Four is the loneliest number – senses of Scripture part 1

September 23, 2009 Leave a comment


There is a mistrust in many quarters of multiple senses (meanings) of Scripture. While is it true that multiple meanings can, and have been, abused, the tradition of four meanings has historical depth – beginning with Christian scriptural interpretation that spread into Judaism. Or, as others would have it, the tradition of four meanings precedes Jesus and spread into Christianity.

In addition to the historical evidence, recent work in the field of semantics (the study of meaning) uncovers multiple meanings in our everyday use of language.  We should expect to see it in scriptural language as well. This aspect will be considered in a later post.

The best known  Jewish division into four meanings is  PaRDeS.  It is utilized in the Zohar, a Kabbalistic book that first appears openly in Spain in the thirteenth century. The translation of the Hebrew name is shown by quotation marks:

  1. Peshat — “plain, simple”, direct or contextual  meaning
  2. Remez — “hints” or the deep (allegoric) meaning
  3. Derash — from Hebrew darash: “inquire, “seek”;  the comparative (midrashic) meaning, as given through similar occurrences.
  4. Sod — “secret, mystery”) the mystical meaning, as given through inspiration or revelation.

The Zohar also offers a secondary classification scheme with seven levels:

  1. literal meaning
  2. Midrash
  3. allegory
  4. philosophical allegory
  5. numerical value of the letters (gemetria)
  6. mystic allegory
  7. higher inspiration

In the same era, Baḥya ben Asher of Saragossa’s commentary on the Pentateuch included Kabbalistic methods.  His four senses are similar to those of the Zohar although the allegorical is replaced by the philosophical:

  1. the way of the Peshaṭ
  2. the way of the Midrash
  3. the way of Reason (i.e., philosophic exegesis)
  4. the way of the Cabala, “on which the light dwells—a path for the soul that refuses to be illumined by the light of life.”

Another variant is attributed to the Tolaat Yaakov

  1. Peshat
  2. Remez
  3. Din (law)
  4. Sod.

What was Derash in the  Zohar scheme is divided into (a) homiletics, which are merged into Remez, and (b) legal interpretations, which become Din.

Rabbi Edward Levi Nydle-B’nai Avraham presents the Zohar scheme in simple, modern language:

  1. Pashat-Simple: the literal meaning of the text in the grammatical and historical context
  2. Remez-Hint: the implied meaning of the text
  3. Drash- Search: the allegorical, typological, homiletical meaning of the text
  4. Sod-Hidden: the hidden or esoteric meaning of the text

The rabbi notes that the Drash level can be highly creative eisogesis. This is where non-scriptural texts such as the Talmud come into play.

There is considerable debate regarding the dating of the four level scheme.  Dr. James Trimm in his article “PaRDes – the four levels of interpretation” adopts the position that the four levels are pre-Christian. His observations on the  Drash level:

Another level of under­stand­ing the Scrip­tures is called in Hebrew “drash” mean­ing “search”, this is the alle­gor­i­cal, typo­log­i­cal or homilet­i­cal appli­ca­tion of the text. Cre­ativ­ity is used to search the text in rela­tion to the rest of the Scrip­tures, other lit­er­a­ture, or life itself in order to develop an alle­gor­i­cal, typo­log­i­cal or homilet­i­cal appli­ca­tion of the text. This process involves eiso­ge­sis (read­ing of the text) of the text.
Three impor­tant rules of thumb in uti­liz­ing the drash level of under­stand­ing a scrip­ture are:

[1] A drash under­stand­ing can not be used to strip a pas­sage of its PASHAT mean­ing, nor may any such under­stand­ing con­tra­dict any PASHAT mean­ing of any other scrip­ture pas­sage. As the Tal­mud states “No pas­sage loses its PASHAT.” (b. Shab. 63a; b.Yeb. 24a)

[2] Let scrip­ture inter­pret scrip­ture. Look for the scrip­tures them­selves to define the com­po­nents of an alle­gory. For exam­ple use Mt. 12:18–23 to under­stand Mt. 13:3–9; Rev. 1:20 to under­stand Rev. 1:12–16; Rev. 17:7–18 to under­stand Rev. 17:2–8 etc …

[3] The pri­mary com­po­nents of an alle­gory rep­re­sent spe­cific real­i­ties. We should limit our­selves to these pri­mary com­po­nents when under­stand­ing the text.

Mt. 2:15 on Hosea 11:1
Mt. 3:11 on Is. 40:3
Rom. 5:14 (14–21) on Gen. 3:1–24
I Cor. 4:6
Gal. 4:24(21–31) on Gen. 17–22
Col 2:17
Heb. 8:5 on priest­hood
Heb. 9:9, 24 on the Taber­na­cle
Heb. 10:1 on the Torah
Heb. 11:19 on Gen. 22:1f
1Pt. 3:21 on Gen. 6–9

For further discussion of PaRDeS see:

The Rules of PaRDeS” from YashaNet

Levels of Meaning in the Holy Scripture ‘PaRDes’” by Professor Bryan Griffith Dobbs

Using the appropriate methods for effective Biblical Studies(for students) and Hebrew Jurisprudence(for Leaders)” by Kohan Shalomim

C. A. T. – PaDReS (PaRDeS)” from Kabbalah u’Madda


Cabbala/Kabbalah:  an esoteric theosophy of rabbinical origin based on the Hebrew scriptures and developed between the 7th and 18th centuries

Eisegesis: the interpretation of a text (as of the Bible) by reading into it one’s own ideas.

