A History Of Old Testament Interpretation

We shall here endeavor to present a brief but comprehensive sketch of the treatment which the scriptures of the O.T. have in different ages received. At the period of the rise of Christianity, two opposite tendencies had manifested themselves in the interpretation of them among the Jews; the one to an extreme literalism, the other to an arbitrary allegorism. The former of these was mainly developed in Palestine, where the Law of Moses was, from the nature ' of things, most completely observed. The Jewish teachers, acknowledging the obligation of that law in its minutest precepts, but over looking the moral principles on which those precepts were founded and which they should nave unfolded from them, there endeavored to supply by other means the imperfections inherent in every law in its mere literal acceptation. On the other hand, at Alexandria the allegorizing tendency prevailed. Germs of it had appeared in the apocryphal writings, as where in the Book of Wisdom (xviii. 24) the priestly vestments of Aaron had been treated as symbolical of the universe. It had been fostered by Aristobulus, and at length, two centuries later, it culminated in Philo, from whose works we best gather the form which it assumed. For in the general principles of interpretation which Philo adopted, he was but fol- owing, as he himself assures us, in the track which had been previously marked out by those, probably the Therapeuts, under whom he hod studied. His expositions have chiefly reference to the writings of Moses, whom he regarded as the arch-prophet, the man initiated above all others into divine mysteries ; and in the persons and things mentioned in these writings he traces, without denying the outward reality of the narrative, the mystical designations of different abstract qualities and aspects of the in visible. The Alexandrian interpreters were striving to vindicate for the Hebrew Scriptures a new dignity in the eyes of the Gentile world, by showing that Moses had anticipated all the doctrines of the philosophers of Greece. It must not be supposed that the Palestinian literalism and the Alexandrian allegorism ever remained entirely distinct. In fact the two extremes of literalism and arbitrary allegorism, in their neglect of the direct moral teaching and prophetical import of Scripture, had too much in common not to mingle readily the one with the other. And thus we may trace the development of the two distinct yet co-existent spheres of Halachah and Hagadah, in which the Jewish interpretation of Scripture, as shown by the later Jewish writings, ranged. The former ("repetition," " following ") embraced the traditional legal determinations for practical observance: the latter ("discourse") the unrestrained interpretation, of no authentic force or immediate practical interest. The earliest Christian non-apostolic treatment of the O.T. was necessarily much de pendent on that which it had received from the Jews. The Alexandrian allegorism re-appears the most fully in the fanciful epistle of Barnabas ; but it influenced also the other writings of the sub-apostolic Fathers. Even the Jewish cabalism passed to some extent into the Christian Church, and is said to have been largely employed by the Gnostics. But this was not to last. Irenaeus, himself not altogether free from it, raised his voice against it; and Tertullian well laid it down as a canon that the words of Scripture were to be interpreted only in their logical connection, and with reference to the occasion on which they were uttered. In another respect, all was changed. The Christian interpreters by their belief in Christ stood on a vantage-ground for the comprehension of the O.T. to which the Jews had never reached; and thus, however they may have erred in the details of their interpretations, they were generally conducted by them to the right conclusions in regard of Christian doctrine. The view held by the Christian Fathers that the whole doctrine of the N.T. had been virtually contained and fore shadowed in the Old, generally induced the search in the O.T. for such Christian doctrine rather than for the old philosophical dogmas. Their general convictions were doubtless here more correct than the details which they advanced ; and it would be easy to multiply from the writings of either Justin, Tertullian, or Irenaeus, typical interpretations that could no longer be defended. It was at Alexandria, which through her previous learning had already exerted the deep est influence on the interpretation of the O.T., that definite principles of interpretation were by a new order of men, the most illustrious and influential teachers in the Christian Church, first laid down. Clement here led the way. He held that in the Jewish law a fourfold import was to be traced, — literal, symbolical, moral, prophetical. Of these the second was the relic of the philosophical element that others had previously engrafted on the Hebrew Scriptures. Clement was succeeded by his scholar Origen. With him biblical interpretation showed itself more decidedly Christian; and while the wisdom of the Egyptians, moulded anew, became the per manent inheritance of the Church, the distinctive symbolical meaning which philosophy had placed upon the O. T. disappeared. Origen recognizes in Scripture, as it were, a body, soul, and spirit, answering to the body, soul, and spirit of man: the first serves for the edification of the simple, the second for that of the more advanced, the third for that of the perfect. The reality and the utility of the first, the letter of Scripture, he proves by the number of those whose faith