A History of Biblical Interpretation Volume I: the Ancient Period

One primary goal of the editors is to be as broad-based as possible.

Edited by
Alan J. Hauser and Duane F. Watson

I. The Scope of the Project

Due to the nature of the task and due to the diversity and enormous scope of the material to be treated, any attempt to compose a history of biblical interpretation will be a major undertaking. That is especially the case in a project as ambitious as A History of Biblical Interpretation, which will run to several volumes, with approximately 15 articles each. Such an undertaking is, of necessity, the product of the diligent efforts of many experts in specific areas of biblical interpretation, and a word of gratitude is to be extended to the many scholars who are participating in this enterprise.

To the editors belong the tasks of: 

  • deciding which subject areas merit extensive treatment in an article; 

  • finding skilled experts on these chosen topics; and 

  • pulling all of this together into a coherent whole. 

The editors will, no doubt, be evaluated by readers primarily by their success in carrying out these tasks. 

Some scholars may argue that other topics merited an article or that certain key issues could have been treated differently. However, if reader response criticism tells us that the perspectives and idiosyncrasies of individual readers are important and unavoidable in exploring how a particular text is understood, the same logic certainly applies to presenting a history of biblical interpretation. Such a history is the interaction between the many records of biblical interpretation which have survived from previous centuries and the social, political, religious, and ideological perspectives of those scholars today who are composing the history. While the editors have done their best to be inclusive and even-handed, no doubt certain personal perspectives have influenced some key decisions: hence, the inclusion of the key word "A" as the initial word of the title for this series of volumes: A History of Biblical Interpretation.

II. Distinctive Features of A History of Biblical Interpretation

A good way to begin describing this project is by looking at what the editors view to be distinctive emphases in the first volume of A History of Biblical Interpretation, due out soon from Eerdmans, and in the forthcoming multi-volume collection as a whole. One primary goal of the editors is to be as broad-based as possible, as shown by the inclusion of articles treating interpretation within particular circles that are not always discussed in much detail (or at all) in a history of biblical interpretation. For example, volume I contains an article on rabbinic midrash by Gary Porton, and the second volume will continue this interest in interpretation within Jewish circles by including articles on early medieval Jewish exegesis and on Rashi and other late medieval Jewish interpreters. 

Another area typically not given much attention is interpretation within Eastern Orthodox communities, which have long placed strong emphasis on the teachings of the Greek Fathers. An article on this topic will be included in volume 2. 

Likewise, interpretation during the middle ages is often presented with broad strokes and sweeping generalizations, without due attention paid to the considerable diversity within this period. Volume 2 will treat this period in detail with several articles. 

Another factor that often does not receive much attention is interpretation as practiced in books that did not make it into the Jewish and Christian canons. Volume 1 contains an article by James Charlesworth on the interpretation of the Tanak in Jewish Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha and an article by Craig Evans on the interpretation of scripture in the New Testament Apocrypha and Gnostic Writings.

III. Changes in Biblical Interpretation During the Past Twenty-Five Years 

In addition to providing examples of these topic areas that deserve and will receive substantial treatment in A History of Biblical Interpretation, it is important to note that biblical interpretation has begun to change dramatically during approximately the past quarter century. These changes within contemporary methods for doing biblical interpretation are bound to change the way in which we analyze and assess the history of biblical interpretation. For example, if social scientific criticism has taught us the importance of understanding the social, political, and economic matrix within which a particular unit of the biblical text was formed or reworked, it is also true that we must study the social, political, and economic forces which motivated the many subsequent eras of interpretation and which also motivate our own understanding of the interpretive process. The significance of this realization, that changes in contemporary methods of interpretation impact in important ways how we understand the history of biblical interpretation, is observable in many of the articles contained in volume 1, as it will also be in subsequent volumes.

