Guide to New Testament Interpretation


The Symbolism of Biblical Texts



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The Symbolism of Biblical Texts. The symbolism of a text includes its relatively few pure symbols—e.g. Jacob’s dream of the ladder with angels ascending and descending on it (Gen 28:12), which is interpreted by words of the Lord (Gen 28:13-15) as representing the connection between Jacob and God’s presence; the bde,lugma th/j evrhmw,sewj e`sthko,ta o[pou ouv dei/ [“the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be,” Mark 13:14, NRSV] as marked by the comment “let the reader understand”; the description of the curtain of the temple being torn in two when Jesus died (Mark 15:38); the star of “the king of the Jews” (Matt 2:2, 9-10). But the symbolism of a text is primarily formed by the symbolic dimension of the overall text, its figurative language—a network of figures, including but broader than its symbolic markers, such as metaphors, similes, synecdoches, metonymies, parables——and by the necessary extensions of this symbolic system beyond the text.

The figurative language of biblical texts is a good place to start, because it often has a very clear referential function in addition to its symbolic function. A first example clarifies what difference it makes to read a figure as a part of a symbolic system, and how this symbolic system extends beyond the text.

The figure of Jesus-preaching-the-Sermon-on-the-Mount (Matt 5-7)—Jesus as Moses-like, and thus as more than Moses, teaching with an authority greater than that of the scribes—has several possible referential functions. It refers to Matthew’s theological view (when studied, along side other Matthean figures, through redaction criticism); it refers to the socio-political situation of Matthew’s church addressed by this authoritative teaching of Jesus (when studied using a socio-political/religious approach); it even refers to the historical Jesus (when, with the use of form criticism and philological approaches, one elucidates the sayings of the Sermon on the Mount that can be ascribed to the historical Jesus). But beyond such referential functions, Jesus-on-the-Mount is a figure, i.e., a part of the symbolism of Matthew (as a symbolic system) that, together with other figures, represents for readers the connections between humans and ultimate reality, i.e., a system of convictions (self-evident truths), a semantic universe (Greimas), or a mythical world, in which believers can live in the presence of the divine.

This figure of Jesus, inscribed in the text of Matthew (5-7; the entire Gospel), necessarily also extends behind and in front of the text, because any figure presupposes: a) an intertext behind the text; b) a symbolic system within the text (to which the figure belongs); and c) an intertext in front of the text (that of the readers as they enter and embody the symbolic system).

a) The Biblical Figurative Language and Its Intertexts Behind the text. Commonly, one first apprehends a figure, in this case Jesus-on-the-Mount, by recognizing that it summons other texts and traditions—intertexts. This is readily recognizable when one seeks to name this figure. If we say that the figure of Jesus-on-the-Mount conveys that “Jesus is Moses-like,” we say that this figure makes sense if, and only if, one recognizes that this presentation of Jesus calls forth the image of Moses on Mount Sinai (or Horeb) in other biblical texts and traditions. Note that the figure of Jesus-on-the-Mount varies with the intertext that one chooses to make sense of this figure. Jesus can be Moses-like in that he proclaims from the Mount a) the revelation of a (new) covenant between God and God’s people, when one envisions Jesus in terms of Exodus 19; or b) the revelation of God’s will as expressed in commandments and their (re-)interpretations, when one envisions Jesus in terms of Exodus 20ff.; or c) the revelation of the (new) Torah, when one envisions Jesus in terms of Jewish traditions common in Mathew’s time that Torah was given “to Moses on [Mount] Sinai” (le Moshe mi-Sinai, Sifra on Lev 26:46; see also Pirke Aboth 1:1: “Moses received Torah from Sinai”); and so on.

