Nominations Open: Most Fruitful Examples of Biblical Interpretation

Inspired by Ben Meyer’s “Worst theological invention” and “worst liturgical invention” posts, I thought I would open nominations for the “Most Fruitful Examples of Biblical Interpretation.” By this I mean particular examples of interpretation/exegesis that illuminate a biblical passage in a significant way. More specifically, I am looking for examples of particular critical methodologies applied to specific texts, whether the texts are classic difficult texts or texts that are (too) familiar.

Perhaps some examples would help clarify what I am looking for.

  • Mary Douglas’s Anthropological Approach to Purity in Leviticus. In contrast to the traditional interpretations that either see the purity laws in Leviticus as arbitrary, connected with pagan worship, or examples of ancient medicine, Douglas’s anthropological approach understands them as having to do with wholeness and normality and are based on the Priestley worldview.
  • Honour and Shame for Reading the Bible. While this one is admittedly broad, the value of social-scientific understandings of honour and shame for the ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean world are difficult to underestimate.
  • The Comparative Method for understanding the Plagues. Sarna’s (and others) view how the plagues against the Egyptians may be understood as polemics against Egyptian religion.

These are just some simple examples, not necessarily the best nor the most compelling.

What examples can you think of?

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8 Responses to Nominations Open: Most Fruitful Examples of Biblical Interpretation

  1. Bruce says:

    just a couple of thoughts in regards to ‘Honour and Shame for Reading the Bible’… Robert Jewett brilliantly utilizes this contextual framework (for better understanding Paul) in his Hermeneia commentary on the book of Romans… the introduction to this volume is just under a hundred pages and should be required reading for anyone trying to get a current snapshot of where biblical scholarship, archaeology and rhetorical analyses currently have the potential to interact…

    though I don’t have an earned degree in biblical studies that doesn’t mean that I’m not profiting immensely from Jewett’s premise and the overal quality of his analysis… he views the context of ‘honour and shame’ as critical for accurately analyzing and applying the message in the book of Romans…

    BTW: I really enjoy your blog!

  2. dave beldman says:

    This is a great idea, Tyler.
    Off the top of my head, I would nominate Ray Van Leeuwen’s approach to the book of Proverbs found in his Context and Meaning in Proverbs 25-27 and in the commentary on Proverbs in the New Interpreter’s Bible(kind of a rhetorical/canonical reading). Waltke takes a similar approach in his commentary in the NICOT series.

    The same kind of approach to the book of Psalms proposed by Wilson, Mays, McCann is also bearing much fruit in the interpretation of the psalms.

  3. John Hobbins says:

    Both Jewett and van Leeuwen are class acts. Having had the pleasure to sit down and chat with them one-on-one in times past, I have to say they are great people, too, not just great writers.

    A number of examples might be added:

    Soren Kierkegaard (philosophy: his comment on Genesis 22 in Fear and Trembling shows how philosophy may serve as a critical methodology)

    Jacques Ellul (theology, in the hands of the great, is also a critical methodology: see, e.g., his Politics of God and Politics of Man)

    Erich Auerbach (literary criticism in the sense the term has outside of Biblical Studies: see his Mimesis)

    Arnaldo Momigliano (history: see his Essays on Ancient and Modern Historiography, with reference to Daniel in particular)

    Paul Ricoeur (hermeneutics: his concept of second naivete’ is in fact a critical methodology, and a helpful one).

  4. Not to kick a dame when she’s down, but I think Mary Douglas’ work is overrated. Anthropological approaches usually study modern “primitive” cultures that lack writing, complex societal structures, etc. and then apply these results to cultures that are thousands of years removed from our own. Furthermore, most of these ancient cultures had at least some level of literacy, urbanization, and relatively complex societal structures. I am doubtful as to the value of anthropological contributions for biblical and ancient near eastern studies.

  5. Hello,

    I would like to suggest Anthony C. Thiselton’s use of Speech Act Theory to dispel the myth of the Hebrew’s supposed magical understanding of words.
    Here’s the article’s bibliographic information:
    Anthony C. Thiselton, “The Supposed Power of Words in Biblical Writings,� Journal of Theological Studies 25: 283-299.

  6. dave beldman says:

    I like the nominations of Kierkegaard, Ricoeur (why didn’t I think of that one?) and Thiselton.

    I would emphatically add Sternberg’s narratology in his Poetics of Biblical Narrative which has many good examples of his method in practice (and also Alter’s narratology in Art of Biblical Narrative).

    Karl Moller has put rhetorical criticism to good use in his interpretation of Amos.

    And Chris Wright’s missiological approach (most recently his The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative) provides numerous examples of fruitful and creative interpretation of OT texts.

    I can’t resist including my former mentor Al Wolters’ contribution to Prov. 31: 10-31 (found, among other places, in his The Song of the Valiant Woman: Studies in the Interpretation of Proverbs 31:10-31). In his “Nature and Grace in the Interpretation of Proverbs 31:10-31â€? he shows how philosophical/theological assumptions colour one’s interpretation of biblical texts. Of course, I am clearly biased.

    Finally, Jean Vanier in his Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John uses his experiences in the L’Arche community to offer a surprisingly fresh and meaningful interpretation of the book of John. His approach is probably best defined as reader-response but has the feel of lectio divina.

  7. I’d just like to second Tyler’s endorsement of honor/shame for reading the Bible. It has made some parables (like the dishonest manager) make a lot more sense.

  8. I am pleased to see that Wolters study of Proverbs 31 is mentioned. I am not really doing it justice but it seems pretty innovative to me.

    I am also enjoying Dr. Waltke’s very open and friendly manner hanging around after class chatting with all of us. He is a very empathetic person, although I do disagree (respectfully) with some of his applications of scripture.

    He mentions Ricoeur quite a bit and narrative in general.

    Ellul and Vanier also came to mind for me. There really are some commonly recognized greats.

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