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New Test. Stud. , pp. –.

Printed in the United Kingdom ©  Cambridge University Press

‘I will open my mouth in parables’ (Matt


13.35): A Case for a Gospel-Based Biblical
Hermeneutics*
TE R E SA OKU R E , S HCJ
Catholic Institute of West Africa, PO Box 499, Port Harcourt, Rivers State,
Nigeria

The study participates in the ongoing discussion of the relationship between


hermeneutics and exegesis. A review of the main aspects of the discussion, the
meanings of both terms, and key influences in modern biblical criticism reveals
that hermeneutics is an operating fundamental in both ‘exegesis’ and ‘hermeneu-
tics’. The study consequently proposes ‘exegetical hermeneutics’ as an integrative
methodology which would place exegesis at the service of hermeneutics. Jesus’ use
of parables models the salient aspects of the proposed ‘exegetical hermeneutics’. A
concluding section highlights the implications of the proposed approach for NT
scholarship.

Biblical scholarship distinguishes between exegesis and hermeneutics. It


defines exegesis as the scientific interpretation of a text in its ancient context by
experts, using the method of historical criticism (form, source, redaction, textual
criticism and so forth). Hermeneutics is seen as the reading of a text in the reader’s
modern context through the liberative and reader-response approaches (feminist
and inculturation hermeneutics, Third World, liberation and black theologies and
the various charismatic readings). Historical criticism, viewed as scientific and
objective, is ranked as the higher criticism. The liberative approaches, considered
as subjective and insufficiently critical, are ranked as the lower criticism. The
underlying assumption is that a modern reader who possesses the necessary tools
can objectively or scientifically distance self from his or her cultural context and
upbringing such that the context exercises no influence on his/her interpretation

* Main Paper delivered at the SNTS meeting in Pretoria in .


 The Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Vatican
City: Editrice Vaticana, ) offers a comprehensive analysis of these approaches.
 Cf. Christopher Rowland, ‘In Dialogue with Itumeleng Mosola: A Contribution to Liberation
Exegesis’, JSNT  (), –, esp. . 
  

of an ancient text. It is also assumed that a hermeneutical reading requires no


such distancing.
Many ‘exegetes’ and ‘hermeneuts’ have questioned this division between exe-
gesis and hermeneutics, and the underlying hegemonic claim of historical criti-
cism to be the sound method in biblical scholarship. Others have criticised the
imperialism, arrogance and patriarchy underlying this view, noting that no read-
ing is ‘purely objective’ or ‘value free’. They advocate an integrative approach
whereby the historical-critical method and the liberative and reader-response
approaches would benefit from and challenge one another towards a fuller com-
prehension of the biblical texts. Others further advocate a collaboration within the
three spaces in which scripture is read: the academic, the liturgical and the popu-
lar. Despite these appeals, the division between hermeneutics and exegesis and
its underlying assumptions persist even in the SNTS.
This current study is located within this discussion on the relation of exegesis
to hermeneutics. The study examines three considerations that may shed further
light on the issue. First, it assesses the primary understanding of hermeneutics as
applicable mainly in interpretation of text. Secondly, it asks whether what has
hitherto been understood as exegesis is not de facto hermeneutics. Thirdly, it pro-
poses the parable as capable of modelling a methodology that would marry the
best results of the hermeneutical and exegetical strands in biblical scholarship
and place them at the service of ‘God’s gospel’ for humanity and creation (cf. Rom
.–). The methodology of the study is narrative and analytical. Interest in the par-
able lies in its hermeneutical character, or as embodying the chief characteristics

 See Jurgen Habermas, ‘Hermeneutics’ Claim to Universality’, in Kurt Mueller-Vollmer, ed.,


The Hermeneutics Reader (New York: Continuum, ) –; E. S. Fiorenza, Bread Not
Stone: Feminist Biblical Interpretation (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, ) esp. ‘Toward a Critical-
Theological Self-Understanding of Biblical Scholarship’, pp. –; R. S. Sugirtharajah, ed.,
Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World (Maryknoll, NY:
Orbis/London: SPCK, ); F. F. Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert, eds, Reading from This Place
: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in Global Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress,
); Gerald West, Biblical Hermeneutics of Liberation: Modes of Reading the Bible in South
African Context (Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications, ); Daniel Patte, ‘Biblical Scholars
at the Interface between Critical and Ordinary Readings: A Response’, Semeia  ()
–; Itumeleng J. Mosala, Biblical Hermeneutics and the Black Theology in South Africa
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, ); Cain Hope Felder, ed., Stony the Road We Trod: African
American Biblical Interpretation (Minneapolis: Fortress, ).
 Pablo Richard, ‘Biblical Interpretation from the Perspective of Indigenous Cultures of Latin
America (Mayas, Kunas, and Quechuas)’, in Mark Brett, ed., Ethnicity and the Bible (Leiden:
Brill, ) –.
 At the SNTS meeting in Pretoria, I shared my experience at a meeting in Strasbourg where a
colleague told me in good faith that the SNTS had newly created the workshop on hermeneu-
tics for scholars like myself who lacked the expertise to participate in the more technical
workshops.
A Case for a Gospel-Based Biblical Hermeneutics 

of the proposed gospel-based biblical hermeneutics. The presentation addresses


first the issue of exegesis and hermeneutics, then discusses how the parable
models the proposed hermeneutical approach.

Exegesis and hermeneutics – are they related?

