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Reception History; Why Should We Care What Earlier Christians Thought About the Bible? by John L Thompson

June 4, 2015

RHWhen I did my theology degree, back in the 1970s, we had a course on ‘History of Biblical Interpretation’. I can’t say that I saw the point of it back then but this book has kindled my interest.

The author points out that whilst he Reformers restored the authority of Scripture against their arch-enemy, tradition, the spurious teachings that had crept in throughout the Middle Ages, Calvin saw the Church Fathers’ writings—particularly their biblical commentaries and sermons—as gifts provided by God to the church of his own day, and he even claimed that we would be guilty of ingratitude were we to neglect them.

Most of the book is given over to a detailed study of the tale of Jephthah and his daughter in Judges 11. He explains that if the theory behind reception history is that we will understand a text better if we also understand how it has been received by others or how its reception has shaped the thoughts or practices of those who read it, the payoff surely lies in the details. Its interpretation is complicated by the laudable mention of Jephthah in Hebrews 11, where he is listed among many others who are praised for their faith. Does this mean that the New Testament has given him a stamp of ap­proval. It seems an irony that while the daughter seems both innocent and noble, she is wholly eclipsed by her father in the roll of heroes in Hebrews

Rabbi David Kimhi introduced a reading of v 31 that suggested that Jephthah did not, in fact, slay his daughter but rather consecrated her to lifelong temple service. Although Judges 11.31 is usually translated, ‘Whatever comes forth…shall be the Lord’s and I will offer it up,’ Kimhi suggested that the Hebrew conjunction could also be read disjunctively: ‘…or I will offer it up.’7 In other words, Jephthah meant to offer a burnt sacrifice if greeted by a suitable victim, but if met by a person, he would devote that individual to the Lord, presumably as a per­petual servant of the Temple. Thus, his daughter was not killed. Instead, she remained unmarried, ‘devoted’ in the service of the Lord.

Typological readings are out of fashion but earlier readers saw some surprising connections not only between Jephthah and Christ as two outcasts and deliverers, but also between the sufferings of Christ and those of Jephthah’s daughter. These comparisons often take not only a Christological turn but also a moral one, insofar as commentators seem to be seeking not so much an obscure prophecy about Jesus as a way to make sense of what looks like a miscarriage of justice.

Despite the Old Testament’s abhorrence of human sacrifice, Jephthah seems to have supposed that his vow still must be kept. Consequently, traditional interpreters puzzle over why no one (say, the high priest) intervened to restrain Jephthah, and they then speculate over whether Jephthah was simply acting with Abraham as his precedent: if God intervened to save Isaac, would not he do the same for Jephthah’s daughter?

Origen admitted that the death of Jephthah’s daughter looks and feels senseless. For him, Jephthah’s daughter is not just an exegetical puzzle to be explained away. Neither is she really a recruitment tool for martyrdom. Instead, Origen has filled in the Bible’s silences here by extrapolating from Israel’s defeat of the Ammonites and the daughter’s selfless virtue in order to make some sense of those silences. Amazingly, Origen (himself a would-be martyr) admits that martyrdom—all martyrdom—looks senseless. And even God seems heartless and cruel. Yet where sight fails, faith thrives. The martyr’s crown may be visible only to faith, but it is visible to faith. Accordingly, Jephthah’s daughter did not die in ‘ vain—even if that is the way it seems.

Ambrose reckoned that any seeming unfairness lay in the character (not the gender) of the dividuals involved. While Abraham and Isaac were prompt in obeying God’s command, Jephthah hesitated for a two months while his daughter, and her friends mourned her virginity (vv 37-39). Accordingly, Isaac’s obedience and devotion merited a ram to be offered in his stead: as Ambrose wrote, ‘Mercy is large where faith is prompt.’ But Jephthah grieved and his daughter mourned, so (Ambrose implies) they suffered in turn for their flaws.

In Augustine’s Latin Bible, Jephthah’s vow literally promised to sacrifice not ‘whatever’ met him, but ‘whoever.’ Jephthah was grief-stricken, Augustine suspects, because he was met by his beloved daughter when he had really expected his wife!

He reckoned that the story was written to teach us that if Jephthah’s deed was sinful, everyone ever after was warned not to imitate him by the way he was justly punished in the person of his daughter.

Also that God meant not only to each his people that human sacrifice was unlawful but also to offer them a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ. Accordingly, the daughter is offered up by Jephthah—a man obscurely born, rejected by his brethren but later their deliverer—even as the church (as the virgin daughter of 2 Cor 11.2) is to be offered up by Christ, as per 1 Cor 15.24.

Abelard saw a parallel to his lover, Heloise’s, father. In his Lament, addressed to Heloise, it tells of her sacrifice for Abelard, even as it hints at the many misfortunes that befell Abelard himself. And, as other references to Jephthah’s daughter in Abelard suggest, the poem reflects the sort of advocacy for monasticism seen earlier in Ambrose and others.

Denis the Carthusian. seems to understand the value to the daughter of being surrounded by her friends—the value, that is, of the companionship of women with other women. Secondly, he sees and dislikes the way the father blames his daughter for ‘deceiving’ him, and he defends her from being so blamed. Thirdly, he does not hesitate to compare the daughter’s goodness and obedience to that of Isaac, once again underscoring her innocent suffering.

The author concludes that reception history may, in some cases, be more an occasion for repentance than for rejoicing. Think of the confident biblical rationalizations for slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or the careless use of the Bible to support antisemitism in the Middle Ages and later.

He goes on to say that Reception history is not necessarily a way to resolve disputes about interpretation, nor is it a sure way to secure the one meaning of the Bible. But it is nonetheless one way to understand enduring exegetical disagreements and ecclesiastical and doctrinal diversity.

There’s a comprehensive and up to date list of books for further study.

One minor niggle – the point of Grove Books is that they introduce you to a topic by summarising much larger books and they use every inch of space to cram it all in. This booklet, however, has lots of blank spaces.

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