The miracle of belief
My speech and my preaching was not with enticing words. 1 Cor. 2:1-5.
Paul was a scholar and an orator of the first rank; he is not speaking out of abject humility, but saying that he would veil the power of God if, when he preached the gospel, he impressed people with his “excellency of speech.” Belief in Jesus is a miracle produced only by the efficacy of Redemption, not by impressiveness of speech, not by wooing and winning, but by the sheer unaided power of God. The creative power of the Redemption comes through the preaching of the Gospel, but never because of the personality of the preacher. The real fasting of the preacher is not from food, but rather from eloquence, from impressiveness and exquisite diction, from everything that might hinder the gospel of God being presented. The preacher is there as the representative of God—“as though God did beseech you by us.” He is there to present the Gospel of God, not human ideals. If it is only because of my preaching that people desire to be better, they will never get anywhere near Jesus Christ. Anything that flatters me in my preaching of the Gospel will end in making me a traitor to Jesus; I prevent the creative power of His redemption from doing its work.
“I, if be lifted up . . ., will draw all men unto Me.”
Bible study, righteous lifestyle, Psalm 119:9–11.
Purpose of searching Scriptures, Proverbs 1:1–3.
Persistent study abundantly rewarded, Proverbs 2:1–6.
Proper student attitude, Proverbs 19:20.
Learn, apply, Proverbs 22:17.
Emotion in learning, Proverbs 23:12.
Beyond monetary value, Proverbs 23:23.
Analytical study, research, Ecclesiastes 7:25.
Function of wisdom in decision making, Ecclesiastes 8:5.
Divine pedagogy, Isaiah 28:26.
Supreme challenge for Bible student, 2 Timothy 3:16.
113. What Is Hermeneutics?
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. [Luke 24:27]
When Jesus explained Scripture to the two disciples he was interpreting the Scriptures. In fact, the Greek word Luke used for “explained” in this passage is where we get the word hermeneutics—the science of biblical interpretation. We have seen that there is only one meaning to each text of Scripture, though there are many implications and applications. The science of hermeneutics helps us to understand the objective message of Scripture.
Three major methods of interpreting Scripture are used today. One, the classical method used by Bible-believing scholars, is the grammatical-historical method. This method strives to discover the original meaning of the texts by studying the historical situation in which the events took place and the words were written. Thus, the grammatical-historical method seeks to bridge the gap in understanding between the time the Scripture was first written and the time and setting in which it is being interpreted.
The second approach, developed among eighteenth- and nineteenth-century evolutionary scholars, is the religious-historical method. It assumes religion, along with everything else, is evolving from the simple to the complex. This school brings the evolutionary presupposition to Scripture and denies that the Bible means what it apparently says.
Where the Bible says Abraham worshiped one God, they contend the writer must have erred. Monotheism, they say, cannot have evolved so early in history. The religious-historical method sets aside the statements of the text, choosing instead to believe some overarching theory into which the text is forced to fit.
The third approach, which developed in the twentieth century under the influence of existential philosophy, is the existential method. This method says that God speaks through the Bible to each person directly, regardless of what the text actually says and meant when it was written. This completely relativistic approach denies all absolutes and abiding principles.
Proper interpretation of Scripture demands that we have an understanding of the historical and cultural setting of the Bible. As you study the Bible look for good quality resources to help you understand biblical history and culture in order to aid your interpretation of Scripture.
For further study: Ezra 7:1–10; Psalm 119:25–40; 2 Timothy 2:15
HERMENEUTICS. This term, from Gk. hermēneuō (‘interpret’), is used to denote (a) the study and statement of the principles on which a text—for present purposes, the biblical text—is to be understood, or (b) the interpretation of the text in such a way that its message comes home to the reader or hearer. In our own day this aim has been pursued by means of an existential interpretation of the text. For example, while the understanding of the parables of Jesus is greatly aided at one level by an examination of the local and contemporary setting (as in J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 1954), their relevance to readers today has been brought out by existential interpretation (as in G. V. Jones, The Art and Truth of the Parables, 1964, or E. Linnemann, The Parables of Jesus, 1966). There is a place for both levels of interpretation, but without the prior historical exegesis the existential hermeneutic lacks any anchorage. The task of existential hermeneutics has been seen as the re-establishment, for today’s reader of (say) the parables, of that common understanding with his hearers which Jesus established when he first told them. (*Interpretation, Biblical.)
Bibliography. G. Ebeling, Word and Faith, 1963; J. M. Robinson and J. B. Cobb, The New Hermeneutic, 1964; J. D. Smart, The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church, 1970; H. G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 1975; N. Perrin, Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom, 1976; I. H. Marshall (ed.), New Testament Interpretation, 1977. f.f.b.
INTERPRETATION, BIBLICAL. The purpose of biblical interpretation is to make the meaning and message of the biblical writings plain to their readers. Some principles of interpretation are common to the Bible and other literature, especially other ancient literature; other principles of interpretation are bound up with the unique place of the Bible in the revelation of God and in the life of his people.
I. General interpretation
Each part of the Bible must be interpreted in its context, and that means not only its immediate verbal context but the wider context of time, place and human situation to which it belongs. Thus there are a number of considerations to be kept in mind if the meaning of the text is to be grasped as fully as is desirable.
a. Language and style
The idioms and constructions of the biblical languages can differ quite widely from those with which we are familiar today, and some acquaintance with these is necessary for a proper interpretation (*Language of the Apocrypha; *Language of the OT; *Language of the NT). The literary categories represented in the Bible should also be noted; this will save us, for example, from interpreting poetry according to the canons of prose narration, or vice versa. Most of the literary categories in the Bible are well known from other literature, but biblical prophecy, and still more biblical apocalyptic, have features peculiar to themselves which call for special interpretative procedures.
b. Historical background
The biblical narrative covers the whole span of Near Eastern civilization until ad 100, a period of several millennia within which a succession of sweeping changes took place. It is therefore important to relate the various phases of the biblical revelation to their proper historical context if we are to understand them aright; otherwise we may find ourselves, for example, assessing people’s conduct in the Middle Bronze Age by the ethical standards of the Gospels. And we can discern the permanent principles in a biblical document only when we first of all relate that document to the conditions of its own times; we shall then be better able to reapply to our times those features of its teaching which are valid for all time.
c. Geographical setting
We should not underestimate the influence exercised by climate and terrain on a people’s outlook and way of life, including its religion. The religious conflicts of the OT are interwoven with the conditions of Palestinian geography. Baal-worship, for example, arose in a land where life depended on rain. To the Canaanites Baal was the storm-god who fertilized the earth, and Baal-worship was a magical ritual calculated to ensure regular rainfall and plentiful harvests. Indeed, to such an extent have geographical conditions entered into the biblical language, literal and figurative, that some acquaintance with these conditions is necessary for an understanding of the language. This is especially true of the OT, but even in the NT it has long been recognized, for instance, that the historical geography of Asia Minor makes an important contribution to the interpretation of Acts and the Epistles.
d. The human situation
Even more important than questions of time, place and language are questions about the everyday life of the people whom we meet in the Bible, their loves and hates, their hopes and fears, their social relations, and so forth. To read the Bible without regard to this living environment is to read it in a vacuum and to put constructions upon it which it was never intended to bear. Thanks largely to archaeological discovery, we are able to reconstruct in fair measure the private and public conditions in which the people of the Bible lived, in age after age; while a sympathetic reading of the text itself enables us in some degree to get under their skins and look at the world through their eyes. It is not unimportant to try to envisage what it must have felt like to be a servant in Abraham’s household, an Israelite slave in Egypt, a citizen of Jericho when Joshua’s men were marching round the city or a citizen of Jerusalem in face of Sennacherib’s threats, a soldier in David’s army, a captive maid waiting on Naaman’s wife or a builder of the wall under Nehemiah. We may then realize that part of the Bible’s perennial appeal is due to its concentration on those features of human life that remain basically the same in all times and places.
II. Special interpretation
Biblical interpretation involves not only the interpretation of the several documents but their interpretation as part of the Bible, having regard to the way in which each part contributes to the purpose of the Bible as a whole. Since the Bible records God’s word to man and man’s response to God, since it contains ‘all things necessary to salvation’ and constitutes the church’s ‘rule of faith and life’, we may look for such a unity throughout the volume that each part can be interpreted in the light of the whole. We may look, indeed, for some unifying principle of interpretation.
In traditional Jewish interpretation of the Heb. Scriptures this unifying principle was found in the Law, understood in accordance with the teaching of the great rabbinical schools. The Prophets and the Writings were treated largely as commentaries on the Law. In addition to the surface meaning of the text, the pešaṭ, there was the more extended application, the deraš, derived by the use of various well-defined principles of exegesis, but sometimes appearing far-fetched by the exegetical standards of today.
In the NT and early Christian literature the OT oracles are viewed as a unity, instructing the reader ‘for salvation’ and equipping him with all that he needs for the service of God (2 Tim. 3:15ff.). The prophets, speaking in the power of the Holy Spirit, bear witness to Christ as the One in whom the promises of God find their fulfilment. The NT writers—-whose diversity of personality, style and thought must be taken into account in the interpretation of their works—are agreed on this. In Heb. 1:1f. the ‘many and various ways’ in which God spoke in earlier days are contrasted with the perfect and final word which he has spoken in his Son; in the Pauline writings God’s dealings with the world are traced through successive stages associated with Adam, Abraham, Moses and Christ. Biblical interpretation in the NT has Christ as its unifying principle, but this principle is not applied mechanically but in such a way as to bring out the historical and progressive nature of the biblical revelation. This creative principle of interpretation was certainly derived by the apostolic church from Christ himself.
In post-apostolic times biblical interpretation was influenced by a Gk. concept of inspiration which called for large-scale allegorization of the text. This influence was most apparent in Alexandria, where in the pre-Christian period it is found in the biblical interpretation of Philo. By allegorization, it was believed, the mind of the inspiring Spirit could be ascertained; by allegorization much in the Bible that was intellectually or ethically unacceptable in its literal sense could be made acceptable. This method, developed by the Alexandrian Fathers and taken over from them by many of the Western Fathers, in fact obscured the mind of the Spirit and obliterated the historical character of biblical revelation. In contrast to the Alexandrians the school of Antioch, while not rejecting allegorization entirely, did more justice to the historical sense of the text.
The distinction between the literal sense of Scripture and the higher or spiritual sense was elaborated in mediaeval times, and three varieties of spiritual sense were distinguished—-the allegorical, which deduced doctrine from the narrative; the moral, which drew lessons for life and behaviour; and the anagogical, which derived heavenly meanings from earthly things. Yet the early Middle Ages also saw good work done in the field of literal interpretation, notably by the 12th-century school of St Victor in France.
The Reformers laid fresh emphasis on the literal sense of Scripture and on the grammatico-historical method of exegesis as the way to establish its literal sense. Grammatico-historical exegesis is fundamental, but when the foundation has been laid by its means theological exegesis and practical application are also called for. Moreover, the use of the Bible in the life of the people of God throughout the centuries continually brings fresh aspects of its meaning to light, although these fresh aspects have general validity only as they are rooted in the true and original sense. Thus, we may understand the Epistle to the Romans better because of the part it played in the lives of Augustine, Luther and Wesley; but the part it played in their lives owes its significance to the fact that these men had a rare grasp of what Paul really meant when he wrote the Epistle.
Typological interpretation, revived in our own day, must be used (if at all) with caution and restraint. Its most acceptable form is that which discerns in the biblical recital of God’s acts of mercy and judgment a recurring rhythm, by virtue of which earlier stages in the recital can be viewed as foreshadowings and illustrations of later stages (cf. Paul’s use of the wilderness experiences of Israel in 1 Cor. 10:1ff.).
Christians have an abiding standard and pattern in their Lord’s use of the OT, and part of the Holy Spirit’s present work for them is to open the Scriptures as the risen Christ opened them for two disciples on the Emmaus road (Lk. 24:25ff.).
Bibliography. F. W. Farrar, History of Interpretation, 1886; B. Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages2, 1952; C. H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures, 1952; H. H. Rowley, The Unity of the Bible, 1953; E. C. Blackman, Biblical Interpretation, 1957; R. M. Grant, The Letter and the Spirit, 1957; J. D. Wood, The Interpretation of the Bible, 1958; J. D. Smart, The Interpretation of Scripture, 1962; Cambridge History of the Bible, 1–3, 1963–70; J. Barr, Old and New in Interpretation, 1966; I. H. Marshall (ed.), New Testament Interpretation, 1977; G. W. Anderson (ed.), Tradition and Interpretation, 1979. f.f.b.
The Interpretation of Scripture
One great legacy of the Reformation is the principle of private interpretation. The Reformation effectively put the Bible into the hands of the laity. This was done at a great price, as some who translated the Bible into the vernacular paid for it with their lives. The right of private interpretation means that every Christian has the right to read and interpret the Bible for himself or herself. This does not give an individual the right to misinterpret or distort the Bible. The Bible is not a waxed nose to be twisted and shaped to fit one’s fancy. With the right of private interpretation comes the responsibility of handling the Bible carefully and accurately. Nor does this right suggest that teachers, commentaries, and so forth are unnecessary or unhelpful. God has not gifted teachers for his church in vain.
The Bible is not to be interpreted arbitrarily. Fundamental rules of interpretation must be followed to avoid subjectivistic or fanciful interpretation, rules developed by the science of hermeneutics. The term hermeneutics is etymologically related to Hermes, a Greek god. Hermes was the messenger of the gods, corresponding to the Roman god Mercury. In mythology Mercury is often depicted with wings on his shoes to facilitate the delivery of messages with speed.
Hermeneutics prescribes the process by which we seek to understand a message. The Reformation established crucial rules of hermeneutics for interpreting the Bible. Perhaps the most crucial or central rule is the analogy of faith. This is the rule that Scripture is to interpret itself (Sacra Scriptura sui interpres). We are to interpret Scripture by Scripture. If the Bible is the Word of God, then it is coherent and consistent with itself. God is not the author of confusion. He does not contradict himself. We are not, therefore, to set one part of Scripture against another. What is unclear or obscure in one place may be clarified in another. We are to interpret the obscure in light of the clear, the implicit in light of the explicit, and narrative in light of the didactic.
At a technical level the science of hermeneutics becomes quite complex. The biblical scholar must learn to recognize different forms of literature within the Scripture (genre analysis). For example, some parts of the Bible are in the form of historical narrative, while others are in the form of poetry. The interpretation of poetry differs from the interpretation of narrative. The Bible uses metaphor, simile, proverb, parable, hyperbole, parallelism, and many other literary devices that must be recognized in any serious work of interpretation.
One of the Reformation’s chief accomplishments is the principle of the literal interpretation of Scripture. This concept has suffered from serious misunderstanding, having often been equated with a naive or wooden literalism. The actual principle, called the sensus literalis, is that the Bible must be interpreted according to the manner in which it is written. Literal refers to the literary form of Scripture. Luther comments on this:
Neither a conclusion nor a figure of speech should be admitted in any place of Scripture unless evident contextual circumstances or the absurdity of anything obviously militating against an article of faith require it. On the contrary, we must everywhere adhere to the simple, pure, and natural meaning of the words. This accords with the rules of grammar and the usage of speech (usus loquendi) which God has given to men. For if everyone is allowed to invent conclusions and figures of speech according to his own whim . . . nothing could to a certainty be determined or proved concerning any one article of faith that men could not find fault with by means of some figure of speech. Rather we must avoid as the most deadly poison all figurative language which Scripture itself does not force us to find in a passage.13
The principle of literal interpretation was intended to put an end to a method that had become popular in the Middle Ages, the quadriga. This was a method of interpretation by which four distinct meanings were sought for each biblical text: the literal, moral, allegorical, and analogical. This led to excessive allegorization and obfuscation of the text. By contrast, sensus literalis was designed to seek the plain sense of Scripture and to focus on one meaning. Though a text may have a multitude of applications, it has only one correct meaning.
The principle of the sensus literalis is closely related to the grammatico-historical method of interpretation. This method focuses on the historical setting in which Scripture was written and pays close attention to the grammatical structure of the biblical text. In a broad sense this method means simply that the Bible is to be interpreted like any other book. Its revelatory nature does not make it unlike any other book in that regard. It must still be read like any other book. In the Bible verbs are verbs and nouns are nouns. The normal structure of literature applies.
Revelation Concerns the Origin and Giving of Truth (1 Cor. 2:10) 12
Still another concept must be distinguished in the process of divine communication. It is interpretation (hermeneutics). The Hebrew word for revelation, galah, “to uncover,” and the Greek word apocalyptein, “to unveil,” are roughly identical in meaning. Along with their synonyms in the Old and New Testaments, these terms convey the idea of “the removal of obstacles to perception,” or “the stripping away of that which keeps one from seeing an object as it is.” This notion was contained in the Latin revelare (to reveal), from which the English word revelation is derived.13 In other words, revelation involves “disclosure” rather than “discovery.” As it relates to Scripture, all these terms refer to a divine disclosure. Sometimes it may be a disclosure of a person (as in Christ, the Living Word of God, Gal. 1:6), while at other times it may be of propositions (as in Scripture, the written Word of God,14 John 10:35). In the ultimate sense, God gives the revelation or disclosure of truth; man can have an interpretation or discovery of that truth. Some scholars,such as John Macquarrie and Leon Morris, have attempted to extend revelation to the experiences of believers in subsequent generations, calling it “repetitive revelation” as opposed to “primordial,” “classical,” or “formative” revelation in the Scriptures.15 However, such a view not only confuses revelation and interpretation, but it also broadens the locus of revelation from the Scriptures alone to the ongoing experiences of the Christian community.
