History of Biblical Interpretation

Early Period


Two types of interpretation:

Halakhah: Legal interpretation of the 613 commandments in the Torah were passed on orally and written down first in the Mishnah around AD 200. Further clarifications, known as Gemara were added. The Gemara and Mishnah were combined and published as the Talmud around AD 500. The interpretations of the commandments are not primarily exegetical or expository-they are legal reasoning about the application of the commandments. For example, work is forbidden on the Sabbath, but what constitutes work?  (More)

Midrash is a name commonly given to various types of expositions of the biblical text. The goal was to find relevance in the ancient biblical text for the needs of the Jewish community. Close attention was paid to the wording of the text; meaning was sometimes found in the shapes of the Hebrew letters. A question always asked is “Why does it say this rather than that?” Key words often link one passage to another in Midrash.


Origen, shortly before the year AD 200, was a great textual scholar. He learned Hebrew and produced a critical text of the OT in six columns (known as the Hexapla). Origen also used an allegorical method of interpretation. He is associated with the Alexandrian school of biblical interpretation, centered in Alexandria Egypt.

The allegorical method was developed in the middle ages to facilitate a Christian reading of the Old Testament. Allegorical readings enabled Christian readers to find Christ and Christian themes in the Old Testament. It was also a way of dealing with problems in the Old Testament. The Song of Songs is a good example of the need for allegory. The sexual themes could have been embarrassing to a medieval church that emphasized chastity-and it doesn’t mention Christ or the need for salvation at all. But if it is read as an allegory of the love between Christ and the Church, both problems are solved. The Song refers to a perfumed sachet worn between the woman’s breasts. The two breasts are interpreted as the Old and New Testaments that provide spiritual milk for our souls, and Christ is the sweet fragrance in the center of the Bible.

The  school of Antioch preferred a more literal, historical-grammatical interpretation. But Allegorical interpretation won out in the west.


The Renaissance was a rebirth of learning. The motto “ad fontes” meant back “to the sources,” i.e. the Greek and Latin classics. The Renaissance humanists also took up the study of Hebrew. The discovery of ancient manuscripts led to the development of textual criticism.


Influence by the Renaissance, Luther studied the scriptures in the original languages. Since the allegorical method could be used to support church teachings not found in a clear reading of Scripture, the reformers rejected it. They preferred the Historical-Grammatical Method. The Reformers based their faith on the authority of Scripture Alone. The motto of the Reformation was Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Soli Deo Gloria.

The Enlightenment

The findings of Gallileo and Copernicus that science contradicts official church teaching led to the autonomy of science. The church condemned the scientists but in doing so disgraced and discredited itself. Along with science, the critical study of history developed. No longer were historical sources automatically taken at face value; they had to be scrutinized.

Religious wars made people dissatisfied with an authoritarian church.

The philosophy of the Enlightenment emphasized personal responsibility and autonomy. “Enlightenment is the rejection of a self-imposed immaturity” said Kant. The enlightenment philosophers did not reject religion as such-but they wanted a religion suitable to free, enlightened, responsible individuals, a religion subject to or compatible with reason.

The Critical Study of the Bible

Luther had liberated the study of the Bible from the control of the church hierarchy. The Enlightenment freed the study of the Bible from theology. The Bible was studied “as any other book,” using the same methods and the same critical skepticism that was applied to other ancient sources.

Austruc and Witter

There are different opinions on who was the first to suggest different sources in the Torah, or Pentateuch. Since I am more familiar with Austruc, I will mention him. Around 1753 he noticed that Genesis uses two different names for God, Elohim and YHWH or JHVH. Austruc reasoned that Moses used two older sources: one called J (that refers to God as JHVH or YHWH) and the other called E (referring to God as Elohim).


4 Responses

  1. In response to the history of Biblical Interpretation – I appreciate the introduction to this topic because it lets folks like me who are ignorant of such things get a general but basic idea of some of the terms used in this study. One question that got my attention was “What constitutes work?” Work, in my mind, and I believe that God intended, was “that production of a good or service for which others are willing to pay.” It was not the activity of taking care of the basic needs of oneself, one’s family or one’s livestock. Daily needs such as food, heat in winter and the provisions for animals did not necessitate work for which others are willing to pay, but rather “work” for survival. Of course, we see in the gospels that the Pharisees attacked Jesus and His disciples for even picking heads of grain to eat on the Sabbath. Talk about legalism! With 635 laws and no one knows how many implications, life was indeed hard on the people of Jesus’ day. Is it any wonder that they saw Him as one who spoke with authority? Jesus was the great liberator.

  2. It seams to me that all interpretation has a prejudice or ajenda. It is impossible for any of us to be totally objective.

    This is not a bad thing, as long as we are honest with ourselves and others. Truth should be the ultimate goal of interpretation. What is the original author saying? What does it mean?

    I salute those who master the original language and want to open the minds of the rest of us. The challenge is for us to know when the translator is injecting his or her bias/agenda. In our politically correect” world, this is a growing problem.

    Sometimes I think thst we should be teaching the hebrew and greek in our churches, not just on our college campuses. But then would any one come? maybe they would. But what about my own bias? What about the bias of any of our preachers?

    Here’s a question: What age are we in now?

  3. I don’t know that it’s possible for any of us to be completely unbiased. No matter how open minded we try to be, we are all influenced by something in some way. The culture we grew up in, our family, our church, our education, and our experiences all contribute to the way we think. It’s up to us to separate our culture from our interpretation.

  4. Very solid points. I am very much in the category of language ignorance. I’m reading so much of this stuff and having to go back and re-read it over and over. However, I know it is good for me to begin to get an understanding on these issues.

    It is always amazing to me that we are people who can’t shake legalism. While I was reading about the 635 laws it reminding me of the NT religious leaders. They constantly were inventing new laws to make following God impossible.

    Was the allegorical method the catalyst for theological typology? I am not sure about the history of typology in biblical interpretation.

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