Jesus often fought about how sacred words should be interpreted. Indeed, his conflict with the Pharisees often concerns how the law should be observed (Mt 9.11-13 || Mk 2.16-17; Mt 12.1-8 || Mk 2.23-28; Mt 12.19-14 || Mk 3.1-6; Mt 15.1-20 || Mk 7.1-23). Likewise, church history is fraught with division over interpretations. One group claims to understand the true meaning of a text against another. Interpretive disagreement continues to divide churches today.
In light of Jesus’ debates, disputes throughout church history and in the contemporary church, it is important to develop a consistent and logical method of interpretation – a hermeneutic. Most seminaries and Bible colleges are concerned precisely with this training. In her book, Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition, Kathy Eden traces the development of Christian hermeneutics from the rhetorical tradition of Quintilian and Cicero to early protestant hermeneutics in Erasmus and Philip Melanchthon. Eden is a distinguished classics professor at Columbia University and provides a fascinating study of the development of humanist hermeneutics.
Eden thoughtfully observes that it is in the rhetorical handbooks that one finds the reflection on interpretation that was appropriated by the church fathers. Her first chapter is devoted to works of Quintilian and Cicero showing how these rhetoricians were concerned with the interpretation of texts for legal disputes. There were three main problems that arose in interpretation:
- Discrepancy between the letter of the law and the intent
- Ambiguity with a particular word or a passage
- Contradiction either between two related texts or within a single text
According to Cicero and Quintilian, the solution to these interpretive problems was to learn from Aristotle how to read with “equity” (ἐπιείκεια / aequitas). Equity is the ability to read a text graciously or tolerantly rather than in its “exactness” or “strictness” (ἀκρίβεια). So, Paul exhorts the Corinthians with the “humility and gentleness [ἐπιεικείας] of Christ” (2 Cor 10.1). Equity is a sought after characteristic in a judge (Acts 24.4) or ruler (Josephus, Ant. 12.122; 19.246; Against. Ap. 2.209) and frequently appears in appeals to God as a righteous judge in Hellenistic Jewish literature (2 Macc 2.22; 10.4; Wis 12.18; Bar. 2.27; LXX Dan 3.42; cf. Philo, Mos. 1.198; Virt. 106; Josephus, Ag. Apion 2.214). Equity, then, is an accommodation to a particular need or circumstance rather than a rigorous devotion to the letters themselves.
As a hermeneutical guide from Aristotle, equity aids in solving interpretive problems. An equitable reading allows discrepancies between letter and intention to be resolved by recognizing that written texts cannot take into account every eventuality or circumstance that might fall under their application. Thus, the intention of the law takes precedence when read equitably. Likewise, ambiguity is resolved by reading equitably to accommodate the particular use of a word or passage for a particular circumstance. So equity takes into account the historical and textual (or literary) context of a text. Equity also resolves contradictions by reading the parts of a text in light of the whole text and even the author’s life, again accommodating the particularity of the author.
In her second chapter, Eden shows the same interpretive principles at work in the grammatical tradition of Plato and later Plutarch. Using the poetry of Homer via Platonic allegory, Plutarch describes good reading as a journey home to true knowledge (philosophy). Eden shows that the grammatical texts use the concepts of “suitability” (τὸ πρέπον /decorum) which is “the ability to accommodate the occasion” (Eden, 26). Similar was the concept of “economy” or “order” (οἰκονομία) which was used by the grammarians to refer to the arrangement of the text. Suitability and economy, again, emphasized the same concept as equity among the grammarians – reading a text in light of its particularities.
In her third and longest chapter (pgs 41-63), Eden shows how these same concepts of learning to read a text in light of its particularities were employed by the church fathers Basil of Caesarea and Augustine of Hippo. She convincingly argues that Basil appears to have been influenced significantly by Plutarch in his exhortation to the young on reading. Likewise, she illuminates Augustine’s De doctrina as an example of Christianized hermeneutic from the rhetorical tradition. The last three chapters follow this trajectory in Erasmus (pgs 64-78), Melanchthon (pgs 79-89) and Flacius (90-100).
I first heard about Eden’s fine book in a presentation from a Patristics scholar, Professor Ronald Heine. Dr. Heine was presenting on Origen’s interpretation of Matthew’s divorce passage, one of the key examples of interpretive conflict in the gospels. Essentially, Heine argued that Origen, like Basil and Augustine, co-opted the concept of equity to defend Jesus’ reading of the OT against the Pharisees. It was a brilliant paper and well-received by all. After the presentation I asked where I might explore the concept further and he pointed me to Eden’s book. It was a wonderful find. Hermeneutics in the Rhetorical Tradition makes a great contribution to charting the development of patristic exegesis and prompts numerous questions about how these hermeneutical insights might be profitable for following the NT writers’ readings of the OT. If nothing else, Eden teaches what it means to read equitably.