Biblical Exegesis: Christian Views
BIBLICAL EXEGESIS: CHRISTIAN VIEWS
Biblical exegesis involves the interpretation, explanation, and exposition of the Bible's various books, in relation either to the time of their composition, or to their meanings for readers in subsequent centuries. The basis of biblical exegesis is translation and the detailed study and explanation of grammatical meaning. It has been linked in the modern period with the elucidation of the historical context of biblical texts, though there is nothing in the word that would confine it to such study. Indeed, the cognate verb (exegesato ) is found in the New Testament at John 1:18, where Christ is described as one who explains or expounds the unseen God (cf. Heb. 1:1). John 1:18 suggests a definition broader than mere verbal paraphrase or grammatical explanation, as it asserts that the practical demonstration of meaning—through living out the meaning of biblical words—is equally, if not more, important.
Christian exegesis is not a homogeneous entity. There are clearly discernible methodological strands in the history of Christian biblical interpretation, but there are also many features that Christian exegesis shares with other religious traditions (especially Judaism). This has remained so throughout the history of the church. There is not much that can be called distinctively Christian, other than those very deliberate attempts to relate passages from the Hebrew Bible to the person and work of Jesus Christ (e.g., Matt. 1:23).
Types of Christian Exegesis
In the earliest phase of exegesis the main strands of doctrine and ethics were established and we find interpretation oscillating between the contrasting approaches of the literal and the allegorical. In the medieval period much of this polarity was continued, but one major development arose as a result of the interpretation of Apocalypse and the departure from the Augustinian consensus found in the work of Joachim of Fiore (twelfth century) and his successors in which the Bible as whole offered a philosophy of history which reflected the trinitarian nature of God. By the time of the Reformation a distinct preference had developed for the plain sense of Scripture over the manifold meanings that had been worked out in medieval exegesis, itself largely dependent on the work of the patristic period. Scripture, within Protestantism, moved from being one important component in discerning the divine will to become the central means of Christian life and thought. At the Enlightenment, the importance of human experience and intellectual reflection and the expansion of historiography at the time of the Enlightenment reflected a resistance to authoritative texts and institutions, and led to a shift from studying the literal meaning of texts to considering them within their supposed historical contexts.
Literal exegesis of scripture is in fact a limited enterprise in which the basic tasks, such as consultation of the best manuscripts and accurate construal and translation of passages in the original, enable a reader to know what the text actually says and means. The task of understanding meaning almost always moves beyond the literal through recourse to analogies, such as parallels drawn from other texts, whether inside or outside the Bible, or through historical reconstruction.
Figurative and allegorical exegesis
There has always been a dialectic between literal interpretation and those forms of interpretation in which another referent becomes a factor. This latter kind of interpretation presupposes that the letter of the text points to another level of reality and other dimensions of meaning. The literal sense of Scripture yields a "deeper," "transcendent" meaning in the contrast between two cities and two covenants (e.g., Gal. 4:24). Paul refers to this kind of method in 2 Corinthians 3:6 as a contrast between the letter and the spirit. Allegorical exegesis, therefore, involves the ability of the interpreter to discern in a piece of biblical text subject matter different from the apparent subject, even though it may be suggested by the latter.
Textual and social context
Context in exegesis can be provided by something as basic as reference to the occurrence of synonyms, or thematic parallels, in a single document or in multiple parts of the Bible. In the modern period, however, context is also understood in a broader sense as, firstly, the situation of the original writer and recipients, and, secondly, the effects of social context on the interpreter. The impact of social situation upon exegesis is something already deeply rooted in Jewish exegesis, as the application of the Torah in new circumstances led to interpretative approaches that either amplified, or were determined by, social context. Consciousness of the extent to which social context influences interpretation has been a feature of all exegesis influenced by the theology of liberation.
From Christian tradition to ancient history
The modern period witnessed a significant shift at the end of the eighteenth century with the rise of the historical method. This meant that a method of interpretation based on the received wisdom of the Christian tradition was over time replaced with a form of interpretation that either had only loose ties to the earlier tradition, or rejected it completely. In the place of traditional exegesis, there emerged an interpretative approach in which the exegesis of specific biblical texts was based primarily on establishing relationships between those texts and others that were contemporaneous with them. The emergence of the historical method as a hegemonic mode of biblical interpretation in the academy and then the church meant that there was a significant caesura with earlier patterns of interpretation. That difference is more apparent than real, however, as some of the underlying interpretations at work are quite similar, in that historical study is driven by a desire to ascertain what really went on and not to rely on what the text actually says.
