Apocalypticism is a worldview that developed in ancient Judaism in the Hellenistic period. It draws heavily on ancient myths, and attempts to express a sense that the world is governed by transcendent powers and that human destiny transcends the present order.
“Historical criticism” is the name usually given to what may be termed “mainline” biblical criticism over the last three centuries or so, although it is increasingly in dispute in recent years. James Barr has rightly insisted that it is misleading to speak of “the historical-critical method”: “there are methods used by historical-criticism, but there is no such thing as the historical critical method.” Whether the adjective “historical” is always appropriate also may be questioned. For purposes of this chapter, historical-critical methods are those which take account of the fact that the biblical texts were written long ago, in a cultural matrix very different from our own, and that attempt to understand the texts first of all in the context of that ancient setting. Historical considerations are a necessary part of that discussion because it requires at least an approximate idea of the time, place, and circumstances of composition. The goal of this inquiry, however, is not necessarily historical in a narrow sense. It might just as well be the theology or rhetoric of the text, seen in light of its historical context.
To say that texts are written in specific times and places and that historical context is germane to interpretation may seem to be stating the obvious. One need only look, however, at an ancient interpreter such as Philo of Alexandria to see that the point has not always been appreciated. The historian Peter Burke has argued that “medieval men lacked a sense of the past being different in quality from the present.” In the case of the Bible, there was no point in differentiating the time when the different books were written because they were all supposed to come from God. The rise of biblical criticism is sometimes traced back to the recovery of classical antiquity and ancient manuscripts in the Renaissance. German Protestants have tended to see its origin rather in the Reformation, which set the authority of the sola scriptura over against that of the Church. There can be little doubt that the Reformation contributed to the importance attached to the biblical text in its original context, but it certainly did not lead immediately to a wholesale adoption of historical exegesis. Another impetus came from the Enlightenment and the writings of Spinoza and the English Deists.
What is theological interpretation?
Theological interpretation of the Bible is a contested concept. Even those who engage in the practice disagree among themselves as to what constitutes a theological reading. Many biblical scholars regard anything labeled “theological” as an enterprise of doubtful legitimacy in an academic context. Such skepticism is not without reason, but whether it is justified will depend, naturally enough, on the brand of theological interpretation that is proposed.
As New Testament scholar Richard Hays has recently argued, theological exegesis is not a “method” like, say, redaction criticism. Rather, he describes it as a practice, a way of approaching Scripture. Hays, like many theologically oriented exegetes, stands in a distinctly Protestant tradition inspired by Karl Barth's famous commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. Barth conceived of theological exegesis as making the text speak directly to the present:
By genuine understanding and interpretation, I mean that creative energy which Luther exercised with intuitive certainty in his exegesis…how energetically Calvin, having first established what stands in the text, sets himself to re-think the whole material and to wrestle with it, till the walls which separate the sixteenth century from the first become transparent! Paul speaks, and the man of the sixteenth century hears. The conversation between the original record and the reader moves round the subject-matter, until a distinction between yesterday and today becomes impossible.…Criticism (krinein) applied to historical documents means for me the measuring of words and phrases by the standard of that about which the documents are speaking – unless, indeed, the whole is nonsense.
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