The discussion on hermeneutics in biblical criticism generally centres on


the interpretation of texts. As Croatto and Bleicher have shown, the discussion is
influenced by the works of philosophers, notably Schleiermacher, Heidegger,
Gadamer, Ricoeur and Bultmann who later became a biblicist. Yet hermeneutics
is not only operative in the reading of a text, ‘an event become word’, which of
necessity implies ‘selection-and-closure’. Hermeneutics is a reality of life, integral
to what it means to be human. One may describe it as the natural process by
which a human being interprets, understands and relates meaningfully to self and
the world outside self on a daily basis. It includes the ability to read the signs and
symbols of one’s culture as applied to self and community, to interpret the look on
another’s face, a word spoken, a gesture made, and all other forms of human com-
munication. On such interpretations, true or false, depends one’s response to the
person or situation concerned. To be human is to be a hermeneut. This process
may even begin instinctively in the womb, where the embryo absorbs and pro-
cesses stimuli from the mother as it grows in stages. It may also apply to all living
creatures.
Not only are the readings of the ‘happenings’ within an event made from a
‘perspective’, the interpretation of life on a daily basis is also made from a stand-
point. Our daily readings of reality are influenced by our culture and hermeneuti-
cal presuppositions. Culture – the unique identity of the human society into which
we are born and socialised, which we inherit as a birthright, and which conditions
us for life – may be seen as the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) of a given group of
human beings. All human beings, not only Africans and Indians, have culture and
are culturally conditioned. In one’s first contact with another culture, one instinc-
tively interprets the signs, symbols and gestures of people in that culture through
the lenses of one’s own culture or social location, often with sad consequences. In
mixing with people of other cultures, our primary cultural lenses may be modi-
fied, but not radically changed. One’s native language embodies and serves as the
primary mode of cultural transmission. Thus interpretation is rightly linked with
language and semiotics, the signs, symbols and codes of a text. But semiotics and

 Severino Croatto, Biblical Hermeneutics: Towards a Theory of Reading as the Production of


Meaning (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, ), esp. ; Josef Bleicher, Contemporary Hermeneutics:
Hermeneutics as Method, Philosophy and Critique (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, ).
 Croatto, Hermeneutics, .
  

interpretation function in reading a text only because the reader is already a


hermeneut by nature.
Whether the exercise is tagged exegesis or hermeneutics, it is done by limited
human beings. As human activities, both are culturally conditioned, and person-
ally limited by the person’s total human reality: race, sex, class, education, forma-
tion, culture, creed, personal traits and so forth. Interpretation requires no
distance from the event to become operative, it happens while a given word is
heard or an event occurs. It is happening positively or negatively as one reads this
article. People attend the same conference or watch the same movie together, yet
give different versions of what they saw and heard. Inevitably, they view these
events ‘first hand’ through their cultural and personal filters and expectations. It is
also not possible to devise ‘purely’ objective tools for interpreting reality, past or
present. Forged by conditioned human beings, these tools are conditioned them-
selves. Our exegetical studies, like all other human undertakings, are subjective in
the etymological sense of the word, that is, influenced by the subject who does
them. Jesus’ audience and the NT Christians were no exception.
The issue is further compounded by prejudices and presuppositions. Often
the two are difficult to separate. Prejudices (from the Latin prae-judicare, to judge
prematurely without proper enquiry) are perhaps the more basic of the two,
especially those that have cultural, racial and gender roots. Presuppositions, the
set of expectations we bring to evaluate a text, event or person, get filtered through
them. We may not even be aware of our prejudices, inherited through our sociali-
sation processes, though God’s gospel should help to expose them as we become
socialised into Christ and learn to cultivate his mind (Gal .;  Cor .). A read-
ing that loses its counter-cultural edge, or fails to transform lives and promote the
good in the culture, may be an inauthentic reading.
This raises the issue of correct reading. The Bible is the work of ancient
authors, inspired by God. It is also essentially a community book. Though inspired
individuals wrote the texts, inspired communities gave them their current canon-
ical status. God’s Spirit, who inspired its writing and intended it to be heard by
peoples of all ages, cultures and social locations, continually inspires each faith
community to understand its meaning as applicable for its own context and time.
Our understanding of inspiration needs to be extended to embrace the Spirit’s
activity in a living faith community’s reading of the Bible. Jesus’ promise that the
Holy Spirit would lead the disciples to the complete truth (John .) was not
restricted to a particular age.
The human factors that influence our readings are not limited to socio-cul-
tural ones. They extend also to our academic needs: the need to support and be

 Cf. Graham N. Stanton, ‘Presuppositions in New Testament Criticism’, in I. H. Marshall, ed.,


New Testament Interpretation (Exeter: Paternoster, ) –.
A Case for a Gospel-Based Biblical Hermeneutics 

supported by colleagues (especially those of one’s institution and country), the


need for acceptance by publishers whose main interest may be to look for what
will sell, the need to capture the imagination of a wide readership, get a substan-
tial grant for future research, win a prestigious chair, or even conform to an aca-
demic peer pressure group. Such needs may also influence how soon to get a work
published, lest another does so and deprives us of the prestige of being the first to
propose the theory. Viewed ‘objectively’, these needs that so influence our scien-
tific research have little or nothing to do with the meaning of the text in its ancient
context. Their influences are often obvious to outsiders who more easily notice
who quotes and supports whom or whose views are rejected or simply ignored.
In view of this, not only is the claim to pure interpretation or pure chronicle
out of the question, one cannot help interpreting every situation in life on a daily
basis. Third World and women theologians have long unmasked the lie in the
claim of white male theology to be the universal and all-inclusive theology. This
applies to method as well as to content. Open admission of this natural limitation
invites us to explore its implications for our personal and communal readings of
the Bible in our diverse socio-cultural locations.

The fate of the text in exegesis and hermeneutics

The reader’s socio-cultural location and perspective affect not only


interpretation but the text itself. God’s word, the seed of the sower (Matt .–),
suffers the same fate through the ages as in the parable. If the text falls on the
mind of a fundamentalist, it will be cut from its cultural and historical moorings,
and fitted into the interpreter’s religio-cultural straitjacket. Yet this stifling mould
will be given a divine authority: ‘The word of God says . . .’. The text will then be
unable to breathe, grow and bear the intended fruit.
If the text falls on the desk of a historical-critical scholar eager to discern its
prehistory, it will be dismembered, rearranged chapter and verse (as in the classic
case of John , , ), and relocated historically and theologically in hypothetical
contexts. The text’s place in the canon may be affected. If the text falls on the
mind of a scholar with a genius for inventing detective stories, it will be ‘histori-
cally’ situated in very ‘highly imaginative’ and ‘daringly bold’ social locations, with

