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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Bible, History of Interpretation

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The modern reader of the Bible might easily assume that people have always read the Bible in the same way that we do today. That is not at all the case. It seems natural to us to assume that the Bible, while a divinely inspired book, is also like any other piece of literature, with one message to convey from the mind of the writer to the mind of the reader. The fact is that in some periods of Christian history people actually found as many as seven entirely different meanings in a given passage of Scripture. Read this way, the Bible can be made to say anything that you want to imagine!

The interpretation of the Bible (or any piece of literature, for that matter), is called hermeneutics. See Bible; Hermeneutics .

Biblical interpretation, or hermeneutics, has had a long and checkered history. The way in which almost all Christians today read and interpret the Bible only gradually developed. It was not until the era of the Renaissance and Reformation that the science of biblical interpretation was clarified. Today we follow what is generally known as the literary historical method of interpretation.

Origen (who died in 254 A.D.) was the first major biblical interpreter and Christian theologian. In addition to the obvious, simple, literal meaning of a passage, which Origen believed was only for the simple believer, Origen found a hidden or deeper meaning embedded in the words of Scripture. This hidden meaning was the pure word of God to the mature Christian, and much to be preferred over the simple, literal meaning. Origen made extensive use of allegorical interpretation to derive this deeper, preferred meaning of Scripture. This allowed Origen to import his underlying philosophical position into the Scriptures, as though this was the message of God to us.

The School of Antioch was the bright spot in the ancient world, so far as biblical interpretation was concerned. The biblical interpreters associated with this school insisted that the Bible be interpreted in the light of the literary form and historical situation of a particular passage. They carefully avoided reading philosophical and speculative preconceptions into the text in the fashion of Origen and his followers. Today, this would seem to be the obvious way that Scripture should be interpreted, but that was not the general opinion in the ancient world. Not until the time of the Reformation (1517) did this kind of biblical interpretation become the dominant approach to the Scripture.

In the Middle Ages (500-1500), Origen's allegorical approach to the interpretation of Scripture was the accepted pattern. Indeed, Middle Ages interpreters expanded on Origen's two meanings and found anywhere from four to seven different levels or types of meanings. A fourfold meaning was usually sought in Scripture: the literal-historical, for the simple believer; the allegorical, which supplies a deeper meaning for faith; the moral, which guides conduct; and the anagogical, a mystical interpretation which points towards the ultimate goal of the Christian in his pilgrimage. Various terms were used to denote these four different levels of meaning.

With biblical interpretation so complicated, it is no wonder that the Roman Catholic Church took the Bible out of the hands of the lay people and left biblical interpretation to the clergy. The ordinary person could not possibly know how to derive from four to seven different levels of meaning out of a given passage.

Biblical interpretation as we know it today began in the period of the Renaissance and Reformation. In the age of the Renaissance, people began to realize the true literary character of the Bible. Luther learned anew the important place of the Bible and made a determined effort to put the Bible back in the hands of the people. One of Luther's cardinal principles was “sola scriptura,” only by Scripture, or Scripture alone. Luther and other Reformers insisted on the perspicuity of Scripture—Scripture is clear enough that the ordinary believer can read and understand it by observing the grammatical and historical elements of the text. Calvin insisted (in the preface to his commentary on Romans) “It is the first business of an interpreter say what he [the Scripture writer] does, instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say.”

Following the time of the Reformation, great emphasis was placed on letting the Bible speak for itself. The science of textual criticism was developed. This was the analysis of all of the available biblical manuscripts, comparing the variant readings, and making an informed judgment as to what the original text of the Scriptures really was. J. A. Bengel was of major importance in the movement to determine an accurate text.

Bengel was also influential in insisting on accurate, literary-historical interpretation, letting the Bible speak its own message, rather than reading a preconceived interpretation into it. The practice of scientific exegesis, or accurate biblical interpretation, had its beginnings in the years following the Reformation.

In the development of the modern practice of hermeneutics, great emphasis was placed on grammatical and historical elements. Much effort was expended on determining who the original writer of a portion of Scripture was and learning what the historical-cultural conditions of his setting were. Great effort was made to analyze the grammatical constructions employed by the writer, as well as the choice of words. Careful attention was given to the literary style employed by the author: narrative, poetry, apocalyptic, literal, figurative, etc.

In the earnest search for accurate, faithful interpretation of the Bible, the historical-critical method of interpretation was developed. The word “critical” comes from a Greek word which means to judge or to make a decision in the light of evidence. With this type of interpretation, more attention is given to historical considerations than merely clarifying the historical context in which a passage of Scripture is set. Some developers of this method saw history as a closed system. They thought everything must be explained on the basis of forces and causes that are resident within the normal historical experience of humans. Thus, by definition, miracles could not be explained on the basis of an act of God who reaches into history; some natural explanation had to be found for what appears in the Scripture record as a miracle.

What is at fault here is not the method of interpretation as such, but the presupposition that miracles are impossible. This hermeneutical approach is often confused with the literary-historical interpretation practiced by more conservative interpreters. The two are very similar, differing primarily in the presupposition of the interpreter rather than in method as such.

Many varieties of so-called “scientific exegesis” have been developed as refinements of the historical-critical method. They employ very sophisticated and technical methods to analyze the factors that lie behind the text as we have it: who the author was, what the motive was in writing, identification of various sources of material used by the writer, the writer's position among God's people, the relationship to other biblical writers, how and why each idea was developed, the meaning the writer was trying to convey.

Another approach to biblical interpretation is in the form of the history of religions hermeneutic. In this type of biblical interpretation, parallels are sought between what is found in Scripture and what is found in the development of other systems of religion. This shows what biblical writers shared with their culture, what they adopted and adapted from the culture, and what they had in unique distinction from their culture. An extreme position here can expect biblical teaching to be little different from what is found in other religions. A more conservative position recognizes that God used the culture to teach His people but also that He pointed the way to be a holy people distinct from the culture.

As a reaction to the radical insistence on history being closed to outside influences, another approach to biblical interpretation has developed. It is called the new hermeneutic and is often based upon the philosophy of existentialism. According to this approach, the message of the Bible is not to tell me what happened hundreds or thousands of years ago. It is to create in me new spiritual experiences, or encounters with God; or, at least, it is to show me the possibilities that are open to me when I place my faith in Christ.

The dominant type of biblical interpretation used by conservative Christians today is the literary-historical method. See Bible, Hermeneutics .

J. Terry Young


Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Bible, History of Interpretation'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/b/bible-history-of-interpretation.html. 1991.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, December 11th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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