NOTE: Comments below might refer to this post or to my post on allegory which refers the reader to this post. – awr
Christian interpretation of Scripture should be guided by two complementary principles:
faith in God’s guidance in and through the Scriptures, and
careful reading of the texts on their own terms.
These principles presuppose both the divine and the human aspects of the Bible, but they are difficult to hold in balance, since sometimes they are in tension with one another.
Obvious examples of such tension include what Phyllis Trible calls “Texts of Terror” – when violations of human dignity are embedded within the text as though they were divinely approved (e.g. Exodus 21; Judges 19—21; 1 Samuel 15). Christian reading of the Bible sees such texts in context, recognizes that they instantiate limited human perceptions, and properly devises strategies of interpretation in order nevertheless to maintain that the Scriptures contain “divinely revealed realities … committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit” (Vatican II, Dei Verbum #11). In spite of difficulties, it is important to keep both principles in view.
Too much focus on the first principle ends up dehistoricizing the Bible and turns Christianity into a system of abstract ideas; it takes the “flesh” out of the incarnation. Too much focus on the second flattens Christianity into ideas and events without divine presence; it takes the “Word” out of the incarnation. Most believers will agree that delving into the mystery of “the Word made flesh” requires balance between “Word” and “flesh,” but by no means do all agree that historical criticism is an essential aspect of such balance. To the contrary, some reject historical criticism outright and insist on a return to the allegorical and typological strategies of the Church Fathers. Full discussion of that debate is not possible here, but I wish to make the case that for reading the Bible today, historical criticism is indispensable, including with respect to hearing the text at the level of faith.
The heart of historical criticism has to do with reading the Bible on its own terms. The perennial problem with all interpretation is the human tendency to make the text say what we want it to say – to read it on our terms. James Kugel – once a teacher, now an opponent, of historical criticism – complains that with it,
[t]he text moves from subject to object; it no longer speaks but is spoken about, analyzed, and acted upon. The insights are now all the reader’s, not the text’s.
(How to Read the Bible, 666).
But such a complaint can as easily be leveled at the ancient methods of interpretation which Kugel now prefers. Take Paul’s use of Genesis 16—17 in combination with Isaiah 54:1 in Galatians 4:22-30. Paul “allegorizes” Hagar and Sarah as two covenants, one “deriving from Mount Sinai, born into slavery, … [the other being] the Jerusalem above that is free; she is our mother.” Nothing in Genesis warrants such an allegory, nor is there any warrant for applying to Sarah the words of deutero-Isaiah, which originally intended to foster hope within Israel in the aftermath of the Babylonian exile.
Like his Jewish contemporaries, and the Rabbis and Church Fathers after him, Paul made the text say what he wanted it to say. It is deeply ironic, and a difficult issue for hermeneutics, that Paul’s interpretation turns those texts, in a sense, against Israel, devaluing its sacred traditions in the process. In other words, faith does not ensure hearing the text’s insights over against those of the reader, as Kugel desires.
No method as such guarantees that the reader learns from the text. Any method can be used to manipulate the text, and therefore we have to recognize that good interpretation – listening for God’s voice – is as much a matter of sound spirituality as of sound methodology. If we are indeed to gain the “insights” of “the text,” then there is no getting away from hearing it, as far as possible, within its own historical context and intentionality.
The truly valid point, which Kugel and others make in their complaints against historical criticism, does not so much have to do with method as with faith. Historical criticism has too often been practiced with little regard for faith, but such an approach has to do with the practitioner, not with the method.
In Galatians 4, the problem is the opposite – faith was in place, but the method was questionable. In dialogues with Jews, we would all wish that in Galatians 4 Paul had expressed himself a little differently, but he did not; the polemical situation, Paul’s interpretive background and various other factors led to the text we actually have.
Indeed, what Paul wrote is such that he somewhat falls foul of the American Bishops! Though the United States Catholic Conference Committee on the Liturgy, in its 1988 guidelines, approves of typology as one method by which lectionary texts have been chosen, it nevertheless emphasizes that it is necessary to
[p]lace the typology inherent in the lectionary in a proper context, neither overemphasizing nor avoiding it,” and warns against “approaches that reduce [Old Testament texts] to a propaedeutic or background for the New Testament.”
(paragraphs 15 & 31 respectively).
In the latter regard, Paul and New Testament authors in general, get low marks. But though we might, in our context, be less than satisfied with their method, and sometimes with their interpretations, we gladly affirm the stance of faith with which they approach Old Testament texts. Paul takes it absolutely for granted that Genesis, Isaiah and all the Scriptures “were written down for our instruction” (1 Cor 10:11; cf. Rom 15:4). He approaches them, in other words, with an attitude of faith and hope that we can only admire.
However, we can no more imbibe Paul’s specific manner of interpretation than we can accept the cosmology of Genesis or the theology of Exodus 21. Methods appropriate in the ancient world, and which indeed in their time were often quite innovative, are not as appropriate in our world. In fact, their modes of interpreting, like their cosmology and theology, are aspects of their culture that we need to investigate, not in order to imitate them, but in order simply to understand them.
