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Interpretation, History of

The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

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    Interpretation, History of

    This entry consists of four articles that survey the history of the interpretation of the Bible:

    For further treatment of the general topic, see Hermeneutics, and for discussion of particulars, see AntiSemitism; Feminism and the Bible; Fundamentalism.

    Jewish Interpretation

    The Earliest Commentaries.

    Although the process of interpretation may be traced within scripture itself (in the reinterpretation of earlier laws and oracles, and in the reuse of earlier narratives), for practical purposes the earliest phase of commentary on the Hebrew Bible extended from ca. 250 BCE to ca. 500 CE. Commentary was the primary medium of Jewish religious discourse in this period, and ideas, both new and old, were presented in the form of comments on the Bible. The commentaries were of several types.

    The “rewritten Bible” texts.

    Into this category fall works such as Jubilees (see below), the Liber antiquitatum biblicarum, the Genesis Apocryphon, and the biblical sections of Josephus's Antiquities of the Jews. These offer an interpretative retelling of the Bible in the interpreter's own words, and they mirror the basic form of the original. The paradigm of this type of commentary is already found within scripture, notably in the books of Chronicles, which rework the history of the books of Samuel and Kings. Certain sections of the apocalyptic writings (e.g., 1 Enoch 6–11 = Gen. 6–9) should also, perhaps, be included here, as well as the Temple Scroll from Qumran, which codifies Temple law.

    The Qumran pesharim.

    These are in true commentary form, in that they quote the original in full and attach to it comments introduced by such formulae as “the interpretation of the matter is” (Hebr. pēšer haddābār). The interpretation is mantological: interpreters see in the text of scripture cryptic allusions to events in their own time, and they decode it in the way they would decode a dream. The interpretation itself is presented in oracular style.

    The commentaries of Philo.

    The commentaries on the Pentateuch by the Alexandrian Jewish scholar Philo (ca. 15 BCE–50 CE) are, like the pesharim, in true commentary form, and consist of biblical lemma plus comment. They are philosophical in content and attempt, by extensive use of allegory, to read middle Platonism into the Bible. Unlike the rewritten Bible texts or the pesharim, Philonic commentary is argumentative (i.e., it presents its exegetical reasoning, not just its conclusions), and it offers multiple interpretations of the same verse.

    The Targums.

    These Bible translations (which are sometimes very paraphrastic) were used to render the Hebrew lections simultaneously into Aramaic in the synagogue. Like the rewritten Bible texts, they mirror the form of the original, but in terms of content they are close to the midrashim (see below), and clearly emanate from a rabbinic milieu. (See Translations, article on Targums.)

    The midrashim.

    These works, products of the rabbinic schools of Palestine in the Tannaitic (ca. 70–200 CE) and Amoraic periods (ca. 200–500 CE), constitute by far the largest corpus of early Jewish biblical commentary. In form they are true commentaries, proceeding by way of lemma plus comment. They are intensely argumentative, at pains to make clear their exegetical reasoning, and quote divergent, and often contradictory, opinions of various scholars. They contain both ʾaggādâ (narrative/homiletic material) and hălākâ (legal material). Important texts belonging to this category are the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael (on Exodus), Sifra (on Leviticus), Sifre (on Numbers and Deuteronomy), Genesis Rabba, and Pesiqta de Rab Kahana (on the readings for the festivals and special Sabbaths).

    Classical Hermeneutics.

    Care must be taken in analyzing the hermeneutics of such a complex phenomenon as early Jewish biblical interpretation. Much of the theory, and indeed the practice, is not explicit, and this opens the door to guesswork and subjectivity. It is also important to distinguish between descriptions of the phenomenon from outside and from inside the tradition, since descriptions stemming from these two standpoints will not always coincide. In external description, one need not accept at face value any explicit hermeneutic statements the commentators happen to make, for what they say they are doing and what they actually do are not necessarily the same. In many cases it is clear, from an external standpoint, that the commentators are reading ideas into scripture: they are engaged in eisegesis rather than exegesis. The Jewish tradition of Bible interpretation oscillates between two contrary tendencies—one centrifugal, the other centripetal. In the centrifugal tendency, the tradition moves further and further from the text of scripture, and its links with scripture become increasingly tenuous. In the centripetal tendency, the centrifugal forces are checked and an attempt is made to reintegrate the tradition with scripture. The book of Jubilees is an early example of a centripetal text: it attempts to fuse with the biblical narrative extrabiblical traditions (e.g., legends about Noah) that had grown up in the preceding one hundred or more years, and so to halt the fragmentation of the tradition. In a similar manner, the rabbinic midrashim of the third century CE and later attempt to reintegrate Mishnah with scripture (note especially Sifra). So, too, in the Middle Ages the Zohar checked the centrifugal movement of qabbalistic literature by reading qabbalistic ideas into scripture. From an external standpoint, eisegesis is a central feature of the tradition. From within the tradition, however, eisegesis is always presented as exegesis: in order to validate the tradition it is necessary to create the illusion that the tradition is already present in scripture, and has been discovered there through meditation.

    A fruitful way to analyze early Jewish biblical hermeneutics is to use rabbinic midrash as a yardstick. Rabbinic midrash serves this purpose well because it is massively documented, its underlying worldview is accessible through the living tradition of the synagogue, and, of all the traditions, it is the most explicit as to its hermeneutical theory and practice.

    Midrash can be seen as a game like chess, played to strict but complex rules: it has a field of play (the chessboard); aims and objectives (checkmating the king); forces to be deployed and strategies followed to achieve the aims and objectives (the chess pieces, their moves and set patterns of play).

    Two axioms define the midrashic field of play. The first is that midrash is an activity performed on the Bible, which is regarded as a fixed, canonical text. For the rabbis, prophecy has ceased and the canon of scripture is closed. God no longer speaks directly to humankind; his will can be discovered only through the interpretation of scripture. The scribe replaces the prophet as the central authority in Judaism. This is the simple, traditional view of the matter. In reality, however, the situation is rather more complicated. To solve the problem of authority and to preempt readings of scripture with which they could not agree, the rabbis were forced to elevate their interpretations to the same status as scripture itself: their interpretations became Oral Torah, and were traced back in principle to Moses. In effect, the scholar too was inspired, though care was taken to distinguish his inspiration from that of the prophet. (See, however, b. B. Bat. 12a: “Since the destruction of the Temple, prophecy has been taken from the prophets and given to the sages”!) Moreover, in actual fact the rabbis did not confine midrash to scripture. There is an element in midrashic practice that simply represents the standard hermeneutics of the Greco‐Roman world, and parallels to it can easily be found in Alexandrian Greek scholarship. To a certain extent, the rabbis would have interpreted any text in the way they interpret scripture. In fact, in the Gemara they apply midrashic methods to the exegesis of the Mishnah.

    The second axiom is that scripture is divine speech: it has its origin in the mind of God. The human element in scripture is minimal. The prophet was invaded by a divine power—the “holy spirit” or “spirit of prophecy”—that neutralized human imperfections. “Moses fulfilled the function of a scribe receiving dictation, and he wrote the whole Torah, its histories, its narratives, and its commandments, and that is why he is called a ‘copyist’ [Deut. 33.21]” (Maimonides, Commentary on Mishnah Sanhedrin, ḥeleq; cf. b. B. Bat. 15a).

    From this axiom a number of inferences were deemed to flow:

    1. Scripture is inerrant: it can contain no errors of fact. Errors can be only apparent, not real.

    2. Scripture is coherent: each part agrees with all the other parts. Scripture forms a harmonious, interlocking text. Contradictions can be only apparent, not real.

    3. Scripture is unalterable. At one level, this means that it is inviolable: it forms a closed text, which should not be changed or rewritten in any way. Interpretation must be clearly distinguished from the actual text of scripture, not integrated with it. Elaborate techniques, culminating in the full‐blown Masorah of the early Middle Ages, were devised to ensure the exact transmission of the received text of the Torah. At another level, the unalterability of scripture means that it remains eternally relevant: since it originated in the mind of God it can never become obsolescent or be superseded. The rabbis did not admit a doctrine of abrogation. The contrast with Islam is instructive. Abrogation in Islam originally referred to the abrogation of both Judaism and Christianity by the superior revelation brought by Muhammad, the “seal” of the prophets. But it was also used by Islamic lawyers as a way of reconciling conflicts within the Qurʾān and hadith: early laws are sometimes said to have been abrogated by laws promulgated later by the prophet. The rabbis could have used such a strategy to resolve the contradictions within scripture, but they never did. Perhaps they shied away from implying that God contradicted himself.

    4. Scripture is “all music and no noise.” Every minute detail is significant—even whether a word is spelled fully or defectively. Mountains of religious law can be deduced even from the “crowns” added to the letters as decorative embellishment. The language of scripture does not contain any redundancy. Repetitions are regularly nuanced to give a slightly different sense.

    5. Scripture is polyvalent: it does not have one, fixed, original meaning but, rather, can mean many things at once. Even when two contradictory conclusions are drawn from it, both can be seen as “words of the living God.” Although interpreters have great freedom before the text, they are not totally free: they cannot simply deduce what they like from scripture. There is a tendency to stress the primacy of the literal meaning: “no verse can ever lose its plain sense (pĕšaṭ)” (b. šabb. 63a; Sanh. 34a). With few exceptions, the cantillation and vocalization of the biblical text reflect pĕšaṭ. Latent meanings must be congruent with the pĕšaṭ. The influential dictum that “Torah speaks according to human language” (b. Ber. 31b) implies that Torah communicates like ordinary speech, and should be interpreted like ordinary speech. Halaka (religious law) also exercised a restraining hand on midrash: it was forbidden to disclose aspects of Torah that did not accord with halaka. But the ultimate restraint was the power of tradition. Correct interpretation could be given only by the rabbis—by scholars who had studied in the right schools, and who were recipients of a tradition going back through the ages to Moses himself.

