In search of the literal sense : Johannes Oecolampadius (1482-1531) and the exegetical tradition on Isaiah.


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This dissertation explores the hermeneutical diversity of Reformation-era ‘literal’ exegesis of the prophet Isaiah. Using the 1525 Isaiah commentary of Basel reformer Johannes Oecolampadius as a lens, it compares this work to prior Christian and Jewish commentaries on Isaiah, as well as to the Isaiah commentaries of Oecolampadius’s fellow reformers. The study argues that as the reformers adjudicated differently between key extra-textual contexts, they came to hold different and at times competing understandings of the nature of Scripture’s literal sense. This complicates the idea that the reformers interpreted the Bible ‘literally,’ even as it seeks to add clarity to what such a statement, when indeed true, might actually mean. The study opens by demonstrating the influence of Erasmian biblical humanism upon Oecolampadius. It then compares him to three chronologically distinct sets of interpreters on three different issues. Reading Oecolampadius in conversation with the Church Fathers shows how key differences existed in understanding figures of speech and the relationship of literary metaphor to allegorical interpretation. Medieval Christian commentaries, in turn, acutely raised the questions of the New Testament’s use of the Old and of how to establish authoritative interpretations. Medieval Jewish readings, for their part, raised concerns about prophecy’s coherence and contemporaneity, concerns which Oecolampadius and his fellow reformers grappled with intensely. The study then investigates sixteenth-century disputes over these same issues among the reformers themselves. It closes by looking at a fourth central issue over which disagreements about the nature of the literal sense can be seen—the referential capacity of prophecy. Through examining the diversity of ‘literal’ readings of the prophets, the study clarifies what it means to speak of the reformers reading the Bible ‘literally,’ and asserts the usefulness of the notion of the senses of Scripture for studying early modern exegesis.



Literal sense. History of biblical interpretation. Johannes Oecolampadius. Allegory. Reformation. Christian Hebraism.