is nurtured by it. The second,' which is in fact the moral sense of Scripture, he illustrates by the interpretation of Dent. xxv. 4 in 1 Cor. ix. 9. The third, however, is that on which he principally dwells, showing how the Jewish Law, spiritually understood, contained a shadow of good things to come. Both the spiritual and (to use his own term J the psychical meaning he held to be always present in Scripture, the bodily not always. Origen's own expositions of Scripture were, no doubt, less successful than his investigations of the principles on which it ought to be expounded. Yet as the appliances which he Drought to the study of Scripture made him the father of biblical criticism, so of all detailed Christian scriptural commentaries his were the first ; a fact not to be forgotten by those who would estimate aright their several merits and defects. The value of Origen's researches was best appreciated, a century later, by Jerome. He adopted and repeated most of Origen's principles; but he exhibited more judgment in the practical application of them: he devoted more attention to the literal interpretation, the basis of the rest, and he brought also larger stores of learning to bear upon it. With Origen, he held that Scripture was to be understood in a threefold manner, literally, tropologically, mystically: the first meaning was the lowest, the last the highest. But elsewhere he gave a new threefold division of scriptural interpretation, identifying the ethical with the literal or first meaning, making the allegorical or spiritual meaning the second, and maintaining that, thirdly, Scripture was to be understood "secundum futurorum bcatitudinem." The influence of Origen's writings was supreme in the Greek Church for a hundred years after his death. Towards the end of the 4th century, Diodore, bishop of Tarsus, previously a presbyter at Antioch, wrote an exposition of the whole of the O. T., attending only to the letter of Scripture. Of the disciples of Diodore, Theodore of Mopsuestia pursued an exclusively grammatical interpretation into a decided rationalism, rejecting the greater part of the prophetical ref erence of the O.T., and maintaining it to be only applied to our Saviour by way of accommodation. Chrysostom, another disciple of Diodore, followed a sounder course, rejecting neither the literal nor the spiritual interpretation, but bringing out with much force from Scripture its moral lessons. He was followed by Theodoret, who interpreted both literally and historically, and also allegorically and prophetically. In the Western Church, the influence of Origen, if not so unqualified at the first, was yet permanently greater than in the Eastern. Hilary of Poitiers is said by Jerome to hare drawn largely from Origen in his Commentary on the Psalms. But in truth, as a practical interpreter, he greatly excelled Origen; carefully seeking out, not what meaning the Scripture might bear, but what it really intended, and drawing forth the evangelical sense from the literal with cogency, terseness, and elegance Here, too, Augustine stood somewhat in advance of Origen ; carefully preserving in its integrity the literal sense of the historical narrative of Scripture as the substructure of the mystical, lest otherwise the latter should prove to be but a building in the air. But whatever ad vances had been made in the treatment of O.T. scripture by the Latins since the days of Origen were unhappily not perpetuated. We may see this in the Morals of Gregory on the Book of Job ; the last great independent work of a Latin Father. Three senses of the sacred text are here recognized and pursued in sepa rate threads; the historical and literal, the allegorical, and the moral. But the three have hardly any mutual connection : the very idea of such a connection is ignored. Such was the general character of the interpretation which prevailed through the middle ages, during which Gregory's work stood in high repute. The mystical sense of Scripture was entirely divorced from the literal. The first impulse to the new investigation of the literal meaning of the text of the O. T. came from the great Jewish commentators, mostly of Spanish origin, of the 11 th and following centuries; Rashi (t 1105), Abcn Ezra (t 1167), Kimchi (t 1240), and others. Following in the wake of these, the converted Jew, Nicolaus of Lyre near Evreux, in Normandy, (t 1341), produced his Postillss Perpetuae on the Bible, in which, without denying the deeper meanings of Scripture, he justly con tended for the literal as that on which they all must rest. Exception was taken to these a century later by Paul of Burgos, also a converted Jew (t 1435), who upheld, by the side of the literal, the traditional interpretations, to which he was probably at heart exclusively attached. But the very arguments by which be sought to vindicate them showed that the recognition of the value of the literal interpretation had taken firm root. 2. Principles of Interpretation. — From the foregoing sketch it will have appeared that it has been very generally recognized that the interpretation of the O.T. embraces the discovery of its literal, moral, and spiritual meaning. It has given occasion to misrepresentation to speak of the existence in Scripture of more than a single sense; rather, then, let it be said that there are in it three elements, co-existing and coalescing with each other, and generally requiring each other's presence in order that they may be severally manifested. Correspondingly, too, there are three portions of the O.T. in which the respective elements, each in its turn, shine out with peculiar lustre. The literal (and