Maximising our Inheritance

A Broad Brush Approach to Biblical Hermeneutics

This paper has two starting points. On the one hand, a couple of recent books on how we read the Bible. On the other, the arrival in the last 20-30 years, of a plethora of new readings and interpretations — feminist, liberationist, third world, African-American, ecological, and so on — together with some deliberately stirred-up controversies on sensitive theological, social, moral and ethical issues, with creationism and homosexuality heading the list. This leaves many Christians, never mind the general public, wondering what the Bible really says, what they can believe and who is right.

My purpose is simply to set the issues in a wider context and I begin with two books.

In a recent semi-popular bookKaren Armstrong sets out to analyse the origins of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament and the story of how they became sacred texts, in the course of which she illustrates the history with examples of the varieties of interpretation over 2,000-3,000 years, and the social, political and religious issues which lay behind them, from Jewish Midrash to more recent Christian fundamentalism and post-modernism.

A handful of her conclusions are clear and striking. 

1 People who take refuge in biblical literalism need to be reminded that an exclusively literal approach to the Bible is a recent development. 

2 A literal interpretation of Genesis 1 is a 19th century phenomenon. 

3 Jews and Christians for centuries have enjoyed highly allegorical and inventive exegesis in a world where literalism was neither possible nor desirable. 

4 Competing visions appear side by side in both Old and New Testaments. 

5 Passages with no intrinsic connection are linked together. 

6 Biblical authors themselves felt free to revise the texts they had inherited and give them an entirely different meaning, and later exegetes regularly held up the Bible as a template for the problems of their own time, feeling quite free to adapt it and make it speak to contemporary conditions.2

In a word, biblical history has always been re-written, the Bible has never had one single message, and there has probably never been any one interpretation of anything in scripture. 

The other book, Reading the Bible with Giants,by David Paul Harris (Fuller Theological Seminary, Colorado Springs), is aimed more at students and serious Bible readers and tackles similar issues to demonstrate how 2,000 years of biblical interpretation can shed new light on old texts. Harris encourages us to recognise and practice different levels of reading (devotional, literary, and the nuts and bolts of scholarship) and he argues that we need to understand what has gone before, not simply for its own sake but also in order to evaluate what is currently being offered.

Reading Armstrong and Harris nudged me to take a fresh look at the evidence, partly to examine Armstrong’s conclusions, partly to fill out Parris’s point about learning from the past, and partly to encourage readers today (especially students and preachers) to be more (not less) adventurous in their presentations, but always to be equally diligent in checking their work with others in the light of what has gone before. 

Overall, I noted two things not to be forgotten. One, that though the texts of the Bible go back at least 2,500 years the formation and recognition of the Bible as we know it (the Canon), for both Jews and Christians, is no older than the 4th century. Until then, though the text was fairly settled, the interpretations of any particular passage varied considerably from Rabbi to Rabbi and from Father to Father.

The other point is that biblical exegesis did not begin with historical criticism, nor will it end with our own theological teachers. It didn’t even begin with the early Church, because the early Christian writers grew up in and inherited Jewish hermeneutics and were often keen to demonstrate the similarities and differences between Old and New Testaments. But no more did it begin with the Jews. 

Nicolas Wyatt, for example, in a recent paper,4  shows how work done at Ugarit  (c1000-1250 BCE) supplies evidence that methods of Jewish interpretation (intertextuality is the one he specifically mentions) were standard practice across the whole of the Ancient Near East. But we begin with the Jews.  

Jewish Readings

The key word here is Midrash (from the root darash, meaning ‘to seek’). Seeking suggests searching, and searching always holds out the possibility of finding something new. Since no two people are likely to find exactly the same thing, and since conditions and circumstances vary from place to place, the door was wide open for varieties of interpretation from the very beginning. 

For example, take that familiar text from Hosea, ‘I desire hesed and not sacrifice’ (6:6). hesed is a slippery wordbecause it can have many meanings and translations, ‘mercy’ or ‘steadfast love’ being the most common. Taken simply as ‘mercy’ or ‘love’ it has of course provided an ideal jumping off ground for sermons by preachers who want to stress the importance of humanitarianism over against ritualism, and that interpretation has its own history in Judaism.   

