The Interpretation of the Bible -
The Interpretation of the Bible
Christian Interpretation in the Premodern Era
Michael D. Coogan
As the article on New Testament interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures indicates, Christian interpretation of scripture has already begun in the New Testament writings. The New Testament writers developed two of the interpretive approaches that remained central to Christian biblical interpretation until the rise of modern historical criticism: (1) a christocentric focus, that is, a tendency to interpret Hebrew Bible texts, especially prophetic texts, as referring to Christ; and (2) typology, the recognition of a person or event in the Hebrew Bible as a type or figure of Christ or Christian salvation. A third approach, allegory, was also present in rudimentary form.
In order to understand the development of early Christian interpretation, it is important to consider the contexts within which and the purposes for which Christians interpreted the scriptures. Teaching and pastoral care of Christian communities was one important focus, and much early interpretation occurs in the context of sermons and pastoral letters (e.g., the letters of Ignatius [ca. 35‐ca.107 CE] and the homilies of Melito [d. ca. 190]). Missionary activity and Christian apologetics (the defense of Christianity before pagan detractors) provided a quite different context. In this situation the biblical writings had to be interpreted to an audience which often found these texts crude and out of keeping with the intellectual tastes of Greek‐speaking culture. Thus there was a strong impetus to interpret the scriptures in a way that would enhance their intellectual respectability. For this purpose Christian apologists used the tradition of allegorical interpretation that had been developed within Greek philosophical circles as a means of interpreting Homer and the other early Greek poets. Even before the rise of Christianity, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 BCE‐42 CE) had undertaken a detailed allegorical interpretation of Jewish scriptures, and Philo's influence upon the Alexandrian school of Christian interpreters was profound.
A third context for interpretation emerged from Christianity's attempts to define itself in comparison to Judaism. Since both religions laid claim to the same body of scripture (the Hebrew Bible for Jews, the Old Testament for Christians), Christian interpretation addressed itself to the competing interpretations made by Judaism and Christianity. The harshly polemical Epistle of Barnabas (early second century) rejects the claims of Judaism to the covenant and so does not even begin to struggle with the interpretive problem which engages other Christian writers of the early centuries, the problem of the nature of the relationship between the old and new covenants and the scriptures which witness to them. Much richer and more reflective is Justin Martyr's (ca. 100–165) Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. The work takes the form of a long conversation between Justin and Trypho, a learned rabbi, each of whom tries to persuade the other of the superiority of his claims and the interpretation of the scriptures upon which they are based. Justin attempts to establish a unity for the Old and New Testaments by arguing that the eternal Logos, fully revealed as Christ in the New Testament, was already the revealer of God's will to the prophets. Though the old covenant was valid, Justin claims that the Jewish scriptures themselves foresee its being superseded by a new covenant. Justin's approach, which anticipates the classic Christian understanding of the Old Testament, exhibits a historical perspective absent from Barnabas, but it is equally christocentric.
The fourth context of early Christian interpretation was provided by disputes among Christians. One challenge was posed by Marcion of Pontus (mid‐second century), who rejected the Hebrew Bible entirely, claiming it was the revelation of an alien God, and accepted only the Gospel of Luke and ten Pauline epistles as the authentic “Gospel and apostle.” Even these texts, he insisted, were corrupted by interpolations. To argue his case, Marcion invoked the principles of text criticism developed for the study of Greek poets. He also argued for a literal rather than an allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament (especially Genesis) in his attempts to discredit it as a crude and offensive book. Even more than the debate with Judaism, Marcion's claims required the church to articulate clearly its understanding of the revelatory significance of the Old Testament and its relationship to the New. A further challenge was posed by various Gnostic Christians. Like Marcion they also tended to reject the Old Testament, but in contrast to him, they engaged in a highly developed form of allegorical interpretation, which appealed strongly to one type of Hellenistic intellectualism.
Some of the liveliest of early Christian writings are those composed to refute Marcion and the Gnostics. The most notable is Irenaeus's (ca. 130–ca. 200) Against All Heresies. Irenaeus argues for the validity of the revelation of God in the Old Testament and its law but also claims that in the New Testament God is revealed in a new way. He demonstrates the unity of the scriptures by means of typology, so that the Old Testament serves as a witness to the New. Irenaeus also attacks the interpretive methods of his Gnostic opponents, objecting that they ignore the context of passages, overlooking the clear and obvious in favor of the obscure, and reading into the text their fanciful theories. Significantly, Irenaeus not only argues on the basis of interpretive principles but also invokes what comes to be known as “the rule of faith.” As a defense against an anarchy of interpretation, there is a standard of correct interpretation, which Irenaeus claims is that which has been preserved in those churches which stand in the apostolic succession. Interpretation which differs from that of the apostolic churches cannot be deemed true.