It is because the biblical writings have been deemed to be fundamental for the existence of the Christian religion that their interpretation has been a matter of central significance from the very start. In one important respect, however, largely determined by the form of the biblical material, neither Judaism nor Christianity has been able to resort to their authoritative texts as unambiguous sources of authority in matters of doctrine and ethics. Even legal texts are too imprecise to allow readers to know exactly what is required of adherents: How does one know how to keep the Sabbath holy when all one is give is a general command with little detail regarding what is involved? Much of Jewish tradition is an attempt to relate contemporary circumstance to a tradition of case law and scripture. With its connections to the Jewish Bible so loose, early Christianity could never become a religion of the book. Other factors were always required (tradition, a rule of faith, even charismatic or prophetic inspiration) to guide readers as they sought to use the Bible in connection with their religion.
Exegesis and the Life of Faith
In the modern period there has often been a tense relationship between church and academy in regards to the interpretation of the Bible. For most of Christian history the interpretation of the Bible was part of the life of faith. That is not to suggest that it was an uncritical activity. There was, however, a widespread recognition that the interpretation of Scripture was not an end in itself but part of an education in the life of faith. The study of the Bible was for the purpose of hearing God addressing the church and also the individual. A variety of interpretative techniques contributed to the fulfillment of this goal, in order that even the most apparently inhospitable parts of scripture could provide a means whereby the believer could be addressed by God. This is well illustrated by some famous lines that summarize Christian exegesis: "The literal sense teaches what happened, allegory what you are to believe, the moral sense what you are to do, anagogy [interpretation] where you are going" (Nicholas of Lyra, thirteenth century). The point of the interpretation of Scripture is also well illustrated in the following quotation from Augustine's De doctrina christiana:
The student who fears God earnestly seeks his will in the Holy Scriptures. Holiness makes him gentle, so that he does not revel in controversy; knowledge of languages protects him from uncertainty over unfamiliar words and phrases, and a knowledge of certain essential things protects him from ignorance of the significance and detail of what is used by way of imagery. … Once close consideration has revealed that it is uncertain how a passage should be punctuated and articulated, we must consult the rule of faith, as it is perceived through the plainer passages of the scriptures and the authority of the church (iii.1).
Christian Identity and the Jewish Bible
A major issue in nascent Christianity was difference from other Jews and the contrasting interpretations of shared scriptural texts. The messianism which lies at the heart of Christian belief and which stresses qualitative difference and discontinuity always has the effect of downplaying the importance of the past in its preference for the new and the revelatory. The title New Testament indicates something of this character. It suggests a relationship to another covenant that is now considered obsolete and underlines the newness of what is being offered (1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3; Heb. 8–9; cf. Exod. 24 and Josh. 24). It also reveals a primary concern with the relationship of its convictions to the traditions of the past (see, e.g., Matt. 1:1; Acts 28:25ff.; Rom. 9–11). In early Christian writings this is dealt with in various ways: with Christ comes the "end" (telos ) of the Law (Rom. 10:4), promise and fulfillment (1 Cor. 10:11; Matt. 1:23), or obsolescence (Hebrews ). Other passages contrast one dispensation in the divine purposes with the new, decisive one in Christ (Luke 16:16), posit essential continuity between Christians and the traditions with the clear assumption that Jews had misunderstood those tradition (Acts 7), claim that literal interpretation or application of the Bible is misguided (Epistle of Barnabas ), or dismiss the Bible as the product of an inferior divinity (Marcion). Because of the belief that the Jewish scriptures found their fulfillment in Jesus, the meaning of the Hebrew text was thereby reduced to a reference to Christ. While there is often the sense that the scriptures have already been fulfilled in Christ and the church, there can also be a degree of open-endedness, such as is found in 1 Corinthians 9:8–12, in which the biblical text can have an ongoing application to the life of the reader without the fulfillment in Christ closing down interpretative possibilities.