This is enough to recognize that the figure Jesus-on-the-Mount extends behind the text to earlier intertexts and that the interpretation varies according to which of these intertexts is chosen as primary. The study of such figures requires adopting a comparative mode that characterizes the “history of religion” methodology and certain philological studies, in a quest for the possible intertexts for each figure—and in each case there are many. For instance, as one takes into account the ways in which the figure Jesus-on-the-Mount is presented in Matthew, one of its key features, the symbolic mountain (to. o;roj), calls forth many intertexts regarding mountains as places of revelation, thus representing a connection between humans and the divine. Of course, as scholars show, intertexts could be found in early Babylonian, Assyrian, Mandaean, Greek, and Palestinian traditions. But they have often ambivalent connotations (mountains as source of both blessings and dangers; their association with “false gods”) make them unlikely intertexts for Matthew and his community. The appropriate intertexts are, of course, in the Hebrew Bible and early Jewish texts and traditions—as Matthew signals by repeatedly quoting scripture. Thus commentators on Matthew, such as W. D. Davies and Dale Allison, point to Hebrew Bible texts that emphasize the superior power of God by presenting mountains as symbols of power (enduring forever, Gen 49:26; Ps 125:1) although they are no match for God’s power; thus mountains tremble before God (e.g., Nahum 1:5, Jer 4:24, 51:25) or melt before God (Micah 1:4; Isa 64:1 [63:19]; Ps. 97:5; Jer 51:25); consequently, mountains carry connotations related to judgment. Mountains are also associated with a sense of the nearness of God (from where God’s blessings and curses are called upon people; e.g., Deut 11:29) and as sites for theophanies (especially Mount Sinai and Mount Zion) and thus called the “mountain of God” (e.g. Horeb in Exod 3:1; 4:27). Thus, as Davies and Allison notes, for many early Jewish texts, such as Jubilees 1:2-4; Testament of Levi 2; Testament of Naphtali 5:1; Baruch 13:1, mountains are symbolic places of divine revelation.

These and many similar texts and traditions (listed by the many commentators who affirmed that Matthew recalls Mount Sinai and presents Jesus as a new Moses) are “potential” intertexts behind Matthew’s text. But, and this is a characteristic of symbolic language, the particular intertext is not specified. There is no formula quotation (such as “this is to fulfill what is written in Exodus 19-20”). Thus, for instance, the figure Jesus-on-the-mount makes a great deal of sense when read as alluding to texts and traditions about Mount Zion (as Donaldson does). In sum, the readers are called upon to make the connection, or more exactly to participate in the symbolic texts and to conceive of their connections to the mysterious revelatory presence of God that this figurative language invites them to make. A symbolic text does not dictate which intertext behind the text should be chosen.

Continuing with our example, other aspects of the figure of Jesus-on-the-Mount multiply the range of potential intertext. For instance, Matthew’s presentation of Jesus as sitting down in the midst of his disciples opens up the possibility of relating this figure with traditions regarding rabbis and scribes who, likewise, were teaching their disciples while sitting down. And so it is with all the figurative language that participates in the symbolism of religious texts. The more one studies the potential intertexts behind a religious text through the comparative approaches of the history of religion and philological studies, the broader the range of potential intertexts, and the clearer it becomes that one cannot and should not try to formulate its “symbolic meaning” into some kind of propositional formula. The symbolic meaning of the text is not some content of the text. It is an invitation to enter the text and to perform this text whatever might be the instruments or the mode of performance (a piano, an orchestra, a ballet company) we choose. Nevertheless, despite the many possible performances of this symbolism, there are constraints posited by the text. In each instance, one should be able to recognize that this is indeed a performance of the symbolism of a particular text. Whatever might be the transposition, the performance needs to represent the inter-connections inscribed in the text (as score) among all the features of the symbolic system, so that the symbolic interpretation might be recognizable as a performance of Matthew (and not of Mark or Exodus).

b) The Biblical Figurative Language as Inscribed in the Text. The symbolic system of a biblical text as a score to be performed is made up of recurrent themes (recurring figures) that are supported by the melody (the text’s narrative and “discursive” semantics, as Greimas would say).

