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What are the characteristic differences between how Jewish scholarship approaches the text of the Tanakh (Old Testament) and that of Christian scholars? If their approach was the same I assume they would come to the same theological conclusions, so while they both believe the same text to be inspired there must be a difference in the methodology they use to interpret the text.

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This is a great question but I can't help but think it would require a book to answer. I'm not sure it is possible to even characterize "Jewish scholarship" as a unit let alone compare it to Christian thought which itself is fragmented. –  Soldarnal Oct 5 '11 at 16:55
    
@Soldarnal: I think you raise a valid concern about this question. I realize both worlds are fragmented to the point of being nearly impossible to lump together, but their is still somehow a pretty clear line between them. I am really less interested with the specific doctrines or outcomes so much as how they get there -- which along the lines of Amichai's answer I think boils down to philosophical presuppositions -- and in what ways we can identify those base factors affecting the way we interpret the texts. Do you have any suggestions for making this a more productive question? –  Caleb May 3 '12 at 11:43
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Those looking for resources to answer this question will probably want to see: Marc Zvi Brettler, Peter Enns, Daniel J. Harrington. The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). The co-authors write from Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic contexts, respectively. The H-Net review by Kristine Garroway gives a good flavour of their contributions. –  Davïd Jan 20 at 0:19
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7 Answers

“If their approach was the same I assume they would come to the same theological conclusions”

Texts that aren't dense legalese, e.g. books like the Bible which contain stories, parables, philosophies and statues, are necessarily rich with ambiguity and mystery. There is no way that a book like the Bible could unambiguously inform any philosophy/theology/weltanschauung. The Old Testament Pentateuch doesn't talk about resurrection, afterlife or even an individualized system of reward and punishment yet these themes are central to Christian and Jewish thought alike. The Bible doesn't deal with whether or not the dietary prohibitions or the sacrificial rites are mutable religious requirements.

In general: philosophy informs one's reading of a text, not the other way around.

Almost every word of the Bible, a text which lives beyond a great temporal and cultural divide, is ambiguous and open to a wide range of plausible interpretations which are debated within Jewish circles and Christian circles alike.

“What are the characteristic differences between how Jewish scholarship approaches the text of the OT and that of Christian scholars?”

There are so many differences within Jewish scholarship and equally many differences within Christian scholarship that's it's impossible to characterize a single religious methodology for either. Scholars from both faiths differ in:

  1. How literally the words of the text should be taken
  2. How important it is to understand the Bible within the wider historical and cultural context that produced it
  3. Allowance for allegory, metaphor, exaggeration, hyperbole, synecdoche and other literary devices
  4. Whether the book is read for its historical content, grammatical content, thematic content, legal content or theological content

Moreover, who counts as a Jewish scholar? What is the status of important scholars like Robert Alter, Umberto Cassuto and Jacob Milgrom? Bible scholars that aren't religious Jews, do they count? How about Bible scholars who don't believe in the inerancy of the Bible? Bible scholars who don't believe in the divine source of the Bible? Karaite scholars? Even from within the Jewish world of Orthodox Bible Scholars who believe in the Bible's divine origin, some writers like Mordechai Breuer are marginalized and ignored by large parts of the Orthodox Jewish world over various theological questions.

The assumptions that inform one's reading of a text are a type of oral tradition that live alongside any written document. Orthodox Jews are informed by an “oral-Torah” (תורה שבעל פה), much of which is codified in the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash and other works of Rabbinic literature that emerged immediately prior and somewhat into the Middle Ages. The theological and exegetical assumptions therein inform a characteristically “Jewish” reading of the Old Testament but these exegetical assumptions are a reflection of Jewish theological tenets and not the source of Jewish theological tenets.

What are the basic theological issues that divide Jews and Christians and why? - is a whole different question.