In the New Testament there is a tension between the belief that a messianic deliverer has already come, thereby fulfilling the scriptures, and the belief that the final coming to establish what he has already started is still awaited. This tension is at the heart of much of the theology and interpretation of Christianity and it is this tension, or dialectic, which in various forms can be seen to be characteristic of Christian exegesis down the centuries. It is exemplified in the Gospel of John in which tension between past revelation on the one hand and present or future revelation on the other hand is left unresolved in the departing words of Jesus (John 14:26; 16:13). The bulk of the Spirit-Paraclete's sayings are retrospective: the Paraclete's role is to point to Jesus, but there is some evidence of continuing inspiration (e.g., John 16:13). In Christian history there have always been many movements that have stressed the importance of present inspiration in preference to the patient interpretation of words from the past. One such was Montanism, which in the second century claimed to represent the ongoing activity of the Spirit-Paraclete in their own prophetic activity—and was thereby the pioneer of many similar claims throughout the history of the church (e.g. in the claims to new revelation and spiritual renewal found in the radical Franciscan movement of the thirteenth century and in the Radical Reformation). In Christian exegesis there is a constant dialectic between the announcing of something new and the fact that what is new is going to follow the contours of what has been said and done by Jesus. This retrospective element has always pushed Christian interpreters back to their scriptures and to the events to which they bear witness. The importance of that underlying historical referent has always been a matter for debate: Did it matter whether the events described actually took place, or is the story itself of value as a means of moral or spiritual improvement? Such matters were central to debates between emerging Christian orthodoxy, whose adherents wanted to hang onto the historical referent, and those who saw the words themselves as of more existential than historical import.
There is obviously a close relationship between the theological ideas and practices outlined in the New Testament and what one finds in the Hebrew Bible. The extent of the relationship has been a mater of debate, however. There are those who maintain that one cannot understand the New Testament without an intimate knowledge of the original context of elements taken from the Hebrew Bible, whereas others assume that the original context of material alluded to does not determine the meaning of a New Testament passage. The evidence suggests that New Testament writers were much more constrained by their convictions about the new life in Christ than by the actual details of the text of the Hebrew Bible. The scriptural texts are made to serve the emergence of a different kind of religion. Scriptural passages had become part of a different religious system, which subtly shifted the meaning of the original scriptural texts. Christians gave Scripture a new meaning, appropriate to their own time, reusing it in new and creative ways, to provide a way of understanding present experience that could be at variance with the Scriptures' original purpose. The New Testament writers (and even more so their readers) were not, therefore, engaged in an exegesis of the Scriptures detached from the practice of faith. Earlier scriptures had to be read in the light of convictions about Jesus Christ. God spoke directly through Spirit in revelations (1 Cor. 14:26), and Scripture and tradition provided a secondary support for insight obtained by other means.
The earliest Christian interpretations of the Bible take many forms. The true meaning of the text is demonstrated in relation to the key stories of the emerging Christian tradition (e.g., Matt. 1:23). This has its analogies in the Jewish interpretative tradition as is evident in treatment of the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially the Habakkuk Commentary (1 Qp. Hab.), in which the meaning of the prophetic oracles, opaque to the original writer, is now revealed to an inspired interpreter. An apologetic, Christological concern became a hallmark of attempts—from the writings of Justin (second century) onwards—to prove that the Christian message had its origins in the prophetic material of the past.
Typology and allegory were both used to serve these ends. Typology is the juxtaposition of types (including people, institutions, or events), and is employed in exegesis when a biblical scene or figure is taken up and viewed as an interpretative analogy for a contemporary belief or practice. The relationship between type and antitype is suggested by the accumulation of points of correspondence between two (or more) narratives. The type and the antitype are not identical and cannot be one and the same person, institution, or event, since, by definition, typology is describing one thing in terms of another. The correspondences can be based on difference as well as similarity. Thus Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 can see an analogy between what had happened to the disobedient people of Israel in the wilderness and the Corinthian Christians with whom he has to deal. The type functions, therefore, as a warning to readers not to pursue a path similar to that followed in the original story. Typological exegesis became a favorite device as analogies between the Old and New Testaments were taken up as a way of asserting divine providence.
Allegory differs from typology in one key respect. Whereas typology depends for its success on the interplay between figures or incidents—Isaac and Christ, for example, or the serpent lifted up by Moses versus the Son of man being lifted up in John 3:14—allegory opens up another, "deeper" level of meaning latent within a text's literal sense. In the complex reference to allegorical exegesis made by Paul in Galatians 4:24, the Sarah-Hagar story of Genesis 16 and 21 becomes a gateway into another understanding: what the text really means is that the two women represent two covenants or two cities, Sinai and the new covenant, or two cities, the Jerusalem below and the Jerusalem above. The literal sense of the text in allegorical exegesis becomes a signifier of another dimension of meaning. This device, already thoroughly explored in the writings of the Jewish philosopher Philo Judaeus (first century ce), has been taken up by Christian writers down the centuries as they seek to find meaning in some of the most unlikely and problematic places in the scriptures.
