The History of Biblical Interpretation: Jewish Interpretation, Part 1


Hello faithful blog readers.  Due to my heavy class reading load over biblical interpretation, most of my posts will concern how to interpret the bible.  Although this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, i hope that the next few months of posts will be informative and stimulate questions for the readers.

I thought that it might be interesting to do a brief (in content, not in amount of posts) historical survey of approaches to interpretation.  At this point the only source will be the book above (click to link for more information), covering pages 23-62.  It goes without saying that the authors aren’t perfect, and they may be off, as well as myself in my interpretation and assessments of their arguments.  So by all means, disagree!  Without further ado, lets jump in. 

The first interpreters of biblical material weren’t Christians, rather they were Jews.  By the time of the NT, three distinct approaches were born, each rooted in a different geographical center.  In this post i will cover one, the interpretative method of Hellenistic Jews.

Due to Alexander the Great’s conquest and the subsequent imposition of Greek culture on the surounding areas, many Jews were affected.  In particular, Alexandria was the place where this form of Judaism flourished, whose goal it was to “integrate Greek philosophy, especially that of Plato, with Jewish religious beliefs.”  It was out of this culture that the Septuagint, the bible of the early church, was born. 

As the authors note, the distinctive focus of this “school” was on its allegorical method, which was rooted in platonic philosophy.  The master of this approach was Philo (20 B.C.-54 A.D.), whose goal was integration of the Hebrew bible with Platonism.  For Philo, a passage of scripture was like a human being.  It had a body (eg literal meaning) and a soul (allegorical meaning).  For Philo it was this allegorical, or deeper meaning, that was sometimes the “real meaning.”  The allegorical meaning was the truer meaning when the text either (a) said anything unworthy of God, (b) contained some insoluble difficulty, and/or (c) involved an obvious allegorical expression.

Also, he believed that hidden meaning lay behind numbers and names, and he would often find meanings in this manner by regrouping words in a passage, or by playing with the different meaning s a word could have.  As an example, the authors cite his interpretation of Gen 2:10 [“A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches” NRSV], in which he determined that the river in Eden represented goodness, and the other 4 “represented the four great virtues of Greek philosophy–prudence, temperance, courage, and justice.”

Such an approach has obvious difficulties, like the seemingly arbitrary nature of his conclusions and how his philosophic views tended to have too much of a determinative effect on his interpretation of the Bible.  In fact, the authors suggest that for Philo, the differences between Platonic thought and the Bible were often ignored.  This is an ever present danger for Biblical scholars and theologians.

However, according to the authors Philo got a few things right.  (1) He recognized the limitations inherent in interpretation concerning the nature of God.  (2) He worked hard to make his interpretations have relevance, by integrating with the dominant philosophy of the day.  I’m in agreement with (1), but am still grappling with the validity of (2) as a praiseworthy goal.  Although from where i stand i see little that is directly usable today, understanding their methods helps me to understand subsequent developments in the Christian faith, even up to the present time.   More on some possible connections between this method and contemporary thought tomorrow.

2 responses to “The History of Biblical Interpretation: Jewish Interpretation, Part 1

  1. I don’t think we can use the allegorical method today–except where there seems to be deliberate symbolism in the text. However, one value of Philo’s method is that he recognized the existence of problems in the Bible and had a way of dealing with them. The historical-critical method is another way of recognizing and dealing with problems. Evangelical interpreters today sometimes reject both allegorical and critical methods, and so have no tool for dealing with problems, other than to minimize, evade, or deny that they exist.

    Recognizing the existence of problems is not a denial of biblical authority. It is accepting our responsibility as interpreters to realize that our interpretations and teachings will influence what other people do. Teachers are subject to stricter judgment, as James says.

  2. Pingback: The History of Biblical Interpretation: Jewish Interpretation, Part 2 « Stubbed Toes

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