The Bible: A History of Composition and Interpretation
By Dr. Thomas L. Long
The history of the collection of ancient texts held sacred by Jews, Christians, and Moslems, typically called the Bible (though what each religious tradition means by that word differs) is inextricably two histories: a history of composition and a history of interpretation. Unless a reader is the most naïve literalist who believes that God dictated the books directly to scribes who recorded them verbatim and who believes that people of faith have always interpreted the texts in exactly the same way, modern readers and scholars understand that these texts and their interpretations are the products of changing historical conditions. Because they hold these texts sacred, moreover, believers can come to a deeper appreciation of the ways in which the Bible continues to speak to people in different historical conditions. At the same time, non-believers acknowledge that the prevalence of Western monotheism, the religions of Jews, Christians, and Moslems that constitute the so-called "People of the Book," means that the Bible is perhaps one of the most significant literary and cultural texts available for their study. Understanding the history of the Bible's composition and transmission, on the one hand, and the history of its interpretation on the other, can enrich its reading for both believers and non-believers alike.
The philosophical field that studies how humans interpret things is called hermeneutics. This term is also used generically to label the actual practices and processes that individuals and communities undertake in their interpretive activities. Thus we can speak of Jewish hermeneutical practices differing in some ways but similar in others to later Christian hermeneutics. "Hermeneutics" is the term applied to both the art of interpretation and theories about interpretation. Throughout this section we will look at all of the aspects involved in and summarize the complex history of scriptural hermeneutics.
Oral Traditions. Religious and spiritual traditions appear in most instances to have begun with oral transmission of various forms, such as myths, legends, hymns, curses, laments, and proverbs. Pre-literate societies convey their values, history, and identity by means of oral transmission of these forms. Hunter-gatherer, nomadic pastoralist, and even settled village societies are typically pre-literate, relying on oral transmission of their myths, legends, and wisdom sayings. Many pre-literate cultures invest one or a few of their members with the special role of tale-teller or epic singer (a practice that still continues in many places today, such as the African griot). Oral material is "performed before a live audience" with the teller adapting his or her performance to the needs, concerns, and attention of each audience. Oral texts are usually connected to community rituals and are public events, not usually intended for private use. The performer embellishes, adapts, and modifies details to suit each performance situation.
Oral transmission might be called a living tradition in the sense that the "text" differs in each performance; a song, myth, legend, or lament might not be performed in exactly the same way each time and younger members of the tribe learn them through oral performance. Except for shorter hymns or songs, oral tellers do not memorize the text but perform it in a new way each time. Their performance is enabled by the use of repetitions (of words, phrases, names), by the use of oral formulas (metrical phrases or cliches), and by parataxis (adding phrase upon phrase or clause upon clause) in which ideas or descriptions are simply added (often by the conjunction and or but) to a previous idea. An example from the First Book of Samuel (3: 2-9) might illustrate:
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, "Samuel! Samuel!" and he said, "Here I am!" and ran to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call; lie down again." So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, "Samuel!" Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call, my son; lie down again." Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me."
Notice the persistent use of the conjunction and, the repetition of "you called me" and "I did not call you" and the three-fold repetition of the calling during sleep (analogous to the three wishes or three tests in folktales), all of which indicate the tale's oral origins. Therefore, we can detect defining stylistic characteristics of an oral tradition even after it has been set down in writing.
Even the Christian scriptures, the New Testament, the product of an historical period, emerged from oral traditions. This is evident in the activity of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the gospels. Jesus is never depicted as a writer or scribe (with perhaps one notable exception--see John 8: 6) but always as an oral teller of tales and teacher. The early apostles and disciples kept remembered Jesus in word and sacrament, particularly the ritual of the breaking of the bread. Similarly, the letters of Paul allude to an oral tradition in which the memory of Jesus was kept alive in hymns, liturgy, and recitation of Jesus' sayings and stories.
Scribal Traditions. Writing--the physical encoding of verbal texts by means of alphabets or hieroglyphs--is usually the product of settled agrarian cultures that have developed complex political and economic structures requiring reliable record keeping. Settled agrarian cultures have something that hunter-gatherers and nomadic pastoralists lack: surplus food. It should come as no surprise, then, that the earliest writings tend to be either bookkeeping records of grain and other stores or lists of royal laws. Enscribing epics, myths, legends, hymns and the like seems to have been a secondary activity. Scribal traditions are inherently conservative in the sense that they are usually the product of a ruling elite (or the servants of a ruling elite) who have a vested interest in preserving the information or oral forms.