In the New Testament there is a concerted attempt to offer a reading of the Hebrew Bible that challenges the accepted understanding of its meaning. What Paul offers in the Letter to the Galatians, for example, is a reading of the Abraham story that harnesses it to the convictions of a minority community as it struggles for its identity. The true children of Abraham are not the Jewish nation (which turns out to be the children of Hagar, who is ejected from Abraham's home). The Christians are the children of promise (Gal. 3:29). In this approach to the Genesis account we see a way of entering into the Scriptures that becomes central for subsequent interpretation. What is essential for interpreting the biblical text is not so much attention to the details, as it is the fundamental conviction that experience of the Christ is the foundation on which the text should be read (2 Cor. 3:6).
Such attitudes are paralleled elsewhere in the New Testament, not least in the deconstruction of the sacrificial system in the Letter to the Hebrews and particularly in the early-second-century text the Letter of Barnabas, in which an acceptance of Jewish laws and institutions as literal expectations of the divine will is rejected in favor of figurative interpretation. There were similar radical rereadings of the Bible in the Gnostic texts, in which there emerged a complete rejection of the theological value of the Jewish scriptures, which were seen as the product of some lesser divine being. The Christian church rejected such a radical solution, and yet the roots of such radicalism lie deep within the New Testament. Because the early Christian writers continued to use the Hebrew Bible, however freely, in the service of their ethics and community identity, rather than relying solely on present revelation and authoritative advice, the Jewish scriptures became a fundamental focus of the emerging theological tradition, albeit in a manner in which literal interpretation was always subordinated to the figurative.
As we have seen, from the very beginning of Christian exegesis the Jewish scriptures were mined to enable readers to understand that what had happened in Jesus had been predicted by ancient writers in the divinely inspired scriptures. Thus, we find that the famous description of the suffering prophetic figure in Isaiah 53 is seen in Acts 8:32–34 and 1 Peter 2:21–23 as a prediction of the sufferings of the messiah. The appeal to the Bible was not unproblematic, however, as the way in which passages were interpreted by Christians, as referring either to their identity as the people of God or to the events of Christ's life, was rejected by most Jews. Whatever its exact relationship to history, the Dialogue of Justin with Trypho represents the Christian side of the debate: in it, a Christian writer seeks to prove why it is that contemporary Jewish interpretation of the shared scriptures is misguided. The second century proved to be a critical one for Christian attitudes toward what would later be termed the Old Testament. The relativizing of its significance in parts of the New Testament, such as the Letter to the Galatians and the Letter to the Hebrews, inevitably raised the question of whether the scriptures had much or indeed any importance for the new revelation. In the mid-second century this question was raised with peculiar clarity by Marcion of Sinope (d. c. 160), who not only contrasted the two revelations but also formed a collection of authoritative writings to support the superiority of the new revelation in his Gospel (the Gospel of Luke ) and Apostle (a collection of Paul's letters which omitted the Pastoral Epistles). Later judgments of Marcion have been based on the polemic of his opponents (as none of his own writings are extant). Marcion picked up on important themes in the New Testament (not least in Acts 7) and in texts like the Epistle of Barnabas to argue the qualitative difference of the revelation in Christ. This view has always been an integral part of Christian exegesis. Marcion's opponents in the emerging orthodoxy refused, however, to let go of the Jewish scriptures as an essential framework for the Christian message and for the understanding of salvation history.
The tradition of figurative and allegorical exegesis was pioneered in particular by Origen (c. 185–254), one of the founders of the Alexandrian school of exegesis. Despite his reputation as an allegorical exegete, Origen was a careful philologist, who made use of the best critical methods of his day (as evidenced, for example, in his Hexapla, a critical comparison of different versions of the Old Testament). In many ways, he anticipates modern exegesis. For all his critical brilliance, however, Origen was not interested in philological or historical analysis for its own sake, but in how it could serve a more important goal: the training of the soul so as to lead it back to God. He emphasizes the usefulness of Scripture, that is, how it can benefit the human soul. Origen sees the Scriptures both as a record of God's revealing himself to the saints in the past and as the locus of divine pedagogy in the present, the way the divine Logos addresses individual souls and gradually leads them up to perfection. In On First Principles 4:1–3, he speaks of three different levels of meaning in scripture: literal, moral, and allegorical—corresponding to body, soul, and spirit (1 Thess. 5:23). The most important meaning is the spiritual. Not all Biblical texts exist on all three levels, but all have a spiritual meaning. The Holy Spirit deliberately places difficulties in the text in order to point the reader toward the spiritual meaning, and this meaning can be understood only with the help of divine assistance—the interpreter must have the "mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:16).
