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The writing of the Biblical documents themselves, already the Old Testament documents, and then most certainly the New Testament documents, was of course in itself a major process of interpretative activities. New Testament writers were interpreting what happened in Jesus Christ and they were doing it against the background of what Christians now call the Old Testament. From the beginning, Christian worship became the social location where these documents were read and interpreted anew, following the synagogue pattern known to them, in reading, singing, prayers and sermons. Gradually, these documents were increasingly accepted as forming one corpus, belonging together, as canon, with divine authority - and this process itself became another major interpretive process with enormous hermeneutical implications - these documents were accepted as belonging together while others were excluded ; they were seen as forming a closed canon albeit in slightly different forms ; they were regarded to have religious authority; in short, their status, role and function changed.

As almost inevitable result, the documents from now on formed a context for one another, they were seen and therefore read as belonging together, as being one book, rather than merely an arbitrary collection of different books, and they were believed to somehow have an internal unity, a message, a focus or scope - so that the question of the key to this message would become a dominant hermeneutical question from now on.

What does this book say, what does it mean, how should the church read this book, and who has the authority to determine its true sense, or perhaps senses?

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Increasingly, the key to what the book really means was sought in the so-called regula fidei, the rule of what the church believes, confesses and teaches, in the form of doctrine, the regula veritatis or rule of truth, and whenever conflicts of interpretation arose believers looked to structures of authoritative teaching in the church to solve these conflicts by official interpretation and teaching, often leading to the official rejection of what was seen as false teaching and false teachers. The Bible became increasingly used as source for the official church to prove its authoritative doctrines and teaching.

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During the early centuries, moral instruction provided a major reason for reading the Biblical Scriptures. Appeals were practical and direct, and whenever needed, the methods of allegorical interpretation finding hidden, spiritual meaning behind the literal and historical words or typological interpretation seeing the New Testament and the church foreshadowed in Old Testament figures, institutions and practices were already available and at hand in Jewish practices and contemporary culture to be employed.

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The Catechetical School of Alexandria in Egypt, for example, became famous as home of the allegorical or spiritual interpretation by figures like Clement of Alexandria and Origen, while further to the east, the School of Antioch practised its more literal and historical exegesis. During the Middle Ages, in the Latin-speaking western Empire, developments took place in three different social locations, namely the monasteries, the cathedral schools and the medieval universities. From the sixth into the twelfth centuries, it was in the monasteries where "the torch of learning was kept alight" because Biblical learning and reading was kept alive, while education and scholarship suffered neglect and even destruction, together with towns, libraries, books and culture.

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The monastic tradition of spiritual reading for the edification of the soul through contemplation and discipleship called lectio divina or sacra pagina developed, involving the rhythm of threefold spiritual practices of reading, contemplation and prayer. During these practices the notion of the four senses of Scripture came to full employ - offering literal historical and literary , allegorical doctrinal , moral exemplary and anagogical salvific meanings. The works of celebrated preachers and commentators like Gregory the Great and the Venerable Bede were collected to form an accumulative and authoritative tradition of exposition, informing these practices of spiritual reading.

The love of learning and the desire for God became closely inter-related - and for those who could not read there was the teaching through liturgy and art, deeply shaping and nourishing the popular imagination. Since the ninth century, however, education was also becoming more public, books were copied with the help of a new form of handwriting and became increasingly available, new copies of classical and pagan texts were commented upon and gradually the cathedrals in the larger towns and cities were challenged to open schools for the education of the clergy, to serve the growing public demand for reading and knowledge.

Here a scholastic way of reading the Bible developed, different in purpose and method from the monasteries, so that by the twelfth century two kinds of schools co-existed in different social locations, each with its own traditions of reading and interpretation - monasteries for monks and cathedral schools for clerics. In the schools several material processes were at work that would fundamentally influence and in many ways change practices of interpretation - glosses in the margins of the manuscripts increasingly developed into commentaries and finally into a whole corpus of official comments and opinions from authoritative authors; a method of question and answer, called disputatio, developed as way of instruction and learning in the schools, making possible the dialectical methodology employed by teachers like Peter Abelard and Peter Lombard, so that the three moments of the lectio divina were in these locations replaced by three different moments, namely the grammar, logic and rhetoric of the so-called sacra doctrina.

The Vulgate or Latin text of the Bible was provided with numbered chapter divisions after which numbered verses also followed, making concordances and similar reference works possible, all serving more systematic study of the Bible. Still, yet another social location was developing where centres of learning, founded by citizens of more independent cities, were established that would later become known as the first medieval universities, and again the Bible would be read and studies with different purposes in mind and therefore according to different ways of interpretation.

By the end of the twelfth century it was possible for students to begin with a general study in the liberal arts, a studium generale, preparing them for theological studies, afterwards. Since the scholastic training was not producing the kind of skills regarded by some in the church as necessary for the work of the church, both the Dominican and Franciscan Orders were founded early in the thirteenth century, both concerned with preaching. Francis' resistance against many of the scholastic ideals and practices led to a situation where most popular preaching, often based on very literal understandings of especially the Gospels, was done by self-appointed and untrained preachers.