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Excellent answer! I agree with your analysis that certain philosophical presuppositions inform the way we read text. I am specifically not looking for an answer to the question you identify at the end, but I am interested in pursuing this a little farther to be able to put a finger on specific presuppositions that cause a text to be handled X way -- where X is obviously not any of the four points you list as varying across both world views. While all those things are debated in both camps, there are clearly some hermeneutical distinctives of each camp. What are they/how could they be defined? –  Caleb May 3 '12 at 12:10
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The way the "philosophy <-> text" feedback system works is actually itself one of the biggest questions of hermeneutics, and it seems to be a big step to assume that philosophy is the more formative (though a common step in a postmodern day). –  Kazark May 12 '12 at 19:06
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Jewish scholars use the method of Pardes which is an acronym for Pashat, Remez, Drash, Sod. Pashat is the literal interpretation. Christians have learned much from Jewish expositors in this. Rabbinic exposition of the literal meaning is not much different than Christian.

Remez looks at hints and follows their lead. For instance, Jesus's quotes of OT scripture while on the cross would be considered mere pointers to the whole context of the quoted passage. Generally, eschatological biases permit Christians to chop up the referenced scriptures into present and future portions.

Drash means to compare and contrast similar passages. For instance, when water is parted for Moses, Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, they are seen as transparent overlays of the same story and context can be moved from one story to the next. Christians might notice similarities and differences between them, but sharing context is nearly unheard of.

Sod is the hidden meaning. Jewish interpretation of the sodim leads into Kabbalah. For Christians sod is about Jesus, e.g. in the saying "When you see the white rock, don't say Water-water", using the methods of pardes upon the New and Old Testament together, Jesus is the white rock, and "Water-water" means the word of God in heaven and on earth. The warning in the parable of the four rabbis is followed by penalties.

Christians generally note the odd usage that the NT authors put to OT scripture, and it is the source of much debate under the name of sensus plenior. Many modern theologians have rejected the idea of hidden meaning as a response to much bad allegory. However, Clement seems to have retained a knowledge of it, and more recently Macintosh came very close to seeing the hidden since his methods indicate his ability to share context in Drash. Some discussions on intertextuality come close to describing sod, such as Jeffrey Meyer's description of Mary's encounter with Jesus at the tomb as the fulfillment of prophecies in the Song of Solomon. http://web.me.com/jeffmeyers/Site_3/The_Gardener_&_his_Beloved.html

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Jesus isn't part of the definition of "sod". Perhaps that is the Christian understanding of "sod", but it is not universal. –  Gone Quiet Oct 18 '11 at 14:30
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I agree with Monica. Your description of "Sod" seems to take the answer off the rails a bit. (And it's potentially offensive to boot.) –  Jon Ericson Oct 18 '11 at 18:43
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I don't get the impression that Bob wants to offend. On the contrary-- from my limited understanding-- Bob's method attempts to impart more of a Judaic perspective to the NT-- which I personally feel there should be much more of. The narratives of Jesus are meant as a fulfillment of Jewish prophecy (i.e. "To the Jew first" Romans 1:16), and salvation of the Gentiles is almost a side-note. As Christians we need a Jewish perspective (I definitely appreciate reading @Monica Cellio's input on this site!); however by definition there are going to be some sticking points on theology. –  transistor1 Nov 14 '11 at 15:27
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@transistor1. Whether or not Bob wants to offend is somewhat besides the point. ("Intent is not magic.") –  TRiG Jan 12 '13 at 20:01
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@Kazark, there is a Jewish four-fold hermeneutic but it's somewhat different from the Christian one. See my new answer to this question. –  Gone Quiet Mar 29 '13 at 16:42
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The basic difference is Jesus Christ. That may sound trite or rude, but it needn't be. A Christian hermeneutic that is faithful to itself will base its reading of the Old Testament on the way Jesus and the Apostles used the Old Testament. This hermeneutic was rather shocking even to Jesus' disciples (i.e. Christians) even at that time (and I assume Jewish hermeneutics have continued to develop since then, though I am ignorant on that front). Of course, a Jewish reading of the Tanakh will not use this approach, the basic premise of which is: The entire Old Testament is about Jesus, who is the Messiah. The prime source of this hermeneutic (though it is well distributed throughout the New testament) is Luke 24 where Jesus himself clearly teaches it (especially verse 44). Obviously any Jewish hermeneutic must have a radically different point of departure.