The excesses of allegorical interpretation led to a significant reaction. Followers of the so-called Antiochene school of exegesis (e.g., Theodore of Mopsuestia, c. 350–428) sought to drag Christian biblical interpretation back to the letter of the text. Antiochenes had a concern with literal sense that included reference to historical context as well as purely spiritual exposition. This concern with literal sense was affirmed in medieval exegesis by exegetes such as Hugh of Saint-Victor (d. 1142), who in his Didascalion stressed literal meaning, reference to Jewish history, and the Hebrew text of the Bible (he also worked out elaborate techniques for memorization and the imaginative meditation on Scripture). Origen's influence is evident in the exegetical work of Jerome who developed facility in Hebrew. An important example of early Christian interpretation is Augustine's De doctrina christiana, in which both literal and figurative exegesis are discussed, along with the need for criteria in determining between readings of biblical texts.
The issue of criteria soon became important in the developing tradition of Christian exegesis, particularly as emerging orthodoxy sought to distinguish its own approach to Scripture from rival interpretations. Appeal to visionary experience, such as we find in Paul's Letter to the Galatians (1:12–16), was declared inadequate by the orthodoxy, even as secret revelation as a source of authority became a favorite means in what have come to be known as Gnostic scriptures. In the face of conflicting interpretations of the Scriptures, there emerged the rule of faith, a concise summary of the basic articles of the faith, the origins of which can be found in New Testament passages.
As in Jewish exegesis (for example, the rules [middoth ] attributed to Hillel), Christian interpreters formulated exegetical rules to assist with interpretation and to set the bounds of interpretative possibility. Often these were formulated in connection with the interpretation of Apocalypse, which throughout the history of interpretation had presented problems for interpreters because of the allusiveness of its figurative language. The earliest set of exegetical rules was developed by Tyconius, the great fifth-century Donatist exegete. The exegesis of Tyconius had a profound effect on Augustine: Tyconius claims that a biblical text has a dual perspective, as is appropriate for a Bible with two testaments. His interpretation of Apocalypse and his general biblical interpretation were closely intertwined. The seven interpretative rules outlined in his Book of Rules allow the possibility of multiple references in Scripture. For Tyconius, the biblical text is a tool that facilitates moral and spiritual discernment. His method allows him to apply even obviously eschatological passages to the present life of the church as present and future are always mingled. Seeing the world as divided into two opposed societies, he finds references this duality throughout Scripture. The struggle between the demonic and the divine is evident in both the individual and society.
The Reformation saw a reaction against dominant trends in exegesis that in some ways resembled the earlier reaction against the allegorical exegesis of Origen. John Calvin's (1509–1564) commentaries take up grammatical and historical matters, with careful attention paid to context. Martin Luther's (1483–1546) interpretative concerns are more overtly theological and interpretative, as he sought to find a basic principle for interpreting scripture. The emphasis on the letter of the text as opposed to deeper spiritual or moral readings forms the heart of the protestant reaction to the exegetical methods that had been developed over centuries. This reaction often took the form of a vigorous rejection of the variety of exegetical methods. Luther stressed the importance of the plain statement of the gospel, with what constituted the heart of the Christian message and by which all else in the Bible and Christian interpretation should be judged. For him the letters of Paul and the Gospel of John offered the essence of Scripture. On the radical wings of the Reformation Anabaptist, interpreters like Hans Denck (1495–1527) went further and anticipated the modern tendency to question the propriety of obedience to the letter of the text of the Bible as the cornerstone of the Christian religion in favor of engagement with the spirit of the text—which suited their conviction that scripture was only a witness to the Living Christ at work in the hearts and lives of all people.
With the coming of the Enlightenment, a significant shift occurred away from the long tradition of interpretation based on ecclesiastical teaching, towards a focus on historical contextualization that drew on ancient texts written contemporaneously with the Bible. There are a variety of reasons for this change. A move away from reliance on the Vulgate necessitated knowledge of Greek literature to enable the translation of biblical texts. The Christian tradition of Hebrew scholarship led to an appreciation of the value of certain parts of the corpus of rabbinic literature, whether for apologetic or illustrative purposes. The awareness of the different manuscript traditions of the Greek Bible emerged and with it a realization that the Holy Scriptures were a mélange of texts with a multitude of differences. This was accompanied by a growing interest in texts that were contemporaneous with the New Testament. Thus, for example, the Apocalypse of Enoch, brought back from Ethiopia, where it had been preserved by the Ethiopian Church, was first published at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The points of contact of parts of this book with the New Testament gospels has meant that it has been a pivotal text in New Testament exegesis ever since.
