that Luke knew about these sources, read them and used them to compose his own account (v. 3). It is also reasonable to assume that the other gospel writers did the same (Marshall 1985, p. 139). Also, internal evidence such as the similarity/dissimilarity of wording (for the same events), content and order suggests the gospel writers had common sources (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 139). To assume that the synoptic gospels were written completely independently is not a sensible option – there is just too much internal evidence indicating otherwise (Fee & Stuart 1993, p. 122).
The search for sources is much easier and less speculative when there are several parallel accounts, like those found in the synoptic gospels. By examining parallel accounts and noting the agreements and disagreements in wording, ordering of material, omissions, style, ideas and theology and taking into account statements made by church fathers, it is possible to derive hypothetical sources of the synoptic gospels (Marshall 1985, p. 140-144). If a story is unique to a particular gospel then searching for breaks and dislocations in narrative sequence, stylistic inconsistency, theological inconsistency and historical inconsistency may also be helpful in determining possible sources (Marshall 1985, p. 144-145).
It will not always be possible to identify the written or oral sources of a particular account. This does not mean that the account should not be trusted (Marshall 1985, p. 146). In any case, several gospel writers (Matthew, John and perhaps Mark) were actual eye-witnesses.
The Two-Source or Oxford hypothesis is the one accepted by the vast majority of scholars (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 144). This hypothesis states that Mark and a hypothetical document called Q, were the basis for Matthew and Luke. It is suggested that Q contains the verses common to Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark. Matthew and Luke were composed using a combination of Mark, Q and possibly other sources (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 143-144).
2.2.2 Evaluation of Source Criticism
If the sources of an account can be identified, it is possible to learn a great deal. The fact that Matthew and Luke usually agree with Mark on the actual words of Jesus indicates they both wanted to preserve Mark’s tradition rather than just make up there own. Source criticism can reveal something about the author’s method of writing and particular interests and ideas (Stein 1988, p. 144). For example, Matthew seems to focus on the Jews but to be sure of this we need to know what his sources were. If his source was Mark, then this is a reasonable conclusion but if it was the traditions of the Jerusalem church, then this Jewish focus would be inherent in the source rather than Matthew’s interest (Marshall 1985, p. 147).
Hermeneutical insights may also be gained. If the earliest text form of an event can be recovered, then it will be possible to see how each gospel writer interpreted that event and how they modified it to emphasise that interpretation (Stein 1988, p. 151).
Many critics have viewed source modifications as corruptions or errors but these changes were made under the inspiration of the Spirit and are still authorative. It should also be noted that the canonical text form is inspired. A hypothetical reconstruction of the text is not. It is unwise to make hypothetical sources the basis for theology.
The Two-Source hypothesis makes some questionable affirmations in regard to Q material and material unique to Matthew or Luke. Q is a purely hypothetical document and it is highly unlikely that it was a single written source. It is far more probable that it was a collection of documents. However, the possibility of the existence of Q-like documents is beyond doubt since the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas (Stein 1988, p. 109). Also, material that is unique to either Matthew or Luke is assumed to come from another source other than Mark or Q. But this may not be the case. It is possible that Matthew included a saying from Q that Luke did not and vice versa.
Form (Genre) Criticism
Form criticism assumes an oral tradition behind the written text and is interested in its transition from the pre-literary form to the literary form. Here we study the various literary genres or forms.
At this stage an attempt is made to classify the material into particular genres so that one could propose a common life setting for each genre. Even though this is related to source criticism, here the emphasis is mainly on trying to understand the particular life setting (Sitz im Leben or the vital context) of particular ideas. The analysis of different forms used by the writers takes us down much smaller units of material (unlike in the analysis of the sources). For the OT, Gunkel, and for the NT, his disciples Dibelius and Bultmann made important contributions in this regard.
The Scandinavian School considered the basic units as myths, hymns, blessings, curses, laments, proverbs, oracles, and love songs in the OT to have been transmitted in oral form. This school proposes a liturgical setting (Sitz im Leben) as the means through which these forms were preserved.
