The Three Very Different Ways People Read the Bible

Here are some key dynamics to remember HOW we read and interpret Biblical texts.

First, everybody, and I mean everybody, brings presumptions to the text. Not everybody may be aware of the particular presumptions they bring to the table, but they nonetheless bring and use them. And these presumptions will either limit or expand what meanings the Scripture can ultimately speak to them.

Everybody who reads anything applies a certain Literary Theory to gather meaning from the text, whether they are consciously aware of it or not. Literary Theory just explains our chosen style of reading, how we ourselves elect to draw meaning from written language.

One such theory claims language only serves the author. The author alone is the creator and revealer of the text. This Literary Theory is called Romantic Humanism. Its functional slogan is: “the human AUTHOR rules!”

Another theory claims that the author serves language. as IT chooses. The system of language and signs surrounding the author’s background produces the ultimate meaning of texts, NOT the subjective intention of the author. This Literary Theory is called Structuralism. Its functional slogan is “the LETTER rules!”

Both of the above Literary Theories do have one thing in common, however. Both claim that the text, once written, is “closed” and “static.” But another Literary Theory, described below, holds that the text remains “open” and “evolving” to multi-varied and ongoing re-interpretation.

This third theory, the one I favor, is a hybrid dynamic I want to label Christian Post-Structuralism. It says that WE ourselves, as the reader, become integral parts of the text’s meaning. As it concerns Scripture, this theory holds that WE, as its readers:
…ARE God’s living and inspired language,
…BUT that our human language is fractured and flawed,
…AND infected with the confusion of Babel,
…ONCE removed from perfection of Edenic intimacy,
…A NEVER-ENDING story which slips, shifts, and slides with every use,
…ALWAYS open, ever-evolving, but a perpetually partial expression at best.

Christian Post Structuralism’s Slogan is “the INSPIRED reader rules!”

But, here is the real shocker. The ancient reading styles of Jesus’ day, as well as those of the early church fathers’, were far closer to the reading dynamics of Post-Structuralism than they were to Romantic Humanism or Structuralism. Most Bible reading styles today are simply NOT congruent with the styles of the very authors who wrote the Bible.

Here is a brief historical survey of these textual presumptions.

1) From the days of Jesus up until the 17-18th centuries, the majority of Bible readers, both Jewish and Christians, employed a multi-level Hermeneutic which incorporated plain meaning context, allegorical subtext, wide paraphrastic permission and eisegetical elbow room (aka drash). The text was not seen as a closed text with ONLY one meaning that depended solely on the authorial intent of the human writers. Rather, the different levels mentioned above kept the text OPEN, EVOLVING and FLUID. These levels were not always antagonistic and were often employed side by side with one another. This multi-leveled would later be formally known to the Jewish exegetes by the acronym PARDES, and by the Christian exegetes as the QUADRIGA.

2) From the 17th-18th centuries up until the 20th century, with the ascendancy of western rationalism, the philosophy of reading changed into ROMANTIC HUMANISM, which sees the text as CLOSED and therefore entirely and solely dependent on authorial intent. If the human author did not consciously intend a specific interpretation of a text, then that interpretation was illegitimate. This discounted most allegorical readings (unless explicitly stated by the human authors). It also removed all elbow room for paraphrastic and drashic readings. The view of the majority of the early church fathers HAD been that Bible writers often spiritually wrote more than they contextually knew. This was the key reason the Biblical text must be left OPEN. Romantic Humanism disagreed and essentially CLOSED all texts to a strictly literal/contextual hermeneutic. The human author alone essentially owned the rights of interpretation. The human author’s original understanding was the hard ceiling above which no subsequent reading could rise.

3) In the 20th century, Romantic Humanism was gradually supplanted as a hermeneutical philosophy by STRUCTURALISM. Structuralism still kept the text totally closed. But what it did was replace authorial intent with systemic or structural intent. Whereas a Romantic Humanist would say the original human author’s intent in writing the text could ALONE authenticate the one true meaning of the text, Structuralism NOW comes along and says NO, the one true meaning of the text can be scientifically determined, but NOT by meticulously examining the author, but rather by meticulously scrutinizing the entire system of signs or language structure which produced the author. Structuralism was an intellectual movement in France in the 1950s and 1960s that studied the underlying structures in texts and used analytical concepts from linguistics, psychology, anthropology, and other fields to interpret those structures. It emphasized the logical and scientific nature of its results.