A major weakness of ancient interpretation was its tendency to mask the human aspects of the Bible’s characters and texts. Thus, for example, in Genesis (22:1-13), “God tested Abraham” because (as in Job) God was answering a challenge from Satan about human faith. God, of course, always knew that Abraham would be faithful – why else would God have chosen him? – but the test vindicated God’s wisdom.
Further, according to the ancients, Abraham did not deceive Isaac, because in Genesis 22:8 what he says to his son is: “God Himself will provide. The lamb for the burnt offering is my son.” Everyone agrees that the latter verse actually reads, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son,” but that, of course, suggests deceit on Abraham’s part, and such views of the great patriarch were problematic; a solution had to be found (Kugel, How to Read the Bible, 12-13).
Similar ingenuity was practiced by Jewish and Christian interpreters for centuries. For those who might see circumcision, for example, as strange or barbaric, Philo explained that its true meaning had to do with, among other things, “the excision of the pleasures which delude the mind” (Special Laws, 1:9). St. Paul came up with an analogous spiritual interpretation in his debate with Jewish Christians in Rome (Rom 2:27-29). If the gospels appeared to contradict one another, Tatian (c. 120-173), in his Diatessaron, exemplified how interpreters might harmonize them. The interpretations were ingenious, and often very beautiful, but they rarely attended to the original intentions of the story-tellers or the contexts of the writers.
The midrashes, allegories and typologies of the ancients (and of today) have their own beauty, but it is quite erroneous to assume that they necessarily embody a more faithful approach to the text than may be found in historical criticism. Listening for God’s voice in Scripture is a matter of faith and spirituality, not merely method.
As a method, historical criticism lends itself to the sensitivities of faith, because its most fundamental aim is to hear the texts on their own terms. But what are those terms if they are not the terms of faith, confession and commitment?
Gerhard von Rad, a rigorous practitioner of historical criticism, makes this point well when he points out that
[t]wo pictures of Israel’s history lie before us, that of modern critical scholarship and that which the faith of Israel constructed,
and he goes on to say that both must be held in view, since
the kerygmatic [faith-proclaiming] picture [no less than the historical, derives from ancient Israel] and has not been invented.
(Old Testament Theology, 107-8).
Both pictures are important, because the kerygmatic view represents the discovery and assertion of God within history, while the critical view represents the human context (historical and cultural) within which God’s actions and revelations became known. Neither picture, of course, is perfect, but taken together they represent the most fundamental claim of faith, shared in differing ways by both Judaism and Christianity: that “the Word became flesh and pitched a tent (eskenosen) among us.”
Both pictures are essential, but the further point to be made is that both pictures are best attained through reading the texts carefully on their own terms. Let me illustrate what I mean through an analysis of Matthew’s description of the moment of Jesus’ death (27:51-54). Superficially, our text looks to be a historical account, since it deals with the event of Jesus’ crucifixion, but the presence of various miraculous phenomena indicate that far more may be at stake than a simple recording of events. Ancient historiography was never simply concerned with the facts, and biblical historiography was akin to what von Rad calls “historical poetry” which aims “to make the past become absolutely present” (Old Testament Theology, 109-12). Preachers need to keep this in mind, and avoid speaking of biblical events as though they took place just as reported; the texts are closer to sermons than histories, and making them histories confuses their purpose.
The sermon-character of Matthew’s account is clear from redactional analysis (i.e., analysis of the editing done by the writer). Like the other gospel-writers, Matthew was not content merely to report the facts of Jesus’ execution; every image aimed to bring out the “Word” character of the event. This is especially clear in Matthew’s introduction of an “earthquake” which opened the tombs of “the holy ones” who, “after his resurrection, went into the holy city and appeared to many.” The symbolism is palpable.
A further “great earthquake” is introduced by Matthew at the resurrection (28:2), accompanied by the descent of an angel who “rolled back the stone, and sat upon it” in an obvious sign of triumph over death. The symbolism of earthquakes was important for Matthew. Mark (4:37) and Luke (8:23) appropriately refer to the storm at sea as a lailaps (windstorm), but Matthew (8:24) says that what Jesus calmed was a seismos (earthquake), which is part of his turning that entire story into a lesson on the Lord being with the boat of the Church in the midst of the storms of the eschaton (see 1:23; 28:20).
Similarly, when Jesus enters Jerusalem, only Matthew (21:10) says that “the whole city quaked” (eseisthe). Matthew’s earthquakes symbolize “the end of the age” already present “now,” in Jesus. They are not history, but “Word.”
The Pontifical Biblical Commission has said that a historical-critical reading allows
the exegete to gain a better grasp of the content of divine revelation;
it can bring us close to the mind of the author (“Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” I.A.2). Such closeness can be uncomfortable, since historical criticism is merciless in pointing to the flawed humanity of the texts. But pointing to such flaws no more denies their divine origin than confessing our own faults denies ours.
Like the ancients, we live faith in the midst of history. As Benedict XVI said in Jesus of Nazareth (xv):
So if history, if facticity in this sense, is an essential dimension of Christian faith, then faith must expose itself to the historical method – indeed, faith itself demands this.”
Dr. Vincent Smiles is professor of theology at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota. Parts of the essay are excerpted from his recent book The Bible and Science.