historical) element is most obviously displayed in the historical narrative: the moral is specially honored in the Law, and in the hortatory addresses of the prophets: the predictions of the prophets bear emphatic witness to the prophetical or spiritual. Still, generally, in every portion of the O. T., the presence of all three elements may by the student of Scripture be traced. In perusing the story of the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness, he has the historical element in the actual occurrence of the facts narrated; the moral, in the warnings which God's dealings with the people and their own several disobediences convey; and the spiritual in the prefiguration by that journey, in its several features, of the Christian pilgrimage through the wilderness of life. If the question be asked, are the three several elements in the O. T. mutually co-extensive? We reply, They are certainly co-extensive in the O.T., taken as a whole, and in the several portions of it, largely viewed; yet not so as that they are all to be traced in each several section. The historical clement may occasion ally exist alone. On the other hand, there are passages of direct and simple moral exhortation, e.g. a considerable part of the Book of Proverbs, into which the historical element hardly enters. Occasionally also, as in Psalm ii., the prophetical element, though not altogether divorced from the historical and the moral, yet completely overshadows them. That we should use the New Testament as the key to the true meaning of the Old, and should seek to interpret the latter as it was interpreted by our Lord and His apostles, is in accordance both with the spirit of what the earlier Fathers asserted respecting the value of the tradition received from them, and with the appeals to the N. T. by which Origen defended and fortified the threefold method of interpretation. But here it is the analogy of the N. T. interpretation that we must follow; for it were unreasonable to suppose that the whole of the Old Testament would be found completely interpreted in the New. With these preliminary observations, we may glance at the several branches of the interpreter's task. First, then, Scripture has its outward form or body, all the several details of which he will have to explore and to analyze. He must ascertain the thing outwardly asserted, commanded, foretold, prayed for, or the like; and this with reference, so far as is possible, to the historical occasion and circumstances, the time, the place, the political and social position, the manner of life, the surrounding influences, the distinctive character, and the object in view, alike of the writers, the persons addressed, and the persons who appear upon the scene. Taken in its wide sense, the outward form of Scripture will itself, no doubt, include much that is figurative. To the outward form of Scripture thus belong all metonymies, in which one name is substituted for another ; and metaphors, in which a word is transformed from its proper to a cognate signification; so also all prosopopoeias, or personifications; and even all anthropomorphic and anthropopathic descriptions of God, which could never have been understood in a purely literal sense, at least by any of the right-minded among God's people. It is not to be denied that it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to draw the exact line where the province of spiritual interpretation begins, and that of historical ends. On the one hand, the spiritual significance of a passage may occasionally, perhaps often, throw light on the historical element involved in it : on the other hand, the very large use of figurative language in the O.T., and more especially in the prophecies, prepares us for the recognition of the yet more deeply figurative and essentially allegorical import which runs through the whole. Yet no unhallowed or unworthy task can it ever be to study, even for its own sake, the historical form in which the O.T. comes to us clothed. Even by itself, it proclaims to us the historical workings of God, and reveals the care wherewith He has ever watched over the interests of His Church. Above all, the history of the O.T. is the indispensable preface to the historical advent of the Son of God in the flesh. We need hardly labor to prove that the N.T. recognizes the general historical character of what the O.T. records. Of course, in reference to that which is not related as plain matter of history, there will always remain the question, how far the descriptions are to be viewed as definitely historical ; how far as drawn, for a specific purpose, from the imagination. Such a question presents itself, for example, in the Book of Job. It is one which must plainly be in each case decided according to the particular circumstances. In examining the extent of the historical element in the prophecies, both of the prophets and the psalmists, we must distinguish between those which we either definitely know or may reasonably assume to have been fulfilled at a period not entirely distant from that at which they were uttered, and those which reached far beyond in their prospective reference. The former, once fulfilled, were thenceforth annexed to the domain of history (Is. xvii.; Ps. cvii. 33). With the prophecies of more distant scope the case stood thus. A picture was presented to the prophet's gaze, embodying an outward representation of certain future spiritual struggles, judgments, triumphs, or blessings; a picture suggested in general by the historical circumstances of the present (Zech. vi. 9-15; Ps. v., lxxii.), or of the past (Ez. xx. 35, 36 ; Is. xi. 15, xlviii. 