The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative

The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics

Hans W. Frei
Copyright Date: 1974
Published by: Yale University Press
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative
    Book Description:

    Laced with brilliant insights, broad in its view of the interaction of culture and theology, this book gives new resonance to old and important questions about the meaning of the Bible.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16180-9
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
    H. W. F.
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Western Christian reading of the Bible in the days before the rise of historical criticism in the eighteenth century was usually strongly realistic, i.e. at once literal and historical, and not only doctrinal or edifying. The words and sentences meant what they said, and because they did so they accurately described real events and real truths that were rightly put only in those terms and no others. Other ways of reading portions of the Bible, for example, in a spiritual or allegorical sense, were permissible, but they must not offend against a literal reading of those parts which seemed most...

  5. 2 Precritical Interpretation of Biblical Narrative
    (pp. 17-50)

    Biblical interpretation since the eighteenth century has always proceeded in two directions which sometimes have appeared to be on collision course. On the one hand there has been the question of the origin and, in some respects, the reliability of biblical writings. On the other there has been inquiry into the proper ways of learning what abiding meaning or value these writings might have. Collision threatened whenever the answer to the second question seemed to be partially or wholly dependent on the answer to the first. The task of interpretation has frequently been taken to be that of plotting a...

  6. 3 Change in Interpretation: The Eighteenth Century
    (pp. 51-65)

    The full force of the change in outlook and argument concerning the narrative biblical texts came in the eighteenth century. First in England and then in Germany the narrative became distinguished from a separable subject matter—whether historical, ideal, or both at once—which was now taken to be its true meaning. Not only was this view held more self-consciously than it had been in the previous century (a few thinkers like Spinoza excepted) but it also became embroiled in the wider theological controversies so typical of the eighteenth century. It is therefore appropriate to put the hermeneutical issue in...

  7. 4 Anthony Collins: Meaning, Reference, and Prophecy
    (pp. 66-85)

    The shift in the interpretation of the biblical narratives which came to a climax in the eighteenth century had been gradual and complex. Even in Spinoza’s thought the “fact” question, though clearly distinct from the literal sense of the narratives, did not have the centrality it was to assume in the next century. And Cocceius obviously did not realize that he was on his way toward a separation of history and story. But the general situation in eighteenth-century theology, just summarized, meant that the issue of the interpretation of the biblical stories would become central, dramatic, and conscious.

    More strikingly...

  8. 5 Hermeneutics and Meaning-as-Reference
    (pp. 86-104)

    The impact of the deistic controversies in England was soon felt in German theological discussion. Biblical commentators there in any case were beginning to meet similar problems though, it should be recalled, in a rather different context from that of the English debate. The Germans continued to be interested in the nature of the Bible as a series of written documents and not merely in its employment as evidence for or against the truth of the factual claims of revelation. But the shift in interpretation of narratives was much the same in Germany as in England. It was particularly important...

  9. 6 Biblical Hermeneutics and Religious Apologetics
    (pp. 105-123)

    Nonetheless there were differences between hermeneutical theory and historical procedure, and consequently those who reflected on hermeneutical principles felt a pull in another direction than that of equating interpretation with historical explanation. The historian had no obligation other than the strictest possible investigation he could muster into what had transpired and how to explain it. A rationalist age had a large investment in the belief that knowledge of history is a most useful acquisition for the man of culture and virtue. This was followed a generation or two later by a common conviction that history in effect renders man to...

  10. 7 Apologetics, Criticism, and the Loss of Narrative Interpretation
    (pp. 124-154)

    Biblical hermeneutics was theory of exegesis, Gottlob Wilhelm Meyer said. In the second half of the eighteenth century when general (nontheological) biblical hermeneutics developed rapidly in Germany, its principles of exegesis were pivoted between historical criticism and religious apologetics. The explicative meaning of the narrative texts came to be their ostensive or ideal reference. Their applicative meaning or religious meaningfulness was either a truth of revelation embodied in an indispensable historical event or a universal spiritual truth known independently of the texts but exemplified by them, or, finally, a compromise between the two positions amounting to the claim that while...

  11. 8 Hermeneutics and Biblical Authority in German Thought
    (pp. 155-164)

    The situation in Germany in the later eighteenth century was quite different from that of Britain, but the upshot for our topic was the same. Though a hermeneutics treating the biblical narratives as realistic stories hovered in the German much more than in the English atmosphere, in Germany too it finally came to nought. In Germany also, biblical interpreters took for granted the identity of meaning with reference, historical or ideal, after the fashion of Locke’s and Wolff’s philosophies; and theory of meaning was equivalent to theory of knowledge. Again similar to England was the entanglement of explicative interpretation of...