    The aims of the “game” of midrash can, from an internal standpoint, be defined as drawing out the meaning of scripture and applying it to the heart and life of the Jew. This involves resolving the obscurities and contradictions of scripture, displaying its coherence, and bringing it to bear on everyday life. From an external standpoint, the aims can be seen largely in terms of validating tradition from scripture, of finding ways of attaching contemporary custom and belief to the sacred text.

    The moves in the “game” of midrash are in part laid down in “rulebooks.” From an early date, the rabbis drew up lists of hermeneutical norms (middôt) by which the Torah is to be interpreted. Three of these lists were particularly influential—The Seven Middot of Hillel (t. Sanh. 7.11; ʾAbot R. Nat. A 37; Sipra, Introduction); the Thirteen Middot of Rabbi Ishmael (Sipra, Introduction; Mek. R. Shimʿon ben Yoḥai to Exod. 21.1); and the Thirty‐Two Middot of Rabbi Eliezer ben Yose ha‐Gelili (Mishnat R. Eliezer I‐II; Midr. ha‐Gadol Gen., Introduction). The introduction to Eliezer's list categorically states that its norms are to be employed in the exegesis of aggada (i.e., nonlegal texts in the Torah). The lists of Hillel and Ishmael, by contrast, have always been regarded as applying to the exegesis of halaka (i.e., legal texts), though not exclusively. This distinction should not be pressed too far, for some of Eliezer's norms are employed in the interpretation of halaka. There is, however, a discernible reluctance to use some of the more fanciful aggadic techniques, such as gĕmaṭriâ (computation of the numerical values of words or phrases) and nôṭārîqôn (treating biblical words as acronyms) in legal argument. Wherever possible the simple sense (pĕšaṭ) of a law prevailed.

    The dates of these lists are very uncertain, for their attributions cannot be taken at face value. The Seven Middot of Hillel—almost certainly the earliest of the three lists—illustrates the nature of the rabbinic exegetical norms:

    1. Qāl wāḥōmer, inference from a less important case [qal] to a more important one [ḥōmer]: For example, if the perpetual offering, neglect of which is not punished by cutting off, overrides the Sabbath, then the Passover offering, neglect of which is punished by cutting off, will also override the Sabbath (b. Pes. 66a).

    2. Gĕzērâ šāwâ, inference based on the presence in two different laws of a common term: For example, the expression “in its appointed time” is used in connection with both the Passover (Num. 9.2) and the perpetual offering (Num. 28.2). Since the expression “in its appointed time” used of the perpetual offering involves overriding the Sabbath, so the same term when used of Passover must equally involve overriding the Sabbath (b. Pesaḥ. 66a).

    3. Binyan ʾāb mikkātûb ʾeḥād ûbinyan ʾāb miššĕnê kĕtûbîm, construction of a category (literally, a “father”) on the basis of one text, and construction of a category on the basis of two texts: For example, if a master intentionally knocks out a slave's tooth (Exod. 21.27), or blinds him in one eye (Exod. 21.26), the slave goes free in compensation. “Tooth” and “eye” are cited by scripture merely as examples. Their common features are that they are chief organs, they are visible, and loss of them would constitute a permanent defect. Therefore, if a master injures the slave in any of his principal organs, which are visible and loss of which would cause a permanent defect, the slave is entitled to go free (Mek. R. Ishmael, Nez. 9).

    4. Kĕlāl ûpĕrāṭ, when a general term (kĕlāl) is followed by a specific term (pĕrāṭ), the general includes only what is contained in the specific: For example, in Leviticus 1.2, “When any of you bring an offering of beasts to the Lord, even of the herd and of the flock…,” “beasts” (the kĕlāl) on its own could include “wild beasts,” but the addition of “herd” and “flock” (the pĕrāṭ) limits sacrifice to domestic animals (b. Zebaḥ. 34a).

    5. Pĕrāṭ ûkĕlāl, when a specific term is followed by a general term, the general adds to the specific, and everything contained in the general term is included: For example, Exodus 22.10 (Hebr. 22.9), “If a man deliver to his neighbor an ass, or an ox, or a sheep (the pĕrāṭ), or any beast (the kĕlāl)…” The bailee is liable for any animal falling within the general category of “beast,” not just for the specific animals mentioned (Mek. R. Ishmael, Nez. 16).

    6. Kayôsēʾ bô bĕmāqôm ʾaḥēr, the same interpretation applies in another place: For example, consecration of the firstborn to God (Deut. 15.19) does not make them God's, since they already belong to him (Exod. 13.2). Rather, this act was instituted so that one can receive a reward for obeying a divine commandment. The same interpretation applies to kindling the fire on the altar (Lev. 6.5). This act cannot do anything for God, since “Lebanon would not provide fuel enough, nor are its animals enough for a burnt offering” to God (Isa. 40.16). Rather, it gives a person the opportunity to receive a reward for fulfilling a commandment (Mek. R. Ishmael, Pisḥa 16).

    7. Dābār hallāmēd mēʿinyānô, the meaning of a statement may be determined from its context: For example, “You shall not steal” in Exodus 20.15 must denote a capital offense, since the two preceding offenses in the same verse (murder and adultery) are capital offenses. It denotes, therefore, theft of persons (kidnapping). In Leviticus 19.11, however, “You shall not steal” must refer to theft of property, since the context there is concerned with property (b. Sanh. 86a).

    As a description of the exegetical techniques employed in midrash, these lists of middôt have drawbacks: they are by no means exhaustive, and they do not include norms such as heqqēš (analogy) and sĕmûkîm (inference based on juxtaposition of verses). Sherira Gaon (tenth–eleventh centuries CE), in his famous Epistle, gives a list of exegetical norms (designated ʿiqqārîn rather than middôt), many of which are not found in any of our three lists. Even if all the norms articulated in rabbinic literature were gathered together, they would not necessarily give a total account of the methods of the daršānîm. The rabbinic norms are prescriptive as well as descriptive: they are as much concerned with what should happen in midrash as with what actually does happen. Some of them are largely academic, since examples in actual midrashic texts can be found only with difficulty. Modern analysis has detected exegetical processes at work in midrash that are nowhere formally acknowledged in rabbinic hermeneutical theory. The lists of norms are useful, but they should be supplemented by direct analysis of the midrashic texts themselves. Studying the rulebooks is no substitute for watching the game actually played.

    Broadly speaking, rabbinic hermeneutics appear to hold good for the early nonrabbinic Bible commentaries as well. Many of the exegetical techniques of midrash certainly seem to apply. These are so numerous and so varied that it would be surprising if the methods of the nonrabbinic exegetes could not be paralleled from somewhere in rabbinic midrash. At two points, however, differences of emphasis may be detected. The polyvalent character of scripture is stressed less in the nonrabbinic texts: they tend to offer a unitary reading of scripture. Philo comes closest to the rabbinic position by giving a variety of interpretations of a single verse. Second, in some cases the nonrabbinic commentaries appear less committed than the rabbis to the principle of the unalterability of scripture. The way in which Jubilees and the Temple Scroll rewrite the Bible in classical Hebrew would probably have been frowned upon by the rabbis. This practice raises the suspicion that a new Torah, designed to supersede the old, is being promulgated. In general, however, the aim appears not to have been to supersede the canonical text, but rather to add to it. Jubilees claims to be of divine origin—a second Torah that supplements the first (Jubilees 6.2). The book known as 1 Esdras also implies that it is a secret book of Moses, worthy of canonical status (14.5–6). These assertions differ perhaps in degree, but hardly in kind, from the rabbis’ claim that their traditions are oral Torah, or from Pesher Habakkuk's and Philo's statements that their comments on scripture are inspired (1QpHab 2.8–10; Philo, On the Cherubim 27).

    Medieval Developments.

    The aims and basic methods of rabbinic biblical interpretation as defined in the Talmudic period persisted in Judaism down to modern times. The continuity of the tradition is seen in Rashi (1045–1105), the most influential of all the medieval Jewish commentators. Living in a rather hostile Christian environment in northern France at the time of the First Crusade, Rashi had little incentive to innovate. Although he has his own approach that tends to stress the plain sense (pĕšaṭ) of scripture, and to introduce only “sober” dĕraš, the general intention of his work is to digest and conserve the tradition. The first really radical break with tradition comes with Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), who, notably in his Tractatus Theologico‐Politicus, adumbrates a critical, historical approach to the Bible.

    Despite the broad continuity down to the time of Spinoza, significant developments occurred in a number of areas.


    Karaism, founded at Baghdad ca. 765 by Anan ben David, who rejected rabbinic tradition and turned back afresh to scripture, stimulated an interest among Rabbanite scholars in philology. Especially in Spain, Jewish philologians, such as Jonah ibn Janāh (first half of eleventh century), began to clarify the grammar of classical Hebrew by using contemporary Arabic linguistic theory; for example, they established once and for all the triliteral nature of the Hebrew verb. The new philology was championed by the Spanish scholar Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1164). In the Introduction to his Commentary on the Pentateuch, he outlines five ways to approach the Bible—the Geonic, the Karaite, the Christian, the midrashic, and the philological—and makes clear his preference for the philological: “The fifth way is the one upon which I will base my commentary. Before God, whom alone I fear, it is in my view the right way. I will defer to no one when it comes to interpreting the Torah, but, to my utmost ability, will seek out the grammar of every word and then do my best to explain it.” However, the most influential of the grammatical commentators was the French scholar David Kimḥi (ca. 1160–1235). His lucid grammatical analyses, much consulted by Christian scholars at the time of the Renaissance and Reformation, have sometimes a curiously modern ring; note, for example, his comments at Genesis 10.9 on the use of the word “God” to express the superlative in classical Hebrew.