The Dominican Order of Preachers was therefore set up to combat what they regarded as an uncontrolled spread of heresies. The different orders set up their own centres of training or houses of study in the vicinity of and sometimes even as part of the schools and the universities, a practice that would become increasingly popular after the Reformation. By that time Protestant denominations founded their own seminaries, either separate from or collaborating with, universities, but always with a double-vision understanding of doing theology - for the church but in the academy.

This included study of the Bible according to changing scholarly climates, approaches and methodologies, but simultaneously intended to be in the service of the church and its ministry and life. With the focus now on preaching, a new genre of gloss also developed, namely comments and later commentaries for preachers, called postilla or additions , providing material useful for preachers as sources of interpretation of the Bible. At the same time, the Dominicans refused the translation of the Bible in the vernacular, thereby attempting to keep the Bible out of the hands of the common people, in order to prevent heresy, in the form of interpretation not officially approved by the church.

Renaissance and Reformation. The Reformation may be described as a next crucial period in the story of reading and interpreting the Bible, although it should be kept in mind that the Reformation itself was only, albeit an integral, part of a much larger cultural and historical process taking place. Already the Renaissance breathed the spirit of ad fontes, back to the sources, which involved a renewed interest in the original Biblical documents, as well as philological work, translations from the original languages, translations into the vernacular, and wider access to these documents for a broader public.

Popular movements grew in which the Biblical documents were read, in spite of official prohibition, spiritually, meditatively, literally, psychologically and morally - for example the reform movement called the devotia moderna which produced Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ. Almost inevitably, these widespread encounters with the original documents led to an increasing conflict between these popular readings searching for literal meaning on the one hand and the official readings of the church according to the authoritative and doctrinal rule of faith on the other.

A conflict between Bible and Church was developing - with many incidents and episodes contributing to this growing tension, for example the fate of William of Ockham, John Huss and John Wycliffe. For obvious reasons, the invention of printing was a major game-changer. The Reformation was unthinkable without printing. As a result of the technology of printing and the industry of paper-production the world was changed. Printing conquered Europe and later the whole world, is the way Henri-Jean Martin in The History and Power of Writing describes this process, and in their own hands, in their vernacular, the Bible captured the imagination of many, it became the language they spoke, the lenses through which they saw the world, the strange new linguistic and imaginative world in which they lived.

For the first time in history it really became meaningful to speak about "the Bible" in the singular, referring to one book in one physical format. It became possible to imagine a book with a single message, thrust or purpose, to claim sola Scriptura over against the external authority of the church's teaching office and tradition. The Reformers heard in this Book a message of salvation and they claimed the necessity, sufficiency, clarity and self-authenticating authority of this message. For them salvation was ex auditu verbi, received through listening to the promises of this living Word of the speaking God.


The Bible was primarily a text for proclamation, the message of God's promises. In fact, their view of the church itself was based on preaching and the sacraments as visible words only, satis est, that was sufficient for the church to be church. For them the Bible was viva vox Dei, the living voice of Godself, the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ. Biblical hermeneutics became something completely different from illustrating the doctrine of the church by using proof-texts and from finding a four-fold sense in obscure and difficult documents by means of spiritual keys obtained from elsewhere.

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For them, it rather became the existential reading of the grammatical-historical words themselves, hearing in them the clear and liberating message of salvation, for everyone to see in the central scope of this one Book. For sure, there would be different emphases within the Reformation and even diverse hermeneutical keys serving as material understandings of the heart of this one message, but the radical implications for hermeneutics remained the same.

A major break with the past was taking place. From now one, a heavy responsibility was placed on exegesis and Biblical interpretation itself. The Reformation marked the beginning of immense hermeneutical activity that would remain at the heart of post-Reformation church and theology. Again, this would have major implications for the social locations where "the Bible" became read and interpreted. The major location was obviously the pulpits of local Protestant congregations. That is where the message was "preached and heard. At the same time, however, the Bible was also from now on increasingly read "in and for the public sphere," so that princes, rulers, cities, regions, even countries could also hear - and hopefully obey - the "Word of God.

Enlightenment and modernity. With the Enlightenment and modernity the result was again inevitable. Once more broader cultural developments impacted dramatically on the way "the Bible" was seen and read. The rationalistic mind-set, historical consciousness and secularisation project would all radically challenge and also change perceptions of "the Bible" and hermeneutical approaches to its interpretation and use.

The rationalistic mind-set brought a flight from authority that would not leave traditional views of the Bible intact. Theological studies changed and different disciplines developed, each attempting to claim its rightful place in the academy based on scientific methodologies. Even forms of Protestant scholasticism developed, viewing and using the Bible as final foundation, as inspired, a-historical, timeless and even inerrant source of knowledge claims, propositions and fundamental truths. In some later forms of so-called Evangelicalism theories of verbal inspiration and even verbal inerrancy became popular denying any need for hermeneutics and interpretation.

