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  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: June 2014

Chapter 5 - Medieval Hermeneutics


The word hermeneutics is derived from the Greek hermeneuein, “to interpret.” It denotes the art of finding meaning in a text. In the case of such an authoritative text as the Bible, this is more problematic than it seems. On the surface, the Bible can seem to make statements about God that are contrary to reason or even contradicting each other. For example, if God is omniscient, and has ordained all things before all times, how can this same God change his mind and admit to a mistake, saying, “I regret that I made Saul king,” (1 Sam. 15:11)? Or how could Adam have lived to be 930 years old (Gen. 5:5) after eating of the forbidden tree in paradise, if God had said “the day that you eat of it, you shall die” (Gen. 2:17)?

Other texts in Scripture pose even greater challenges, because they seem very specific to an historical context that is utterly alien to the reader. David Steinmetz gives an example from Psalm 137, which bemoans the Jews’ captivity in Babylon, expresses a longing for Jerusalem, curses the Edomites, and pronounces a blessing on him who “take your little ones and dash them against the rock.” (Ps. 137:9). A French priest in the twelfth century, Steinmetz points out, had never been to either Babylon or Jerusalem, had no quarrel with the Edomites, and was expressly forbidden by Jesus to avenge himself on his enemies. Hence, “unless Psalm 137 has more than one possible meaning, it cannot be used as a prayer by the Church, and must be rejected as a lament belonging exclusively to the piety of ancient Israel.”

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An Introduction to the Medieval Bible
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Suggestions for Further Reading
Archambault, Paul. “The Ages of Man and the Ages of the World: A Study of Two Traditions.” Revue des études augustiniennes 11 (1966): 193–228.
Bori, Pier Cesare. L’interpretation infinie. L’herméneutique chrétienne ancienne et ses transformations. Translated by Vial, F.. Passages. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1991.
Chenu, Marie-Dominique. “Les deux âges de l'allegorisme scripturaire au moyen âge.” Recherches de théologie ancienne et médiévale 18 (1951): 19–28.
Cohen, Jeremy. Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity. The Mark S. Taper Foundation Imprint in Jewish Studies. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999.
De Lubac, Henri. Exégèse médiévale. Les quatre sens de l’Écriture. Théologie. 41, 42. Paris: Aubier, 1959–64. English translation: Medieval exegesis. Translated by Mark Sebanc. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998.
Dahan, Gilbert. Lire la Bible au moyen âge: Essais d'herméneutique médiévale. Titre courant, 38. Genève: Droz, 2009.
Dahan, Gilbert. L’exégèse chrétienne de la Bible en occident médiéval, XIIe-XIVe siècle, Patrimoines. Christianisme. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1999.
Evans, Gillian R.The Language and Logic of the Bible. The Earlier Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Goez, Werner. Translatio imperii; ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Geschichtsdenkens und der politischen Theorien im Mittelalter und in der frühen Neuzeit. Tübingen: Mohr, 1958.
Häring, Nikolaus M. “Commentary and Hermeneutics.” In Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century, edited by Benson, Robert L. and Constable, Giles, 173–200. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Kugel, James L.How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. New York: Free Press, 2007.
Louth, Andrew. Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.
Medieval Literary Theory and Criticism, c.1000–c.1375. The Commentary Tradition. Edited by Minnis, Alastair J. and Scott, A.B.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Minnis, Alastair J.Medieval Theory of Authorship. Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984.
Neusner, Jacob. Introduction to Rabbinic Literature. The Anchor Bible Reference Library. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Reeves, Marjorie. Joachim of Fiore and the Prophetic Future: A Medieval Study in Historical Thinking. London: S.P.C.K., 1976.
Steinmetz, David C.The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis.” Theology Today 37 (1980): 27–38.
Synan, Edward A. “The Four ‘Senses’ and Four Exegetes.” In With Reverence for the Word. Medieval Scriptural Exegesis in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, edited by McAuliffe, Jane Dammen, Walfish, Barry D., and Goering, Joseph W., 225–36. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Young, Frances M.Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.