    Philosophical interpretation of scripture, which had remained largely dormant in mainstream Judaism since Philo, reemerged powerfully in the Middle Ages. Here, too, Karaism provided the initial stimulus. Through the influence of Saadiah Gaon (882–942), the great opponent of Karaism, the leading ideas of Arabic scholastic theology (Qalām) were made acceptable to rabbinic thought. Philosophical interpretation involved reading the Bible allegorically from a certain philosophical standpoint; thus, Maimonides interprets Ezekiel's vision of the chariot (Ezek. 1) as an allegorical account of his own Neoplatonic form of Aristotelianism (Guide of the Perplexed 3.1–7). The preexisting philosophical system, whatever it was, functioned as a hermeneutic key to unlock scripture.


    The rise of the mystical system of qabbalistic literature also powerfully affected biblical interpretation. The Zohar, the most influential mystical commentary, was compiled by Moses de Leon in Spain at the end of the thirteenth century. In formal terms, mystical commentary is similar to philosophical commentary: a preexistent system of ideas is used as a hermeneutic key to determine the sense of scripture, and elements of that system (e.g., the qabbalistic doctrine of the Sefirot: see Zohar 2. 42b–43a) are read into scripture using allegorical methods.

    Hermeneutic theory in the Middle Ages was much concerned with identifying the various types of approach to scripture. The most famous classification, known by the mnemonic “PaRDeS,” probably goes back to Moses de Leon: Pĕsăṭ = literal interpretation; Remez = allegorical interpretation; Dĕraš = homiletic interpretation; Sôd = mystical interpretation. The Spanish scholar Bahya ben Asher (late thirteenth century) produced a slightly different fourfold classification: literal interpretation (pĕšaṭ); homiletic (midrāš); rational, i.e., philosophical (sekel); and mystical (called “the way of the Lord” = Qabbalah).

    In general, the various approaches to scripture were seen not as exclusive or contradictory but as complementary; the polyvalency of scripture continued to be stressed. There was a tendency, however, to rank them in hierarchical order, depending on the interpreter's standpoint. Even Maimonides, who cautioned against trying to separate the “kernel” from the “husk” in scripture (Commentary on Mishnah Sanhedrin, ḥeleq), acknowledged that there was an “apparent” and a “latent” sense in scripture (Guide of the Perplexed, Introduction). The Zohar (3.152a) uses the analogy of the human body to illustrate the relationship between the various levels of meaning in scripture. Foolish people look only at the tales of the Torah which are its outer garments; those who are wiser look at the commandments, which are the body of the Torah (cf. the description of the commandments as gûfê tôrâ [literally,“bodies of the Torah”] in m. ḥag. 1.8). But the true sages look only at the inner mystical sense of the Torah, the soul of the Torah. And lest it should be supposed that the meaning of divine speech could ever be exhausted, the Zohar concludes: “and in the world to come they [the mystics] are destined to look at the soul of the soul of the Torah.”

    Philip S. Alexander

    Early Christian Interpretation

    The Bible of the earliest Christians was identical with the Hebrew scriptures of the Jewish communities. When Jesus and the writers of the apostolic period speak of “scripture(s),” they mean the canon of Torah, Prophets, and Writings that Jews regarded as divinely inspired, that is, written under the immediate dictate or influence of God. Inspiration was also claimed for the Greek translation of the “Seventy” (Septuagint [LXX]), which was endorsed by Alexandrian Jewish authorities. In Christian eyes, the legend of the Septuagint's miraculous origin, first told in the Letter of Aristeas (late second century BCE), then elaborated by Philo, and further embellished by Christian authors such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, and Augustine, even rendered the Septuagint superior to the Hebrew original.

    Jewish interpretation of the Hellenistic and Roman periods took three forms. Midrashic exegesis as practiced by the rabbis searched the holy text for clues to authoritative rules for living (hălākâ) or to a broadly edifying meaning in the present (ʾaggādâ), guided by tradition. The hermeneutical center was Torah, the Law of God. Second, Jewish scholars in the Greek‐speaking diaspora, exemplified by Philo, tried to harmonize the texts with the truths of Platonic or Stoic natural philosophy and ethics. Finally, the Essene sectarians at Qumran, relying on the authority of their “Teacher of Righteousness,” read the biblical texts as divine oracles predicting their own end‐time existence in the post‐Maccabean period; here, the hermeneutical center was moving away from Torah to the prophetic literature. (See also article on Jewish Interpretation above.)

    Traces of all three forms can be found in the earliest Christian literature. The synoptic Gospels portray Jesus as a rabbinical teacher who routinely answered questions about the Law (Mark 10.1–12, 17–31; 12.13–34; Luke 12.13–15; etc.). Paul used both halakhic and aggadic modes in interpreting biblical texts (e.g., Rom. 10.6–8; 2 Cor. 13.1; Gal. 3.15–18), even the seven rules attributed to Rabbi Hillel (Rom. 4.1–12; 5.15–17; 13.8–10; etc.). The letter to the Hebrews, in its vision of the Temple cult as a shadow of the heavenly reality, seems to fuse the eschatology of an earlier generation with a Platonic worldview akin to Philo (cf. Heb. 8.5; 9.23–28). Most important, the central Christian affirmation of Jesus of Nazareth as being the promised Messiah and the hermeneutics of promise and fulfillment share the tendency to shift the hermeneutical center from the Law to the Prophets. The prophets, including Moses, David, and other prophetic voices in the scriptures, predicted what was to happen “in these last days” (Heb. 1.2) and thus opened up the apocalyptic meaning of the present in the context of the overarching plan of God, for example, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4.21; cf. Isa. 61.1). The proof from prophecy very quickly became a major tool of Christian missionaries. It appealed to Jewish hearers loyal to their divine scriptures as well as to non‐Jews impressed by the antiquity of such writings. Although Christians might have discarded the Jewish scriptures and started with the experience of new revelation in the person of Jesus, they retained them as a valuable tool for Christian apologetics, which, understood as divine oracles, not only appealed to potential converts but also gave Christians themselves the interpretive categories for understanding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ (1 Cor. 15.1–3; Luke 24.25–27; Acts 2.22–36); see Quotations of the Old Testament in the New Testament.

    It was Paul who spelled out most powerfully the theological basis of this unified vision of God's purpose in history and the meaning of Christian practices such as baptism and the common meal. The old covenant of the Law had been crowned by the revelation of the new covenant predicted by the prophets (Rom. 10.4; 1 Cor. 11.25; 2 Cor. 3.6; cf. Jer. 31.1). But this fulfillment for Paul was not only linked to the story of Jesus and the Christian present; it also included the second coming (1 Thess. 4–5). Beyond a limited store of messianic passages that had governed the formation of the earliest Christian traditions about Jesus, Paul identified further predictions and anticipations of the new era in the scriptures. He also suggested the procedures for their apocalyptic interpretation through which later generations would continue to understand biblical passages as applicable to their own situation.

    Explaining the experience of Israel as a warning to Christians of his own generation, Paul used the language of “type” or “typical” (1 Cor. 10.6, 11 [NRSV: “example”]), equating it with the “spiritual” understanding of those who have the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8.9, 23; 1 Cor. 2.13–15; 7.40). This kind of typology, which was not without Jewish antecedents, gained an immense popularity in second‐century Christian interpretation. The Greek term “antitype” for Christian baptism as the counterpart of Noah's rescue already appears in 1 Peter 3.21 (NRSV: “prefigured”). The apostolic fathers, especially the letter of Barnabas (6.11; 7.3, 7, 10, 11; etc.), show the rapid development of the concept. 1 Clement 25 even calls on an image of classical mythology, the phoenix, as a type of Christ's resurrection. In the middle of the second century CE, the writings of Justin Martyr reveal the wide scope of possible types: Justin not only defended the traditional Christian use of messianic passages such as Genesis 49.10–12; Isaiah 7.14; 9.6; 11.1–3; 53; Psalms 2.7; 110.4 (Apology 32–38); he also found “types,” for example, of the cross, in almost every piece of wood mentioned in the Jewish scriptures (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew 86). The Easter Homily by Melito of Sardis (late second century CE) demonstrates the same wealth of imagination when the author reads the Exodus traditions as types of Christ's death and resurrection. It is likely that second‐century Christians had testimonia, collections that grouped together for convenience messianic predictions or other texts yielding “types.” Cyprian's treatise Ad Quirinum provides an example; its second part contains a list of “stone” testimonies from the Jewish scriptures that are interpreted as types of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 10.4), as well as a collection of passages that mention mountain, lamb, or bridegroom. Typological traditions also inform the earliest representations of Christian art, especially the funerary paintings and monuments of the catacombs. The pictures frequently can be interpreted as types of salvation using biblical figures such as Noah in the ark, Daniel between the lions, Susanna rescued from the elders, Jonah saved from the fish, or New Testament stories such as the raising of Lazarus and healing miracles as pointers to the Christian hope beyond the grave.

    Paul also introduced the term “allegory” into the vocabulary of Christian exegesis. Galatians 4.21–26 refers to the story of Sarah and Hagar (Gen. 16) with the claim that it has to be understood “allegorically” as speaking of two covenants. The interpretation of an authoritative text as having a deeper meaning (hyponoia) than what its words seem to suggest was an old practice among Greeks in the appropriation of Homer and the early poets. The Homeric Allegories of Pseudo‐Heraclitus were probably written by a contemporary of Paul. Allegory as a writer's device, an “extended metaphor” in Quintilian's definition (Instit. Rhetor. 9.2.46), appeared with such stories as “Heracles at the crossroads” by Prodikos the Sophist (fourth century BCE). The allegorical interpretation of Homer was the hallmark of Stoic scholarship and later dominated Jewish and Christian interpretation at Alexandria. Philo's main interpretation of the Torah was entitled “Allegories of the Law”; like other allegorizers, Philo found the key to deeper meanings in etymological phenomena, numbers, and unusual terms.

    Paul's use of the technical term allēgoroumena in Galatians 4.24 does not clearly distinguish allegory from typology. Sarah and Hagar function here as types the same way as the wilderness generation in 1 Corinthians 10. Hellenistic allegorization, however, was deliberately employed by other Christian writers. The author of Hebrews interprets the key texts about the role of the high priest as speaking of Jesus Christ (Heb. 5–7). The letter of Barnabas declares the entire cultic law of Judaism superseded and moralizes all its precepts. It seems that gnostic teachers developed the apologetic potential of allegory to the fullest extent. Christian gnosis such as that represented by Clement of Alexandria in the early third century freely used the term allēgoria for exegetical endeavors that included extensive reinterpretation of biblical texts as teaching general and timeless truths.

    Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185–254), the most prolific exegete of the early church, gave Christian allegory its theoretical foundation. In Book 4 of his treatise On First Principles, he claimed total inspiration by divine providence not only for the canonical scriptures themselves but even for their textual transmission with all its variants and scribal errors. Passages that present “stumbling blocks” in content and wording alert the reader that a spiritual, not a literal meaning must be sought in the holy texts. An “inspired” text requires “spiritual” interpretation that leads the soul upward (Grk. anagōgē) from the realm of the flesh to that of the Spirit. Origen assumed that much of the biblical revelation concerned the fate of souls, their fallen condition, and their redemption. Thus, in his commentaries on the Jewish scriptures, he allegorized the story of Israel as speaking of the journey of the soul, which, leaving the sensual world of “Egypt,” seeks the Promised Land of blessedness. The teachings of Jesus and the apostles had the same goal: they pointed, directly or allegorically, to the hope by which Christians live.

    The wide use of allegory among gnostics, however, raised early doubts about the procedure. Marcion of Pontus, who founded a successful counterchurch in the middle of the second century CE, rejected the Jewish scriptures as the revelation of an “alien” God and based his thought on a revised Paul and a purged gospel of Luke. Such interpretation by textual revision was not uncommon; Tatian the Syrian applied it in his Diatessaron, an attempt to merge the four separate gospel accounts into one. To curb gnostic “misuses” of the Bible, church writers appealed to three authorities for its proper understanding: an approved canon of the “Old” Testament together with a “New” that assembled writings believed to be of apostolic origin; the “Rule of Faith,” a creedal summary of accepted teachings; and the episcopal office, which was expected to decide among competing claims to authoritative exegesis. “Apostolicity” was invoked by Irenaeus and Tertullian as a central criterion against Marcion's reduced canon, a docetic Christology, or gnostic cosmological speculations. Both accused their opponents of arbitrary interpretation and displayed their strong disapproval of unchecked gnostic allegory.

    They also shared a concern to apply the apostolic norm to the expansion of the Christian canon through apocrypha. Such writings were not only part of the growing gnostic literature but were also produced and read by catholic Christians. Apocryphal gospels filled in the blanks about Jesus’ family and childhood, the forty days after his resurrection, and his journey into hell and heaven (see Descent into Hell). Apocryphal acts interpreted the witness of the apostles as supporting ascetic ideals, especially virginity; in this way they perpetuated the strong accent on moral exhortation that was at the heart of the biblical interpretation of the apostolic fathers (1 and 2 Clement; Didache; Ignatius; Barnabas; Shepherd of Hermas). The earliest canon list of New Testament books, the Canon Muratori (ca. 200 CE), already rejects a large number of apocrypha, but despite constant attempts at curbing the genre, apocryphal books such as the Protevangelium of James, the Acts of Pilate, the Gospel of Bartholomew, and the Apocalypses of Peter and Paul influenced biblical interpretation for centuries to come. (See also Apocrypha, article on Christian Apocrypha.)

    During the first two centuries, Christian biblical interpretation was guided by practical concerns: the needs of missionary preaching, the instruction of new converts, apologetics directed at non‐Christians, and polemics against “heretical” teachings. In the third and fourth centuries it came to be dominated by a conflict of “schools” analogous to the rivalry of philosophical schools in the Hellenistic world. The conflict clarified some basic options in expounding canonical scriptures in a Christian framework. An ancient but unreliable tradition claimed that Alexandria had a Christian catechetical school with a succession of famous teachers, beginning with Pantaenus in the late second century, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. Reports by Gregory the Wonderworker, Pamphilus of Caesarea, and Eusebius suggest that Origen taught a curriculum of higher Christian studies that included classical disciplines such as grammar, Greek literature, and philosophy as a basis and the study of biblical texts as the crown. Textual criticism was as much part of this endeavor as literary analysis and spiritual interpretation. Through Jewish converts, Origen was also aware of the exegetical traditions of rabbinic Judaism and was able to draw on them.

    The Alexandrian school of the fourth century carried on the interpretive methods of Origen, including the use of allegory. Major theologians, such as Athanasius, Eusebius, Apollinaris, the Cappadocian fathers, and Cyril of Alexandria, wrote interpretations of biblical books for a broad educated public in the spirit of Origen's anagogical dynamics: scripture instructs the spiritual quest of the soul for an ascent to God who, through Christ the eternal Logos, has revealed this “way” in the holy writings. Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Moses presents a reading of the Exodus story in two parts, first recounting the details in their historical sequence and then opening up their spiritual meaning as a description of the soul's journey to God in its various stages. Didymus the Blind (d. 398 CE) expounded numerous books of the Bible in a similar way. Alexandrian hermeneutics shows a keen interest in philological detail. The precise wording of a biblical passage as well as its stylistic peculiarities was of utmost importance because the inspired words themselves contained the key to their divinely intended meaning. For these scholars, allegorization was a science, not an arbitrary flight of fancy.

    This understanding of Christian allegory became the polemical target of Alexandria's rival, the school of Antioch, in the fourth century. Antioch, important for earliest Christian history (Acts 11.26), could boast of a long tradition of Hellenistic scholarship. The emphasis seems to have been on the rhetorical arts; Aristotelian and Jewish influences were important. We hear of Christian teachers in Antioch from the late third century onward: Malchion; Lucian, whose recension of the Greek Bible acquired something of a normative status; Dorotheus; Eustathius, and especially Diodore of Tarsus (d. ca. 390 CE), whose ascetic community became the seedbed of the distinctive Antiochian tradition of biblical exegesis. Diodore taught a generation of great scholars, among them Theodore of Mopsuestia, John Chrysostom, and Theodoret of Cyrrhus.

    Through the association of Antiochian teachers with the names of heretics such as Arius and Nestorius, many of the works of the school have perished. From the remnants we can infer a sober appreciation of the Bible as a valuable historical document in addition to its spiritual meaning. The Antiochian exegetes took note of the times and circumstances of a particular biblical book. Diodore, for example, tried to rearrange the biblical Psalms according to their true historical sequence, which he gleaned from internal and external clues, especially the titles. Theodore considered only four Psalms as messianic (Pss. 2; 8; 45; 110) and understood the Song of Solomon as a love poem composed by Solomon for the Queen of Sheba. This did not exclude a divinely intended accommodation of the texts to later times or the need to search for a spiritual sense, which the Antiochians called theōria. But their respect for the historical setting nourished a deep‐seated distrust of Alexandrian allegorism. Diodore wrote a (lost) treatise “On the Difference Between Theōria and Allēgoria,” and Theodore deplored the dissolution of historical reality at the hand of Alexandrian exegetes, especially in the Genesis account of creation and fall, on which he thought the entire Christian message of sin, salvation, and human responsibility depended.

    While suspicion of Antiochian theologians remained high during the christological struggles of the fifth and sixth centuries, their moral and ascetic fervor continued to be influential, thanks to the universal reception of the work of John Chrysostom. Chrysostom's sermons on biblical books were avidly copied and were known in the West through Latin translations, the earliest of which probably go back to his lifetime. The school itself found refuge first at Ephraem's school in Edessa, where it was represented by Syrian teachers such as Ibas and Narsai the Great, and later even farther East at Nisibis between the Euphrates and Tigris, where eminent scholars such as Babi the Great and Ishoʿdad of Merv upheld the great tradition through the end of the patristic period.

    The Western church did not participate directly in the war of the schools. Some of its great theologians, such as Ambrose of Milan, Hilary of Poitiers, and Jerome, studied under, or drew on, scholars of both traditions for their moral and spiritual interpretations but did not take sides: Greek learning in any form was still greatly admired. Cassiodorus's list of hermeneutical textbooks for the use of students in the early sixth century includes “Alexandrian” works such as Hilary's Treatise of Mysteries and Eucherius of Lyon's Varieties of Spiritual Understanding, as well as “Antiochian” handbooks such as those of Hadrian and Junilius Africanus. There can be no question, however, that the influence of Origen and his program of spiritual exegesis was central in giving direction to Western biblical interpretation. Translations by Jerome's erstwhile friend Rufinus toned down offensive features of Origen's On First Principles and several of his commentaries, and the contacts with Alexandrian exegetes were never interrupted.

    The indigenous Latin tradition, especially in North Africa, reflected an emphasis on catechetical instruction and apologetics, as the writings of Tertullian demonstrate. A rich store of typological exegesis, inherited from the church of the second century, seems to have served these interests; Cyprian's biblicism drew its substance from it. Western exegesis also remained more traditional in its apocalyptic tendencies. While the expectation of an imminent end met with heavy criticism in the East after the Montanist crisis of the late second century, and the book of Revelation was still of doubtful canonicity to Eusebius at the beginning of the fourth century because of its chiliasm, apocalyptic expectations and millennial themes remained popular in the West. At the time when Greek was still the language of the Christian community in Rome, Hippolytus (early third century) wrote on the prophet Daniel and on the Antichrist against an upsurge of apocalyptic fervor in response to the persecutions. The first Latin exegesis of the book of Revelation was written in the early fourth century by Victorinus of Pettau in Dalmatia; it is known to us through Jerome's revision, stripped of its pronounced chiliasm.

    The late fourth century saw the emergence of an independent mind among Latin exegetes in Tyconius the Donatist. His Book of Rules did not follow Origen's allegorical principles but gathered clues from a rational analysis of biblical language to separate fulfilled messianic prophecies from the divinely intended message of the texts for the church of his day. Tyconius was guided by a vision of history that included the beginnings, the story of Israel, Christ, and the church in one great redemptive movement, understood in terms of the final victory of good over evil. The fragments of his commentary on the book of Revelation show that, while he interpreted its apocalyptic prophecy as applicable to any age, he retained a sophisticated imminent expectation of the eschatological exodus of the true church (the Donatist) from the false.