The ancient world employed a variety of forms and media for writing. Egyptians used a complex written language of signs that were both ideogrammatic (a hieroglyph standing for a word) and phonetic (a hieroglyph standing for a sound, with several hieroglyphs forming a word). They wrote these on stone monuments (such as memorial posts called stele), on shards of pottery (ostraca), and on scrolls composed of flat sheets that were the product of a marsh plant, papyrus (from which we get our word "paper"). Israel and Judah's Babylonian neighbors developed an alphabet (phonetic signs that stood for discrete sounds to form a word) in a form of writing called cuneiform, small wedges carved on stone or formed on moist clay. The Hebrew alphabet (of the Jewish scriptures) and the Greek alphabet (of the Christian scriptures) later emerged from this matrix, recording documents on scrolls of papyrus or parchment (the finished skin of lambs or sheep). If the advantage of clay tablets is their durability (provided you don't drop and break them), the clear advantage of lightweight papyrus scrolls is their portability. However, as anyone knows who has tried to find a specific song on an audio cassette or a specific movie scene on a video tape, trying to find a specific place in a scroll can be time consuming. In the first Christian centuries, the more mobile Christians began to employ for their scriptures a handy form of account book used by traveling merchants: flat sheets of papers sewn together along one edge, open on the other edges, permitting one to find a text quickly. The codex book was born, a format still in use two thousand years later.
Two features of scribal transmission that bear scrutiny are scribal revision (or redaction, meaning "editing") and scribal error. Scholars comparing different versions of a narrative can detect ways in which two scribes working with the same material edit, revise or adapt (redact) that material for their own circumstances. For example, the Beatitudes Sermon of Jesus differs significantly in the two versions of the Gospel According to Matthew (5:3-12) and the Gospel According to Luke (6:20-23). In Matthew's gospel, Jesus speaks from a mount, consistent with that gospel's depiction of Jesus as the new Moses; in Luke, he speaks from a flat land or plain. The wording of the beatitudes is also different, Matthew's version including some that Luke omits.
In addition, scholars comparing different manuscripts can detect instances where a scribe has omitted or erroneously added letters or words or phrases. For example, some biblical scholars (as early as the ancient patristic Christian interpreters) have suggested that Jesus' proverb that it was easier for a camel (Greek: kamelos) to pass through the needle's eye than for a rich man to enter heaven, might have resulted from a scribal error for the Greek word kamilos, which means "rope." (Later form criticism has rejected this assertion, contending that the hyperbole of a camel trying to pass through a needle's eye is quite consistent with Jewish proverbs.) Scribal error can occur in one of several ways. Physical damage to the exemplar (the manuscript from which a scribe is copying) can perpetuate erroneous copies. A scribe's accidental omission or mishearing (such as our homonyms "their," "there," and "they're") or misunderstanding of a word, letter, or diacritical mark can result in errors.
Each book of the Bible has undergone complex stages involving oral transmission, scribal transmission, and scribal revision. Once those texts became fairly stable, however, their assembly into the manuscripts of what are known as the "Hebrew scriptures" (to Christians, the "Old Testament") and the "New Testament" went through even further revision. We do not have any "original" manuscripts of either Hebrew or Christian scriptures, no autograph versions of sacred texts by alleged authors, and, in fact, no complete texts contemporary with the periods of biblical history. In addition, different religious traditions include (or exclude) what they consider to be the authoritative, sacred books of the Bible, what is called the canon or the "contents" of the Bible. The Jewish scriptures' canon of the Samaritans differed from the canon of the Hebrews; the canon of the Catholic Bible differs from the canon of Greek Orthodox Bible and the Ethiopian Bible, which differs from that of the Protestant Bible, itself distinguishing between Reformation and Anglican canons.
Authorship. Modern notions of authorship, associated with legal categories such as "intellectual property" and "copyright," simply did not exist in the ancient or even medieval world. Instead, names of important figures were frequently attributed to a text either by tradition or legend, by association with a school or group of disciples of the attributed author, or simply by the desire to claim for a text the authority of a legendary figure. Therefore, biblical books cannot usually be said to have been written by the person named as their author. Such attributions of authorship are known as pseudonymity. The book of Daniel, for example, was written in Jerusalem several centuries after the Babylonian Exile when Daniel lived. Many of the psalms were written long after the death of King David. The prophets did not write the books attributed to them, though they often represent the recording of an oral (or even scribal) tradition preserved by the prophets' disciples. Only with the Christian scriptures of the New Testament do we find factual literary attribution, at least in the case of Luke's gospel and Paul's epistles, which we know to have been actually written by those figures.
Manuscripts. Of the oldest manuscripts of Jewish or Christian scriptures, none is an "original holograph" (that is a manuscript written in the hand of an alleged author of the text) and none is even close to the historical period in which a text was composed. Every extant manuscript (that is those existing today) is a copy of a copy of a copy, some at centuries' remove from the original. For example, the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament), are among the Dead Sea Scrolls, dated from the third century BCE to the beginning of the second century CE, dates that are centuries after their composition. As compared to manuscript sources of the New Testament, there are relatively fewer exemplars of the Hebrew scriptures, largely as a result of the depredations of anti-Semitic Christians and others who have destroyed artifacts of Judaism. Although there are over 5000 manuscripts of the Christian scriptures, even the earliest of those--papyrus fragments discovered in Egypt--only date from the mid-to-late-second century, a century and a half after the ministry of Christ.