Inspiration Relates to the Reception and Recording of Truth (2 Peter 1:20-21)
God revealed truth to men who received and recorded it. Inspiration is the means God used to achieve His revelation in the Bible. Inspiration involves man in an active sense, whereas revelation is solely the activity of God. In inspiration, the prophet received from God what he in turn related to others. Inspiration as a total process includes both the prophet and the product of his pen.
Interpretation Focuses on the Apprehension and Understanding of Truth (1 Cor. 2:14-16)
The Greek term hermeneuein (to interpret) is applied to the interpretation of Scripture in the study of hermeneutics.16 Whereas revelation is an objective disclosure of God, and inspiration includes the process and product God used in communicating, interpretation emphasizes the apprehension and understanding of God’s revelation to man. In revelation God unveils truth; by interpretation man understands that truth. Even though the three concepts are interrelated in the total process of God’s communication, they are quite distinguishable. They form three necessary links in the chain “from God to us”: (1) revelation is the fact of divine communication, (2) inspiration is the means of divine communication, and (3) interpretation is the process of understanding that divine communication.17
What Is Inspired, the Writer or His Writings?
Although the biblical concept of inspiration has been outlined in general, several important questions must be discussed about inspiration in particular. Is it the writers, their ideas, their writings, or a combination of these which is inspired? As was mentioned above, inspiration certainly includes the man and his ideas, but it must not exclude his writings. James Orr believes that “inspiration belongs primarily to the person and to the book only as it is the product of the inspired person.”18 Other theologians would reverse that opinion, asserting, “Properly speaking, inspiration pertains to the holy Scriptures themselves. It may be said, however, that the writers too were inspired by God.”19 Regardless of which position is primary, it must be held that the person as well as his pen is under the direction of the Holy Spirit in the total process of inspiration. Nevertheless, the New Testament reserves the word “inspiration” only for the product of that process, that is, the writings, or graphē (2 Tim. 3:16).20 Failure to make that distinction leads some scholars, such as Paul J.Achtemeier and William J. Abraham, to the erroneous conclusion that the inspiration is the totality of the process of gathering traditions, proclamations, writing, and editing on an ongoing basis. Although God is actively involved throughout the total process of producing the Scriptures (2 Peter 1:20-21), the inspiration (theopneustos) and subsequent authority of those Scriptures is reserved for the written Scriptures themselves (2 Tim. 3:16-17), which are illuminated by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14-16). As I. Howard Marshall aptly observes, “There is a gap between the process of inspiration and the text of the Bible which causes some disquiet, particularly when we remember that according to 2 Timothy it is the Scriptures which are inspired rather than the process of composition.”21
That inspiration of necessity involves the very words of Scripture may be seen for two reasons: (1) Linguistically, words are necessary for the adequate expression of thought.22 If God in any meaningful sense expressed Himself to the prophets, He had to use words. Words are the “clothes of ideas,” and a naked thought is a very nebulous entity at best. The desire for clarity in revelation would scarcely be consonant with the ambiguity of unsymbolized ideas. In fact, an idea without a symbol to express it is an unexpressed idea, and an unexpressed idea is scarcely a revelation or communication. (2) Biblically, it is the repeated claim that “words” are God-given. Observe how many times Jesus and the apostles used the phrase “it is written” or similar expressions (see chap. 5). The Bible literally abounds with the assertions that God gave the very words of the prophets (see chap. 6). Moses was told, “I will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say” (Ex. 4:12). God charged Ezekiel, saying, “You shall speak My words to them” (Ezek. 2:7). Of the Decalogue it is said, “And God spoke all these words” (Ex. 20:1). Paul claimed to speak “in words. . .taught by the Spirit” (1 Cor.2:3). Those references illustrate that the very words of the Bible were God-given.
What Is Inspired, the Autographs23 or the Copies?
If every word of the Bible is inspired, does every copy, translation, or version of the Scriptures necessarily have to be inspired too? There are some who think so. But, here again, two extremes must be avoided.“Every translation is inspired in the same sense as the original.” This extreme position was held by the Jewish philosopher Philo in the first century of the present era. He said of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, that the translators “under inspiration, wrote, not each several scribe something different, but the same word for word, as though dictated to each by an invisible prompter.”
Dewey M. Beegle reflects a similar view when he writes, “There is no evidence to show that the apostles denied the inspiration of the LXX. . . . The correct inference, therefore, is that in spite of some mistakes, all reasonably accurate translations of Scripture are inspired.”24 This position, as can be seen, necessitates the recognition of errors (errancy) in inspiration, because some errors of copyists have obviously crept into the Scriptures.25 If this be so, one is forced to the absurd conclusion that there are divinely inspired errors in the Bible.“Only the autographs are inspired, not the translations.” If only the errorless autographs were God-breathed, and the translators were not preserved from error, how can there be certainty about any passage of Scripture? Perhaps the very passage that comes under question is a mistaken transcription or copy. The scholarly procedure of textual criticism (see chap. 26) treats this problem by showing the accuracy of the copies of the originals. To borrow this conclusion in advance, the copies are known to be accurate and sufficient in all matters except minor details. The resultant situation, then, exists that although only the autographs are inspired, it may be said nevertheless that all good copies or translations are adequate.
Some have objected to what they consider a retreat to “inerrant autographs” from errant copies, as if the doctrine of inspiration were created to protect the inerrancy of the Bible. To argue, as does Ernest R. Sandeen,26 that the belief in inerrant originals emerges from the apologetic purposes of the Princeton tradition of Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield to defend the Bible against charges of error, are misdirected. The distinction between inerrant autographs and errant copies can be found in much earlier writers, including John Calvin (1509-64) and even Augustine (a.d. 354-430). They chide that no one in modern times has ever seen these “infallible originals.” Although no one in modern times has ever seen an infallible original, it is also true that no one has ever seen a fallible one. In light of this situation, it is well to note that the pursuit of the original renderings is at least an objective science (textual criticism) rather than a subjective guess at recovering the actual text of the inerrant autographs.
Just why God did not see fit to preserve the autographs is unknown, although man’s tendency to worship religious relics is certainly a possible determining factor (2 Kings 18:4). Others have noted that God could have avoided the worship of the originals by simply preserving a perfect copy.27 But He has not seen fit to do even this. It seems more likely that God did not preserve the originals so no one could tamper with them. It is practically impossible for anyone to make changes in thousands of existing copies. The net result, however, has proved to be profitable insofar as it has occasioned the very worthwhile study of textual criticism. Another valuable side effect of not preserving all the copies from error is that it serves as a warning to biblical scholars not to esteem paleographic, numeric, or other trivia over the essential message of the Scriptures.28“Only the autographs were actually inspired, good copies are accurate.” In seeking to avoid the two extremes of either an unattainable original or a fallible one, it must be asserted that a good copy or translation of the autographs is for all practical purposes the inspired Word of God. It may not completely satisfy the scholar who, for technical purposes of theological precision, wants both the correct text and the exact term in the original language, but it certainly does suit the preacher and layman who desire to know “what says the Lord” in matters of faith and practice. Even when the accuracy of a reading in the original text cannot be known with 100 percent accuracy, it is possible to be 100 percent certain of the truth preserved in the texts that survive. It is only in minor details that any uncertainty about the textual rendering exists, and no major doctrine rests on any one minor detail. A good translation will not fail to capture the overall teaching of the original. In this sense, then, a good translation will have doctrinal authority, although actual inspiration is reserved for the autographs.
How Much of the Bible Is Inspired?
Another question to be asked concerns the degree of inspiration. Are all sections of the Bible equally inspired, or are some parts of Scripture more inspired than others? The question itself confuses the issue and fails to distinguish between the nature of truth and the importance of that truth. Certainly the biblical truth that Christ died for our sins is more important than the truth that the pool of Bethesda had five porticoes (John 5:2). However, both statements are equally the truth. Truth does not come in degrees. A statement is either true or false. Just because a given passage, at certain times and under stated circumstances, is more “inspiring” to a particular person does not thereby mean that it is more inspired than other passages. Inspiration merely vouches for the truth of the record, no matter how valuable that particular record may be to the individual’s edification or even to the overall picture of redemption.
The record is either true or false; inspired or not inspired; of God or not of God. If the various passages are true, they are equally true, and not more or less true. Although it may not be the “whole” truth from the vantage point of the full and ultimate revelation, it is nonetheless a true record of that which God wanted to reveal at that particular time in His progressive revelation of the whole truth. Certainly all statements of truth must be understood in their context. For “a text out of its context is a pretext.” Everything should be understood as the author meant it. But what is meant does not come in degrees of truth, even though different truths may vary in degrees of importance.
How Does Inspiration Operate?
A final question concerns the means, or process, of inspiration. What means did God’s causality employ to produce scriptural authority without interfering with the personality, freedom, and individuality of the prophetic agents? Or, how did God produce an infallible book through fallible men? A frank and forthright answer, yet one often very reluctantly given by biblical scholars, is “We don’t know.” It must be asserted that God inspired the Scriptures even if we cannot ascertain exactly how He did it. Just because man does not know how God created the world from nothing does not mean it is unreasonable to believe that He did so (cf. Heb. 11:3). Likewise, ignorance of the means used by the Holy Spirit to produce an infant in the virgin’s womb does not mean that the biblical teaching about the virgin birth of Christ (Luke 1:26-38) must be rejected.
Some attempted explanation Several solutions have been suggested for this problem, all of which have their own inherent difficulties.
1. One suggestion is that God dictated the words to the prophets, who acted as recording secretaries (see chap. 10). Although this may explain how every word was inspired, it would not explain how or why so many distinctly individual traits of the various human writers are so apparent in the Scriptures or why the biblical writers themselves claimed to have used human sources for some of their information (see chap. 3). Mechanical word-for-word dictation may account for some of Scripture (e.g., the Ten Commandments or some prophecies), but it certainly does not account for all of it.
2. Another view is that God produced much of the truth of Scripture by His providential control over natural processes and that He could have produced it all in this manner. Kenneth Kantzer writes,
No theist who believes in God’s providential control of the universe can possibly use this objection [viz., that “divine inspiration must necessarily negate the freedom and humanity of the Biblical writers”] against the inspiration of the Bible. The God of Romans 8:28, who works all things together for good, including the sinful acts of wicked men, could certainly have worked through the will and personality of His prophets to secure the divine Word which He wished to convey through them. 29
Although it may not be disputed that God could have secured the truth of the inspired record through providence, it must not be supposed that He operated in that manner exclusively. The truth of the matter is that it is not always known how Providence works. As Kantzer admits, “The mechanics of inspiration are left unexplained.”30
The nature of the problem The problem of the means of inspiration falls within the category of a theological “mystery.” Two sides of the overall picture are given to man in the Bible, and it is asserted that they are both true. No one can show that they are contradictory, nor can anyone show exactly how they are complementary. They are not contrary to reason, but they are beyond finite reasoning. The reason both sides of inspiration are given is that man may have the “whole” truth, and not just one “part” or side of it. It is like a two-sided coin which an infinite God may comprehend completely at once, but which a finite man must apprehend partially, one side at a time. If it be admitted that the words of the Bible are truly God’s, yet distinctly man’s, there would seem to be no way of denying that the process is a mystery without eventuating in one of the two extremities.
Two extremes to avoid If the human nature of the Bible is emphasized on the one hand, the divine may be compromised on the other. If the divine is emphasized, the human is in danger of being relegated to the hypothetical. In one case the divine nature is taken seriously and the human is viewed only incidentally. In the other extreme, the human is so prominent that the divine is obscured. The difficulty is not with the revelation of both sides of the truth, it is with their reconciliation. In that connection it is well to remember that man’s inability to understand a mystery does not render ineffective God’s ability to accomplish one. Thus, it would seem that, by the activity of the Holy Spirit and through the instrumentality of the prophets, the infallibility of the Scriptures was effected (John 10:35), even though this is admittedly a great mystery.
A close parallel The inspiration of the Bible is not the only mystery in Scripture. The incarnation of Christ affords an excellent illustration of the divine and human sides of Scripture. Both the Savior and the Scriptures have heavenly and earthly natures. And both are united in a common medium of expression, one personal and the other propositional. Christ is a theanthropic Person, and the Bible is a theanthropic Book. In both the human side is perfect, as is the divine. Just as it is unorthodox to try to explain away the divine nature of Christ in order to understand His human nature (as did the Arians),31 or to sacrifice His true human nature in order to explain His divine nature (as did the Docetics),32 so it is wrong to deny that the words of Scripture are both divine and human in their nature. The mistake is in trying to explain the inexplicable and in trying to fathom the unfathomable.
In the whole question of the modus operandi (mode of operation) of inspiration, a balance must be sought between the two extremes of divine dictation and human fallibility. Such a balance must guarantee the final product (the words of the Bible) and still guard the freedom and humanity of the authors. Just as one’s salvation is both divinely determined (Rom. 8:29) and yet is freely chosen (John 1:12), so God working through the free expression of the human authors of Scripture produced the exact words He had infallibly predetermined.33
Summary and Conclusion
Inspiration encompasses the mysterious process by which divine causality on the prophetic agency resulted in scriptural authority, the Bible. Revelation is the fact of divine communication, inspiration is the means by which that communication is brought to the written record, and interpretation is the understanding of that communication. The total process of inspiration includes both the writer and the writing, although the product of inspiration is the authoritative writing and not the man. It is only the autographs (original writings) that are actually inspired, although accurate copies or translations are doctrinally authoritative, inasmuch as they correctly reproduce the original. There are no degrees of inspiration; all the Bible is equally inspired, that is, equally authoritative and true. The means or process of inspiration is a mystery of the providence of God, but the result of this process is a verbal (the words), plenary (extending to all parts equally), inerrant (errorless), and authoritative record.
In one sense the development of modern hermeneutics, or principles for interpreting texts, has been strongly influenced by Pauline studies. The basis for the development of grammatical, semantic, background and literary approaches came first from the interpretation of epistolary material and later branched out into narrative, apocalyptic and other genre studies. In this sense the Pauline letters participate in general hermeneutical issues. Yet there are also problems inherent to their exegesis, such as the occasional nature of his letters, and the letter-form that lies behind them.
1. Recent Hermeneutical Issues
2. Paul’s Letters and First-Century Forms
3. Special Issues
1. Recent Hermeneutical Issues.
Classical hermeneutics has always identified the goal of interpretation as ascertaining the author’s intended meaning. Even in the Middle Ages, with the “four-fold sense” (literal, allegorical, tropological/moral, anagogical), scholars felt they were drawing out the meaning of the text (the “literal sense” on which the other senses were based). Recently, however, this approach has come under increasing attack, as attention has shifted from the author to the text (semiotic theory) and then to the reader (postmodern theories) as the locus of meaning.
1.1. Foundations: Gadamer and Ricoeur. The hermeneutical theory of H. G. Gadamer brought about a paradigm shift in the field. Gadamer argued that the act of coming-to-understanding does not unlock the past meaning of a text but establishes a dialectic between reader and text. In what Gadamer called a “fusion of horizons,” the reader enters the historical process of tradition and unites with the thought-world of the text. The text, having been detached from the author, is open to new relationships. The reader is not re-creating the author’s past situation by reasoning back into the past, but is entering into a relationship with the text in which both text and reader interrogate each other.
P. Ricoeur took Gadamer’s theory one step further, arguing that interpretation is symbolic or metaphorical at its core and occurs in front of the text (as the reader is addressed) rather than behind the text (in a reconstruction of the historical meaning). A new world of meaning is created by the text as it engages the reader. For both Gadamer and Ricoeur, the problem of “distanciation” (the distance between the text as originally written and as currently read) demands a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” which reckons with the ambiguities of language and the human mind’s capabilities for self-deception. With this the hermeneutical emphasis had shifted from an appropriation of the “intended” meaning of the author to a present interaction with the text, now seen as autonomous from the author’s intended meaning. For instance, one studies a passage such as Romans 3, dealing with “justification by faith,” in terms of its metaphorical or extended meaning rather than its intended Pauline meaning.
1.2. From Structuralism to Deconstruction. Following Gadamer several distinct movements have shifted the focus of hermeneutics even more decisively from the author to the text and, finally, to the reader. First, the hermeneutical approach known as structuralism, or semiotics, has treated the text as an arbitrary system of signs which must be decoded in order to arrive at the meaning. The interpreter works with the “synchronic,” or literary, presence of the text itself as autonomous from the author and as controlled by two aspects of the text: the syntagmatic (the horizontal framework of the surface text) and the paradigmatic (the vertical life-world to which the codes of the text belong). The interpreter charts the actantial (basic narrative units) codes behind Romans 3 and determines the structural configuration beneath those surface codes. This is done primarily in terms of identifying binary opposites, that is, a set of oppositions within the surface text. These codes are then recomposed on the basis of transformational rules (primarily derived from N. Chomsky) to derive the “meaning” of Romans 3 for today.
Weaknesses in structuralism (e.g., its lack of a strong philosophical foundation; its overstatement of the place of codes and binary opposites; its overemphasis on the paradigmatic at the expense of the syntagmatic in the production of meaning) has led to a new movement known as poststructuralism. Primarily, this represents a shift from the text to the reader as the generating force in interpretation. The text becomes an open system of signs that compels the reader to complete its meaning. As R. Barthes puts it (74–75), the text is art rather than a work. It is dynamic and subversive, cutting across boundaries and open-ended, with an infinite number of possible meanings. The author is no longer present, and the text participates with the reader in determining meaning. Romans 3 no longer contains Pauline themes; rather, it draws the reader into its textual framework, and it is up to the reader to complete its meaning.
