The Bible, Jim, but not as we know it

Last week Robert asked me to do a guest gig for his postgraduate course THEO700 Doing Theology in Context

At the moment the course is looking at the history of biblical hermeneutics. My job was to talk about the shift in Early Modern biblical interpretation towards philology (the original Biblical languages) and critical history.

From the 16th century there was a growing assumption that you couldn’t do Theology until you had a good grasp of the original Biblical languages, as well as some sense of the historical context in which the biblical texts were written.

For the earlier point of view, one has only to look at the way in which the Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris spent the first half of the 16th century condemning “humanists” (i.e. literary scholars) who “presumed” that their grasp of Hebrew and Greek gave them a right to talk about Theology. In 1536 the Faculty went as far as to declare that Hebrew and Greek were unnecessary for a Theologian; Latin would do quite nicely.

Another way of describing this paradigm shift is to say that in the Middle Ages, Theology took priority over biblical philology and history. After the Middle Ages it was the other way round.

This is important to bear in mind when a text-book on early Reformation thought by Alister McGrath confidently assures us that for the Medievals: ““Christian theology [was] ultimately nothing more and nothing less than the exposition of Scripture.”

There’s a sense in which this is true, but McGrath, as ever, risks making it sound as if the Medievals were good Protestants. In fact, the Medieval reading of Scripture was shaped by an ancient and extremely complex tradition of scriptural commentary that is usually baffling to modern readers who have been trained to give priority to concerns like the meaning of the original text in its historical context.

(And lest anyone think this was peculiar to Medieval Christianity, it’s worth pointing out that, on the whole, the early Christians were not very interested in reading Scripture – i.e. the Old Testament – in Hebrew or in exegeting it with modern philological and historical tools. Again, the Greek Septuagint, together with exuberant resort to allegory, usually did quite nicely)

All this his came back to me during the weekend when I was going back through some photos I took when I was in Belgium at the end of 2013, and was trying give them captions before I uploaded them to Flickr.

Now that I’ve done a bit of background reading on them, I thought I’d reproduce these images here with a short commentary as another example for students in THEO700 (and anyone else who’s interested) of the foreign world of Medieval biblical hermeneutics.

The images below are taken from two 12th century processional crosses in the Musée du Cinquantenaire in Brussels. Both are made of wood covered in gilded copper and silver. The images are enamel inlays and they draw typological connections between the crucifixion and episodes in the Old Testament. Some of the connections are already there in Scripture; others aren’t. Unfortunately I neglected to take a picture of the complete crosses, so you’ll just have to imagine them.

The brazen serpent

On the lower vertical of the cross we have Moses standing before the bronze serpent which God commands Moses to make in Numbers 21 as a remedy for the fiery serpents He’s just sent to punish the Children of Israel. The ingrates have been whingeing about being led out into the wilderness and having only disgusting manna to eat.

The connection between the bronze serpent and the cross is made in John 3:14-15 where Jesus predicts that he will be “lifted up” like the bronze serpent, and will bring eternal life to whoever believes in him.

While this typology strays far from the literal meaning of Numbers 21, early Protestant interpreters considered it legitimate, because it was already established elsewhere in Scripture.

Blood of the Passover Lamb

Further down the lower vertical we have another scripturally sanctioned typological connection between the slaughter of the Paschal Lamb (mactatio agni) and that of the cross. But what’s interesting here is the fact that the man in the picture is not just smearing blood all over the lintels of the households (Ex 12:7), but is using it to write the letter tau or “T.”

Aaron signing the tau on the foreheads of the saved

The meaning of the letter “T” is established on the upper vertical, which shows a figure writing a “tau” on the foreheads of a group of men. The Latin similis Aaron means “like Aaron.”

It took a lot of searching before I discovered that this was connected with Ezekiel 9:4-6, where God calls to a man dressed in linen – read as Aaron the High Priest in this image – and commands him to place a “mark” (RSV; Septuagint) or “tau” (Hebrew; Vulgate) upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and mourn for all the abominations that are committed in the midst [of the Temple] (Douay-Reims)… Utterly destroy old and young, maidens children and women, but upon whomsoever you shall see the Thau, kill him not, and begin ye at my sanctuary. 

The idea is a bit like that found in John 3:14-15. The letter “T” on the foreheads of the righteous foreshadows the shape of the cross, by which believers will be saved. This then seems to be read back into Exodus 12 as warrant for the image of a man smearing the paschal lamb’s blood over his doorway in the shape of a “T.”

Widow of Zarephath

Finally, from a second typological cross in the same collection, we have this image of a woman with crossed sticks from the foot of the crucifix. The Latin Sareptena refers to the Widow of Zarepath in 1 Kings 17:8-24. During the drought and famine sent by God, Elijah meets the widow who is gathering sticks. She has almost run out of food and is going home to prepare a last meal for herself and her son before they both die of starvation. But she trusts in Elijah and feeds him. Her last measure of flour and oil miraculously last until rain ends the drought. Later, when her son falls ill, Elijah raises him from the dead. The biblical text says nothing about her sticks being crossed, but on the typological cross she holds them like this as a type of the cross, which provides heavenly food and the hope of resurrection.

This is no doubt all very recondite and specialist, but I think it illustrates well the way in which patristic and medieval exegetes tend to treat the literal-historical meaning of the text as a superficial meaning. Getting stuck there is the equivalent of not being able to see that the back of the wardrobe leads into Narnia.

I’m not recommending that our students start interpreting the Bible in this way. All I wanted to demonstrate was how historically conditioned and far from “obvious” many earlier readings of Scripture are – so that when we say that past generations of Christians based all their Theology on “The Bible” we’re probably not saying very much. What we should be asking is how they read the Bible.


[1] Alister McGrath, “The Return to Scripture” in Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 121.

One thought on “The Bible, Jim, but not as we know it

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s