Scripture in Early Christianity

Scripture in Early Christianity February 23, 2016

James Kugel lays out four assumptions about Scripture shared by Bible readers in the early centuries of the church (Traditions of the Bible, 15-19):

First, “the Bible is a fundamentally cryptic document. That is, all interpreters are fond of maintaining that although Scripture may appear to be saying X, what it really means is Y, or that while Y is not openly said by Scripture, it is somehow implied or hinted at in X.”

Second, “Scripture constitutes one great Book of Instruction, and as such is a fundamentally relevant text” (15). This contrasts to the way moderns normally read ancient texts; we might find the stories intriguing and the language artful, but we don’t look to Gilgamesh for models of behavior. For ancient readers, “Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and other biblical figures were held up as models of conduct, their stories regarded as a guide given to later human beings for the leading of their own lives” (16).

Third, ancient readers assumed “a perfect harmony between the Bible’s various parts. . . . They sought to discover the basic harmony underlying apparently discordant words, since all of Scripture, in their view, must speak with one voice. By the same logic, any biblical text might illuminate any other: Josh. 24:2-3 might provide some of the background information necessary for an understanding of God’s words to Abraham in Gen. 12:1-3, and Provo 10:8 might be a reference to Moses’ meritorious deed in Exod. 13:19” (17). This could be taken as a “doctrine of ‘omnisignificance,’ according to which “nothing in Scripture is said in vain or for rhetorical flourish: every detail is important, everything intended to impart some teaching” (17).

Finally, “all of Scripture is somehow divinely sanctioned, of divine provenance, or divinely inspired” (18). Kugel claims that this last assumption is the one least in evidence in the earliest texts, and thus he does not think it stands behind the other assumptions.

That last argument is not necessarily persuasive: If it possible that earlier writers simply assumed without argument that Scripture came from God, and that the point needed to be proved only when challenged.

As for the others, the first assumption needs qualification. It might be taken to mean that when Scripture speaks of historical events, it is actually, cryptically speaking of something other than history; or it might be taken to mean that it is speaking of something more than the sheer material facts of history. Kugel’s example from Philo suggests the second mode: “although the biblical text appears to be talking about a historical figure named Abraham, ”Abraham is;’ according to Philo ofAlexandria, ‘a symbol for the virtue-loving soul’ in addition to being that historical figure” (15). That “in addition to” is the saving grace, but even with that grace note, it seems easy for readers to slip from reading a history of Abraham to reading a symbolic narrative of virtue. That slip is a slip away from apostolic interpretation of the Scriptures. It is not a small slip.

Browse Our Archives