4) POST-STRUCTURALISM rose in the second half of the 20th century as a rebuttal to several of structuralism’s presumptions. In reality, it was a return to the ancient hermeneutic employed by the exegetes of Jesus’ day, as well as the early church fathers. Post Structuralism sees texts as perpetually “open” rather than permanently “closed” once the human author pens the last syllable. Umberto Eco’s (1962) The Open Work is considered by some to be the first post-structuralist work. Jacques Derrida’s post-structural philosophy of deconstruction says a very interesting thing about authorial intent, regardless of whether that author is an individual ( Romantic Humanism) or a structure (Structuralism). “The effects or structure of a text are not reducible to its ‘truth’, to the intended meaning of its presumed author.” (Derrida, Otobiographies, quoted in Thiselton, New Horizons, p.111).

Post-Structuralism doesn’t deny that an author of a text intends a particular meaning. But, whatever was originally intended cannot be the ‘fixed’ meaning of the particular text. Post-Structuralism believes we put far too much weight on the subjective intentions of the original author. There are many other societal, linguistic, and spiritual influences at work which affect how the original text is now understood and continues to be understood. It is as if once a text is finished, it is truly only beginning the roller coaster ride of its interpretive activity and conceptual evolution. It is as if the texts become the “community property” of all who thereafter engage them. These text-engagers form a “corporate womb” who suffer labor pangs as they continue to give multiple births to varied and vibrant readings, readings unknown and unconsidered by the original author.

Post-Structuralism implies that while authors continue to write with a specific intent and meaning, the moment the text is finished, other forces take over the text for better or worse. Like a maverick homing pigeon who never returns home, the text is flying to parts unknown without ever returning home to its author. The text joins the play of semiotics and signifiers and their reference become a function of what society and/or spirit decides they will mean.

For the early Christians, Post-Structuralism is the Literary Theory which most closely resembles that of the Biblical world. If we really want to better understand how the Bible writers wrote, we should first seek to understand how they read. Ancient reading styles were far more fluid than most modern reading styles. Rigid structuralism rules much of today’s exegetical practices, but ancient reading styles were closer to post-structural reading where the text is viewed as “open,” and subject to evolved and alternate readings.

The ancient Jewish scholars of Jesus’ day used a multi-varied hermeneutic which later came to be known by the acronym “Pardes” (a late Biblical Hebrew word borrowed from a Persian word meaning “garden, or orchard”). Pardes described a dynamic by which the reader could legitimately interpret Old Testament texts on 4 different levels:

1) “Peshat” (“simple” meaning) is the first level, which meant reading Scripture for its “plain sense meaning” or “contextual sense.” This equates to what we would call the historical and/or grammatical meanings.

2) “Remez” (“hinted at” meaning) is the second level. This is is basically what we today call allegorical reading. It is predicated on the assumption that Biblical texts frequently say MORE than what the literal text says or OTHER than what the literal text says. Types, shadows, symbols, and metaphors all happily congregate here.

3) “Drash” (“search after” meaning) is the third level. It incorporates personal insights from the reader which cause him to subjectively interact with and then insert meanings and personal proposals and interpretations into the text. We call this eisegesis today. This allows the reader wide discretion in making the text relevant for today, here and now. This focuses NOT on the text’s historical truth and original grammatical meaning, NOR even on the allegorical subtext. But, rather, drash (aka midrash) focuses on subjectively finding divine truth and direction for the present moment. This is why this level is considered homiletical, the subject of sermons which modernize Scripture to better align with modern sensibilities. This allows for the reader to “fill in gaps” of ancient writings by loosely paraphrasing, or even rewriting, the text to comport with current sensibilities. Some Jewish scholars believe the “drash”are what the reader wishes the text would or should say rather than what the text does say.

4) “Sod” (“secret” meaning) is the fourth level. This is where hidden coincidences and meanings lay hidden in Scriptures waiting to be perceived through an epiphany or mystical extrapolation. This can include but is not limited to, Gematria and Etymological meanings to unveil esoteric secrets divinely embedded in the text.