    Another feature of the Western development was a rise of interest in the Pauline letters at a time when such interest was relatively low in the East. We know of five major efforts between 365 and 410 in the West at interpreting the letter to the Romans: those of Marius Victorinus, the so‐called Ambrosiaster, the Budapest Anonymous, Pelagius, and Augustine, who wrote only two fragments on Romans, but the importance of Paul for the formation of his mature theology is amply documented. By his own admission, Augustine was indebted to Tyconius in formulating his exegetical principles. He also shared the Alexandrian emphasis on the spiritual sense, even though he tended to replace the terminology of allegorization with that of “figuration.” According to Augustine, scripture speaks not only of promise and fulfillment in the person of Jesus but contains literally or figuratively the answer to all basic questions of humanity. In God's providence, it is given as a means to incite believers to the double love of God and neighbor, which is the goal of the soul's journey. Its human language with all its ambiguities requires careful work by the interpreter. Augustine's plea for competence in biblical languages and the liberal arts, especially rhetoric and logic, became the charter of early medieval monastic education in the West. His exegetical writings, circulating in numerous manuscripts, constituted one of the main patristic authorities for exegetes down to the Reformation. They stressed the priority of the spiritual goal of reading scripture without discouraging the investigation of the plain sense of its words. The medieval theory of a fourfold sense—literal, allegorical, tropological (moral), and anagogical—did not originate with Augustine, however. The first writer to mention it was John Cassian in the fifth century (Conferences 14.8), who used the four biblical meanings of Jerusalem as an illustration: the actual city, the church, the human soul, and the heavenly city, our final home.

    The literary forms of biblical interpretation during the early centuries show a bewildering variety. At first, biblical interpretation was a function of the missionary proclamation by apostles and evangelists, the instruction of converts by teachers and elders, and the itinerant ministry of prophets. The expansion of Christianity beyond its original Jewish context brought with it the need for apologetics and polemics and moved scriptural interpretation quite naturally into the writing of the more literate members of the church, who could serve as advocates and apologists for the movement. The basic task of interpreting scripture within the Christian congregations, however, was not so much a matter of a developing Christian literature but of the living voice of bishop, elder, and teacher. The exegetical writings of Hippolytus consist of homiletical reflections on biblical texts, often fragmentary and incomplete, as they would relate to the life of his church members. They were not biblical commentaries. On the contrary, the bishop denounced the genre of “commentary” as an invention of the pagan schools and a heretical practice.

    Literary attempts at a coherent interpretation of entire canonical books in a Christian vein were first made by Christian gnostics who took the case for their esoteric theological systems to a literate non‐Christian audience through detailed analysis of authoritative texts, among which the Bible held a special place. Even the gnostic interpretation of the Fourth Gospel by the Valentinian Heracleon (end of second century), the first such piece of which we have textual evidence, was, however, far more an apologetic treatise than an exegetical commentary. Commentaries in the strict sense were the product of the Hellenistic school tradition, as Hippolytus suggested. Christian biblical commentaries were the fruit of such traditions on Christian soil, as in Alexandria and Antioch. It seems that Origen created the genre, following classical precedent and employing the three standard forms of scholia, homilies, and tomoi, that is, philological explanations of an entire biblical book at a time. Wherever some form of Christian education took shape in Christian “schools,” monastic communities, at the residence of bishops, or in learned circles of ascetic women, biblical interpretation as a scholarly enterprise was a highly valued activity.

    The fourth and fifth centuries became the golden age of commentary writing. Jerome deliberately conveyed the impression that even earlier Christians had already produced a respectable body of “commentaries” on the scriptures. Ostensibly building on this treasure, but especially on Origen and the admired exegetes of the Eastern schools, he nourished the dream of creating a Latin Christian literature equal to that of the Romans, based on the Bible and its eternal truths but matching Virgil, Cicero, and Horace in style and form. He gave this endeavor a solid foundation by providing a new Latin translation of major parts of the Bible in his Vulgate and adapted the forms of classical textual scholarship in his own exegetical work, drawing up tools for the study of biblical chronology, prosopography, geography, and languages, as well as commentaries, in which he made use of his vast learning.

    As Jerome himself had feared, his ambitious project fell victim to the new pluralism of a barbarian age that superseded the cultural unity of the crumbling Empire. In Christianity, the syntheses of the following centuries tended to look to the past for their canons of biblical exegesis before they encouraged new attempts at taking up the task. In the East, compilations of the exegetical heritage began to appear in the sixth century with Procopius of Gaza. To this literature of “chains” (catenae), the gathering of patristic interpretations by biblical book and chapter, we owe the preservation of precious fragments of lost commentaries. Even the outstanding theological writers of the Byzantine age rarely wrote fresh commentaries themselves. Similarly, the West experienced a decline in commentary writing after Jerome. The shining exceptions were Cassiodorus and Pope Gregory I in the sixth century. It was the educational zeal of the great monasteries in the British Isles and of the Carolingian rulers on the Continent in the eighth and ninth centuries that created the conditions for a new flowering of serious exegetical work.

    Karlfried Froehlich

    Christian Interpretation from the Middle Ages to the Reformation

    During the period from 600 to 1600 CE, the interpretation of the Bible reflected the broader institutional developments and intellectual concerns of western Christianity. During the earliest part of that period, students of the scriptures relied almost exclusively on the guidance of patristic authority. As a distinctive medieval civilization developed, commentators found positions in schools and universities, where they geared their work to the educational and theological needs of their world. Toward the end of the period, biblical interpretation reflected the fresh influences of critical reason and the spiritual demands that emerged during the epoch of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations. Throughout the whole period, the scriptures helped to shape western culture in all its dimensions. Little wonder, then, that commentators continuously sought to adjust their understanding of the Bible and to expound it in the light of the most advanced information available to them.

    The most advanced information available during the early Middle Ages came from the church fathers. Only rarely did Christian commentators of the late first millennium BCE understand more than a smattering of Greek or Hebrew, and even less frequently did they possess the intellectual self‐confidence to develop fresh interpretations. The Venerable Bede (672–735) knew some Greek, which he employed in his exposition of Acts, and Remigius of Auxerre (d. 908) seems to have compared the Latin Psalter with the Hebrew text. John Scotus Erigena (d. 877) stood alone, however, as a commentator possessing both language skills and a powerful critical faculty. He consulted the writings of the Greek fathers and based his own commentary of John's gospel on the Greek text, and furthermore he displayed a willingness to correct Latin exegesis on the basis of Greek sources. Most other early medieval commentators, however, worked in an extremely conservative vein. Even the best known of them—Alcuin (d. 804), Claude of Turin (d. 827), and Rabanus Maurus (d. 856)—did little more than reproduce the views of the Latin fathers, particularly those of Jerome and Augustine. Most commentators of the period recognized the literal sense as the foundation of scriptural exegesis, but all of them considered a literal exposition fully compatible with one or more modes of moral, allegorical, or mystical interpretation. Indeed, given the general absence of linguistic skills and philological concern, expositors had little alternative but to develop the various spiritual senses of scripture, which they did with considerable zeal.

    The establishment of monastic and cathedral schools encouraged several new developments in biblical interpretation. In the first place, they created a demand for textbooks. Masters in the schools recognized the need for standardized interpretations that could serve as a common foundation for all students. The result was the compilation of the Glossa ordinaria, which presented a brief exposition of the entire Bible. The chief figure in the preparation of this work was Anselm of Laon (d. 1117), master in the cathedral school at Laon, though several other twelfth‐century theologians and commentators also contributed to the effort. The Glossa drew extracts from patristic and early medieval expositions, so that it possessed no claim to originality. It exercised an enormous influence, however, since it served for half a millennium as the basic text for students embarked on their introduction to the Bible.

    More important, the medieval schools fostered an intellectual and theological creativity that deeply influenced biblical interpretation. Expertise in grammar, logic, and dialectic imparted to the masters a new self‐confidence in their intellectual abilities, and equipped them with the tools to fashion a new kind of exegesis. Twelfth‐century commentators progressively abandoned the patristic style of running exposition in favor of explanations that concentrated on well‐defined theological issues. Exegetes such as Gilbert de la Porrée (d. 1154) and Robert of Melun (d. 1167) organized their commentaries around quaestiones—doctrinal issues requiring explanation on the basis of reason and grounded in some source of authority—so that exposition served the interests of theological accuracy. The culmination of this practice came in the Sentences of Peter Lombard (d. 1160), who organized biblical and patristic doctrine into a veritable compendium of Christian theology.

    The most impressive school of interpreters of this sort was that centered in the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris. Hugh of St. Victor (d. 1141), founder of the school, called for systematic, scholarly study of the scriptures. He placed equal weight on literal and spiritual exposition: the exegete must carefully employ all the relevant arts and sciences in establishing the literal sense of the text; whenever appropriate, however, its moral or theological significance should also be developed. Hugh's successors did not take so balanced an approach as their master: Richard of St. Victor (d. 1173) devoted himself to allegorical and mystical exegesis, while Andrew of St. Victor (d. 1175) insisted on a scientifically accurate exposition of the literal and historical sense of the scriptures. In preparing himself for his work, Andrew consulted Jewish scholars and steeped himself in Hebrew, thus setting an example followed by numerous Christian exegetes through the following two centuries.

    Whatever their attitude toward spiritual exegesis, expositors in the schools generally geared their work toward theological and doctrinal issues. As a result, biblical interpretation became an increasingly specialized activity. Expositors developed impressive skills in language and reasoning, which they then applied in scriptural analysis. In doing so, they emphasized the significance of the scriptures for the correct understanding of Christian doctrine—rather than seeking, for example, to develop materials for homiletic or teaching purposes—so that exegesis increasingly assumed the status of a subdiscipline of theology.