Canon. Bibles are the products of centuries of theological and political struggle. In the most obvious sense, what Jews consider to be "the Bible" and what Christians consider to be "the Bible" are based on agreements about the role of Judaism in salvation history but disagreements about the significance of Jesus of Nazareth. Which texts are considered authoritative and divinely inspired (and therefore included in the Bible) is the question of the canon. Obviously, the Jewish canon differs from the Christian canon. However, it is also important to note that even among Jews and among Christians there was not complete agreement upon the canon, particularly that of the Jewish scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament. Hellenistic diaspora Jews (those who had left Israel but continued living as Jews in the ancient Greek or Roman empire) used a Greek translation of their scriptures (known as the Septuagint) that included slightly more than a dozen texts not found in the Hebrew scriptures. As a result of this difference between the Septuagint and the Hebrew canons, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant Christians include (or exclude) different books of Hebrew scripture, which are thus known as apocrypha (from a Greek word meaning "hidden things").
Analogously, the first two centuries of Christianity witnessed the production of a variety of gospels, acts, epistles, and apocalypses that never made it into the "final cut" of the New Testament's 27 books, which formed only by the fourth century, at which time the canon of the Bible was said to be "closed." It is important to note, however, that not all Christians have accepted the notion of a "closed canon." Mormons (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), for example, believe that their founder, Joseph Smith, translated a lost text known as the Book of Mormon, said to be the product of the resurrected Christ's visit to the lost tribes of Israel in America, and believe that divine revelation is continuous. As a result, some fundamentalist Christians are hostile toward Mormonism and reject its claims. Another American church, Jehovah's Witnesses, has been embroiled in controversy regarding its official translation of the Bible (New World Translation), which is generally regarded by mainstream scripture scholars as a dogmatic paraphrase intended to support the church's doctrines rather than an exact scholarly rendering into modern English. One reason for this doctrinal concern is that Jehovah Witnesses' theology does not conform to Christian orthodoxy; they do not believe that Jesus is equal with God or that Jesus is one of three divine persons of the Trinity. Instead, they are unitarian (rather than trinitarian) in theology. Although every translation is to some degree a theological interpretation (that is, based on doctrine), students of the Bible should seek a translation that attempts to be relatively free of dogmatic biases.
Language. Most of the Jewish scriptures are written in Hebrew (though the apocrypha are available only in its Greek translation, and portions of Jeremiah, Ezra, and several chapters of Daniel are in Aramaic, a vernacular related to Hebrew). One of the challenges in translating biblical Hebrew is that its written record only provides consonants, not vowels, which renders some passages ambiguous. Imagine English without consonants: Does the word "hl" mean "hall" or "hail" or "hole" or "hell" or "hill" or "heel" or "heal"? Add to that the fact that biblical texts used neither capital letters nor punctuation of any kind (not to mention chapters and verses) and you can see that there would have been (and still remains) considerable room for differing conclusions in exegesis (linguistic and semantic analysis of words and phrases). As with any language, Hebrew underwent considerable change in the period during which the canonical texts were formed, which makes translating some words even more problematic. The language of the Christian scriptures, Koiné Greek, was the most common language for business and cultural exchange in the Eastern Mediterranean (much as English is worldwide), though it was frequently written in a Hebraic style. Because of the antiquity of these languages and openness of the Christian communities to translating biblical texts, both Old and New Testaments have been continuously translated into vernacular languages.
Translations. Jews and Moslems share in common the belief that the original language of scripture is sacred and that any translation into another tongue is therefore inferior. For this reason, devout non-Arabic Moslems learn Arabic in order to read the Koran (which they believe to exist in its original Arabic form in heaven) and Orthodox Jews learn Hebrew in order to read their scriptures. However, during the Greco-Roman period, Jews of the diaspora ("the dispersion") left Israel and settled around the Mediterranean, though still retaining their Jewish identity and practices while assimilating into pagan society to some degree. One way in which they did so was to translate the Hebrew scriptures into Greek (the common language of the ancient Eastern Mediterranean), a translation known as the Septuagint (which includes the apocrypha, additional books not found in the Hebrew scriptures), derived from a Greek word meaning "Seventy" since according to legend 72 scholars translated it. The Septuagint (a name often abbreviated as LXX, the Roman numeral for "70") was the Bible of the first Greek-speaking Christians. Christians have historically taken a more generous view of translation of their sacred texts, whose originals occur in a form of colloquial Greek called Koiné. Thus within the first Christian centuries, the New Testament was translated from Greek into Syrian, Ethiopian Coptic, and Latin, among other languages. Only later in the Middle Ages, during the Catholic monopoly in Europe, did the Western Church (i.e. Roman Catholic) forbid vernacular translations, which only later proliferated as a result of the Protestant Reformation in the early sixteenth century. The most famous and influential translation of the Bible is the so-called King James Version, authorized by James I, the English king of the early seventeenth century.
