Al Wolters on Hermeneutics and Zechariah’s Night Visions

Al Wolters, in his very nice article “Confessional Criticism and the Night Visions of Zechariah,” (From Renewing Biblical Interpretation in Zondervan’s Scripture and Hermeneutics Series) draws out an interesting hermeneutical proposal; i.e., that of noting the coexistence of “top-down” relationships in hermeneutics with “bottom-up” relationships.

Let me explain what Wolters means.  Starting at the bottom are the most basic levels of a text, upon which others levels of the interpretation is to be based.  At the bottom of the ladder is text criticism, as establishing what text is to be interpreted is the first step.  From there, he proceeds upwards to such areas as lexicography (determining the meaning of the words in the accepted text), syntax (how those words, now defined, stand in relationship to one another), and so forth.  Here is Wolters’ list:

9. Confessional Discernment
8. Redemptive-historical analysis / 7. Ideological Criticism
6. Historical analysis / 5. Synchronic literary analysis
4. Diachronic literary analysis
3. Syntax
2. Lexicography
1. Textual criticism

(Cited from pg. 108.)

While proceeding from the bottom up appears (at first glance) to be the most objective form of textual interpretation, Wolters explains how the matter is much more complicated than this.  There is a sense in which interpretation can proceed from the top-down as well.  He explains: “[I]t can be shown that interpretive judgments on one level often do ‘hang on’ decisions made on a higher level.  The hermeneutical traffic is not all one way” (pg. 108).

Wolters then offers some very fine examples, worth quoting at length:

The following are some examples, drawn from the illustrative material adduced above, of hermeneutical influence running downward: Consider the fact that commentators are now generally agreed that the מוצקות in the description of the menorah in Vision 5 (Zech. 4:2) means ‘sprouts’ (wick-niches) rather than ‘pipes.’  This is a change on level 2 (lexicography), but it depends on level 6 (historical analysis), informed by archaeological discoveries of actual lamps from biblical times.  Furthermore, the level 1 decision not to emend שבעה ושבעה in that same verse depends on level 6 evidence as well, as does the level 2 interpretation of אבן הראשה in 4:7 as ‘former brick.’  If I am right in my hypothesis that צנתרות in 4:12 does not mean ‘pipes’ but ‘oil-pressers’ (a level 2 hypothesis) then this becomes legitimate grounds for entertaining the textual emendation צהורות (a level 1 hypothesis).  Similarly, the judgment that Vision 4 does not fit the chiastic literary arrangement of the visions as a whole (level 5) has led Reddit and many others to propose that it belongs to a later redactional stage (level 4).  Also, the various efforts to make syntactical sense (level 3) of the difficult phrase אחר כבוד שלחני in 2:12 (English 2:8) has led interpreters to assign widely different lexical meanings to אחר and כבוד (level 2).

This widespread phenomenon of top-down influence also applies to the very highest levels.  [Phyllis] Trible’s judgment that the אשה אחת in Vision 7 (5:7) does not represent a personification of Wickedness (הרשעה) but rather an identification of woman in general with wickedness (a level 2 judgment), is clearly influenced by her feminist perspective (a level 7 matter).  Similarly, the historical judgment of many Christian commentators that the messianic title ‘Branch’ of 3:8 does not refer to the contemporary governor Zerubbabel (level 6), is just as clearly influenced by the redemptive-historical belief (level 8) that the promised Messiah is Jesus Christ.

Cited from pgs. 108-9.

This is fascinating stuff.  Is it really sufficient to know our syntax for interpretation?  Our lexicon?  Is it really sufficient to have our Redemptive-historical or ideological convictions in place?  Ultimately, a whole host of factors are involved in biblical interpretation that go far beyond word-studies or grammar.

Think of the egalitarian/complimentarian debate over woman’s roles in the church as addressed in Rom 16:1 (Phoebe as a servant/deacon) and Rom 16:7 (Junia as an apostle, or well known to the apostles).  Many argue that dikonos in 16:1 cannot mean that Phoebe is deacon since that would contradict 1 Tim 3:12.  (This is a debated interpretation of 1 Tim 3:12, of course.)  Likewise, it is argued, Junia cannot be a woman-apostle since that would undermine male headship and the words of 1 Tim 2:12.  (This too is a much debated inference among scholars.)  Note that in each of these cases, lexicon (Rom 16:1) and syntax (Rom 16:7), levels 2 and 3 respectively, are being determined by matters of levels 7 and 9.  This is not to weigh in one way or another on the debate, only to illustrate Wolters’ point.  To re-quote him, “The hermeneutical traffic is not all one way.”

But this is indeed the point.  Sytax and lexicon don’t simply carry the day.  Nor do confessional and ideological commitments, for that matter.  Biblical interpretation is a sophisticated and symbiotic enterprise.  Yes there is more ambiguity this way, but it strikes me that there is also a lot more fun to be had too!

Wolters’ approach to hermeneutics (in general) and Zechariah’s night visions (in particular) is a very thought provoking read.  If I get around to it, I’ll wrestle with where “Innerbiblical Exegesis” might fit into his levels.


4 thoughts on “Al Wolters on Hermeneutics and Zechariah’s Night Visions”

  1. Isn’t Wolters great?

    He’s a very careful scholar who recognizes the complexities of the topic. I wonder if part of this comes from his PhD training as a philosopher at the Vrije Unversity. It’s actually a great story about his move into biblical studies. While he was working on his PhD a bunch of his buddies were in seminary learning Hebrew, so being a lover of languages he learned Hebrew. Several years later when he was teaching at Redeemer, a theology/biblical studies position opened up. If I’m not mistaken, it was one of my old profs, John Bolt (of Bavinck fame) who encouraged Wolters to apply for the position. In the end he got it (having, if I recall, already done some publishing in biblical studies), and got a Masters under Boda at McMaster.

    I’ll never forget sitting in class the day after he had handed out a provisional paper that he wanted us to read on צנתרות. He turned to all of us MDiv and ThM students and asked if we saw any holes in his argument or had a better lexicographical suggestion. What struck me was that he was dead serious. He didn’t assume that he had all the answers, and legitimately wondered if we had a better idea (naturally, none of us did :).

    Hopefully he’ll finish his commentary on Zechariah one of these days. I’m sure it will be good.


    1. Very cool story! I’ve always heard he was an incredibly humble man. There is nothing like that kind of brilliance, coupled with that kind of humility. Sadly this is a virtue lacking very much in the biblical studies guild!

      I’ll wait eagerly for his commentary. I had no idea he was writing one!

      I do wonder about where to put innerbiblical interpretation into his hierarchy. It’s a pretty crucial element in hermeneutics (especially in visionary material like Zech 1-6). Perhaps I should just write him sometime and ask if he’s thought about how that might fit in….


    1. Funny you ask – I actually don’t own it. I skimmed the entire thing several years ago and made photocopies of 3 or 4 chapters. (One of which was Wolters’ chapter.) I remember being impressed with it though and putting it on my Amazon wishlist.

      I have read in more detail several of the other volumes – especially the volumes on the “Bible and History” and “Canon.” I’ve found it to be a very fun series of books with some great hermeneutical nuggets to chew on.


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