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ANT: Methods of Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church

I will return to some possible improvements in the blog (not just in raising money from it) soon.  today, though, I want to return to my book After the New Testament.  Just yesterday I finished reading the page proofs for it, by working through the 98-page chapter on early Christian apocrypha (selections of non-canonical Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses: great stuff, but a lot of reading!).  I celebrated with a cigar in Wimbledon Park in the late afternoon sunshine.  Life could be worse.

As I indicated before, I’ve added two entirely new sections to this anthology of ancient texts, one on Women in Early Christianity (the Introduction of which I have given, over the course of two posts) and one on “Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church.”   I think this latter is an intriguing, and a highly important, topic.  Here is what I say in the Introduction to it in the second edition of the book, with a brief bibliography that follows.


As we observed in chapter 9, the Bible was important from the very beginnings of the early Christian movement.  Whatever else the historical Jesus may have been – charismatic holy man, Jewish cynic philosopher, political revolutionary, apocalyptic prophet – he was certainly a Galilean Jew who was deeply committed to the Jewish Scriptures, and he was fundamentally understood by his followers to have been an interpreter of the Bible.  In fact, he was the interpreter par excellence, the one whose understanding of the Torah of God could show the way to ultimate salvation.

The importance of interpreting Scripture continued on after Jesus’ death as his followers soon began to believe that he himself had come as the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets, that in fact the entire point of the Jewish Bible was to point forward to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the fore-ordained goal of all God’s promises to his chosen people, beginning with Moses.   Scriptural interpretation played a highly significant role in the ministry and writings of our earliest Christian author, Paul, who, although he was writing to Christians who had converted not out of the Jewish tradition but out of paganism, nonetheless appealed to the writings of Scripture to justify his understanding of the gospel.   For Paul, Christ was not only the fulfillment of the Law given to Moses, he also brought an end to that Law – at least to its utility for the purposes of salvation (Rom. 10:4).  But somewhat ironically, Paul insisted that this advocacy of salvation apart from the Law is precisely what the Law itself taught (Rom. 3:21, 31).

In many ways Paul…

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My Apostolic Fathers Seminar/Syllabus
ANT: More on Women in Early Christianity



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 8, 2014

    Life could be a whole lot worse.
    Since my Southern culture is so rooted in the literal interpretation of the Bible, I am very interested in how some early Christians used an allegorical or figurative approach to Bible interpretation. I have read that Biblical literalism got more pronounced in America during the 1800s. It’s amazing to me that, despite overwhelming and convincing evidence, the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy persists and, more than that, thrives. I guess many find the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy comforting, but the doctrine also alienates many.

    • gmatthews
      gmatthews  August 11, 2014

      I was about to post a comment more or less echoing this one. Could we hear more from you on how some of these earliest sects viewed allegory vs. literalism compared to how Paul used allegory?

  2. Avatar
    Matilda  August 8, 2014

    All these “great” minds and not a one could come to the conclusion that none of it is the word of God! Excuse the expression but this sounds like a circle jerk to me. No one could stand back and see the big picture? No one had clear vision? This entire thing is like the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Someone (Paul apparently) says something and the rest just twist and turn struggling to fit the pieces together. They did not succeed and now in the 21st century we are still squabbling about this stuff!!!
    The only reason I pay attention is to combat religion. Bart you have helped me tremendously in my fight!

    • Avatar
      shakespeare66  August 18, 2014

      You do not have to “combat” religion. There is no point in that. Let people believe what they want to believe and speak out against fundamentalists when they impose their garbage on the civil world. Otherwise, let people have their religion….it is what they want and there is no amount of talking or convincing that will change their minds anyway. If, in fact, you do come across someone who has some questions, then Bart’s work will help you prepare a good answer. I say this because talking to my siblings about religion was a waste of time—they are so imbued in their “cult” of religion, that making sense with them is all but worthless. They have a protective shell around them called indoctrination and the need to belong to groups—it is an inherent need of human beings.

  3. Avatar
    Yvonne  August 8, 2014

    I was just able today to listen to the debate with D
    Sousa. I found it very interesting as I have just finished reading a book by Howard Bloom titled THE LUCIFER PRINCIPLE. Bloom has a very interesting theory as to why we are the way we are. I would recommend this book to anyone.

  4. Avatar
    nichael  August 8, 2014

    Without commenting (for now) on the subject at hand, I just want to say thank you for the new “For Further Reading” sections appended to the articles. These are an enormous help (and just the sort of thing I read this blog for).

    And to push my luck here 😉 : As a future topic along these lines, would you consider a more general article on a suggested “basic library”. That is, a list of books –possibly at an assortment of levels– that folks interested in the topics discussed on this blog should probably getting (or, at least, reading).

  5. Avatar
    timber84  August 8, 2014

    I’ve heard conservative Christians quote John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life . No one comes to the Father except through me.” to assert the position that only Christians can be saved and get to heaven. What do you think the author of John was trying to say? How did the early Christian church interpret this verse?

    Among liberal Christians, the idea of religious tolerance is popular. Can a strong biblical argument be made for this philosophy, or is the Bible slanted more towards a position of intolerance?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 10, 2014

      Yes, I think the author of the fourth Gospel thought that Jesus was the only way of salvation and anyone who did not believe in Jesus was condemned. My view is that the Bible can be used both by those who argue for tolerance and those who much prefer intolerance.

  6. Avatar
    dbjorn  August 9, 2014

    Hi Bart,
    Great stuff. Maybe I missed something again. I do that all the time; but I was taken aback by this line: “Paul, who, although he was writing to Christians who had converted not out of the Jewish tradition but out of paganism”. OK, OK, I thought he was a Hellenize’d Jew. Yes I knew he was well educated and was very familiar with Greek language and culture and mythology, but I thought he was a zealous Jew. This is based not just upon traditional views but even more by his own writing In Philippians Chapter 3. What info do you have that shows that his world view was paganism and now Jewish?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 10, 2014

      His views were definitely Jewish and definitely not Jewish. But his mission was to convert pagans, not Jews.

  7. Avatar
    dragonfly  August 19, 2014

    I think Paul was an oddball in his day. Let’s go back to the Christians only a few years after Jesus died…

    “First he persecutes us for following Jesus, then he takes Jesus’ jewish teachings and gives them to the bloody pagans! Just who does he think he is?”

  8. Avatar
    Eaglesjack  January 27, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman:

    Apparently, Origen added some pretty metaphysical ideas to interpretation. For example, he used some texts to explain, in a way, that this world was like a spiritual prison for the souls who rebelled against God- that this world is a physical construction of the spiritual realm and your condition on earth pertained to the degree of your sin/evil in the spiritual realm. Where did he develop ideas like this? It sounds to me like Hellenistic schools of thought and philosophy. Where did he come up with such thoughts and were they accepted at the time as orthodox? Is there any Biblical evidence or tradition to support claims like this or was it purely his reasoning ? Thank you, always, for your time.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 28, 2020

      Yes, he was heavily influnence by Hellenistic philosohical traditoins, especially Platonism. You should read his book On First Principles. Fascinating. he explains that he is trying to understand the grey areas not explicitly covered in the Bible, to make sense of what *is* in there.

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