For German and English scholars, literal forms (written forms) were important-myths, codes, short stories, letters, archival records, genealogies, legends, parables etc. They consider that the prophets, priests, and scribes were the groups which preserved these.
In the NT, the Epistles were written compositions from the beginning, whereas the Gospels were more dependent upon a long oral tradition. Even though shorter forms – parables, sayings, discourses, short stories, miracles and riddles may be detected, the basic kerygmatic form probably lay behind the formation of the Gospels; smaller forms were preached in various communities, and they were adapted and expanded over a period of time.
2.4.1 Explanation of Form Criticism
Form criticism seeks to get behind the written sources by studying and analysing the “form” of individual gospel traditions. It describes the characteristics of the various forms and how they emerged in the period of oral transmission in the church (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 176).
The basic axioms of form criticism are as follows:
- The gospels are “popular” or “folk” literature and are not the work of just one person but belong to a community. These communities shaped the stories they contain (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 178). Therefore the gospel authors were not authors in the true sense but collectors and editors (Marshall 1985, p. 153).
- Most of the material circulated orally and as individual units for at least 20 years (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 178).
- Units of tradition were used as the occasion required. Only useful traditions were retained. Only rarely are they recorded in chronological order (Marshall 1985, p. 154).
- As units were used they took on a particular form according to their function in the community. The form reflects the thoughts of the early church (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 176). Therefore it is possible to deduce a unit’s “life-setting” (German: Sitz im Leben) from its form. (Marshall 1985, p. 154). Life-setting denotes an area of church life such as worship, teaching and evangelism and only rarely does it indicate the actual historical situation that gave rise to the tradition (Marshall 1985, p. 154).
- Form criticism assumes the results of source criticism and tradition criticism (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 179).
Rudolf Bultman and Martin Dibelius have identified the following forms:
- Paradigms/Pronouncement Stories: These are brief stories which culminate in an authorative saying of Jesus or a saying about the reaction of on-lookers (Marshall 1985, p. 155).
- Legends/Stories about Jesus: These are stories told to exalt a great figure and present a person as an example to follow. The term legend does not necessarily mean they are unhistorical although this is often the assumption (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 184).
- Tales/Miracle Stories: These are self-contained highly descriptive stories that show pleasure in giving details (Marshall 1985, p. 156).
- Sayings/Exhortations: This is independent teaching material such as wisdom sayings, prophetic sayings, legal sayings and “I” sayings (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 184).
- Myths: These are narratives showing interactions between mythological characters and humans. The supernatural breaks into human domain (Marshall 1985, p. 157).
Form criticism has exegetical implications in passages like Mark 2:18-20. Mark 2:18-19a is a pronouncement story but vv. 19b-20 do not fit this form. Therefore they must be an addition by the early church (Marshall 1985, p. 159).
2.4.2 Evaluation of Form Criticism
One of the problems with form criticism is the form categories are often based on content rather than actual form. Although form and content do influence each other, some categories are simply stylistic descriptions. Also, many sayings and stories have no “common” form and many have “mixed” form. Some may even fall into multiple categories (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 187). If forms have no or little distinction then they couldn’t have been created and shaped by the early church, as claimed by many form critics (Marshall 1985, p. 158-159).
For Mark 2:18-20, it all depends on the definition of “pronouncement story”. What if the definition is too rigid. Form critics talk about “law of tradition” as if they are well proven scientific laws of development of oral traditions. This is not the case. Except for Luke, the gospel writers were Jews and therefore it is reasonable to assume transmission of traditions would have occurred in a similar fashion to Rabbinic teachings. Rabbis were concerned with accurate transmission and so would the early church (Stein 1988, p. 187-192). The probability of eyewitnesses keeping checks on the integrity of the traditions is also disregarded by many form critics (Stein 1988, p. 193-203).