Closely connected to this approach are the movements of postmodernism and deconstructionism. Postmodernism denies that the text has any objective or referential meaning. Instead the reader discovers meaning by interacting with the text. Deconstructionism is the ultimate statement of this perspective. J. Derrida, the father of deconstructionism, building upon Nietzsche and the later phase of Heidegger’s philosophy, attacked the very foundations of Western thought by demanding a rhetorical rather than a philosophical approach to communication. There are no fixed norms or dogmas, only metaphorical ones. Metaphor is a “decentering” process involving an infinite number of sign substitutions. The reader can never reach a “final” interpretation of meaning. This leads to “play” as the readers bring their own interpretive rules to bear on the text. There is no presence of meaning in a text, only “difference” and “absence” as the interpreters are forced to deconstruct the text from all past meaning (not only the author’s but also all past understandings) and then reconstruct it by developing their own game on the playground of the text (Derrida, 280–81). Derrida would note the many codes that lie behind the surface of Romans 3 and show how all interpreters have built upon and yet reconstructed the “meanings” of each other regarding the “justification” language of Romans 3. He would then urge the readers to engage in the joyous activity of freeplay in the text.
1.3. Reader Response. A similar school, but one built upon slightly different philosophical conceptions, is reader-response criticism. These critics posit the union of text and reader at the moment of response. The “author” of a text is a creation of the reader rather than inherent in the text. In fact, the text itself exists only in the reader’s mind, in the sense that the text only takes on life as a formal literary entity when the printed page and the reader converge.
There are two schools of thought within reader-response criticism. The moderate position of W. Iser states that the text plays a mediating role in guiding as well as correcting the interpreter’s understanding. Through a series of gaps, the text develops an anticipation which, while still pluri-significant, works with the reading strategy of the interpreter in producing meaning. A more radical type is exemplified in S. Fish, who believes that the reading community dominates the text, which does not truly exist apart from the reader. The text supplies potential meanings, but these are only actualized by the preshaped reading interests brought to bear on the text. For Iser the reader completes the text’s meaning; for Fish the reader creates its meaning. Most biblical reader-response critics (e.g., Culpepper, Fowler, Resseguie) are closer to Iser, attempting to blend reader-response with historical-critical perspectives.
1.4. Socio-Critical Hermeneutics: Liberation and Feminist. Socio-critical hermeneutics embraces such diversity as that seen in the writings of J. Habermas, in liberation theology and in feminist hermeneutics. The primary theorists are Habermas and K.-O. Apel. They propose a “critical,” or “depth hermeneutics,” which posits that interpretation must include a “critique of ideology,” that is, the tendency of all communication to manipulate and control others. All texts are the products of a worldview and seek to draw the reader into an acceptance of that social world. Hermeneutics then begins with a critical liberation of understanding from ideology. In other words, one must unmask the worldview behind the text and enter into a critical interaction with that world in coming-to-understanding. Socio-critical theory would seek to uncover the changing social world (i.e., the shift from Judaism to Jesus, then to primitive church and on to Pauline systems) behind the justification teaching of Romans 3, and then critique the social world behind the interpreters who study it.
Liberation and Black theology form another type of socio-critical approach. The basic premise is that Western ideology has used a theology based on heaven and spiritual salvation to oppress the poor by telling them to wait for the next life for their reward. A critical reflection on society, based on praxis, must begin with the plight of the poor. Centering on a view of God as immanent, “in” the world and not just “above” it, justification is redefined as liberation, faith as praxis, and knowledge as the transformation of society (see Gutierrez). In this sense the study of historical meaning in the text takes a back seat to the preeminence of present encounter based on the current social situation. Theory and praxis are fused, and for liberation theologians this demands that one begin with the suffering of the oppressed. Thus the motifs of Exodus and redemption from slavery lying behind the Pauline language of salvation come to the fore. In Romans 3 emphasis is given to the “righteousness of God” as demanding justice over all oppressive systems.
Finally, feminist hermeneutics utilizes the full spectrum of reader-response and socio-critical theory. The patriarchal nature of all biblical texts and of subsequent theological reflection has oriented Christian theology toward power, domination and exploitation of women. Hermeneutics must be liberated from male-dominated interpretation, and the place of women in church and society must be reinstated before the truth of Scripture and theology can be realized. Thus the femaleness of God and the central role of women in Scripture must be retrieved. The critical norm is seen as women’s experience, which R. Radford Ruether sees as “a critical force, exposing classical theology, including its foundational tradition in scripture, as shaped by male experience rather than human experience” (Ruether, 113). The Bible in this sense must be probed from the perspective of the interpreter’s social world, not merely of the ancient world. The social framework of biblical thinking, especially in its patriarchal perspective, must be replaced by models that speak to today. For instance, the models of God as father and king are to be replaced by models of God as mother, lover and friend (see TeSelle McFague). Studies by this school tend to center upon Paul either as a reflection of rabbinic oppression of women (e.g., 1 Cor 11:2–16; 14:34–35; cf. 1 Tim 2:11–15) or as containing the seeds of the emancipation of women (e.g., Rom 16:1–3, 7; Gal 3:28).
1.5. Intentionality Approaches. There is a growing number of scholars who stress some type of intentionality approach, that is, a return to author and text as generating meaning. Prominent among these are E. D. Hirsch and his followers (e.g., W. Kaiser, E. Johnson) who see the author’s intention as the sole authentic meaning of the text. Hirsch sees two aspects in interpretation—meaning (linked to authorial intent) and significance (as the readers align themselves with the implications of the author’s meaning for the present). The former is never changing while the latter changes with the reader’s context.
Others build more upon the later phase of L. Wittgenstein’s thought and J. Searle’s speech-act theory. Searle argues that the heart of interpretation theory is the notion that language is referential more than it is performative. The sentence is an intentional device that brings hearers into the proper arena so that they might apply the correct rules for recognizing the meaning of the utterance. His thesis is: “speaking a language is engaging in a (highly complex) rule-governed form of behaviour” (Searle 1969, 77, 80). K. Vanhoozer (1986, 91–92) notes four factors that guide interpretation: proposition (the data in the text), purpose (the reason communicated), presence (the form or genre of the message) and power (the illocutionary force of the message). He argues that the reader is ethically bound by the text to discover its intended message. Osborne (411–15) calls for a trialogue between author, text and reader. The reader recognizes the guiding presence of preunderstanding and tradition but seeks to place it in front of rather than behind the text, thus allowing the text to correct previous understanding if necessary. This is not done easily but is accomplished by studying past meaning (via historical-grammatical exegesis) and present interpretative possibilities (via the conclusions of competing reading communities). The key is to allow competing possibilities to drive the interpreter back to reexamine the text in a new and open way.
Finally, A. C. Thiselton (597–619) has developed a comprehensive speech-act hermeneutic. Building upon Wittgenstein’s theory of language games and J. L. Austin’s understanding of performative-language functions, Thiselton argues that texts perform not only locutionary functions (propositional meaning) but also illocutionary acts (calling for commitment and action on the part of the reader). Thus meaning and significance are united in a single act of coming-to-understanding. The text not only communicates its meaning but demands response. While in some ways there is a pluralism of response as the biblical text communicates in many different reading situations, there is not polyvalence (plurality of meanings) in the strictest sense, for the text performs a transforming function, as readers are led to new horizons or life-worlds by the text. For Romans 3 this would involve not only Paul’s development of justification by faith, but also the sense in which the readers are called to experience this for themselves.
2. Paul’s Letters and First-Century Forms.
Genre has been long recognized as an important classification device for determining the rules for interpreting a specific text. To know that Paul’s writings fit under the general rubric “Hellenistic letters” helps one to identify certain principles for understanding them. Yet it is also critical to identify more precisely exactly what kind of letters they are. Since Deissmann’s epochal essay (224–46), discussion has centered upon whether certain of Paul’s letters were personal letters or literary treatises. Yet all agree today that Deissmann’s analysis and distinction is too simplistic (see Letters, Letter Forms).
2.1. Paul and Epistolary Types. There were many kinds of letters in the ancient world. Stowers (49–173) provides a functional typology based on rhetorical patterns, with six types: letters of friendship (cf. 2 Cor 1:16; 5:3; Phil 1:7–8); family letters; letters of praise and blame (1 Cor 11; Rev 2–3); exhortatory or paraenetic letters (1 Thess; the Pastorals); letters of mediation or recommendation (Phil 2:19–30; Philem); juridical or forensic letters (1 Cor 9:3–12; 2 Cor 1:8–2:13). Aune (162–69) adds three other types: private or documentary letters (letters of request, information, introduction, instruction, family and business); official letters (royal edicts, governmental correspondence); and literary letters (recommendation, letter-essays, philosophical letters, novelistic letters, imaginative letters, letters embedded in biographies).
Some of Paul’s letters are personal (e.g., Philemon as traditionally understood, though not by some modern commentators), some come close to being a treatise (e.g., Romans, Ephesians, in their traditional understandings), and some claim to be public letters (e.g., 1 Thess 5:27, Col 4:16). They speak to specific, occasional situations and yet are meant to be read again and again in the churches. Nearly all go beyond the boundaries of the normal letter (see 2.2 below) and mix several forms (e.g., 1 Cor: exhortation in chaps 1–3, juridical in 9, apologetic in 15). Paul’s letters were more than personal reminiscences; they represented his presence in the community and were meant to be read again and again in the worship service (see Worship). On the basis of Paul’s apostolic authority behind the letters, they possessed almost a creedal authority from the start.
2.2. Paul and Letter Forms. While Paul’s writings followed the Hellenistic form of letters generally, they went beyond the norm in almost every particular. Introductions follow the pattern of “Paul to ....... , greetings,” but often add a lengthy description of his office and purpose in writing. The greetings combine the Greek charein and the Hebrew šālôm but christianize both, centering upon the divinely bestowed grace (charis) and peace (eirēnē) that God provides. The initial thanksgiving and prayer are even more extensive in Paul. Normally letters in the ancient world began with a brief thanksgiving to the gods and a bestowal of blessing, but for Paul these took on great significance. As O’Brien has noticed (262–63), the introductory prayers of Paul often embody in embryo the basic themes and atmosphere of the letter. There is a paraenetic, or hortatory, function in these sections (see Benediction, Blessing, Doxology, Thanksgiving).
The body of Paul’s letters is often far more extensive than even the more literary ancient letters. Writers like Cicero tended to stay within traditional bounds, but Paul felt less bound to tradition. Thus in the body of his letters he strayed farthest from those conventions, undoubtedly because of the situations he addressed. Certain key phrases are markers for divisions in his letters, like “I want you to know” (Rom 1:13, Gal 1:11), “I do not want you to be ignorant” (2 Cor 1:8), and “I urge/exhort you” (Rom 12:1, 1 Thess 4:1). Prayers (Eph 1:15–19, 3:14–19) and doxologies (Rom 11:36; Eph 3:21) often conclude major sections. Paul’s presence via his letters is especially observable in what Funk labels “apostolic parousia” (e.g., Rom 1:8–15; 1 Cor 4:14–21; Gal 4:12–20), centering upon his travel plans (see Itinerary), relationship with the readers, and past and future contacts with them. Paraenesis (see Teaching) or general moral exhortation is at the heart of many of his letters, found at the conclusion of some (1 Thess, Rom, Gal, Eph, Col) and interspersed throughout others (1 and 2 Cor, Phil, the Pastorals). This includes social codes (see Households, Household Codes), and virtue and vice lists (see Virtues and Vices), and often builds upon traditional Jewish and Hellenistic teaching. In addition, there are distinct doctrinal sections (e.g., Rom 9–11, 1 Cor 15, 1 Thess 4:13–5:10) in which Paul counteracts false understandings. These often utilize creeds or hymns to present the accepted dogma from which the correction can be made. The latter are also linked with other liturgical elements like confessions and prayers in worship sections.
The closing section of the letter, like the introduction, more closely follows established patterns of Paul’s day. A list of secondary greetings, following the format “A greets you, along with B” is found in all the letters except Galatians, 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians and 1 Timothy. The normal closing formula (with errōsō) is replaced with charis, and the traditional “health wish” is replaced by a doxology or benediction. The benediction, with some form of “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all,” closes all of his letters except Romans and 1 Corinthians.
3. Special Issues.
3.1. Paul and Rhetorical Criticism. Recently biblical scholars have taken up the study of the modes of communication or persuasion (see Rhetorical Criticism). It is impossible to know whether Paul was ever trained in rhetoric, which was an essential part of Hellenistic education at the secondary level. Whatever his formal training, however, his letters evidence both a knowledge and use of rhetorical techniques. Aristotle (his thought later developed by Quintilian) spoke of three types of rhetoric—judicial (legal), deliberative (political or religious debates) and epideictic (praise or blame). Scholars have debated whether there were four (Mack) or six (Kennedy) elements in proper ancient speech. Here we will utilize six (with the disputed parts in brackets):
(1) The exordium (introduction) establishes rapport regarding the subject matter.
(2) The narratio (proposition statement) provides a rationale and background to the subject matter.
[(3) The partitio (explanation, often seen as part of the narratio) enumerates the points to be made.]
(4) The probatio (presentation of arguments) cites proof and offers evidence for the argument.
[(5) The refutatio (refutation of opponents, often seen as part of the probatio) disproves opposing views.]
(6) The peroratio (conclusion) summarizes the points and seeks to persuade the reader.
This style, taken primarily from judicial rhetoric, was widely employed in the ancient world and can enhance one’s understanding of Pauline argumentation, so long as it is used cautiously and the text is allowed to dictate the final outline. For instance, H. D. Betz’s rhetorical analysis of Galatians identifies it as a judicial or apologetic letter that argues for justification by faith rather than by the works of the Law; Kennedy concludes that it is a deliberative work that calls for endurance rather than a return to Judaism; and B. Mack finds Galatians too complex to be relegated to one rhetorical type. The latter is certainly the wiser decision. The task for the rhetorical critic is to study the patterns of persuasion and to elucidate the techniques utilized by Paul. This analysis provides important hermeneutical guidelines as to how Paul marshals his arguments. For instance, Paul employs the diatribe in Romans, a rhetorical method by which an author presents his argument by first showing the errors of his opponents (often with mē genoito, “may it not be so!,” as in Rom 3:1–9; 6:1–3, 15–16; 9:14–15), and then demonstrates the true meaning of his own gospel.
In studying the rhetoric of Paul, the interpreter first determines the rhetorical unit (which must have an introduction, a developed argument and a conclusion). It can be a macro-unit (like Galatians or Romans) or a micro-passage (such as those in Rom 9–11 or Rom 9:6–18). Next, one analyzes the rhetorical situation (the purpose or Sitz im Leben, “life setting”) of the unit. Then one seeks to determine the type of rhetoric employed (judicial, deliberative or apodeictic) and the specific aspects being addressed. This leads to an analysis of the arrangement, technique and style by which the situation is addressed. Finally, the rhetorical effectiveness, that is, the text’s movement from the problem to the solution, is evaluated. These steps enable an interpreter more carefully to evaluate and interpret the language and meaning of Paul in specific passages.
3.2. Creeds, Hymns and Liturgical Material. Paul’s letters are replete with creedal and liturgical material. These contain confessional utterances such as “Abba, Father”; “Maranatha”; “Amen”; doxologies; benedictions; creeds; and hymns. These developed out of two needs: worship in the house churches and the need for established convictions in the light of increased numbers of false teachers. They were used both to draw the heart to God and to anchor established truth in the mind. The central focus of most creedal material is the person and work of the Christ, primarily his incarnation (Phil 2:6–8), the pattern of humiliation and exaltation (Phil 2:6–11; Rom 4:24, 8:32), his saving work (1 Cor 15:3–5; Rom 10:8–10) or his exaltation as cosmic Lord (Col 1:15–20; 1 Tim 3:16). Such material incorporated into Paul’s letters may have been quoted from a corpus of creedal and liturgical material, though some of this might certainly have been produced on the spot by Paul himself (see Liturgical Elements).
Several formal criteria have been used to detect creedal and hymnic material. They are often introduced by hos (“who”) or hoti (“that”). Language of “receiving” and “passing on” may be used (e.g., 1 Cor 15:3). There also will often be a series of parallel participial constructions, and the terms utilized might not be common to Paul. There is a certain hymnic or strophic pattern to the style, and the contents usually contain a very high christology. Finally, there may be a discernible sense in which the passage goes beyond the basic needs of the immediate context, such as the incarnation and exaltation theology of Philippians 2:6–11. To be sure, these criteria are not failsafe (see the objections of G. Fee to Phil 2:6–11 as a hymn), but they do represent the consensus of modern scholarship.
It is interesting that Paul’s creedal affirmations at times centered on ethical as well as doctrinal issues (e.g., Phil 2:6–11; Rom 10:8–10; see Fowl). One aspect of interpretation centers on the function of the creed or hymn in both its original setting within early Christian worship and its setting within Paul’s letter. For instance, Philippians 2:6–8 functions both as a christological hymn of worship and as a paradigm or paraenesis in the context of Philippians 2. This is somewhat unusual, but interpreters must be aware of both possible elements in exegeting a creedal passage.
3.3. Social Codes and Virtue/Vice Lists. The Haustafeln or “household/social codes” are found in the later (disputed) letters of Paul (Eph 5:21–6:9; Col 3:18–4:1; Tit 2:1–10), as well as in 1 Peter 2:13–3:8 (see Households and Household Codes). A precursor is seen in Romans 13:1–7 where Paul takes up the issue of submitting to civil authorities (a theme found in the house code of 1 Pet 2). These codes are concerned with the reciprocal responsibilities between the members of the household: husband and wife, parents and children, masters and slaves. Virtue and vice lists, on the other hand, appear in every letter except Philemon and the Thessalonian correspondence. Scholars, noting similarities between Paul’s lists and those found in Hellenism and Judaism, have disagreed as to whether these lists stem primarily from Jewish or Hellenistic antecedents. They probably owe something to both cultures.