 Cf. Hans Schwarz, Christology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, ), esp. the Preface.
 Croatto, Hermeneutics, –.
 See further T. Okure, ‘Word of God, Source of Life: An African Perspective’, Verbum SVD 
() –.
 Cf. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design (Philadelphia:
Fortress, ).
 In The Jerome Biblical Commentary (old and new editions), for instance, John comes after
Hebrews and the Johannine epistles and is placed next to Revelation.
  

hardly any substantial evidence to support the ‘historical’ reconstructions. A


‘benediction’ may then become a ‘curse’, or ‘red herring’ for a gospel of life. The
text then loses its own voice, identity and right to be heard on its own terms and
becomes subject to the scholar’s reigning theories. Students may not even con-
sider a set text an essential bibliography for a given course compared to second-
ary literature, the authorities to be quoted as evidence of having ‘read widely’.
If the text falls on the heart of a committed disciple, it will be received with
enlightened faith and christological humility. That disciple will read and submit
self to be read by the text. His/her entire life will form the fertile soil in which the
word grows and bears lasting fruit: now thirty-, now sixty- and now a hundredfold.
That disciple will not think that he/she has definitively understood or given a final
response to the word, or see his/her localised response as normative for all disci-
ples in their own locations. The disciple will not expect a  per cent success all
the time from self or from others. The seed on good soil did not yield  per cent
fruit always. What counts is that the good soil be open and receptive to God’s
word, to let the word grow, to nourish and be nourished by it.

Modern biblical scholarship – exegesis or hermeneutics?

Because hermeneutics is an essential part of being human, a factor in all


our human undertakings, the question arises whether what in the past has been
designated as ‘exegesis’, an objective reading of scripture in its ancient settings,
has not been hermeneutics all along. The question can be treated from a linguis-
tic perspective. Classical, NT and patristic Greek dictionaries define the primary
meaning of ‘exegesis’ (ejxhghvs i~), from the verb ejxhgevomai (to report, reveal, nar-
rate), as a ‘reporting’, ‘narrating’ of events. This implies that the reporter, narrator
or revealer (the exegete) is an eyewitness of the events reported. The classic
example is Jesus, described as God’s unique exegete in John .: ‘Nobody has ever
seen God, but God’s uniquely beloved son (monogenhv~) has revealed him (ejkei`no~
ejxhghvsato)’. This declaration is reiterated in different ways in John’s Gospel (cf.
.–; .a; .).
Jesus’ unique revelation of God is not limited to verbal discourse. He reveals
God by his entire life (cf. John .–), and as one who abides permanently in
God’s bosom. Similarly, the Beloved Disciple is designated as the unique witness
behind John’s Gospel because he was physically present and saw (oJ eJwrakwv~)
what happened (John .). Origen compared his leaning on Jesus’ breast at the

 See J. L. Martyn’s History and Theology of the Fourth Gospel (New York: Harper & Row, ),
and the recent essays in Robert T. Fortna and Beverly R. Gaventa, eds, The Conversation
Continues: Studies in Paul & John. In Honour of J. Louis Martyn (Nashville: Abingdon, ).
 See the works cited in nn. – below.
A Case for a Gospel-Based Biblical Hermeneutics 

Last Supper (John .–) to Jesus’ own abiding in God’s bosom, a gesture
expressive of a most intimate relationship. He learned as by osmosis the meaning
of Jesus’ life, person and mission and so could convincingly report on this even to
other disciples (cf. ., ). Luke, who disclaims that he was an eyewitness, would
not see himself as an exegete in this technical sense of the word. Nor would
Polycarp, by Eusebius’s report a disciple of the Beloved Disciple. In view of this,
can we in the twentieth-first century, some  years removed from the events,
justifiably arrogate to ourselves the role of exegetes, ‘reporters’, on what hap-
pened? The question is intensified by the awareness that much of what has been
described as ‘exegesis’ in contemporary NT studies has been for the most part, not
a reporting on the extant text, but a tearing apart of these texts in search of their
pre-literary forms. At times the more sensational the detective work and its results,
the more support it gains from readers, who, like the Athenians, may always be
looking for something new (Acts .). While accusing the ancient authors of
inventing stories, the scholarship itself operates through inventing theories.
Alongside ejxhgevomai occur verbs that describe the activity of interpretation:
eJrmhneuvetai, levgetai, meqermhneuovmenon(cf. John ., ). This cluster of verbs
invites the interpreter to give meaning in new contexts to past events either by
direct translation, or as in eJrmhneuvetai (from which comes ‘hermeneutics’), by
using equivalent concepts in the language of translation. This type of activity
would be the proper domain of biblical scholarship, not as a dead searching of the
scriptures (ejrauna`te, John .), but with a desire to reveal their life-giving mean-
ing for contemporary disciples.
To be technically an exegete, one has to be an eyewitness. NT Christians were
strict on this, and therefore on who could qualify as an eyewitness reporter. This
explains their emphasis on eyewitness as a guarantee of the accounts about Jesus,
his life and his teachings. Even then, the eyewitness report on the primary event is
inevitably influenced by the cultural and personal filters earlier mentioned. All
scripture is interpretation or hermeneutics where life issues hold the key to new
insights for each generation. The history of interpretation within scripture and of
patristic exegesis testifies to this. Even then, no epoch had a uniform interpret-
ation. Paul’s hermeneutics differed from that of James of Jerusalem; that of
Alexandria from that of Antioch (Origen and Theodore of Mopsuestia). Aquinas
and Albert the Great, both Dominicans, had different approaches, and in modern
times the Tübingen and French schools, for instance, are not exactly clones.
Redaction criticism has long recognised that the four gospels are four contex-

 See E. E. Ellis, ‘Interpretation of the Bible within the Bible Itself’, in William R. Farmer et al.,
eds, International Bible Commentary (Collegeville: Liturgical, ) –; David L. Balás and
D. Jeffrey Bingham, ‘Patristic Exegesis of the Books of the Bible’, ibid., –; and on
Qumranic, Rabbinic and medieval exegesis, ibid., –.
  

