P1 – An overview of 3500 years of Bible interpretation

Introduction                                                                                                                            Over the past several days this blogger has been thinking on the subject of Bible interpretation in light of the ever increasing attacks on the Bible by critical scholarship. The point of today’s post is to offer a summary of the history of Bible interpretation and major approaches to aid the reader in understanding from whence we came, where we are and how we can know we are remaining faithful to the scriptures in the 21st century world.

Drs. William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg and Robert L. Hubbard in their book “Introduction to Bible Interpretation”, page 21, write the following about the significance of knowing how the Bible has been interpreted over the centuries: “A brief survey of the history of Bible interpretation is beneficial in several ways. First it introduceds key issues that are pertinent to Bible interpretation, which, in turn, prepares the student to understand the approach to these issues we present. Second, it sensitizes readers to the opportunities and pitfalls in trying to contextualize Bible teachings in the present.” Later on they add: “Finally, a knowledge of the history of interpretation cultivates an attitude of humility toward the interpretive process.” 

To begin, I will use the headings of major periods of interpretation that are typically defined by scholars in the field of hermeneutics (the science and art of Biblical interpretation) such as Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard above. As we list each heading or period of the Bible’s interpretation, remarks and comments will be made along the way. Today’s post is not meant to be exhaustive but rather represents a thumbnail sketch of the nearly 3500 year history of how people have interpreted God’s Word.   

1. Jewish interpretation (1446 B.C – 400 A.D). This starting point is appropriate, being that the scriptures were revealed to the Jews as explained for instance by the Apostle Paul in Romans 9:4. As one follows the Old Testament text, it is clear that even in the era of the composition of the Old Testament books, the Holy Spirit was providing interpretive sections in the process of Divine inspiration. After the last book of the Old Testament was complete, the following movements occurred in the history of Jewish interpretation of the scriptures.

a. Rabbinic Judaism. The term “Rabbinic” refers to the various teachers that existed in the history of Judaism who taught, wrote literature and influenced Jewish thought in the centuries prior to, during and following the New Testament era. Normally three major written works are included in understanding the interpretive approach of the Rabbis. First there is the Mishna which was viewed by the Jews to had been the oral tradition of the Jews beginning with Moses into the first two centuries A.D. Groups such as the Pharisees gleaned many of their traditions from such writings.  The second major body of writing is called the Talmud, which is essentially a commentary on the Mishna.

b. Hellenistic Judaism. The word “hellenistic” comes from the Greek word “hellenay” which came to refer to “Greek culture” or “Greek language”.  As the Jewish people began to disperse between the Old and New Testament eras (400 b.c-4 b.c), they became influenced by whatever culture they found themselves.  When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire in 333 b.c, his program of making his empire reflect Greek culture or “Hellenization” came to roost among the Jews. In Alexandria Egypt the first translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, was began in 275 b.c with the translation of the first five books or the Pentateuch.  The remainder of the Old Testament books would follow over the next two centuries and would eventually shape and mold how the Jews interpreted the scripture.

According to Roy B. Zuck in his work “Basic Bible Interpretation”, page 30, two main figures emerged out of the Alexandrian Jewish school that shaped Hellenistic Judaism, Aristobulus and Philo.  He writes: “Aristobulus, who lived around 160 b.c., believed that Greek philosophy borrowed from the Old Testament, and that those teachings could only be uncovered by allegorizing”. Allegorization is a method of interpretation that essentially takes every detail of the Biblical text and assigns moral and spiritual meanings to almost every detail, even if the context is clearly literal. Zuck goes onto mention a second figure, Philo, who like Aristobulus, combined Greek thought (in his case  the writings of the philosopher Plato) with his interpretation of the Old Testament.

c. The Qumran Community. The reader has most likely heard of the famous “Dead Sea Scrolls” that were discovered in a series of 11 caves located around the perimeter of the Dead Sea area beginning in 1947.  The community of Jews who lived around the area of the Dead Sea were called Essene Jews or as deemed by Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard, “The Qumran commmunity”. These Jews were “eschatological” in their interpretation of the Old Testament, meaning that they placed high value on prophecies related to the coming of Messiah and the end of the age.

2. The Apostolic Period. (30-100 A.D) This period of course covers the age of the New Testament’s authors such as the Gospel Writers, Paul, Peter, John and others.   Jesus fulfilled 109 Old Testament prophecies, and  what the New Testament does is essentially provide the  authoritative way to understand the Old Testament in light of Jesus Christ’s incarnation, life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension.

3. The Patristic Period (100-590 A.D). In this period of time we see the rise of the early Christian leaders or “church fathers”, the major church councils that discussed a clearer understanding of such Biblical doctrines  as Christ’s Deity, the Trinity and recognizing which books were inspired and which were not.  According to Roy Zuck in his book, “Basic Bible Interpretation”, page 35-37, two schools of Bible interpretation arose.

