A Biblical Exegetical Approach
Drs Gijs van den Brink, 1990
Different Exegetical Approaches
There are different presuppositions which play a role in the interpretation of a biblical text. There is, in fact, a variety of different exegetical approaches. In 1953, the American scholar M.H. Abrams wrote his well-known book The Mirror and the Lamp. In the introduction (pp. 6-7) he gives a beautiful and simple explanation of the various components which are of significance to the criticism of a work of art in general. He differentiates the following four components: the work of art itself, the reality or the universe, the artist and the audience. Each of these components also plays a role in the criticism of a literary work of art and thus in the exegesis of the Bible as well (Barton 1984: 19-35). In the case of exegesis, the components are: first, the Bible text; second, reality or the historical events and divine truths; third, the Bible writer, and fourth, the hearer or reader.
These four parts explain the differences which exist in an exegetical approach. In fact, exegesis can concentrate on one of these four parts more than on the others. We see that reality was central in the pre-critical period. One read a text because of its information about reality. This changed with the coming of historical-critical exegesis. The concern then lies with the intention of the writer, or the author’s intent in particular. The reader or hearer receives a great amount of attention in the so-called ‘materialistic’ exegesis, according to which the message of the text does not exist, but only several readings, several interpretations of the text, in which the interpretation is dependent on the context of the hearer. The last part, the text itself, is claimed by the so-called ‘structuralistic’ exegesis, which thinks it is able to discard the other three components and presents itself as ‘objective criticism’. But then, what is an approach which is ‘biblical’?
A Biblical Approach
Each of the approaches has the same starting point of the text, but they differ in their view concerning the function of the text. For one who believes that the Bible is the Word of God, the function of the Bible text is consistent with the general view of the pre-critical period. The Bible gives information about reality from God’s point of view. The believing exegete ultimately wants to explain what God has to say to Israel, to the Church and to the world. But then what about the place of the writer and the reader? In connection with scientific knowledge, it is impossible for us to ignore these areas, which is what happened in the pre-critical era. But it is just as impossible to regard these areas as the starting point or goal of exegesis because in our view the text is the starting point and the reality of God is the main goal.
What then remains is to see both as a means to the understanding of the words and works of God. So far as the author is concerned, it is not difficult to see that matters, such as the language of the writer for example, are of importance for the understanding of the Biblical text. But what about the function of the reader or the hearer? Here two things are of fundamental importance. First, the reader–or in our case, the exegete–must strive for objectivity. He must investigate how the first listeners percieved the words. This can take place through a historical investigation of the context, also the religious context of the first listener. Second, the personal belief of the interpreter plays a role. An unbelieving exegete may speak about myths and theological ideas of the Bible writer, where the text speaks about salvation-historical events and divine truths.
An approach which is faithful to the Bible has the Bible as the starting-point, the writer and reader as means and the understanding of the divine reality as the goal.
If we are in agreement over the very approach just mentioned, it does not yet mean that we do actually use the same principles in the process of exegesis. We must also closely examine a number of fields of exegetical research with respect to their presuppositions (see Marshall 1977).
The best known are the differences in approach found within historical research, in which we will look in more detail now. We are concerned with the problem of the historicity and authenticity of written events and spoken words. Concerning the gospels, the question still posed by many people is, ‘Did Jesus Himself actually speak these words?’
Central to this discussion are several criteria which are applied in order to prove authenticity. The modern critical method of Bible study has principally two criteria: ‘multiple attestation’ and ‘criterion of dissimilarity’. The former states that a text appears in different independent sources. The latter states that the content of a saying of Jesus does not agree with ideas in Judaism or the early church. Much criticism may be offered regarding these criteria (see esp. Goetz-Blomberg 1981: 39-63). The most fundamental criticism is that, in line with modern scientific philosophy (Popper 1964), we are of the opinion that it is not the authenticity that must be shown, but the unauthenticity. The reliability of the transmitted text should not be verified but falsified. It must be proven that the texts do not give a trustworthy representation of the issues. That means that the burden of proof lies with the critics.
Historians are familiar with two basic criteria for demonstrating unreliable information. The first criterion is the lack of correspondence with reality. For example, this is the case in using contrary evidence from archaeology (e.g., anachronisms). The second criterion is lack of coherency or agreement with data from other texts; for example, discrepancy with the context.