Although one can distinguish textual scholarship that attempts to account for manuscript differences, the development of a canon (the table of contents, so to speak), and the translation of Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek into one's native tongue as distinct activities, they are all activities based on biblical interpretation and criticism. Decisions about manuscript accuracy, about what texts constitute the authentic contents (the canon) of the Bible, and faithful translation are always already interpretations, and those interpretations are based, to some degree, on one's theological and intellectual assumptions.
Biblical Interpretation and Criticism
In addition to diverse biblical canons, Jews and Christians have a complex, varied history of interpreting and studying the scriptures. The ways in which one reads a biblical text, the questions one asks about it, the assumptions that one makes about it, all these things affect how that text is read, interpreted and used. Every reading of the Bible is an interpretation. Every time anyone reads the Bible, he or she is interpreting it. Even those who claim to take the Bible literally "at face value" as a transparent text are in fact producing subtle (though perhaps unconscious) interpretations of what they read.
The most basic premise of biblical interpretation is that every reader brings his or her ideology to the reading. "Ideology" is a term used to describe the underlying beliefs, values, and attitudes that structure one's dealings with the world; one's ideology can be theological or intellectual or both. If you believe that the Jews are God's chosen people and that God has given the Jewish people a homeland where he will one day restore peace and prosperity under the rule of a messiah as promised by the prophets, one will read the Hebrew scriptures in light of that theology. If you believe that the Jewish prophet Jesus of Nazareth is also divine and that he is the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy and that he saved all humanity by his death and resurrection, then you will read the Hebrew and Christian scriptures in that light. If you are a Moslem who believes that Jews and Christians were predecessors who have been superseded by God's final prophet, Mohammed, you will read the Bible in that light. If you do not believe in these traditions as sacred or if you do not believe in any divinity at all, you will read these texts in that light. If you believe that every word in the Bible is literally and factually true, you will read the Bible one way; if you believe that the Bible is truthful without having to be factual (that is, it conveys eternal truths without having to be an historical document) you will read it another way. Our ideologies inform our reading and interpretation.
In even the most rudimentary interpretive traditions, there are two components: exegesis (the linguistic and semantic analysis of words and phrases) and theological interpretation (the religious reflection on the meaning of a text in the life of a faith community). At many points in the history of biblical interpretations, theological interpretations have subordinated exegesis. Church leaders have frequently felt compelled to shape the exegesis to fit church doctrine. In the past 200 years, however, there has been an increasing willingness on the part of mainstream clergy and rabbis to keep an open mind to the often disturbing conclusions of scholarly exegesis, even if it doesn't easily fit their creed.
Jewish Interpretive and Critical Traditions. There are two ways in which the Hebrew scriptures have been the object of interpretation and criticism. First, during the composition and transmission of the books of the Old Testament, later texts refer directly to earlier texts or refer indirectly to earlier texts (allusion) in a process that might be called "intertextuality." It should be noted that this intertextual tradition includes the question of the canon of Jewish scriptures, so that not all Jewish communities agreed on what defined "sacred" texts. The Deuteronomic tradition, which began to develop after the Assyrian invasion of Israel, was a narrative interpretation of Hebrew history in light of that catastrophe. The Levitical tradition, which began to develop during and after the Babylonian Exile, was a legal interpretation of that catastrophe. In addition to canonical texts, devout Jews might seek authoritative interpretations in such non-canonical books as 1 Enoch, the apocrypha of the Septuagint, the book of Jubilees, the Wisdom of Ben Sirach, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Second, outside of the biblical or apocryphal texts themselves, rabbis passed on an interpretive tradition to their disciples, which later became preserved in writing by scribes whose books were recopied and added to. The historical period in which this second activity occurred most intensely was from the third century BCE (following the return from the Babylonian Exile) until the first century CE, and there are literally hundreds of these interpretive texts. They include the Mishnah (a late second-century CE Jewish law code), the Talmuds (the systematic commentaries on the Mishnah, composed in Israel [the Palestinian Talmud] around 400 CE and in Babylonia [the Babylonian Talmud] between 500 and 600 CE), the targums (translations of Hebrew scriptures into vernacular Aramaic with accompanying commentaries, an activity known generally as exegesis). The Essene community that lived by the Dead Sea (and whose scrolls were discovered in the middle of the twentieth century) developed pesharim (true commentaries in which a biblical passage is quoted and then followed by symbolic interpretation). Thus, Judaism's rabbinical tradition of interpretation (generation after generation of rabbis commenting on the commentary of previous rabbis) left interpretation open and fluid. It was this tradition that early Jewish-Christians employed in their reinterpretation of the Hebrew scriptures in light of Jesus of Nazareth.