The argument for the authoritative interpretation of the church was definitively established by Tertullian (ca. 160‐ca. 225) in the early third century in De praescriptione haereticorum. In making orthodoxy the norm for the interpretation of scripture, Tertullian, the lawyer with no taste for philosophy, may have thought that he was establishing a narrow and simple standard. But even as the threat from heretical interpretation receded, more philosophically oriented Christian interpreters, such as Origen (ca. 185‐ca. 254) and Augustine (354–430), developed more profound and supple understandings of the nature of interpretation and the relation of scripture to orthodox theology.
In addition to looking at early Christian biblical interpretation in the light of various contexts for interpretation, one should also take account of the two rival schools of interpretation that flourished in Alexandria and Antioch during the early Common Era. As noted above, the sophisticated intellectual environment of Alexandria was already home to a lively tradition of allegorical exegesis before the emergence of Christianity. Thus it was inevitable that Christians would adapt this method of interpretation to their scriptures. Among the most eminent of the Alexandrian school were Clement (ca. 150‐ca. 215) and Origen. Allegorical interpretation reads a text as if the narrative incidents, characters, and other elements of its literal meaning are all intended to convey to the reader, by means of an extended comparison, another level of meaning entirely, usually a moral or spiritual one. Although many rather different types of interpretation may bear the name allegory, all share a conviction that the authoritative text being interpreted bears a deeper meaning than what appears on the surface by means of a literal reading. Thus allegory assumes that a text has multiple meanings, though interpreters may differ as to their worth. (Origen, for example, distinguished among literal, moral, and spiritual meanings.) Typically, allegorical interpretation shows little interest in meanings that are historically specific, preferring those that disclose timeless truths. Allegory is often invoked as an interpretive method when an ancient text that is undeniably authoritative has come to seem alien to the cultural sensitivities and intellectual values of a later age. Since the revered text must contain truth (which is often unconsciously equated with the highest and best values of the interpreter's own time), a method must be employed which will allow those truths to be found in the text. In this manner the Christian allegorists of the Alexandrian school interpreted those aspects of the scriptures which seemed morally offensive, obscure, or simply of little literal interest. Thus Origen could interpret the narrative of the Exodus as an allegory of the journey of the soul as it leaves the sensual world (Egypt) and journeys toward the promised land of blessedness (Canaan). Origen was the most sophisticated of the allegorists, and the one who first gave allegory its theoretical foundations. Moreover, he was the first Christian to compose what can properly be called a commentary on a biblical book, a mode of interpretation that flourished in the fourth and fifth centuries.
Despite the prestige which allegorical exegesis enjoyed in some circles, it was also the subject of strong criticism. In part it attracted suspicion because it was the method of interpretation favored by Gnostics. But allegory was also vulnerable to the charge that it was arbitrary and obscure. The strongest critique of the allegorical method favored by the Alexandrian school came from the rival tradition of biblical interpretation associated with the Syrian city of Antioch. Like Alexandria, Antioch was also heir to a long tradition of Hellenistic scholarship. But Antioch was influenced more by Aristotelian traditions and by Jewish rabbinic exegesis. Thus, even though the Antiochene interpreters sought a spiritual meaning in the text, understanding also required, in their view, a grasp of the historical context within which the texts were written, as well as an appreciation of the literal sense of the text. Diodore of Tarsus (d. ca. 390), for example, sought to arrange the Psalms in historical sequence, using information found internally and in the titles. He understood the Song of Songs as love poetry written by Solomon for the Queen of Sheba.
The most radical and most creative interpreter of the school of Antioch was Bishop Theodore of Mopsuestia (ca. 350–428). Theodore challenged the inspired character of several books of the canon, including Job, Song of Songs, Chronicles, and Ezra‐Nehemiah, claiming that they reflected only human wisdom and learning. In reaction, the Second Council of Constantinople, in 553, ordered his exegetical works to be burned. In general, the Antiochene school aroused suspicion because several church leaders judged heretical, most notably Nestorius (d. ca. 451), were associated with it. Despite opposition to the more radical interpreters, however, many of the insights and understandings of the Antiochene approach were popularized by the influential sermon collections of the moderate John Chrysostom (ca. 347–407) and by the manuals of biblical interpretation written by Adrian (425) and Junilius Africanus (550).
The stance of the allegorists and that of the more literalhistorical interpreters were not necessarily mutually exclusive. Many interpreters employed both methods. Jerome (347–420), the translator of the Vulgate, began as an allegorist in the style of Origen but increasingly came under the influence of the Antiochene approach. Even so, he never entirely abandoned allegory in his writings. Similarly, Augustine was troubled by the Manichean use of a literalhistorical approach to discredit the Jewish scriptures on the grounds that they contained immoralities. He was unable to embrace Christianity until he saw how the allegorical method could provide a spiritual interpretation for such troubling passages. Like Jerome, however, Augustine moved beyond allegory to a more nuanced position that recognized the place of allegory but required the interpreter to distinguish between passages that can be understood in a literal and those requiring a figurative interpretation. Moreover, all interpretation must be guided by the rule of faith and the law of love: “If it seems to anyone that he has understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by that understanding he does not build up that double love of God and neighbor, he has not yet understood” (Confessions, 5.11.21).