How to Study the Bible, Lesson 2 

Lessons From the Past


Jewish Interpretation

When Paul and Silas were forced to leave Thessalonica, the came to Berea where they found Jews "of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true," (Acts 17:11). Question, what Bible study method did the Jewish Bereans use?

Jewish expositors of the first century believed in the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. That is "for them...the words of the Bible had their origin in God and were in fact the very words of God," (Richard Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, p. 19). Secondly, they thought there were many different levels of meanings for a text and therefore their task was to deal not only with the obvious but also with the implied or deduced meanings. Finally, they saw their task as making "the words of God meaningful and relevant to the people in their present situations." To do that they had four kinds of interpretation:

Jewish Methods of Interpretation

1. Literalistic: "It means what it says."

The Literalistic interpretation has been with us since there has been a Bible and always with the same results, that being the end product amounts to false doctrine. Only one example ought to suffice to debunk this mythology.
  3A voice is calling,
         "Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness;
         Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.
    4"Let every valley be lifted up,
         And every mountain and hill be made low;
         And let the rough ground become a plain,
         And the rugged terrain a broad valley;
    5Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
         And all flesh will see it together;
         For the mouth of the LORD has spoken."  (Isaiah 40: 3ff)
We know the above text as the prophecy concerning the coming of John the Baptist since we are told in Matthew 3:3 that is what it meant. Now here is the point; if all Scripture is to be read literally, then someone had to buy John the Baptist a new bulldozer, since he was to make a highway, knock all the mountains down and so forth.

2. Midrashic: "That was just like this is." (i.e. an example)

According to the Pardes system of exegesis (interpretation), the approach to understand Biblical texts in Judaism is realized through peshat (literal meaning, lit. "plain" or "simple"), remez (deep meaning, lit. "hints"), derash (comparative meaning, from Hebrew darash - "to inquire" or "to seek") and sod (hidden meaning or philosophy, lit. "secret" or "mystery"). The Midrash concentrates somewhat on remez but mostly on derash (Some thinkers divide PaRDeS into pshat, remez, din (law) and sod. In this understanding, midrash aggada deals with remez and midrash halakha deals with din).

Many different exegetical methods are employed to derive deeper meaning from a text. This is not limited to the traditional thirteen textual tools attributed to the Tanna Rabbi Ishmael, which are used in the interpretation of halakha (Jewish law). Presence of apparently superfluous words or letters, chronology of events, parallel narratives or other textual anomalies are often a springboard for interpretation of segments of Biblical text. In many cases, a dialogue is expanded manifold: handfuls of lines in the Biblical narrative may become long philosophical discussions. It is unclear whether the Midrash assumes these dialogues took place in reality or if this refers only to subtext or religious implication.

The "classical" Midrash starts off with a seemingly unrelated sentence from the Biblical books of Psalms, Proverbs or the Prophets. This sentence later turns out to metaphorically reflect the content of the rabbinical interpretation offered.

Some Midrash discussions are highly metaphorical, and many Jewish authors stress that they are not intended to be taken literally. Rather, other midrashic sources may sometimes serve as a key to particularly esoteric discussions. Later authors maintain that this was done to make this material less accessible to the casual reader and prevent its abuse by detractors.