The household codes reflect one of the primary metaphors for the church, that of the extended family. Since the church itself was a macrocosm of the family (Eph 5:23, 25–27), it followed that its primary unit, the family, should exemplify the ethical unity and equity that was to characterize the church as a whole (see esp. Eph 5:21). Some (e.g., Aune, 196) maintain that the purpose of the codes was entirely apologetic: to show that Christianity was not subversive. However, the example of 1 Peter 2:12 (“glorify God on the day of visitation”) demonstrates a missionary purpose as well. Primarily, however, their purpose was internal: to regulate the social relationships in the church.
The virtue and vice lists (see Virtues and Vices) find parallels in the traditional lists known to us from antiquity and have a similar function: to encourage correct conduct along the lines of contemporary mores (but with the deeper expectations associated with the Christian calling, cf. Gal 5:19–23; Eph 4:25–32), to help differentiate between true and false teachers (cf. 1 Tim 6:4–5, 11; 2 Tim 2:22–25), to lay out the conduct expected of church leaders (1 Tim 1:3–11; 6:4–5) and to demonstrate the depravity of the pagan (Rom 1:29–31; 1 Tim 1:9–10). Paul followed Jewish more than Hellenistic parallels in one particular aspect: his lists focused more on corporate (e.g., love, patience, envy, strife) than on individual virtues and vices (e.g., self-sufficiency).
In the case of both social codes, and virtue and vice lists, the interpreter must bear in mind that the lists are not meant to be exhaustive and rigid. Their purpose is to provide positive moral and ethical guidance. The lists are sometimes tied directly to their contexts (e.g., 1 Cor 5:9–10; 6:9–10) and sometimes draw upon traditional and widely recognized standards of morality (e.g., Rom 1:29–31).
3.4. The Center of Paul’s Theology. There has been extensive debate recently as to whether a “center” of Paul’s thought can be elucidated. Since the Pauline letters are occasional in nature, and since Paul failed to develop his thought systematically, is it possible to conceive of a Pauline “theology” in the broad sense or of a “center” in the narrow sense? J. C. Beker calls these poles “the dialectic of coherence and contingency” (Beker, 15–19); others prefer to see both unity and diversity in Paul’s thought. Most interpreters of Paul seek a balance. One point counts against the search for a center, namely, the tremendous diversity of “centers” that have been found. E. Käsemann finds the center in justification by faith or, more broadly, lordship (see Way); R. P. Martin in reconciliation (see Center of Paul’s Theology); J. C. Beker in apocalyptic; C. J. A. Hickling in the new age and the new life in Christ; and E. P. Sanders in the lordship of Christ and the Gentile mission. It seems as if no one quite agrees on any center. This leads many others to argue that at the core of Paul lies a cluster of themes rather than a single idea or controlling principle (see Paul and His Interpreters).
The way out of the maze is to utilize the techniques of biblical theology, especially those of the analytical method. A “bottom-up” approach will follow the themes as they develop from one Pauline letter to another, allowing them to decide their own direction. One begins by tracing and charting these developing themes book by book. From this analysis, archetypal patterns may be discovered that tie together major ideas in each letter and then between letters. As these archetypal patterns coalesce along lines of primary and secondary emphases, the scholar may hope to discover a single idea (or cluster of ideas) from which the others derive. Only then can one demonstrate a “center” for Pauline thought.
3.5. Development in Paul. Interpreters of Paul have discussed at some length the extent to which Paul’s theology developed from one letter to the next. Some have maintained that Paul’s theology was fully formed by the time he began his missionary journeys. Others believe that development can be seen in his letters. Longenecker notes three models for development (24–26): (1) There is a basic unity and identity in development, with later changes being new deductions, applications and explications of foundational ideas (the view of the Alexandrian Fathers). (2) There is organic development with genuine innovation, but always growing out of what is inherent in the original “seed” (the view of the Antiochian Fathers). (3) There are genuine ideological changes, not only innovative but even contradictory, and without any propositional correspondence to earlier ideas (the view of Bultmann and his followers). Most Pauline scholars would hold one of these three views, but the hermeneutical criteria for determining which is correct in a given instance have not been developed.
Pauline eschatology is the most frequently cited example. On the one hand, it has been hypothesized that 1 Thessalonians 4–5 (resurrection at the Parousia) derived from Paul’s primitive apocalyptic period, 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 5 (resurrection but without strong apocalyptic overtones) from Hellenistic Judaism, and the prison letters (with realized eschatology replacing expectation of the Parousia) from the Hellenistic church. On the other hand, many have also posited a development in which Paul moves from a belief in the resurrection at the Parousia (1 Thess 4, 1 Cor 15) to a belief in the resurrection at death (2 Cor 5). But the larger question is which of the three models of development best explains the data of Paul’s eschatological statements, and how does one go about deciding?
The interpreter must consider both semantic and contextual factors. The first hypothesis, in which Paul moves from a primitive apocalyptic to a Hellenistic viewpoint seems to cohere with the third model of development, but it simply does not fit the data. There are apocalyptic aspects in the Corinthian letters (e.g., 1 Cor 15), as well as in the prison letters, which maintain a strong expectation of the Parousia (e.g., Eph 1:14, 5:5; Phil 1:6, 10, 23; 3:21). The second hypothesis, in which Paul’s understanding of the timing of the resurrection appears to shift, does seem to suggest development. But which of the three models of development fits this picture? Most would say that Pauline eschatology exemplifies one of the first two models (either a new explication of a basic truth or an organic development of thought), for resurrection at death and at the Parousia are not contradictory if one posits an intermediate state. In light of an intermediate state, it may be unnecessary to ask whether Paul changed his mind. Paul may have been stressing two different aspects of a larger truth, in each instance addressing a particular contextual situation. In other words, there likely was some development in Paul’s thinking and theological understanding, but it is difficult to ascertain it in particular instances due to the paucity of data (Paul’s letters taken together would constitute a fairly short treatise by today’s standards).
3.6. Paul and Sociology. Paul’s ministry did not occur in a religious vacuum. Paul’s mission was conducted within the socio-economic framework of the Roman empire, and he utilized its institutions and social dynamics in pursuing his mission. Thus Paul provides an attractive field for sociological analysis. Sociology as a discipline studies the relationships and social settings that shape a society. There are two aspects of its application to the study of Paul: (1) Social description studies cultural factors and customs that lie behind biblical texts in order to understand them better (e.g., the Hellenistic banquet practices behind 1 Corinthians 11:17–34; see Social Setting). (2) The application of social-science theory is another matter, applying modern macro-theories to reinterpret the social dynamics behind the development of the early church (e.g., J. G. Gager’s use of modern millenarian movements and “cognitive dissonance” theory to explain the movement of the primitive church from apocalyptic to universal mission; see Social-Scientific Approaches to Paul).
There are, however, several problems inherent in this approach. Applying a twentieth-century model to a first-century situation can easily lead to a misuse of the data in support of a theory imposed from above rather than one emerging from the data itself. There is a certain revisionist tendency in such approaches. The data is often too scanty to support such theories. Paul was not writing a sociological treatise on Corinth or Thessalonica but producing pastoral letters interacting with local problems. It is often too easy to take a spiritual problem and read it as a social one. For instance, some have seen the problem of meat offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 8–10 as a social conflict between upper and lower classes rather than as a religious problem between strong and weak. If social conflict is the issue, it will have to be proven from the text itself. The tendency to explain all factors as a result of social forces is reductionistic, based on the untenable assumption that religious phenomena can simply be reduced to human factors. Social theory does have a place in background analysis, but it must be used very carefully, with an eye constantly open to reductionist tendencies. On the whole, social description is more useful than the application of social-science theory, but both can be helpful.
A general consensus has arisen that Paul and his mission were not restricted to the very poor but affected a wide social range, including those in the upper-middle register of the social spectrum. The proconsul of Cyprus was among Paul’s first converts (Acts 13:12), and Paul moved freely from rural (typifying a large part of his first journey) to urban (characterizing his second and third journeys) environments. Studies of the more than eighty names found in Paul’s letters have shown that a significant number were of the upper class, with homes that hosted house churches and with the mobility that was the backbone of Paul’s mission network (see Meeks). R. F. Hock has shown that Paul’s mission method was complemented by his leather-making craft (see Tentmaking), which provided not only his livelihood but the social setting for much of his missionary contact with individuals, with whom he conversed as he worked. Not only rabbis but also Stoic-Cynic philosophers functioned in this way.
When engaged in sociological research, it is important to observe several hermeneutical cautions. Before beginning the sociological study, exegete the passage thoroughly along grammatical-semantic-syntactical lines. This will provide a control against allowing a revisionist, reconstructed “event” to predominate over the text. Also, one should be comprehensive in compiling the data. It is one thing to suggest a possible social background and quite another thing to maintain that this is the likely background. The latter cannot be decided until all possible explanations have been explored. It is not enough to show that a Hellenistic, class-oriented meal conflict may lie behind the Lord’s Supper conflict of 1 Corinthians 11; it must be shown to be superior to the traditional understanding. One must study the contexts of the biblical episode and of the possible explanations and see which one coheres best with the NT data. One must not read extrabiblical parallels into the Pauline context any further than the data allows. The text itself should determine that theory which best explains it. When these cautions have been observed, sociological research can prove to be an invaluable ally to Pauline studies.
3.7. Paul and Narrativity. Many literary critics believe that all genres, including Paul’s letters, possess a “narrative world,” a fictive aspect that relates a “story” about the life setting behind the work conceived as art. In this sense, it is believed, Paul’s writings all possess a plot, a point of view, an ideological framework, a setting, a characterization regarding the implied readers, and a closure. Most scholars distinguish between the historical setting or event behind the text, and the “symbolic universe” portrayed in the text. The former relates to what actually happened, the latter to the fictive re-creation of the event in the text. The latter “story” does not have to conform to the former, for it is a fictional or reconstructed world created by Paul. The reader derives the “story” by reworking the letter to discover the “narrative time” or structural sequence behind the didactic text. Each passage gives a hint regarding “what happened” behind the text, and these are reorganized along story lines to derive the narrative world in the text.
A good example is Petersen’s application of narrative and sociological methods to Philemon. He believes that two “events” dominate the letter, Philemon’s obligation to Paul (from which Paul deduces a position of superiority), and Onesimus’s debt to Philemon (such that Onesimus plays the role of supplicant). Paul addresses Philemon from the standpoint of Onesimus. He asks not only that Onesimus be forgiven but that he also be freed (with “brother” in Philem 16 having legal as well as social implications). Thus Paul is using his “authority” at once asserted and veiled as well as his closeness to Philemon to demand manumission via Philemon’s “obedience” (Philem 21).
Narrative criticism shows promise as a new approach to Paul, but it has to exhibit even greater care in the treatment of letters than it does of the historical books, for it is more a “stranger” to non-narrative texts. Petersen’s book represents exciting new possibilities but exemplifies many of the pitfalls of an over-exuberant literary criticism: namely, a facile dichotomy between history and fiction in the text; a failure to develop criteria for distinguishing between the two aspects; an ignoring of the referential in favor of the symbolic dimension; a reductionism that ignores the epistolary genre in favor of narrativity; and reading twentieth-century categories too easily into ancient documents. However, these can be corrected, and there is real potential in this approach to Paul (see Bartchy, 308–9).
3.8. Contextualization of Paul. Developed by missiologists in the 1970s, contextualization is the process of crosscultural communication, determining the significance of a biblical text for a group distanced from the cultures behind the Bible. The barrier has been called distanciation, the historical-cultural gap between the biblical world and our own. The method for overcoming this gap recognizes the form-content dilemma: that the content of Paul’s letters provides the core of meaning, but the form by which it is understood (see 1.5 above) changes from culture to culture. This process was true also of the early church. Paul consciously contextualized the Jewish-Christian gospel of the primitive church for his Gentile mission on the basis of his principle of “all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:23). The gospel content was inviolate, but the form that it took in Gentile circles varied. This often caused problems, exemplified in the Jerusalem decree of Acts 15 and the issue of the strong versus the weak in 1 Corinthians 8–10 (see Strong and Weak).
Yet the process is the same for us. The move from biblical text to current context is not characterized by a simple one-to-one correspondence but by a dynamic process. Nida and Taber (51–54) developed a translation technique (which applies to contextualization as well as to translation) whereby the translator “back transforms” the surface message of the text to discover the transcultural element behind the passage, the universal truth that applies to every culture. The universal truth is then “forward transformed” to parallel situations today. Some texts cross over intact, like the warnings against pride and dissension of Philippians 2:1–4, 14–18. Other texts demand a deeper transformation at the level of principle, such as Paul’s outburst against the Judaizers in Philippians 3:1–6, 18–19. G. D. Fee and D. Stuart (61–65) note two types of transforming principle: “extended application” (e.g., applying “unequally yoked” [2 Cor 6:14] to marriage with unbelievers) and “particulars that are not comparable” (e.g., meat offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 8–10, which must be applied at the level of principle).
There are six steps in the contextualization process. First, determine the surface message via historical-grammatical exegesis. By combining grammar, semantics and background information, the interpreter seeks to uncover the original meaning of the passage in its ancient context. Second, study the underlying theological or “deep structure” message via biblical theology. This is not structuralism but theological exegesis. As Paul wrote his occasional letters, he consciously chose his surface message from a deeper set of theological truths articulated by Jesus, the early church and himself. The interpreter tries to discover those larger theological categories in order to understand the message of the text in a deeper way. Third, one should study the situation (via background analysis) which caused Paul to emphasize the points in the text. These first three are the historical (or “what it meant”) column of the hermeneutical task. The final three constitute the contextual (or “what it means”) column. The fourth step is to seek the parallel situation in the modern world, that is, those areas that fit the situation behind the text. One must ask, “If Paul were speaking to my congregation or group on the points of this passage, what issues would he address?” Finally, the interpreter must decide whether to contextualize the passage generally (at the level of principle, step five) or specifically (at the same level as the surface text, step six). This becomes the contextualization of the text.
See also Canon; Center of Paul’s Theology; Letters, Letter Forms; Liturgical Elements; Paul and His Interpreters; Paul in Early Church Tradition; Preaching from Paul; Rhetorical Criticism; Social-Scientific Approaches to Paul.
4. Biblical Interpretation in Paul’s Writings.
The present article is concerned with Paul’s principles and methods of interpretation rather than with the actual content of that interpretation. Of course, exegesis and theology are intimately related and so the lines tend to blur (see Hermeneutics/Interpreting Paul). Nevertheless, no attempt will be made here to summarize Paul’s teaching, as that teaching arises from his use of the OT, on the various relevant topics (for which the reader should consult the appropriate articles; see, e.g., Abraham; Adam; Covenant; Creation; Eschatology; Law; Wisdom).
4.1. Foundational Concepts. Although, as we have noted, many of the OT citations are not verbally exact, it is apparent to virtually all students of Paul that he regarded the Scripture (hē graphē) as proceeding from God himself and therefore as enjoying ultimate authority. In polemical contexts he explicitly invokes the OT as the final court of appeal; such is in fact the point of the introductory formulas—to say “as it is written” in effect settles the argument. Not surprisingly, then, the explicit quotations appear almost exclusively in the Hauptbriefe (chief letters): Romans, 1-2 Corinthians and Galatians. The significance of this distribution is not, as A. von Harnack once argued, that the appeal to Scripture was forced upon Paul by the Judaizers’ arguments and that he really had no desire to bind the Gentile churches to a book. As we have seen, Paul’s dependence on the OT is just as clear in those passages where he makes no direct appeal to it. Moreover, Harnack’s theory does not really do justice to the fact that the greatest concentration of quotations is found in Romans. Whatever polemical element we may rightfully see in this letter, its great significance lies in the fact that here Paul gives a sustained exposition of his gospel (Rom 2:16), and for that purpose nothing is more important than to show the consistency of his message with that of Scripture (Rom 1:2; 3:31; 9:6; etc.).
Of special interest is the way in which Paul depends on the OT even (especially?) when he appears to view it negatively. Galatians 3, for example, is a sustained rejection of the view that the Law can give life, yet he directly appeals to the Law itself in support of his position. Paul can even combine those two perspectives within one statement: the Law is a primary witness to the fact that righteousness comes apart from the Law (Rom 3:21); indeed, the Law itself led him to die to the Law (Gal 2:19).
A related issue is Paul’s use of Scripture to deal with the serious problem of why the Jewish nation as a whole had failed to receive the gospel (see Israel). The early Christians faced no greater challenge to the validity of their message than the negative Jewish response. If the gospel is indeed God’s fulfillment of his promises, is it conceivable that God’s own people would not see it? Would not that imply that God’s purposes have been thwarted—that his word has failed (Rom 9:6)? Both the problem and the solution to it can already be seen in the ministry of Jesus. In explanation of his use of parables, for example, the Synoptic Gospels record Jesus’ appeal to Isaiah 6, which stresses the hardening of Israel within the context of God’s providence (Mk 4:12 and par.). The Gospel of John, which focuses sharply on the fact that “his own did not receive him” (Jn 1:13), also depends on Isaiah 6, in combination with Isaiah 53, to account for that unbelief (Jn 12:37–41).
