Lecture 6: Christian Bible Interpretation



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Shaye J.D. Cohen CB23 scohen@fas.harvard.edu

Lecture 6: Christian Bible Interpretation


Review from lecture 5: ancient Jewish and Christian interpreters, and their medieval and modern continuators, assume that the Bible is:

  • Eternally true, Omnisignificant, Revealed by God, Speaking to and about us.

These assumptions manifest themselves in Christian exegesis thus: (Lecture 5 re Judaism in small print)

Bible is eternally true: absolute, unconditional; not bound to the time or conditions when it was first spoken or written; its original context does not affect meaning Truths are eternal. Hence, for example:

  • some contemporary Christians and Jews cite Leviticus 18 and 20 to justify the position that male homosexual intercourse is sinful;

  • some contemporary Christians and Jews oppose the doctrine of evolution because they think it is incompatible with Genesis 1.

  • Some contemporary Christians and Jews believe that “spare the rod, spoil the child” remains good child-rearing advice (Proverbs 13:24)

Omnisignificant: every word and detail has a purpose; in rabbinic exegesis even disembodied syllables can be significant; context of individual verses can be ignored in their interpretation.

  • This stance is not as strong in Christian exegesis [=interpretation, explanation] as in Jewish, perhaps because Christian exegesis [of the Hebrew Bible] is based on translation, but Christian exegetes too believe that the Bible does not have casual or stray details.

Revealed by God: hence perfect; inconsistencies and contradictions are only apparent. Since it is revealed by God it needs to be decoded, just as an oracle or a dream; like dream or oracle interpretation, this is best left to the experts. Divine discourse is “supercharged”; polysemy (the bible has multiple meanings, all of which are true).

  • Christians would say that the Bible has levels of meaning.

Speaking to and about Us: since the text is eternally true and since context does not matter, any part of the text can be thought relevant to Us and our current circumstance. Actualization of the narrative, the law, and the prophecies. Biblical episodes are paradigms that will be played out repeatedly in Jewish history: the slavery of Egypt, the Exodus, the destruction of the temple in 587 BCE, the close call under King Ahasuerus and the wicked Haman (in the book of Esther). Legal materials are, of course, always relevant.

  • Christians actualize the biblical narratives and the prophecies – they apply to Us Christians. (The law is more problematic for Christians, as we shall see).

How do Christians make the Bible refer/apply to Us Christians?

Gonzalez: Christians engaged in prophetic, allegorical and typological readings



Prophetic: Jesus’ life and death “fulfill” biblical prophecies; true meaning of the passage was not evident until Christ’s life (and death)

Allegory: treats words and text as metaphors for moral and philosophical truths; the text does not really mean what it appears to mean.

  • Allegorical reading undoes the reality of the words or texts that it treats; i.e. the referents of the words are not the “physical” things or actual events to which they seem to point, but rather to some moral or philosophical truths.

  • Allegorical readings either state or imply a contrast with a literal reading (letter vs. spirit, body vs. spirit, outer vs. inner, lower vs. higher): this contrast is explicit in Philo of Alexandria and in Paul (Romans 2:29, implicit in Galatians 4:24).

    • Philo of Alexandria: a Jewish philosopher and scriptural exegete, wrote in Greek, an important figure in the philosophical interpretation of the Torah

  • Over the centuries this two-level system becomes elaborated into three-level (on Origen see Gonzalez) and ultimately four-level systems, as the spiritual/allegorical reading gets subdivided into two or three types.

    • The theory that scripture contains four levels of meaning was established not later than Guibert of Nogent (1053–1124) and becomes standard in medieval Latin Christianity. The levels are: historical (literal), allegorical (referring to the Church), tropological (or moral, referring to the individual soul), and the anagogical (referring to the end time).

    • Probably under Christian influence Jewish mystics in the thirteenth century began to speak of four levels of meaning in the Torah: the simple or plain meaning, the allegorical meaning, the midrashic (or rabbinic) meaning, and the mystical meaning.

Typology: various events narrated by the Bible prefigure or foreshadow or represent Christ and/or the church. E.g. Noah’s ark, typologically considered, is the cross

  • Much debate by medieval and modern scholars how to distinguish typology from allegory, if indeed it should be distinguished.

  • Gonzalez sees typology as a kind of cross between the literal and the allegorical; like the literal, the typological accepts the historical reality of the persons and events to which it refers; like the allegorical it sees the person or event as a symbol of some aspect of the life of Christ or the truth of Christianity.

  • Thus John 6 is a typological reading (so I would argue) of the manna story of Exodus 16: Jesus is the bread of life, the bread that comes down from heaven (6:31-35); in contrast with the manna Jesus is the food that endures for eternal life (6:27, 52-58).

    • Contrast the Mekhilta which sees a direct connection between the manna and the gifts of the end time; in John there is a contrast.

    • In John 6:52-58 Jesus is the real food of life, clear reference to Christian Eucharist; absence of last supper and Eucharist in John.

  • See Justin re biblical laws; see Dial. 44.2:

    • For I say that some precepts [=commandments, mitzvot] were given (a) for the worship of God and practice of righteousness, whereas other commandments and customs were arranged (b) either in respect to the mystery of Christ (c) [or] the hardness of your people’s hearts.

    • (b) means: allegory or typology.

Last big points:

  • Neither Jews nor Christians read the Bible “literally”

    • Jews for the most part accepted the literalness of the legal categories of the Torah but derived many laws and deductions which flout a literal reading of the passage; see e.g. Stern re prohibition of eating meat and milk

    • Both Jewish and Christian exegetes routinely have the text say something it did not “really” or “originally” “mean.”

  • Jewish exegesis is both legal (or halakhic) and non-legal (aggadic or haggadic); Christian exegesis is mostly theological; absence of sustained exegesis even of those passages which spelled out observances that Christianity upheld.

  • Christian exegesis is far more programmatic than the Jewish: the point is to prove that Christ is the key to understanding the Hebrew Bible. Already evident in Justin.

Aren’t you acquainted with them [these words], Trypho? You should be, for they are contained in your Scriptures, or rather not yours, but ours. For we believe and obey them, whereas you, though you read them, do not grasp their spirit.


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