Form criticism does have some positive insights. It does help in understanding the period between AD 30 and AD 50. Searching for the Sitz im Leben aids exegesis because knowing how the tradition functioned in the early church indicates how it should speak today. However, this is not always possible. The early church preserved traditions because they were useful. This helps to understand that the gospels are practical references not just biographies of Jesus. Understanding the form is also very important for accurate exegesis (Marshall 1985, p. 161).
The descriptive features of form criticism provide the greatest aid to interpretation. They help to focus on the author’s style and structure of argument (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 192).
The emphasis of form critics is on the community as the great preserver and inspirer of tradition.
Traditional Criticism is interested in the context in which an idea is expressed in a particular book of the Bible. It deals with the theological influences on the writers themselves. Tradition criticism presupposes that the writer has absorbed his ideas from the through-word and from the key religious ideas prevalent in his day. These theological traditions could have been either in oral form or (already) in literary works. In the OT, the traditions of creation and of exodus recur very often in different books (in Psalms, proverbs, Wisdom, and Sirach). The tradition of creation itself is expressed in many ways (e.g. to express God’s greatness in his bringing the whole cosmos into being, or to express his love and kindness in his bringing each human life into being). The tradition of Zion is concerned with God’s defence of the city and his dwelling in the temple there in order to protect his people in times of distress and need. The tradition of the king David – recalling God’s promise to be always with his people through an anointed figure who would lead the people in Justice and mercy on his behalf – is also an important theological idea. A tradition need not necessarily be an overreaching theological theme, but may simply be a theological statement in a phrase such as ‘God reings’.
In the NT, the larger tradition thems may be found mainly in the Gospels, espeoially in Mathew and in Luke. This would include the birth and the passion narratives, the accounts of resurrection, the reference to the prophecy being fulfilled (seen especially in Mt), the references to the kingdom of God breaking into history (for example in Lk 17:18), the hope for the future culmination of history (as in Lk 24), and allusions to God’s intimate care for his created order (Mt 6:25-34). All of these suggest the effect of the received tradition on the mind of the author rather than on the importance of the tradition in the mind of the community.
Tradition criticism is concerned with the influence of the various theological beliefs on the mind of the writer. In this sense the point of emphasis is the substance of the message rather than the form taken by the message (as was the case in the preceding step[s]). It is also interested in finding the influence of any of the traditions upon the development of the text at various stages in the history of its transmission and also on the role of the community in shaping the tradition itself. Thus, it is interested mainly in the theological development of the text.
2.3.1 Explanation of Tradition Criticism
Tradition criticism is used to determine the development of traditions from Jesus through the early church to the gospel writer and forms the basis for form and redaction criticism. It is an attempt to trace the evolution of the form and/or meaning of concepts, words or sayings. For example, tradition criticism is interested in how a parable developed into 2 or 3 different versions (Marshall 1985, p. 165-166). The basic axioms behind tradition criticism force the critic to be highly sceptical about the authenticity or historicity of the traditions as they are recorded in the gospels. The burden of proof lies with those who wish to take the traditions as historical (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 204).
The 3 basic axioms for determining authentic traditions, rather than those created and modified by the early church are listed in Black & Dockery (1991, p. 205) and are as follows:
- Dissimilarity: they are not parallels of Jewish traditions and not reflections of the faith and practices of the early church.
- Multiple attestation: whether or not a saying occurs in more than one gospel.
- Coherence: if the saying in question has the same form of another saying that has already been shown to be authentic (using the above criteria), then this saying should also be regarded as authentic.
Tradition criticism may be applied to Peter’s confession in Mark 8:29 and parallels. Luke adds the words “of God”, Matthew adds “the Son of the Living God” and John has “the holy One of God”. Therefore, since these 4 parallels each say something different, it is highly unlikely (or so it is claimed) that this saying is actually historical (Marshall 1985, p. 167).
Using tradition criticism some critics have shown that Matthew 18:17 is not authentic, because it goes against the parable of Wheat and Tares and the Dragnet (Matthew 13:47f). It also presupposes a Jewish audience which excludes Gentiles and tax collectors. This is unlike the “historical Jesus” who embraced such people, therefore it must be a later development of the church (Marshall 1985, p. 168).