Very probably this background is part of the reason why the book of Isaiah, as the lists of citations indicate, figures most prominently in Paul’s quotations. It also helps us to understand why Romans 9–11, far from being a “parenthesis” in the argument of the letter, constitute its very heart—indeed, the climax to which the earlier chapters were building (cf. esp. Rom 2:28–29 and 4:11, anticipating Rom 9:6–8). Having already quoted or alluded to Isaiah in Romans 9:20, he does it again in Romans 9:27–28, which is followed by another Isaiah quotation in Romans 9:29 and still another one in Romans 9:33 (this last one combining two different passages from Isaiah). But that is not all: Romans 10 includes four more quotations from the same book, and Romans 11 another four! Undoubtedly, the prophecies of Isaiah provided Paul with the ammunition he needed to fight one of his fiercest battles.
There is a positive side, however, to the sobering truth of Israel’s hardening, namely, the glorious reception of the Gentiles into God’s fold. This is the “mystery” that had been hidden throughout the ages but is brought to light with the coming of Christ (Rom 16:25–26; 1 Cor 2:7; Eph 3:2–11; Col 1:25–27). The church as the eschatological community that Christ has established through his Spirit becomes therefore a focal point for Paul’s hermeneutics (for the view that Paul’s use of Scripture is primarily “ecclesiocentric,” see Hays, chap. 3). But this concept reflects a view of redemptive history that also functions as an interpretive principle, as the next section will make clear.
4.2. Guiding Principles. It should be evident from what has already been said that Paul’s use of the OT was not motivated by antiquarian interests. The Scriptures were intensely practical for him. However, the moment we use an earlier writing to meet a current need, we of course transfer that writing to a new historical context and thus unavoidably involve ourselves in shifting its meaning (cf. Rom 15:21, where Paul applies the messianic words of Is 52:15 to his own ministry). Just how much shifting goes on and, more important, in what way that shifting takes place, is perhaps the fundamental problem in the field of hermeneutics.
It is precisely because Paul is never content with merely restating the original, historical meaning of an OT text, but rather applies it to his present situation, that the perennial and troublesome question arises, “Can we use Paul’s exegesis today?” The very formulation of the problem can be misleading. Usually what is in view is whether Paul’s methods of interpretation are compatible with “scientific,” grammatico-historical exegesis. But this concern often ignores some fundamental obstacles. In the first place, Paul never gives us an exegetical discussion in the usual sense. We find no sustained Pauline exposition of any one OT passage. He never explicitly raises the question, What does such or such a passage mean? Even in sections where he appears to be arguing exegetically (e.g., Gal 3:10–14), he never stops to consider alternate interpretations of the texts. When we further consider the possibility that at least some of Paul’s references to Scripture are not intended as doctrinal proofs but serve primarily to heighten the emotive thrust of his words (e.g., 2 Cor 13:1), the difficulties in answering our question become clearer.
To put it differently: there is no evidence that Paul or his contemporaries ever sat down to “exegete” OT texts in a way comparable to what today’s seminary students are expected to do—that is, to produce an exposition that focuses on the historical meaning. Nevertheless, many of Paul’s actual uses of Scripture are acknowledged by all concerned to be consistent with such a historical meaning. In other words, there is plenty of evidence that the apostle reflected carefully and thoughtfully on OT texts in their contexts. Even in the case of quotations that appear somewhat arbitrary, patient consideration of the broad context can be enlightening.
For example, in the middle of the Sarah-Hagar analogy Paul quotes Isaiah 54:1, which at first blush may look like a violent use of the text. Isaiah’s words, however, are strongly reminiscent of the description of Sarah’s barrenness in Genesis 11:30 LXX. Moreover, Isaiah had earlier referred to the (true) children of Sarah as the inhabitants of Zion who “pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord” (Is 52:1–3). In between these two chapters, of course, is the Suffering Servant passage, which Paul seems to allude to in Galatians 3:1 (cf. Gal 3:2 with Is 53:1 LXX; see Jobes). These and other features suggest that Paul is in fact exploiting important associations present in the OT itself. Yet one does not usually hear complaints that the OT prophets are guilty of using allegorical exegesis; nor is it common to argue that, in their view, Scripture contained a sensus plenior (“fuller meaning”). We simply recognize that they knew how to exploit their literary tradition.
The emotive power of literary associations can be great, and so a good writer or speaker will use them as a method of persuasion. Such a “technique” implies neither disrespect for the OT as a source of doctrine (quite the opposite) nor lack of concern for its historical meaning, though admittedly that original sense may sometimes recede into the background in the interests of contemporary needs. In addition, we as modern readers are not always privy to ancient interpretive traditions that perhaps fill the logical gaps that we are so quick to detect. Of course, this principle applies also to rabbinic interpretations. All too often Christian interpreters have tried to salvage Paul by emphasizing the “fantastic” interpretations of the rabbis. The latter, however, were quite capable of careful, literal exegesis; at other times, they could be simply playful. More important, however, their writings are greatly compressed: two or three words might call to mind a whole passage of Scripture, plus other parallel passages, plus a body of tradition that linked those passages with the point being made. Similarly, our inability to identify all the logical steps that might have led Paul to use an OT text for a particular purpose may reflect nothing more than our ignorance (cf. Silva, 159–61).
Finally, Paul’s use of Scripture was guided by the conviction that God was the Lord of history. Scholars use different adjectives to describe and nuance this approach: typological (because it may focus on correspondences between OT and NT events or individuals), eschatological (because it emphasizes the coming of Christ as bringing in the end times), canonical (because it considers that the full meaning of a text depends on the teaching of Scripture as a whole) and so on. As already mentioned, the point is simply—but profoundly—that redemptive history came to a climax with the people of the new covenant, for whom the OT events were recorded as “examples” (1 Cor 10:11). That last word translates the Greek typos, and, though it is doubtful that it reflects the heavy theologizing associated with the modern use of the English word typology, we may be sure that the apostle saw a fundamental and organic connection between OT history and the eschatological realities of Christ’s coming. And because the same God who ruled over that history inspired the biblical writers, it is inevitable that the text of Scripture would include a certain undercurrent—a “deeper meaning”?—that could only become clear after the fulfillment of the promises.
Such a view of redemptive history, of course, implies that the whole OT was a witness to Christ, and for that reason Paul’s use of the Bible was most distinctively guided by his christological orientation. Whatever else may be said about the subject, the hermeneutics of the apostle to the Gentiles was ultimately rooted in Christ “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3).
3. The Use of Other Literary Traditions.
Paul’s letters exhibit not only a broad stylistic range; they also employ a variety of other literary traditions, including the contemporary rhetorical forms and modes of persuasion, chiastic structures, diatribe style, midrashic exegetical methods where appeal is made to the authority of the OT, as well as early traditional hymnic material and confessional formulas. Paul appears not to have been bound to any one stylistic convention, whether epistolary, sermonic or oratorical. The letter form which developed in the Pauline letters was richer than either the brief private letters or the more developed letter essays of Hellenism. We note briefly the following:
3.1. Liturgical Forms. The apostle’s letters were intended to be read aloud to the congregations to whom they were addressed (1 Thess 5:27; Col 4:16). Perhaps this intended setting accounts for the inclusion of liturgical formulas in Christian letters. Recent scholarship suggests that the following belong to this category: (1) “grace” benedictions, (2) blessings (Rom 1:25; 9:5), (3) doxologies (Rom 11:36; Gal 1:5), (4) hymns (cf. Col 3:16) and (5) confessions and acclamations (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3; see Liturgical Elements).
3.2. Greco-Roman Rhetoric. Paul specifies his primary, apostolic task as the preaching of the gospel (Gal 1:16). When he writes his letters, he does so as a preacher of the gospel. His letters, though real, are nevertheless similar in many ways to oral speech. Accordingly, any epistolary analysis must be supplemented with a rhetorical analysis of his argumentation (see Rhetoric; Rhetorical Criticism). The persuasive modes of the classical rhetorical handbooks were well known during Paul’s day, and one did not have to be formally trained in rhetoric to use them. Each type of speech could consist of four elements: (1) exordium (introduction), (2) narratio (statement of facts), (3) probatio (argument) and (4) peroratio (conclusion). The introduction and conclusion were intended to influence the audience by securing their interest and goodwill, and conclude by recapitulating the arguments and making an appeal. The body of the speech sought to establish the case. Most of the early Christian letters were written with a basically deliberative purpose. Apart from the opening and closing epistolary formulas, Paul’s letters consist of three elements: in the first, which is conciliatory, he commends his readers for their past performance. The middle segment consists of advice, while the final section contains paraenesis (Aune).
Longenecker claims that in Galatians (as elsewhere in his letters) “Paul seems to have availed himself almost unconsciously of the rhetorical forms at hand, fitting them into his inherited epistolary structures and filling them out with such Jewish theological motifs and exegetical methods as would be particularly significant in countering what the Judaizers were telling his converts” (Longenecker, cxix).
See also Benediction, Blessing, Doxology, Thanksgiving; Diatribe; Households and Household Codes; Itineraries, Travel Plans, Journeys, Apostolic Parousia; Hermeneutics/Interpreting Paul; Liturgical Elements; Rhetoric; Teaching/Paraenesis.
4.4. Conclusion. It is plain, then, that Paul was not careless when he quoted the Scriptures. True, the apostle’s use of his Bible did not in every respect conform to methods that modern exegesis considers appropriate, but only a superficial reading of his letters could lead one to regard that use as invalid or irresponsible. Quite the contrary, the very categories with which he presented his understanding of Christ’s work clearly arose from a serious study of the OT that was both meticulous and comprehensive. Guided not only by the text’s historical meaning, but also by its divine authority, by the need to actualize the biblical message, by the power of literary associations and by a christological view of redemptive history, Paul succeeded both in setting forth the truth of the gospel and in teaching God’s people how Scripture should be read.
See also Hermeneutics/Interpreting Paul; Jew, Paul the; Law; Preaching from Paul Today; Qumran and Paul.
5. Prospects for the Future.
The history of Pauline research since Baur has highlighted the crucial importance of determining the historical context within which Paul’s thought was developed and expressed. As a consequence, recent studies of Paul have increasingly focused on the study and classification of Paul’s rhetoric (apart from H. D. Betz’s Galatians, 1979, and his earlier work, Der Apostel Paulus und die sokratische Tradition, Eine exegetische Untersuchung zu einer ‘Apologie’ 2 Korinther 10–13, 1972, these contributions are found mostly in journal articles dedicated to specific passages) and on the sociology of Paul’s communities (see Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, 1983, and the many works of Gerd Theissen, especially The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity, 1982; see Social-Scientific Approaches). Nevertheless, such studies remain merely helpful subsidiaries in service of the main task of interpreting the content of Paul’s own thought as it was expressed in response to the needs of his communities and the opposition that he faced. The history of Pauline research since Baur has also made it clear that one’s view of Paul will be determined, above all, by whether one interprets his letters predominantly against the Greco-Roman philosophical and religious world of Paul’s day, as Bultmann argued over fifty years ago, or in light of the Hellenistic-Jewish world of the first century and its Scriptures, as Adolf Schlatter proposed in the early decades of this century. This is true despite the fact that modern scholarship has shown the great degree to which the Judaism of Paul’s day had already been influenced by Hellenism, so that it is a historical mistake to view Paul as either Jewish or Hellenistic in his thought. Paul was clearly a Hellenistic Jew (see Jew, Paul the). Nevertheless, the fundamental issue still to be resolved in Pauline studies is the determination of the primary religious and theological context within which Paul’s thought is to be understood. This is the great watershed among students of Paul.
How one decides this issue will determine how one reads Paul. And how one reads Paul will determine how one evaluates the relationship between Jesus and Paul on the one hand (see Jesus and Paul), and the place of Paul in the development of the early church on the other. Baur saw Paul as the great “Hellenizer of Christianity,” so that Paul’s opponents became the other apostles themselves. Those who likewise look first to the religions and philosophies of the Greco-Roman world to explain Paul’s thought must also posit a gap, if not hostility, between Paul and the early church in Jerusalem.
Against the backdrop of this decision, it is worth remembering the words of Ritschl. Already in 1856 he recognized that the enduring value of Baur and the Tübingen School would be in the counter-reactions which it would evoke: “ ‘The Tübingen School has fallen to pieces and its initiative will only deserve recognition in the measure that it leads to opposition against the system of early Church history as presented by Baur and Schwegler, and as it furthers the cultivation of Biblical Theology more than has been the case up to now’ ” (quoted by Harris, 108–9).
After 150 years of Pauline studies there still remains a need for a comprehensive developmental, rather than conflict, model of Paul’s life and thought, and for the corresponding cultivation of a biblical theology which incorporates Paul’s apostolic role and theology within the history of the early church. This need has been underscored by the study of Paul from an explicitly Jewish perspective (in addition to the work by Schoeps, see Samuel Sandmel, The Genius of Paul: A Study in History, 1958; Schalom Ben-Chorin, Paulus, Der Völkerapostel in jüdicher Sicht, 1970; and now Alan F. Segal, Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee, 1990). But even adherents to the “New Perspective” on Paul, who have worked hard to renew our understanding of Paul within the Judaism of his day, have often not taken the Jewish matrix of Paul’s own thinking seriously enough as the decisive conceptual source for Paul’s thinking. Moreover, at the heart of the debate concerning the Law and the role of justification in Paul’s thought is the question of Paul’s understanding of redemptive history (cf. Gal 3–4; 2 Cor 3:7–18; Rom 3:21–16; 9–11), which itself can only be solved by a renewed study of Paul’s use and understanding of the OT within the larger question of the relationship of Paul and his gospel to Israel as the old covenant people of God (see Restoration of Israel). Such a study is only now beginning to be undertaken (see, e.g., the recent works of Dietrich-Alex Koch, Die Schrift als Zeuge des Evangeliums, Untersuchungen zur Verwendung und zum Verständnis der Schrift bei Paulus, 1986; Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, 1989; N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology, 1991; and the various recent motif studies and treatments of particular key passages in which Paul quotes, alludes to, or relies upon the OT explicitly for his self-understanding and theology, such as Seyoon Kim, The Origin of Paul’s Gospel, 1981, James M. Scott, Adoption as Sons of God, 1992, and Karl Olav Sandnes, Paul—One of the Prophets, 1991; see Old Testament in Paul; Prophet, Paul As). The future of Pauline studies at this juncture in its history is dependent upon just these kinds of studies if we are to move forward in our understanding of Paul as he understood himself: the Jewish apostle to the Gentiles, whose message came from the history of his people, their Scriptures, and the history of Israel’s Messiah.
See also Center of Paul’s Theology; Hermeneutics/Interpreting Paul; Jesus and Paul; Justification; Law; Opponents of Paul; Righteousness, Righteousness of God; Works of the Law.
4.2. The Resurrection of the Flesh. On the issue of when the resurrection of believers took place, Paul’s dominant emphasis on its futurity (e.g., 1 Thess 4; 1 Cor 15; Rom 8) won out over those texts (e.g., in Rom 6, but above all in Ephesians and Colossians) which applied the language of resurrection to baptism or to present Christian experience in the Spirit (see Eschatology).
As to the nature of that resurrection, many of the church fathers sought to qualify Paul’s accent on discontinuity between the present physical body and the body that will be raised (cf. 1 Cor 15:35–53). “Flesh and blood,” he had said, “cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither does corruption put on incorruption” (1 Cor 15:50). The Gnostics highlighted this discontinuity in order to emphasize the evil of physical existence in contrast to the spirituality of the resurrection. Origen too accented the discontinuity, but most others, like Irenaeus and Tertullian, were concerned to show that Paul’s pronouncement did not exclude an actual physical resurrection. All Paul was saying was that human nature by itself, apart from the work of the Spirit of God (see Holy Spirit), could not enter heaven. Moreover, the expression “flesh and blood” was given a moral rather than a physical meaning. Irenaeus took it to imply the sinful “works of the flesh” mentioned in Galatians 5:19–21.
Such interpretive strategies, in the face of the threat of Gnosticism and Hellenistic dualism, allowed the church to emphasize continuity rather than discontinuity between present and future existence, and so to speak of the “resurrection of the flesh” (a term Paul had never used). Paul, for his part, had emphasized discontinuity and transcendence in the face of very different kinds of threats, possibly from charismatic perfectionists in Corinth (see Corinthians) who believed they were already in the age to come. For Paul the questions about the time and the nature of the resurrection of believers had been intertwined. Once they became separated, it was inevitable that many of Paul’s interpreters would come to a different set of answers.
On some issues, the interpretation of Paul among the church fathers followed no single or simple pattern. For instance, on the alternatives of marriage and celibacy, Clement of Alexandria (Strom. 3) maintained the tension so evident in 1 Corinthians 7 by recognizing that Paul had affirmed the legitimacy of both. But as in the case of the law and the resurrection, others came down on one side or another of the tension. New issues that Paul had not faced created new ambiguities and barriers to understanding the Paul of history and of the NT. Such barriers were by no means a problem only for the ancient church and church fathers. They still exist, and still make the study of the apostle Paul a formidable, fascinating challenge (see Hermeneutics/Interpreting Paul).
See also Apocryphal Pauline Literature; Gnosis, Gnosticism; Paul and His Interpreters; Paul in Acts and Letters.
8. Preaching Christ.
Finally and most importantly, preachers are to preach Christ crucified and risen as Paul did (see Christology). Paul told the Corinthians, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2; see Cross, Theology of the). Contemporary recommendations to use Paul’s letters to preach biographical sermons on Paul are obviously contrary to his intentions. Yet, as his letters show, Paul’s preaching of Christ is not simply a constant retelling of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection (Rom 10:9). Rather, Paul takes his starting point in Jesus Christ and preaches Christ as his person and work illumine all other vital issues and questions. “Jesus Christ and him crucified” is the heart of God’s plan of redemption; from this heart, renewing power pulses into every area of life.