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Jews and Christians both consider the Tanakh to be important scripture (usually seen as of divine origin, though individual denominations/movements may vary). They differ in how they derive meaning from that text, however. In this answer I'm going to describe some approaches used by each group, but it's important to note that there isn't much that's universally true within either group. Different interpreters (and schools of interpretation) will tend to draw on different methods. That said, there are some common themes.

Jewish approaches

Jewish interpretation is rooted in the text. Rabbi Hillel's seven rules for interpretation and Rabbi Yishmael's 13 rules derived from them revolve around close reading of the text -- word choice, grammatical constructs, proximity and order, and similar factors are important factors in understanding the text, and why one must always eventually go back to the original Hebrew. These methods are exegetical in nature.

This is not to say that it ends there. Allegory and mysticism provide additional layers of understanding. These are discussed in the context of four broad approaches, abbreviated PaRDeS:

  • P'shat ("plain"): the direct meaning of the text.
  • Remez ("hints"): allegoric or symbolic meaning beyond the p'shat.
  • D'rash ("seek"): midrashic interpretation (note: "midrash" is from the same root), generally to address some perceived problem in the text1
  • Sod ("secret"): mystical meaning. Mysticism requires a hefty level of background knowledge and education; what popular culture today calls "kabbalah" is not what (I understand) the rabbis were doing when applying this last approach.

Layers of interpretation that contradict the p'shat are highly suspect. Remez, d'rash, and sod are meant to enhance, not fundamentally alter, the plain reading of the text. This is not to say that the rabbis never "interpret away" problems in the text (like, say, the death penalty), but rather that they do it on the basis of something more solid than "mysticism" or "inspiration". (To continue that parenthetical example: the rabbis would agree that the death penalty still stands, per the torah -- it's just that it's really, really hard to apply.)

In addition to the written torah, Jewish tradition understands that there is an "oral torah" that was given to Moshe alongside the written one. This oral torah expounds things that are not fully specified in the written torah (such as how exactly to slaughter animals), and it is also how we know the rules for interpretation. A rabbi once explained it to me like this: the written torah gives us the outline, and the oral torah gives us all the implementation details. Obviously, this oral torah is not part of the written record that is the Tanakh, so if you don't accept the existence of the oral torah, you won't find interpretations that are based on it convincing.

All that said, rabbinic interpretation is, like any other interpretation, influenced by events of the day. The written torah says nothing about an afterlife or resurrection of the dead and very little about the messiah, but after the destruction of the temple and the end of the Sadducees, these concepts became more important to elucidate. The rabbis found support for them in the text (they didn't just make stuff up), so the ideas were always there, but previously they had perhaps not been so important. In an age when people ask "this is the merit of torah? to be martyred by Rome, have our temple destroyed, be expelled from our homeland?", the rabbis went looking for answers in the text.

1 For example, the text in Ex 19 says clearly that the people stood "under" (tachat) Mount Sinai; it does not say they stood at its base. How can the people stand under the mountain? One midrashic interpretation is that God held the mountain over their heads while speaking.

Christian approaches

Note: I have limited knowledge of Christian scholarship.

A fundamental difference between Christian and Jewish interpretation is the role of Jesus. To the Jewish scholar this is a non-starter; while the Tanakh does predict a future messiah, nobody we've seen so far qualifies. To many Christian scholars, on the other hand, the whole point of the Tanakh (which they call "old testament") is to lay the foundation for the coming of Jesus as messiah to fulfill the earlier texts. "Christocentric" hermeneutics (such as sensus plenior, among others) interpret Tanakh texts by seeing how Jesus fulfills them. These techniques are primarily eisegesical; they work backward from the desired answer, not forward from the text.

There are other Christian hermeneutics that are less eisegesical. According to Wikipedia, conservative Protestant scholars favor the historical-grammatical hermeneutic to seek the single original intended meaning of a text (intended by the author and what would be understood by the audience). See the tag and/or this question for more information. Also according to Wikipedia, liberal Christianity tends to rely on the historical-critical method (also called "higher criticism"), which seeks to understand "the world behind the text" -- the original context. The biblical texts might be compared to other contemporary texts. See the tag, and see this comparison between the historicl-grammatical and historical-criticism methods.