The new historical consciousness would raise particularly serious questions. The historical studies led to major advancements - regarding philology; the Jewish background; knowledge of ancient cultures and literature; archaeology; textual criticism; the history of religion; the authorship and editing of the Biblical documents; the history behind these documents; the growth and nature of the early faith communities; and in general, regarding an increasing awareness of and appreciation of the historical and cultural distance between contemporary readers and "the Bible.

For reading, interpreting and proclaiming the Biblical message in the church, however, these developments also raised many difficult issues. The Bible was increasingly regarded as only a collection of ancient documents, cultural objects from a distant part, and disparate at that, a library much more than a book, an arbitrary collection of merely human sources, with fluid, no longer canonical boundaries, and without any message, thrust or scope, except for those projected onto it by communities of readers.

According to many, "the Bible" lost not only its familiarity and its message, but also any internal continuity, coherence and relief as well as reliability and trustworthiness. To many it no longer offered divine promises of salvation, but merely historically unreliable information about a distant and not so innocent past. The religious value of "the Bible" was at stake, and in the eye of many, irrevocably lost.

For some time in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, so-called Biblical theologies attempted to retrieve some of the Bible's relevance by reconstructing some form of either Old or New Testament inner coherence, very deliberately at a distance from and over against any doctrinal and ecclesial claims, but soon all emphasis was on pluralities, discrepancies, discontinuities and accordingly scholarly specialization without any so-called hermeneutics of expectation or of trust. To a large extent these developments, however, remained the preserve of scholars, so that a gulf of interpretation grew between the social locations of academy and church, respectively.

Sometimes the same readers and interpreters lived in both these worlds at the same time, so that they had to deal with the conflicting assumptions and expectations of their own different life-worlds.

The many Protestant seminaries since the 19th century, for example, would often be caught in this dilemma, the training took place according to the reigning methodologies of scholarship while those trained had to negotiate their own hermeneutical ways according to the confession and trust of their communities of faith. The project of secularisation further contributed to the difficulties of modernity with "the Bible" of church and tradition. The immense authority and wide-ranging public influence of the Bible as the foundation of piety and religious practice but also of social organisation and life in state, society, community and culture came under fire from many sides.

The plausibility structures that had once made this influence possible disappeared with increasingly secularity, in whatever way it was understood. Popular opinion changed, and from now on public opinion regarded religious ideas, convictions, values, claims and language with scepticism and distrust, as inevitably leading to intolerance, conflict and violence.

Appeals to "the Bible" no longer made sense or carried weight in public discourses, in fact, it was increasingly rejected as suspicious and deeply authoritarian, problematic and unacceptable. In short, joining forces with rationalism thinking for oneself, distrusting authority and historical consciousness we no longer live in the times of Old Testament theocracy or New Testament empire made secular democracy possible - and with that a radically changed understanding of the nature and status of the Biblical corpus.

Its influence, if any, became increasingly limited to the private sphere of the private life of piety. Personal and spiritual study of the Bible continued and in churches the Bible was still read in worship and used in preaching and liturgy, but it widely lost its claims to being interpreted with a view to the public domain.

With that, some important roots of the contemporary hermeneutical scene are laid bare. In scholarly circles the collection of Biblical documents may be studied according to mainly historical and literary methods, like any other text from antiquity, with an impressive and valued cultural history-of-effects. In church circles "the Bible" may still mostly be read as a religious document with religious authority and function, albeit in widely different ways. In public life the Bible may sometimes, although not everywhere and always, be respected and appropriated as an important human, cultural and literary document - for example by authors, poets, artists, film-producers, moral leaders and public figures.

Ecumenical hermeneutics. One particular story from the 20th century could perhaps be instructive, namely a brief account how the Ecumenical Movement has tried to come to terms with the challenges of Biblical hermeneutics. In many ways, the interpretation of Scripture was at the heart of the modern search for unity in the Ecumenical Movement. In the early years there was optimism that the one gospel that could potentially unify the divided church was available and clear in the Bible, if only read and understood rightly.

Historians generally date the start of Kabbalah as a major influence in Jewish thought and practice with the publication of the Zohar and climaxing with the spread of the Arizal's teachings. The majority of Haredi Jews accept the Zohar as the representative of the Ma'aseh Merkavah and Ma'aseh B'reshit that are referred to in Talmudic texts.

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Following the upheavals and dislocations in the Jewish world as a result of anti-Judaism during the Middle Ages , and the national trauma of the expulsion from Spain in , closing the Spanish Jewish flowering , Jews began to search for signs of when the long-awaited Jewish Messiah would come to comfort them in their painful exiles. In the 16th century, the community of Safed in the Galilee became the centre of Jewish mystical, exegetical, legal and liturgical developments.