In the light of Colossians 1:15–20, preaching Christ means to preach the God through whom and for whom “all things” were created and through whom “all things” are being reconciled. Ultimately, preaching Christ has to do with “all things.” Therefore, contemporary preaching from Paul’s letters may rightly address any area of life and any vital issue, but all issues must be viewed and preached in the light of Christ and his redemptive work. This transforms one’s preaching into the good news of which Paul said, “I am eager to preach the gospel. … For … it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Rom 1:15–16).
See also Center of Paul’s Theology; Gospel; Hermeneutics/Interpreting Paul; Preaching, Kerygma.
Rhetorical criticism of Paul’s letters enables the readers to engage in a detailed analysis of the structures and techniques of argumentation employed by Paul. If such analysis leads to a preoccupation with form over substance, then rhetorical criticism may be an obstacle to understanding the meaning of Paul’s letters. But if the goal is clear exposition of what Paul meant by his arguments, then this methodology may be helpful by clarifying how Paul developed his arguments, just as historical criticism may be helpful by throwing light on why Paul wrote his letters.
See also Diatribe; Galatians, Letter to the; Hermeneutics/Interpreting Paul; Letters and Letter Forms; Rhetoric.
1.1. Philological Concerns. In the interpretation of the theme righteousness of God, the problem begins when one considers the meaning of words. Words neither exist by themselves without a context, nor are texts written as free-floating packages of meaning without a historical basis or a place in their cultural milieu. The language Paul used was Greek, but as a Jew he participated in a culture that was Hebrew as well as Greco-Roman. Since Paul quotes passages of the OT throughout his letters, one must understand Paul as writing within the tradition of the Hebrew Bible. By reason of Paul’s frequent use of the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible, the same concepts in the LXX should be given due consideration. In English translation the words righteousness or justification are used to translate the Greek dikaiosynē. These words may or may not connote the same meaning as the Greek term. These are just some of the linguistic issues that lie at the foundation of interpretation. If one couples the linguistic possibilities with various theological presuppositions, the interpretive options increase (see Hermeneutics, Interpreting Paul).
Approaches to NT interpretation from a social-science perspective are burgeoning and have begun to make a significant impact on our understanding of Paul and his letters (see further, Barton 1992). It remains here to venture a suggestion for continuing debate and possible ways forward. The proposal is that more attention needs to be given to the history and practice of Pauline interpretation from a specifically social-scientific point of view. In other words, sociological interpretation of Paul needs to be accompanied by sociological interpretation of Paul’s readers and interpreters.
Such a process may make us more aware of how, in times past and present, the apostle Paul and the churches of Paul have been made captive—wittingly and unwittingly, for good and ill—to the ideological interests of his interpreters. K. Stendahl made an important beginning in this regard in his essay, “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” (1963, in Stendahl 1977), where he argues that Paul’s doctrine of justification has been misrepresented by being made captive to an Augustinian and subsequently Lutheran and (later still) Freudian anthropology focused on the introspective conscience of the individual. More recently, feminist and liberation interpreters have used insights drawn from sociology of knowledge to question the adequacy of (respectively) androcentric and First-World interpretations of Paul and to make possible a process of “conscientization” in ways that have potentially radical implications (cf. Fiorenza 1983).
In a quite new way, then, the social sciences and the related hermeneutics of suspicion confront the interpreter of Paul with the problem of the theology and ethics of interpretation. This calls in turn for a degree of hermeneutical self-awareness on the part of interpreters which is both demanding and invigorating (cf. Thiselton 1992). The struggle to define the “center” of Paul’s theology and self-understanding as an apostle in his social and political context comes to be seen now as part of the struggle of the interpreter and the various communities of interpretation to define the center of their theology and self-understanding in their social and political contexts. What constitutes validity in this interpretative process has to do partly with the validity of the methods of interpretation used—and here models from the social sciences have their part to play alongside other methods of a historical and literary-exegetical kind. But it has to do also with (to use D. Kelsey’s term) certain “policy decisions” on the part of the interpreter and the community to which he or she belongs. That is where the theology and ethics of interpretation are involved and where, again, the social sciences have a significant role to play.
See also Apostle; Authority; Body of Christ; Church Order and Government; Cross, Theology of the; Eschatology; Financial Support; Food Offered to Idols and Jewish Food Laws; Hermeneutics/Interpreting Paul; Social Setting of Mission Churches.
Some of the most difficult books in the Bible to interpret are found in the last part of the NT (e.g., Hebrews, Revelation), and scholars are just beginning to realize the value of the church fathers for understanding NT literature. Among the difficulties is the peculiar use of the OT in Acts, Hebrews and Revelation. For these and other reasons the later NT literature provides fertile ground for exploring the value of recent techniques such as rhetorical theory, text-linguistics and intertextuality. This article will summarize the relevant hermeneutical issues and provide a general introduction to topics discussed more extensively in separate articles within this volume (see DPL, Hermeneutics/Interpreting Paul).
1. Recent Hermeneutical Developments
2. Hermeneutical Strategies
3. Hermeneutical Techniques
4. Hermeneutical Difficulties
1. Recent Hermeneutical Developments.
The postmodern attack on the classic hermeneutical quest for the author’s intended meaning (maintained even in the Middle Ages with the Antiochian stress on the literal sense of the text) has intensified in recent years. Future generations will no doubt view twentieth-century hermeneutics as typified by the ascendance of the reader over the author in the production of meaning. For many scholars the author has no authority whatsoever over the texts he or she produces. Polyvalence, or multiple meanings, is becoming axiomatic in many circles of interpretation. This fits well with the pluralism and relativism that predominate in postmodern culture.
1.1. The Death of Modernism. Modernism per se began with the ascent of rationalism in the seventeenth century, epitomized by Descartes and his cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) and establishing the subject/object distinction as the heart of knowledge. At the same time knowledge was attained by empirical proof and was seen as certain in its results. Science replaced religion at the apex of the intellectual pyramid, and it was thought that a combination of reason and science could solve all problems. Optimistic humanism pervaded the social ethos, and it was believed that humankind was progressing upward on the path to a true paradise of modernistic life. In hermeneutics this produced the Schleiermachian objective hermeneutic, a method in which the subject (the interpreter) studies the object (the author’s text) and derives a certain meaning that is deeper than even the author understood. This led to the grammatical-historical method and the historical-critical method, both of which were thought to produce assured results.
Several factors led to the demise of modernism on the historical as well as the scientific and hermeneutical levels. The Einsteinian revolution played havoc with the Newtonian closed-world nexus and the subject-object distinction (especially due to Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle”). Along with the Freudian emphasis on the power of the superego to subvert the objectivity of the subject, this revolution showed that knowledge is attained as much through the observer’s perspective as through the data studied. Moreover, World War I and the century that followed destroyed the optimism of modernity. The last eighty years of the twentieth century have been characterized by a search for a new basis for meaning in the wake of modernism’s demise.
1.2. The Hermeneutical Switch: Heidegger and Gadamer. M. Heidegger has often been called the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century. Heidegger’s early thought was a primary influence on the theology of R. Bultmann, and Heidegger’s later thought exercised influence on both the New Hermeneutic and H.-G. Gadamer. The early Heidegger of Being and Time (1927) developed the relationship of Dasein (the concrete, human “I”) to its world in the quest for understanding. Preunderstanding informs Being and provides time-oriented content to this quest. Thus life itself is a hermeneutical process as one’s Dasein addresses its existence and as understanding projects Being on the world. Meaning is the union of Dasein with existence, and the hermeneutical circle is the union of preunderstanding and interpretation; that is, the already understood unites with the object to be grasped. In his later works
Heidegger developed the linguistic underpinning for his ontological approach to existentialism, relating the problem of language to the issue of Being. For him language is not a tool for imparting knowledge but an event that leads to the possibility of human existence. Language is grounded in being and not just in the thought life. It expresses Being by uniting both the subject and object into itself (see Thiselton 1980, 335–36).
Gadamer borrowed both Heidegger’s ontology and the controlling metaphor of art or aesthetic appreciation. Although his major work is called Truth and Method, Gadamer opposes the methods of hermeneutics and the classical attempt to find the true meaning of the text. Perhaps more than anyone else, Gadamer was the hermeneutical precursor of postmodern interpretation. For him interpretation is not judging the meaning of the text but is to be found in the art or the act of reading. The community behind the reader and the prejudgments of readers are decisive as they enter the world of the text. Gadamer’s most famous metaphor for this is the “fusion” of the “horizon” of the text with the “horizon” of the reader. This occurs not via foundational methods like grammar and semantics but via the reader’s leap into the “stream of tradition,” that is, the prejudices and understandings inherited from one’s past and community. Thus Gadamer was opposing the myth of objective knowledge inherited from the Renaissance. Not only is the text cut off from its author, but also the reader is cut off from any purely rational interaction with the text. Instead there is a new relationship as both text and reader interrogate each other.
1.3. The Hermeneutical Centrality of the Reader: Poststructural Criticism. There are three schools within what is called the poststructural movement: poststructuralism, deconstruction and reader-response criticism. Building upon Heidegger and the French linguist F. de Saussure (1857–1913), structuralism was a short-lived movement that emphasized the text as an arbitrary system of signs that must be decoded. Saussure was the founder of modern linguistics and had developed the theory that language is a system of interdependent terms centering upon the interaction of langue (the language system) and parole (concrete acts of speech). The speaker chooses from the storehouse of linguistic conventions and puts arbitrary signs (individual terms) together into a meaning-context. Structuralists reworked this into a theory of “actantial” units to be decoded on the basis of binary opposites to get at the deep-structure message underlying the surface text.
However, there were serious philosophical problems in structuralism, and attention shifted quickly to poststructural considerations. With this came a serious attack on the Kantian subject-object distinction. Meaning was seen not in the object (text) but in the subject (reader). While Saussure considered the term to be an arbitrary sign that was given definition in the context of the sentence, poststructuralists saw the sentence also as an open-ended system of signs that compels the reader to complete its meaning. R. Barthes sums up this movement (Barthes, 74–81): The text is a production that continually develops and is open-ended by nature. It is without closure and has an infinite number of meaning-possibilities. It is intertextual by nature and contains within itself many different texts via its multiple meanings. The original author has no control over it and can come back only as a “guest” who is no longer necessary for interpretation. The author is “dead,” and any return is only a projection of the reader’s mind. Therefore the reader must complete its meaning and enter into the text, thereby producing a new text in the act of reading. The guiding metaphor is “play.” The text becomes a playground on which readers may play whatever game they wish.
J. Derrida is the leading poststructuralist, and his deconstruction movement provides the greatest challenge yet to traditional hermeneutics. Derrida is trying to deconstruct, or decenter, Western philosophical reasoning inherited from Plato and Aristotle by blending Nietzsche with Heidegger to produce a metaphorical or rhetorical view of language. Communication is characterized by the “absence” of meaning, for when readers “interrogate” the text, they discover it is defined by “difference,” which Derrida interprets two ways—the opposition between signifier and signified (“differ”) causes an infinite number of sign-substitutions and endless play between the reader and the text (“defer”). Readers must deconstruct the text from any supposed connection with the author (who is no longer available) or previous interpretations of the text (which also cannot be truly understood) and reconstruct their own understanding of the text.
Reader-response theory is similar but centers on the reading strategy the reader employs. There are two schools of thought. Most biblical theorists follow the more moderate approach of W. Iser, who said that the text draws the reader into its narrative world and guides the process of coming to understanding by providing markers that work with the reader in producing meaning. The more radical approach of S. E. Fish states that the text itself exists only in the mind of the reader. As the text is read, the reading strategy drawn from the reading community determines the meaning of the text. The meaning is not discovered but created by the reader. There is no object, only a subject.
1.4. Hermeneutics and Social Context: Sociocritical Approaches. In line with the switch to the subject, this movement switches to the current cultural situation as the generating force in meaning. J. Habermas and K.-O. Apel propose a metacritical or “depth hermeneutic” that recognizes the worldview behind a text and its purpose to control or manipulate the reader into accepting its perspective. According to this view, one must go beneath the surface message to uncover the attempt to dominate the readers. Therefore interpretation must liberate itself from the ideology of the text and recreate the social world of the text into conformity with current needs.
Three recent movements are part of this school: liberation, feminist and black theologies. All seek to recreate biblical theology in light of the needs of the present community. For liberation and black theology, salvation is freedom from economic and racial oppression. The Bible has been misused by the white, wealthy majority to oppress the poor and minorities, and the story of the exodus becomes the governing metaphor for the release of the oppressed from injustice. The primary need today is not spiritual but economic liberation, and this occurs when theoria (the meaning of the text) and praxis (the current needs of the community) are fused. God is immanent (involved in the liberation of the oppressed) and not just transcendent (above this world), so practical action must replace theoretical speculation. Theology is redefined as action, and biblical parables about the lost sheep or the prodigal son are reinterpreted to center on the release of the oppressed poor rather than the search for the spiritually lost. The book of Revelation is a favorite text for this school of thought, centering as it does on the destruction of evil government.
Feminist hermeneutics takes a similar tack and critiques the patriarchal domination of women in the Bible, which has resulted in the male subjection and exploitation of women in society. A metacritical perspective must first unmask the pretense of objectivity in male-dominated biblical exegesis and both reiterate the femaleness of God and rediscover the centrality of women in Christian religion. The basis of this reconstruction is women’s experience of male domination, which provides the critical norm for biblical reflection (see Reuther). Moreover this reflection is praxis-oriented; that is, it must liberate the contemporary community from oppression.
1.5. The Counter Movement: Intentionalist Hermeneutics. While postmodern skepticism toward the intended meaning of the text has controlled many segments of higher criticism since the 1980s, there are some signs that its influence may be waning. A growing number of studies argue that such skepticism is unwarranted. N. T. Wright (50–69) argues that the solution is found in a critical-realist perspective in which the reader grapples with the text and attempts to ascertain what the author intended to say in the text. Two primary schools of thought espouse a similar realist approach.
The followers of E. D. Hirsch Jr. (W. C. Kaiser Jr., E. E. Johnson) argue for two elements in hermeneutics, the single intent of the author and multiple significances for the readers. There is only one true meaning of a text and that is the meaning the author intended to portray. However, that meaning can have more than one significance for readers in different situations. The task of readers is primarily to ascertain the original meaning and on that basis to see what impact that meaning has on their lives. P. D. Juhl agrees with an intentional approach but argues that one studies the author’s text rather than the author’s intention. Authors are still important, for they situate the text historically, but we know the author only to the extent that we know the text (Juhl, 12–15).
Others are more influenced by the language-game theory of the later L. Wittgenstein as filtered through the analytical philosophy of J. L. Austin and the speech-act theory of J. R. Searle. This is the view that language is first referential and then performative. The language-game theory of the later Wittgenstein developed the idea that communication depends upon the ever-changing linguistic context in which language operates. The context supplies rules whereby the utterance can be understood. Austin applied this to the performative function of texts in three aspects—the locutionary (cognitive, or propositional, message), illocutionary (what the text accomplishes—declaring, warning, etc.) and perlocutionary (what is effected or caused in the hearer or reader—persuading, changing, etc.). Searle has built on the illocutionary aspect and developed a speech-act theory that blends the propositional or referential dimension of a text with its performative force. In other words, texts both assert truth and make demands of the reader, and in their contexts those different functions can be interpreted.
A. C. Thiselton (1992, 597–604) builds on this to develop his “action theory” of hermeneutics. He would see the locutionary and illocutionary functions as combining both meaning (proposition) and significance (demanding response) into a single act of communication. The author provides certain direction markers in the text that draw the reader into the extralinguistic world of the text and perform certain actions on the reader. A “ ‘believing’ reading” allows the reader to participate in the text’s effects and to discover its intended purpose. K. Vanhoozer (1995, 314–18) agrees that readers play a primary role in interpretation but argues that they must do so responsibly by seeking not just to “overstand” the text (ask only their own questions of it) but also to “understand” it (seek the meaning and sense of the text itself). The interpreter has an ethical responsibility to allow the communicative aim of the text to guide the reader to its intended meaning.
2. Hermeneutical Strategies.
2.1. Letter Forms. Of the nine Hellenistic letter forms (see Letters) adduced by S. K. Stowers (49–173) and D. E. Aune (162–69) (friendship; family; praise and blame; exhortation, or paraenesis; mediation, or recommendation; juridical, or forensic; private; official, or royal; and literary), several are reflected in the General Epistles. On the whole, however, it has been noted that even the personal letters (e.g., 3 Jn) are primarily literary and that rhetorical techniques dominate all of them. No single letter form suffices. Hebrews certainly fits into the paraenetic pattern and 3 John into the private letter form, but other types are mixed in as well (see below).
In general, all the letters follow Greco-Roman convention, such as the opening (sender to recipient followed by a greeting, a thanksgiving and prayer) and closing (greetings from friends, final exhortations and words of farewell). For the most part these conventions are followed, but Hebrews and 1 John (see John, Letters of) have no opening, and James, 2 Peter and 1 John have no closing. Jude closes without greetings or farewell, only with a doxology, and Revelation (see Revelation, Book of) with a benediction.
