After the national tragedy of 586 B.C. the study of the Law became a critically important practice for the Jews. They went into exile because they did not follow the Law, therefore they devoted themselves to the study and practice of Law. The first two divisions of the Hebrew Bible, Torah, Nebiim (Prophets) were “compelte” by the end of the exile, and the Kethubim (Writings) was likely completed by the beginning of the second century B.C. (depending on the date of Daniel).
All of the books were considered Scripture, but not all equal in authority. The Law was primary, the rest was commentary (Ferguson, Backgrounds, 540). By the first century the Pharisees attempted apply Torah to every aspect of life by developing an oral tradition, a “fence around the law,” a halakah or interpretation of the Law. Some of the oral traditions appear to be designed to circumvent some aspects of the Law, such as the prosbul (a method of making a loan near a Sabbath year which allowed for the loan to be collected rather than forgiven).
E. P. Sanders makes a good case showing this “relaxing of the law” is in the favor of the common people and was not intended as a way to get out of keeping the law. Modern (western) readers tend to think of some rabbinic discussions as overly legalistic, but most of these are interpretations the Law which apply the ancient Law to a new situation.
Because most of the early Christians were Jewish, the church inherited some of the methods of exegesis used by the Jews in the first century. Since Paul was a Pharisee he often engages in interpretation of Scripture using methods similar to the rabbis.
These methods included:
- Literal. The straightforward meaning of the text, such as Galatians 3:16 interpreting the word “seed” as a literal child.
- A Targum is an “interpretation by paraphrase” or running commentary on Scripture, usually in Aramaic.
- A Typological interpretation uses some correspondence between older texts and some present situation. In 1 Corinthians 10:1-11 Paul uses the Exodus and Wilderness experience as an analogy for the experience of the Corinthian church.
- Occasionally New Testament writers will interpret the Old Testament as Allegorical. Although this method should not be confused with the later methods used by the medieval church, Jewish writers did tease out spiritual truth and meaning without any connection to the original historical context. The allegorical method is best demonstrated by Philo of Alexandria, but Paul creates an allegory using Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4:21-31.
- Midrash and Pesher. Paul often connects Scripture to teach something new about Jesus. His synagogue sermon in Acts 13 is a clear example of midrash techniques, as are the two sermons preached by Peter in Acts 2 and 3. A pesher reading discovers meaning by means of a one-to-one correspondence between a word or phrase and some current situation. This method was used at Qumran and in the New Testament by Matthew and the book of Hebrews.
These Jewish views of Scripture and how to interpret Scripture were adopted by the early Church writers. To what extent ought these Jewish views on Scripture guide Christian exegesis today? For example, I think a high view of Scripture is essential for Christian exegesis, but is it necessary to have a “center” of the canon? If a Second Temple Jewish interpreter looked at the rest of Scripture through the lens of the Torah, should a Christian interpreter read the rest of Scripture through the lens of Jesus? Paul? The Sermon on the Mount? The book of Romans?
Although some of the methods of reading Scripture are similar to the modern grammatical historical method, most modern scholars would reject an interpretation which allegorized a text to mean something the original author could not possibly mean. But there are several postmodern approaches to Scripture which do just that. Is it possible reader-response hermeneutics reflect an ancient allegorical method and are somehow legitimate?