    The establishment of universities in the thirteenth century strongly encouraged the further development of a professional, scientific variety of biblical interpretation. Some commentators, such as Stephen Langton (1155–1228) and Hugh of St. Cher (1200–1263), continued to expound allegorical and spiritual senses of scripture. Generally speaking, however, the universities’ heavy emphasis on theology encouraged interpreters to concentrate on the literal sense and to focus their commentaries on important doctrinal issues. The introduction of Aristotelian thought and subsequent development of scholastic theology worked toward the same end. Thus, Albertus Magnus (1193–1280) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) brought Aristotelian science and analysis to bear on the scriptures; both produced literal expositions that plumbed the scriptures in search of support for scholastic explanations of Christian doctrine and mysteries.

    The culmination of this variety of exegesis came in the work of Nicholas of Lyra (1270–1349), best known for his monumental Postilla litteralis, which provided an exhaustive literal exposition of the entire Bible. Lyra by no means abandoned spiritual exposition: he set great store by accurate exegesis of the spiritual senses of scripture, and as a supplement to his Postilla litteralis he even prepared a work that briefly outlined the moral and allegorical significance of the entire Bible. Like Albertus and Aquinas, however, Lyra concentrated on literal exposition, and he took pains whenever possible to show that the scriptures supported the scholastic understanding of theology. Yet Lyra also considerably advanced comprehension of the Hebrew Bible in particular because of his solid command of Hebrew. Lyra also closely studied rabbinic commentaries, particularly those of Rashi (1030–1105), one of the greatest of the medieval Jewish exegetes (see article on Jewish Interpretation, above). His language skills enabled him to provide both proper translations and accurate explanations of numerous biblical passages. Similar clarification of the New Testament did not become available until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when Renaissance humanists brought their newly acquired knowledge of Greek to bear on the Christian scriptures.

    During the later Middle Ages, theologians such as Roger Bacon (1220–1292) and Pierre d'Ailly (1350–1421) called for increased emphasis on Hebrew and Greek as a propaedeutic for biblical interpretation. Regular instruction in biblical languages did not, however, become widely available until the sixteenth century, and by then new cultural forces ensured that scholastic theology would no longer dominate exegesis. Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) and Johann Reuchlin (1455–1522) became enchanted not only with Hebrew, but also with qabbalistic ideas, which they sought to introduce into Christian exegesis. Meanwhile, expertise in Greek enabled the Renaissance humanists to make important contributions to the understanding of the New Testament. Lorenzo Valla (1407–1457) and especially Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536) inaugurated the modern tradition of New Testament interpretation: they rejected the guidance of scholastic theology, studied the Greek text of the New Testament, and offered expositions that depended on a combination of linguistic, philological, and historical considerations. Both placed high value on the derivation of moral and theological doctrine from the scriptures. Like most of their humanist colleagues, though, they also denied the usefulness of elaborate allegorical or spiritual exegesis, insisting instead on the primacy of literal and historical expositions. Their work made possible a vastly improved understanding of the New Testament. On the basis of their knowledge of Greek and their well‐developed critical faculties, they corrected the texts of the Greek and Latin New Testament, offered new Latin translations superior to those of the Vulgate, and clarified numerous points of history and doctrine in their exegesis of the New Testament.

    The Reformation movements of the sixteenth century had deep implications for biblical interpretation, as theologians of all persuasions sought scriptural support for their religious views. To some extent, both Protestant and Catholic reformers continued to work in the tradition of Erasmus and other Renaissance scholars who had brought linguistic skills and philological analysis to bear on the scriptures. Both John Calvin (1509–1564) and Cardinal Cajetan (1468–1534), for example, produced extensive commentaries based on the study of scriptural texts in their original languages and informed by all the advances the humanists had registered in the explanation of the Bible.

    Inevitably, however, sixteenth‐century commentaries generally betrayed the theological, controversial, or confessional intentions of their authors. Rebels against the authority of the Roman Catholic church, including John Wycliffe (1330–1384) and John Hus (1370–1415) among many others, had traditionally appealed to scripture in justifying their defiance of the pope and the institutional church. Martin Luther (1483–1546) recognized the Bible as the ultimate authority in matters of Christian doctrine, and his expositions—especially of the Psalms and Pauline letters—helped him to develop his understanding of faith and grace. All the major Protestant theologians—Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), Martin Bucer (1491–1551), Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), Heinrich Bullinger (1503–1575), and especially John Calvin—followed Luther's example. Protestants generally rejected the practice of developing elaborate allegorical explanations of the scriptures, but they eagerly scrutinized both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in search of authoritative support for Protestant doctrine. Their lectures, sermons, and commentaries on the Bible helped all the founders of Protestant Christianity to develop and solidify their theological views.

    Roman Catholic theologians, of course, did not view scriptural authority as a substitute for papal primacy, but during the sixteenth century they too turned their attention to the Bible with special urgency. Jacques Lefèvre d’étaples (1455–1536), Gasparo Contarini (1483–1542) and Juan de Valdés (1500–1541) all produced commentaries or exegetical works of a highly spiritual character. All three responded especially warmly to the Pauline letters and sought to encourage spiritual reform within the Roman church, while incidentally rendering the scriptures an instrument of Catholic as well as Protestant controversial literature. Cardinals Reginald Pole (1500–1558) and Girolamo Seripando (1492–1563) strongly encouraged delegates at the Council of Trent (1545–1564) to reform the education of clergy: a curriculum based on humanist study of the Bible rather than scholastic theology, they argued, would lead to general reform and eventually to the religious reunion of Christianity. Meanwhile, Cardinal Cajetan (1468–1534) undertook a more direct challenge to Protestant Christianity. In long commentaries on the Gospels and Pauline letters, Cajetan depended upon the methods of humanist scholarship to argue that the New Testament proved the truth of Roman Catholic doctrine and confuted the Protestant alternative.

    By the late sixteenth century, then, biblical exegesis clearly reflected the theological division of western Christianity. Although it certainly became the focal point of unpleasant disputes, the Bible also retained its status as the prime source of Christian doctrine and moral teaching. Indeed, the disputes themselves testify to the point that, just as throughout the previous thousand years, the Bible still stood at the center of Christian culture.

    Jerry H. Bentley

    Modern Biblical Criticism

    Biblical criticism is a very general term, and not easy to define; it covers a wide range of scholarly activities. Its ultimate basis lies in the linguistic and literary character of the Bible. Scripture, though understood to be the word of God, is in human language (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) and in the literary, rhetorical, and poetic patterns of human expression, which can and must be interpreted by human understanding. God speaks through scripture, but its meanings function within the structures of ordinary human language. Criticism depends on a grasp of style, of the relation of part to whole, of expression to genre; it takes the biblical diction very seriously and moves from the detail of language to the larger overarching themes. Approached in this way, the Bible is sometimes found to have meanings other than those that traditional or superficial interpretations have suggested. Criticism is thus “critical,” not in the sense that it “criticizes” the Bible (it often reveres it as the basic and holy text), but in the sense that it assumes freedom to derive from the Bible, seen in itself, meanings other than those that traditional religion has seen in it. Biblical criticism thus uncovers new questions about the Bible, even as it offers fresh answers in place of old solutions.

    Criticism and Conflict.

    Biblical criticism need not conflict with long‐accepted understandings, but it may do so. This will mean that some traditional interpretations have been ill‐grounded in scripture and that some new interpretation should be suggested if justice is to be done to the facts of scripture. Criticism has thus often disturbed existing religion; yet it is also intrinsic to the religious belief in biblical authority. Far from being a nontheological activity, it is essential to proper theological evaluation. We momentarily suspend the existing theological conviction to see whether it stands the test of questioning against the biblical material itself.

    Not surprisingly, therefore, religious conflict has been a great stimulus to critical questioning. Two groups share the same scripture but have widely differing religious convictions. Each may then appeal to the scripture and argue that it cannot mean what others have taken it to mean. According to Matthew 23.23, Jesus himself says that the “weightier matters of the law” are neglected if one concentrates on the implementation of details—an appeal to the general tenor of the text against its detailed literality. As against the Christian understanding of Isaiah 7.14 as a prediction of Christ's virgin birth, the Jew Trypho (second century CE) insisted that the Hebrew word means simply “young woman,” that no virgin birth is involved, and that the reference is to the natural birth of Hezekiah (see Immanuel).

    The religious conflicts that most stimulated the rise of biblical criticism were, however, the Catholic‐Protestant conflict within Christianity and, later, the disputes among the many different directions within Protestantism, for these particularly emphasized the unique role of scripture and the implications of reading it for and from itself.

    Obstacles to Criticism.

    The main factors with which criticism has had to contend have included the following:

    General ideas

    or principles concerning the Bible, such as the conviction that, being the word of God, it must necessarily be perfect and thus inerrant in all its parts (see Inspiration and Inerrancy). As against these theoretical convictions, criticism works with the factual realities of the Bible.


    that universalize ideas and meanings throughout the Bible, obscuring differences between one part and another. Criticism notices these differences, such as that between documents affirming a virgin birth (Matthew, less clearly Luke) and others that appear not to do so (Mark, Paul, John).

    Midrash and allegorical interpretations

    that decontextualize the words of scripture, ascribing to them senses that may be found elsewhere but do not fit this context. Criticism takes the actual context to be decisive.

    Failure to perceive the literary form

    of the texts, and, in particular, failure to give weight to the silences of scripture, the absences of elements that are commonly read in; for example, the absence from the Hebrew Bible of Adam's disobedience as an explanation for evil, the absence of any birth narrative in Mark, the absence from other Gospels of the clause “except for unchastity” (Matt. 19.9; cf. 5.32; see Divorce).

    Anachronistic reading

    into the text of meanings, ideas, and situations of a later age; for example, to understand bishop in the New Testament as if this were identical with medieval episcopacy, or “scripture” in 2 Timothy 3.16 as if it meant exactly the same set of books that are canonical in modern Protestantism (see Canon). Criticism insists on starting with the words in the meanings that they had in biblical times.