The General Epistles evidence a great variety in their letter forms. Hebrews is a paraenetic homily (Heb 13:22, “word of exhortation”) containing several mini sermons (e.g., Heb 3–4, 5–7, 8–10) with rhetorical techniques centering upon warnings and encouragements to persevere. James does not easily fit any epistolary genre. It is primarily a moralistic letter that addresses several ethical problems in a group of Hellenistic Jewish churches. 1 Peter and 1 John might both be called pastoral letters, with 1 Peter a homily that tries to encourage churches of northern Galatia to persevere in times of persecution, and 1 John a polemical tractate to encourage Christians to persevere in light of false teachers. 2 Peter and Jude are also polemical tractates. 2 Peter has often been called a testament or farewell address (2 Pet 1:13, 14 on his impending death) calling upon Christians to remain faithful to Christ in light of false teachers. Jude contains an extensive midrash (Jude 5–19) with a strong prophetic emphasis on the judgment awaiting the false teachers. 2 John and 3 John are personal pastoral letters addressing the treatment of church representatives (2 John of false teachers, 3 John of John’s own representatives). The book of Revelation is the most complex of all. It contains many subgenres (epistle, prophecy, apocalyptic) and does not fit any of the forms. The seven letters are virtually royal edicts with a paraenetic challenge to the churches, and the book as a whole is a prophetic-apocalyptic narrative designed to call the beleaguered Christians to a life of persevering faithfulness in the light of Roman persecution.
2.2. Rhetorical Approaches. Ancient rhetoric was developed by the Greeks (Aristotle and Quintilian) and utilized not only by them but by Jewish writers as well (see Rhetoric, Rhetorical Criticism). There were three primary types—judicial, or legal, argument, used to establish right and wrong; deliberative, or political/religious, used to persuade an audience of what is true or best; and epideictic, or praise/blame, used to argue for moral values. In most epistles one type will be primary with the others supporting it. There were six parts of ancient rhetoric: the exordium, or introduction; the narratio, or proposition; the partitio, or explanation of facts; the probatio, or arguments presented in defense of the thesis; the refutatio, or refutation of opposing views; and the peroratio, or conclusion, providing final points to persuade the readers. The goal of the scholar (see Kennedy) is to study the rhetorical unit and the situation behind it and then to determine the type of argumentation employed, the arrangement and style by which it is presented and the effectiveness of the final product. The purpose is to understand the epistle better by studying the techniques the author used to address the ancient readers.
The epistle to the Hebrews (see 2.1 above) is a paraenetic homily that places it under the general rubric of deliberative rhetoric, as the author tries to convince his Jewish Christian audience that Christianity is the true religion. Scholars have long noted that the key to the book is the juxtaposition of doctrinal and exhortatory sections, and in this sense the sixfold rhetorical division does not work easily. Therefore many interpreters (see Rhetoric) call this synkrisis, or comparison, comparing Christian with Jewish soteriological practices in order to call the readers back to Christ as the only path to salvation.
James and 1 Peter may well be epideictic rhetoric. James calls the readers to the moral values or ethics of true Christianity. Attempts to outline it according to the six elements above have also proven difficult, and many different patterns have been suggested. Most likely it follows its own internal logic (the tendency recently is to see it as a unity rather than fragmented). 1 Peter attempts to call a persecuted church to persevere in the Christian values that characterized it in the past. As with James, it does not fall into any Greco-Roman literary pattern but centers on the twin themes of privilege (1 Pet 1:3–12; 2:4–10) and responsibility (1 Pet 1:13–2:3; 2:11–3:12), then applying these to the problem of persecution (1 Pet 3:13–4:19), with a conclusion centering on the readers’ responsibilities before Christ (1 Pet 5:1–14).
2 Peter and Jude are deliberative rhetoric attempting to persuade the readers of both the danger of the false teachers and the truths of the apostolic faith. At the same time they utilize judicial rhetoric to prove the error of the heretics. The letters of John (see John, Letters of) combine deliberative rhetoric to challenge the false teachers and epideictic rhetoric to call the readers to the true ethical precepts of the Christian walk. Revelation (see Revelation, Book of) cannot easily be classified since it is an apocalyptic work, but it utilizes all three types: judicial rhetoric to address the false movements (e.g., the Nicolaitan heresy), deliberative rhetoric to call the readers to follow Christ at all costs and epideictic rhetoric to encourage the readers to worship and persevere in Christ.
2.3. Historical and Social-Scientific Approaches. Ancient stories and texts originate in an historical context, and so it is important to ascertain the original social setting behind them (see Social Setting). There are two basic types of study. (1) Social description studies the facts and historical-cultural background behind the text, utilizing archaeological data to uncover details such as the type of homes people lived in as well as broad sociological patterns such as the patterns behind the house church movement or Paul’s tentmaking ministry. (2) Sociological interpretation uses current sociological theory to explain what social forces led to the production of the text itself, such as the social codes as the product of Cynic influence or the early church as a millenarian movement. The problem with the latter is it is often reductionistic and a revisionist attempt to rewrite the history behind the ancient text on the basis of modern theories. The solution is to treat such study as heuristic and to allow the text rather than the theory to control the process. In this sense it is best to combine the methods of the historian and the sociologist and to let the data guide the results.
It is critical to center not just upon historical reconstruction but also upon biblical illumination, that is, to approach the text as a believer. This is the classic debate between the church and the academy, between a reasoned openness to the text and a historical-critical skepticism toward it. The solution is to amalgamate the two approaches, to search out what underlies the text but remain an obedient listener to its message. As historical documents, the biblical books must be studied critically; as divine revelation they must be obeyed implicitly. Moreover sociological analysis is an important aid to theological understanding when it is employed carefully. So long as one avoids the dangers of reductionism, revisionism, determinism, anachronism and overstatement (see Osborne, 141–44; Barton, 74–76) and allows exegetical analysis to control the use of the social-scientific tools, social science is a valuable tool.
A couple of examples will help illuminate the value of this approach. First, the social implications of the Acts of the Apostles are critical. Scholars have long noted the significant place social concern has in the two-volume work of Luke-Acts. In Luke there is a reversal of roles in which the rich will have nothing in the kingdom (see Kingdom of God) and the poor will have everything (Acts 6:20–26; 16:19–31; see Riches and Poverty). In Acts there is a strong theology of communal sharing at the core of the church (Acts 2:44–45; 4:32–35). In both the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds the poor had a special place of privilege. In Rome the path to power lay in keeping the masses fed and happy, and politicians would spend fortunes financing the games to keep the masses happy and purchasing bread to keep them fed. In the Jewish world almsgiving was one of three primary acts of piety (with prayer and fasting). The early church built upon both to make the sharing of possessions a must for the mature Christian. The theology is this: when God blesses persons financially he is primarily giving them a ministry of helping and only secondarily a blessing to enjoy.
One of the best known sociological works is J. H. Elliott’s Home for the Homeless, a study of the situation behind 1 Peter. Elliott focuses on the key terms “aliens and strangers” (1 Pet 1:1, 17; 2:11), arguing that they are sociological in nature and portray the “alienated” peoples of northeast Asia Minor who converted because they thought Christianity would provide a haven of rest for them. However, they became doubly oppressed and thereby depressed when their neighbors turned against them for becoming Christians. Peter writes to encourage them to embrace their “alien” status and join the “household of God” (1 Pet 4:17; see Household, Family). While Elliott does a service in tracing the rural, small-town life of that section of Asia Minor and the pressures that were exerted upon the original readers, he overstates the social nature of “aliens and strangers” and fails to understand its use as a religious metaphor for considering oneself separate from this world (as in the black spiritual, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through”). Nevertheless, Elliott’s study is helpful in placing 1 Peter in its first-century context.
2.4. Narrative Approaches. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the weaknesses of form and redaction criticism, specifically the tendency to divide the narratives of the Bible into independent units (form) and to center only upon the differences between the Gospels (redaction), became apparent. Scholars realized that the biblical narratives were whole stories that contained plot, characterization, point of view and story time. Literary or narrative criticism had been developed by secular literary critics in their study of fiction, and their techniques were applied to the Bible (see Narrative Criticism). There are several premises: books like the Gospels, Acts and Revelation are to be considered as holistic pieces of literary art; they are to be treated as aesthetic works and studied in terms of literary artistry; the external or historical background behind the text is not the object of study, but the focus should instead be on the internal composition of the story itself.
The book of Revelation may be used as an example (for Acts as an example, see Narrative Criticism). Scholars have long recognized that Revelation (see Revelation, Book of) has a plot that centers on the conflict between God and the forces of evil. The central theme is the sovereignty of God, with the correlative being the futility of Satan. The first ten chapters juxtapose heavenly scenes (Rev 1, 4–5, 7) with earthly scenes (Rev. 2–3, 6, 8–9). The heavenly scenes are characterized by peace, joy, praise and worship. The earthly scenes are characterized by chaos, persecution, judgment and sorrow. God alone is in control of the earthly and the heavenly. This theme is carried through in the central section (Rev 6–16) that details the seals, trumpets and bowls. These series of seven judgments are seen not just as the wrath of God upon the earth-dwellers but also as a final proof of his sovereignty (the first four trumpets and bowls are modeled after the Egyptian plagues) and a final opportunity for repentance (see Rev 9:20–21; 14:6–7; 16:9, 11). It is clear throughout that the dragon has already been defeated by the slain Lamb (Rev 5:6, 9, 12; 6:16; 12:11; 13:8).
The characterizations in the book are vivid. The dragon, the beast and the false prophet are clearly seen as a parody of the Trinity (Rev 13; 16:13), and everything Satan does is a “great imitation” of what God and Christ have already done, such as placing a mark on followers (Rev 13:16 = Rev 7:3), resurrection from the “mortal wound” (Rev 13:3) and the “many crowns” (Rev 12:3/13:1 = Rev 19:12). Point of view is especially seen in the interludes between the seals, trumpets and bowls (Rev 7:1–17; 10:1–11:14; 12:1–14:20), which tend to typify the glory of the heaven-dwellers and the battle between God and the forces of evil. The setting is in contrasting scenes of heaven and earth, which demonstrates the choices that the churches have to make—will they follow the ways of God or the dictates of their world?
2.5. Text-Linguistics and Discourse Analysis. This is the latest hermeneutical development, coming to the fore in biblical studies within the last decade (see Structuralism and Discourse Analysis). It is also the most comprehensive school, moving from author to text to reader and combining sociolinguistics, anthropology, classical exegetical methods and reader-response theories. There are two primary types: the text-linguistics practiced by G. H. Guthrie, which utilizes semantic markers and grammatical and syntactical study of the surface text to analyze rhetorical development at the macro level of the text; and the discourse analysis practiced by S. E. Porter and J. B. Green, which studies the production of the textual strategy by the author and its effect upon the reader in the current reading situation. The one hermeneutical discipline missing is a consideration of historical background. The interest is not on what is behind the text but on what is in the text. The goal is to uncover not just the semantic interplay between words but also the process by which the text communicates to the reader (original reader and current reader).
When studying Hebrews, one will first analyze the original linguistic situation that produced the book, including the first-century literary and rhetorical strategies employed. Second, it is necessary to ascertain the code or structure embedded in the book, utilizing a study of conjunctions, verb moods and tenses as they develop, and rhetorical strategies such as inclusion and meaning gaps to determine the major and minor breaks of the developing argument. Guthrie’s analysis of Hebrews yields the following divisions: Hebrews 1:1–4 (introduction); Hebrews 1:5–4:13, 4:14–10:18, 10:19–13:19 (major sections); and Hebrews 13:20–25 (conclusion). At this stage there is also consideration of the multiple levels at which communication occurs, the relationship of the word to the sentence, of the sentence to the paragraph, and of the paragraph to the major section of the book.
Third, discourse analysis studies the effect upon the reader. The text is produced within one sociolinguistic situation but is read today within another sociolinguistic situation. This is where polyvalence occurs, for bridging the gap is difficult. The original readers understood the crisis behind the text (for Hebrews it is Jewish Christians tempted to return to Judaism due to persecution), but modern readers look at it from different vantage points, such as Arminian or Calvinist traditions. Discourse analysis analyzes the way the embedded discourse in Hebrews draws readers into the message of the text and guides them into participating in its narrative world.
2.6. Genre Approaches. Genre refers to a basic type of literature that provides hermeneutical guidelines so that the reader might understand its contents. It functions at the macro level (the book as a whole) and at the micro level (the subgenres utilized in the larger book). For instance, although Revelation is usually characterized as apocalyptic, it also utilizes epistolary (the seven letters of Rev 2–3), prophetic (the promises and warnings) and poetic-liturgical (the hymns) forms and material (see Liturgical Elements). J. L. Bailey notes three aspects: repeatable patterns that help the reader understand its message; a social setting that reveals a particular way of looking at reality; and rhetorical strategies that impact the reader in particular ways.
Genre is an indispensable aid to understanding Acts, the General Epistles and Revelation (see Revelation, Book of). For instance, apocalyptic has its own grammatical patterns (e.g., solecisms) and a unique set of syntactical devices (e.g., esoteric symbols, cyclical patterns and interludes). Knowing how these patterns operate can radically alter one’s understanding of a text. The modern prophecy movement, for example, assumes that the apocalyptic symbols in the Bible were meant to be understood entirely in terms of current events and fails to understand how such symbols operated in their ancient context; namely, that they were drawn from a common store of such symbols in the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds and made good sense to citizens of those cultures. It is therefore a gross misinterpretation to identify the “eagle” as the United States and the “bear” as Russia. Likewise, to identify the symbol “666” as Hitler or Henry Kissinger or Ronald Wilson Reagan (whose three names each have six letters) falls far off the mark. The number refers to something or someone in the first century (perhaps to Nero Caesar, the letters of which name in Hebrew come close to 666).
2.7. Theology, Paraenesis and Ethics. The speech-act theory of Austin, Searle and Thistleton recognizes three types of utterances (see 1.5 above): locution (what the text means), illocution (what the text accomplishes) and perlocution (the effect the text causes in the reader). These three aspects correspond to the title of this section. Biblical theology is the message of the book; paraenesis the purpose of the book; and ethics the required response on the part of the reader. While there is no systematic theology in the Bible, all biblical books are inherently theological (see New Testament Theology). The key is to allow the developing embedded message of the text to emerge from the data. As one moves from one section to another, the theology is the thread that stitches the sections together. In 1 John (see John, Letters of) this would be the three “tests” that describe the true faith as opposed to the false teachers—an incarnational christology, a binding love between the members of the community and the necessity of righteous deeds. 1 Peter contains some of the deepest teaching about God (mentioned thirty-nine times in this epistle) in all the NT, about election and a resultant holy living (see Holiness), about the church as not belonging to this world, and about a theology of suffering.
Paraenesis describes the purpose of theology—to persuade the reader to live appropriately to the theological truths (see Teaching, Paraenesis). One mistake of theologians is to think of their discipline as primarily cognitive, as demanding logical or rational thought. While this is somewhat true, it is only part of the picture and not the more important part. The biblical authors intended their theology to be lived more than thought through. B. Fiore defines paraenesis as “discourse whose aim is to exhort or persuade the reader or auditor to do good.” It refers to virtue and vice lists, household codes and general exhortations. The warning passages of Hebrews, most of the wisdom sayings of James, the ethical paragraphs (1 Pet 1:13–2:3) as well as household codes (1 Pet 2:11–3:12) of 1 Peter, and the perseverance passages of Revelation (see Revelation, Book of) are all examples of paraenesis.
Ethics refers to the action side of paraenesis (see Ethics). Theology informs, paraenesis persuades and ethics puts it into practice. As R. B. Hays argues, the NT cannot be understood apart from recognizing its moral dimension. The new life that Christ made possible through his sacrificial death demands a new set of principles for living (see Death of Christ). This is true at the community level as well as at the individual level. The emphasis on community love in 1 John is a case in point. The theme begins with obedience as the sign of the presence of God’s love (1 Jn 2:5) and proceeds to define this as “walking as Jesus did” (1 Jn 2:6). Finally this is applied to mutual love as the basis of “living in the light” of God (1 Jn 2:9–11; see Light). It is clear that no one can be in right relationship with God and “hate his or her brother and sister” (1 Jn 2:11).
3. Hermeneutical Techniques.
In recent years the study of the OT in the NT has centered more and more on the exegetical techniques employed by the NT authors. The OT is utilized in several ways in the NT. Often we find direct citations of OT passages; at other times allusions or echoes of passages can be detected; and at other times we have intertextual uses of OT stories (see Intertextuality in Early Christian Literature). Throughout the NT one fact is clear. The entire OT, not just the prophetic portions, is viewed as fulfilled in Jesus and the church he established. What distinguishes the General Epistles and Revelation from the Gospels, Acts and Paul is the absence of apologetic quotations trying to prove Jesus is the Christ of prophecy. Primarily these books use intertextual material in paraenetic fashion to call the readers to a life of Christian faithfulness and perseverance in light of persecution and pagan pressure to conform to the mores of the surrounding culture.
3.1. Exegetical Techniques in Acts. Most of the twenty quotations in Acts can be found in the speeches, primarily Peter’s (Acts 2:17–21, 25–28; 3:22–23, 25), Stephen’s (Acts 7:3, 5–7, 18, 27–28, 32–35, 37, 40, 42–43) and Paul’s (Acts 13:22, 33–35, 41). The quotations are taken almost exclusively from the Septuagint (A text), primarily from the Psalms, Isaiah and the Minor Prophets (see Old Testament in Acts). Typology is central to the use of these passages, as Jesus, the church and the mission to the Gentiles are all anchored in Israel’s scriptural tradition. In his formula quotations Luke is quite specific, normally naming the OT author and often linking the text with God (Acts 3:25; 7:2, 3, 5), the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:25; 8:25) or the Lord (Acts 13:47). As C. K. Barrett says (242), this shows Luke is writing “an account of a people, heir to Israel, told through the story of such men as Peter and Paul, and supplied with its meaning through their prophetic utterances, which were always in harmony with what the prophets of old had said.”