2.3.2 Evaluation of Tradition Criticism
Tradition criticism has done much to undermine the integrity of the gospel accounts. It is far too sceptical and its conclusions are often devoid of supporting evidence. The axioms for determining authenticity leave much to be desired. The criteria of dissimilarity is far too narrow and therefore only identifies the unique Jesus. It is ridiculous to expect Jesus’ teaching would not have overlapped with Jewish teaching, especially since both were rooted in the Old Testament. It is even more ridiculous to expect Jesus’ teaching to have contributed nothing to the early church. Responding to the message of Jesus is the very essence of Christianity (Marshall 1985, p. 174). The criteria of multiple attestation ignores the purpose and inspired overall theological agenda of the gospel author (Marshall 1985, p. 176).
For Matthew 18:17, it seems that this verse has not been correctly understood. This verse is not a put-down of gentiles and tax collectors but simply stating that we should treat unrepentant Christians the same way we would treat non-Christians. How should we treat non-Christians? The same way Christ did (cf. Matthew 9:10-12, Matthew 15:22-28).
There are 4 gospels that do not oppose one another. Therefore it is best to assume everything is authentic unless there is concrete evidence to the contrary. Although the gospels may not record Jesus’ actual words (he spoke in Aramaic and the New Testament was written in Greek) or forms, they do record His essential message for humanity. Any modification of traditions by the gospel authors were done under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Redaction Criticism/Editorial Criticism
This proceeds from the assumption that the individual authors of the biblical books had a strong influence on their eventual form and on the analyses of the composition of these texts from the prespective of the final redactor.
The whole emphasis of the historical-critical (diachronic) inquiry up to this stage (i.e. the preceding 7 stages) has been to explain the text through the study of its origin and development within a diachromc perspective. At this last stage, however, the exegete proceeds on the synchronic level and tries to explain the text as it now stands on the basis of the mutual relationship between its diverse elements, not forgetting the scope of the original author to communicate a message to his contemporaries.
Redaction analysis is the most clear and obvious of the methods of historical reading. Redaction criticism studies the modifications that the texts have undergone before being fixed in their final state. It also analyzes this final stage, trying as far as possible, to identify the tendencies particularly characteristic of this concluding process. Its concern is the present state of the text with what the final editors of the texts actually believed. His is the ultimate voice within the text.
For instance, in Isaiah one is interested in knowing the theological intentions of the editor who sewed together’ the three major prophetic works (Is 1-39; 40-55; 56-66). In the NT the main area of interest has been the Synoptic Gospels and in identifying the overall theological tendencies of the writers of the Gospels. At this level the exegete tries to discover the Gospel writer’s or editor’s distinctive personal contribution within the complex mass of inherited material. Sometimes this influence is traced back to the material which the include the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7), or the sevenfold group of parables about the kingdom (Mt 13), or the collection of woes against the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 23).
Whether we assume this to be about the personal contribution of the actual Gospel-writers or of the editors and compilers of the Gospels in a later generation, the major significance of redaction criticism is that its emphasis is very much on the contributions of individuals rather than of great communities.
2.5.1 Explanation of Redaction Criticism
Redaction criticism builds on the results of source and tradition criticism. It treasures and examines the editorial work of gospel authors in order to see their emphases and purposes (Stein 1988, p. 238). It seeks to uncover the theology and setting of the author by studying the way they modified traditions, arranged them and stitched them together. It asks why the author included, excluded or modified a particular tradition and tries to identify distinctive patterns, interests and theological ideas (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 199-200).
Redaction Criticism involves analysing individual traditions comparing it with parallels, in order to identify common and unique phrases and words. It also involves analysing the whole gospel in comparison with other gospels. The seams (introductions and conclusions) link traditions together, provide setting and often theological emphasis. Summaries and traditions structure give clues to major theological overtones. Unique elements indicate which way the story is going and repeated phrases show emphasis and special interests. As the gospel unfolds individual traditions interact to produce the intended message (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 208-211). Considering an author’s vocabulary and style is also helpful (Marshall 1985, p. 185).
