Volume 18, Issue 4: Tohu
How Christians Saved Interpretation, Part II
Greek hermeneutics was extremely limited at the time of Christ. In comparison, the exuberant explosion of
sophisticated interpretive techniques in the Christian age is more than strikingit demands an explanation.
The first part of this explanation is that Christianity is essentially the replacement of Judaism, and both are centered on
a text which is God's very Word. This Word may not change, but it must be applied, and thus interpreted.
The preaching of Christ's death and resurrection, as both a story and a set of doctrines, is one great retelling and
reinterpretation of all the former narratives of the Hebrew scriptures. The whole project of the New Testament is to justify,
redefine, and fundamentally reinterpret the Old. Accordingly, Jesus proclaims that he has come not to abolish the law and the
prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). Paul famously interprets the narrative of Sarah and Hagar as the story of Judaism and
Christianity (Gal. 4:21-28). Various New Testament characters complete the Old Testament archetypes: John the Baptist is Elijah;
Jesus is Adam, David, Melchizedek, Messiah, and Israel itself; twelve disciples replace the twelve original tribes; Gentile becomes
Jew and (in judgment) Jew becomes Gentile.
Thus, Christ and His disciples, through their relationship to the Hebrew Scriptures, redefined interpretation as
necessary fulfillment and completion. Herein lies the great difference between Christian and Greek thought: Socrates abolished
myth; Christ fulfilled Scripture. Socrates fulfilled nothing because he was a revolutionary. Christ was that infinitely more
dangerous kind of insurgent who, instead of rejecting his people's past, lays hold of its true meaning.
The next explanation for the Christian transformation of interpretation arises from its clash with Hellenism. Even as early
as the second century, Clement of Alexandria and Justin Martyr wrote defenses of the faith directed toward Greeks, comparing
the Bible favorably to Greek poets and even attempting to prove that Greek philosophy drew on Moses, and that prominent
Greeks were in fact proto-Christians.
But Greek distaste for the Old Testament proved difficult to overcome. At this point Christianity might have followed
the Platonist precedent of merely rejecting all or most of the Old Testament, and in fact, groups like the Marcionites did so. It is
a momentous historical and philosophical fact, though, that orthodoxy did not, for orthodoxy forced the ancient texts to
be interpreted rather than discarded.
The first attempts to reconcile Athens and Jerusalem used the model of Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish
allegorical intepreter discussed briefly in the previous article. By the second and third centuries after Christ, his methods had gained a
solid foothold among Christians, particularly Origen. In
Philocalia, Origen uses the language of an advanced hermeneutic,
positing multiple valid methods of interpretation and classes of meaning. Because the Bible has "obscurities," Origen distinguished
three levels of meaning in Scriptureliteral, intellectual, and mysticalcorresponding with the three levels of human
existenceflesh, soul, and spirit (I.11).
But the doctrine of the incarnation prevents interpreters from falling into the Greek tendency of despising the fleshly
nature of the Bible. Origen even brilliantly uses it as a springboard for criticizing Greek elitism: "Plato and the wise men of the Greeks
. . . resemble physicians who attend only better-class patients, while they despise the bulk of men. But the Jewish Prophets and
the disciples of Jesus . . . have at their command a style which reaches the masses of mankind, adapts itself to their speech. . .
Though early Christian interpretation often fell back into simple allegory, it had still made major advances. The
double Christian response to Hellenismby turns exulting in the "vulgar" Scripture and expounding its spiritual and ethical
meanings through interpretationwas only made possible by a faith and a Word that stooped to serve, self-consciously violating
boundaries of race, class, and education.
With these developments, Christendom initiated the complex Western interpretive tradition by accomplishing the feat
of acknowledging multiple meanings in the text which are not due to ambiguities or errors within the text itself, but to the
multiple needs and capacities of its readers. The text may become "all things" to all people: to the plain it is (true) story, to the
educated it is philosophy, to the mystic it is a channel of hidden glories, and perhaps to some it is all three. Paradoxically, only
the logocentric faith can really be
lectorcentric. The implications for literary studies have been far-reaching, not only allowing, but
also requiring multiple objective and subjective interpretations.
Many conservatives bridle at this language because it seems relativistic"the Bible means whatever I say it means."
But "multiple objective and subjective meanings" does not imply infinite meanings, nor does it imply they are equally valid. In
the text "Out of Egypt I called My son," the "son" is both Israel and Christ, but God was not looking at Hosea while directing
His "real" message to Matthewboth meanings stand. This doesn't give someone license to say that the text refers to Israel's
2005 retreat from the Gaza Strip.
There is much more to be said. Subsequent articles will focus on two more Christian innovations in interpretation,
and briefly discuss implications of the Trinity for hermeneutics.