Two subjects dominate the typological focus. As in Luke, Jesus is seen as the promised Mes-siah who must suffer (Is 53:7, 8 in Acts 8:32–33), die and be raised (Ps 16:8–11 in Acts 2:25–28, 13:35; Ps 118:22 in Acts 4:11; Is 55:3 in Acts 13:34; see Resurrection), and be exalted to the right hand of God (Ps 110:1 in Acts 2:34–35; see Exaltation). Also, the Gentile mission is steeped in scriptural fulfillment (Is 49:6 in Acts 13:47; Amos 9:11–12 in Acts 15:15–17), including God’s turning from the Jews to the Gentiles (Is 6:9–10 in Acts 28:25–28) on the basis of Jewish unbelief (Ps 2:1–2 in Acts 4:25–26, applied to the Jewish people in Acts 4:27; as well as most of the quotations in Stephen’s defense in Acts 7).
3.2. Exegetical Technique in Hebrews. Hebrews may well be the most complex NT book in its use of the OT (see Old Testament in Hebrews). The presence of testimonia, or chain collections, the mixture of more than thirty direct quotations (Longenecker lists thirty-eight) with at least thirty allusions and several stories, and the absence of formula citations makes this a difficult subject to trace. Primarily it is God rather than the author who is the speaker (the predominant introduction to a quote is some form of “God says”—twenty-three times it is God, four times Christ and four times the Holy Spirit), so the emphasis at all times is on divine revelation rather than human mediation. The quotations are somewhat mixed, some from books exhibiting Septuagint text A and others from books exhibiting Septuagint text B.
There has been widespread disagreement over the hermeneutical technique used, with some interpreters arguing for a Philonic type (see Philo) of allegorical exegesis (e.g., Sowers, Spicq), but most recent studies (Hanson, Longenecker) have shown a much closer correspondence with Qumran pesher, Jewish midrash and typology. Midrash is seen in several places (e.g., Ps 95:7–11 in Heb 3:7–19; Ps 39:7–9 in Heb 10:5–10), where a text is quoted and then explained. Chain citations dominate Hebrews 1–2, as the Son is shown to be superior to the angels by linking together passages on the superior relation of the Son and the inferior relation of the angels to God the Father. Typology is demonstrated in the earthly tabernacle as a “copy” or “shadow” of the heavenly sanctuary (Heb 8:5; 9:24).
Hebrews also has a unique purpose in the quotations, with two primary thrusts. The predominant issue is christology. The writer demonstrates not so much that Jesus is the promised Messiah (as in the Gospels) but rather shows that he is superior to the Jewish cultus: first angels (Heb 1:5–14), then Moses (Heb 3:1–6) and rest in the land (Heb 4:8–11), then the priesthood (Heb 5:1–10; 7:1–28), then the covenant (Heb 8:1–11), sanctuary (Heb 9:1–10) and sacrifices (Heb 10:1–18). In each area the fulfillment passages prove that Jesus alone is the path to salvation. Linked to this is the use of texts for warning and example. In Hebrews 3:7–19 and Hebrews 4:7–13, Psalm 95:7–11 is used as a warning against testing God via a hardened heart, using Israel perishing in the wilderness as an example. The passage adduced in Hebrews 11 provide positive examples of triumph through persevering faith and hope. In Hebrews 12:5–11, Proverbs 3:11–12 exemplifies suffering as loving discipline from the heavenly Father.
3.3. Exegetical Technique in James. James contains only five direct quotes but numerous allusions, drawn primarily from the Pentateuch (in Jas 2:8–11) and Proverbs (which accounts for the centrality of wisdom in James). So pervasive is the OT influence that it is common today to call James as a whole a midrash on OT themes (see Old Testament in the General Epistles). Its way of reasoning, its hermeneutical tradition and its themes are as Jewish as they are Christian. James quotes exclusively from the Septuagint, and there is no uniform citation formula. Three passages mention “Scripture” (Jas 2:8, 23; 4:6) and two have simply “he who said” (Jas 2:10, 11; 4:6). Scriptural “fulfillment” is emphasized in James 2:8, but as R. N. Longenecker says (199) this is teleō, not plēroō, and so points to literalistic midrash rather than pesher exegesis in James.
There are two major motifs in this book. First, the “whole law” is emphasized (Jas 2:8–11) in order to demonstrate the responsibility of the Jewish Christian reader to be impartial (see Law). Here James combines the Decalogue (Jas 2:11) with the “royal law” of love from Leviticus 19:15, 18. R. J. Bauckham (309) follows L. T. Johnson in noting the extent to which Leviticus 19:12–18 permeates the epistle. This leads to the second emphasis—a paraenesis that demands the believer conform to the ethical demands of God. Several “stories” are alluded to as examples of exemplary moral behavior (Abraham, Sarah, Rahab, Elijah, Job, the prophets) and many OT echoes on issues such as wisdom, perseverance, trials, the problem of the tongue, concern for the poor, misuse of riches (see Riches and Poverty) and the power of prayer.
3.4. Exegetical Technique in 1 Peter. Like James, 1 Peter is permeated with OT themes and allusions (see Old Testament in the General Epistles). There are nine direct quotes, all from the Septuagint, and many allusions, especially in the catenae collection in 1 Peter 2:4–10. There is great variety in the citation formulae, with the characteristic “it is written” occurring only in 1 Peter 1:16 and “in Scripture it says” in 1 Peter 2:6. There are simpler introductions elsewhere: gar (1 Pet 3:10), dioti and hoti (1 Pet 1:24; 5:5), kai (1 Pet 2:8; 4:18) and hos (1 Pet 2:22), and no introduction at all in 1 Peter 2:7.
Peter mingles his OT allusions with creeds and catechetical teachings, so there is no standard introduction. The key to Peter’s approach lies in 1 Peter 1:10–12, which tells us the “prophets” (including here the psalms) spoke of “the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories after these.” As Bauckham points out (310), this has similarities to 1QpHab 7:1–8 and shows that 1 Peter’s exegesis can be compared with the Qumran pesharim. This style of “this is that” interpretation can also be found in 1 Peter 1:24–25 (applying Is 40:6–8 via “this is the word that was preached to you”) and 1 Peter 2:4–10 (a pesher type stringing together the passages about the stone of Ps 118:22 and Is 28:16; 8:14).
Peter’s purpose is paraenetic and deeply christological. Christ becomes the model for Christian suffering in 1 Peter 1:11, 1 Peter 2:21–25 (utilizing Is 53:9) and 1 Peter 3:18–22 (cf. 1 Pet 4:13; 5:10), and one of the primary themes of the book is “suffering is the path to glory.” Christians are called to realize (1) the transitory nature of life in contrast to the eternal nature of God’s word (Is 40:6–8 in 1 Pet 1:24); (2) what it means to be the people of God (see Church as Israel), the “living stones” built up by God to be “chosen” and “honored” as the “spiritual house” (the stone testimonia in 1 Pet 2:4–10); (3) the necessity of a life of virtue (Ps 34:12–14 in 1 Pet 3:10–12); (4) the value of suffering for Christ (Prov 11:31 in 1 Pet 4:18); and (5) the necessity of humility (Prov 3:34 in 1 Pet 5:5; see Pride).
3.5. Exegetical Technique in Revelation. While there are no formal citations in this work (see Revelation, Book of), it contains by far the most extensive list of allusions in the NT (see Old Testament in Revelation). H. B. Swete lists 278 allusions in the 404 verses of Revelation, and this does not count the numerous echoes permeating the book. All three major divisions of the OT are included, and Swete lists 46 references from Isaiah, 31 from Daniel, 29 from Ezekiel and 27 from the Psalms. Nowhere is there a verbatim quote from an OT passage, though at times John comes close, such as his conflation of Daniel 7:13 and Zechariah 12:10 in Revelation 1:7 or his apparent translation of the Hebrew of Psalm 2:9 in Revelation 2:27. There are two interpretive problems. (1) Normally references are strung together in catenae fashion, so that one must interpret each one in a series and then try to determine the cumulative effect. (2) John exhibits a creative use of the OT allusions, often altering details and seemingly ignoring the original context; the reader must be careful to note how the passages are applied and what they add to the context of Revelation.
On the whole Revelation utilizes midrash and typology. Yet there is a bewildering array of exegetical techniques within this broad pattern. G. K. Beale (323–32) notes several: (1) Literary prototypes, in which a particular OT pattern dominates the themes of a section, such as Daniel 3, 7 in Revelation 1, 4–5, 13, 17; (2) thematic use, such as the “abomination of desolation” or the divine warrior themes, which surface again and again in the book; (3) analogical types, such as the “serpent of old” in Revelation 12:9, the judgment motif, the four horsemen of Revelation 6:1–8, the plagues of the trumpets and bowls (= the Egyptian plagues), or Gog and Magog in Revelation 20:8; (4) universalization, as OT themes that belong to Israel are applied to larger groups, such as “kingdom of priests” from Exodus 19:6 to the church in Revelation 1:6 and Revelation 5:10, and “they will mourn” of Zechariah 12:10 to “all the tribes of the earth” in Revelation 1:7; (5) indirect fulfillment, in which nonprophetic passages such as historical events are applied, among them the tree of life (Rev 2:7; 22:7; Gen 2:9) or the wings of the eagle (Rev 12:14; Exod 19:4); (6) inverted use, as OT texts are used contrary to their original meaning, such as Revelation 3:9 (= Is 45:14; 49:23), in which the Gentiles bowing down to the Jews is used of Jewish persecutors bowing down to believers.
3.6. Exegetical Technique in the Apostolic Fathers. Here the exegesis is of both the OT and NT. However, as the idea of canon was just beginning, gegraptai (“it is written”) is used only of OT quotes rather than of NT quotes (see Old Testament in the Apostolic Fathers). The NT books were well-known and treated as authoritative, especially the four Gospels and the Pauline letters, but they were not yet treated as Scripture. As with NT writers, literal midrash and typology were predominant, and the apostolic fathers took a christocentric view of the OT, that is, the whole canon pointed forward and was fulfilled in Jesus.
The use of the OT varies widely among the Fathers. Perhaps the earliest work, 1 Clement, contains at least seventy quotations and nearly one hundred allusions from the OT but no formal quotations (though there are several allusions and references to the Pauline epistles, James, 1 Peter and Hebrews) from the NT. Much of it is paraenetic, with Job and Proverbs among the most frequently cited. Clement (see Clement of Rome) characteristically used the heroes of the past (Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab) as examples of proper conduct in the present. The Epistle of Barnabas has an even more extensive OT presence (one hundred quotations, utilizing all three divisions), probably because it is a polemic against Judaism and its ceremonial regulations. There is a heavy use of typology and a christological emphasis. Christ not only fulfilled the OT but actually spoke through it.
In contrast, in the seven letters of Ignatius there are only two formal quotations, though he writes against judaizing teachers in the church (as well as proto-Gnostics who denied the Incarnation). He argues that the prophets and Judaism are subordinate to Christ, and so he uses a christological hermeneutic. The Shepherd of Hermas has no formal quotations but many allusions, most of them in liturgical or catechetical contexts. 2 Clement draws most of its OT quotations from NT parallels. In short, there is wide diversity in the use of the OT, probably due to the problems faced. Those fighting a judaizing or gnostic movement tend to see the OT as subordinate to the NT, while others view it (in ways similar to the General Epistles) in paraenetic fashion as anchoring the ethical practice of Christians. A christocentric perspective dominates.
4. Hermeneutical Difficulties.
4.1. Interpretation of Acts. The critical issues in Acts of the Apostles have been explored elsewhere in this volume, but several interpretive problems can be discussed. Two poles might be noted at the outset. Some modern Christian interpreters (especially those associated with the contemporary missionary movement) have tended to treat Acts as a strategy text that tells us how to conduct the church’s mission. Yet this is counter to the hermeneutical dictum that historical books deal with contingent situations and the interpreter must keep that fact carefully in view. The theology of Acts, not the events, is programmatic. The second pole is to treat the book purely as a fictive narrative with virtually no theological thrust. This misses both its historical and its theological foci. The book is a narrative whole that traces a particular theological trajectory through the life of the early church.
Moreover, Acts is the second of a two-volume, integrated work and carries on themes prepared in the Gospel of Luke. The interpretation of any single part of this work must be done in terms of the place of the passage in the developing message of the two-volume work. One must consider structure (macro and micro), plot, setting and theological themes. L. T. Johnson (409–10) discusses some of the narrative devices (summaries, speeches, journeys, parallelism) and structures (geography, prophecy [literary, programmatic and speech-narrative types]) needed to understand the book. The best title for the book would be “The Acts of the Holy Spirit Through the Apostles,” because the actant throughout is not Peter or Paul but God through the Holy Spirit. God decides, informs and guides the events throughout the book. Peter and Paul follow his dictates. Narrative criticism and biblical theology guide the exegesis of the Acts of the Apostles.
4.2. The Interpretation of Hebrews. There has been considerable debate regarding the possibility that the author of Hebrews engaged in Alexandrian exegesis. Affinities with the platonic approach of Philo in terms of such peculiarities as the law as a “shadow” (Heb 8:5; 10:1) and of the heavenly tabernacle (Heb 8:5; 9:23–24) have led many scholars to think this epistle stems from Alexandrian Judaism. However, recent thought has demonstrated the lack of data for such an approach; Jewish parallels, particularly an eschatological perspective, provide closer parallels (see especially Hurst). In similar fashion E. Käsemann and others have argued that the dualism of the book and the idea of a pilgrimage of the soul from the world to the heavenly sphere shows that the author had a gnostic background. Yet this too has problems, for the very myth Käsemann alludes to comes from a time later than Hebrews, and the parallels are not that close. Some interpreters (e.g., Buchanan, Hughes) see a pesher exegesis and Qumran influence in this book. The Melchizedekian high priesthood of Hebrews 5:8–10 and Hebrews 7:1–28 has some affinities with Qumran, as does pesher exegesis in Hebrews 1:3–13 (similar to 4QFlor) and his use of Psalm 110:4 in Hebrews 5:6 and Hebrews 7:17, 21. While there undoubtedly are similarities, it is unlikely this is the provenance of the epistle, which is more Hellenistic Jewish than Essene in its thought (see Lane, cviii).
It is best to see a Jewish typology dominating the exegesis of the book and to note an eschatological perspective that sees salvation as a future entity demanding perseverance in faith and hope in the midst of persecution. As H. W. Attridge says (103), “the work is fundamentally the work of a Jewish-Christian rhetor, an individual who draws freely on a broad spectrum of legends, theological and philosophical patterns, scriptural interpretations, liturgical formulas, and oratorical commonplaces.” More and more it is recognized that the warning passages (Heb 2:1–4; 3:7–19; 5:11–6:12; 10:19–39; 12:14–29) show the predominantly paraenetic purpose of the book. The peril and the solution in personal perseverance and community undergirding (cf.Heb 12:12–17; 13:1–9) are keys to the book.
4.3. The Interpretation of Revelation. There is no biblical book whose interpretation depends more upon the perspective one brings to it than does the Apocalypse (see Revelation, Book of). Historically understanding has shifted among five hermeneutical approaches: (1) the historicist view that sees Revelation describing the entire period between the first and second coming of Christ (see Parousia); (2) the preterist view that sees the book written to describe only the first-century situation of conflict between the church and the imperial cult (see Emperor; Roman Empire); (3) the sociological approach, which is a subset of the preterist but centers upon the social world behind the book (see Social Setting); (4) the idealist perspective, which sees the book as a set of timeless symbols addressing issues that Christians face at any time in history; and (5) the futurist approach, which understands the book to be describing the final eschatological victory of God over Satan and the forces of evil.
Throughout Revelation’s history of interpretation, it has been thought that one must choose a perspective, but it is being increasingly recognized (see Mounce, 39–45) that all the approaches have value for understanding the book. The Apocalypse addresses both present and future, it stems from a social world, and it contains symbols and emphases that speak to the church in every age. The perspective shifts from one to another throughout the book, and often there is more than one emphasis in a given passage (e.g., the martyrdom of the saints, combining the preterist, idealist and futurist into a single message).
The key to interpreting Revelation is in understanding how apocalyptic functions and in interpreting the symbols accordingly:
Apocalyptic entails the revelatory communication of heavenly secrets by an otherworldly being to a seer who presents the visions in a narrative framework; the visions guide readers into a transcendent reality that takes precedence over the current situation and encourages readers to persevere in the midst of their trials. The visions reverse normal experience by making the heavenly mysteries the real world and depicting the present crisis as a temporary, illusory situation. This is achieved via God’s transforming the world for the faithful. (Osborne, 222)
The symbols function within this environment. They are drawn from the ancient apocalyptic store of symbols and communicated well to the ancient reader. The modern reader needs to use background information (Jewish and Hellenistic) to unlock their meaning. One critical aspect is that the symbols function theologically and are not a description of exactly what will take place. The reader is to understand the text as a theological message, and what will really happen is not the intended message. In other words, an early-edition newspaper approach is hermeneutically indefensible. The message of the book is as open to careful students as that of any other biblical book, so long as they utilize the exegetical tools of structure, grammar, semantics and background information. The book is also narrative, and the tools of plot, characterization, point of view and setting are also critical.
See also Canon; Intertextuality in Early Christian Literature; Letters, Letter Forms; Narrative Criticism; New Testament Theology; Noncanonical Writings, Citations of; Old Testament in Acts, Hebrews, General Epistles, Revelation, Apostolic Fathers; Preaching from Acts, General Epistles, Revelation; Pseudepigraphy; Rhetoric, Rhetorical Criticism; Social Setting of Early Non-Pauline Christianity; Structuralism and Discourse Analysis; Textual Criticism.
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