(published in ÌíÞìç ÉùÜííïõ Åõ. Áíáóôáóßïõ, Thessaloniki 1992, pp. 51-59).

    The exegete's primary task is to interpret Scripture, says Bultmann, but “to ‘interpret’ Scripture after he has responsibly ‘heard’ what Scripture has to say! And how is to ‘hear’ without understanding? The problem, therefore, of interpretation, he concludes, is precisely that of understanding”.[i] This famous statement of Bultmann, reflecting the well known passage of Ro 10,14 ff. poses the perennial problem of Biblical Hermeneutics. And in view of the Scripture's relationship, and sometimes even identification, with God's revelation to humankind, this problem of biblical hermeneutics has often determined the essence of our christian theology. For it has been thought, time and again, that proper interpretation of the Bible is in fact the necessary stage towards interpreting - and therefore towards understanding - the record of God s revelation. In that sense, by looking upon early christian hermeneutics one can solve in a way the problem of the entire biblical hermeneutics.

The purpose of this communication is not very ambitious. In fact it is extremely limited in scope; it concentrates on the problem of scriptural authority in the early Church. Its only intention is to put forward some thoughts for further discussion. To be honest, these thoughts have been expressed long ago in the golden age of the patristic tradition but have since forgotten or at least not given proper attention.

Early christian hermeneutics cannot go back beyond the early christian community. I am not questioning here the significance of the historical work and teaching of Jesus; in fact it would be of extreme importance if we knew exactly the way our Lord used to interpret the Bible. Nevertheless, despite all the excellent attempts in N.T. scholarship to rediscover the teaching of the historical Jesus,[ii] I am not yet convinced that a clear-cut distinction between what Jesus did and taught and what the early Church believed is possible, or even legitimate. After all, as it is generally acknowledged the proper place of the Bible is the Church, for it existed long before the formation of Scripture. “The Church”, as R.M. Grand admitted, “is the environment of Scripture.”[iii] What is legitimate, however, is to argue beyond any doubt, that the words of Jesus recorded in our gospel tradition - no matter whether authentic of not-  while very similar both in form and sometimes in content with those of contemporary rabbis, were in fact very different in their profound perspective,[iv] at least with regard to the authority of Scripture. To the contemporary judaism the supreme authority of every single word of the Bible was unquestionable. There could be no question of its inspiration or authenticity. This hermeneutical idea is clearly expressed in the tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud: “He who says ‘The Torah is not from God’, or even if he says ‘The whole Torah is from God with the exception of this or that verse which not God but Moses spoke from his own mouth’, shall be rooted up”.[v] Jesus on the other hand did not hesitate even to criticize Scripture and to interpret it in a very radical way. It was not only that he regarded the whole Bible in the light of the two great commandments (love of God and love of neighbour), or that he established in the six antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount a new Law; one can even argue that Jesus’ messianic interpretation of Scripture¯namely the fulfillment of the prophesies in his mission¯was not novel, since similar messianic interpretations have been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. What is novel and pioneer, is Jesus’ revolutionary proclamation, and the early church's assured conviction, that the reign of God was at hand; in fact it was inaugurated in Jesus’ own work.

Moving now to St. Paul we can say that it was not merely the rabbinic form in the exegesis of the O.T.[vi] with the striking feature of its verbalism and the emphasis on single words at the expense of context that characterized the pauline interpretation; nor was the remarkable similarity between the exegetical work of Paul or of the author of Hebrews and that of Philo of Alexandria[vii] that can provide the clue to trace the trends of the early christian hermeneutics. After all early christian interpretation was not a plain allegarization; for the first christians have never denied the reality of the O.T. history. The main feature, of course, of the early christian interpretation was its christocentric dimension and character. However, what is of greater importance is the fact that from Paul onwards the criticism of the Law made by Jesus was carried even further, to the point of absolute rejection. And nobody can argue that this was a mere rejection of legalism. This rejection of the Law constitutes, I think, the quintessence of early christian hermeneutics.

The question now which arises is whether the undermined authority of the existing at that time Scripture was replaced by another authority contained in certain written documents. At the beginning of the second century the answer was certainly “No”. Bishop Ignatius of Antioch although he knew some of the N.T. books¯certainly 1 Cor and other pauline letters, probably John and possibly the synoptic gospels, at least some of them¯he never appealed to them; nor did he make extensive use of the O.T. His only authority was Jesus Christ and his saving work and the faith that comes through him emoi ta archeiaChristos»: to me the “charters” are Jesus Christ).[viii]

In our view, this new understanding of scriptural authority, which began to show up in the N.T. writings, bears some very important implications on the main hermeneutical problem concerning the divine revelation. In fact, this unique phaenomenon in the process of the judeo-christian religious thinking, was the result of the early christian pneumatology. The doctrine, of course, of the Holy Spirit in the N.T. and the early fathers cannot be easily reduced to a system of concepts; actually this systematization did not happen until the 4th century AD. However, with this doctrine, the beginnings of which go back to St. Luke's first and second treatise,[ix] christianity opened up new dimensions in the understanding of the mystery of the divine revelation. For the first time humankind cease to look backwards to past authorities and turn their attention to the future. The past no longer suppresses the present, but it is dynamically reinterpreted in order to give new meaning and new perspective to the future.[x]