tualised stories of Jesus’ life and mission, based on the situations of the com-
munity addressed by each evangelist. Theirs were not ‘pure historical accounts’
but a selective, interpretative (even translated) proclamation of the vast traditions
of Jesus’ life and deeds (John .), narrated to meet concrete needs. It is likely
that Jesus taught in Aramaic (which does not mean that he did not know Greek),
since most of his hearers would have spoken Aramaic as a first language. The sur-
vival of the NT only in Greek shows to what extent the NT Christians were more
eager to transmit the gospel to their Greco-Roman audiences than to preserve the
ipsissima verba of Jesus. This awareness calls for respect for their work and con-
cerns within their personal and historico-cultural limitations.
In the NT and ancient world, a theory (hypothesis) did not become a fact (what
Quintilian and the ancient rhetoricians call peristasis) until it had substantial and
independent evidence to support it. Yet today both the hypothesis and the peris-
tasis are derived from the same text in a circular way of thinking. A theory gradu-
ally becomes a historical fact, either because its inventor designates it as such,
because eminent scholars have supported it, or because it has withstood the test
of our modern time. Notable examples here are the Q hypothesis, the theory of
Marcan priority and the histories of the Johannine community. Bultmann was
called to task for his circular thinking in his two-source theory on John’s Gospel
(the Semeia and Offenbarungsreden Quellen). His are not the only theories that
can be tagged circular in modern NT scholarship, nor was he alone influenced by
his primary academic (philosophical) formation.

Separation of hermeneutics from exegesis: factors and consequences

Stuhlmacher and others have traced some influences on modern biblical


interpretation, notably the Renaissance, humanism, Cartesian rationalism, the
scientific revolution, and the Enlightenment. Archaeology is another major
influence, and, with the empiricism of pure science, played a significant role in the
methodologies of historical criticism. But although biblical scholarship modelled
itself on archaeology and pure science, it did not go the whole way as these disci-
plines, nor did it seriously consider that its own discipline dealt with material very
different from that of archaeology and science.
Archaeology finds ancient ruins and pieces them together to reproduce a
whole. Biblical scholarship, in a reversed archaeological approach, finds complete

 See T. Okure, The Johannine Approach to Mission: A Contextual Study of John :– (WUNT
/; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], ), esp. xvii–xviii, –,  (n. ) –, for
further discussion.
 Cf. Peter Stuhlmacher, Historical Criticism and Theological Interpretation of Scripture
(Philadelphia: Fortress, ); G. Bray, Biblical Interpretation: Past & Present (Leicester: Inter-
Varsity Press, ).
A Case for a Gospel-Based Biblical Hermeneutics 

works of literature and tears them apart to discover their pre-literary forms and
supposed social contexts. The early criterion used in archaeology, especially by
Roland de Vaux of the Ecole Biblique, Jerusalem, of dating parts of a monument
from the date of stones in a given layer, is now being reviewed. Archaeologists are
becoming aware that in an age where building material was scarce, materials from
demolished structures were frequently reused in constructing new ones. This con-
sideration makes suspect a precise dating based on the date of a given layer. If this
applies to stones, it would apply even more to dating of oral literature where the
stories were elaborated and passed on from generation to generation, in a region
where the dictum holds that ‘centuries coexist but do not succeed one another’. Is
it possible then to devise in the twentieth-first century purely objective criteria to
measure accurately how an oral and life-centred literature functioned in this first-
century oral society? The question is pertinent since the oral literature, later com-
mitted to writing, was barely a window of life in the Jewish and Greco-Roman
cultural matrix from which the texts emerged.
Science, too, works on theory and speculation but depends on successful lab-
oratory experiments to confirm its hypotheses. Its theories do not become public
consumption until tested and proven by experiments. The biblical texts on the
contrary are records of real people, whose lives were rooted in faith and grounded
in faith. By adopting a purely scientific approach to these works, biblical scholar-
ship dismissed faith and life questions as a methodological premise, since such
questions cannot be observed in scientific laboratories. Unlike in science, the
unproven theories soon become public consumption, taken as gospel truth.
Without the key to meaning and the rationale for the existence of these works,
could biblical scholarship unlock their authentic meaning (in their own contexts)
or do justice to the ancient authors, their works and the contemporary reader?
The diacritical approach went beyond dissecting the text. It led to other unfor-
tunate separations: of a text from its known social world (a world of constant
travel and cross-fertilisation of ideas among Christians, Jews, Epicureans, Stoics,
Romans, philosophers and traders, right up to the time of Ignatius of Antioch); of
one NT author and his community from another (such that one could not scien-
tifically use Paul to interpret John, or one gospel to interpret another, and vice
versa); of a passage from its literary context (such that it was possible to read a
verse and yet ignore evidence within the same chapter or work that might contra-
dict a cherished theory). Yet while influences from the Christian communities that
shared a common faith and traditions about Jesus were prohibited, sustained
research to identify external influences from non-Christian literature
(Religionsgeschichte) on the NT works was encouraged. A return to the real world
of the NT works calls for a review of theories that rested on the assumption that
the NT Christians lived in isolation from one another.
The separation affected other interpretative approaches. Scientific biblical
  

scholarship tended to look down especially on patristic allegorical ‘exegesis’ as