Skill Exercise: For each of Trimm’s examples (a) of scripture interpreting scripture and (b) of drash, justify (or challenge) Trimm’s position. You may use comments to share your observations.

The next post provides a transition into the four levels of meaning in the Christian tradition.


Reasons for Scripture Study

September 22, 2009 Leave a comment
Ethiopian Orthodox Minor Seminary

Ethiopian Orthodox Minor Seminary

The Gospel Way website has an article “How to Study the Bible: The Importance of Proper Methods of Studying Scripture” which offers the following reasons for studying scripture:

  1. Study so you can obey God and grow in His service.
  2. Study so you can avoid error and false teaching.
  3. Study so you can teach others.
  4. Study to express love for God and His word.

Torah study

The Baptist Standard website offers “There are numerous reasons to study the Bible“:

  1. Study the Bible because it’s the surest standard for really knowing God.
  2. Study the Bible because trusted friends or family direct you there.
  3. Study the Bible because when you study it and practice what it says, you get results.

Bridges for Peace in the article “Why Christians Should Study Torah and Talmud” offers:

  1. To better understand the entire Bible
  2. To better understand Yeshua and His disciples
  3. To help us practice what we preach
  4. To help establish a dialogue with Jewish friends
Quran Statement

Quran Study

None of these takes claim to be comprehensive. None mention inappropriate reasons. None are faulty. Nonetheless all of them leave me feeling that they miss the point.  My take (which includes an inappropriate reason or two) is based on a belief that anything that causes us to read (or hear) the scripture closely counts as Bible study.

  1. in the spirit of oracle or magic
  2. as a social responsibility in your religious community
  3. as a form of prayer
  4. as an act of piety (devotion)
  5. as preparation for worship
  6. for spiritual formation
  7. for evangelization or apologetics
  8. for cultural understanding
  9. as an academic discipline
  10. as a means for resting in the presence of God

I would be especially interested in Jewish and Muslim takes on the topic as well as comments on the various views offered in this post.

Note: images are from CNEWAHirhurim Musings and  Siraat-e-Mustaqeem. My apologies for focusing on young males.

Chapter and verse abuse

September 22, 2009 Leave a comment

In my tradition, Catholic – Roman rite, a Sunday service includes:

  • an Old Testament reading
  • a responsorial psalm
  • a New Testament reading outside the gospels
  • a Gospel reading
  • the Lord’s Prayer
  • various other short excerpts from Scripture

Nonetheless, a friend’s Presbyterian Mother responded to the Mass by wondering why there was no Scripture. When pressed, she replied that we never gave the chapter and verse.

Many of us from liturgical traditions do not think in terms of chapters and verses. Rather we think in terms of pericopes or lections. [Hint: when I pronounced this unfamiliar word as PEAR-i-cope no on knew what I was talking about.  Finally a priest deciphered my pronunciation and corrected me:  per-RICK-a-pea. People still look at me funny but because they don’t know the word rather than my murderous pronunciation.] For purposes of this post think of a pericope or lection as a logical unit of text to be read (proclaimed) at a church service.

For the Torah (Pentateuch, Five books of Moses) divisions into lections goes far back into history.  From Wikipedia:

The Old Testament began to be put into sections before the Babylonian Captivity (586 BC) with the five books of Moses being put into a 154-section reading program to be used in a three-year cycle. Later (before 536 BC) the Law was put into 54 sections and 669 sub-divisions for reading.

Note: the name for these Torah sections is Parshat.

The days of the liturgical calendar may be known by the content of their Gospel reading. For example, in the Syrian Orthodox tradition you find Sundays such as:

  • Sunday of the feast of Cana (St. John 2:1-11)
  • Sunday of the leper (St. Luke 5:12-16, 4:40-41)
  • Sunday of the Paralytic (St. Mark 2:1-12)
  • Sunday of the Canaanite woman (St. Matthew 15:12-31)
  • Sunday of the hunch-back woman (St. Luke 13:10-17)
  • Sunday of the healing of the blind man (St. John 9:1-41)

Given the recent invention of the printing press (within the history of Christianity) it is not surprising that passages are known by content rather than chapter and verse.