By far the most important aspect of Enlightenment thinking, in relation to the ways in which biblical text was interpreted, was the growing suspicion of authoritative institutions. The primacy of history and human reason as a basis for theology led to a very different enterprise which needed to be undertaken from first principles. It was no longer sufficient to accept the Bible's authority on the basis of tradition, as it too needed to be vindicated by human reason. This new attitude, when taken in the context of philological and historical developments, led to a growing recognition that the parts of the Bible were historically various and by no means homogenous.
The interpretation of the Pentateuch, for example, represents a typical feature of Enlightenment criticism. Recognition of differences and tensions within the text of Genesis did not only start with modernity. Philo Judaeus in the first century ce noted the differences between the creation narratives (Gen. 1 and 2 in his Allegorical Interpretation of the Laws ). Such differences provided him with a reason to engage in a theological disquisition, rather than tempting him to offer an explanation that resorts to source criticism. The modern interpreter would explain the differences as stemming from the collation of texts coming from very different periods and with multiple sources and different agendas. Thus, Genesis 1 is an account of the creation which represents the interests of priestly groups at the time of the Exile in Babylon in the sixth century bce, whereas the creation in Genesis 2 is a story which emerged in the court of the Judean kings three or four centuries earlier.
Enlightenment biblical criticism further considered questions that had been raised for centuries about different parts of Scripture (for example about the Pauline authorship of Hebrews and the Johannine authorship of the Apocalypse). Differences between texts that were attributed to Paul, particularly the difference in vocabulary and tone between the so-called Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Tim. and Titus ) and the mainstream Pauline texts like Romans 1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians, led to questions being raised about Pauline authorship of the former. Similarly apostolic authorship of the gospels was widely questioned, with the central problem being the difference in style, chronology, and content between the first three gospels (often called the Synoptic Gospels because their material can be examined "synoptically" in parallel columns) and the Gospel of John. This problem remains at the heart of modern criticism and the understanding of the relationship between the two streams of tradition seems scarcely any nearer resolution.
Typical of modern historical interpretation has been the fascination with the search for the real Jesus behind the gospel narratives. G. E. Lessing (1729–1781) published the fragments of a work on reason and the Bible by H. S. Reimarus (1694–1768), which helped initiate a new age in interpretation of the gospels. While the variety of attempts to recover the Jesus of history has been testimony to the ongoing interest in the subject, there has been a basic similarity in the kinds of portraits that have been constructed. Such portraits have often involved sophisticated source analysis, and a concerted attempt to reconstruct the earliest writings of Christianity that bear witness to Jesus.
The basic outlines of the various modern interpretations of the historical Jesus were already in place by the beginning of the twentieth century. There have been three major ways of construing the Jesus of history in the modern period. First (and most venerable, as it is the hypothesis of Reimarus) is the view that Jesus was a Jewish messianic pretender, whose attempts to bring about God's kingdom on earth led to his execution at the hands of the Romans. Second is the view that Jesus was a prophet of the end of the world. Third is the picture of Jesus as a teacher, or holy man, who was part of a nonconformist fringe in Second Temple Judaism.
Interest in history led to another important development in modern interpretation. The various texts seemed to open a window onto the life and disputes of the religious communities which produced them and to whom they were addressed. Thus, in the Hebrew Bible the period of the Exile, when the elite of Jerusalem ended up in forced exile in Babylon, was seen as a period of great soul-searching and intellectual creativity—during which the traditions of the past were examined and systematized and the disasters of previous decades understood in the light of the primary theological convictions. In the New Testament the hints of difficulties that emerge briefly in Paul's letters were regarded as a symptom of an underlying tension between different strands of Christianity in the earlier period. In the hands of Ferdinand Christian Baur and his Tübingen school of the mid-nineteenth century, these hints revealed tensions between a form of Christianity linked with Peter and James, which maintained the basic contours of Jewish practice, and a different form of religion pioneered by Paul, which has a looser relationship to Jewish law. Here conflict was the motor of religious development, a concept in part inspired by Hegelian views of history. The various books in the New Testament could be plotted according to where they stood in this ideological struggle, or, as in the case of texts like Luke and Acts, how they contributed to the reconciliation between these antithetical positions.
This kind of exegesis of biblical texts has provided the basis of much modern interpretation. Literary remains form the basis of imaginative reconstructions of the life of communities. Characters in narratives become ciphers for different groups. In this approach the fabric of the text and its form become a kind of window through which (with varying degrees of distortion) the situation behind the text, that other story which allegory seeks to expose, can be laid bare. The gospels contain indications that we cannot read them without attention to another level of meaning (Matt. 28:15 is a good example). It is that other story which an interpretation suspicious of the credibility of religious texts, for whatever reason, has been intent on laying bare.