lacking in scientific objectivity. It parted company with life-oriented interpret-
ations (ecclesial, liturgical and pastoral) and until recently with the popular
and liberative approaches. By operating on specialisation, scholarship deprived
itself of a wealth of information within the biblical works themselves that
might have given it unique insights to meaning, while digging deeper and deeper
into the imaginary worlds of these texts in their pre-literary forms. Within itself,
scholarship broke into three hierarchical, non-related layers of biblical science,
biblical studies and biblical theology, where the findings of the last two were
often deemed unworthy of consideration by the exegete. It also precluded the
possibility of collaborating with other theological disciplines on their use of
scripture.
A scholarship which deals with God’s comprehensive agenda for restoring all
things in Christ should, more than any other discipline, question the culture of
separation of church and state, a by-product of the Reformation and the collapse
of the Holy Roman Empire. Instead, scholarship becomes the chief bearer of sep-
aration, if not of the secularisation of biblical interpretation itself. As a result bib-
lical criticism has been largely like the barren fig tree, full of leaves, season after
season, but with little or no fruit to nourish God’s people hungry for the word of
life. Leaves exist for themselves and are doomed to perish; fruit nourishes and has
within it seed that can reproduce its kind (cf. Gen .–).
While these separations exist in academia, the results of scholarship trigger
into life, of the scholar, the students and the ordinary readers (through homilies,
commentaries and books). Because these books come from designated biblical
experts, people take ungrounded theories to be the gospel truth while the gospel
itself is held suspect. Pastors and scholars in other theological disciplines feel
inadequate to interpret the Bible. The biblical scholar thus becomes the expert
over the word of the biblical author, and many of God’s people (who cannot dis-
cern hypotheses from peristases) perish through false knowledge, while we schol-
ars may ply our trade through the land and lack divine wisdom (cf.  Cor .–;
Jer .–).
The contribution of historical criticism in liberating biblical scholarship from
dogmatic exegesis and the excesses of allegorical exegesis is not doubted. Its
insistence that the texts be studied in their own life contexts cannot be faulted.
Unfortunately, in the process scholarship went beyond its own agenda and wide
of its evidence and fell into the very errors of which it accused its predecessors.
The less historical evidence it found to substantiate its theories, the more theories
it invented, because it could not historically prove its reconstruction theories
otherwise. While scholarship criticised the imperialism of dogmatic exegesis, it
became itself dogmatic and imperialistic.
In the field we are expected to treat with respect one another’s works and
A Case for a Gospel-Based Biblical Hermeneutics 

views, even beg to differ from them; we naturally take exception if a colleague
negatively criticises our theories. The ancient authors who are not here to defend
themselves, many of whom died for what they believed, also deserve respect. Yet
while we do not hesitate to tear their works apart, even imputing bad motives to
them, we make a living, a profession and a name out of their works. The growing
call to divert ‘the hermeneutic of suspicion’ from the biblical authors and their
works and apply it to our own methodologies and underlying presuppositions
deserves serious attention. This will include an honest evaluation of the influ-
ences at work in these methodologies.
No scholarship is context free, value free or purpose free. We need to address
with honesty the question of the global effect of our scholarship and assess
its purpose and fruit as we move into the next century. Jesus’ statement to
the lawyers, the biblical scholars of his day, calls for sober reflection, that
they have taken away ‘the key of knowledge’ (Luke .) or ‘shut up the kingdom
of heaven in people’s faces’ (Matt .) and would neither enter themselves
nor allow others to do so who wanted to. By its very nature, biblical scholarship
is intended to open, not shut up, the kingdom for people by providing them
with life-giving and empowering knowledge. As we move into the twenty-first cen-
tury, in the spirit of the Jubilee, we may discover much in our past scholarship
that calls for apology to the ancient authors, their audiences and our own
‘ordinary’ readers. We need to take seriously also the constant complaints of stu-
dents that biblical and theological studies have weakened, if not destroyed,
their faith, or that they have little relevance for their daily struggles and future
ministries.
The above discussion on the scope and effects of exegesis and hermeneutics
reveals that there has never been a ‘purely objective’ reading of a text no matter
how many ‘scientific’ and ‘objective’ tools may be devised for such readings.
Forged by limited human beings, those tools are conditioned from the start.
Instead scholars with personal differences, cultural conditionings and interests
have sought to interpret biblical texts from the contexts of their total human
reality, with all the uniqueness and limitations that that reality exercises on the
text. Because to be a human being is to be a hermeneut, hermeneutics would be
a more appropriate designation of biblical criticism than exegesis. Hermeneutics
is the more fundamental activity of the two. One who does exegesis does so
hermeneutically. The ancient biblical authors also had their personal uniqueness
and limitations within their socio-cultural and historical contexts. Fairness to
them demands that we do not place their works in lifeless scientific laboratories
and find them wanting. Human beings do not operate according to Aristotelian
logic or Newtonian physics; that logic cannot realistically be used to evaluate lit-
erary works, ancient or modern.
  

Towards a gospel-based biblical hermeneutics

In light of the above considerations, this study asks for a radical review of
biblical, specifically NT methodologies as we move into the twenty-first century.
Such a methodology would integrate exegesis into hermeneutics. We label this
approach ‘exegetical hermeneutics’, while recognising that terminology is not the
issue. ‘Exegetical hermeneutics’ (rather than ‘hermeneutical exegesis’) lays
emphasis on ‘hermeneutics’, the applied meaning of a text, and places exegesis at
its service. Exegesis here would be understood as a faith-filled scholarly effort to
reveal the meaning of the extant texts in their own contexts, using all available
concrete resources. The parable, used by Jesus as a preferred method of proclaim-
ing God’s good news in diverse life situations, embodies the salient aspects of this
methodology. The use of parables did not originate with Jesus. A typical OT
example is the story of Nathan to David ( Sam .–). But were it not for his use
of this method, parable would not have occupied its central place in gospel
studies.
Both gospel and parable share orality as a common characteristic. In its bibli-
cal meaning, ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’ (cf. Isa .) is to be proclaimed, hence
‘spoken’ to all creation (Matt .–). The Bible as a whole is the story of God’s
‘good news’ for humanity. Jesus embodies and exemplifies this good news, in con-
tent and method. The English word ‘parable’ (from the Latin parabola, a translit-
eration of the Greek parabolhv), primarily signifies ‘side by side’, or ‘alongside of’
(in form of a story or logion), hence its Koine verb form para–ballei`n, ‘to throw
side by side’ or ‘alongside of’. NT and patristic Greek usages emphasise the com-
parative, illustrative, paradigmatic and, at times, obscure nature of parable, which
often ‘needed interpretation to bring out the inner hidden meaning’. Gospel-
based hermeneutics in this study then refers primarily to Jesus’ method of pro-
claiming God’s kingdom and goodness through parables, understood as stories.

