The History of Biblical Interpretation: Jewish Interpretation, Part 2

This is the 2nd installment of a series I started forever ago.  I though it might be fun to pick it back up.  So here goes:

The 2nd major “method” of Jewish Interpretation, was founded at Qumran, a site on the shores of the Dead Sea that flourished during the period of 150 B.C.-68 A.D.   The group there-thought to be the Essenes-was a radical group which denounced the current religious powers in Jerusalem and withdrew into seclusion, where they awaited God’s judgment on mainstream Judaism. 

For this apocalyptic-minded group, the hebrew bible was a flexible document, one that could be tugged at, refashioned, and reinterpreted in order to meet the current needs of their community.  Their pesher method of interpretation allowed them to (1) manipulate the actual words in the text, (2) contemporize it to their time (ex: Babylon actually refers to Rome), and (3) break down texts to smaller segments, interpreting each segment as they saw fit. 

Viewed today, much of the approach of the qumran community seems disastrous, particularly so for more conservative -minded evangelicals.  It is important to remember that the community sought to unpack the text’s significance for their own day.  If a couple thousand years has taught us anything, it is that this is no easy task.  Further, while many evangelicals may be dismayed at their manipulation of the text to address contemporary matters, this is something they do as well.  While the intentional contortion of texts may not be justified, reading “Rome” when you see “Babylon” is practically no different than reading Genesis 1 as an argument against modern science.  Lastly, while the qumran community perhaps overvalued the prophetic literature, this “canon within a canon” approach is prevalent throughout the history of the church, and frankly shouldn’t be seen as a capitol offense.   While some cannot stomach such a fast and loose handling of the hebrew bible, we can all be reminded of the difficulty of understanding how the bible applies to our lives.

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