However, Jewish biblical study did not end with the dawning of Christianity (and the catastrophic diaspora after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple). During the same period, Philo of Alexandria produced commentaries (like the pesharim) in which biblical verses are interpreted allegorically (i.e. finding symbolic or cosmic meaning in even ordinary literal passages). Palestinian rabbinic schools up through the middle of the first Christian millennium developed midrashim, books of commentary in which a text is quoted and the many (often differing) perspectives of rabbis are recorded. The midrashic tradition perhaps most thoroughly characterizes the way in which Judaism sees interpretation as an open-ended, dialectical, and dialogical activity. Rabbis believed that direct prophetic revelation had ended and that the canon of inspired scriptures was closed, thereby making the rabbi-interpreter the community's leading figure. They also developed principles for interpreting the scriptures that many Christian commentaries would adopt: the inerrancy of scripture, the coherence of scripture, the unalterability of scripture, the significance (even in minor details) of scripture. Medieval Judaism refined its philological analysis (historical linguistics) as well as developing both philosophical interpretations (for example, in the writings of Moses Maimonides) and mystical interpretations (for example, the Kabbalah) of their scriptures. Jewish readers have at their disposal a variety of interpretive texts (intertextual and independent) to aid their reading of the canonical scriptures.
Christian Interpretive and Critical Traditions. Since the first Christians were Jews, they employed Jewish methods of biblical interpretation, which we see at work in the Christian scriptures, the New Testament. The four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the epistles, and the book of Revelation are all glosses on the Jewish scriptures, which Christians reinterpret in light of their understanding of the meaning of Jesus of Nazareth. Eventually, however, Christians developed complex interpretive strategies of their own over the next two thousand years. These include Christian exegesis (the process of recovering the linguistic meaning of a word or phrase in an ancient text, now undertaken by Greek and Latin speakers rather than Hebrew readers), Christian theological interpretation (the process of establishing the doctrinal significance of an ancient text), and, more recently, historical-critical methods (the process of establishing the historical, social, linguistic, theological, and literary context of an ancient text).
The first Christians, who were devout Jews, were intent upon establishing the continuity between the Jewish messianic and legal traditions with the deeds and words of Jesus of Nazareth. The earliest Christian scriptures are the letters of St. Paul (ca. 50 CE) who consistently interpreted Jesus of Nazareth in light of the Hebrew scriptures. Paul introduced allegorical interpretation into his reading of the Jewish scriptures, that is reading an historical text in order to find some deeper symbolic meaning. For example, in Galatians 4:21-26 (where he actually uses a term for "allegory"), Paul reads the story of Sarah and Hagar (from Genesis 16) as an allegory of the two covenants. This method of reading the Old Testament as a prefigurement or "type" of the New Testament is also called typology. In typology, Adam, Moses, and the Suffering Servant in the book of Isaiah, for example, are all viewed as types of Christ, who fulfills the type. In doing so, Paul was partly relying on a Jewish tradition of interpreting the present in terms of a past event (the way Judaism returns to the Exodus and Exile stories to make sense of a current crisis), but also partly employing literary methods of his pagan Greek contemporaries. At the same time he was also suggesting (as Christians have tended to contend) that one can only fully understand the Hebrew scriptures in light of the Christian story (a position that Jews understandably take exception with).
The gospels are the later products of oral and scribal traditions (ca. 70-100 CE) and they, too, employ both explicit references and allusions to the Hebrew scriptures in order to interpret Jesus, as does the Acts of the Apostles, each from its own theological perspective. For Mark, for instance, Jesus is interpreted as a sacrificial victim; for Matthew, the fulfillment of the Mosaic tradition; for Luke, the universal savior of the prophetic tradition, especially Isaiah; for John, the pre-existent Word of God. The Book of Revelation is heavily indebted to the apocalyptic literature of Ezekiel and Daniel, as well as the intertestamental texts (Jewish sacred writings composed after the last Old Testament book but before the composition of the Christian scriptures), such as we find in the Dead Sea Scrolls. After Jewish expulsion of Christians from synagogues and the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple, Christian writers were less inclined to establish continuity between the Hebrew scriptures and Jesus. In each case, New Testament writers view Jesus as the fulfillment of Hebrew scriptures and prophecy.