Armstrongtells of two rabbis who met beside the ruins of the temple shortly after its destruction in 70 CE. One of them expressed horror at the destruction and said how could the Jews in future expect to atone for their sins if they could no longer carry out the temple rituals, to which the other replied by quoting Hosea: ‘I desire love and not sacrifice’. Atonement will come from loving deeds, which could now be performed by everybody and not just by the priests. Had he thought more carefully about the original text in context he might have seen that however you translate the word (love or loyalty) God is not so much telling them to love one another as telling them that he wants their love and that he prefers their love to their rituals.

Never mind the exegesis, its accuracy, or even its authenticity. The story is important for other reasons. It is a pertinent reminder that nobody knows for sure exactly what Hosea said, much less what he intended to say, much less what God really wanted. All we know is what the text which has come down to us appears to say. To some extent of course that rabbi was mis-quoting Hosea and saying something different. But apparently it was not of importance to him. He knew the text, knew it could offer comfort in his situation and no doubt spotted a new way of looking at the familiar. For the Jews meaning and interpretation took precedence over the original meaning of the text or the intention of the author, even if anyone knew what they were, as each generation took something from a previous generation and put its own stamp upon it.

Intertextuality

A second feature of Jewish interpretation, also practised by the early Church Fathers and finding something of a comeback these days, is intertextuality — the bringing together of texts from different parts of the scripture because they use the same words or phrases, have similar content or relate to a similar situation. 

Bruce Fisk,in a careful study, points out that secondary biblical episodes were frequently written into the primary narrative to engage in biblical exegesis with the result that elements and themes in the principle story exerted leverage on the secondary, but at the same time the secondary sources themselves were influenced by their new positioning, so that exegesis moved ‘backward’ as well as ‘forward’. He gives several examples.

Pseudo-Philo,for instance, gets mileage by bringing together two references, one to the Nile in Exodus 1-2 (where Moses is rescued but the offsprings of the Israelites are drowned) and the other to the Red Sea in Exodus 14 (where the Children of Israel are rescued and the Egyptians are drowned) thereby offering a re-written account and turning it into a story of crime and punishment. 

He does much the same with Exodus 32 and 34 to arrive at a Moses whose face was so transfigured that the Israelites failed to recognise him and then links that with the brothers of Joseph who failed to recognise him (Genesis 42: 8) to make the point that they, like the Israelites years later, were blinded by their sinfulness. 

After other examplesFisk concludes that such links and connections could be explicit, more subtle, or simply allusive. They may strike us as sensible, creative or contrived. But they attest to early patterns of reading scripture marked by a high degree of respect for the story and by an intense concern to fill the gaps and resolve difficulties.10

Rabbis apparently did this all the time, almost on the principle that ‘one good story deserves another . . . 11, but mainly to demonstrate the connection between Torah, Prophets and Writings. New Testament writers did something very similar when referring to the Old Testament, a practice favoured by those who wanted to establish the connection and rejected or used differently by those who did not.

Early Christian writers used intertextuality in a variety of ways, sometimes using one text or passage to reinforce another, sometimes to counter the other, sometimes deliberately, sometimes incidentally, and sometimes simply to come up with a different meaning altogether.

The Epistle of Barnabas, an early Christian midrash, provides a good example.12 At one point (11: 2-3),13 after a dramatic imperative opening, reminiscent of Isaiah (1:20) and Micah (1:2) Barnabas seems to make a fairly innocuous citation of two verses from Jeremiah (2: 12-13) followed by two from Isaiah (16: 1-2) but the result is much more than a simple citation. What Barnabas is after is going for the Jews who are refusing baptism and by skilfully excluding parts of some verses and modifying some of the words in others Barnabas finishes up with a defence of baptism which is what he wanted, giving us a coherent unit with clear ideas, but quite remote from the sources he is using to back it up. The words of scripture are there all right, but his argument depends entirely on the way the interpreter shapes the verses. Hermeneutics of that kind have a very long history and are still quite prolific.

After looking at several examples, I identified at least three driving forces behind intertextuality. One is to bolster or demolish an interpretation, sometimes deliberate, sometimes unintentional. A second is to see how each text can contribute something to the other and possibly arrive at an entirely new meaning. A third is just to see what happens, and in its most recent manifestation this may well include bringing together not only texts from scripture but familiar lines, stories and anecdotes from secular literature which can very often enrich the meaning of both. 

From the Church Fathers to the Middle Ages

From the 2nd to the 4th centuries, the dominant hermeneutic was a mixture of Typology and Allegory, with little change up to the Middle Ages, when it became more sophisticated, and continued until the Reformation,. All we can do is to pick out a few examples.

