A brief history of 4 methods
History of four interpretive methods - literally
the Word of God, as a historical document, as midrash, and as folklore:
||Literal interpretation: Until the 15th century CE, essentially all
Christians analyzed much of the Bible literally. They believed that the Bible
inerrant. Its authors were
inspired by God. Events happened exactly as described in its text. After
the 15th century, developments outside of religion started to make these
beliefs more difficult to maintain:|
The astronomical findings of Kepler and Galileo in the 16th century were
the first to seriously threaten this belief system.
Cosmology, as described in the Bible was found to be in error. The idea
that stars traveled on the underside of a metal
dome -- the firmament -- that separated earth from Heaven was found to
be in error.
Further religious strains occurred in the early 18th century when it
became obvious to most scientists that the earth's geological processes were
exceedingly slow, and must have been accomplished over incredibly long
periods of time. Bishop Ussher had predicted that the world was created in
BCE. This left inadequate time for mountain ranges to
erode and others to build up.
||Benjamin Franklin proved in the 18th century that lightning is a natural
electrical phenomenon, and not thunderbolts hurled by Satanic powers.
In the 19th century, Christians in large numbers started to abandon the
institution of human slavery, rejecting the
concept of one person owning another person as profoundly immoral. Passages
throughout the Bible had justified, condoned, controlled, and accepted
slavery. People began to wonder how the Bible could accept and regulate a
practice which was so immoral, and to do it without criticism.
The result of such scientific and social stressors caused some Christian
denominations to question the inerrancy and literal interpretation of the Bible.
They gradually abandoned certain beliefs, and generated a major split in
Christianity between Modernism and Fundamentalist. The split continues today.
Fundamentalist and some other conservative Christians still interpret much of
the Bible literally. One example is the battle between supporters of
creation science and evolution.
Interpreting the Bible as a historical document: Considering the
Bible as a historical document can be traced back to the start of "biblical
criticism" in Germany. Theologians used all of the findings of the social
and natural sciences to examine the Bible and other contemporary religious
writings. They rejected the miracle stories in the Bible and sought natural
explanations. In 1835, David Strauss' book Das Leben Jesu (The Life of
Jesus) triggered a quest for the historical Jesus -- a search to reconstruct
an accurate image of Jesus as he existed at the first part of the 1st century
CE. Sacred texts of the Christian Gnostics and other early Christian
groups which did not make it into the official canon of the Christian
Scriptures are studied. Sections of the Bible, such as those dealing with
slavery and the suppression of women were rejected as representing a less
enlightened social order and the sexism of biblical writers. The findings of
these modernist religious academics were radical. Many lost their jobs because
they openly expressed their ideas. However, their findings did not necessarily
filter down to the person in the pew. Many clergy hold beliefs about the
nature of the Bible which they would feel uncomfortable sharing with their
Midrash Interpretation: The writers of the Hebrew Scriptures appear
to have employed Midrash extensively. This tradition seems to have been
continued by the writers of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament). This
would be reasonable to expect, since all but one of the New Testament authors
were of Jewish background and midrash would form a major part of their
religious culture. (The author of Gospel of Luke and of Acts may have been a
Gentile; he apparently knew little about Jewish customs).
Near the end of the first century CE, friction between
the early Christians and mainline Judaism mounted. At the same time, Paul and
his followers were evangelizing the Gentiles (non-Jews). The result was that the
Christian movements became predominately non-Jewish and eventually anti-Jewish.
Being ignorant of the Midrash tradition and antagonistic towards the Jews, the
early Christians began to interpret the Christian Scriptures literally.
Christian theologian Michael Goulder pioneered the Midrash interpretation of
the Gospels in the mid-1970's. 3,4 Bishop Spong
widely introduced Midrash to the public. 5
Ancient stories were circulated for decades or centuries via an oral
tradition before being fixed in written form. Some were legends and myths;
others were accounts of real events. Various groups within a religion or
culture passed on different versions of the story. By the time that multiple
versions of the same story were written down, many discrepancies -- mostly
minor -- had developed.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today
Charles Pellegrino, "Return to Sodom and Gomorrah: Bible stories from
Archeologists", Random House, (1994), Page 235-237.
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- Ibid., Page 264.
Michael Goulder, "Midrash and Lection in Matthew", SPCK, London, UK
Michael Goulder, "Luke, A New Paradigm", Sheffield Academic Press,
Sheffield UK, (1989).
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John Shelby Spong, "Liberating the Gospels : Reading the Bible with
Jewish Eyes," HarperSanFrancisco, (1997).
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"The Virgin Birth in Catholic Theology," New Advent, at:
Copyright ? 1996 to 2009 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update 2009-JAN-27