SPECIAL TOPIC: RABBINICAL HERMENEUTICAL TECHNIQUES
I. Scripture must be understood in its own historical and literary context and then applied to every new situation.
A. One example of the need to interpret the message of the Scriptures to a new situation is found in the slight change of the Ten Commandments.
1. Exodus 20 was written by Moses for a nomadic community
2. Deuteronomy 5 is Moses' adaptation of the same revelatory truths, but to a settled community.
B. In 2 Kings 22 is recorded the account of the remodeling and repair of the Temple under the leadership of Josiah. Hilkiah found a copy of the Law and Shaphan read it to King Josiah. Apparently no interpretation was necessary for Josiah's understanding.
C. Another example of an attempt to relate an earlier revelation to a new day and situation is found in Jeremiah. The false prophets of his day were proof-texting God's promises to Isaiah (Isaiah 36) and applying them literally to their day without noting their different settings, cf. Jeremiah 23-28.
D. The most noted biblical example of the need for hermeneutics is seen in Ezra's translating the Scripture from Hebrew into Aramaic and interpreting their meaning as he felt the need, cf. Neh. 8:8.
E. From this same post-exilic period comes the development of the office of scribe, which seems to replace the central place of the priest in Jewish society. The teaching of the synagogue, not the cultus, became the center of Jewish life. The scribe was necessary for the interpretation of ancient laws to the new Persian situation. Tradition asserts that Ezra began an official group of scribes, known as the Great Synagogue, for this very purpose (Osborne's unpublished notes, p. 4).
II. The Basic Need for Interpretive Principles
A. Written human language, at best, is ambiguous. Human communication, even if heard audibly, is often difficult to understand. Given a new historical setting, the task of interpreting the Scriptures to a new day becomes crucial.
B. Hermeneutics is an attempt to apply human logic and grammatical rules to a written text, in order to understand the original author's meaning and its subsequent application.
C. Within Judaism several distinct methodologies developed which impacted the Apostolic period.
1. Peshat – the plain, obvious meaning of the words of the text
2. Remez – an allegorical sense based on some aspect of the text (hint)
3. Derash – a metaphorical sense using comparisons or illustrations (sermonic)
4. Sod – hidden meanings based on secret knowledge (Kabbalah)
III. The Development of Rabbinical Hermeneutics
A. Babylonian and Palestinian Jewry struggled with a cohesive system of guidelines to interpret the ancient Scriptures, particularly the Torah, to their day. This was done primarily in two ways.
1. The Torah was interpreted in two ways.
a. a literal method called peshat
b. an attempt to widen the application of the ancient texts by various methods of interpretation called midrash
2. Around the Torah developed the concept of "a hedge" known as the Oral Tradition. It was believed to have been given to Moses orally on Mt. Sinai (Mishua Abot 1.1). It was later codified in the Babylonian and Palestinian (never finished) Talmuds. This literature was an attempt to apply the Torah to daily life. This was often done by an appeal to authority, the quoting of authoritative rabbis on different questions of interpretation and application.
B. The Pairs
1. There developed sets of teachers who took differing opinions on interpretation (i.e., Shammai, the conservative, and Hillel, the liberal school). These pairs pursued the dialog method of debate as a means of arriving at the meaning of the Torah (Gilbert, p. 7). These pairs approached the text from opposite directions. Usually one sought the plain sense and the other the possible sermonic implications (comparisons and illustrations).
2. These pairs developed interpretive principles of a midrashic approach to the Torah (halachic texts). These men attempted to deal with the Scripture itself, but usually resorted to finding the hidden meaning in every text (Sod). This allowed them to apply the ancient texts to their day and answer questions with which the Bible itself never dealt.
3. There were three basic guiding reasons for rabbinical hermeneutics.
a. guides for applying the Torah to daily life
b. guides to protect one from the wrath of God (Deuteronomy 27-28)
c. guides to bring in the New Age
C. Some Early Methodologies
1. The Aramaic translations from Hebrew, which were called the Targums (Gilbert, pp. 16-17; Osborne, p. 5; Patte, pp. 55-58):
a. the apparent guidelines for translations were
(1) to clarify obscurities
(2) to harmonize contradictions
(3) to identify predictions
(4) to eliminate anthropomorphism
b. the apparent principles for translations (Patte, pp. 65-81) were
(1) everything in the text has significance for interpretation (numerology, variant spellings, etc.)
