July 21, 2024


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Historical Perspective of Biblical Interpretation

Historical Perspective of Biblical Interpretation
(Part One)

It has often been said that history informs people about events of the past from which lessons can be learnt and mistakes can be avoided. The crux of this article and a subsequent one(part two), is not only to examine the mass of chronicles on biblical interpretation, but to also trace its practice in Africa. In my attempt to unearth the history of biblical interpretation, I will examine the principles of Jewish interpretation as a starting point. The period of the Church Fathers, Middle Ages, Reformation, Confessionalism and modern era will also be examined.

The principles of Jewish Interpretation

The roots of the Christian faith can be traced to the Jews whom God chose to reveal Himself to humanity. From the earliest beginnings of the faith the Jews have played a significant role in compiling and interpreting the sacred sayings of Yaweh. I will examine the roots of interpretation in the following categories:

The Palestinian Jews

These set of Jews regarded the scriptures as the infallible word of God. This perception brought with it the need to be very careful in copying every letter of the Law, Prophets, or Writings. They even counted every letter in order to prevent them from being lost in the process of transcription.

Louise Berkhof observed that the Palestinian Jews paid special emphasis on the interpretation of the Torah (Law) as against the Prophets and the Writings. This was because the latter were interpretations of the former. From their emphasis emerged two types of interpretation: The first was of a legal character dealing with matters of binding law in a strict sense known as Halakha; the second was an interpretation of a free and more edifying tendency, covering all non-legal parts of the scriptures. This they called Haggadah.

The Alexandrian Jews

In contrast to the Palestinian Jews, the Alexandrian Jews paid greater interest on the philosophy of Plato in their interpretation of scripture. They argued that one should not believe anything unworthy of God, thereby disregarding the literal sense of scripture. Philo, the leading giant of Alexandria propounded the view that all scripture must be understood allegorically. He maintained that the literal sense must be excluded when anything stated is unworthy of God. On the other hand, the text is to be allegorized when expressions are doubled; when superfluous words are used … when there is anything abnormal in the number or tense.

Apart from these two schools of Jewish interpreters, there were also the Karaites who regarded the scriptures as the sole authority in matters of faith; the Cabbalists who combined both the literal and allegorical methods of interpretation; and the Spanish Jews who employed the principles of language and exegesis in their interpretation.

In spite of the seeming disparity in Jewish interpretation mentioned above, Jewish interpreters found agreement on several common points. First, they believed in the divine inspiration of scripture. Secondly, they affirmed that the Torah contained the entire truth of God for the guidance of humanity. Thirdly, Jewish exegesis considered both the plain or literal meaning and the implied meaning in their interpretation of a given scriptural passage. Finally, they maintain that the purpose of all interpretation is to translate the word of God into life, thus making them relevant for people in their own particular situations.

The Patristic Period

The patristic period beginning with the early church spanning through the compilation of the creeds saw significant contribution to the history of biblical interpretation. Its history can be traced from three main schools examined below:

The School of Alexandria:

The Egyptian city of Alexandria was by the beginning of the third century AD an important seat of learning, where Jewish religion and Greek philosophy met and influenced each other. Still under the influence of Platonic philosophy, the catechetical school at Alexandria integrated into its curriculum philosophical analysis in biblical interpretation.

The leading teacher at Alexandria, Titu Flavius Clement adopted the allegorical method of Philo and laid the motto of the Alexandrian school in the words ‘unless you believe, you will not understand’ Taking the cue from his teacher, Origin enlarged Philo’s allegorical method to include the threefold sense of scripture: the Corporal, Physical and Spiritual. Beyond these, Origin maintained that all biblical texts have a spiritual sense, but not all have a literal sense. Therefore, if scripture is to be interpreted the soul must ascend upward from the level of the flesh to the realm of the spirit.

The School of Antioch:

In contrast to the Alexandrian school, the Antiochan school laid special emphasis on the “Theoria’ (to see) as the basis for biblical interpretation. Scholars of Antioch, including the two greatest of all, Mopsuestia and Chrysostom, recognized a thin line separating literal, spiritual, historical and typological methods of interpretation. Put aptly, ‘an event in scripture had only one meaning – a meaning that to the trained eye of the ‘theoretic’ exegete was once both literal and spiritual, historical and typological.’

The Western School:

The Western school championed by men like Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine was more eclectic in its methods of biblical interpretation. These giants sought to combine the allegorical method of Alexandria and the literal method of Antioch to project a balanced blend of the two. They argue that taking only one meaning of scripture betrays the historical background against which the message came.

The Period of the middle Ages

The period of the middle ages has been most noted for the increase of ignorance that affected not only the laity but also the clergy. It was a period that saw little or no contribution to the historical developments of biblical interpretation. In an attempt to curb this increased ignorance, the church instituted Augustine’s fourfold method of biblical interpretation (Literal, Typological, Allegorical and Analogical). In order for the biblical text to be interpreted, it had to adapt itself to tradition and to the doctrines of the church.

Perhaps the most widely remembered exponent of the Middle Ages is the archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langhan (1150-1228). His impress in biblical interpretation was his chapterization of the Bible into its present form. Even though he preferred the spiritual to the literal sense of scripture, yet his interpretations were in line with the doctrines of the church.

Another contributor, Thomas Aquinas defended the literal sense as the basis for all other senses of scripture. He however reasoned that the interpreter must realize that the Bible has symbolic meanings as well, since heavenly things cannot be put in earthly terms without using some form of symbolism.

The Period of the Reformation

The period of the Reformation could not have received the work and meaning it did if it had not been for the work of two men who belonged to the period of the renaissance, Reuchlin and Erasmus, credited for their respective publication of Hebrew and Greek texts. These texts provided the basis for which Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon and John Calvin based their theories of interpretation.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) the great reformer rendered tremendous service to the German public with the translation of the Bible into their vernacular. Even though he started with the allegorical method, Luther called for literary analysis of a text in biblical interpretation. Erasmus (1466-1519) rediscovered the priority of the literal sense.

John Calvin (1509-1564) the greatest exegete of the Reformation, more than any one else developed the trend toward using the grammatical- historical exegetical method as the foundation for developing the spiritual message from the text. Due to their emphasis on a fuller sense located in the Christological meaning of scripture, the reformers were linked with Jesus, the apostles and the early church.

The effect of the Reformation on Catholic exegesis is worthy of note. Catholicism made no exegetical advance during the period of the Reformation. Berkhof’s comment is sufficient to describe Catholic opposition to protestant exegesis:

They did not admit the right to private judgment and

defended as over against the Protestants, the position

that the Bible must be interpreted in harmony with


To make this outright opposition against the right to private judgment in interpreting scripture a reality, the Council of Trent was convened and the following resolutions were adopted:

(a) that the authority of the ecclesiastical traditions must be maintained
(b) that the highest authority had to be ascribed to the Vulgate, and
(c) that it is necessary to conform one’s interpretation to the authority
of the church and to the unanimous consent of the Fathers.


It must be underscored that a historical perspective on interpretation is a non negotiable factor in biblical interpretation. Christianity is a Judeo-Christian faith. Since “one cannot understand the Christian faith unless one believes,” the documents of the Christian faith must be initially studied, understood and considered authoritative before they can be interpreted for the faith community.