Another important factor coming to the forefront in recent biblical interpretation is the blurring of the line between a biblical text and the interpretation of that text. Reader response criticism has shown clearly that the text -- reader interaction is a dynamic, changing one, rather than simply a process in which a reader probes a static text in order to discover "its" meaning. This can be seen clearly in McNamara's article on the targums, discussed below, and in Davies' article on interpretation in the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), also discussed below.

While one could mention numerous other changes in contemporary biblical interpretive methodology which spill over and impact our understanding of the history of interpretation, let me conclude by mentioning one of the more significant ones. This is the realization that employing a number of different approaches to understanding a biblical text need not add confusion, but rather can contribute richness to our understanding of a biblical text.

That was just as true for ancient biblical interpreters as it is for us today, as, for example, Davies' article on biblical interpretation in the DSS clearly indicates. The DSS community (or, for that matter, the Apostle Paul) was not focused on methodological consistency, but rather on extracting by whatever means necessary the truths contained in the biblical texts, truths which had powerful existential meaning for the writers and for the members of their community. In this matter of methodological diversity, contemporary biblical scholarship appears to be departing from the centripetal focus of inquiry prevalent in the 19th and throughout most of the 20th centuries and returning to the appreciation of diversity of method exemplified in ancient scholars such as Philo, Origen, the rabbis, the DSS community, Augustine, etc.

IV. A History of Biblical Interpretation - Volume 1: The Ancient Period

A Sampling of Articles

In the space allotted for my comments, I cannot possibly give a brief sketch of all 15 articles in A History of Biblical Interpretation - Volume 1: The Ancient Period. Let me instead discuss briefly some sample articles, with a complete list of those not discussed coming at the end of this discussion.

Gary Porton on Rabbinic Midrash

Porton's article "Rabbinic Midrash" focuses on the development of midrash specifically within the circles of rabbinic teachers. Midrash was a tool for understanding the Tanak (Christian Old Testament) used by a relatively small, select circle of intellectuals within Judaism, unlike the targums (see below), which were translations/interpretations done for the benefit of all Jews. Porton argues that many of the allusions and connections employed in the midrashim would have been too obscure for Jews outside rabbinic circles to understand.

Noting that neither the Mishnah nor the Talmud make any systematic attempt to link their teachings to the sacred texts of the Torah, Porton observes that the rabbis were apparently troubled by this. They therefore composed, bit by bit, over a considerable period of time, the many pieces of midrash now contained in the various collections of midrashim that have come down to us. These midrashim comment extensively upon scriptural texts in order to link many of the teachings in the Mishnah and Talmud directly to the written Torah. According to Porton, the Mishnah plus the gemara constructed around it (Talmud), along with the Torah and the midrashim commenting upon it, together constitute "a larger rabbinic mythic structure" which focuses on the exposition and explication of the revelation given to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

Esther Menn on Inner-biblical Exegesis in the Tanak

While biblical interpretation has long been concerned (through its focus on "literary criticism," form criticism, redaction criticism, etc.) with the formation, development, and redaction of the biblical text of the Tanak, the dynamic interplay between developing written elements of biblical tradition has not always received sufficient treatment. Recent attention to inner-biblical exegesis has provided more focus on this matter, shedding light on this very early and highly influential form of biblical interpretation.

In her article "Inner-biblical Exegesis in the Tanak," Menn discusses the extensive history of the conscious utilization and revision of earlier written texts within the Israelite/Jewish communities, until the eventual establishment of the canon and standard biblical text. Menn notes that, while the interpretation of traditional texts was prominent after the beginning of the exile in Babylon (587 BCE), it certainly was a substantial factor prior to that time as well. Thus, the interpretation and reapplication of early biblical literature by those composing subsequent biblical literature was a key component in the development of the Tanak.

The presence of a set, standard text and canon has not, in the medieval and modern eras, inhibited the creativity of interpreters of biblical literature. In earlier, pre-canonical days, there would have been far fewer inhibitions working against an open-ended reconfiguration of the shape and meaning of early biblical traditions to meet the religious, political, social, and ideological needs of a subsequent generation. 