The canon of the New Testament took many decades to form and centuries to be confirmed. In the first centuries of Christianity, there were many sacred writings--epistles, acts, gospels, apocalypses--without a universal consensus on which of those should be thought authoritative or inspired, that is to say, it took some time before Christian communities came to agreement on a canon of sacred scriptures, what we now call the New Testament. This process occurred in several stages: the transition from oral traditions to scribal traditions (ca. 50-95 CE), the collection of a core of writings (ca. 95-150 CE), the distinction of a New Testament from an Old (ca. 150-190 CE), and the closure of the canon (ca. 190-400 CE). At each stage decisions about which texts were to be included and which excluded were the result of theological interpretations and theological disagreements, the winners deciding which texts spoke authoritatively for the Christian community.
During the period of Patristic Christianity (approximately the first five hundred years), the allegorical methods that St. Paul employed were refined by Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185-254) and later Eastern Christian (that is, Greek-speaking) theological traditions or "schools" of thought. Origen proposed that ambiguous or confusing passages of scripture required not a literal but a symbolic interpretation. Origen also developed the earliest Christian biblical commentaries. His ideas were further developed by his intellectual descendants in Alexandria for whom scripture teaches the soul in its quest for God. Thus, for example, Gregory of Nyssa interpreted the book of Exodus as an allegory of the soul's enslavement in this world, its wandering through life in search of God, and its eventual arrival in heaven. Thus the question of literal or historical content became subordinated to the symbolic. A contemporaneous rival to this allegorical tradition, however, was the school of Antioch, which emphasized the historical, literal contexts of scriptures (while not completely dismissing symbolic interpretations). Thus Christianity has always struggled with apparently differing aims of biblical criticism: exegesis and theological interpretation.
Two Western Christian (that is, Latin-speaking) Patristic figures, Augustine of Hippo and John Cassian, established principles of biblical interpretation that would endure well into the Renaissance. In De doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching), Augustine asserted the literary and rhetorical qualities of the Bible (now clearly defined by Christians as Old Testament and New Testament), recognized that the Bible employed different literary forms, and insisted on the necessity of knowing biblical languages. He also emphasized allegorical interpretation, but not at the expense of understanding literal senses. John Cassian introduced the notion that the Bible can be interpreted at four levels of interpretation or in four senses of scripture: the literal, the allegorical, the tropological (the moral sense), and the anagogical. Using, for example, the city of Jerusalem as it frequently appears in the Bible, he proposed that there is an actual city (the literal city of Jerusalem), but that Jerusalem can also be interpreted to mean the community of believers or the Church (the allegorical sense), that it can also signify the human soul in its passage through life (the tropological sense), and that it can also signify our final home in heaven (the anagogical sense). To present that more schematically:
|Literal||The actual, historical instance||The actual city of Jerusalem in Palestine|
|Allegorical||An eccelesiological sense, symbolizing the People of God or the Church||The city of Jerusalem as a symbol for the faithful People of God through history|
|Tropological||A spiritual or mystical sense, symbolizing the individual soul||The city of Jerusalem as a symbol for the life of the soul|
|Anagogical||An eschatological, end-of-life, or end-times sense, symbolizing the afterlife or end of time||The city of Jerusalem as heaven, union with God.|
This method of finding four simultaneous meanings would prevail in Christian hermeneutics throughout the Middle Ages and even survives until today. During this same period, the writing of Christian biblical commentaries flourished, among them commentaries of St. Jerome, who was also important for his translation of the Bible into vernacular or common Latin, known as the Vulgate translation, which would be the dominant form of the Bible for one thousand years, until the Protestant Reformation.
Medieval Christian and Jewish scholars (primarily priests, monks, nuns and rabbis) continued the traditions of literal and allegorical interpretation of the Bible, usually in order to expound or refine points of Christian doctrine or theology. To some of these we owe an indispensable tool of biblical study: the division of the Bible's books into chapter and verse. Although methods of dividing both Jewish and Christian scriptures had been in use for centuries, there was no commonly agreed form that these should take. The English scholar (and later Archbishop of Canterbury) Stephen Langton (d. 1228), teaching at the University of Paris developed chapter divisions, which became widely adopted even before the development of the printing press. Verse numbering of the Hebrew scriptures was the invention of Rabbi Isaac Nathan about 1440, but the New Testament would have to wait for this device until Robert Stephanus' Greek and Latin edition in 1551, which was incorporated into an English translation, the Geneva Bible, of 1560. (In the King James Bible there are Unfortunately, these chapter and verse divisions are usually arbitrary, often occurring in mid-sentence.
