Does a verse of the Bible have one and only one correct meaning? Interestingly Jewish and Christian tradition developed an idea of a fourfold reading of the text. Whether this kind of reading is valid or not is an interesting question. What makes a reading valid?
A Jewish tradition about modes of reading relates itself to the word pardes, “orchard” or “paradise”:
- P = P’shat, the plain meaning.
- R = Remez, hint, non-literal, philosophical, allegorical.
- D = D’rash, midrashic, sermonic, homiletical, worldview and application oriented.
- S = Sod, mystery, secret meaning, revealing hidden knowledge.
A Christian tradition from the church fathers about modes of reading is similar:
- Literal, like the P’shat in Jewish tradition.
- Allegorical, theological.
- Tropological, moral, what is to be done.
- Anagogical, pertaining to final things, future hope.
In The Bible and the Believer, authors Marc Zvi Brettler, Peter Enns, and Daniel Harrington discuss the changing ways the Bible has been read through the ages. The overarching question of the book is how readers who believe in the divine inspiration of the Hebrew Bible can integrate this belief with an acceptance of Biblical criticism (see some of my recent blog posts).
To illustrate the four Christian modes of reading, they give the example of Jerusalem:
- Literal: the city.
- Allegorical: the Church.
- Tropological: the soul.
- Anagogical: heaven.
What I find interesting in their entire breakdown of the history of ideas about Bible interpretation is that views have changed so much. The insistence by some in Judaism (Orthodox) that traditions about Mosaic authorship and the complete revealing of the Torah (Pentateuch) on Mount Sinai are literally true, is not the only view that has been accepted through the years. The insistence in conservative Christian circles that the Bible is inerrant and that a literal meaning exists for every verse, is also not the only view that has been accepted through the years.
The discovery, in modern times, of material that reveals to us more about culture, language, and literature in the world during the time the Biblical books were written, comes after a long history with numerous views about “how the Bible is to be read.”
If some of us wish to read the Bible in light of its world, to understand it based on comparative literature and historical context, it is hard to justify the claim that our way of reading should be ruled out.