Scripture in Christian Polemic
The Christian conviction that scripture spoke to and about their community even when it was made up largely of Gentiles (as in 1 Pet 1.10–23 ) resulted in polemical use of the biblical text against its literal meaning. The strategies em‐ployed in several of the more striking re‐readings became fixed principles in early Christian exege‐sis: typology, allegory, and the distinction be‐tween the “spirit” and the “letter” of the text. Typology is a method of reading a text that sees characters, incidents, or themes within it as rep‐resenting “types,” or impressions, of a central form, the “antitype.” When a coin or medallion was struck, the copies produced were called types, and the name therefore came to signify all of the related images based on one master de‐sign. Typological readings already occurred in the Hebrew Bible; the prophet known as Second Isaiah, for instance, interpreted the return from exile typologically as a second Exodus (Isa 48.20–21 , alluding to Ex 17.1–7 ). In the New Testament, interpreting a biblical text typologi‐cally presumes that persons or events in the nar‐rative provide a pattern of Christian experience; for instance, Israel's passage through the Red Sea and eating manna foreshadow Christian baptism and eucharist (1 Cor 10.1–4 ). In other cases, the relationship of the Christian person, idea, or event may be antithetical to the person, idea, or event found in scripture; for instance, Paul contrasts Adam and Christ (Rom 5.12–21 ), part of Paul's argument for faith rather than the law as the principle of salvation.
Paul's use of the Abraham story to defend the thesis moves into terrain foreign to the obvious meaning of the story. Genesis 15.6 is taken to mean that Abraham's righteousness depends only on faith (Rom 4.1–25 ). Some scholars call this type of argument “midrash,” a traditional Jewish form of interpretation, in which one text is supplemented by others to extract a further meaning. Psalm 32.1–2 plays this role in Rom 4.7–8. John 6.30–51 contains a lengthy dispute in which the incarnate Christ is said to be the meaning of Exodus. Biblical references in the Fourth Gospel are notoriously indefinite. John 6.31 reflects some combination of Ex 16.4,15; Ps 78.24; and Wis 16.28 . Such typologies do not deny that scripture refers to persons and events that belong to Israel's past. Their significance in God's plan of salvation, however, requires that they be recognized as prefiguring the Christian reality.
Paul's treatment of the Abraham story in Gal 4.21–31 moves beyond simple typology to a method of interpretation that becomes more prevalent in later Christian writers: allegory. Al‐legory in its pure sense is an extended compari‐son between two different levels, usually a nar‐rative level and a psychological or spiritual level, in which the writer, speaking directly about the narrative incidents and characters, intends and is understood to mean to speak about the symbolic level. This kind of reading had already been adapted from Greek interpretive practice by the Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria (ca. 15 BCE-50 CE). In Galatians, the son born of a slave woman is rather shockingly associated with the Sinai covenant and all those who seek to be bound by it. Descendants of Isaac are not physi‐cal descendants of Abraham, but children of a promise. Paul concludes that since Gen 21.10 permits the slave woman and her son to be cast out, his audience should do the same to any Christians who insist upon belonging to Israel “according to the flesh.” Even in what appears a blatant misreading of the Abraham story, Paul presumes that the text has a literal sense as well. Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, and Hagar are not merely symbolic figures representative of the two parties to the conflict in Galatia.
Later theories of allegorical meaning found support in Paul's distinction between “the letter that kills” and the life‐giving “Spirit” in 2 Cor 3.6 . The polemical context of this passage sets Paul and his preaching over against what appear to have been Jewish Christian missionaries. Again Paul's version of Ex 34.28–35 in the ar‐gument which follows inverts the Jewish tradi‐tions of the Targums. The standard Jewish ex‐planations of this passage assume that the splendor on Moses' face either remained perma‐nently or increased. For Paul's Jewish contem‐poraries the glory on Moses' face and the eter‐nity of the Sinai covenant are closely associated (see Pseudo‐Philo, Biblical Antiquities 11.5; 19.10–16; 32.7; 1Q34 2.5–8). Israel's sin makes it impossible for the people to look upon the glory reflected in the face of Moses. Paul instead assumes that the veiling of Moses' face was a means of hiding the evidence of a fading glory, that is, an impermanent covenant. He asserts that he is the servant of a new, eternal covenant established through the Spirit (Jer 31.18,33; Ezek 36.26 ), not the letters carved on the tablets of stone.
With the Latin rendering of Greek gramma (“letter”) as littera, its identification with the carved tablets of Torah gave way to “letter” as meaning the entire written text. Paul's antithesis of Spirit and letter was taken to be a hermeneu‐tical principle rather than a polemical attack on the eternity of the law (also see Rom 2.27–29; 7.6 ). From this perspective, a literal reading of the text fails to convey its truth. Only the spiri‐tual interpretation which associates scripture with the revelation of God in Christ conveys life. Israel may then stand for any persons who are trapped by the literal sense of the text and who therefore fail to interpret all of the scriptures in light of Christ.