    Rationalistic apologetic arguments

    supposed to overcome discrepancies; for example, the idea that, since the ejection of merchants from the temple by Jesus is placed early in the ministry by John, late by the other Gospels, the event happened several times. Criticism, on the other hand, suggests that the differential placing of the story was for reasons of theological meaning within the narrative.


    Classical biblical criticism has been much interested in matters of authorship. The Pentateuch was not written by Moses himself; the book of Isaiah contains materials from a time long after that prophet lived; the Gospels were not necessarily written by the disciples whose names they bear. This realization at once changes our picture of the sort of book the Bible is: it is not a once‐and‐for‐all, divinely dictated report but a product of tradition developed over some time within communities of faith. Relations between documents like the synoptic Gospels are literary relations, involving revision, change of emphasis, selection, and theological difference. The feature of pseudepigraphy must be recognized as a fact: that is, that books may be written in the name of, and attributed to, some great person of the past who presides over that genre. Thus, almost all Israelite law, of whatever time, was attached to the name of Moses, as were wisdom writings to that of Solomon; some letters written in the name of Paul or Peter may have been written by followers, perhaps using some material from the apostle himself, rather than by him directly.


    has been an important criterion from the beginning. Already in the ancient church it was obvious that 2 Peter was not in a style that Peter used, that the letter to the Hebrews differed in style from Paul, and that the book of Revelation differed vastly in style from the gospel and letters of John; and this observation was already used in early arguments about the canonicity of such books. These ancient observations formed a basis for similar discussions later, especially in Renaissance and Reformation (see article on Christian Interpretation from the Middle Ages to the Reformation, above), when the appreciation of ancient styles had been greatly quickened.


    That books had been formed by the combination of earlier sources was an obvious corollary of these ideas. Chronicles used Samuel‐Kings, revising sometimes slightly, sometimes drastically, and adding material of its own. Mark is most commonly believed to have been used and rewritten by Matthew and Luke. And the sources used could be works that had long disappeared. The books of Kings mention other historical sources known to them. Material common to Matthew and Luke, but absent from Mark, could go back to a source now lost. Within the Pentateuch the different strata, marked by very different language, style, and ideas, could be explained if different sources from different times had been gradually combined. The detection of different sources within a book may thus explain discrepancies and divergent theological viewpoints. Source criticism of this kind is a highly characteristic form of classical biblical criticism. It, along with questions of authorship and date, is sometimes called “higher criticism,” in contrast to “lower criticism,” the study of text and textual variations (see Textual Criticism), but these terms are now old‐fashioned. Indeed, from about the 1930s on, source criticism itself became somewhat old‐fashioned and less work was done on it; uncertainties in its conclusions were noted, and rivals to the widely accepted views came to be more commonly supported. Nevertheless, source‐critical results continue to be used as a normal framework of discussion by the great majority of scholars, and the broad outlines of source identification in the key areas—the Pentateuch, Isaiah, and the synoptic Gospels—are very generally accepted; such alternatives as there are are equally critical, but in a different way.

    Cosmology and Miracle.

    The rise of biblical criticism ran parallel with changing ideas about the world we live in. New scientific knowledge made it seem impossible that the world could have originated as recently as the date (5000–3600 BCE) implied by the Bible's own chronology, and the vast majority accepted this: the world was not exactly as Genesis had made it seem (see Science and the Bible). Similarly, it was debated just how exactly factual biblical depictions of miraculous events were. Critics noted the literary aspect: scripture is quite uneven in the degree to which it brings in miracle stories, and it may describe the same event in ways that are more sheerly miraculous or less so. This suggests that the element of miracle is again in part a matter of style. Biblical criticism is not in principle skeptical about miracles; but it takes it as clear that not all miracle stories are to be taken literally just because they are in the Bible. On the whole, critical scholarship leaves the question aside; for, in its developed form, it concentrates mainly on the meaning or function that the miracle story had within the work of the writer. For this purpose, it finds it unnecessary either to defend or to deny the reality of miracles; the exegetical process works in the same way in either case.


    has often been looked on as the essential component in biblical criticism, though we have maintained that its foundations rest more in language and in literary form. The literary perceptions thus stimulated often could not produce solutions without a historical account of what had taken place. Thus, in the method of Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918), Pentateuchal sources identified through linguistic and literary criteria were matched with the evidence of different stages in the development of religious institutions in Israel, producing a likely sequence and dating. Dating sources and setting them within the framework of known world history thus provides a strong frame of reference for biblical study and a way in which evidence can be marshaled and ordered for discussion and theological evaluation. In particular, the knowledge, even if only approximate, of what lay before and after makes it possible to understand the presuppositions of biblical writers and the situation for which they wrote.

    The centrality of this frame, and the importance of the perspective it afforded, has often caused the entire operation of biblical criticism to be understood as “historical criticism.” But this exaggerates the degree to which the ideals of historical research dominate biblical study. Historical investigation is only one of the aspects of traditional criticism. Much critical work is basically the exegesis of biblical books; for this, complete historical precision is often impossible, and in any case is not attained, often hardly attempted. More important is a rough and general historical location; the gross distortion of total anachronism is to be avoided. Words must be understood to mean what they meant in the language of the texts, and that means in the time of the texts; texts should be seen against the situation in life for which they were written. In fact, biblical scholars, even when they insist on a historical approach, are often not very historical; they tend to let theological predilection overcome historical realism, and their motivation is commonly the religious scholar's devotion to texts rather than pure historical rigor. It was from traditional theology that there came the emphasis on what had “really happened” in biblical times, on the persons of authority who were behind the writings, on history as the milieu of God's activity. Conversely, the historical perspective on the Bible which biblical criticism has brought about is important primarily as a major fact within theology itself, rather than as a purely historical achievement.

    The Canon.

    One important historical aspect is the perception of the canon of scripture: the canon came about historically and can be understood historically. The pioneering studies of Johann S. Semler (1725–91) in this area were a vital step in the development of modern biblical studies. The boundaries of scripture are not something eternally and unchangeably established by God; what scripture included at one time and place was not entirely identical with what it included at another; the study of scripture and the study of church history are not separable. That the origins of the canon can be investigated as a human undertaking is correlative with a similar study of the books themselves. The canon can still be understood as God‐given, just as the contents of scripture are God‐given; but not purely and supernaturally so—rather, only indirectly and through the mediation of human intentions and meanings. Biblical critics have not rejected the canon; on the whole they have continued to uphold it, maintaining that the religious content of the Bible (i.e., the canonical books) is, broadly speaking, vastly superior in quality to that of any other set of written texts.

    Theological Differentiation.

    Central to biblical criticism, and even more important than its historical orientation, is its use of the perception that theological views and emphases differ between one part of scripture and another. The Bible is not a monochrome and unvarying photograph of the being and will of God; it is more like a choir, each member of which has a different part to sing. Thus, in spite of much common subject matter, the P stratum of the Pentateuch has a theology quite different from that of Deuteronomy, and Matthew presents quite a different picture of Jesus from that of Luke. This in itself is no novel or revolutionary insight; but, rather than being content merely to admire the complementary character of the theologies of the books, biblical criticism uses it as a valuable index for the identification of strata and their relative dating, situations, and problems. Equally, it strives to perceive, understand, and evaluate these different theologies as crucial stages in the understanding of scripture as a whole, seen in a dimension of depth.

    Theological Roots of Biblical Criticism.

    Though biblical criticism may appear as something new, in fact it has deep theological roots. The interest in personal authorship went back to early times and was part of the argument over canonicity. Style was also known as a criterion from early times; later, on the basis of style, John Calvin doubted that Peter had written 2 Peter, just as, on grounds of content, he thought that Psalms 74 and 79 came from the Maccabean period (a view later regarded as drastically critical). The emphasis on history and actual events was also part of general Christian tradition: Christianity, people thought, was a peculiarly historical religion, and the importance of the actual words and deeds of Jesus was overwhelmingly accepted and stressed. If biblical criticism noticed and used the theological differences within the Bible, this was an extension from the practice of all theologies; for all, even when accepting the total canon of scripture, had picked out portions as more essential and dominant, while treating others as derivative or of secondary importance. As for the canon, the first obvious fact was that theological tradition had not agreed about it; there had been variations in canons throughout the early centuries, and again as between Roman Catholic and Orthodox on one side, and Protestant on the other. This fact was accentuated when Martin Luther, impressed by theological differentiation, effectively demoted from the New Testament canon James, Hebrews (not by Paul), and Revelation on the ground of their inadequate understanding of the essential principle of justification. Difference in emphasis between Old Testament and New Testament was also traditional and universal in Christianity.

    The impetus toward biblical criticism given by the Reformation was substantial. Stressing scripture alone—as against mediation through church tradition—meant that everything seemed to depend on scripture. The grammar and wording of the original was reemphasized and a learned ministry capable of handling these words was demanded. The Reformation rejected allegorical methods that had covered over cracks in the surface of scripture, and in the Hebrew Bible it mediated influences from medieval Jewish exegesis (seen, e.g., in the KJV), which in this respect also favored literal understanding (see article in this entry on Jewish Interpretation, above). It asserted the freedom of the interpreter to take a stand on the biblical words as against traditional and authoritative interpretations. But, despite the reformers’ insistence on biblical authority, they failed to produce doctrinal agreement; on the contrary, they created a wide variety of conflicting doctrinal positions, all claiming a basis in infallible scripture. The wide variation of ideas and hypotheses within later biblical criticism is a reflection of the same situation.

    Rise and Reception of Criticism.