Recurring figures in a text invite readers to interpret them together. To continue with the preceding example, the figure of Jesus-on-a-Mount is recurring throughout Matthew. Jesus is on a Mount being tempted by the devil (Matt 4:8); teaching the Sermon (5:1); praying (14:23); healing the sick and feeding a crowd (15:29); being transfigured and talking with Moses and Elijah (17:1); on the Mount of Olives from where he will enter Jerusalem (21:1), where he gives the apocalyptic discourse (24:3), and where he is with his disciples before being arrested (26:30). Finally Jesus in on the mount appearing to his disciples as the resurrected Christ with “all authority in heaven and on earth” and “commissioning” them (28:16)—a scene which in turn is connected with (indeed the fulfillment of) 26:64 where Jesus prophecies he will come back with power (quoting Daniel 7:13), and consequently with the figure of the “coming of the Son of Man in his glory,” also mentioned in 24:27 and 25:31-46, where he functions as the eschatological judge. Thus, through its variations from pericope to pericope, the figure of Jesus-on-a-Mount alludes to additional potential intertexts and unfolds throughout Matthew in ever more complex ways. The figure of Jesus-on-a-Mount is further modulated by Matthew’s uses of the mountain-figures in Jesus’ teaching—a city on a mount cannot be hidden (5:14); a mountain can be moved through prayer (17:20; 21:21); a mountain as the place where the 99 sheep are left by the shepherd who is searching for the lost sheep (18:12); and as a place of refuge in the end of time (24:16). Matthew’s symbolic system inter-connects all these figures of Jesus-on-a-Mount in a thematic way that also relates it to other figures in this Gospel. The performance of the symbolism by readers (see below) needs to represent the contrasting or supporting thematic inter-connections among all these figures.

Yet these themes “make sense” (connect the readers to an ultimate reality; become live symbolism) only in so far as they are perceived as an integral part of the melody that frames them. The Matthean figures and the entire figurative system they form together do not make sense if they are disconnected from the narrative semantic universe which frames them through its literary devices. (The same could be said about a didactic discourse, its figures, semantic universe, and rhetorical devices.)

A most common literary device in biblical books is the inclusio, where the beginning and end of a section are similar, thus "including" the intervening material as if between bookends. As a triadic literary device, the inclusio highlights both 1) the relationship between the bookends—which have parallel features (that signal them as forming an inclusio) but also differences (thus an inclusio can be viewed as underscoring the “inverted parallelism” between its bookends)—and 2) the center of the inclusio, in which case it is viewed as a “chiasm” (often involving progressive concentric inclusios).

Continuing the above example, commentators (e.g., Davies and Allison, Luz) who pay close attention to the symbolism of Matthew readily identify inclusios as well as triads (or triadic groupings, which in effect form inclusios). For instance, in the Sermon on the Mount, both the introduction (Matt 4:23-5:2) and the conclusion (7:8-8:1) features Jesus’ interaction with the crowds and the mountain—ascending or descending it (a first signal of inverted parallelism). Next, progressively going into the Sermon, the 3 triads of beatitudes (5:3-12) find counterpoints in the three warnings about the prospect of eschatological judgment (the two ways, beware of false prophets, the two builders; 7:13-27). Between the bookends of an introductory statement about the law and the prophets (5:17) and the golden rule as the law and the prophets (7:12), the body of the Sermon on the Mount includes three parts: Jesus and the Torah (5:17-48); the Christian cult (6:1-18); and social issues (6:19-7:12). At the center of the chiastic structure of the Sermon on the Mount, the section on the Christian cult is itself centered on the Lord’s Prayer (6:9-13).

The identification of such symbolic structures inscribed in a biblical text (as revealed through a detailed analysis of its literary devices) complements the interpretation of the figurative language in terms of intertexts (discussed above). It elucidates the basic connotations that clarify the significance of the figures and suggests ways in which these figures can be and should be performed by the readers in order to enter the connection between humans and ultimate reality represented by the symbolism of the text.

To continue our example, Luz (and Davies and Allison) see the Lord’s Prayer, the center of the chiasm, as the key to interpret the entire Sermon on the Mount, and ultimately the figure of Jesus-on-the-mount. From this perspective, entering the symbolic world of the Sermon is participating into a certain kind of worship—a prayer which sets the believers/readers into a particular kind of connection with the divine as “our Father in heaven” in an eschatological and apocalyptic mode, “Your kingdom come”. This prayer is thoroughly Jewish, as its symbolism and its intertexts show. Thus, the figure of a Moses-like Jesus-on-the-mount is to be viewed as underscoring continuity with Jewish worship—rather than a discontinuity that would emphasize the newness in Jesus and his teaching (also potentially present, since saying that Jesus is like-Moses is also saying that he is somewhat unlike-Moses, as Ricoeur emphasizes about metaphors).