In another respect the contrasting emphasis between the words and that to which they bear witness has been a thread that links the first century and the modern world. The two giants of modern biblical interpretation, Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, differed over the emphasis they gave to the words of scripture. The former saw them as witnesses to the Divine Word who in some way stood behind the text (e.g. Church Dogmatics 1/1: 125–6), whereas Bultmann considered that the words themselves were the very medium of that meeting with the Divine Word. There has always been a need to move beyond the detail of the text to grasp the essential thrust of the texts' meaning. In modern criticism this has taken a very distinctive turn. Sachkritik is a form of interpretation in which a reading of a text is offered in the light of what its modern interpreter deems to be its essential subject matter: the interpreter, therefore, tells us what the text is really about. Thus, the interpreter grasps the nature of the book and by focusing on particular verses to interpret the whole, offers other readers insight into what the critic considers the fundamental subject matter.
Another distinctive aspect of the Enlightenment's historical study of the Bible, and one that, arguably, has thrown the most light on its interpretation, was the location of the Bible in the study of the history of religions. Much of this study has concentrated on the history of ideas, so that biblical creation myths are compared with those from Babylonia, or the gospel parable with the multitude of examples that are to be found in the corpus of Jewish rabbinic literature. What emerged in the last decades of the twentieth century, however, was a greater concern with the social implications of those ideas. With the emergence of a Marxist approach to the study of ideology, less emphasis has been placed on the influence of individual ideas and more on social movements and the complex interests and power relations which lead to the triumph of particular ideas and of particular social and economic forces that supported them. Thus, critic Karl Kautsky's (1854–1938) work on the origins of Christianity differs markedly from much mainstream biblical exegesis in the way in which he tries to interpret the early Christian texts within the context of the socioeconomic history of the Greco-Roman world.
In an environment in which the human origin of biblical texts was being asserted more and more, there was a need to reassert their divine authority, particularly in the case of Protestants, for whom the central authority of the Bible was crucial for the maintenance of religious community. In one sense, of course, the authority of the texts themselves was common to both sides of the argument. The extraordinary character of the engagement with the Bible was a recognition of its authority and of its dominance in culture and theology. However, a stronger argument for biblical authority was necessary to justify a subservience of human will to the letter of Scripture. Some conservative views of the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures maintain the infallibility of the words of human authors as the means by which Almighty God chose to communicate with humanity, thereby guaranteeing the necessity of human interpreters to attend to the exact meaning of these words as the vehicle of divine truth.
So far nothing has been written explicitly about hermeneutics and yet the preceding pages have all been about hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the study of the principles of interpretation, and is best used as a way of describing a critically reflective activity concerned with the interpretation of texts. The interpretation of the Bible has played a significant if not central role in the history of hermeneutics, as the reflection on reading and interpretation of texts (or for that matter any artifact) was given impetus by discussions about the authority of the Bible, and by questions raised by its interpretation. From the very start of Christian exegesis, hermeneutics was a vital issue, as the early Christians sought to understand their own relationship with the scriptures that they shared with the Jews. Modern hermeneutics has become largely independent of biblical interpretation, however, even if it owes its origins to debates about the interpretation of the Bible. Key interpreters like Paul Ricoeur and Hans Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) have recognized the importance of the interpretation of the Bible in the history of critical reflection on the different ways of reading.
There has been a gradual recognition that the history of influence has a crucial part to play in the understanding of Christian exegesis of the Bible. The important work of Gadamer has stressed the way in which any reading contains within it some traces of the previous history of the interpretation of that text. The understanding of the original setting of the text has always, therefore, to be seen within the context of the contribution of culture and received wisdom as that which has conditioned the present form of interpretation. A glance at most modern interpretations of biblical texts reveals how little attention is given both to the pre-Enlightenment interpretation of these texts and to the wider cultural appropriation of the texts in non-religious writing and other media, which collectively exhibit an influence whose importance for exegesis should not be neglected. In reaction, there have arisen a variety of attempts to reacquaint exegesis with the history of interpretation and the history of the effects of the text, as both are seen as crucial components of the exegetical task. This has in part been an appeal to tradition (though the appeal to tradition is always double-edged as tradition itself, like the notion of what is a classical text, is a highly controverted concept). An openness to the varieties of effects of biblical texts also puts Christian exegesis in touch with wider intellectual currents in the humanities, so that literature, art, and music become part of its purview.