[Sources: THE JEWISH STUDY BIBLE: Tanakh Translation, Oxford Press, Jewish Publication Society (2004); JEWISH NEW TESTAMENT COMMENTARY, David H. Stern, JNTPI, (1996): THE UNEDITED JEWISH ENCYCLOPEDIA, (The.JewishEncyclopedia. com).

It is crucial to see that these four levels were not viewed as necessarily antagonistic, but often complementary and supplementary to each other. The Jews believed that, “Each of the four levels incorporates the other levels.” (Tzenach Tzedek). This was common in the ancient world, to read texts on multiple levels which were not mutually exclusive.

In his recent book, THE HERMENEUTICS OF THE APOSTOLIC PROCLAMATION, Pauline scholar Matthew Bates notes that ancient reading styles welcomed and embraced a much more expansive and fluid dynamic in interpreting the text than do modern reading styles. He notes that the Greeks similarly read Homer’s ILIAD and ODYSSEY on many different literal and non-literal levels, much like the Jews read Scripture as described above.

There were six known Christian theological schools in the early church: Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, Edessa/Nisbis, Ephesus, and Rome/Carthage. The early Church’s hermeneutic, except for the Antiochan school, largely held to a similar multi-level hermeneutic.

SOME believe the church fathers held to four interpretive levels which later came to be formally known as the Quadriga in the Middle Ages (LITERAL: What the passage says about past events, ALLEGORICAL: What the passage can tell us about Christ, TROPOLOGICAL: What the passage can teach us about how to live, and ANAGOLOICAL : What the passage tells us about our ultimate fate). St. John Cassian, for example, demonstrates this four-fold exegetical method on the meaning of “Jerusalem”: LITERALLY it is the city of the Jews; ALLEGORICALLY it is the Church of Christ; ANAGOGICALLY it is that heavenly city of God which is the mother of us all; TROPOLOGICALLY it is the human soul, which frequently under this title is either blamed or praised by the Lord.

SOME of the church fathers held to three interpretive levels (Origen: the bodily level, the soulful level, and the spiritual level, AND Irenaeus: the literal, vertical allegory and horizontal allegory). Also, consider the following excerpt from Maximus the Confessor (7th century):

“Beyond the literal sense to the deeper meaning of the Scriptures. The sacred Scripture, taken as a whole, is like a human being. The Old Testament is the body and the New is the soul, the meaning it contains, the spirit.From another viewpoint, we can say that the entire sacred Scripture, Old and New Testament, has two aspects: the historical content which corresponds to the body, and the deep meaning, the goal at which the mind should aim, which corresponds to the soul. If we think of human beings, we see they are mortal in their visible properties but immortal in their invisible qualities. So with Scripture. It contains the letter, the visible text, which is transitory. But it also contains the spirit hidden beneath the letter, and this is never extinguished and this ought to be the object of our contemplation. Think of human beings again. If they want to be perfect, they master their passions and mortify the flesh. So with Scripture. If it is heard in a spiritual way, it trims the text, like circumcision. Paul says: `Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.’ [2 Cor. 4:16] We can say that also of Scripture. The further the letter is divorced from it, the more relevance the spirit acquires. The more the shadows of the literal sense retreat, the more the shining truth of the faith advances. And this is exactly why Scripture was composed.” (Translation by Thomas Spidlik, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: A Patristic Breviary, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, MI – Spencer, MASS, 1994)

SOME of the church fathers held to just two levels (Justin Martyr and the Apostle Paul both spoke simply of the literal and the spiritual meanings).

The point is that practically all ancient hermeneutics allowed for multi-varied reading styles which included and incorporated both ALLEGORICAL (i.e. non-literal) reading and CONTEXTUAL (i.e. literal reading).

Unfortunately, today what was intended to be a multi-lane superhighway of interpretive adventure and awe, has instead been largely reduced to a one-lane log jam where the only legitimate Bible reading is literal “dead letter” exegesis. This exegetical and hermeneutical traffic jam has constipated church travel and has resulted in much spiritual road rage where the image of a wrathful God still largely prevails.

And this is why so few are enjoying the Bible. However, if we will go back and see HOW the church fathers actually read, then we will be liberated to better understand how they wrote. They would encourage us to see their texts as “open” and multi-varied in interpretive meaning, some of which they themselves were not even consciously aware of at the time they wrote it.