Parables as Jesus’ preferred hermeneutical method

We generally consider the parable to have been Jesus’ preferred method of


teaching. His disciples see him primarily as a ‘Rabbi’ (cf. John .; .; .). Yet
the gospels do not speak of Jesus as ‘teaching’ in parables, except in the summary
passage in Mark .. They report instead of his ‘speaking’ to the people in parables,
‘opening his mouth in parables’, ‘putting before them’ and ‘explaining to them

 A. Ernout and A. Meillet, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue latine: Histoire des mots
(Paris: Librairie C. Klincksieck, ) .
 LSJ, –.
 BAG, ; G. W. H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon, ) .
 Donald Senior, Matthew (Nashville: Abingdon, ) .
A Case for a Gospel-Based Biblical Hermeneutics 

through’ a parable. He invites his audience to ‘hear’ (Luke .), ‘know’ (Mark .)
and ‘learn’ (Matt .) the parable. Verbs of speaking dominate his use of para-
bles. The disciples ‘ask’ and ‘beseech’ him (Mark .; .) to ‘explain’ (Matt
.), and ‘break’ for them the meaning (Matt .) of his parables. The crowds do
not understand the parables but ask for no explanation. The leaders do, but
respond negatively, especially when it applies to them (cf. Matt . and pars.).
While Matt . reports that Jesus ‘said nothing’ to the people except in parables,
and verse  (citing Ps .) explains that the purpose was to reveal things hidden
since the foundation of the world, the same chapter speaks of his parables as mys-
teriously hiding meaning (Matt .–).
Is there a difference then between ‘teaching’ and ‘speaking’ in parables? Did
speaking in parables reveal Jesus’ authority and differentiate his method of teach-
ing from that of the scribes and Pharisees, the biblical scholars of his day (cf. Matt
.)? Why does Jesus’ speaking in parables both reveal and hide the mysteries of
the kingdom? How can speaking in parables become a case for a gospel-based
biblical hermeneutics? These are interesting questions for further in-depth study.
Our main concern here is to identify those aspects of parable that bear the charac-
teristics of a gospel-based biblical hermeneutics.
As scholars we teach in the classroom, through publications and homilies. To
teach is to impart knowledge or skill with expert authority, such that the learner
acquires the skill and appropriates the information imparted by the teacher. For
this information to become useful, the learner needs to integrate it into his/her
life. The teaching that explains a student’s question is often what the student
retains best. A fascinating aspect of Jesus’ ‘teaching’ is its constant location in life.
The life-centred questions of his audience (‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’,
‘Who is my neighbour?’, etc.) and their activities provide the impetus and deter-
mine the content of a parable addressed to the situation. At the end of the para-
bles Jesus often tested the extent to which the listener had followed the story and
could apply it to his or her own life situation: ‘ “Which of the three, do you think,
was neighbour to the man?” . . . “The one who showed him mercy.” . . . “Go and do
likewise” ’ (Luke ., , –).
A parable is basically a story; its contents flow from a heritage (of wisdom, lan-
guage, symbols) shared between author and hearers. This shared heritage places
the narrator and hearer on common ground. The hearer actively participates by
anticipating what is coming and judging the case presented. Jesus used parable in
its etymological sense of para- ballei`n, to throw alongside of, as medium of his
instruction. The method itself was parabolic. By distancing the narrator and

 A sample listing includes: ejlavlhsen (Matt .); e[legen (Mark .; Luke .); ei[pen (Luke
.); and parevqhken (Matt .; Mark .); didavskein, reinforced with e[legen (Mark .)
is a hapax legomenon.
  

hearer from the situation on the ground, the parable helped the hearer to arrive
non-threateningly at correct judgement in a given situation, even when the judge-
ment was not in their favour (cf. Matt .–, –). Having judged the case
aright, they were to throw the parable story alongside their own stories and apply
paradigmatically the solutions discovered to their own problems.
A mode of communication, the parable encourages collaboration between
author and hearer. Jesus treated his audience as capable of discerning what was at
stake in his parables. It is also memorable, and engages its hearers intellectually,
emotionally, evocatively (by sending them back into life), imaginatively and affec-
tively (through its artistic qualities). This holistic way of imparting knowledge
shuns the separation of body from mind, emotions from reason, inherent in the
perception of ‘theology as science’. The method presupposes that the hearers are
not tabula rasa vis à vis the narrator. ‘Speaking’ and ‘hearing’ are mutual key words
in the parabolic method of communication. When Jesus invites his hearers to
listen if they have ears or take heed how they hear, he is addressing their physical
and moral realities. First they have physically to hear what he says (ajkouei`n); only
then can they hear intensely or ‘obey’ (uJpakouei`n) his words (cf. Matt :–). This
applies to all disciples of all ages, to the scholar as to the ordinary reader. The hear-
ing is as important as the telling of the parable.
The basic character of parable is to reveal, not to hide, the mysteries of the
kingdom (things hidden from creation), and help the hearer become a child of this
kingdom. But it reveals by invitation. It is presumed that if the hearers do not
understand, they will ask questions as disciples (maqhtaiv), people who follow and
learn progressively from the master. Those who reject the invitation to disciple-
ship choose not to seek understanding, they close or harden their hearts, and the
message remains hidden from them. Love and commitment hold the key to
knowledge. The rabbinic belief that the Torah has both an open and a hidden
meaning also applies here. Interpretation is intended to reveal the hidden mean-
ing. By intensifying the hearer’s desire to know the mysteries of the kingdom, the
mysterious aspect of parable serves as additional incentive to grow in disciple-
ship.
The disciples, like the crowd, do not understand the parables that reveal the
mysteries of the kingdom. Unlike the crowd, they ask Jesus to explain the parables’
meaning and his reason for speaking in parables (Matt .). In answer, Jesus dis-
tinguishes between the disciples and ‘the rest’, the ‘outsiders’ (Matt .; Mark .;
Luke .). To the disciples is given to know and understand the parables because
by asking questions and seeking to learn, they act like true disciples. In Luke .,
when Peter asks whether Jesus’ parable is for them as disciples or for the others,
Jesus replies with yet another parable about who is a faithful and wise steward,
underlining that discipleship, unlike apostleship, is not by election. It is a personal
choice and responsibility.
A Case for a Gospel-Based Biblical Hermeneutics 

