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Levels of Meaning in Holy Scripture: PaRDeS, 2 of 2

Bryan Griffith Dobbs

[I apologize in advance for the 'lecture notes' style of this text which is, indeed, made up of lecture notes lightly reformatted.]

1. Let us begin with a primary distinction, between 'explicatio' and 'interpretatio'.

'Explicatio' is concerned with explaining the philological or historical content of a text in its historical context.

'Interpretatio' represents a more far reaching retrieval of a document by and for later generations.

The common presupposition is that the temporal, linguistic and ideational distances between a text and a reader can be closed.

However, as I have suggested above, 'explicatio' deals with the text as circumscribed within a historical perspective.  'Interpretatio' does not deal with the historic specificity of a text, but treats it instead as a living document.

The Jewish mystical tradition [as opposed to the tradition of biblical commentary, cf. my remarks about Rashi and Bahya ben Asher] avoids simple explication of text.  It is, nevertheless, bound to the words of the text as its sanction and charter.

The situation in the Christian mystical tradition differs considerably.  The spermatic word by means of which God created the universe and all that it contains has reified in Christianity and the Word has become incarnate.  However, this incarnation of the word is acosmic and abolishes in and of itself all concern with the material.  Plain sense [peshat], then, takes a back seat to instant mythologizing.  The anagogic sense is primary.  The text has given way to the Word.

2. In the most common of the Christian fourfold systems of interpretation, the levels of meaning are:  the literal [historical] level, the allegorical [typological or figural] level, the tropological [moral] level and the anagogical [eschatological] level.

The best known early example of this method is in the 'Letter to Can Grande' in the Preface to the PARADISO, but now generally believed not to have been written by Dante himself.  Here the fourfold method is applied to the understanding of the Israelite exodus from Egypt.  On the literal level, the Israelites celebrated Passover and left Egypt.  Allegorically, members of the Church are redeemed through Jesus.  Tropologically, Christians are transformed from sinfulness to grace. Anagogically, the soul passes from material bondage to eternal existence.

Christian hermeneutics has a simpler bipartite method of classification: the literal meaning and the 'plenior' [=fuller] meaning.  Each hermeneutist subdivides each of the two parts in a variety of manners.

The basic claim in the [so-called] New Testament for the genuineness of the divinity of Jesus is based on the notion of a deeper meaning in the [so-called] Old Testament which in the fullness of time will be discovered.

These scholars believed that allegorization preserved the currency of a given text.  This approach derives from the midrashic principle in Rabbinic commentaries which related text to contemporary law and values. This was consonant with the practice of the Hellenistic Alexandrians in their reading of Homer in order to keep the epics up to date.  The Homeric Alexandrian School, linked to Rabbinic methodology and the practices of Philo of Alexandria in his exegesis produced a lively school of interpretation which was eventually Christianized by Origen [d. 254].

The Alexandrian school came to emphasize the spiritual or allegorical sense.  The school of Antioch, however, stressed philologically determined meaning.  Time and space do not permit here a discussion of the interpretive methods of Joseph, Daniel and of the Dead Sea sectarians, all of which came to influence the hermeneutics under discussion.  Similarly, the question of Christian typological analysis deserves its own treatment.

Although aware of the fourfold traditions in Alexandrian criticism, Origen preferred a threefold system [somatic (or hylic), psychic and pneumatic] based on the psychology of Jewish, Pagan and Christian Gnosticism.

The other great Christian hermeneutists were St. Augustine, Gregory the Great and Nicholas of Lyra.

Again, limitations of time and space prevent me from discussing the intricate history of interpretation and commentary from the twelfth century to the present.  The works of Isaac Newton and Emanuel Swedenborg should be consulted for an excellent idea of how the mystical sense of scripture was understand in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

3. The preference for finding the hidden sense in a text derives, as suggested above, from the strong influence of gnosticism.  That the text contained a hidden meaning, one of power to the person who knew how to understand it, came to be tied to the notion that such knowledge was reserved for the Elect.  Within Classical Judaism, the notion arose that the kabbalah could only be studied by married men who had passed the age of forty and who had mastered the body of non-mystical lore.

One finds developing in the interpretations of texts within Judaism and Christianity a rarefied atmosphere, most like that found in the writings of contemporary deconstructionists and other postmodernists.  Plus ça change...!

posted on Donmeh forum
Tue, 6 Jul 1999


About the author: Bryan Griffith Dobbs Phd, lecturer and scholar, is Principal Consultant of The Circuit Communications Group, Sometime Professor of Jewish Studies in the Universities of Texas at Austin and Arizona, among other numerous awards, honours, and positions held, and is an Admiral in the Navy of the Republic of Texas.

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