Let us explain the difference between verification and falsification by applying both principles to the Great Commission of Jesus found in Matthew 28. According to the researchers who want to see the authenticity of Jesus’ words here proven specifically through the criteria of ‘multiple attestation’ and of ‘dissimilarity’, the Great Commission is not authentic. In fact, it is only found in Matthew 28 and the words of the trinitarian baptism formula are strongly harmonising with the theology of the early Christian church. Those who want to demonstrate the unauthenticity bring two points in particular to our attention. The first point is that Matthew 28, reporting the appearance of Jesus in Galilee, does not agree with the Gospel of Luke, which only reports appearances in Jerusalem. The second point is that it does not appear from the missionary practice of the apostles in the Book of Acts and their letters, that they were familiar with these words of Jesus. The question as to whether these objections are valid is not under discussion here.
Against the first attempt at falsification, we contend that not only Matthew, but also Mark and John know of appearances of Jesus in Galilee (Mark. 14:28; 16:7; John 21:1). Moreover, it is neither strange nor contradictory that Jesus also appeared to His disciples in Galilee, the province which played such an important role in His earthly ministry. The fact that nowhere in Acts do we come across a reminder of the Great Commission can be explained against the background of the Old Testament. The Old Testament expectation was that all the nations would come to Jerusalem (Jeremias 1959). We conclude that the proof for the unauthenticity of Jesus’ words here is not convincing.
We are concerned about the difference between both approaches: verification originates from the view that the words of Jesus are not reliable; falsification originates from the view that the words of Jesus are reliable.
Religion-historical research also falls under the term of historical research. This is a very useful tool for research into the religious context of the hearers. But it becomes very hypothetical and dangerous if it deteriorates into a merely phenomenalistic approach, in which phenomena from heathen religions are used in order to elucidate biblical data. Examples of this would be the use of mystery religions to clarify Paul’s teaching on baptism or the use of ecstatic phenomena in Hellenistic religions in order to understand the gift of tongues.
Source-criticism is also familiar with hypothetical variants. The New Testament gives us four sources, the gospels, which inform us about the earthly life of Jesus Christ. This is legitimate. But modern biblical scholars generally uphold one or another theory of literary dependency, by which the one evangelist has copied and amplified or curtailed the other evangelist. The two-source theory which states that Matthew and Luke used Mark and, along with that, still another source called Q, is very popular. It is obvious that it is incorrect to base the explanation of a gospel text on an uncertain hypothesis.
Textual Analysis and Textual Interpretation
Next we must discuss an important distinction: the difference between textual analysis and textual interpretation. We may consider the analysis of a text as an exegetical pre-study, in which the facts of the text are collected. A proposal as to the interpretation is then done on the basis of these facts. The literary critic Oversteegen (1982: 204) gives the following definition of interpretation: ‘an interpretation is a proposal as to the arrangement of textual information.’ Interpretation consists of the arranging of the collected data into a single meaningful cohesion and the making of choices from the different possibilities which the analysis provides. We need to give serious thought to this last statement.
If the pre-study gives rise to different possibilities of interpretation, is that all there is to it or are there good and bad interpretations? Oversteegen mentions four criteria to arrive at the most acceptable interpretation of a text (1971: 132-146). First, he names the criterion of ‘covering the facts’. The interpretation must do justice to as much textual data as possible. Second, a simple explanation is to be given preference to a complicated explanation. Third, all of the elements of the text must be integrated, as fully as possible, at the same level. Fourth, there is the intention of the author which makes one explanation more plausible than the other.
With regard to the Bible, we must add two further criteria: first, the coherence of the canon, or in other words, is a certain interpretation supported by other texts of Scripture? Second, the religious experience of the exegete. The same Spirit Who inspired the Bible writers also lives in the believing researchers of today. These last two criteria can also be called Word and Spirit. They play not so much a role in the analysis of a text, but very much so in the making of a choice as to different interpretation possibilities.
Comparing Scripture with Scripture and the illumination of the Holy Spirit are therefore not the only methods of Bible exposition, but they are surely the final criteria for the most acceptable explanation of the Bible.
Abrams, M.H., 1953 , The mirror and the Lamp. Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (New York).
Barton, J. ,1984, ‘Classifying Biblical Criticism’ in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 29 (1984) 19-35.
Goetz, S.C. and C.L. Blomberg, 1981, ‘The Burden of Proof’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 11: 39-63.
Jeremias, J., 1959, Jesu Verheissung für die Völker (2. Aufl., Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer).
Marshall, I.H. (ed.), 1977, New Testament Interpretation (Exeter: The Paternoster Press).
Oversteegen, J.J., 1971, ‘Hermeneutiek’ in Lampas (vol IV, 2/4) 132-146.
Oversteegen, J.J., 1982 , Beperkingen (Utrecht: Hes).
Popper, K.R., 1964 , ‘Unity of Method in the Natural and Social Sciences’ in The Poverty of Historicism (2nd. ed.,New York)