Interpreting the Jewish scriptures in Paul’s time (NT 2.10)

One thing that is difficult for modern students to get their minds around (and, perhaps, for modern lecturers to explain properly) is the range of methods or styles of interpretation employed by first century Jews like Paul (who was trained as a Pharisee, of course). When a person like Paul approached the Jewish scriptures, he had a variety of options on how to extract meaning from those writings. And these options go far beyond what a modern person would consider a “normal” method of interpretation, of getting the meaning out of certain passages in the Bible.

Among these styles or methods of interpretation were: 1) Midrash, 2) Pesher, 3) Allegory, and 4) Typology. There are times when a number of methods are employed at once, and the lines between these modes of interpretation can be blurry, I should add. It is the modern scholar that speaks in these clear-cut terms more so than the ancient intepreter; nonetheless there are times when, for instance, Paul explicitly says he is putting forward an “allegory” (Gal 4:24) or when an author of Daniel or of one of the Dead Sea scrolls repeatedly speaks of his “pesher” of a particular prophetic writing.

1) Midrash, which comes from the root “to study” or “to interpret”, comes closest to what we as moderns would call interpretation proper. But even so this involves going beyond what we would call a literal interpretation. Thus, for instance, Paul unpacks the story of Abraham in a somewhat literal way, focussing on the chronological sequence of Yahweh’s relations with and establishment of a covenant with Abraham (in Galatians, as discussed in my other post). Yet he also juxtaposes a variety of other scriptural sources in relation to his exposition of Abraham’s story in a way that goes beyond a literal interpretation and is also focussed on the somewhat hidden, spiritual significance of the scriptures in question. In the process he also employs typological thinking, as explained below, in presenting Gentiles as sons of Abraham, or new Abrahams. Like all forms of interpretation discussed here, the interpreter is almost always concerned with applying the meaning that is found to the current situation of the interpreter and his (or her) listeners.

2) Pesher (literally, “solution” or “interpretation”) likewise involves finding the meanings presumed to be hidden within the Torah and, especially, prophetic writings like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Hosea. Pesher may be considered a type of Midrash in some ways, but there is more of a focus on one-to-one correspondences in the interpretation of specific details of the scripture in question. Pesher is very much focussed on the hidden meanings that cannot be readily detected by just anyone.

The author of Daniel frequently uses the term “pesher” to describe Daniel’s method of interpreting the details of dreams. Some members of the Dead Sea sect use the term pesher when they are doing very detailed, one-to-one intepretations regarding how details in the prophets (8th-6th centuries BCE) are in fact referring to specific powers or persons who can be identified in their own time (2nd-1st century BCE). By doing pesher, the interpreter is unlocking or decoding the “mystery” (raz). Pesher was (and still is) very important for apocalyptic thinkers who look for the veiled meaning behind details in the scriptures in order to find one-to-one correspondences with specific incidents or people in their own times, namely the end-times.

For a discussion of pesher in the context of the Dead Sea scroll known as the Isaiah Pesher, see the West Semitic Research Project site here.

3) Allegorical approaches involve extracting the deeply hidden but always spiritual meaning in a particular passage or story in the Bible. Allegorical interpretation, which is figurative, is very far removed from a literal interpretation and often seeks to find hidden and seemingly obscure meanings that noone else had or would find in a passage. When Paul uses the story of Sarah and Hagar from Genesis (in Galatians 4:21-31) and interprets these two women as two covenants, two mountains, and two cities, he is doing allegorical interpretation. There is also a sense in which Paul concludes this allegory with typological application, however, since he finishes by saying that the readers who follow Paul are “children of promise”, like Isaac (they are new Isaacs).

Philo of Alexandria, the first century Jewish philosopher, is well-known for his allegorical interpretations. For instance, as David Runia notes: “In the so-called Allegorical Commentary, which contains 21 books, Philo gives an elaborate commentary on the first 17 chapters of the book Genesis from a purely allegorical perspective. These chapters are not interpreted in terms of the primal history of man and God’s election of the people of Israel, but are read at a ‘deeper’ level as a profound account of the nature of the soul, her place in reality, and the experiences she undergoes as she searches for her divine origin and gains knowledge of her creator” (pp. 5-6 in article linked below). Runia provides an excellent introduction to Philo, including his allegorical methods: Philo, Alexandrian and Jew. Hindy Najman (U. Toronto) has an online article which discusses Philo’s typological and allegorical interpretation of the Cain and Abel stories in Genesis: Cain and Abel as Character Traits: A Study in the Allegorical Typology of Philo of Alexandria.

4) Typology involves viewing key figures or events in the stories of the Bible as ideal types that repeat themselves in subsequent history, particularly in the time of the interpreter. Paul is thinking typologically when he speaks of Jesus as the “second Adam”. Typological interpretation is evident throughout the Gospels, as when people in the story are presented as wondering whether Jesus is Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets (Mathew 16:14) or when Jesus is presented as seeing John the Baptist as the new Elijah (Mark 9:11-13). The Gospel of Matthew, in particular, provides a clear case of more thoroughgoing typological interpretation in the author’s presentation of Jesus as a new king David and a new Moses (see my post of Matthew’s portrait of Jesus here). For example, in the birth narrative Matthew juxtaposes particular stories about Moses’ birth with the birth of Jesus, and he sometimes quotes or alludes to specific passages or phrases relating to Moses’ story in the process of telling Jesus’ story.

In writing this post, my memory was refreshed by: J.D.G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament (2nd edition; Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1990) and R. N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (2nd edition; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999). The four types outlined above are also those listed by Dunn.

One thought on “Interpreting the Jewish scriptures in Paul’s time (NT 2.10)

  1. Jim Deardorff

    Philip, there’s one tiny point I’d like to comment on. That’s where you say, “Typological interpretation is evident throughout the Gospels, as when people in the story are presented as wondering whether Jesus is Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets (Mathew 16:14) or when Jesus is presented as seeing John the Baptist as the new Elijah (Mark 9:11-13).”

    To many, these are examples where Jesus, or the people, had reincarnation in mind. If Jesus was a wisdom teacher (and from much evidence today we know that the phenomenon of remembered past lives is real), he could have spoken in those terms. Unfortunately, since his teachings of the topic would have been very heretical, only traces of them could have remained in the Gospels.

    Please check with me or my website if you have any interest in this interpretation.

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