Typology provided the key for interpreting the Old Testament in the light of Jesus, finding continuity in God’s plan, with the Old Testament as little more than a prefiguration of what God would do in the New and a validation of it, only whereas the Early Church Fathers shared a common concern to see continuity in God’s plan and to unite Old Testament and New Testament, the usage varied, with Barnabas, Justin and Melito using it to counter the Jews who rejected the New Testament and  Irenaeus using it to counter the Gnostics who rejected the Old Testament.14

Briefly, typology begins with the Old Testament as the type, the New Testament is the anti-type. This is then reflected in countless instances. In Irenaeus Adam is the type, Jesus is the anti-type; similarly Eve and Mary. In Tertullian, Eve (born of the sleeping Adam) becomes a type of the church (born of Jesus Christ while he ‘slept’ on the cross). The drowning of Pharaoh in the Red Sea (Exodus 14) is a type of baptism in which the Christian is freed and the devil destroyed, and that is reflected from the 4th century in various baptismal formulae and was actually still included in the Roman Catholic Lectionary for the Easter Vigil as recently as 1969.15

Allegory has been defined as treating the text with less (or more) than a straightforward meaning16 or, to put it another way, ‘speaking one thing and signifying something other than what is said’ (Heraclites). To understand it we have to distinguish an obvious ‘surface’ or ‘literal’ meaning from a ‘deeper’ or ‘hidden’  meaning.  and the best way to understand it is to realise that words, sentences and stories are always capable of more than one interpretation and at a secondary, deeper or allegorical level mean something very different from the literal.17

In the early church thee were two camps. Antioch on the whole stuck with the literal. Alexandria, on the other hand, was the home of the allegorical and Origen one of its principle exponents. For Origen the purpose of reading scripture was to encounter the Logos and therefore the contents of scripture were ‘outward forms of certain mysteries’ and ‘images of divine things’.18 

One of the more familiar and accessible examples is Augustine’s treatment of Noah’s Ark19 at the beginning of the 5th century. According to Augustine the ark is a figure of the church, rescued by the wood on which Jesus was crucified. Its dimension (300x50x30 length, breadth and height) is in direct proportion to the human body lying face down (length is six times breadth and ten times its thickness) represent his human body. The door signifies the wound in his side by which people enter and the flood which flows are the sacraments by which those who enter are initiated. The square timbers signify the immovable steadiness of the lives of the saints because however you turn a cube it still stands, and other peculiarities of the construction are similarly identified as features of the church.

Parris,20 who uses that example, agrees that nobody today would want to interpret that passage in that way, but we have to remember that Augustine was working within the rules and traditions of his time. He believed a text had four levels of meaning: literal, allegorical (signifying the faith the church had to teach), moral (Christian responsibility) and anagogical meaning (signifying the future and hope). 

From the end of the Patristic era (c 600 CE) to the Reformation, variations were minor, mainly the result of changing spiritual demands, the arrival of more advanced information, and a gradual move from hermeneutics dominated by patristic authority to more institutional concerns.21 Two watersheds, however, are worth noting.

One was Augustine’s principle that at every level the meaning ‘perceived by the readers’ should be in agreement with the ‘rule of faith’. No interpretation should be contrary to the teachings of the church that had been handed down22 and despite many modifications of interpretation that principle remained firm and was one of the factors which sparked off the Reformation when Luther said he wanted a faith founded on scripture and not on interpretations of scripture in the light of church tradition.

The other watershed was in the Middle Ages, due mainly to the arrival of cathedral schools and universities. That led to a resurgence of literal interpretations over against allegorical and spiritual interpretations leading to a demand for tools for a new kind of exegesis and standard textbooks. That in turn led to the growth of specialisation as scripture became increasingly important for doctrine, and exegesis became a sub-discipline of theology. 

To appreciate the changes in method and emphasis it is worth taking a brief look at the Song of Songs23 as interpreted by Origen in the 3rd century and Bernard of Clairvaux in the 11th.

Third century Christians mostly took Song of Songs simply as a love poem, but for those in Alexandria with an allegorical eye there had to be a deeper meaning. Ostensibly about earthy love it was really about a God of love and the journey from one to the other and Origen saw it on three levels. Verse 1 (‘let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth’) may be taken literally. It is a wedding poem. The bride is at the church waiting for the groom, as in pre-Christian times Israel was waiting for the incarnation. We then move to the allegorical level. For ‘bride and bridegroom’ now read ‘Christ and his church’ and relate it to Paul’s comments on relationships between husband, wife and church in Ephesians (5: 23-32). Finally, apply it to the individual who has many fine and attractive qualities but ‘whose only desire is to be united to the Word of God’24 and that awaits the enlightenment and illumination that comes through her union with her husband. Thus the bride becomes a model for all Christians who must train themselves to make the same journey.