Alternatively, one can emphasize the significance of the inverted parallelisms, by noting the semantic differences between the “bookends”, and how these semantic oppositions are mediated by the intervening material. Such a systematic analysis is called “structural,” because, following Lévi-Strauss, it seeks to elucidate the “mythical structure” or system of convictions that frames a religious text and its symbolism. To continue our example, one investigates the significance of the striking similarities and contrasts between the beginning and end of the Sermon on the Mount (see Patte’s structural commentary on Matthew). The emphasis is on the contrast between Jesus’ authority as the new Moses and that of the scribes (7:29), an authority based on a counter-cultural discernment of those who are blessed (not the rich, satisfied, successful, dominant, but the depressed [poor in spirit], those who mourn, the meek, those who struggle for justice, etc. 5:3-12) and of those who are cursed (those who chose the easy way, false prophets, those who build on the sand, 7:13-27). The emphasis on the eschatological judgment in 7:23-27 leads to a strong emphasis on the eschatological dimensions of the figure of Jesus-on-the-mount—associated with “new” revelation, theophany, and judgment. The distinctiveness of the figure of Jesus, by contrast with the scribes, is still perceived in a Jewish perspective (thus continuity), but underscores the eschatological and even apocalyptic character of Jesus. Entering the Matthean symbolism means entering an eschatological/apocalyptic world where prophecies and the law are fulfilled and thus re-interpreted in a radical way.

This brief illustration suggests that the study of the symbolism of a biblical text should not be limited to the study of the intertexts behind it by means of history of religion and philological approaches—necessary as these are. One also needs to account for the ways in which this symbolism is inscribed into the text. It is the symbolism as both enriched by intertexts and as inscribed into the text that readers are invited to perform, so that this symbolism might indeed function as symbolism by establishing a connection between the readers and ultimate reality.

c) The Biblical Figurative Language of the Text as Symbolism for the Readers. Studying the musical score is necessary; yet performing it brings to life the music. The symbolism of a biblical text is live-symbolism when readers enter it and perform it. As long as critical biblical studies does not account for the place of the readers in the symbolism it actually fails to account for the symbolism.

The importance of reader-response approaches in critical biblical studies has been repeatedly shown. When dealing with symbolism the role of the readers becomes even more essential. As Wayne Booth shows about fiction as rhetoric, symbolism is a process through which meaning is multiplied, broadening the readers’ perspective. Symbolism connects readers to ultimate reality, but only insofar as it functions as live-symbolism when, with their own symbolic world, readers enter the symbolic world of the text. In the resulting “fusion of horizons” (as Georg Gadamer says), the readers’ symbolic world (an intertext in front of the text) is transformed.

In order to understand the process of “making sense with” the symbolism of a religious text, and the way in which one experiences the connection with the ultimate to which the text invites its readers, it is useful to come back to Gen 28:12-22. Jacob’s dream of the ladder with angels ascending and descending on it, including its interpretation by words of the Lord (Gen 28:12-15) is for Mircea Eliade an instance of “hierophany,” “an irruption of the sacred in the profane world”. This hierophanic dream is the equivalent of a symbolic text. A symbolic system is a dream-like vision. The author provides an interpretation of this vision by presenting the story as symbolic. Thus, for readers, entering into this connection with the sacred means interpreting the symbolism of the biblical text as one interprets hierophanic dreams—most dreams in the biblical tradition—namely by seeking to discern into their daily life the place of the sacred as manifested in the dream. As Lou H. Silberman has shown regarding the Pesher from the Dead Sea Scrolls, this is exactly how the members of Qumran community interpreted prophetic texts (e.g., Habakkuk). They discerned how the features of the prophecies where connected to their profane, concrete world (including Roman legions, Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, the temple, their community) and in the process gained a vision of where in their context the sacred is manifested or can be expected. This is following the pattern of Joseph’s interpretation of dreams (Gen 31-41), or that of Jacob in Gen 28. When Jacob woke up, connecting his dream-vision to his life-context, he envisioned what is the place of the sacred in his profane world, and marked it by creating a sacred space: building an altar and calling that place Bethel (Gen 28:18-19). He used elements of his life-context—the stone he used as a pillow and oil—to represent his connection with the sacred. He played the musical score with whatever instrument was at hand, and in the process made the necessary transpositions.

