Four Ancient Assumptions about Biblical Interpretation

After the past couple of posts about biblical interpretation, I thought it would be good to post James L. Kugel’s “Four Assumptions.” These are the assumptions that were held by most biblical interpreters from sometime in the Second Temple period until the Reformation. These come from Kugel’s book, How To Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, pp. 14-16.

1. They assumed that the Bible was a fundamentally cryptic text: that is, when it said A, often it might really mean B. [...]

Sometimes this might also be read as the belief that the text had many layers of meaning. So we go back to Augustine, who believed that there were multiple levels of meaning that could be ferreted out through allegorical interpretations. Also, even when the interpreters thought that there was a hidden meaning, some interpreters believed that the surface meaning was still relevant.

2. Interpreters also assumed that the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day. It may seem to talk about the past, but it is not fundamentally history. It is instruction, telling us what to do: be obedient to God just as Abraham was and you will be rewarded, just as he was. [...]

Call this “eternal relevance.” Here we see why the first assumption was necessary. Without being a to find hidden meanings beneath the surface, it would be impossible to argue that the etiological stories of competing Canaanite tribes were actually relevant to modern readers.

3. Interpreters also assumed that the Bible contained no contradictions or mistakes. It is perfectly harmonious, despite its being an anthology; in fact, they also believed that everything that the Bible says ought to be in accord with the interpreters’ own religious beliefs and practices (since they believed these to have been ordained by God).[...]

Call this “non-contradiction.” Again, we see why the first assumption is necessary. If two surface meanings contradict, then the solution is to go to a deeper meaning.

4. Lastly, they believed that the entire Bible is essentially a divinely given text, a book in which God speaks directly or through His prophets. There could be little doubt about those parts of the Bible that openly identify the speaker as God: “And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying ..”Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel …” But interpreters believed that this was also true of the story of Abraham and the other stories in Genesis, even though the text itself never actually said there that God was the author of these stories. And it was held to be true of the rest of the Bible too—even of the book of Psalms, although the psalms themselves are prayers and songs addressed to God and thus ought logically not to have come from God.

Call this “plenary inspiration” or maybe “verbal inspiration.” These are modern terms that make explicit what was previously unspoken, the idea that God had essentially dictated the whole text. This Caravaggio print, “St. Matthew and the Angel,” probably isn’t that far from what people thought writing the Bible was like.

As I mentioned previously, modern Fundamentalists have shed the first assumption but kept the rest. This has led to all sorts of problems. Arguing that the surface or literal meaning of the text is always relevant and never contradictory requires great skill in sophistry. Often times I see Fundamentalists slipping in the first assumption without realizing it, by arguing that the “apparent meaning” and the “real meaning” of the text are different.

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