The presuppositions of the exegete

Modern criticism once believed that it had solved the problem of the subjectivity of the interpreter by the objectivity of its method. It has been attacked from many sides for this presumption and accused of several latent prejudices, such as anti-Semitism, patriarchalism and political quietism. The alternative approach adopted now by different forms of liberation exegesis (political, feminist, psychological) is to make explicit from the start the presuppositions and current agenda of the interpreter. Just as pure text and pure authorial intention have had to be treated as unattainable abstractions, so also, it is alleged, the purely neutral interpreter does not exist in the real world. Traditional exegesis did not pretend to neutrality either, and although it sometimes provided scriptural justification for the oppression of women, Jews and the poor it has also been the source of a radical critique of contemporary society and an instrument of social change. The history of the pre-modern interpretation of the book of Revelation is particularly interesting in this respect.

On the other hand there are certain disadvantages in inviting interpreters to parade their prejudices like this. It focuses attention on the prior commitments of the writer rather than on the transforming effect of his or her encounter with Scripture; and it reinforces modern notions of relativity and pluralism. In both respects it parts company with traditional interpretation. That the exegete should be 'open and laid bare' before the 'sharp piercing word' (Heb. 4:12f.) may be impossible in practice, but it is an ideal towards which to strive.

The rehabilitation of allegory

It was one of the assured results of critical study that the parables of Jesus were not allegories. It was demonstrable that the allegorical interpretations of the sower (Mark 4:13-20) and the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:36-43), and added features in many others, were the work of the evangelists or earlier Christian preachers; and that the original parables of Jesus were simple, singlepoint analogies, immediately understandable without assistance, and that they referred to the coming of the Kingdom of God. This consensus has now collapsed, attacked from different directions—Jewish background, literary study of the forms of Jesus' teaching and redaction criticism. Whatever view is taken now about the authenticity of the allegorical parables, there is a new appreciation for the method. It is not necessarily arid, esoteric, artificial or dishonest. Allegory is an extended form of metaphorical speech, and as such has a kind of indeterminacy. There is not one single correct interpretation of a poetic image; the reader is invited to explore as deeply as may be the evocativeness and reverberations of the figure in his or her own experience.

Just how much of the language of the New Testament, in addition to the sayings of Jesus, is poetic and open to fuller meanings is a matter of current debate. Rhetorical analysis of the epistles is revealing the hitherto unsuspected presence of non-literal discourse. Pre-critical interpretation used to be dismissed, in some respects unfairly, as insufficiently concerned with the literal, intended sense. But the more it is recognized that the intended meaning is in fact metaphorical, the more this defect in traditional exegesis will come to be seen as its strength.

The history of influence

Critical scholars commenting on a book of the New Testament have been prepared to quote the Fathers occasionally on textual or philological points, or for some short, striking phrase. We are beginning to see commentaries (e.g. Luz 1990:95-9) which devote much more space to tracing the history of influence (Wirkungsgeschichte) of the text beyond its original time and setting. This development is a recognition of the fact that those who consult New Testament commentaries include many who have developed an interest in the text flowing not from academic theology so much as from the study of Western literature, history and philosophy, and who want to know, certainly, what the text originally meant, but also how on earth it came to mean what it has since. The availability of computer databases of patristic and later commentaries is making a complete historical survey of the way New Testament texts came to be understood more of a possibility. To avoid a computer-aided equivalent of the medieval Gloss, however, it will be necessary amid the mass of data to provide also a focus of attention on the present influence of the New Testament among those for whom it remains influential.

In conclusion, distinctions between periods in history are always to some extent arbitrary and open to revision in the light of later developments. The great pre-Enlightenment/post-Enlightenment divide may eventually come to be seen more like an interlude, before the tradition of New Testament interpretation (now chastened, and 'post-critical') resumes its primary objective, to expound the New Testament not merely as source documents for the early history of Christianity but as the treasury of faith and of the knowledge of God.


Ackroyd, P.R. and Evans, C.F. (eds) (1970) The Cambridge History of the Bible 1:

From the Beginnings to Jerome, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Evans, G.R. (1984) The Language and Logic of the Bible, vol. 1, The Earlier Middle

Ages, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Frei, H. (1974) The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A study in 18th and 19th century

Hermeneutics, New Haven: Yale University Press. Grant, R.M. (1965) A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, London: A. & C.Black.

Greenslade, S.L. (ed.) (1963) The Cambridge History of the Bible 3: The West from the Reformation to the Present Day, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Lampe, G.W.H. (ed.) (1969) The Cambridge History of the Bible 2: The West from the Fathers to the Reformation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Luz, U. (1990) Matthew 1-7, Edinburgh: T. & T.Clark.

Malbon, E. (1986) Narrative Space and Mythic Meaning in Mark, New York: Harper & Row.

Rogerson, J., Rowland C. and Lindars, B. (1988) The Study and Use of the Bible, vol. 2 of The History of Christian Theology, ed. P.Avis, Basingstoke: Marshall Pickering.

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