(2) one unrelated Scripture is used to explain another Scripture
(3) history is not treated in a chronological sense, but is telescoped into certain major events (call of Abraham, Exodus, Tabernacle/Temple, Exiles, New Age); this removed the historical element from the text which was to be interpreted
(4) emphasis was not on theological truth, but on practical, existential application of every item of the text
2. The Sadducees who formed the wealthy, priestly class in Jesus' day rejected the Oral Tradition which meant so much to the Pharisees. They also rejected the spiritual realm and views concerning the afterlife. This group was destroyed in the Jewish rebellion which culminated in the fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. Their basic principles were (Patte, pp. 125-128):
a. Scripture was to be understood in light of the covenant promises and curses (Deuteronomy 27-28).
b. Inspired Scripture was closed with the Torah (Genesis - Deuteronomy).
c. Scripture interpretation for them was very pragmatic. They wanted to know how to be blessed by God and avoid any divine sanctions.
d. They seem to have divided their lives into that which is secular and sacred. Their hermeneutics impacted only their religious lives.
e. It is interesting that this emphasis on the covenant was developed separately into the religious separatists movement of the Essenes by their "Teacher of Righteousness."
3. The Essenes or Qumran method of hermeneutics
a. It involved the contemporizing of all prophecy into their own existential setting (Pesher). They were in reaction to the normative Jewish institutions of their day. They saw themselves as the end-time elect community which was preparing for the New Age.
b. Their hermeneutical principles were (Brownlee, pp. 60-62):
(1) everything the ancient prophets wrote had an eschatological reference to their community
(2) since the ancient prophets wrote cryptically, their meanings are to be ascertained by a special coming teacher
(3) the ancient prophet's meaning could be found in the different copies of his texts (textual or orthographic irregularities)
(4) textual variants also were a clue to interpretation
(5) application could be made on the basis of similar circumstances in another verse
(6) application could be made on the basis of allegory
(7) the ancient prophet's meaning can be deduced by more than one definition or etymology of terms
(8) sometimes the true meaning is so hidden that only a meaning derived from a synonym is used
(9) sometimes the true meaning is found in the rearrangement of the consonants of a Hebrew word
(10) sometimes the true meaning is found by substituting similar letters into a Hebrew word
(11) sometimes the true meaning is found by dividing words into parts and interpreting the meaning of the parts
(12) sometimes the true meaning is hidden by the prophets' use of abbreviations and only other abbreviations can expose the meaning
(13) often other passages of Scripture were used to shed light on the passage in question
4. The first compiler of specific hermeneutical guidelines was Hillel, the Babylonian elder (30 b.c. - a.d. 9). Hillel was the more liberal interpreter of his rabbinical pair. Shammai was the other, more conservative, interpreter (Longenecker, p. 6). Hillel's famous principle was (Strack, p. 94) basically the use of Scripture to interpret Scripture.
a. They are found in Aboth, de Rab. Nathan XXXVII and Tosefta Sanhedrin c 7 (Talmud):
(1) "Light and heavy" – this was basically using a lesser truth to give a general principle
(2) influence by analogy – this was an appeal to similar phrasing or vocabulary to link the interpretation of two passages together
(3) building an interpretation of many texts on one key text
(4) building an interpretation of many texts on two key texts
(5) moving from a general principle to a specific example or vice versa
(6) using a third passage to guide the interpretation of two seemingly contradictory or ambiguous texts
(7) using the general context to interpret a single verse
b. This automatic textual approach was expanded by Ishmael and Rashi (Farrar, p. 67).
