In his book Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, Richard Longenecker observes the following about what was held in common between Jewish interpreters of Scripture of the first century:
Jewish interpreters, no matter how different their exegetical methods, agreed on four basic points. In the first place, they held in common a belief lief in the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. This meant for them that the words of the Bible had their origin in God and were, in fact, the very words of God – a doctrine qualitatively different from all Greek notions about a divine possession or an inspirational factor seizing the poets and seers, whose words, while lofty, remained purely human. Secondly, they were convinced that the Torah (whether the Written Torah
alone,or both Written and Oral) contained the entire truth of God for the guidance of humans. The transmitted texts for the Jew of the first century, therefore, were extremely rich in content and pregnant with many meanings.’ Thirdly, because of the many possibilities of meaning in the texts, Jewish interpreters viewed their task as one of dealing with both the plain or obvious ous meanings and the implied or derived meanings. And finally, they considered the purpose of all biblical interpretation to be the translation into lifeof God’s instruction – that is, making the words of God meaningful and relevant to the lives and thought of the people in their present situations. These are matters that were axiomatic to all Jewish exegetes no matter what other allegiances they may have espoused or whatever interpretive procedures they may have used, and they will be repeatedly illustrated in the discussion that follows.1
This common religious ground in 1st century Judaism stands to functionally distinguish Israel from the surrounding Greco-Roman society. While at the level of cultural meanings, Israel was distinguished due to their belief one God, one significant explanation (although not all-encompassing) for this cultural distinctiveness in meaning is the cultural practice of reading and understanding the Torah and other Scriptures that reinforced believe in one God.2
When Paul in 1 Corinthians 1.22-23 talks about the different reasons Jews and Greeks reject his proclamation, the Jews are expecting “signs” (σημεῖον) whereas the Greeks expect “wisdom. For the prevailing wisdom of the Roman Imperial era, most notably Stoicism and then a lesser degree Epicureanism, their way of coming towards wisdom would be closer to our modern practice of science, albeit not exactly the same.3
By contrast, the language of “signs” strongly points to the ‘hermeneutic’ practice present within Judaism. Although in saying this, need to extend our traditional definition of hermeneutics to
One might be tempted to try to fit this difference between Greco-Roman philosophy and Judaism into our modern division between science and religion, but this won’t do at all. Rather, it is more appropriate to consider Stoicism and Judaism divided along specific epistemic and hermeneutical practices and where attention and focus is given between knowing and understanding.
In our modern day, Hans-Georg
Hellenistic philosophy inherited an epistemic emphasis. This stems back to Socrates and is exemplified in his argumentative practice of
I am speaking in rather broad, overarching terms to bring a point: to understanding Second Temple Judaism, one has to understand that it is a culture and society that is as influenced by the idea of hermeneutics, just as the epistemology of ancient philosophy had a profound influence on Greco-Roman society. While it would be deeply misleading to try to divide Jewish and Hellenistic society in 1st century A.D. as Martin Hengel has aptly demonstrated, there is still, I would suggest, a substantive difference at the level of the hermeneutic-epistemic axis between Greco-Roman and Jewish the generate profound differences. Philo, the prototype of Jewish and Greek synthesis in the 1st Century, is still profoundly hermeneutical in his approach. Meanwhile, the most theological of the Roman Stoics, Epictetus, whose language about God can resemble that of Jews, places a huge emphasis on rational deliberation to come to right knowledge.
So, if all of this is correct, what Richard Longenecker mentions about 1st century Judaism is not simply an interesting observation about Jewish practices of interpretation. It is a critical feature of understanding 1st century Judaism.