2.5.2 Evaluation of Redaction Criticism
Results of redaction criticism are highly subjective and should not be accepted uncritically. The huge variation in results shows this clearly (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 213). There is no doubt that gospel authors shaped and modified traditions to fit their gospel’s purpose but presuppositions about the nature of traditions, their transmission and modification are suspect. “Redaction” does not mean unhistorical “theologising” (Marshall 1985, p. 187-188). Many critics are highly sceptical and assume every redaction is a creation and therefore unhistorical. However, omission and addition are not criteria for historicity but for style, emphasis and purpose. Not every jot and tittle carries theological weight (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 213). It should also be noted that meaning is found in the overall pericope not the redactions (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 215).
History and theology are not mutually exclusive. There is no reason why an author can not emphasise a theological concept using an historical event. Gospel authors were interpreters but there is no reason to assume they were misinterpreters.
Redaction criticism is still an important tool. It shows how inspiration took place when authors selected, arranged and highlighted various traditions in order to communicate a special message to their readers (Black & Dockery 1991, p. 216). This gives the gospels their individual character and is why we have four of them (Marshall 1985, p. 191).
Canonical criticism is considered as an extension of the interest in the final product evident in redaction criticism. Canonical criticism examines each passage in the light of the whole Bible, wherin other books, passages offer insights.
6.1.1 Evaluation: Diachronic Study
i) Historical criticism has shown that the Bible, which as a collection of writings is not the creation of a single author especially in the case of the OT, has had a long pre-history.
ii) One should know that the historical-critical method restricts itself to a search for the meaning of a biblical text within the historical circumstance that gave rise to it. It is not concerned with other possibilities of meaning which have been revealed at later stages of the biblical revelation and history of the Church.
iii) In its desire to establish the chronology of the biblical texts the critical study was mostly restricted, especially at the initial stage, to the task of dissecting and dismantling the text in order to identify the various sources without paying much attention to the final form of the text and to the message which it conveyed, or to the state in which it actually exists (the contribution of the editors was not held in high regard).
iv) The influence of comparative study of the history of religions and certain philosophical ideas sometimes have cast some doubts and shadows on the application of historical-critical method.
v) There have been attempts in the past to give greater insistence to the form of the text, with less attention paid to the content, which, however, has been rectified in recent decades through the study of the text from the point of view of action and life.
vi) Diachronic study remains indispensable for making known the historical dynamism which animates Sacred Scripture and for shedding light upon its rich complexity.
Modern Methods of Literary (Synchronic) Analysis
First we must know the specific nature of literary analysis which somehow distinguishes it from diachronic methods.
i) Historical criticism, often known as diachronic method, looks through the different layers of the text and the process of editing which have brought the text to its present form, whereas literary criticism, also known as synchronic method (syn ‘together with’ or ‘along side’), is concentrated on the present form of the text.
ii) Historical criticism the dialogue is within the text throughout its past history; literary criticism, rather asks questions about the shape of the text in the here and now.
iii) In historical criticism the dialogue is within the text throughout its past history whereas in literary criticism, the dialogue is with the text with the present concerns of the reader foremost in mind.
iv) Historical criticism is interested in the meaning of the text understood through the concerns of the ancient author; in literary criticism the meaning is sought in the language and style and within the text itself, understood through the concerns of the present-day reader.
v) With the help of source criticism, form criticism (genre criticism), and tradition critical method scholars try to see how the text was brought together. Under the categories of priest and structure criticism, literary analysists investigate how the text works for the readers (and not for the writers).
vi) In historical-critical method the interest of those who formed the text in its final stages is demonstrated through redaction criticism (and in canon criticism). In literary criticism the interest shown by the readers in giving new meanings to the text, albeit after its final form, is the point of emphasis.
