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History of Biblical Interpretation in the Christian Church

   The only remnant of the universal validity that was attached to the Bible five hundred years ago is the last ditch stand on the factual nature of the two incompatible stories of creation in Genesis. This is rather like the resistance of some Japanese soldiers on remote Pacific islands who refused to surrender for thirty years after the end of World War II, the determination is admirable, but the cause is long lost.

What Have They Done to the Bible? A History of Modern Biblical Interpretation (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2005)


By John Sandys-Wunsch
Univsersity of Victoria
September 2005

1. The Importance of History as Such:

The great nineteenth-century scholar Ernst Renan once remarked that the basis for national awareness is a false view of history. This explains some of the reasons nations quarrel, and why large numbers of people get killed. Getting national history right, then, is not a pastime for academics but a necessary pursuit in the interests of learning the sort of humility that makes us suspicious of rhetoric, for one of the products of honest history is an awareness that our ancestors may have had virtues we no longer practice as well as destructive attitudes we may still be tempted to foster. The danger of being ignorant about our history is that we create a false view of ourselves, our virtues, and the nature of the world.

2. The Importance of the History of Biblical Interpretation:

In the matter of biblical interpretation, if we are not to fantasize about the imperfections and the mistakes of the past, we have to take a close look at how past scholars have made sense of Holy Writ and to ask whether what they said is useful or misleading, perceptive or simply outdated. The danger is that rather than recognize the individual views of past writers, we will content ourselves with generalizations, such as "the Enlightenment project," which are illegitimate means of dismissing those who in many ways were much better scholars than most of us.

With the emergence of the modern Western world, the change in our view of the Bible, even among the most conservative Christians, is one of the great shifts in our culture. We no longer go to the Bible for definitive scientific information about geography, geology, animal classification, world history and chronology, astronomy, and many other areas. Whatever the Bible may say, nobody now believes the sun rotates around the Earth's core one for Galileo against the Inquisition. The only remnant of the universal validity that was attached to the Bible five hundred years ago is the last ditch stand on the factual nature of the two incompatible stories of creation in Genesis. This is rather like the resistance of some Japanese soldiers on remote Pacific islands who refused to surrender for thirty years after the end of World War II, the determination is admirable, but the cause is long lost.

3. Some of the Major Questions Faced in Biblical Interpretation:

  1. which books belong in the canon
  2. the transmission of these books from the time of writing to the present
  3. the meaning of a text to its writers and first hearers
  4. the time when a biblical book was written and its historical context
  5. how to translate the Bible into modern languages
  6. the dating of biblical books and of the documents some of them contain
  7. problems of relating the chronology and history in the Bible with records from other ancient civilizations
  8. problems of scientific accuracy
  9. problems of immoral actions condoned and offensive laws set out
  10. problems of the discontinuities, not to mention outright contradictions within the Bible itself

Many of these problems are not new perceptions of the past two hundred years; rather, they have always existed. For example, the problem of the accurate transmission of the actual text of a biblical book began the morning after the first scribe had a go at copying it out, probably about 1000 B.C.E. Before the New Testament was written, Jewish scholars faced many of these problems, and in the Christian Church of the first centuries, Origen (c.185-c.254) struggled with the issues of text, Jerome (c. 342-420) with the matter of translation, and Augustine (354-430) with all the improbable and worrying passages of the Old Testament. Even secular scholars got into the act, for Porphyry (c.233-301) demonstrated that the book of Daniel was written several hundred years after its nominal date.

4. "Outside" Influences on the Development of Biblical Interpretation:

The changes that have taken place in biblical interpretation since 1500 represent a mutual influence between biblical studies and the wider worlds of intellectual inquiry, political developments, cultural norms, voyages of discovery, technological changes, and other factors too numerous to summarize in a short paper. For example, the particularly Western interest in the exploration of the physical world and the inner world of philosophical truth had as much effect on biblical studies as it did on the exploration of the globe we live on as well as the examination of the nature of physical reality. Political events like the Dutch independence from Spain produced the Golden Age in Holland where some of the best scholars in Europe could live in a relatively tolerant atmosphere and widen intellectual horizons. Technical developments such as printing meant standard and (usually) uniform texts could act as the basis for discussion among many scholars. Philosophical revolutions, such as that of Descartes, could give Spinoza the basis on which to build his radical reinterpretation of the Bible. At the same time, biblical exegesis had its own effect on the world around it. Hobbes' Leviathan depended very much on the biblical commentaries of Roman Catholic scholars, most likely Pererius who was well known in England and referred to by Sir Thomas Browne. The lesson of this story is that if one is to understand the history of biblical interpretation, one has to take into account happenings in the society in which it takes place.

5. Over-simplifications That Should Be Avoided:

  1. Serious biblical study was not initiated by Protestantism; if anything, the converse is true � for part of Protestantism was its adoption of the work of humanists such as Erasmus (who incidentally remained a loyal Roman Catholic.) In fact, it is arguable that Roman Catholic biblical scholars up to the end of the seventeenth century were as competent as their Protestant counterpart.
  2. The development of modern biblical interpretation was not the product of wicked people seeking to discredit religion and destroy the authority of the Bible. A few of the figures involved such as Voltaire could be described this way, but Voltaire derived much of his knowledge of the Bible from Calmet, a perfectly orthodox Roman Catholic scholar. Voltaire's own observations on the Bible were for the most part arbitrary misinterpretations fuelled by anti-Semitism.

