Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church

Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church, from the series Sources of Early Christian Thought is a terrific contribution to any library of biblical interpretation texts. The editor and translator, Karlfried Froehllich, has organized the material into ten chapters. The first chapter is an extended introduction. This is followed by translations of texts ranging from the pre-Christian Rabbis, to Origen, to Irenaeus  and  concluding with Tyconius.

The most valuable portion of this text is the certainly the Introduction. Within the Introduction, Froehlich provides a review of the manner in which different groups have sought to understand and interpret the Holy Scriptures. Beginning with the Jews, he reviews the Jewish canon and Jewish hermeneutics. Following this he takes up a review of three primary witnesses to methods of Jewish interpretation: the Rabbis, the Qumran community and the Diaspora. Though this portion in particular is a little dated (the author refers to the council of Jamnia prior to the work by Lewis which disputes certain assumptions), it is nonetheless quite helpful becaue it provides a glimpse into how these formative groups viewed and treated their Holy Scriptures. Specifically, Froehlich describes with some clarity the purpose of the Rabbis and how they were seeking to use the Scriptures to help solve legal questions and facilitate daily living; and how the Qumran community was preoccupied with an eschatological approach and the Diaspora were influenced strongly by their Hellenistic culture. While these groups do not provide the modern Christian with a definitive method for approaching the Old Testament, they do however cast a great spotlight on a specific principle which will addressed momentarily.

In treating the first century and first generation Christian interpreters, the author seeks to highlight the importance that allegory and specifically typology played—particularly in reference to Paul. However, the most important point of this section is taken from the following statement: “Emerging as a community independent of Judaism, Christians of many backgrounds now started to appropriate the Jewish Scriptures as thesir own, being taught to read them as a hidden witness to God’s new covenant with humankind in the Lord Jesus Christ” (p.10). This seems to be particularly important for the modern Christian in that it provides an example to follow emulate—taking ownership of the Scriptures and seeking to make them your own, relative to your own culture and circumstances.

There are essentially two principles that one can easily understand by reviewing the pre-Christian communities and the leading thinkers of the first four centuries is really quite simple: first, it was largely dictated by their culture and circumstances that the group was facing. Second, there is clearly not a divinely inspired method with which the modern interpreter can grab hold of with a great deal of confidence.

Beginning with the second century, the great diversity of opinions on and approaches to the Scriptures began to reveal itself. So much so, that a dual approach began to develop that was based largely on geography. It is in many respects surprising to find the great diversity that existed then. It is equally alarming today to find the lack of appreciation, if not fear, for diversity among some groups of Christians. For that matter, that same negative attitude and approach towards diversity in interpretative methods was cemented generations earlier. For the modern Christian, the question remains: how to deal with the difference of opinions and approaches to interpreting and understanding the Scriptures. For now, these questions remain unanswered. However, one thing can be made certain, the clarity that many people find comfort in is actually much more cloudy than they may realize.

 

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