There have been moves away from the preoccupation with biblical text as witness to ancient history and toward an engagement solely with the text itself—with its structure and form and with the issues that the readers themselves bring to their interpretation. This reflects a suspicion of the difficulties attendant on much of the historical reconstruction that has been regarded as an indispensable basis for exegesis. It has led to interpretations in which the text itself is deemed to be the focus of meaning, without reference to external sources of comparison. This kind of textual analysis does not take into consideration any data external to the text, such as the intention of the author or the nature of the likely audience, any events to which the text refers, or the sources which might lie behind the text as we now have it. In this kind of interpretation the exposition of a text's meaning is worked out through contrasts and connections within the text, through the exploration of characters and the way they interact.
Another reaction to historical exegesis appeared in the last decades of the twentieth century with the emergence of a variety of contextual theologies in the developing nations, and with the formation of an influential feminist interpretation. It should be noted that to label this kind of theology contextual is to make a false distinction between supposedly neutral exegesis and committed exegesis, as all interpretation has a context and a tradition of interpretation which conditions its approach. What has emerged in liberationist exegesis and feminist and related interpretations is a conscious avowal of the importance of the ways in which readers' contexts determine exegesis.
Liberation theology emerged from Roman Catholic theology based on the Second Vatican Council, and the encyclicals associated with it. It developed in the context of the emergence of the Basic Ecclesial or Christian Communities (the CEBs). In the basic communities the Bible has become a catalyst for the exploration of pressing contemporary issues. Understanding the Bible takes place in the dialectic between the Bible as a witness to the memory of the struggles for justice of the people of God on the one hand and the issues of the contemporary world on the other. Thus, the emphasis is not placed on the text's meaning in itself, but rather on the meaning the text has for the people reading it. It is an interpretation that is passionate and committed and challenges a widespread view that exegesis is primarily about letting the text speak for itself, unencumbered by contemporary issues. Connections are made between contemporary demands and bible stories. This can take various forms. Bible study can go straight to the text with no concern for its original historical context. This method Clodovis Boff describes as an example of correspondence of terms, in which persons or events function in a kind of typological relationship with scriptural analogies. Alternatively, bible study may also include outlines of the historical and social contexts of biblical texts, so that the struggles facing the people of God at another time and place may be discerned. The experience of poverty and oppression is regarded as being as important a text as Scripture itself. In this approach to the Bible, which is rooted in the needs of the people, there emerges an authentic Christian praxis leading to the transformation of society. So, exegesis is not neutral, and participation in the struggle for a better life is key to the discovery of the meaning of texts. Practice itself stimulates understandings that would only with difficulty have emerged through the calm reflection of academy or church. The implication is that academic analysis might not, in some instances at least, offer the best or most appropriate understanding of a text, and that one who is engaged in the struggle for political justice for the poor and outcast might, in certain circumstances, better capture the spirit of the text. This way of reading the Bible has affinities with earlier methods in the opportunity offered for an imaginative interface between the biblical text and the existential situation of the interpreters.
The exponents of this kind of exegesis, which stresses the conscious recognition of the events of one's life and the circumstances in which one lives as ingredients in the exegetical process, attach great interpretative importance to the fact that what one undergoes and learns thereby informs the understanding of the text. In different ways this has been key to all kinds of feminist exegesis and Black Theology. Sometimes this has led to a much more critical attitude towards the liberative value of the text. Using historical tools of analysis, liberationists have sought to disentangle and describe the ways in which the liberative traditions in the Bible have been taken up and employed by the elite in the service of a more repressive and restrictive religion, whose effects on society have been deleterious and from which an enlightened, liberative reading can hope to emancipate people. Feminist exegesis, for example, has patiently explored the occasional inclination in the texts to reclaim the voice of women in historical situations in which women were denied or were losing power. Such liberative approaches have many antecedents long before the twentieth century where interpretation of the Bible has been at the heart of struggles for justice among radical groups throughout the history of the church.
Christian exegesis of the Bible at the beginning of the twenty-first century is increasingly polarized. The principal positions, however, share much in common with earlier approaches in the history of exegesis. On the one hand, there is an appeal to the letter of the Bible as the basis for doctrine and ethics. On the other hand, there is a willingness to allow for a modern interpretative framework in which the insights of the modern world are given their theological due. Appeals to Christian exclusivism appear ever more fragile in an increasingly multicultural world. Nevertheless, the claim to exclusiveness underlying the key element of Christian doctrine, the coming of the messiah in the person of Jesus, seems to leave little room for debate. In one respect, however, the New Testament does leave open the door for a more liberal and inclusive approach. Fundamental to the understanding of the Christian revelation is the belief that Christians live by faith, not by sight, and that in this age one "sees in a glass darkly" and not yet "face to face." That suggests the possibility of an approach to difference that may seem excluded by some of the more assertive claims of contemporary Christianity.
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Christopher Rowland (2005)