6. A Brief Summary of Some of the Major Developments in Biblical Interpretation:

A detached note about intellectual history:

It is important to realize that it is people who keep ideas alive; ideas do not exist on their own. Ideas can be described as viruses of the mind's entities that depend upon a living host to nourish them. Thus, individual thinkers give their own spin even to the most common of ideas and, therefore, while generalizations are useful, of themselves they can be misleading, such as the uniformity of common purpose implied in a term like "The Enlightenment Project" mentioned above. Bearing in mind this warning, here are a few useful, if incomplete, generalizations about developments in biblical interpretation in the modern period.

The Renaissance:

  1. Renaissance Humanism represented the careful study of language and the examination of the various meanings and usages of words. As part of this, humanists were interested in collecting manuscripts and in using the new technology of printing to make biblical texts of a standard form readily available.
  2. In particular, for the Christian church, this meant a better knowledge of Greek as well as a recovery from Jewish teachers of Hebrew and Aramaic. Furthermore, medieval Jewish scholarly exegesis on difficulties in the Hebrew Bible had a great influence on the Christian scholars.
  3. The study of language revealed that the precise meanings of words can change with time, and Valla showed how the Bible's meaning could be falsified by reading biblical words as if they had the same meaning in the fifteenth century as they did in the first.
  4. By the end of the sixteenth century, the careful examination of texts was having unexpected results. Masius argued that the Pentateuch was not the work of a single author, and Scaliger recognized that some problems of biblical chronology were possibly insoluble.

The Enlightenment Period (mid-seventeenth century until end of the eighteenth century):

  1. La Peyr�re argued that some books of the Bible betrayed the narrow interests of the Israelites who were far from being the most important people in the ancient Near East.
  2. The importance of history was recognized in the development of ideas; the first histories of philosophy (as opposed to biographies of philosophers) began to be written, and the possibility of development of ideas in the Bible added the term 'historico' to the traditional term 'criticism' to produce a name for the emerging historico-critical approach to the Bible in the eighteenth century.
  3. Vico, Burnet, and others recognized that not all people think the same way; this led to interpretations of some parts of the Bible, such as the creation stories as myths (though this did not mean deliberate falsehoods). Other intellectual investigations into the nature and origin of language (and languages) spilled over into biblical exegesis even as did discussions of the nature of the state and its laws. Culture as a matter different from philosophical truth made its appearance.
  4. Even the evidence from the contemporary ancient Near East became a subject for study as a means of understanding the Bible, and Michaelis was the driving force behind sending out a scientific expedition to answer specific questions.

The Nineteenth Century:

  1. The emergence of 'science' as an undertaking distinct from philosophy represented a significant shift in intellectual endeavour and discussion. The determination of clergy to defend the indefensible in the Bible meant religion was reduced to a matter of blind faith as the insights of the eighteenth century were lost to much theology.
  2. The recovery of the meaning of ancient writing systems meant that documents from Egypt and Mesopotamia could show the cultural context of many biblical stories and concepts.
  3. In New Testament studies, attention shifted from a priori dogmatic approach to asking what Jesus was like as a human being.

7. A Personal Comment on My Own Work:

In writing my What Have They Done to the Bible? A History of Modern Biblical Interpretation I have tried to read the authors' own work, if possible in the original languages. I have followed the traditional advice to historians: read and read until you hear the people actually speaking. I have 'met' a considerable number of interesting people: if you want to see informed, careful scholarship, try Vitringa's Isaiah Commentary; if you want a fair assessment of others' scholarship, read Richard Simon's works on the subject; if you have a taste for redoubtable German scholars whose prose was difficult even for Germans, there is Johann Salmo Semler; and if you want to savour a disreputable character of Falstaffian proportions, see K.F. Bahrdt. Nowhere is the contrast between an analyser of documents and a historian seeking the figure behind them greater than in the differences between D.F. Strauss and Ernst Renan. If utterly ridiculous causes are your hobby, Johannes Goropius is your man, for he argued with a straight face that the language spoken in the Garden of Eden was Flemish, and not just any Flemish but Flemish in the dialect of Antwerp, which just happened to be his home town.

I have spent thirty years off and on in researching and writing my book. At the end of it, I have to admit that there is a great deal I still do not know, but short of looking for a medium who could type, I decided I had better publish now if ever at all. I hope the book will serve to increase not just the knowledge of biblical interpretation but to fill in a large gap left in so many works on the European intellectual adventure. I have tried to set out the story honestly without too much recourse to technical terms so that the argument will be accessible to those interested in Western culture in general as well as to specialists in the field of biblical studies.

John Sandys-Wunsch is the author of What Have They Done to the Bible? A History of Modern Biblical Interpretation (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2005). ISBN 0-8146-5028-7.