In contrast, while Jewish scholars do look at original context, they do not hold that there is a single meaning to a text (as evidenced by the variety of verse-by-verse commentaries), and most do not understand the text as having been influenced by contemporary literature. (Some liberal Jewish scholars give weight to contemporary literature and archaeology.)

Christianity has an analogue of PaRDeS, a four-fold allegorical method, which was developed in the middle ages and does not seem to be in common use now. It is based on the following categories of interpretation:

  • literal interpretation without additional meaning
  • typological: connecting the events of the Tanakh with the Christian testament
  • moral interpretation: what does this mean for how we should behave?
  • anagogical: understanding of future times, heaven, hell, etc

Literal interpretation is similar to Jewish p'shat. Typological and anagogical interpretation are specific to Christianity. While Jewish tradition does teach morals and ethics, it does not do so directly as part of textual interpretation like Christian scholarship does. When Jews study the text they are largely asking "what does this say and mean?", and the question "what should we do in our own lives?" is an important but separate question. To the Jew, a clear directive to do something he finds morally problematic is a real dilemma, while if I understand correctly, either the situation would not arise in Christianity or the moral consideration would trump anything else.

In my experience, Christians are more open to being guided by inspiration, allegory, and revealed meaning than are Jews.

Conclusion

Jewish hermeneutical methods start from the text and are used for exegesis. Deeper interpretations must still comply with the p'shat, the plain meaning of the text. Interpretation is often the result of perceived problems in the text; the text must be true (given its divine origin), but it doesn't spell everything out and we are left to reason it out given some standard rules. The only "revealed knowledge" that doesn't have to be backed up by sources is the torah that God gave Moshe (written and oral); there is no concept of "inspired interpretation" or personal revelation about the meaning of text.

Christian hermeneutical methods may or may not start from the text, and may be applied to either exegesis or eisegesis. Christian hermeneutics may take historical context into account. Some Christian hermeneutics work backward from the conclusion that Tanakh is about Jesus and seek proofs in the text. Some Christians feel that their interpretation is personally guided by the holy spirit.


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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The key general differences between Jewish and Christian thought concerning the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) lie not so much in their respective methodologies of interpretation (which are very similar), but the precedent and priority each gives to the respective biblical covenants (Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New Covenants).

For example, according to the New Testament the Mosaic Covenant is the central theme of the Jewish faith. Therefore the grounds of ones right standing before the Lord in Judaism are derived from an accurate and an appropriate application of the Law of Moses to ones life (Rom 9:30-32). In other words, righteousness before the Lord is derived from ones alignment and faithfulness to the Law of Moses. This outlook therefore gives the Mosaic Covenant necessary precedence over the Abrahamic Covenant.

On the other hand, the Christian New Testament gives precedence to the Abrahamic Covenant over and above the Mosaic Covenant (Phil 3:9). That is, the basis of righteousness is not ones response and compliance with the works of the Law (Gal 2:16), but faith in the promises of the Lord given to Abraham. These promises centered on the "Promised Seed" of Abraham, which seed was to sprout in the Promised Land. The seed included not only the plethora of his descendants but also an individual seed (Gen 22:17), which was later "fleshed out" and identified in the Davidic Covenant (Rom 4:13). Abraham therefore had received his righteousness from the Lord through his belief and trust on these initial promises, which would have its eventual result in the blessing to the nations of the earth (Gen 22:18 and Rom 4:13). By believing these promises, Abraham was justified by faith, and the sign of his faith was circumcision.

Abraham's circumcision therefore was not only the removal of the foreskin, but the removal of the hardness of the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16), which is an invisible circumcision (Deuteronomy 30:6). The Christian New Testament therefore indicates that the "authentic" Jew is not the one who is necessarily physiologically circumcised per the Mosaic Covenant, but the one whose heart is circumcised per the Abrahamic Covenant (Rom 2:28-29). The circumcision of the heart is not an overt act of compliance with the Law of Moses, but by faith on the promises made to Abraham. Therefore "salvation" in the Hebrew Bible was through faith.