The patristic tradition of the early catholic Church conceived in the proper way this important doctrine of the early Church. By placing the Holy Spirit to an equal status in the trinitarian dogma with the Father and the Son, the christian theology of the early undivided Church broke the chains of fear and dependence on the past. The conciliar declaration of the divinity of the Holy Spirit was undoubtedly one of the most radical considerations of the mystery of deity¯to our view certainly of equal importance with the dogmatic definition of the homoousion of the Logos to the Father.[xi]

It is a common place that the first christian method to interpret the Old Testament, used by the N.T. writers was generally that of typology.[xii] However this method's real meaning and profound significance has been lost or at least concealed by the conflict which arose a hundred years or so later between the exegetical schools of Alexandria and Antioch. To our opinion, the typological method apart from the affirmation of the historical reality of the biblical revelation¯a concept which was lacking from the allegorical method¯was in fact based on the presupposition that the authority of the Law and the Prophets was somehow limited; for the entire Old Testament looks beyond itself for its interpretation. It was along those lines that the famous antiochean principle of theoria was developed later by some ecclesiastical writers. This term was especially used in eastern hermeneutical tradition for a sense of Scripture higher or deeper than the literal or historical meaning, based of course firmly on the latter. Its meaning however, was not exhausted simply on that; it had some further very significant connotation. Acknowledging that in the Church every christian, and the saint in particular, possesses under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the privilege and the opportunity of seeing and experiencing the truth, later byzantine theologians developed or presupposed a concept of revelation substantially different from that held in the West. Because the concept of theologia in cappadocian and antiochean thinking was inseparable from theoria (i.e. contemplation), theology could not be¯as it was at least in scholastic thinking¯a rational deduction from “revealed” premises i.e. from Scripture or from the statements of an ecclesiastical magisterium; rather it was a vision experienced by the saints, whose authenticity was of course to be checked against the witness of Scripture and Tradition. The true theologian in later byzantine thinking was to a considerable extent the one who saw and experienced the content of his theology; and this experience was considered to belong not to the intellect alone (the intellect of course is not excluded from its perception), but to the “eyes of the Spirit”, which place the whole human being¯intellect, emotions and even senses¯in contact with the divine existence.[xiii]

    Defining, therefore, revelation as a living truth, accessible to a human experience of God's presence in His Church without the absolute limitations of certain scriptural documents¯and in later ecclesiastical theology even of conciliar definitions¯christian pneumatology has essentially rejected the idea of authority, thus affirming the human person (persona humanitas). For the “Holy Spirit is the source of all donations” (panta horigei to pneuma to hagion), as so beautifully assures an ancient byzantine hymn.[xiv]


[i]R.Bultmann, “The Problem of Hermeneutics”, Essays Philosophical and Theological,  London, 1955, pp. 234-61.

[ii]I am referring here to the well-known scholarly contributions of J.Jeremias, Die Abendmahlsworte Jesu, Güttingen 1960; Abba. Studien zur neutestamentlichen Theologie und Zeitgeschichte, Güttingen, 1966; N. Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (SCM) London 1967 etc. For my view see P. Vassiliadis, Issues of Biblical Hermeneutics,  Thessaloniki,1985.

[iii]R.M.Grant, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, London 1965 p. 5; cf. also G.Florovsky, “Revelation and Interpretation”, in A.Richardson-W.Scheitzer (ed.), Biblical Authority, London/Philadelphia, 1951, pp.163-18.

[iv]R.M. Grant, op. cit., p.15.

[v]Sanhedrin 99a.

[vi]Cf. J.Bonsirven, Exégèse rabbinic et exégèse paulinienne, Paris 1939; W.D.Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, (SPCK 5) London 1970.

[vii]Cf. P.Heinisch, Der Einfluss Philo's auf die älteste christliche Exegese, Münster, 1908; O. Michel, Paulus und seine Bibel, Gütersloh, 1929 etc.

[viii]See on that B.Stoyannos, XPIÓTOMAÈIA. The Chistocentric Hermeneutical Principle in St. Ignatius the God-Bearerãs Epistles  Thessaloniki 1976.

[ix]Cf. C.K. Barrett, The Holy Spirit in the Gospel Tradition , (SPCK 11) London 1970.

[x]P.Vassiliadis, “Hermeneutical Approach to Lk 3:16. The Pneumatological Dimention of Christianity”, Gregorios ho Palamas  68 (1985) pp.61-65 (in Greek; also in  P. Vassiliadis, Interpretation of the Gospels,  Thessaloniki 1990, pp. 278-285).

[xi]Ibid. p.p. 64f.

[xii]Cf. R.M.Grant, op. cit., p. 39; also S.Agouridis, Hermeneutics of Holy Scripture, Athens 1979, pp. 92 ff (in Greek).

[xiii]I am greatly indebted to the analysis of J.Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology. Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes, New York 1974, pp. 5ff. According to Meyendorff, “this was the initial content of the debate between Gregory Palamas and Barlaam the Calabrian, which started the theological controversies of the fourteenth century (1337 -1340)” (p.9).

[xiv]From the feast of Pentecost.