    The ancient and early modern anticipations of critical views are not in themselves very important. It could be obvious enough that the statement that “at that time the Canaanites were in the land” (Gen. 12.6) was not written by Moses but was a later note; so argued Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1164), an opinion on which Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) later built much more. Such observations were often only minor annotations and do not amount to a critical vision of any scale. More important was the growth of the general atmosphere of thought in which it seemed permissible and even normal to argue on the basis of the language and literary form of scripture, with freedom to offer the interpretations that emerged from them. This tradition may go back to Erasmus (1466–1536), and is well represented by Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), who belonged to the Arminian current in the Dutch church. In France, Richard Simon (1638–1712) argued that uncertainties about scripture undermined the Protestant reliance upon it, while freedom in biblical study produced no clash with Catholic dogma; alongside this, his argument against Moses’ authorship of the entire Pentateuch is a minor point. Jean Astruc (1684–1766) pioneered the systematic source analysis of the Pentateuch, the different documents being isolated but understood to have been combined by Moses himself.

    An especially active locus of new ideas about scripture was England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In conflicts over church polity, civil government, and religious freedom there were manifold viewpoints, all of which sought legitimation from scripture, and the ensuing controversies evoked an efflorescence of new ideas and arguments. Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) is a distinguished representative. For him there is no doubting the authority of the Bible as the law of God; but equally, in the matter of authorship and date, it is simply obvious that the only light we have must come from the books themselves, and from this it is manifest that the books of Moses were written after his time, and similarly with other books. Other important exegetical ideas come from John Locke (1632–1704), who noted, among other things, how Jesus kept secret his messianic status until late in his career (see Messianic Secret); Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727), who worked on biblical chronology and also thought that the idea of the Trinity could be disproved from the New Testament; and many others.

    In Germany, these ideas were followed up in the later eighteenth century by university professors, who applied them in a much more systematic way. A typical genre was the “introduction,” which would cover in turn each book of Old Testament or New Testament and discuss methodically all matters of authorship, source analysis, and dates on the basis of language and content; a pioneer of such work was by Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (published 1780–1783). Central names in Old Testament scholarship are Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette (1780–1849), noted for his work on the key book of Deuteronomy, and Julius Wellhausen, whose solution (the “P” document is the latest of the Pentateuchal sources) remains the point of reference for all discussion of the subject. In New Testament studies, a central figure was Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792–1860), who saw a conflict between Pauline and Petrine traditions as decisive for early Christianity. Of the “quest for the historical Jesus,” it is hard to know whether it counts as biblical criticism or as speculative theology; the claim of Johannes Weiss (1863–1914) that Jesus’ mission was dominated by eschatological expectation is a more clearly critical standpoint.

    The return of this developed biblical criticism to the English‐speaking world was not without conflict. W. Robertson Smith was removed from his professorship in Scotland in 1881, and Charles A. Briggs from his clerical functions in the United States in 1893. But soon after these events, critical approaches had clearly won the day in these same churches. In Oxford from 1883 the cautious and erudite scholarship of Samuel Rolles Driver commended the critical reading of the Old Testament, and Lux mundi (1889) aligned the Catholic tradition of Anglicanism with the same. By the early twentieth century, critical perspectives, though not always easily accepted, were overwhelmingly dominant in academic study and serious publishing throughout the western non–Roman Catholic world.

    Although biblical criticism made a deep difference to the handling of the Bible, this did not have the feared serious effects on doctrine. This was partly because many traditional doctrines were not nearly as solely dependent on the Bible as had been supposed. Shifts in the mode of understanding the Bible left it possible for these same doctrines to be still maintained. Indeed, biblical criticism fitted in well with certain important doctrinal emphases: in Lutheranism with justification by faith, in Anglicanism with the centrality of incarnation, in Calvinism with the appreciation of Israel and the Old Testament. Moreover, though much biblical criticism grew up in association with latitudinarian views, with deism, and later with liberal theology, the achievements of criticism showed themselves to be separable from these origins and to be fully maintainable by those who repudiated them. Thus “dialectical” or “neo‐orthodox” theology, bitterly hostile to “liberal” theology, accepted the legitimacy of critical procedures and, though itself often cool toward biblical scholarship, on the whole created an atmosphere in which it could flourish very freely.

    In the Roman Catholic world, Richard Simon's argument that critical freedom favored the Catholic position was little accepted by his superiors, and critical work was muted until the rise of Catholic modernism, especially in France in the late nineteenth century with Alfred F. Loisy (1857–1940). The modernist movement was formally condemned by Pius X in 1907, and the dogmatic necessity of traditional authorships and dates was reasserted. But since the encyclical Divino afflante spiritu (1943) and especially since the Second Vatican Council, the critical freedom of the Catholic exegete has been acknowledged, and today Catholic and Protestant biblical scholarship form one total constituency (see also Pontifical Biblical Commission).

    Jewish academic scholarship has often differed from the solutions favored in Christian work; examples include opposition to Pentateuchal source criticism from Moses Hirsch Segal (1876–1968) and Umberto Cassuto (1883–1951), and different reconstruction of Israelite religious history from Yehezkel Kaufmann (1889–1963). Non‐Jewish scholarship was often felt to be too much influenced by Christian theological traditions. But the alternative positions advanced by Jewish scholars are in their own way just as critical, and offer no support to a consistent anticritical mode of study.

    Biblical Theology.

    Biblical criticism has often been understood primarily as an analytical discipline, but equally it is linked with the discipline of biblical theology, which is the synthetic side of the same movement. Biblical theology seeks to see the common elements that run through the texts, whether through a historical or developmental scheme or through the perception of an inner structure. No serious biblical theology has arisen except in conjunction with the critical approach. Biblical theology, like criticism, is an exploratory approach; the true inner theology of the Bible is not already known, but must be discovered. For opponents of critical study, the theology of scripture is already known, fixed in older creeds and traditions. Though twentieth‐century biblical theology felt itself to be in contrast with biblical criticism, they are in fact two sides of the same coin.

    Religious Environment.

    All the above may count as a depiction of “classical” biblical criticism; there remain some more recent developments to be mentioned. The older critics worked largely from the Bible itself; later, increasing knowledge from Mesopotamia and Syria, from Hellenistic mystery religions, from gnosticism was added. Clearly, there is some overlap in religious ideas and institutions, in legends, myths, and poetic forms. The “history of religions” school explored this area; a central name is that of Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932).

    Form Criticism

    , influential from the 1920s on, is interested in the smaller literary units that have a function in their “situation in life,” through which one penetrates to the underlying purpose. Thus, a gospel story might be of a form fitted for controversy with Jews, a psalm might be of a form belonging to an enthronement ceremony. Important form critics are Gunkel for the Hebrew Bible, and Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976) for the New Testament. For the New Testament, form criticism often seemed to be skeptical in character, suggesting that stories were generated for these purposes rather than actually spoken by Jesus; in the Hebrew Bible its effects were more conservative, suggesting ways in which poems might have functioned in ancient cult and liturgy.

    Tradition Criticism

    concentrates on the way in which traditions have altered and grown, the places to which they are attached, and the social and cultic relations within which they have been meaningful. It is less interested in documentary hypotheses, more in oral stages of tradition, and it illuminates the deep underlying forces that have molded the Bible into its present form. It has been particularly exemplified in Scandinavian scholarship.

    Redaction Criticism

    is interested in the work of the final editors, who molded the earlier sources into the text that we now have. The method depends on some view of the sources used by the redactor, but the interest falls less on these sources in themselves and more on the way in which they have been adapted into the final text. The object is therefore the shape and structure of the book as we now have it; yet the perception of this depends on a perspective in time, going back to an earlier stage or earlier revisional activity.

    Modern Literary Readings.

    Although the literary character of biblical criticism has been emphasized here, from about 1960 on it has been increasingly felt that it is out of step with modern trends in the appreciation of literature. Literary critics from outside the technical biblical sphere—for example, Frank Kermode, Robert Alter, and Northrop Frye—have made powerful contributions and some biblical scholars are following similar lines. Most of this literary movement is interested in the final, the present, stage of the text, not in historical reconstruction; nor does it share the theological interests characteristic of most biblical criticism. The stress is on the styles, the patterns, the narrative techniques. The text, some think, does not “refer” to anything external to itself, but operates within “the world of the text” (see also Literature, The Bible as). Some of this overlaps with ideas coming from structuralism, a movement centered in France. Structuralism is interested in the code, the set of structures, that are used in all social and literary complexes, as they are in language itself. It stresses the synchronic, the structures visible within one text at one time, rather than its development over a span of time, though it can also be extended to deal with historical change. These types of reading, in general, differ widely from traditional biblical criticism and especially from its historical interests; on the other hand, their reluctance to say anything informative about the world “outside the text” leaves it doubtful how they can fit with the older theological needs served by biblical criticism.

    Canonical Criticism.

    This approach, advocated principally by Brevard S. Childs, insists on the canon of scripture as the essential key to interpretation. Canonicity is interested in the final text, not in earlier stages that have led up to it. The canon of books, which brings them all together as holy scripture of the community, means that taken together they provide a “construal” of all their contents. Traditional biblical criticism is legitimate, providing, as it does, the starting points from which Childs reasons toward the canonical sense; but its perspective and direction are basically erroneous. Common areas with redaction criticism and with modern literary readings and structuralism seem obvious; but Childs is anxious to disclaim support from these quarters, for canonical criticism is not at all literary in character, and its validation comes entirely from the theological status of scripture. Though it appears to seek a connection with much earlier exegesis, canonical criticism is a clearly modern phenomenon, working entirely from the tradition of biblical criticism even when it seeks to depart from it.


    Biblical criticism has proved to be a dynamic field of study. New approaches and perspectives continue to appear. Areas undergoing fresh examination include the nature of Hebrew poetic form (stimulated by our knowledge of Ugaritic poetry; see also Poetry, Biblical Hebrew); the character of Judaism at the time when Christianity originated; the character of scripture as story rather than as history. Results believed to have been established will be reconsidered. Yet some of the main positions achieved have remained as essential reference points for the discussion, and no alternatives have been proposed that have gained anything like the same degree of assent. Still more important, the general intellectual atmosphere of criticism, with its base in language and literary form, its reference grid in history, and its lifeblood in freedom to follow what the text actually says, has established itself as without serious challenge. Serious work on scripture can be done only in continuity with the tradition of biblical criticism.

    See also Social Sciences and the Bible


    James Barr

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