James Charlesworth on the Jewish Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha

While the interpretation and reapplication of biblical literature by successive generations within the ancient Jewish canonical heritage is the focus of Menn's article, Charlesworth's article "The Interpretation of the Tanak in the Jewish Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha" focuses on interpretation of the Tanak by writers whose works did not eventually find acceptance within the Jewish Tanak. These writers also worked to reconfigure Israel's earlier traditions so that they would address the religious, political, social, and ideological needs of their own generation. The variety in their interpretive techniques is quite fascinating.

Clearly, Charlesworth could not, in a single article, explore all the subtleties and nuances of interpretation within the vast category of apocryphal and pseudepigraphal literature, so he has chosen to discuss typical examples. Charlesworth notes that some samples of this literature only interpret a circumscribed portion of the Tanak, as in the case of the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, which treats the Genesis narratives of Jacob and his sons. In contrast, I Enoch 1-36 draws on traditions from throughout the Tanak. Jubilees, a sermonic expansion of Genesis 1:1 through Exodus 12:50, rewrites difficult passages so that the biblical narrative is less problematic. For example, Jubliees 19:16-31 explains that Rebecca loved Jacob rather than Esau because her father-in-law Abraham foresaw that Esau would not be a worthy heir. Baruch provides an exegetical commentary on several books of the Tanak, most especially Jeremiah, Deuteronomy, and Daniel, as well as certain wisdom traditions.

Philip Davies on Interpretation in the Dead Sea Scrolls

Another fascinating analysis of the varieties within ancient Jewish biblical interpretation is Davies' article "Biblical Interpretation in the Dead Sea Scrolls." One of Davies' main points is that the boundaries of Israel's sacred writings were quite fluid for the writers of the DSS. No clear delineation was made between books regarded as unmistakably scriptural and books which lay outside the bounds of scripture. 

Likewise, there was not a clear boundary between sacred texts and the subsequent interpretation of those texts, between authoritative texts and what can be an equally authoritative interpretation and elucidation of those texts. In the mind of the sectarians, their interpretations only made more clear and more explicit what was already present in their many texts, and their interpretation therefore provided ongoing revelation in which the community expanded and reshaped previous sacred documents in order to make clear the message God had already given to his chosen community. 

If the community saw itself as participating in the process of ongoing revelation, there were a number of means by which it could explore the earlier documents in order to uncover the meanings appropriate to their day. The Habakkuk Commentary, a pesher (interpretation) of the prophetic book of Habakkuk written to extract from Habakkuk teachings relevant to the apocalyptic expectations of the DSS community, is one of their more famous interpretations. In it, brief units of text from the prophet alternate with commentary by the community on those texts.

In a somewhat different vein, the Melchizedek Midrash interweaves texts from numerous sacred books, thereby forming a coherent picture of the end of the age. The Genesis Apocryphon does not deal with the text of Genesis in an explicitly exegetical manner, as the Habakkuk Commentary does with the book of Habakkuk, but rather expands and embellishes the biblical text of Genesis.

Another interesting case is the Damascus Document, which presents a collection of the laws of the DSS community. As the writer saw it, these laws were derived from the Torah of Moses by means of an ongoing revelation to the true remnant. The rewriting and expansion of earlier collections of laws by later writers clearly occurs already within the Pentateuch, and often both the earlier and the later forms are preserved in the text of the Tanak. Would there be any reason, then, to think that the writer of the Damascus Document saw himself to be doing anything different from what had already been done by some of the previous biblical writers/interpreters within the Pentateuch?

Thus, for the writers of the DSS, interpretation was not simply a process of deciphering meaning from within a set collection of sacred documents, but rather a matter of elucidating and expanding upon both the teachings and the sacred literature that had been received from previous generations.

Robert McNamara on Interpretation in the Targumim

Turning to the Targums, we see a form of interpretation aimed at the general public. In this area of study also, the line between the sacred text and the interpretation of the text is blurred. These translations of the Jewish community's scriptures from Hebrew to Aramaic were done for the benefit of the many Jews who were no longer fluent in Hebrew. Despite being translations into Aramaic, they carried the full impact of the sacred texts, since they were the only scripture available for the vast majority of those who used them, as McNamara notes in his article "Interpretation of Scripture in the Targumim."

Typically, these translations were not done once and thereafter preserved unchanged, but rather were modified in successive generations as the needs of each period changed, showing the strong, ongoing interconnectedness of translation and interpretation. As McNamara notes, they resemble a tel, with a number of successive strata built one upon another. 

In the context of the synagogue, elements in the scriptures may have been obscure and therefore in need of interpretation or explanation. Or, they may have offended the theological and/or cultural sensitivities of the readers and hearers. This would have necessitated an interpretation of the text which would adapt it to the culture, developing religious beliefs, social forms and practices, intellectual environment, and broader external world of each successive generation during which the targumim were used.

One category of changes involves halachic revisions, which necessitated keeping a particular law, as it is stated in scripture, in sync with current practices. For example, "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk," from Exod. 23:19, 34:26, and Deut. 14:21, becomes in Targum Onqelos and the Palestinian Targum "Do not consume meat with milk," reflecting contemporary dietary practice.

Sometimes the Aramaic says the opposite of the Hebrew text, as when Cain's protest in Genesis 4:14, "From your face I will be hidden," becomes, in Targum Onqelos and the Palestinian Targum, "It is impossible to hide from before you." The (presumably embarrassing) description of Moses' wife as a "Cushite woman" in Num. 12:1 becomes "Like a Cushite in complexion" in the Palestinian Targum, "beautiful" in the Targum Onkelos, and "raised in prayer" in Targum Neofiti.

In some cases, the eschatological reference of a passage is heightened, as when in Deut. 32:39 God's saying "See now . . . I kill and make alive" becomes in the Palestinian Targum "I am he who causes the living to die in this world, and who brings the dead to life in the world to come." As one might well imagine, there are also cases in which a certain targum expands considerably what is said in a particular biblical text.

One final, interesting example deals with particularly difficult or troubling biblical texts, such as the lying of Jacob's son Reuven with Jacob's concubine Bilhah, the story of the golden calf, David's adultery with Bathsheba, or Amnon's rape of Tamar. In cases such as these, it was suggested that these texts be read aloud in Hebrew but not translated into Aramaic. Apparently, no amount of euphemism, adaptation, and revision could make these texts fit for consumption by the general body politic of Judaism.

Donald Juel on New Testament Interpretation of Israel's Scriptures

The writers of the New Testament fit in, of course, with this need to reapply the traditions of the Tanak in a new interpretive context. As Juel discusses in detail in his article "Interpreting Israel's Scriptures in the New Testament," the earliest Christians were either Jews or converts to Judaism. They would therefore have seen Christianity not as a new religion, but rather as the fulfillment of the essence of the entire Jewish heritage. As one would expect, they used interpretive methods typical within Judaism to show how the Christian message relates directly to, and is derived from, the Tanak.

The key new feature, of course, was the Christian claim that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. Therefore, the use of Israel's scriptures by the early church and the writers of the New Testament is both a continuation of the reinterpretation and adaptation of the Jewish scriptures as it had been practiced for centuries within the Jewish community, as well as a significant departure that sends interpretation in new directions. Numerous Old Testament terms, phrases, and passages now took on a christological reference through the use of typology and other methods typical of Jewish interpretation. The goal was to demonstrate that Jesus was the Messiah who had inaugurated the kingdom of God. An example would be the phrase the "day of the Lord." In the Tanak, it refers to God's day of judgment upon the enemies of Israel. Christianity reinterprets it as referring to the coming of Jesus as Lord in judgment.

