I have just finished reading How to Read the Bible…and you have raised many new questions in my mind. Foremost among them, in the first flush of having finished the book, is why you accord so much deference to the ancient interpreters and whether they deserve it. I am left wanting to know more about who they really were, what kinds of lives they led, what kinds of motivations (both altruistic and selfish) they had, and indeed whether these fallible human beings deserve the definitive, authoritative weight you give them. Indeed, as I was reading your book, I began to wish that the tools of modern biblical scholarship were turned on the ancient interpreters themselves so that we could test and better understand their bona fides.
I was also left wondering why you privilege the ancient interpreters over interpreters who came later or exist today. You state on page 682 that Scripture’s “true meaning is not the original meaning of its constituent parts, but the meaning it had for the people who first saw it as the Bible….” The implication seems to be that the ancient interpreters views should be deemed virtually sacrosanct and not subject to authoritative reinterpretation by later interpreters. But one is left wondering whether the fact that the ancient interpreters’ views were “first” necessarily means that they were “true,” and if so, why.
Thanks for a good question. I “privilege” the ancient interpreters because I think their whole way of reading Scripture is inherent in the very idea of Scripture. That is, it was never, from the very beginning, a matter of just the words on the page, “Interpret them as you will.” Even before the precise contents of the Bible had been established, it was simply understood that there were certain things that you assumed about how a biblical text means, how it is to be read and, where necessary, pulled a bit this way or that way. That understanding was soon embodied in hundreds of little bits of interpretation that accompanied the biblical text and were, for all practical purposes, inseparable from it. (In general, people did not own their own Bible, not in late antiquity and not throughout the Christian Middle Ages. So the meaning Scripture was never really up for grabs: it was what the authorities said it was, and what they said it was is altogether traceable back to the approach and basic assumptions of these ancient interpreters.) It was only with the rise of modern scholarship that this basic understanding was broken. The modern scholars were certainly not wicked people — nor were the ancient ones necessarily good; frankly, I suppose they were rather similar under the skin. But the moderns just didn’t understand how crucial the ancients’ basic approach and assumptions were — at least not until the last few decades. Where things will go from here is still a good question.