Now notice the increasing sophistication when we come to Bernard of Clairvaux, who over twenty years preached 86 sermons to his fellow-monks on this book alone. Like Origen, Bernard’s exegesis and spirituality are based on the love of God, and as with Origen we make the same journey (from human love to the love of God) but now in three stages. Here, the phrase ‘the king has brought me into his chambers’25 refers to the senses of scripture, of which there are three: the  garden, (representing the literal), the storeroom (representing the moral) and the bedchamber (representing  the mystery of contemplation). We begin in the garden with the text, explore the storerooms to discover how we ought to live and then lose ourselves and our self-interest in the bedroom. And the bride looking for the bridegroom ‘by night’ suggests modesty, expressed in private acts of charity and a lack of ostentation.26 The Bible was a mystery. Bible study was a personal and spiritual discipline, and the vision of God was to be identified with the mystery of the bedroom.

The Reformation and Beyond

Once we get to the Reformation the emphasis changes again. The crucial questions emerging were what happened, what are we to believe, what are we to do and where are we going, and that you find exemplified to some extent in the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556).

The literal meaning was still important but it was not the whole story. Ignatius wanted to free scripture from the confines of its original content to become a vehicle for the word of Christ to the contemporary church, using the scriptures to express and understand the mystery of Christ within the developing structure of the church, but the problems of an increasingly fractured church made it difficult, and even before the Reformation there were growing differences of opinion as to what was, and what was not, acceptable.27 The battle lines were being drawn up with the rebels against Roman Catholic authority becoming more interested in exegesis that provided biblical support for Protestant positions, and the Roman Catholic Church responding with highly spiritual commentaries and exegetical works, some leading to a call for spiritual reform within the Roman church itself.28 

As for exegesis the Reformation had little to offer. Calvin wrote his commentaries, Luther his expositions. The Psalms and Paul were particularly popular. Biblical studies developed linguistic and philological studies but for the most part all ecclesiastics were too busy quarrying the Bible for those texts which suited their purposes to worry their heads with allegorical explanations, whilst the Enlightenment and Romanticism which followed left scant room for most of what had gone before.

So the next change came with the rise of archaeological, scientific and historical criticism leading to what became known as  ‘modern scholarship’, and that took precedence until the end of the 20th century, when biblical scholars outside the church tradition began to distinguish academia from ecclesiasticism and in a kind of Second Reformation people in all traditions began to read the scriptures for themselves and to make their own assessments, judgements and interpretations. 

What we notice however is that much of what today we regard as new (feminist readings, liberation readings, ecological readings and so on) and what some people find worrying, may be different in content but is not all that different in method from what has always been the case, and one way of getting into that is to take specific texts or passages and trace the way in which they have been handled over the years.29

Hans Robert Jauss speaks of ‘summit dialogues’30 — definitive readings of stories or passages which almost universally have been read and taught in the same way, over long periods, throughout the whole of Christendom, possibly the result of a startling point made by a particular commentator, due perhaps to the sharpness of his insight or intellect or (more likely) the particular position which he holds in the church or the academy, and which the church is therefore happy to accept as the norm. 

Let me give you three examples: a simple gospel story, a foundational document and a relatively recent but well-established critique.

First, the gospel story. The Epileptic Boy31 (Matthew 17: 14-21). What was this boy’s affliction?

The Greek word (selhniazomai) means ‘to be moonstruck’, hence ‘lunatic’ in the Authorised Version (1611) but subsequently mostly as ‘epileptic’. The early church seemed undecided between lunatic and demon possession, with a third group seeing it as an illness (epilepsy) brought on by the influence of the moon — a view possibly reflecting rabbinical teaching that a child conceived under the light of the moon would be an epileptic.  

Origen in the 3rd century, coming from a Jewish and Palestinian background, followed by Chrysostom in the 4th, settled for demon possession, not caused by the moon but by an evil spirit who observed the phases of the moon and misled people into relating cause and effect, a view that held sway until the Reformation.  Others, under the influence of Greek and Roman culture, and physicians such as Galen (early 3rd century) and Hippocrates (5th century), who taught that the moon had a profound effect on our brain, settled for epilepsy, Galen in particular noting that epilepsy was weakest at half-moon and strongest at full moon,. 

