SPECIAL TOPIC: THE ALEXANDRIAN SCHOOL OF BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION

I. Jewish Background

The most consistent use of the method of Bible study known as the Historical- Grammatical-Lexical Method (in this Textbook called the Contextual/Textual method) began in Antioch, Syria, in the third century a.d. in reaction to the Allegorical Method, which had developed several hundred years earlier in Alexandria, Egypt. The Alexandrian Method was an adaptation of the method of Philo, a Jewish interpreter who lived from 20 b.c. to a.d. 55. Philo also lived in Alexandria. He, being a Jew of the Diaspora, was not very influential among the rabbis, but had a great impact among the Hellenistic intellectuals of Alexandria, which was the seat of learning in that day. Philo agreed with the rabbis that the Old Testament was given by God. He believed God uniquely spoke through the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek philosophers, especially Plato. Therefore, every aspect of the text had meaning—every sentence, clause, word, letter, and even the smallest embellishment or idiosyncrasy of the text.

The rabbis' interpretation is characterized by a focus on "how to," especially in relation to the Law of Moses. Philo, although using some of the same idiosyncrasies of grammar and spelling, found hidden meanings in the text as it related to Platonism. The rabbis were interested in applying the Mosaic Law to daily life, while Philo wanted to reinterpret the history of Israel in light of his Platonic world view. To do this he had to totally remove the Old Testament from its historical context.

"In his mind many of the insights of Judaism, properly understood, do not differ from the highest insights of Greek philosophy. God reveals Himself to the chosen people of Israel but He revealed Himself in no radically different way from the way in which He reveals Himself to the Greek" (Grant and Tracy 1984, 53-54).

His basic approach was to allegorize the text if:

A. the text spoke of that which seemed to be unworthy of God (physicalness of God)

B. the text contained any perceived inconsistencies

C. the text contained any perceived historical problems

D. the text could be adapted (allegorized) to his philosophical world view (Grant and Tracy 1984, 53)

II. The Alexandrian School

The basics of Philo's approach to interpretation were continued in the Christian School of Interpretation, which developed in this same city. One of its first leaders was Clement of Alexandria (a.d. 150-215). He believed that the Bible contained different levels of meaning in order to make the Scriptures relevant to different kinds of people, cultures, and periods of time. These levels were

A. the historical, literal sense

B. the doctrinal sense

C. the prophetic or typological sense

D. the philosophical sense

E. the mystical or allegorical sense (Grant and Tracy 1984, 55-56)

This basic approach was continued by Origen (a.d. 185-254), who probably was the greatest mind of the ancient church (Silva 1987, 36-37). He was the first textual critic, apologist, commentator, and systematic theologian. A good example of his approach can be found in his interpretation of Pro. 22:20-21. He combines it with 1 Thess. 5:23. In this way every passage in the Bible has three levels of interpretation.

1. a "bodily" or literal sense

2. a "soulish" or moral sense

3. a "spiritual or allegorical/mystical" sense (Grant and Tracy 1984, 59)

The hermeneutics of Alexandria held sway over most of the Church in the area of interpretation until the time of the Protestant Reformation. It can be characterized in its developed form by Augustine (a.d. 354-430) in his four levels of interpretation.

1. the literal—teaches historical events

2. the allegorical—teaches what you should believe

3. the moral—teaches what you should do

4. the mystical—teaches what you should hope

For the church as a whole, the non-literal (#2,3,4) contained the purist spiritual insight. However, the abuses of the non-historical, non-grammatical method led to the formulation of another school of interpretation. The Historical-Grammatical textual-focused school of Antioch of Syria (third century) accused the allegorist of:

1. importing meaning into the text

2. forcing a hidden meaning into every text

3. putting forth fanciful and far-fetched interpretation

4. not allowing words and sentences to bear their obvious, normal meaning (Sire 1980, 107)

5. allowing human subjectivity to dominate the plain message of the original author

Allegory, when done by a well-trained, godly interpreter, can have great value. It is obvious that Jesus (Matt. 13:18-23) and Paul (1 Cor. 9:9-10; 10:1-4; Gal. 4:21-31) both set a biblical precedent for this approach. However, when used as a tool to prove one's pet theological doctrine or to defend one's inappropriate actions, it becomes a great stumbling block. The major problem is that there is no means to substantiate the meaning from the text itself (Silva 1987, 74). The sinfulness of mankind has turned this method (and all methods to some extent) into a means to prove almost anything and then to call it biblical.

"There is always the danger of eisegesis, reading into the Bible the ideas which we have received from elsewhere and then receiving them each with the authority with which we have come to surround the book" (World Council of Churches Symposium on Biblical Authority for Today, Oxford, 1949).

"Origen, and many others along with him, have seized the occasion of torturing Scripture, in every possible manner, away from the true sense. They concluded that the literal sense is too mean and poor, and that, under the outer back of the letter, there lurks deeper mysteries, which cannot be extracted but by beating out allegories. And this they had no difficulty in accomplishing; for speculation which appear to be ingenious have always been preferred, and always will be preferred, by the world to solid doctrine. . .with approbation the licentious system gradually attained such a height, that he who handled Scripture for his own amusement not only was suffered to pass unpunished, but even attained the highest applause. For many centuries no man was considered to be ingenious, who had not the skill and daring necessary for changing into a variety of curious shapes the sacred word of God. This was undoubtedly a contrivance of Satan to undermine the authority of Scripture, and to take away from the reading of it the true advantage. God visited this profanation by a just judgment, when he suffered the pure meaning of the Scripture to be buried under false interpretations. Scripture, they say, is fertile, and this produces a variety of meanings. I acknowledge that Scripture is a most rich and inexhaustible fountain of all wisdom; but I deny that its fertility consists in the various meanings which any man, at his pleasure, may assign. Let us know then, that the true meaning of Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning; and let us embrace and abide by it resolutely. Let us not only neglect as doubtful, but boldly set aside as deadly corruptions, those pretended expositions, which lead us away from the natural meaning" (John Newport dissertation, N.D., 16-17).

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