Jesus thus speaks of God’s kingdom as being ‘like’ (cf. Matt ., , ), or as
‘may be compared to’ (Matt .). The human language used in parable to reveal
the realities of the kingdom is limited by comparison to the reality it expresses.
God is not a woman mixing dough or a first-century Palestinian shepherd looking
for his lost sheep. God’s kingdom, which has come in Jesus, remains an unfath-
omable mystery, God in human flesh (John .). We see it dimly, as in a mirror (
Cor .), through God’s concrete self-revelation and communication in Christ
and through its operation in our lives and world, but we wait for the full revelation
of God and of ourselves as God’s children (cf.  John .). Yet these human realities
give insight into the nature and operations of the kingdom.
The mysterious character of the parable also invites humility from the hearer.
Knowing that one does not know, one seeks meaning, but one does not dismiss
the mystery or attribute a difficult text to some textual error. There is no obligation
to explain all mysteries or interpret all difficult scripture passages. Disciples who
recognise their limited ability to understand the parables dispose themselves to
be taught by the Spirit and are led daily and progressively to the complete truth,
knowing that this fullness of truth may not come in their lifetime. We are called to
celebrate and live God’s mystery, not to become the mystery or obscure parable
ourselves such that our readers can hardly comprehend us. Nor should we turn
Jesus’ parables into ‘dead metaphors’, of which, in Dodd’s view, our everyday lan-
guage is full. If we succumb to the temptation to explain away the mystery or
attribute it to the primitiveness of the NT authors, we may fall under the judgment
of the word ourselves (Matt .–; Isa .–).

Jesus’ parables are rooted in life

Jesus knew the scriptures well (cf. Matt –; ). Yet in his teaching, in para-
bles or otherwise, he started from the people’s needs, not from the scriptures; from
life, not from text. He placed his knowledge of scripture at the service of life, his
own and that of the people (cf. Luke .–), and life questions gave him the
hermeneutical key for interpreting the scriptures anew. What he said about the
Sabbath might apply equally to the scriptures: that they were written for human
beings, not human beings for them. Or as  Tim .– declares, ‘All scripture is
inspired by God (qeovpneusto~) and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for cor-
rection, and for training in righteousness, that the godly person (oJ tou` qeou`
a[nqrwpo~) may be complete, equipped for every good work.’
Alongside the scriptures, Jesus studied his society all his life. He was always
learning, even amazed at some of the things he learnt, like the unbelief of his
people (Matt .), or the unparalleled faith from outsiders (Luke .). His para-

 C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Scribner’s, ) .


  

bles testify richly to his broadly based but detailed knowledge of life in his society:
in Galilee and its environs, Judea and Jerusalem. The life situations covered
include husbandry: animals, livestock, farming (Matt .–, – and pars); pas-
turing (John .–); fishing (Matt .–); cooking and domestic work (Luke
.–); economics, marketing and banking (Matt .–; Luke .–); social
events (Matt .–); spirituality (Luke .–); inheritance rights (Luke .–);
current affairs (Luke .–); human nature and general sayings (Matt .–;
Mark .). This list could be expanded to include passages that are not
described as parable. Strikingly, carpentry does not figure among his recorded
parables.
The wide range of life situations treated in Jesus’ stories is amazing. If part of
this broad spectrum came from the evangelists, then that would challenge us as
today’s evangelists to get in touch with life issues in our local and global contexts
and use them as key for comprehending anew and expanding the scope of Jesus’
gospel parables. Paul did the same in his reinterpretation of the traditions of Sarah
and Hagar (Gal .–), the two Adams (Rom .–;  Cor .–), and circum-
cision. He joined in the struggle to live the demands of the gospel, lest having
preached to others, he himself should be disqualified (cf.  Cor .). His chris-
tologies, ecclesiologies and theologies, like those of NT Christians, grew out of
actual efforts to live ‘in Christ’.

Implications for exegetical hermeneutics

This study has presented ‘a case’ (not ‘the case’) for the proposed gospel-
based biblical hermeneutics. Many aspects of this exegetical hermeneutics
emerged in the course of the discussion. Given the constraints of space, we may
now briefly highlight some of these.
Parable used to model a gospel-based hermeneutics would encourage respect
for ancient authors without whose works there would be no biblical scholarship
today. Their primary insights into the person and mission of Jesus is the event that
all successive generations interpret in their own contexts. A gospel-based
hermeneutics presupposes an underlying gratitude to them as the primary inter-
preters of Jesus’ life and work, even while we recognise the cultural and theologi-
cal limitations in those interpretations. Respect for the extant texts is crucial; they
are our only peristases, the issue of canon apart.
The approach calls for grounding biblical scholarship in contemporary life.
The events recorded in the NT first happened in life and were interpreted in life
settings (cf. Luke .), before they were committed to writing – not for purely his-

 These references are samples, as are others in this section. An analytical or computer con-
cordance gives fuller listings.
A Case for a Gospel-Based Biblical Hermeneutics 

torical purposes, still less as jigsaw puzzles for modern readers, but as catecheti-
cal documents to help their readers meet the challenges of their Christian disci-
pleship in an unbelieving world. The declared purpose of John’s Gospel would
apply to all their works (John .–). Written by believers for believers, their pur-
pose was hortatory. A true understanding of these works beckons us to do the
same today.
Exegetical hermeneutics gives a high premium to what may concretely be dis-
covered about the ancient world as the living contexts from which the biblical
books emerged, and uses that knowledge to unlock their meanings both in their
ancient contexts and for today. This requires the use of all available resources to
report as faithfully as possible on the existing works in their own limited first-cen-
tury world-view. Knowledge of the cultural and social backgrounds of these texts
as portrayed in the texts themselves and in relevant literature of the period take
precedence over hypotheses. For as was seen earlier, culture is the primary filter for
interpreting life and life questions.
The effort to gain as complete a meaning of the text as possible, then and now,
requires that we look at a given text from the perspective of the whole of life, the-
ological and otherwise, keeping always in view its faith dimension as its funda-
mental key to meaning. We recognise that other types of hermeneutics are
possible when the Bible, God’s living word addressed to all humanity, is read from
the perspective of other theological or human disciplines (not only the social sci-
ences) and life situations, if done in the context of faith. This calls for collaborative
and interdisciplinary readings.
NT scholarship needs to promote a parabolic method of reading that encour-
ages placing one’s stories alongside the gospel stories. This awareness invites us to
mine our total, human reality as resources for understanding the gospel for our
own time. The NT authors cannot give us ready-made answers for hermeneutical
questions they did not have to face; we assume responsibility for our own ques-
tions, as they did theirs, within our shared faith in Christ, relying on the Holy Spirit
who continues to lead all disciples to the complete truth. How the biblical audi-
ence understood Jesus’ parables in their cultural settings may differ from that of
today’s readers. Future generations will have their own hermeneutical questions
and insights which ours may or may not help them to resolve. We recognise and
humbly accept the relative nature of our methodologies and interpretations,
knowing that other methodologies and insights existed before and will succeed
ours. Biblical methodologies come and go, but God’s word remains for humanity,
the soil on which they spring up, flourish and die, each in its own season, till God’s
plan for creation reaches its intended fulfilment (cf. Isa .–).
Equally, people whose socio-cultural locations differ from ours will see the
same text differently. No reading in any age or context exhausts the possibilities of
meaning of a given text. Insofar as the Bible is God’s word, this meaning does not
  

