History of Biblical Interpretation: A Reader. By William Yarchin


Pp. xxx, 444 , Peabody, MA , Hendrickson , 2004 . £24.95 .

The history of biblical interpretation has become a feature of modern biblical studies. For some time past attention has (of necessity) being paid to modern Old Testament and New Testament criticism. Some commentaries have gone beyond strict historical exegesis of texts to give the manner in which they have been understood down through history, at least until the modern historical approach. There are series of ‘commentaries’ which give a minimum of attention to the original author's intent to concentrate on the manner in which a given passage has been understood during later centuries. There are entire works dedicated to the history of interpretation.

The present work differs in that it does not just narrate the history of biblical interpretation. It is a reader with texts for the period 150 BCE to the present day. The work covers this expanse of time in five parts: I. Prerabbinic Jewish interpretation (150 B.C.E. -70 C.E.); II. Patristic interpretation and its legacy (150–1500 C.E.); II. Rabbinic interpretation and its legacy (150–1500 C.E.); IV. Modern Interpretation (1500.-Present); V. Later modern interpretation (1970 – Present). Most of the texts are from already recognized English translations. As we are reminded in the preface, unique to this collection are selections never before available in English. Three of them are compendia of comments on Ps 23. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a number of commentary-anthologies were compiled in Europe for use among Christian churches and Jewish synagogues. Traditional rabbinic comments on Psalm 23 as complied in the Yalqut Shim'oni are rendered from Hebrew and Aramaic into English. English readers can also access the time-honoured patristic observations on the psalm as accreted in the Latin text of the Glossa ordinaria. Comments by leading humanist scholars of the Renaissance are translated from the sixteenth-century Critici Sacri. A comparison of these three commentary traditions on the same biblical text make for an interesting study in itself. Additionally, excerpts from the biblical scholarship of the eighteenth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn are also published in this volume in English for the first time.

There is an informative overall introduction of the history of biblical interpretation, with attention to the specific emphases of each of the five periods. Each of the texts examined is also provided with an introduction. The first part, Prerabbinic Jewish interpretation is given three chapters, containing the Aristeas Legend, biblical commentary in the Dead Sea Scrolls (the Pesher of Habakkuk, 4QFlorilergium and 4QGenesis Pesher), selections from Philo. Chapter 4–11 are on patristic exegesis: Justin Martyr (First Apology), Origen (First Principles), Tyconius (Book of Rules), Augustine (De doctrina christiana), Anchoring the text in History: Early Syrian Biblical Interpretation – Theodore of Mopsuestia (Commentary of Galatians), Theodoret of Cyrus (Commentary on Ps 30; in the translation of R.C. Hill), Spiritual Application: Gregory the Great (Moralia in Iob); How can a text bear multiple meanings: Thomas Aquinas (Summa theologiae), Medieval recognition of the literal sense: Nicholas of Lyra (Postilla) and the Glossa ordinaria. It is unfortunate that for the Syrian (Antiochene) tradition Yarchin has omitted Diodorus of Tarsus entirely; (his commentary in Greek on Pss 1–50 has been published and recently translated by R.C. Hill), and that Theodore's Old Testament commentaries have been neglected, especially on the Psalms. It would have been informative to have their view on the messianic psalms, side by side with that of Theodoret. The rabbinic legacy (chaps 12–15) is represented by texts from the Mekilta, Palestinian Talmud, Rashi, Ramban (Nachmanides), Yalqut Shim'oni (on Ps 23) and Sa'adia ben Joseph (Gaon) (The Book of Beliefs and Opinions; philosophical Jewish exegesis). The modern period (1500-present; chaps 16–25) is represented by Renaissance scholarship on Ps 23 in Critic sacri; John Calvin, Baruch Spinoza, Moses Mendelssohn (Renewing the Jewish past to engage with the present, in The Book of the Paths of Peace); Richard Strauss (Historical criticism rigorously applied to the Gospels in The Life of Christ critically examined), H. Gunkel (The Stories of Genesis), searching for the origins of the Jesus tradition (R Bultmann (‘The new Approach to the Synoptic Problem’), archaeology and biblical interpretation by W.F. Albright, disconnection between ancient and modern worldviews by Langdon Gilkey, and Salvation history and modern historiography by Christian Hartlich.

In the final section we have readings on canonical interpretation (B. Childs), followed by an essay ‘The superiority of pre-critical exegesis’ by David C. Steinmetz, originally published in 1980 and subsequently reproduced in a number of anthologies. Steinmetz challenges the hegemony of historical-critical interpretation of the Bible with a boldness similar to that of Walter Winks in another essay in this work (‘The bankruptcy of the Biblical Critical Paradigm’), but with (as Yarchin notes) more detailed attention to the wisdom of premodern scholarship. Like Winks, Steinmetz regards the value of strictly historical-critical interpretation to be somewhat exaggerated and often counterproductive for the life of the church. Steinmetz points out that as contemporary literary critics have correctly argued, meanings beyond what a writer may have intended are always generated in the encounter between author and reader. In the belief in the possibility of multiple meanings in a single text, Steinmetz agrees with Thomas Aquinas. Where they differ is that while Aquinas believed the nonliteral meanings of Scripture were legitimate because they were intended by God, the author of scripture, for Steinmetz they are there because they are texts. The topic ‘Jews, Christians, and theological interpretation of the Bible’ is represented by a contribution by Jon Levenson on ‘Why Jews are not interested in Biblical theology’. The final essays are on Rhetorical interpretation of the Bible's literature, with contribution by Phyllis Trible (‘God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality’), nonobjective validity in literary biblical interpretation, with a contribution by Edgar McKnight on a literary-oriented biblical criticism; Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza on biblical interpretation and critical commitment (S. ‘sees a moral obligation in the situation of the interpreter: interpreters of the Bible are obligated to be aware of the political and social interests that influence their word and that their work influences’), Patrick Dale on the rhetoric of revelation (‘Patrick's quest concerns the question of the biblical texts' religious truth-value’). The final essay is by Fernando F. Segovia on cultural studies and contemporary biblical criticism: ideological criticism as mode of discourse –‘cultural studies’ being the label sometimes given to the myriad factors (including institutional, sociological, political, religious and ideological) that play into the construction, representation, and validation of human identity and values.

This is an excellent collection of texts on biblical interpretation over two thousand years, made all the more vaulable by Yarchin's excellent general introduction to the entire work and to the individual pieces, introductions to be read for the better understanding of the individual selections as he notes in his preface. It is a work for theological libraries and the bookshelves of any interested scholar in the subject.