Therefore the Abrahamic Covenant, which is based on the hope of promises (and therefore was unconditional), is superior to the Mosaic Covenant, which was based on overt compliance to laws (and therefore was conditional). This is the first distinction between the respective interpretations of Tanakh.

The second distinction is the Davidic Covenant, which was an extension of the Abrahamic Covenant, and therefore was unconditional. The Promised Seed of David was the individual seed first identified in Gen 22:17, because the Hebrew word for "enemies" in that verse is modified by an adjectival suffix in the masculine singular. (In the immediate context, that seed was the individual Isaac, but in the expanded context of the Davidic Covenant, that individual seed was "fleshed out" and identified as the anointed son of David.) The Christian New Testament therefore associates this Promised Seed in type with Isaac who had been offered as a sacrifice to God; and then of course with the anointed son of David, through whom the nations of the earth would be blessed (cf. the same verse in Gen 22:17-18).

Finally the Christian New Testament views the anointed Son of David as becoming a priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Ps 110:4), who at the time of Abraham was both a priest and king. So the anointed son of David is not only the sacrifice (per the typology of Isaac), but he is also the priest according to the order of Melchizedek, who was superior to Abraham (Heb 7:6-7). This appointment of the anointed son of David, who incidentally is also superior to David (compare Ps 110:1 with Mt 22:41-46), was to be this priest, and therefore his appointment changes the priesthood of the conditional Mosaic Law (He 7:12-22). The result had forced the inauguration of the New Covenant after the presentation of his blood sacrifice on the cross (as the priest cum sacrifice).......

The discussion could continue on and on, but in the interests of brevity, the central focus of Tanakh is not the conditional Mosaic Covenant, but the unconditional Abrahamic Covenant, which provides righteousness to those who believe by faith apart from the works of the Law of Moses (Gal 4:23). The Abrahamic Covenant, in turn, spawned the unconditional Davidic Covenant and the unconditional New Covenant. What ties these three unconditional covenants together is the "Promised Seed" who is at one and the same time the suffering sacrifice (à la Isaac), the holy priest (à la Melchizedek), and the majestic king (à la David) -- thus the three unconditional covenants of Tanakh merge together in the "Promised Seed" that sprouts in the "Promised Land" (Abrahamic Covenant).

These general brushstrokes of observations and relationships between the central unconditional covenants are therefore what distinguish the Christian and Jewish approaches to Tanakh according to the Christian New Testament. The Abrahamic Covenant therefore takes precedent over the Mosaic Covenant according to the Christian New Testament. These differences are not the methodology of interpretation between Jewish and Christian scholars (which are very similar), but the assumptions behind the methodology of interpretation (hermeneutics).

In summary, the Christian New Testament indicates that the circumcision of the heart is necessary to see the glory of the Nazarene, who had unified the unconditional Covenants of Tanakh (2 Cor 3:12-16). This circumcision is the removal of the hardness of the heart (2 Cor 3:14), which comes by faith and therefore results in righteousness (à la Abraham).

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Didn't see a reference to this great passage anywhere, so I thought I'd tack it on for any future readers.

"Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He [Jesus] explained to them [the disciples] the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures," (NASB, Luke 24:27).

Spoken after Jesus's resurrection, but before his ascension, this highlights the perspective Jesus himself added to the Old Testament. A perspective that Jewish scholars don't incorporate (in more than a general way) into their studies.

Jesus said all of the Scriptures were about him. Knowing this would surely affect how I study the scriptures, and as a result which conclusions I draw from them. If you haven't already, read some of the previous answers for a more in-depth analysis on this subject.

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This will be a partial answer, intended primarily as a supplement to this answer, since she mentioned that she is an expert in Jewish approaches but not in Christian approaches. (I can't add anything to her answer on Jewish approaches, so I won't bother trying to cover that material!)


There are a variety of Christian approaches to the TaNaKh (i.e. the Christian "Old Testament.") Here is a rough overview of the main approaches I am aware of:

"Marcionitic": The content of the TaNaKh is so foreign to some Christians that they tend to regard it as incompatible with the Christian faith. I call this approach "Marcionitic" because it unwittingly follows the tradition of the heretic Marcion -- though its adherents are not technically "Marcionites," since they do not vehemently reject the TaNaKh; These Christians just avoid the TaNaKh altogether in their reading and teaching.