During the European Renaissance, scholars of literature and scripture recognized the necessity of learning the original languages of ancient texts instead of relying on second-hand translations into Latin. With renewed vigor and critical tools, biblical scholars turned to the study of the earliest Greek and Hebrew texts, comparing and contrasting the manuscripts. This turn toward textual study was accompanied by a technological breakthrough in the late 1400s: Gutenberg's development of a movable type printing press. Far less expensive than manuscript production, printed books permitted the widespread dissemination of authoritative, scholarly versions of the manuscripts. Although the official Bible of the Catholic Middle Ages was Jerome's Vulgate Latin translation, European scholars in the 1400s and early 1500s began pressing for its translation into vernacular languages (the everyday language of a place and its people). This required new scholarly activity, involving a return to and study of the oldest available texts, comparison of differing versions of the same books, and new exegesis of biblical Greek and Hebrew verses. Martin Luther's German translation of the New Testament in 1522 was the first of the early-modern vernacular versions. In English, this movement resulted in William Tyndale's translation of the New Testament and the Pentateuch between 1525 and 1535 (for his trouble, arrested and executed), completed by Miles Coverdale in 1535; the Geneva Bible of 1560 (the Bible of Shakespeare and North America's Puritan Pilgrims); and the King James Bible of 1611.
Modern biblical criticism can be said to have begun with the rise of modern sciences. Astronomy, geology, paleontology, and archeology in their turn since the 1600s had revealed the ways in which the biblical record did not square with empirical observation. Simultaneously, ancient texts from other Middle Eastern cultures were discovered or their languages and writing systems decoded, which demonstrated their similarities to biblical texts and provided a context for the Bible. If the earth could no longer be understood as the center of the universe, how could one explain passages of the Bible that suggested otherwise (such as the sun's standing still for Joshua)? If the age of the earth could no longer be understood as being about 6,000 years and if the fossil record suggested an more complex prehistory, how could the creation stories in Genesis be explained? If there is no archeological record of Hebrew enslavement in Egypt and no trace of a massive migration out of Egypt into Canaan and no evidence of a Hebrew conquest of Canaan, how does one explain the Exodus? If we have Egyptian or Mesopotamian texts even older than the Bible that are similar to biblical passages, how can we view the Bible as the uniquely inspired Word of God? These are typical of the questions that modern biblical scholars have had to ask over the past two hundred years. Modern biblical criticism has tended to refrain from supernatural explanations in favor of material, empirical evidence in documents and the archeological record, the development of hypotheses, and scholarly testing of hypotheses in order to establish a theory, which is then examined by other scholars. For this reason, many religious people find its methods and conclusions unsettling.
Modern biblical scholarship has developed different approaches over the past two centuries, which might be classified into several categories.
History of religions approaches examine the ways in which Judaism and Christianity did not develop in a vacuum (they were products of a context in which there were neighboring ideologies), but frequently assimilated and adapted ideas and literary forms from other religions. At the same time, Judaism and Christianity were not born fully developed but were the result of competing theologies (whose survivors or "winners" lived to write scriptures) that contended over time. For example, a consensus of scholars maintains that the Pentateuch or Torah (the first five books of the Bible), is a patchwork of four different Jewish theological traditions that were melded together over several centuries. Christian scriptures and Christian interpretation of scriptures were influenced by Mediterranean polytheism and Greco-Roman philosophy. For example, Roman emperors called themselves "Savior of the World" before Christians used that phrase for Jesus. The Gospel According to John is indebted to Greek philosophy (with its notion of logos, the Word) and to gnosticism.
Form criticism recognizes that the biblical is a patchwork of literary and textual forms or genres. Some of these forms were adopted from other religions; some of these forms emerged uniquely in Judaism or Christianity. These include such forms as myth, legend, fable, oracle, lament, praise song, chronicle, curses, folk tales, and proverbs, among many others. Since all of these forms reflect a specific situation in life for the community that employed those forms, the job of form criticism is to learn the sitz im leben (situation of life) of that community in order to understand the purpose for the form. Its approach is literary and rhetorical, examining the ways in which literary forms serve different purposes. For example, form critics note that the book of Genesis contains cosmogonic myths, etiological myths, flood myths, heroic legends, and hymns that occur in other Middle Eastern texts. Similarly, miracle stories were popular in the ancient world, and they influenced the formation of those stories in the gospels. Likewise, in writing letters (or epistles) early Christian leaders like St. Paul were following the standard literary forms of their times.
Tradition criticism examines the complex exchanges that occur in societies whereby earlier oral traditions and later scribal traditions convey and modify texts. Its approach is partly sociological and anthropological, looking at texts not as fixed things but as components of social networks. For example, tradition critics study the way in which oral traditions get handed down, such as the Middle Eastern myths of a catastrophic flood, and how those versions differ. The Hebrew Torah (Pentateuch), for example, is the product of four theological traditions that developed over a period of five hundred years. Similarly, the Christian gospels represent two traditions, the Synoptic (Mark, Matthew, and Luke, probably produced in that order) and the Johannine (John).