5. Philo the premier Jewish allegorist (i.e., neo-platonist, 20 b.c. - a.d. 54?)
a. Philo was a Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, Egypt. He was heavily influenced by an earlier allegorist named Aristobulus. He attempted to make the Mosaic Scripture relevant to his philosophical setting by the use of an allegorical, non-historical interpretation based on Neo-platonism and Stocism (Grant, p. 52; Farrar, p. 22).
b. Philo had a hermeneutical precedent within Judaism in the technique called sod or secret meaning of the text which is also seen in the Essene community. It involved
(1) word plays
(2) gematria (numerology)
c. His principles have been deduced from his "Quod Deus Immutabilis, II and De Somniis, 1:40: (Farrar, pp. 22-23, 149-151; Mickelsen, p. 29):
(1) allegorize when a statement is unworthy of God
(2) allegorize when there is a possibility of a contradiction
(3) allegorize when the allegory is obvious
(4) allegorize when an expression or word is doubled
(5) allegorize when there is a superfluous term in the sentence
(6) allegorize when there is a repetition of known facts
(7) allegorize when an expression is varied
(8) allegorize when a synonym is used
(9) allegorize when there is a possible word play
(10) allegorize when spelling of a word is slightly altered
(11) allegorize when there is anything abnormal in the gender, number, or tense of grammatical features
6. Rabbi Ishmael's (a.d. 60-121) thirteen famous principles taken from Sifra, Introduction:
a. They are an expansion of Hillel's seven principles. Ishmael was noted for his statement, "The Scriptures employ ordinary human language," Berakat, 31b
b. His principles were:
(1) inference can be drawn from a minor premise to a major premise and vice versa
(2) inference can be drawn from the similarity of words or phrases found in separate passages
(3) a general truth found in one text is applicable to all related texts
(4) when a generalization is followed by a specification, only what is specific applies
(5) when a specification is followed by a generalization, all that is implied in the generalization applies
(6) if first a generalization, then a specification followed by another generalization, one must be guided by what the specification implies
(7) when for the sake of clearness, a generalization requires a specification or vice versa, then rules 4 and 5 do not apply
(8) whatever is first implied in a generalization and afterwards specified to teach us something new, is expressly stated not only for its own sake, but to teach something additional concerning all of the instances implied in the generalization
(9) what is first implied in a general law and afterwards specified to add another provision similar to the general law, is specified in order to alleviate, and not to increase, the severity of that provision
(10) whatever is first implied in a general law and afterwards specified to add another provision which is not similar to the general law, is specified in order to alleviate in some respects, and in others to increase the severity of that particular provision
(11) whatever is first implied in a general law and is afterwards specified to determine a new matter, the terms of the general law can no longer apply to it, unless Scripture expressly declares that they do apply
(12) a dubious word or passage is explained from its context or from a subsequent expression
(13) if two biblical passages contradict each other, they can be harmonized only by a third passage (Jacobs, pp. 367-369)
7. Rabbi Eliezer ben Yose Ha-gelili (a.d. 130-160)
a. As Rabbi Ishmael's principles were used for the Torah, Rabbi Eliezer's applied to other parts of the Old Testament (haggadic texts)
b. These principles are more in line with homilies, stories, and folklore. They were first cited by Abulwalid ibn Gorrah. Later it was included in Sepher Kerithuth by Samson of Chinon
c. The thirty-two principles are (Starck, pp, 96-98):
(1) the particles ‘af, gam, eth indicate an inclusion
(2) the particles ‘ak, rak, min point to a limitation, exclusion, or diminution
(3) when two of the above particles' named are joined, there is addition
(4) when two limiting or excluding particles are joined there is amplification
(5) explicit inference a minori ad mauis and vice versa (Hillel's #11)
(6) when such an inference is merely suggested
(7) same as Hillel's #2
(8) same as Hillel's #3
(9) abbreviated or elliptical phraseology demands addition of left out terms
(10) repetition is made use of to bring out a point
(11) a context which is disrupted, namely by Soph pasuk or any disjunctive accent can be joined to another passage
(12) something is adduced for comparison, but in this process fresh light is shed upon that itself (same as Hillel's #7)
(13) when a General statement is followed by an action, then that is the particular of the former (same as Hillel's #5)
(14) something important is compared with something trivial that a clearer understanding may be facilitated (not applicable to Halakha)
(15) same as Ishmael's #13
(16) significant use of an expression