By the Reformation  the views of Galen and Hippocrates were more generally accepted and there was a swing back to the view that epilepsy was closely related to the phases of the moon. So we find Calvin rejecting demon possession (Origen and Chrysostom) in favour of the contemporary medical opinion and writing,

Lunatics . . . is the name given to those, in whom the strength of the disease increases or diminishes, according to the waxing or waning of the moon, such as those who are afflicted with epilepsy, or similar diseases.’32

Here again, for our purposes the pros and cons of the argument are secondary. The thing to note is that Origen read the story with theological spectacles. Calvin read it through the lens of mediaeval science. Commentators today read it in the light of contemporary medicine.

Hermeneutics is a reflection of who we are, where we are, what issues happen to be biting at the time and how much of our general culture we take for granted.

Second, Caesarea Philippi (‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it’. Matthew 16:13-20), a foundational document for the Roman Catholic Church, heavily interpreted in a certain way, with all kinds of ramifications for church teaching and doctrine. Few Catholics question it, many have an investment in keeping it under wraps, and most Protestants scarcely get beyond wondering how anyone with Peter’s impetuosity could ever be described as ‘a rock’. 

According to Benedict Viviano33 the church has lived with three basic interpretations of this text.  

The oldest patristic interpretation (the Eastern position), which sees Peter as exemplary for all Christian believers, with his confession of faith as the foundation rock. 

The Augustinian, which sees Christ as the foundation rock. 

The Roman which sees Peter, the apostle, as the foundation rock.

In this hermeneutical maelstrom ecclesiastics, biblical scholars and historians have each developed their own modus operandi. Ecclesiastics have wrestled with two basic questions. One, does it apply only to Peter or to his successors in some form of Petrine ministry? Two, if it does, is it legitimate to apply this to the succession of bishops in the Roman see?

Biblical scholars over the centuries have come at it rather differently. Some of it has been pure speculation asking, for example, what Matthew, writing 20-30 years after the death of Paul, Peter and James, might have had in mind. Some, especially the later ones, try to harmonise these verses with other New Testament passages, such as 1 Corinthians 3:10-11 (where the only foundation is Christ) and Ephesians 2:20 (where the foundation is the apostles and prophets with Christ as the cornerstone), and Cyprian (Bishop of Carthage and martyred in the 3rd century) rejected any kind of authority or primacy for the Church of Rome yet was honoured by Rome as a saint

Ulrich Luz,34 in his commentary on Matthew, gives a brief history of interpretation in which he points out that the idea of a teaching office embodied in a single person (Peter), with or without successors is no older than Jerome (4th century) or Leo the Great (5th century) nor is there any evidence that Matthew had any thought of Rome or that he envisaged a Petrine officer, or that the historical development of the see of Rome had any initial link with these verses.

20th century biblical scholars came up with a different approach altogether. T W Manson,35 for example, isolates two questions. One, is it part of the original text of Matthew? Probably yes, says Manson; there is no reason to question it and he dismisses the argument from silence in the first 400 years on the grounds that there was no occasion to mention it. Two, if it is original to the gospel, is it a genuine saying of Jesus? Manson thinks probably not, on the grounds that references to the church in the gospels are rare and suspect, the emphasis there is more on the coming of the kingdom than the maintenance of an institution, and the text seems to reflect a larger ‘church body’ made up of smaller communities, more like Acts than the gospels. He thinks it is much more likely to have been of Palestinian origin, possibly in Corinth where Paul was defending his position, and became part of the Christian-Jewish tradition which Matthew or a subsequent redactor incorporated into the text.

Clearly by this stage hermeneutics vary depending on whether your primary commitment is to the text or to the church.

Third, from a straightforward story and a foundational document we turn to a recent, though by now well-established traditional interpretation of the Great Commission (‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.' Matthew 28: 19) and Paul’s Missionary Journeys (Acts 13-14; 15:40-18: 22; 18:22-21:16). Sometimes a fresh reading challenges what we liked to think of as  the fruit of our scientific objectivity. 

D P Parris36 notes that this text stands in the middle ground, neither ‘open’ (that is to say, capable of multiple interpretations, like a psalm) nor ‘closed’ (where there can be no doubt what is intended) and proceeds to a potted history of how the church has interpreted it over the years.

