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.

  • Azel

    So you mean modern Fundamentalists tried to get back to the ancient reading of the Bible, but left out the keystone of ancient biblical interpretation ? Makes sense, that at least explain why the crazy rhetorical footwork in which they’re always engaged. I am curious about something: are there theologians and church leaders aligned with the Fundamentalists who realise their predicament and acted to reintroduce that key assumption in Fundamentalist biblical interpretation ?

  • Sabio Lantz

    A secular example of #1 & #2:
    I remember being disturbed because my literature teachers always proved how dumb I was not to see the obvious allusions and messages behind the text in great literature. They then would show us how reading these old works of great literature were relevant to us today. But why did they force me to take the class?

    On a serious note: That is a fantastic point about the function of #1. You could make a fortune by doing seminars for Fundamentalists on how to save your Bible using the Kabbalah. Wait, did I say I was going to be serious? Well, half serious — great post, thanx.

  • John C

    It must be read in the Light (Ps 36:9), that is the One and only require-meAnt. Thankfully, He is Standard Issue G’ear.

    • trj

      Actually, that’s not a requirement but just a cowardly excuse.

  • John C

    So you can ‘see’ for yourSelf, in your own light, right TRJ!
    Then ‘their’ eyes were opened (Gen 3:7)

  • Scott Bailey

    I like Kugel’s book. In fact, I have suggested it to several persons as an intro to OT studies from the 19th and 20th centuries. While the above formulation is correct, my ‘disagreement’ with Kugel is that at the time period he is writing on I think it would be much more appropriate to speak of “sacred texts” rather than Bible, as at the time (Persian and Hellenistic periods) there was no “Bible”, and different groups valued different texts as authoritative and sacred (e.g., Dead Sea Scrolls, or Pseudepigraphal literature), but he is writing for an audience that may not understand the distinction. Understanding that different Jewish groups valued different texts as ‘sacred’ and that these texts reflect diverse opinions concerning the origin of evil, or the construction and function of the Second Temple allows one to understand some of the polemic and rhetoric of these texts (e.g., the myths of Genesis reflect the social/political/ethnic concerns of the elite in Persian Yehud concerning appropriate (endogamous) and inappropriate (exogamous) marriage practices).

    On the other hand, as you point out, the assumptions he identifies do correlate from antiquity to many modern Christians except for one: assuming that the Bible is a fundamentally cryptic text. Instead, for modern Christians the belief that the Bible is simple dominates, so a “plain” reading of Scripture is favored in a lot of circles. Therefore, I would posit that the four interpretive assumptions of many modern evangelical Christians look something like this:

    1. They assume the Bible is fundamentally a simple text easy to understand by the Holy Spirit
    2. They assume the Bible is a book of lessons directed to them
    3. They assume the Bible contains no contradictions or mistakes
    4. They believe the entire Bible is essentially a divinely given text in its canonical form

    This set of assumptions is what characterizes much modern preaching, and number one informing number two is where the majority of dilletante, ignorant, useless, and idiotic dreck comes from. I mean think about it: God wrote this book; it’s easy to understand because God is showing it to me, and the book is all about me.

    Stupidity just naturally follows such a set of socialized assumptions.