One way to exemplify this can come from the application of a specific social axiom I have observed: people tend to formally distinguish themselves based upon the themes that are salient within their social networks. The salience of epistemology in Hellenistic philosophy generated the Stoic “rationalists,” the Epicurean “empiricists”, and the Academic “skeptics.”5 By contrast, we can see differences in the Jewish religion based upon
This then provides a backdrop to make sense of much of Jesus teaching and engagement with the various Jewish ‘schools’ in the Gospels. Jesus was taking head on the hermeneutic practices of the day, both in the interpretation and application of Torah. But Jesus was addressing hermeneutics at a deeper level; he was engaging at how the human motivations of the heart fundamentally affect interpretation and practice. When Jesus highlights the two most important commandments, He wasn’t making an epistemic move of saying “all you need are these two commandments.” Rather, He was prioritizing the love of God and the love of neighbor that was foundational for understanding the rest of the commandments of Torah. When criticizing the religious leaders for how they search the Scriptures because they contain life in John 5.39, Jesus was hitting at the motivations that are foundational for how they understand the Scriptures. When Jesus speaks in parables that shield the true meaning from the crowds but at the same time using it to give understanding the disciples, Jesus is working with a deep understanding of how people interpret. When Jesus in Matthew 23.23-24 criticizes the Pharisees and scribes for overlooking the weight matters of justice, mercy, and faith, Jesus is focusing on how much attention and
What most exemplifies Jesus criticism of the religious leadership at the hermeneutic level is contained in Mark 7.9-13:
Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”6
Now to be clear here, there are three things I am not suggesting. Firstly, I am not suggesting that Jesus ministry should be reduced to concerns about hermeneutics. Jesus was not acting as a professor in homiletics trying to espouse a specific framework that people should accept. Rather, Jesus was targetting the root causes of the problem with the failure of the religious
Secondly, I am not suggesting that the problem in the Gospels is that the religious leaders have the wrong hermeneutic
Thirdly, I am not suggesting epistemology does not matter when it comes to the
For instance, to shift from Jesus to Paul, one of my present critiques of Douglas Campbell’s work is how he tries to situate the Pauline epistles with epistemic frameworks. In The Deliverance of God, he considers that Paul’s epistle to the Romans is understood as Paul giving the views of a hostile teacher and then his own responses. In so doing, Campbell analyzes the unnamed teacher that Paul opposes as essentially being an epistemic foundationalist. And while one might consider epistemic concerns being at play with concepts such as revelation and Paul’s occasional references to knowledge in the epistle, that doesn’t mean Paul is focused upon epistemology. In contrast to 1 Corinthians 1-4, where there is pretty clearly strong epistemic considerations due to repeated recurrence of epistemic terminology,8 there is not a commensurate emphasis upon that in Romans. I would suggest Romans is better understood against a hermeneutic backdrop, where Paul seeks to counter the way some Jewish Christians in Rome are interpreting the significance of Jesus and the Scriptural narrative, including notably Abraham, to make sense of their present status under Roman power that would motivate their future actions. Paul presents Jesus’ resurrection in the context of suffering and calls for Jewish Christians to live by faith in
Or, consider how Campbell references J. Louis Martyn’s work in 2 Corinthians 5.16-17 in his chapter “Apocalyptic Epistemology” in Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination to flesh out an apocalyptic epistemology. Yes, epistemic language is used in this context. But I would suggest this stems from the way the Corinthians are concerned about philosophical and epistemic considerations. What has priority for Paul is not how one comes to possess divine knowledge, but rather what people use to identify people: are people understanding people based upon their fleshly appearances or based upon their resemblance to Christ. How the Corinthians interpret specific teachers and leaders are a significant concern in 2 Corinthians, and Paul wants the Corinthians to focus on the resemblance to the person of Christ rather than to any specific claims to knowledge one might have: hence, he minimized the role of his own vision in 2 Corinthians 12. This fits more within a hermeneutical focus on how the Corinthians understand people in relation to the person of Christ than how it is they arrive at some knowledge. In fact, I would suggest part of the problem in Corinth is that they are so focused on knowledge, they fail to see how it makes them arrogant towards each other.
Now in making this critique of Campbell’s reading a theological epistemology into Paul’s letters, I am not ruling out the place of theological epistemology. But the exegetical concern is that epistemic matters is not the primary way Jews in the first century would construe the concerns about thinking.