21 ; Ps. xcix. 6, seqq.), or of the near future, already anticipated and viewed as present (Is. xlix. 7-26; Ps. lvii. 6-11), or of all these variously combined, altered, and heightened by the imagination. But it does not follow that that picture was ever outwardly brought to pass : the local had been exchanged for the spiritual, the outward type had merged in the inward reality before the fulfillment of the prophecy took effect. Respecting the rudiments of interpretation, let the following here suffice : — The knowledge of the meanings of Hebrew words is gathered (a) from the context, (6) from parallel passages, (c) from the traditional interpretations pre served in Jewish commentaries and diction aries, (rf) from the ancient versions, (e) from the cognate languages, — Chaldee, Syriac, and Arabic. The syntax must be almost wholly gathered from the O.T. itself; and for the special syntax of the poetical books, while the importance of a study of the Hebrew parallelism is now generally recognized, more attention needs to be bestowed than has been bestowed hitherto on the centralism and inversion by which the poetical structure and language is often marked. From the outward form of the O.T., we proceed to its moral element or soul. It was with reference to this that St. Paul declared that all Scripture was given by inspiration of God, and was profitable for doctrine, for re proof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness (2 Tim. iii. 16); and it is in the implicit recognition of the essentially moral character of the whole that our Lord and His apostles not only appeal to its direct precepts (e.g. Matt xv. 4, xix. 17-19), and set forth the fullness of their bearing (e.g. Matt ix. 13), but also lay bare moral lessons in O. T. pas sages which lie rather beneath the surface than upon it (Matt. xix. 5, 6, xxii. 32 ; John x. 34, 35 ; Acts vii. 48, 49 ; 1 Cor. ix. 9, 10 ; 2 Cor. viii. 13-15). With regard more particularly to the Law, our Lord shows in His Sermon on the Mount how deep is the moral teaching implied in its letter ; and, in His denunciation of the Pharisees, upbraids them for their omission of its weightier matters — judgment, mercy, and faith. The history, too, of the O.T. finds frequent reference made in the N. T. to its moral teaching (Luke vi. 3 ; Rom. iv., ix. 17 ; I Cor. x. 6-11; Heb. iii. 7-11, xi. ; 2 Pet. ii. 15, 16; 1 John iii. 12). The interpreter of the O.T. will have, among his other tasks, to analyze in the lives set before him the various yet generally mingled workings of the spirit of holiness and of the spirit of sin. The moral errors by which the lives of even the greatest saints were disfigured related, and that for our instruction, but not generally criticized. The O.T. sets before us just those lives — the lives generally of religious men — which will best repay our study, and will most strongly suggest the moral lessons that God would have us learn; and herein it is, that, in regard of the moral aspects of the O.T. history, we may most surely trace the overruling influence of the Holy Spirit by which the sacred historians wrote. But the O.T. has further its spiritual and therefore prophetical element. Our attention is here first attracted to the avowedly predictive parts of the O.T., of the prospective reference of which, at the time that they were uttered, no question can exist, and the majority of which still awaited their fulfillment when the Redeemer of the world was born. With Christ the new era of the fulfillment of prophecy commenced. A marvelous amount there was in His person of the verification of the very letter of prophecy — partly that it might be seen how definitely all had pointed to Him ; partly because His outward mission, up to the time of His death, was but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and the letter had not yet been finally superseded by the spirit. Yet it would plainly be impossible to suppose that the significance of such prophecies as Zech. ix. 9 was exhausted by the mere outward verification. Hence the entire absence from the N.T. of any recognition, by either Christ or His apostles, of such prospective outward glories as the prophecies, literally interpreted, would still have implied. The language of the ancient prophecies is everywhere applied to the gathering together, the privileges, and the triumphs of the universal body of Christ (John x. 16, xi. 52; Acts ii. 39, xv. 1 5-1  ; Rom. ix. 25, 26, 32, 33, x. 1 1 13, xi. 25, 26, 27, &c.). Even apart, however, from the authoritative interpretation thus placed upon them, the prophecies contain within themselves, in sufficient measure, the evidence of their spiritual import. The substance of these prophecies is the glory of the Redeemer's spiritual kingdom: it is but the form that is derived from the out ward circumstances of the career of God's ancient people, which had passed, or all but passed, away before the fulfillment of the promised blessings commenced. Nor was even the form in which the announcement of the new blessings had been clothed to be rudely cast aside : the imagery of the prophets is on every account justly dear to us, and from love, no less than from habit, we still speak the language of Canaan. But then arises the question, Must not this language have been divinely designed from the first as the language of God's Church? The typical import of the Israelitish tabernacle and natural worship is implied in Heb. ix. ("the Holy Ghost this signifying"), and is almost universally allowed; and it is not easy to tear asunder the events of Israel's history from the ceremonies of Israel's worship; nor yet, again, the events of the preceding historv of the patriarchs from those of the history of Israel. The N.T. itself implies, the typical import of a large part of the O. T. narrative. In the O. T. itself we have, and this even in the latest times, events and persons expressly treated as typical (Ps. exviii. 