(17) a circumstance not clearly enunciated in the principal passage is referred to in another passage, especially with a view to understanding a Torah passage from a non-Torah passage (cf. Gen. 2:8 supplemented by Ezek. 28:13)
(18) a specific case of a type of occurrences is mentioned, although the whole type is meant
(19) a statement is made with reference to one subject, but it is true for another as well
(20) a statement does not go well with the passage in which it occurs, but is in keeping with another passage and may then be applied to that passage
(21) something is compared with two things and so only the good properties of both are attributed to it
(22) a proposition which requires to be supplemented from a parallel proposition
(23) a proposition serves to supplement a parallel proposition
(24) this discussion of propositions applies only to haggadic interpretation
(25) modified from Ishmael's #8
(26) use of parable
(27) corresponding significant number
(28) paronomasia, which is a play on words in which the same word is used in different senses or words similar in sound are set in opposition so as to give antithetical force
(a) computation of the numeric value of letters
(b) secret alphabet or substitution of letters for other letters
(30) notarikon, which is the breaking up of a word into two or more smaller words, exposition of the single letters to stand for just as many words which commence with them – similar to acrostic
(31) something that precedes which is placed second
(32) many biblical sections refer to a later period than the one which precedes and vice versa
IV. Evaluation of the Rabbinical Methodologies
1. They show an attempt to standardize interpretation
2. They attempt to be textually focused
3. They attempt to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture
4. They show a limited use of context as a tool in interpretation
1. They have some logical and sound principles, but they tend to take them to the extremes
2. They are textually focused, but not to the plain meaning of the original author
3. They totally disregard the historical setting of the passage (Gilbert, p. 14)
4. They often miss the major truth of the passage and maximize minor points
5. They magnify the writing of Moses, but depreciate the remaining Scriptures to a secondary place and also interpret them in a much lighter fashion (Gilbert, p. 20)
6. They place the Oral Tradition on par with Scripture
7. They use allegorical and mystical approaches (i.e., Kabbalah) to the text
a. notarikon (developing acronyms or initials on final letter of a Hebrew word)
b. gematria (each Hebrew letter given a numerical value and then words which add up to the same number can be switched in texts)
c. paronomasia (using sound plays to substitute different words in a text)
d. temurah (rearrange the words in a text to develop a new meaning)
V. Their Impact on the Hermeneutics of the Early Church
A. Alexandria, Egypt (Farrar, pp. 11,12)
1. The allegorical Christian approach of Clement and Origen was obviously affected by Philo and the climate of Alexandrian intellectualism.
2. This search for a hidden meaning in Scripture resulted in the four-fold method of hermeneutics, which impacted the Church throughout the Middle Ages into the Reformation.
B. In reaction to the allegorization of Alexandria, a more textually oriented approach developed in the third century at Antioch, Syria. Whether its textual approach was influenced by the principles of rabbinical Judaism or simply in reaction to Alexandria is hard to determine. They never fully used the principles of Hillel, but certain aspects of his codified principles are logical deductions on understanding an ancient text. Examples would be:
1. context guides meaning
2. Scripture interprets Scripture
3. use of parallel passages
4. attempt to find passages that clearly define terms
C. It is beyond the scope of this study, but it should be briefly stated that the Jewish exegetes of Europe in the Middle Ages, such as Kimchi and Rashi, did have a positive influence on the hermeneutics of the Reformers, as did Nicholis of Lyra.
– Brownlee, W. H. "Biblical Interpretation Among the Sectaries of the Dead Sea Scrolls." Biblical Archaeology 14 (1951): 60-62.
– Farrar, Frederic W. History of Interpretation. Macmillan, 1886.
– Gilbert, George Holley. Interpretation of the Bible—A Short History. Macmillan, 1908.
– Longenecker, Richard N. "Can We Reproduce the Exegesis of the New Testament?" Tyndale Bulletin 28 (1969).
– Longenecker, Richard N. Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids, MI; Vancouver: W.B. Eerdmans; Regent College Pub., 1999), 2.
– Mickelsen, A. Berkeley. Interpreting the Bible. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1963.
– Osborne, Grant. "Hermeneutics." Deerfield, Illinois: Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Photocopied.
– Patte, Daniel. Early Jewish Hermeneutics in Palestine. Society of Biblical Literature and Scholars Press, 1975.
– Ramm, Bernard. Protestant Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970.
– Roth, Cecil, ed. Encyclopaedia Judaica. Jerusalem: Keter. S. V. "Hermeneutics," by Louis Jacobs.
– Strack, Hermann L. Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1931.
Copyright © 2014 Bible Lessons International