The symbolism of a text “makes sense”—is a live symbolism, rather than a bunch of dead symbols—only insofar as it is connected to the life-context of the readers, confirming, refining, or challenging their previous experiences of the presence of the mysterious in their life. Thus, biblical scholars who study the symbolism of a biblical text—as they should if they want to account for this central aspect of any religious text—must include in their critical study an examination of the ways in which present-day and historical readers/believers related this symbolism to their particular life-contexts and their previous religious experiences. Among these interpretations of biblical symbolism, one can discern three main approaches.

A first approach involves creating sacred spaces and times structured by the biblical symbolism so that believers might enter it. This is the type of hermeneutics of the symbolism found, for instance, in haggadic Midrash. The participants in the Passover Seder say “we went out of Egypt” (not “they” the Israelites of old) and in the process gain an identity that they continue to have in their daily-life. Then Scripture and its symbolism functions as a “family album” (or “book of the covenant”), providing an overall framework for life in particular contexts.

A second approach involves recognizing with the help of the biblical symbolism the manifestations of the sacred in one’s daily life. For instance, this is the type of hermeneutics found in the Pesher of Qumran and also in most typological interpretations found in New Testament texts. Looking at one’s life context through the corrective lens of the biblical symbolism, one can recognize the manifestations and presence of the sacred in one’s life-context; profane life is viewed as the locus of the sacred.

A third approach involves fusing the symbolic horizon of the text with one’s own, so much so that entering the symbolism of biblical texts is an integral part of one’s mystical experience of the holy through which believers are “sanctified,” that is, intimately connected with the Holy. This is the type of hermeneutics found in mystical interpretations of biblical texts as Holy Scripture that emphasize the allegorical character of the symbolism, and also in iconic interpretations of Scripture. As Vasile Mihoc said, “Scripture itself is a kind of icon. And the icon, from another point of view, is Holy Scripture” (rehearsing a point made by John of Damascus, and a long standing hermeneutical tradition in Eastern churches).

Far from being aberrant readings of biblical texts that “enlightened” critical biblical scholars should exclude, such readings account for a most significant dimension of these religious texts, namely their symbolism. Not accounting for the way this symbolism is performed by readers amounts to killing this symbolism and to reducing it to a set of propositional statements of theological or ethical arguments or reducing symbols to signs that refer to some historical contexts. The description of a score cannot replace its performance, without which there is no experience of the music. The identification of the symbols and their behind-the-text intertexts, as well as the description of the ways in which the symbolism is inscribed in the text are necessary. But all these scholarly efforts would be for nothing if one does not examine how this symbolism functions as symbolism by observing how individuals and communities read it as connecting them and their lives to ultimate reality. Daniel Patte. Vanderbilt University.
Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, D.W. Robertson trans. (1958); Davies, W. D. and Dale C. Allison, The Gospel According to Matthew. ICC. (1988-1997). Donaldson, Terence L. Jesus on the Mountain: A Study of Matthean Theology. (1985). Eco, Umberto, A Theory of Semiotics. (1976). Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (1959); Gerhart, Mary and Allan Melvin Russell, Metaphoric Process: The Creation of Scientific and Religious Understanding. (1985). Grenholm, Cristina and Daniel Patte, “Overture: Receptions, Critical Interpretations, and Scriptural Criticism,” pp. “1-54 in Reading Israel in Romans. (2000); Greimas, Algirdas Julien. Semiotics and Language: an Analytical Dictionary. trans. Larry Crist and Daniel Patte. (1982). Hjelmslev, Louis. Prolegomena to a Theory of Language. (1943; 1961); Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology (1957); Luz, Ulrich, Matthew. Hermeneia. vol. 1. (2007). Patte, Daniel. The Gospel According to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew’s Faith. (1985). Ricoeur, Paul. Interpretation Theory (1976); The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language. (1977); Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination. (1995); Silberman, Lou H. “Unriddling the Riddle: A Study in the Language of the Habakkuk Pesher.” Revue de Qumran, 3, 1961, 224-64; Tracy, David. Plurality and Ambiguity. (1987). Welch, John, ed. Chiasmus in Antiquity (1981).

Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (RGG) Hans D. Betz, Don S. Browning, und Bernd Janowsk, Editor Mohr Siebeck (1998)






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