Here’s a timeline:

  • by 325 the New Testament was divided into paragraphs but not the paragraphs in use today
  • between 1227 and 1248, Archbishop Stephen Langton and Cardinal Hugo de Sancto Caro determined different schemas for systematic division of the Bible.  Langton’s is the basis for modern chapter divisions
  • around 1440, Rabbi Isaac Nathan sets Old Testament verse divisions based primarily on the full stop punctuation of the official Hebrew text (Masoretic).
  • Italian Dominican biblical scholar Santi Pagnini (1470–1541) is the first to divide the New Testament into chapters and verses.  His scheme is not widely adopted.
  • in 1551, Robert Estienne created an alternate numbering for  his edition of the Greek New Testament
  • 1557 a translation by William Whittingham is the first English Bible to use verse divisions
  • 1560 the first Bible in English to use both chapters and verses was the Geneva Bible

If you look at multiple translations today you will find numerous differences in chapter and verse divisions. An acquaintance working for the Bible software firm indicated that they had found “around” 70 different schemes. Most of these differences are small; when you look up a reference you simply allow for a verse or two variation. The differences make little difference to people, but it drives computers nuts.

Now that is a long introduction to a simple concern. I have been working on materials for the Swedish (or Vasteras) Bible study method. While this method has several variants, it’s core it the marking of items that seem important, that are difficult to understand, that your behavior should reflect … One variant requests that you mark a verse to memorize.

My question to you is: “Are verses the appropriate level to mark or memorize?” I would suggest not. I would suggest that clauses are the lowest level that it makes sense to mark; sentences are the lowest level that it makes sense to memorize.

Chart sermons

September 22, 2009 Leave a comment

Back in the day  – well, back when I was in the basement Sunday School classes, I loved the flannel board lessons.  Stories were illustrated by the addition or movement of felt cutouts (with a bit of sandpaper glued to the back) stuck on the flannel board.  Admittedly, they didn’t always stay in place which added a degree of randomness to the Bible stories.

When I was old enough to attend Sunday School upstairs (think middle school age), a Bible college graduate married a young farmer.  She would draw pictures in chalk illustrating a song while a soloist sang.  This was high art – I always hoped I would be the one to “win” the final product.

In keeping with this artistic background I was delighted a few months back to find a collection of chart sermons on the web.  Mark A. Copeland of Executable Outlines has posted 299 chart sermons by his father-in-law, of whom he says:

“Steve Hudgins is my father-in-law. Born in 1919, he has preached the gospel of Christ for 60 years. At the age of 89 he continues to preach and teach. He has created about 300 chart sermons, and painted more than 5000 for preachers around the world.”

Chart sermon for Abiding in the doctine

Chart sermon for Abiding in the doctine

While chart sermons have given way to Power Point presentations, they record the graphics of Bible Study of a prior generation.  As such, I find them thought-provoking.

Instructions for creating chart sermons are available on the Waterford Church of Christ website.

Gail Dean Peterson has chart sermons available for sale as a paperback or free as a PDF download at Lulu.

A delightful episode is recorded by R. H. Boll in The Word and Work, July, 1916:

A long while ago I preached a chart sermon in a little backwoods meetings house, and a sister who seemed to be one of the most intelligent and appreciative of my listeners, assured me that Brother Blank had lately been there and had preached that very sermon. Now I knew that was not possible, and began to question the sister to find out what the resemblance was between my sermon and Brother Blank’s. ‘I know it was the same sermon exactly,’ she asseverated’: He preached just like you did. He had one of them charts tacked up on the wall, and he would p’int a while and talk a while, and talk a while and p’int a while, just like you did.’ And that was how she knew that it was “exactly the same sermon.”

Introduction to Bible Study: Methods and Techniques

September 22, 2009 Leave a comment

Yet another Bible Study site? Not quite, that area is well represented on the web – blogs, commentaries, sermon helps, liturgy planning . . .  I am not foolish enough to think my voice is worth adding to that hubbub.  However, I do have something to offer on methods and techniques for studying scripture.  My goals:

  • study methods to complement education’s new uses of graphic organizers – gone are the days of mimeographs
  • study methods taking advantage of the internet; serious study no longer requires a substantial investment in dictionaries, concordances, multiple translations . . .
  • study methods that incorporate multiple reasons for study – prayer, lector preparation, devotions, religious formation, sermon preparation, academic study . . .
  • study methods for different levels of education, different styles of learning, different interests, different lives . . .
  • study methods that are inclusive – across the full theological spectrum and the full time span of interpretation of the scriptures of the three Abrahamic religions
  • miscellaneous oddities – facts, interpretations, observations . . . – that add a bit of humor and human interest
  • random thoughts exploring the application of other fields to the study of scripture

Over time this site will expand to include:

  1. this blog with materials extracted from my reading and from my preparation of Bible study materials
  2. pages that contain the Bible study materials from a previous web site – updated for the ubiquitous personal computer and web
  3. a collection of questions and sample answers from which customized Bible studies can be created
  4. a forum for teachers and students of the Bible to share ideas and ask questions
  5. forms (graphic organizers) in PDF and Microsoft Word template formats;  materials in Logos PBB format – of interest to readers with the Logos/Libronix software

This is a forum for polite sharing across denominations and faiths. It is a forum for discussing methods and techniques, for sharing resources.  It is not a forum for arguing theological correctness. For this reason it’s discussions are monitored.

Please be patient as the site develops. Welcome to the discussion.

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