even begin or end with the biblical author. A given author might not have seen in
his own time the meaning of a text intended by God’s providence for future gen-
erations. The issue transcends the church’s reading of such prophetic texts as Isa
. and embraces the potential of God’s word to address a life-giving message to
peoples of every race, language, culture and nation. This allows the reinterpreta-
tion of scripture even by the same author (as in Boismard’s John I and II). However,
authority in interpretation emerges, not from the scholar’s ability to search the
scriptures, but from the witness (marturiva) of his/her life. ‘I believed, and so I
spoke’ (cf.  Cor .); we make little impact if we speak without believing.
The need to identify our own life questions as key for discovering new mean-
ings in scripture transcends the new practice of giving one’s Curriculum Vitae (CV)
as introduction to one’s work, and after that the CV drops out of the work. It entails
a serious effort to allow the gospel to address life questions, both ours and those
of the people. Some of these questions are old (e.g. sexism in church and society),
others are new (questions about genetic engineering, AIDS, global economy, the
media and entertainment industries). Has God’s word something to say in these
matters? How does our biblical research equip us and our readers to address these
issues from a truly Christian standpoint? To my knowledge, these sorts of ques-
tions are deemed pastoral and unworthy of the exegete’s attention. Yet they offer a
rich fertile soil for sowing and reaping the gospel anew in our times. They enable
us to put seed-bearing fruit in the leaves of our books instead of producing what
does not nourish (cf. Isa .). Our rich scholarship enters the service of life where
it can bear abundant and lasting fruit, instead of being self-serving like the rich
fool (Luke .–).
As Jesus trusted his hearers’ ability to judge correctly what was right in a given
situation, even if they did not always apply their findings to themselves, so a
gospel-based hermeneutics puts the same trust in those we read with in a faith
context. We discern God’s Spirit working in others and allow ourselves to be chal-
lenged and enriched by their insights. This entails collaborative reading with ‘ordi-
nary readers’, pastors, formators and scholars of other disciplines and faiths and
in different life settings (academic, ecclesial and popular). It rejects a kind of ‘read-
ing with’ that idealises the readings and beliefs of ‘the ordinary reader’ (as having
the key to meaning) and people of other faiths at the expense of Christ, God’s
gospel. It takes care not to use them as projects or make ‘reading with’ them an
excuse for not answering the equally challenging call to read with ‘other’ col-
leagues (e.g. women colleagues and colleagues ‘from the margin’).
The parable as story encourages a narrative approach in exegetical hermeneu-
tics. This approach does not discard scientific analysis, but uses the findings from
the analysis to enrich the narrative communication. A holistic or life-centred con-
cern in biblical interpretation requires a corresponding methodology. Stories are
memorable and moving, open to rich interpretations when read in different con-
A Case for a Gospel-Based Biblical Hermeneutics 

texts and by different people. The fresh insights that marginalised persons are
bringing to the interpretations of Jesus’ parables testify to this.
No reading is value free or context free. Equally no reading is purpose free and
effect free. Each exegetical hermeneut needs to honestly discern why he or she
reads, for as we perceive the biblical texts, so we derive meaning from them.
Perhaps only when we learn to read from the context of our lives, to meet our chal-
lenges of discipleship, will we fully understand or reap the fruit of God’s gospel
and experience it as God’s power to mend our broken lives and world.

A conclusion

In this study we have used the parable to model a gospel-based methodol-


ogy in biblical interpretation. African proverbs offer additional considerations. A
Nigerian Ibibio proverb holds that the legs of the bird that flies in the air always
point to the ground (‘Inuen afruroke ke enyong ukot asiwot isong’). Biblical criti-
cism took off from the ground and remained poised in flight for a greater part of
the twentieth century. In the process it all but lost touch with life on the ground as
it explored various imaginative ways of reconstructing the biblical texts and their
contexts. Scholarship now needs to land on the ground, reconnect with life and
critically assess its aerial view findings for the benefit of life on the ground.
The Ghanaian Sankofa depicts a mythical bird looking backwards to pick up
an egg, the rest of its body pointing forwards. As this parabolic figure takes eggs
from the past into its present, so we assess and carry forward whatever in past bib-
lical criticism has a rich potential for exegetical hermeneutics today. Jesus prom-
ised that believers would do greater things than himself. We should not see
emerging trends in scholarship as threats but should welcome them with discern-
ment, no matter their origin and social location, lest we stifle the Spirit.
If the SNTS courageously undertakes this review, it will make a unique contri-
bution to the celebration of the Jubilee . Biblical jubilee demands, among
other things, a return to the land, cancellation of debts, setting free of the
oppressed and captives (cf. Lev .–). The oppressed may include the biblical
authors, their works and many modern readers who have been led to treat our
‘theories’ as gospel, while they hold the gospels themselves suspect, on the testi-
mony of our objective research. Part of this review may be ‘atonement’ for the bib-
lical authors and the modern readers concerned. The result will be a fresh energy
in scholarship and a discovery of new fields to sow God’s living word, a word that
is ever old and ever new. Biblical scholarship will then be like the wise scribe who
brings out of his/her treasury both the old and the new.

 See the discussions on the readings of ‘ordinary readers’ in Semeia  and .