22; Zech. iii., vi. 9, &c.). A further testimony to the typical character of the history of the Old Testament is furnished by the typical character of the events related even in the New. All our Lord's miracles were essentially typical. So too the outward fulfillment of prophecy in the Redeemer's life were types of the deeper though less immediately striking fulfillment which it was to continue to receive ideally. It is not unlikely that there is an unwillingness to recognize the spiritual element in the historical parts of the O.T., arising from the fear that the recognition of it may endanger that of the historical truth of the events recorded. Nor is such danger altogether visionary ; for one-sided and prejudiced contemplation will be ever so abusing one element of Scripture as thereby to cast a slight upon the rest. But this does not affect its existence. Of another danger besetting the path of the spiritual interpreter of the O.T., we have a warning in the unedifying puerilities into which some have fallen. Against such he will guard by foregoing too curious a search for mere external resemblances between the Old Testament and the New, though withal thankfully recognizing them wherever they present themselves. The spiritual interpretation must rest upon both the literal and the moral ; and there can be no spiritual analogy between things which have nought morally in common. One consequence of this principle will of course be, that we must never be content to rest in any mere outward fulfillment of prophecy. However remarkable the outward fulfillment be, it must always guide us to some deeper analogy, in which a moral element is involved. Another consequence of the foregoing principle of interpretation will be, that that which was forbidden or sinful can, so far as it was sinful, not be regarded as typical of that which is free from sin. So again, that which was tolerated rather than approved may contain within itself the type of something imperfect, in contrast to that which is more perfect. C. Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament. — The New Testament quotations from the Old form one of the outward bonds of connection between the two parts of the Bible. They are manifold in kind. Some of the passages quoted contain prophecies or involve types of which the N.T. writers designed to indicate the fulfillment. Others are introduced as direct logical supports to the doctrines which they were enforcing. It may not be easy to distribute all the quotations into their distinctive classes ; but among those in which a prophetical or typical force is ascribed in the N.T. to the passage quoted may fairly be reckoned all that are introduced with an intimation that the Scripture was "fulfilled;" and it may be observed that the word "fulfill," as applied to the accomplishment of what had been predicted or foreshadowed, is in the N. T. only used by our Lord Himself and His companion apostles. In the quotations of all kinds from the Old Testament in the New, we find a continual variation from the letter of the older Scriptures. To this variation three causes may be specified as having contributed: — First, all the N.T. writers quoted from the Septuagint; correcting it indeed more or less by the Hebrew, especially when it was needful for their purpose; occasionally deserting it altogether; still abiding by it to so large an extent as to show that it was the primary source whence their quotations were drawn. Secondly, the N.T. writers must have frequently quoted from memory. Thirdly, combined with this, there was an alteration of conscious or unconscious design. Sometimes the object of this was to obtain increased force. Sometimes an O. T. passage is abridged, and in the abridgment so adjusted, by a little alteration, as to present an aspect of completeness, and yet omit what is foreign to the immediate purpose (Acts i. 20; 1 Cor. i. 31). At other times a passage is en larged by the incorporation of a passage from another source: thus in Luke iv. 18, 19, although the contents are professedly those read by our Lord from Is. lxi., we have the words "to set at liberty them that are bruised," introduced from Is. lviii. 6 (Sept.): similarly, in Rom. xi. 8, Deut. xxix. 4 is combined with Is. xxix. 10. In some cases, still greater liberty of alteration is assumed. In some places again, the actual words of the original are taken up, but employed with a new meaning. Almost more remarkable than any alteration in the quotation itself is the circumstance, that, in Matt, xxvii. 9, Jeremiah should lie named as the author of a prophecy really delivered by Zechariah ; the reason being, that the prophecy is based upon that in Jer. xviii., xix., and that, without a reference to this original source, the most essential features of the fulfillment of Zechariah's prophecy would be misunderstood. The above examples will sufficiently illustrate the freedom with which the apostles and evangelists interwove the older Scriptures into their writings. It could only result in failure, were we to attempt any merely mechanical account of variations from the O.T. text which are essentially not mechanical.

Excerpt taken from William Smith, A Dictionary Of the Bible Comprising Its Antiquities, Biography, Geography, and Natural History, p. 655-659


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