As Juel notes, a common interpretive technique which the New Testament adopts from Judaism is the use of midrash. Midrash assumes that all words and passages of scripture are of equal weight. They can be used to interpret one another because they all derive from God. Therefore, any word or passage of scripture can be used to interpret any other word or passage, while historical and literary contexts of any passage are not of primary significance. 

The Christian conviction that Jesus was the Messiah led them to use midrash to bring passages together into new constellations of texts. The suffering servant passage in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 provides a classic example of how Christianity took a passage that did not have Messianic significance in Judaism and reinterpreted it as a prophecy of the suffering Messiah. Christianity wove this passage into the larger configuration of Davidic, messianic passages which the Jewish community had gathered over many years from the Tanak. 

Juel also notes that, during this period, the books that later came to constitute the New Testament had not yet themselves come to be regarded and interpreted as scripture, even though II Peter 3: 15-16, which was written very late, suggests that things are beginning to move in that direction, at least as far as respect for Paul's writings is concerned. 

Joseph Trigg on Interpretation in the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists

During the second century of Christianity's existence, interpretation within the church began to move in new directions. As Trigg points out in his article "The Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists," there is no indication that the Apostolic Fathers (who lived immediately after the New Testament period) regarded the New Testament as scripture, even though some, such as 2 Clement, appear to give especially the letters of Paul significant weight. Polycarp, too, is filled with allusions to books later included in the New Testament. By the time of the Apologists, however, in the latter two-thirds of the second century, numerous books of the New Testament, such as the four Gospels, Acts, and the Pauline Epistles, are beginning to be understood as scripture.

Furthermore, among the Apologists, such as Justin Martyr, there is a clear desire to defend Christianity and make it palatable to the pagan world, and most especially to the intelligentsia. In his Apologies, Justin Martyr tries to prove to pagans that the prophets of the Old Testament present a philosophy that is superior to Greek philosophy, providing a more reliable and a finer presentation of Greek philosophical ideals. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin Martyr argues with a Jew that the Old Testament is a prophecy of Jesus as the Christ and of the Church as the New Israel.

In general, the literature of the Apostolic Fathers and of the Apologists employs several approaches to interpretation. In addition to literal-historical interpretation, we find: midrash; typology, which typically is applied especially in discussions of Jesus; and allegory. While allegory was not pervasive in the New Testament, it clearly was popular in the Apostolic Fathers and in second century culture in general.

It should also be noted that, especially under the influence of Irenaeas, there was by the close of the second century a growing tendency to appeal to church tradition, which began to have an authority all its own in the interpretation of scripture. 

V. A History of Biblical Interpretation - Volume 1: The Ancient Period

Articles Not Discussed Above 

While space does not permit me to highlight points from the many other fine articles in A History of Biblical Interpretation - Volume 1: The Ancient Period, let me list those articles: 

"Hebrew into Greek: Interpretation in, by, and of the Septuagint," by Leonard Greenspoon; 

"Philo of Alexandria as Exegete," by Peder Borgen; 

"The Stabilization of the Tanak," by James A. Sanders; 

"Alexandrian and Antiochene Exegesis," by Frances Young; 

"Jerome and the Vulgate," by Dennis Brown; 

"Augustine and the Close of the Ancient Period of Interpretation," by Richard A. Norris; 

"The Formation of the New Testament Canon and Its Significance for the History of Biblical Interpretation," by Harry Gamble; and 

"The Interpretation of Scripture in the New Testament Apocrypha and Gnostic Writings," by Craig A. Evans. 

This first volume of A History of Biblical Interpretation is preceded by an introductory article by Alan J. Hauser and Duane F. Watson. In this article, the two editors summarize the major points and emphases of the fifteen papers and draw out key themes and ideas that are characteristic of this period in the history of biblical interpretation.

Alan J. Hauser
Appalachian State University

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