Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Perspectives on Biblical Interpretation: A Review Article

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Perspectives on Biblical Interpretation: A Review Article

Article excerpt

The recent two-volume Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation edited by Dr. John Hayes is a notable achievement and the most extensive English work of its kind in over a decade.1 It enlists the support of some 400 contributors from Protestant (primarily), Roman and Orthodox Catholic (considerably), and Jewish confessions, who are largely American but include a good number from Canada, Great Britain, the European Continent, Israel, and Australia.

Among its most valuable features, the Dictionary offers numerous biographical sketches of individuals who have contributed to the interpretation of the Scripture in various times, places, and manners.2 In these brief essays alone it offers readers an education about the course of historical developments in biblical studies, an education that is very substantial even if a few names raise an eyebrow and some are overlooked that another editor might have included.3

A second profitable feature and a major element of the work is the history of interpretation of each biblical book 4 and of the intertestamental Apocrypha. The emphasis on the patristic, Reformation or modern periods and on particular issues and representative figures vary with the interests of each contributor. But they are generally judicious choices, although the understandable focus on twentieth-century developments sometimes unduly shortens the discussion of earlier stages of interpretation.

The Dictionary also includes valuable pieces on ancilliary disciplines, such as "Archeology and Biblical Studies" or "Assyriology and Biblical Studies."5 It has essays on some early Jewish and early Christian fictional, pseudepigraphal, and other writings;6 on ancient rabbinic interpretations of Scripture-the Targumim, Midrash, the Talmud; one essay on the Dead Sea Scrolls7 and one on Islamic biblical interpretation in the Koran (essentially a dry hole).8 It considers "Maps of the Biblical World" and "Dictionaries and Encyclopedias" and directs substantial attention to art, music, Western literature, lexicons, and to historical and literary issues in contemporary biblical interpretation, giving special treatments to the particular questions. These matters may perhaps be best addressed in a discussion of significant issues, of particular pieces of special interest, and of questions of method.


Essays on the historical analysis of OT topics appear to be generally stronger than their NT counterparts. Many are largely devoted to a history of research in which the views of the contributor become evident only in the writers selected as representative, and they usually leave open-ended the current state of the art, with scholars of different viewpoints duly noted.9

The most significant pieces on Israel's history10 give major attention to source criticism within the history of research, less to the themes or to the theology of the biblical material. Although their disregard is compensated somewhat by a general essay on OT,11 they would have been strengthened by a greater consideration of the biblical writers' purpose and interpretation as viewed by the contributor and by other modern writers.

Most essays concentrate on the historical concerns of the modern period of mainstream research, that is, that the earlier historical books (Genesis2 Kings) began as smaller written units or sources and, for most scholars, came into their present form only about the time of the exile or later. 12

Some note criticisms of J. Wellhausen, an outstanding nineteenth-century representative of this approach, for imposing an evolutionary and, one might add, Hegelian 13 pattern in his reconstruction. 14 Others are concerned with Scandinavian and British schools' advocacy of a long-term oral transmission 15 and, quite different, with the claimed use of folklore.

If one grants a documentary process from the time of Moses l6 or shortly thereafter,17 a key question still remains unresolved and largely unaddressed: the precise nature and process of the creation and transmission of the traditions and of the OT documents. …

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