For the first few hundred years the church saw it as a command to the apostles and their successors to engage in baptism, teaching and membership and nothing much changed prior to the Reformation. The command was always regarded as binding on the church, and the only change was that the baptismal clause and the Trinitarian formula assumed a new importance. 

By the time you get to the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church was claiming that this commission could only be carried out by the Roman Church because that was the only church established by Jesus Christ, and Protestants, struggling for survival, had little enthusiasm either for the debate or for long distance missionary endeavour. Luther, following Eusebius and Athanasius, took the view that this was a charge given to the apostles, urged Christian rulers to stem the flow of Islam but otherwise had nothing to say on the subject. Calvin similarly worked over familiar territory and took refuge in a plea for the expansion of the kingdom of God. 

Menno Simons and the Anabaptists were the only ones to see it as a commission to preach the gospel to the whole world and as a responsibility placed on all believers, possibly because they were deeply conscious of the corruption of the Dark Ages, looked back with nostalgia to the golden age under Constantine, and felt an urge to recreate the church of early apostolic times.

What brought this text alive was the birth of the modern missionary movement 200 years later and even then it still took Protestantism another hundred years before the seeds of Calvinism blossomed in the New World with people like Jonathan Edwards and the growth of Pietism, William Carey’s Enquiry,37 and the foundation of the Baptist Missionary Society (1792) followed by several others, ushering in a new era with a call for fresh missionary endeavour.

With hindsight it is obviously a case of biblical exegesis following ecclesiasticism rather than scripture reshaping the church, but now quite recently we have scholars, particularly of Asian origin such as R S Sugirtharajah,38 arguing that this is a case of biblical exegesis following ecclesiasticism following culture.

Revisiting Matthew 28:19, Sugirtharajah points out how for 200 years popular exegesis of this text (along with descriptions of Paul’s travels as ‘missionary journeys) are the direct product of Western colonial expansion heavily involved with Western mercantile companies — not post hoc, but propter. Both the idea and the language reflect a collusion between colonialism and exegesis. Others may refer to call it contextual theology backed by contemporary exegesis.

The strengths and weaknesses of Sugirtharajah’s arguments39 may be left to others but there can be no doubt that once seen this way many people will find it difficult to see Matthew 28:19 any other way, which brings me to my conclusion.

Conclusion

Instead of finalising any meaning or restricting any interpretation to a given context Sugirtharajah prefers to think of narratives as ‘exiles’, always on the move and so able to move from one context to another.40

Compare this with a quote from Brueggemann which brings us back to where we began with Jewish hermeneutics and the rabbis. Drawing on two Jewish scholars, Susan Handelman and Moshe Idel, Brueggemann41 writes,

‘Jewish interpretation does not seek to give closure to texts but can permit many readings to stand side by side . . . a Jewish affirmation that the voice of the text is variously heard and is not limited by authorial intent’,

adding,

‘it is unhelpful for the text interpreter, and therefore the preacher, to give heavy closure to texts because such a habit does a disservice to text and to listener, both of which are evokers and practitioners of multiple readings.’42 Once you enshrine an interpretation in stone, he argues, you make it difficult for anyone to see it differently.

I began with biblical hermeneutics in the Ancient Near East. I conclude with an illustration of Brueggemann’s point from classical Greece.

We are all familiar with the Oedipus myth, thanks not so much to Sophocles as to Freud, who made it the linchpin of his theory of infant sexuality, based on an impulse to reject the father and fall in love with the mother. Today we are more aware of the theory than the myth, so that whereas originally the theory arose from the myth the myth has now become the validation of the theory.   

But then along comes Salley Vickers with a book,43 offering a re-reading of Oedipus questioning the use Freud made of it and suggesting that the myth has another and quite different message.

For Freud the offence of the Thebans was their lifestyle — a violation of taboos with incest and infanticide top of the list. Vickers sees it very differently. She sees the offence as an unwillingness to engage in ‘human relationships, with knowing’  and Oedipus is the one person with the moral courage to abandon his cover, decipher the deep riddle of his own birth and history, and face who he is, in a world where most people can’t. But as she says, she has little hope of ever getting this view of Oedipus across because since Freud’s ‘re-telling’ nobody ever really hears the story.

So it is with all new readings, re-readings and fresh interpretations of biblical material. Interesting, yes. But never easy to accept when at least for a hundred years to go back no further too many people have succeeded in turning the liveliness of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt.


© Alec Gilmore 2014