Sunday, July 10, 2011

Richness of Scripture: Some ancient methods of interpretation (not allegory)

The author of The Pocket Scroll has recently posted on typology as a way forward in Bible reading. I wanted to continue the conversation here.

I've broken this out into "How we got into this situation" and "Some approaches from the Talmud", so that if someone is only looking for the new approaches they can skip to that part. If someone wants an explanation for why I'd be looking there, you may also be interested into the part about how we got into this situation.

1) How we got into this situation

If anyone reads commentaries on the Bible written in the Middle Ages or before, sooner or later (usually sooner) you find that some of the Biblical interpretation was a little bit fanciful and far-fetched. Our first reaction to reading a certain interpretation may be, "Wow, that's kind of a stretch." There is also a long history of finding "spiritual" meaning for certain Old Testament texts (such as dietary laws) because their literal meaning was difficult to find inspiring; I remember this coming up even in the Confessions of St Augustine, so it predates the Middle Ages by a long way. There were almost no limits to what could be claimed as the meaning of a text -- which is to say, the meaning of the text was not always relevant to its interpretation. If the meaning of a text is not directly relevant to its interpretation, that's not a good sign.

The reaction to this has been, in some ways, just as unfortunate, as some have insisted there is "one right meaning" of a text. This was probably a welcome antidote to the "anything goes" method of interpretation. But in practice, it denies the richness of Scripture. When you have a book containing parables, prophecies, and poetry -- in addition to historical acts and rituals meant to be symbolic -- the "one right meaning" might (possibly) be the right place for the journey to start, but not to end.

For comparison, consider a selection from one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs to come out of the last century:
There's a sign on the wall, but she wants to be sure.
Because you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.
(Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven)
Some will be offended that here I bring up a song with distinct pagan overtones. I want to be clear why I bring it up: are we really willing to say that a rock song has more depth, beauty, and layers of meaning than the Bible? Or is it just possible that "one right meaning" is far too rigid a way to read something that's rich in symbolism?

2) Some approaches from the Talmud

The Talmud is an ancient Jewish set of discussions of Scripture and religion that's nearly an encyclopedia unto itself. I've been fascinated with it for a long time now, for its glimpse into an ancient world, for its insights into Scripture -- and for a fresh set of ideas about how to read and understand the Bible. (I know some will smile that something as ancient as the Talmud can be called "fresh" -- but it really depends on how long the ideas have been left to rest, doesn't it?) Here are some of the general assumptions that are made.

Assumption #1: Scripture has layers of meaning. They believed that the Bible itself teaches that Scripture has layers of meaning, so that limiting Scripture to just one meaning was to mistreat the Bible.

Assumption #2: All prophecy relates to the Messiah and the Messianic age, even those that might have already had another fulfillment in its first context.

Assumption #3: If two passages of Scripture both speak of the same thing -- if they contain the same words or images -- then they shed light on each other.
Example: The teaching that wisdom is a "tree of life" (Proverbs 3:18) applies back to the "tree of life" in Genesis. So it's a legitimate conclusion that wisdom is the tree that gives life, in contrast to the tree of knowledge (without wisdom) that gives death.

Assumption #4: If two teachings of Scripture are next to each other -- placed consecutively in the text -- then it is reasoned that they are related and part of the same train of thought and shed light on each other. We might be tempted to consider this as too obvious, simply the meaning of "reading in context". But "context" is often understood as "background"; this approach instead moves the neighboring verse into the foreground as part of the same picture. It makes a direct application of the one verse or passage to its neighbor.
Example: "The peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:7) is often quoted by itself. But it can be seen as the conclusion to the immediately-preceding invitation to pray and commend all our troubles to God. In this way of understanding, the "peace that passes understanding" is tied inseparably to the act of prayer described immediately beforehand.

I could spend a lifetime studying the Talmud, as vast as it is, and still not have understood everything in it. I admire that these interpretive principles not only open up news ways of seeing things, but that they do so without resorting to an "anything goes" mentality where the interpreters could claim anything they wish. There are careful limits to what is legitimate, and how you can know it. Even for symbolic interpretation, it is necessary to show a Biblical reason why that symbolic interpretation is right, or legitimate to consider. There are sane and reasonable limits to what can be taught, a middle ground between the potentially shallow "one meaning only" reading and the potentially baseless "anything goes" reading.

I will mention one more of those sane and reasonable limits, and let that be enough for tonight. It was considered legitimate to take one verse and derive more than one teaching, but it was not considered legitimate to take multiple verses to piece together a single teaching. I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to note which "teachings of Scripture" are never exactly taught in Scripture, but are pieced together from multiple verses.

It's a question that has always been some part of Christian discussion: Is it legitimate to claim that the Bible teaches something when there isn't a passage anywhere that actually says so?


Martin LaBar said...

"are we really willing to say that a rock song has more depth, beauty, and layers of meaning than the Bible?"

That's a deep thought. Thanks.

Weekend Fisher said...

Thank you for the encouragement.

Now if I could only get the song back out of my head ...

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Publius said...

I like these Talmudic suggestions! Imagine if more of us tried to read Scripture like this -- a critical, engaged reading that takes the inspiredness of the text seriously!

I wonder about any connections with the Hellenistic grammarians and rhetoricians. This way of reading certainly seems to have influenced earlier readings of Scripture.

Publius said...

Just so you know, this is MJ from the pocket scroll, and I'm very pleased with your contribution to the conversation! :)

Weekend Fisher said...


Thanks for the kind words.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF