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The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 1, Number 2, Spring 1977
pp. 238-243 | 10.1353/phl.1977.0027

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Critical Discussion The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics , by Hans W. Frei; pp. 355. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974, $16.50. Discussed by George Steiner The main title of Professor Frei's book is somewhat opaque for reasons which are, I think, not trivial. This study is an investigation of the breakdown of the realistic and figurai interpretations of the biblical stories which had once been natural allies, and of the consequent reversal in the direction of interpretation. Frei is concerned not with the history of biblical criticism as a whole, but with the history of the theory of biblical interpretation from the late seventeenth century to Schleiermacher and Strauss. As he defines it, the problem is one of a central myopia towards narrative shape and the modes of understanding which such shape ought to elicit. Whatever the position of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century interpreter , whether fundamentalist or historical-critical, "the confusion of history-likeness (literal meaning) and history (ostensive reference), and the hermeneutical reduction of the former to an aspect of the latter, meant that one lacked the distinctive category and the appropriate interpretive procedure for understanding what one had actually recognized : the high significance of the literal, narrative shape of the stories for their meaning. And so, one might add, it has by and large remained ever since" (p. 12). This crucial confusion, argues Frei, stemmed from the immediate transposition of the realistic, history-like quality of biblical narratives into the quite different, inevitably dogmatic and polemical issue of whether or not the narrative was historical. This logical muddle "constitutes a story that has remained unresolved in the history of biblical interpretation ever since" (p. 16). Professor Frei sets out the background to his problem by sketching the "precriticai" interpretative practices of Luther and of Calvin. He shows how Calvin, drawing on the family resemblance between literal 238 George Steiner239 and figurai interpretations and their mutual supplementation, could view the two testaments as one canon with a perfectly unitary, coherent subject: the tale of man's fall and the salvation wrought by Jesus Christ. For Calvin a literal-figural reading will "render chronological sequence together with the teleological pattern that is a function of the cumulative story" (p. 35). Frei then reviews the Pietist attempts to give "emphasis" to certain scriptural words, even at the expense of rigorous grammatical sense, in order to give to such words a transcendent, spiritual meaning beyond their normal usage or immediate context. Taking Spinoza and Cocceius as representative examples, the author goes on to show the seventeenth-century beginnings of the fateful split "between explicative sense and historical reference, and between narrative depiction or form and its meaning or subject matter" (p. 42). The Tractatus theologico-politicus of 1670 already sets out most of the important modes of rationalistic and historical-critical understanding which were to develop over the course of the eighteenth century (Prof. Frei's treatment here is bound to be cursory, but should it omit altogether the question of Spinoza's irony and tactical indirections?). It is the eighteenth century, in the Protestant climate of England, Holland, Switzerland and Germany, that brings new problems and methodologies into focus. General hermeneutics become possible because all the differing schools aim at a direct reading of the "plain" text shorn of its figurative transpositions. Now, no matter "what the privileged, singular truth of the Bible, the meaning of the texts as such could be understood by following the rules of interpretation common to all written documents. The consequence of unity and universality in method of interpretation ensured unityof textual meaning also" (pp. 55-6). The old belief in ascendant levels of meaning—literal, typological, spiritual or mystical—had virtually disappeared. From now on the options are clear. Either the interpretation will have to demonstrate the concord of historical fact, literal sense and religious-ethical verity; or it will find itself compelled to explain such truth and the fact-like descriptions of the Bible in the absence of historical corroboration or plausibility (the pivotal crux of the opening of Genesis and of the miracles ascribed to Jesus). For evident theological and diplomatic motives, the...