In literary studies, especially in the ‘reader-response theories’, rhetorical criticism and narrative analysis the reader enters into a discourse with the text, asking questions about its assumptions and its ideologies. From this one asks questions also about the intended audience (the ancient one) and the actual audience (the contemporary one). The reader will be further led to ask questions regarding the theological meaning of the text today.
On the whole the Bible is the story of salvation. It narrates the story of God’s dealing with man. The OT may be seen as a recital of God’s story with Israel through her profession of faith, Liturgy, and catechesis (Ps 78:3-4; Ex 12:24-27; Deut 6:20-25; 26:5-11). In the NT the Christian kerygma recounts the story of the ministry , death, and resurrection of Jesus (see the passion narratives in the Gospels). In Acts 2:23-36; 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 10:34-43 we see this history of salvation in a nutshell.
Narrative analysis offers a method for understanding and communicating the biblical message which corresponds to the form of story and personal witness. It is particularly attentive to those elements in the text which have to do with plot, characterization, and the point of view of the narrator. It studies how a text tells a story so as to engage the reader in its ‘narrative world’ and the system of values contained therein.
The characteristic feature of this type of analysis is that it looks at the whole unit. The doublets repetitions, contradictions, gaps, and inconsisitencies in the translated text are included in the whole. They enable us to understand the variety and balance in the text and they enrich our knowledge of the text as a whole. One can thus create a theology which can unite the text as a whole. This theology is created by the text and not by the author. The emphasis is on the whole story and there is no concern here for the smaller parts which may have made up the whole.
To understand how narrative analysis can be helpful in biblical studies one must know the following distinctions:
i) Real author and implied author: The real reader is any person who actually composed the story. The implied author is the figure of the author which the text progressively creates in the mind of the reader in the course of reading (with his culture, character, inclinations, faith, etc.).
ii) Real reader and implied reader: The real reader is any person who has access to the text. The implied reader is the reader whom the text presupposes and in effect creates, the one who is capable of performing the mental and affective operations necessary for entering into the narrative world of the text and responding to it in the way envisaged by the real author through the instrumentality of the implied author.
The influence of the text depends on the extent to which the real reader is capable of identifying himself/herself with the implied reader. The main task of exegesis consists in effecting and facilitating this process of identification with the implied reader.
iii) Text as Window and Mirror: Narrative analysis is concerned with the way a text works. Historical-critical analysis views the text as a window which gives access to one or another period (of the situation of the community for whom the story is old). Narrative analysis views the text as a mirror, in the sense that it projects a certain image, the narrative world, which in turn, influences the perception of the reader in such a way as to cause him to adopt certain values rather than others.
Theological Reflection: This literary type of inquiry in the narrative analysis of the biblical text also contains a certain type of theological reflection. The implications of the story character of Scripture involve the consent of faith and one derives from this a hermeneutics of a more practical and pastoral character. Narrative analysis can help biblical interpretation as it permits adapting the biblical modes of communicating and conveying meaning in the actual historical context of the readers, and thereby it can help to open up more effectively the saving power of the biblical texts to the reader.
Narrative analysis has a twofold function as far as it is applied to the biblical text; it underlines the need of telling the story of salvation (informative dimension) in a way that the reader is capable of understanding it. This very telling of the story is oriented to salvation (of the reader). This is the performative dimension of recounting the story. This very mode of presenting the message of salvation thus functions as an existential appeal addressed to the reader.
Evaluation: The application of the narrative analysis in explaining the biblical story of salvation can facilitate the transition from the meaning of the text in its historical context (which is the prime interest of historical-critical studies) to its significance for the reader of today. However, one must also know that when it is employed in reading the biblical texts, a rigid application of pre-established models cannot do justice to the specific character of these texts as the inspired word. It must also be supplemented by diachronic studies. Moreover caution must be observed because a one-sided narrative analysis may tend to exclude any doctrinal elaboration of the content of the biblical narratives and thereby it can be out of step with the authentic biblical tradition itself.
Structuralist (semiotic) Analysis
This is concerned with the message itself, understood as an autonomous and self-contained entity, without taking into consideration the relation with sender and receiver. The structure that is detected is not the outline that meets the eye, for the deepest structures are not apparent on the surface but help to generate the text. These structures must be brought to light in order that the text can be perceived as a coherent whole.