Redaction criticism recognizes that the books of the Bible are rarely the product of one single author sitting down at one time to compose a seamless text (our modern understanding of authorship) but are the product of complex additions, deletions, and revisions by editors (or "redactors"). It tries to make sense of the different rhetorical, formal, and theological traditions that have combined to make the books of the Bible. For example, redaction critics attempt to analyze the ways in which different theological traditions' stories were patched together eventually to make the book of Genesis. In the Christian scriptures, the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) rely on similar material, the latter two building on and embellishing the first, often with some interesting differences. Matthew and Luke, likewise, rely on a hypothetical third source (called "Q"), often redacting that material in different ways. (Compare Matthew's "Sermon on the Mount" [Mt 4] with Luke's "Sermon on the Plain" [Lk 6].)
Canonical criticism is related to tradition criticism in that it is interested in the history of the Bible's formation. Instead of examining the history of discrete traditions, however, it examines the theological disagreements that determined the various canons and discovers why some books are included and others excluded. Its approach employs methods from form, tradition, and redaction criticism. For example, canonical critics examine why there are several different "tables of contents" for scripture within Judaism and within Christianity.
Reception criticism examines the history of the various interpretations of Jewish and Christian scriptures. Each culture "receives" or uses the biblical tradition by adapting its stories and sayings for their own purposes and time. Its approach is social and historical, interested in how religious communities have actually used the Bible. For example, reception critics look at the widely different ways in which one passage of the Bible has been interpreted by different readers over the centuries.
Post-Modern criticism of the bible is varied. Gender and feminist critics are interested in the ways in which the biblical texts discuss gender, sex, and sexuality (which are major literal and figurative preoccupations of many biblical texts). Post-structuralist critics are interested in the ways in which biblical texts attempt to sustain or to subvert dominant structures of power. Liberationist scholars, similarly, examine the way in which the Bible defends the poor against the depradations of the rich and powerful. Reader-response critics examine the ways in which individual texts tend to produce responses in individual readers.
Islamic Interpretive and Critical Traditions. The Koran (dating from the early seventh century CE), Islam's sacred scripture, and Ibn Ishaq's The Biography of the Prophet (from the early eighth century) cite the figures of Jewish patriarchs and prophets in addition to Jesus of Nazareth as precursors to Mohammed, Allah's final and definitive prophet. In some respects, the Koran is a gloss on both the Jewish scriptures and the Christian scriptures, demonstrating how they were a path toward the ultimate revelation but a path from which both Jews and Christians have strayed. Islam views Jewish prophets and Jesus as important prophetic figures, but it reads the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity in light of Islam's own self-understanding as the last word. As surah 5 verse 65 observes: "If the People of the Book accept the true faith and keep from evil, We will pardon them their sins and admit them to the gardens of delight. If they observe the Torah and the Gospel and what is revealed to them from their Lord, they shall enjoy abundance from above and from beneath." Thus for Moslems, the definitive key to interpreting Jewish and Christian scriptures is the Koran as revealed by Allah's ultimate prophet, Mohammed.
Secular Interpretive and Critical Traditions. Because the Bible is the most influential text in Western (Euro-American) culture, non-believers also study these texts for their literary qualities, their ancient pedigree, or their rich mythological associations. Such readers and scholars are interested in the Bible solely as a product of human ingenuity and significance. Public education, which needs to distinguish between "teaching religion" and "teaching about religion" can profitably do the latter by employing the methods and values of secular criticism of the Bible in courses that permit students from many different (or no) religious creed to appreciate the Bible as a literary, artistic, or cultural text. Public schools, required by the United States constitution to refrain from espousing or advancing a particular religious doctrine, can nonetheless teach "Bible as Literature" courses that explore the literary forms of the Bible and the Bible's influence on culture generally, literature and the arts particularly.
Numerous scholars and writers have published literary studies of the Bible. Literary scholars view books of the Bible as finished literary forms (unlike form critics, who view each book as a patchwork of genres) and examine the ways in which each book is a unified literary work. John Gabel and Charles B. Wheeler's The Bible as Literature offers an explanation of its literary genres or forms. The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, offers essays by an international and ecumenical team of biblical and literary scholars. A similar reference work, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, edited by David Lyle Jeffrey, brings together shorter topical articles on books, forms and genres, themes, images, and figures, in addition to providing valuable bibliographies, including a bibliography of the biblical tradition in English literature. Myth criticism has gone a long way toward making biblical narratives accessible to people who may not share the doctrinal commitments of Jews or Christians. Myth criticism attempts to develop a universal understanding of the nearly universal phenomenon of myth making. The psychoanalytic thinker, Carl Jung, suggested that all humans shared in common certain archetypal images that were woven into particular narratives in specific cultures. The work of Joseph Campbell in this vein has been best well known (though there are concerns that some of his work has anti-Semitic overtones). Mircea Eliade in history of religions, Paul Ricoeur in philosophy, Northrop Frye in literary criticism, and Kenneth Burke in rhetorical studies have also been influential in modern secular study of the Bible.
Copyright © Thomas L. Long, 2001