The first emerged from scholars living in Antioch or the “Antiochene” school and emphasized a more  literal approach to scripture.  The second school, emerging from the famed Alexandria Egypt we saw earlier, came to utilize the already popular allegorization or “spiritualizing” method.

In studying this period of time, major names such as Irenaeus of Lyons (second century), Origen (second century), Athanasius (3rd into 4th century), Jerome (4th into 5th century) and the greatest church father of this period, Augustine (4th into 5th century) would frame Bible  interpretation for the next 1,000 years. Also too the reader must not forget that four major church councils defined what constituted Biblical orthodoxy as stretching from the Apostles up to their day: (Nicea 325 A.D, Constantinople 381 A.D, Ephesus 430 A.D and Chaledon in 453 A.D).

4. The Middle Ages (590-1500 A.D). This period of time is where we see the church utilizing the writings of the church fathers in concert with a four-fold method of intepretation. Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard, on page 38 of their book: “Introduction to Bible interpretation”, quote a popular rhyme that circulated in the middle ages: “The letter shows us what God and our Fathers did; the allegory shows us where our faith is hid; the moral meaning gives us rules of daily life; the anagogy shows us where we end our strife.” This four-fold method involved beginning with the literal meaning (i.e the letter), and then overlaying three other “senses”: the tropological or moral meaning, the allegorical or symbolic meaning with the goal of reaching the anagogical or heavenly meaning.

In studying this period one can read about influential popes who shaped how the Old Catholic church would read and interpret the scripture. The left over remnants of the Old Roman Empire became intertwined within the fabric of the Roman Catholic church system of the ninth century and soon the Western Church became more and more dominant in Western Europe.

The Western Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox churches would come to split in 1054 A.D, signalling the first major division of the church in church history and distinguishing Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox interpretations of scripture.   Key theologians such as Thomas Aquinas (13th century) and Anslem of Canterbury in the West would write influential theological treatises that combined Aristotle’s philosophy with the standard accepted Roman Catholic sacramental theology. Various Eastern orthodox writers would produce works that would attempt to preserve the Eastern Orthodox Christian thought of the first seven centuries and so there tends not to be near the influence of philosophy as there is in the Western Roman Catholic Church. Also too arose key men such as John Wycliff (14th century) and John Huss (14th century) who issued the cry for Reform within the Roman Catholic church.

5. Reformation Period (1500-1650 A.D). The Reformation represents a revolution in Bible interpretation and a return to the scriptures as the normative, primary authority for faith and practice. With the invention of Guttenburg’s printing press in the early 14th century, efforts to translate the Bible from the original languages could be more vigorously pursued.  Certainly what would come to influence Biblical interpretation was the return to the scriptures.  Roy Zuck in his work: “Basic Bible Interpretation”, page 44, writes: “In the Reformation the Bible became the sole authority for belief and practice. The Reformers built on the literal approach of the Antiochene school and the Victorines.  The Reformation was a time of social and ecclesiastical upheaval but, as Ramm points out, it was basically a hermeneutical reformation, a reformation in reference to the approach to the Bible.” Certainly big names like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and movements such as the Anabaptists and Roman Catholic Counter Reformation could be mentioned in broadly outlining this period.

Bernard Ramm (cited a moment ago by Zuck) writes these words in his landmark book: “Protestant Biblical Interpretation”, pages 53-55, about Martin Luther’s approach as typifying the period: Luther’s hermeneutical principles were: (1). The psychological principle. Faith and illumination were the personal and spiritual prerequisites for the interpreter.” Next Ramm writes: “The authority principle. The Bible is the supreme and final authority in theological matters, and therefore is above ecclesiastical authority.” Then Ramm notes: “The literal principle. In place of the four-fold system of the scholastics, we are to put the literal principle.” Then Ramm concludes about Luther’s approach: The sufficiency principle. The devout and competent Christian can understand the true meaning of the Bible and thereby does not need the official guides to interpretation offered by the Romans Catholic Church.”

More tomorrow….


About pastormahlon

By the grace of God I was converted to saving faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 10 and called into the Gospel ministry by age 17. Through the Lord's grace I completed a Bachelors in Bible at Lancaster Bible College in 1996 and have been married to my beautiful wife since that same year. We have been blessed with four children, ranging from 7-18 years of age. In 2002 the Lord enabled me to complete a Master of Arts in Christian Thought at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield PA. For nearly 25 years I have been preaching and teaching God's Word and have been studying the original languages since 1994. In 2016 God called my family and me to move to begin a pastorate at a wonderful Southern Baptist Congregation here in Northern New York.
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