In the interpretation of the biblical texts, several basic concepts of the structural approach are of special significance:
v) The autonomy of the texts. A text contains a self- contained unit, and its different parts should be explained in terms of their relation to each other and not in terms of some external cause or authority.
vi) The emphasis is on synchronic rather than diachronic relations. It is not the history of the text which holds the key to its meaning but the relations of the textual elements as they stand. Hence the need is for a “text-immanent” exegesis which takes the text seriously as a network of relations.
vii) The structure of the text and the techniques of its analysis become an important consideration. Different types can be distinguished: linguistic, literary, narrative, discursive, rhetorical, or thematic structures, each requiring its own form analysis.
Modern Contextual Interpretations
The present day contextual interpretations such as Liberation interpretation, Feminist interpretation, Indian interpretation, or Black interpretation stem from contextual approaches to biblical and theological interpretations. These interpretations argue that without engaging in concrete historical praxis no genuine interpretations of the day as the result of ideological speculation, presuppositions, illusions, and systematic distortions.
The various modern contextual interpretations make effective use of the biblical text for interpretation. That way they contribute to the richness of biblical interpretation by making present the biblical text in the contemporary context but often they disregard or destroy the original writer’s intension and the context. Here interpretations become unauthentic and relative.
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The systematic examination of the aspects of the text that arouse, shape, and guide a reader’s response. According to reader-response criticism, the reader is a producer rather than a consumer of meanings. In this sense, a reader is a hypothetical construct of norms and expectations that can be derived or projected or extrapolated from the work and may even be said to inhere in the work. Because expectations may be violated or fulfilled, satisfied or frustrated, and because reading is a temporal process involving memory, perception, and anticipation, the charting of reader-response is extremely difficult and perpetually subject to construction and reconstruction, vision and revision.
Reader-response criticism, however, does not denote any specific theory. It can range from the phenomenological theories of Wolfgang Iser and Roman Ingarden — both of whom argue that although the reader fills in the gaps, the author’s intentional acts impose restrictions and conditions — to the relativistic analysis of Stanley Fish, who argues that the interpretive strategy of the reader creates the text, there being no text except that which a reader or an interpretive community of readers creates.
The implied author is a concept of literary criticism developed in the twentieth century. It is distinct from the real author and the narrator. The distinction from the real author lies in that the implied author consists solely of what can be deduced from the work. The implications of the work may paint a rather different picture of the author than might be deduced from their real life. The distinction from the narrator is most clear in ironic works such as “A Modest Proposal”, where the narrator cheerfully offers his proposal, but the implied author is as aware as the reader of the horror of what is proposed. it is important in a wide variety of literary criticism, including structuralism, deconstructionism, and rhetoric-based criticism such as that of Wayne C. Booth.
Impluied Reader – A term used by Wolfgang Iser to describe a hypothetical reader of a text. The implied reader “embodies all those predispositions necessary for a literary work to exercise its effect — predispositions laid down, not by an empirical outside reality, but by the text itself. Consequently, the implied reader as a concept has his roots firmly planted in the structure of the text; he is a construct and in no way to be identified with any real reader.”
The next step is to become more conscious of the whole reading-writing dichotomy. Every text is produced by an actual writer (a real person), who in the act of writing automatically places in the text a version of him/herself, the implied writer (a persona or role played by the real person writing). What may not be so obvious at first is that the implied writer automatically creates a mirror image of another persona, the implied reader, which the actual reader reading the text in question is implicitly asked to play (along with). This complex interaction between real persons playing roles both in the act of writing and in the act of reading should get a special lift in our understanding as we reflect on the fact that the Latin origin of the modern English word “person” is persona, meaning “mask,” originally a hand-held mask that actors on the classical stage used to cover their faces with while playing their roles. Both writing and reading are, in fact, acts – that is, roles that writers and readers voluntarily take on.