Meanwhile, there is also a theological and spiritual concern in how people’s finding a sense of epistemic justification often creates an arrogant spirit, which only gets amplified when we start talking about God. While a form of epistemology that focuses more on
This is not to suggest that the practice of hermeneutics is “undefiled” from power and arrogance. Any look at the way creation “scientists” use literalist hermeneutics to keep other Christians away from the scientific understanding of evolution, thereby giving them as “scientists” a place of legitimacy as expertise within their own communities can show that hermeneutics, and not just epistemology, can get into power plays. It is not uncommon that teachers of Scripture will presuppose a priori a hermeneutic framework to give the result they want; this is so much at the heart of preachers with progressive theological convictions in their rejection of the authoritative inspiration of the Scripture. But even in these two instances, I would suggest there is a bit of the epistemic instinct underneath these practices as claims to what is intellectually right, that is epistemically justified, rational, etc., do often impact hermeneutic considerations.
But, this is to suggest hermeneutics is the magnifying glass we can use to reveal our epistemic arrogance, particularly when it comes to reading the Scriptures. But not just any hermeneutics, but a hermeneutics conjoined to matters of the heart that unmasks the motivations behind our epistemology. As the sophists were in opposed to the type of knowledge that would typify Platonism, as the post-modernists threw the modernist foundations of the Enlightenment into question, so too does the Jesus who engages in matters of heart and hermeneutics call into question the foundations of knowledge and the motivations that lie beneath them. To this end, hermeneutics does not oppose epistemology
And in this way, perhaps we can make significance of what Jesus does to the Jewish religious leaders by targetting the body of legal traditions and interpretations that emerge from the way in which the implicit epistemic claims that the Scripture witness to God’s will is used to legitimize the hermeneutic practices of the religious leadership that culminate in the various legal traditions that became poor readings of God’s instruction to Israel and of Israel’s story and place in the world. The socio-political motivations of that day and the personal motivations of the teachers took a stranglehold of how the Scriptures were interpreted and applied, with the implicit assumption that their interpretations were legitimated in virtue of it coming from the epistemic source of knowledge about God’s will, the Scriptures. With this in tow, we can avoid the tendency of early Protestant Judaism to caricature the doctrinal teachings of the Pharisees specifically and Judaism in general, and rather focus instead on the way social relations and personal motivations lead to the (
- Richard Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period. (Grand Rapid, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), 19-20.
- It would be false to suggest Israel’s belief in one God was solely a cause of reading the Scriptures. In addition to any possibility of God’s involvement in Israel’s history, the other practices of Jews in family, community, and society also reinforced this belief in one God. However, given the authoritative status bestowed to the Scriptures, the reading and interpretation of Scripture would have a marked influence on reinforcing this belief.
- The Stoics would be much too “rationalistic” to be accepted into the scientific community today, although I would note that many of the themes and ideas of Stoicism can be seen in religion, therapy, etc. While N.T. Wright routinely draws the connections to Epicureanism and modern-day intellectual understanding, I would suggest the more you move outside of the most robustly scientific circles without going into explicitly religious circles, Stoic patterns tend to play out more prominently.
- To be clear, I am not saying it is impossible to do both hermeneutics and epistemic considerations, but only that it is not natural.
- I use the terms rational, empiricist, and skeptic here not to suggest that Hellenistic philosophy can simply be defined by modern uses of the term, but only to give a useful way of conceptualizing by analogy the diversity in epistemic frameworks of the Hellenistic schools of philosophy.
- Dru Johnson’s work in the Bible and epistemology is helpful here.
- This is strengthened by how Paul’s language commonly resembles Stoic language and concepts, albeit used by Paul is a different fashion than the Stoics. However, scholars such as F.C. Baur, Michael Goulder, and James Davis has suggested the Torah and/or interpretation is at stakes in 1 Corinthians, but the repetition of epistemic language about knowledge and the resemblances of the discourse to some Stoic ideas would be suggestive against that conclusion.
- Not as Plantinga uses the term, but as Richard Foley describes it in “Conceptual Diversity in Epistemology” in The Oxford Handbook of Epistemology.