  • How do you approach the Law? "The what? Oh, that. Allow me to introduce you to the New Testament."

  • "I wouldn't worry too much about what that means."

Postmodern: This approach regards the TaNaKh as shifting, evolving, multifaceted gem that will "mean" something different to everyone, since we all live in a different world and have a different perspectives, presuppositions, and agendas.

  • How do you approach the Law? "To me it means that everyone should just leave each other alone... you know, live and let live, man."

  • "It means whatever it means to me."

Devotional: This approach regards the TaNaKh as a Divine text which God can use to speak personal, specific things to "me" which may never have been intended by the human author -- or by God, prior to "me" reading it.

  • How do you approach the Law? "When I read the 10 Commandments last night, God showed me that I need to get more organized in my morning routine."

  • "It means whatever God tells me that it means to me."

Historical-Critical: This Enlightenment-rooted approach to Scripture regards human reason as the only reliable means of determining truth. Under this approach, the TaNaKh is scrutinized by the same criteria that any other ancient text might be scrutinized. The supernatural tends to be ruled out on principle, and the authenticity and reliability of the Scriptures are definitely in question. The goal is to scientifically reconstruct the history of the text and its evolution over time.

  • How do you approach the Law? "Allow me to introduce you to JEDP."

  • "It means whatever I deduce that it means."

Gnostic / Cultic: This approach regards the TaNaKh as a text that can only be understood once you've discovered the secret knowledge of the "answer key." Each cult will have their own approved "answer book" which their members (an elite class of Christians to be sure) are privileged with. (Typically it has been written by the cult leader.)

  • How do you approach the Law? "Allow me to introduce you to a very special book... and no, it's not the Bible."

  • "It means whatever the leader says it means."

Allegorical: This approach regards the TaNaKh as a Divine product, but not intended to be taken literally. For some, this is because the literal is too base / carnal to be "the word of God." For others, this is because the literal is in conflict with other things we "know."

  • How do you approach the Law? "The Law is Christ, Sinai is Heaven, and the tablets are the human heart."

  • "It means the same thing as the New Testament, but in more mystical language."

Jewish: This approach is the Jewish approach, but is used by a significant number of Christians who are determined to preserve the Jewishness of the TaNaKh, and treat it on its own terms, with no consideration for the New Testament, since it was not around at the time that the TaNaKh was written.

  • How do you approach the Law? "I believe you mean the 'Torah.' Allow me to introduce you to my Rabbi."

  • "It means whatever the Jews say it means... and Jesus is the Messiah."

Historical-Grammatical: In general, this approach treats the text as a human text -- but a human text that is of Divine origin. As such, it is interpreted by the rules of grammar, with respect for historical context, but without skepticism about its contents or authenticity.

  • How do you approach the Law? "Exactly as Moses told the Israelites to approach it when he wrote it down for them under the inspiration of the Spirit."

  • "It means what the Hebrew meant in the context that it was written into."

Sensus Plenior: In general, this approach begins with Historical-Grammatical, but sees another "layer" of meaning on top of the base "layer" of the text. The term is used to describe a wide variety of approaches, and everyone seems to have a different definition for the term. (It doesn't help that the term is often used in a derogatory way, so no one wants to be associated with it!)

  • How do you approach the Law? "Allow me to introduce you to Grant Osborne... and also Galatians 4."

  • "It means what the human author meant, but also what the Divine author meant."

Conclusion

The only real similarity that these approaches have over and against Jewish approaches is that the people performing them are Christian. :)

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I'm sure I'll ruffle some feathers with this, but please know that I am eager to hear feedback on how to improve this for accuracy. Just leave a comment with your suggestion. –  Jas 3.1 Jun 10 '13 at 4:44
    
I found this very enlightening, thanks. And while some of your examples might be flip, I've heard most of those forms from the Christians I've encountered. So I'll leave that community to comment on typicality and applicability, but this sounds consistent to me. –  Gone Quiet Jun 10 '13 at 13:14
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