  12. 9 The Quest for A Unitary Meaning
    (pp. 165-182)

    Three divergent directions laid claim to the valid use of the term biblical theology.¹ First, there were those who thought that biblical in contrast to systematic or dogmatic theology was based on a historically worked-out differentiation of the variety of the Bible’s contents, followed by whatever inductive generalizations one could make about permanent and normative in contrast to merely time-conditioned concepts in the whole of the canon. These in turn could serve as the basis of normative, abiding theological claims. “Biblical theology” was therefore a completely historical investigation, and “dogmatic theology” had to await its results before it could undertake...

  13. 10 Herder on the Bible: The Realistic Spirit in History
    (pp. 183-201)

    Pietism leading to a salvation-historical interpretation of the narrative unity of the Bible was not alone in bringing together the history of events with the history of group perspective, and with the material contribution of a distinctively present self-positioning to their interpretation. A similar outlook characterized the important romantic reaction in theology against the fashions of the religious Enlightenment at the end of the eighteenth century. Its most distinguished representatives were Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803), and Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) a generation later. Schleiermacher, a far greater technical scholar and theologian than Herder, was concerned with the unity of...

  14. 11 The Lack of Realism in German Letters
    (pp. 202-232)

    Herder was by no means isolated in the outlook which is finally so utterly inimical to a realistic perspective of historical and history-like narrative. In the fourteenth book ofDichtung und Wahrheit, the book in which he described his first contact with the brothers Jacobi and with that most charming, idiosyncratic, and importunate of meddlers with other people’s religious privacy, Johann Kaspar Lavater, Goethe reminisced briefly about a peculiar awareness he first noticed in himself in full strength during his stay in Cologne in 1774. It was decidedly ambivalent in character.¹

    A feeling that became powerful and expressed itself in...

  15. 12 Strauss’s Perfection of the “Mythical” Option
    (pp. 233-244)

    The endeavor to relate faith and history came to an early but decisive climax in D. F. Strauss’sLife of Jesus, published in 1835. All the endeavors to solve this issue in respect of the story of Jesus of Nazareth take their ultimate point of departure from Strauss’s setting of the problem: (1) Is the meaning (and therefore the truth) of the gospels necessarily connected with reliable historical knowledge of Jesus as uniquely related to God? (2) If one answers affirmatively, can one actually demonstrate that the most plausible historical explanation of the “supernatural” elements in the accounts, the elements...

  16. 13 Hermeneutical Options at the Turn of the Century
    (pp. 245-266)

    Largely because the “fact” question provided one of the aims, if not the overriding end, for interpretation, mythophiles and others for whom historical questions had become crucial drew a sharp distinction between two stages of interpretation. The first was the determination of the literal or grammatical sense of a document, the second its historical assessment. At the first level, the pure mythophile might also want to appeal to the sense of empathy with the writer. But the important consideration remained the second step. If one raised the further question of the abiding meaning, significance, or religious content of the writing,...

  17. 14 Myth and Narrative Meaning: A Question of Categories
    (pp. 267-281)

    It would appear at first glance that the rise of critical historical inquiry into the biblical writings, and the debate over their miraculous factual claims describing direct divine intervention in the sequence of finite events, forced a neat and tidy dilemma on the theologian.

    On the one hand, he would have to acknowledge the natural, human origin of these writings. He would have to admit that they were factually unreliable as well as fallible and time-conditioned in their ideational content, and hence (finally) relative rather than absolute in any truth claims they might make. All this would mean that they...

  18. 15 The Hermeneutics of Understanding
    (pp. 282-306)

    All commentators are agreed that biblical hermeneutics underwent a sea change in the early nineteenth century.¹ The transformation was, of course, the result of the romantic and idealist revolution that was sweeping philosophy and historical study as well as the literary arts and criticism. It was to be expected that the interpretation of biblical texts, like that of others, would be affected by the drastic new turn in the estimate of the human spirit’s place in the spiritual universe. It is therefore rather surprising that, in comparison to previous decades, relatively little that was new was written under the title...

  19. 16 “Understanding” and Narrative Continuity
    (pp. 307-324)

    Scarcely a stone of interpretive procedure has remained unturned. At first it hardly seems possible to compare the meaning of interpretive art for Schleiermacher and the earlier thinkers even for purposes of contrast, to say nothing of similarity. And yet finally, no matter how sharp the break between them, in the estimate of the meaning of narrative texts the idealist and romantic revolution simply reinforced the tendencies we observed earlier. For the newer hermeneuticians as for their predecessors, general hermeneutics extended beyond the words and the descriptive shape of a narrative to a more profound level whence meaning and the...

  20. Notes
    (pp. 325-348)
  21. Index
    (pp. 349-355)