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NT Hermeneutics: A Matter of Faith

The fallacy that Jesus and Paul just proof-texted from the OT any old verses to back up what they really wanted to say is sadly hard to refute.  It's hard to refute because it is such a widely held belief as to be almost an orthodoxy.  It's hard to refute because our engagement with scripture, atomised as it is by chapter and verse numbers, is so different from those for whom texts existed in their undivided entirety.  It's hard to refute because for Jesus and Paul the OT texts were not an "old" testament but the very basis for their existence as Jews and for their respective missions as teachers.  They didn't cite individual verses as authorities to prove a point but to connect their own words with the words that had been spoken before.  To integrate their message with the message of the Torah and the Prophets and thus show how they continued, cohered to, and fulfilled them. Compare this with what we tend to do in church and seminary (and blog), and it looks quite strange indeed.

To return to Luke 4 and Isaiah 61.  If Jesus was just selectively choosing a passage of scripture that happened to fit what he wanted to say at that point and then missing out the bits that didn't fit with his message then he is both an idiot and a deceiver.  He is an idiot because his audience would have been familiar with the rest of the text around Is 61:1-2a, an especially cherished messianic text, as a result merely quoting the first bit (if that is all he did, which is by no means certain) would still have evoked in his readers all the consequent bits.  He is a deceiver because he is claiming to fulfill this text.  He is not saying "oh look, here is a nice poem that happens to fit the mood i'm in right now," he claims to be the texts fulfillment: the anointed one that Isaiah was talking about.  That is, he claims the meaning of the text is himself.  If only bits of Isaiah actually apply then he cannot be the meaning of the text, for bits of the text cannot be selected or rejected without the text ceasing to be the text.

This is what really bugs me.  For the Christian, if you do not think Jesus and Paul were being honest in their use of scripture, if you think they were misusing it or applying it dishonestly or incorrectly, then they must be wrong about the way that they were in continuity and fulfillment of it in their respective missions, which means you are wrong to follow them.  If the sceptics wish to suggest that Jesus and Paul were just exegetical incompetents and none of their followers noticed, let them.  But for the believer, doing the hard work of understanding exactly what they were doing when they cited scripture and understanding through their eyes what the OT means is essential.  Without it Jesus and Paul are fraudsters, it is simply a matter of faith.


  1. Hmmm...maybe I'm misreading your targeted critique here, but it seems you're mischaracterizing the position of Christians who stand on the other side of the question a bit.

    The argument is not that Paul and Jesus objectively misuse OT Scripture, but that they interpreted and used it the accepted way for the time, a way that violates our current view of sound hermeneutics. The air they breathed in first century Palestine would have been the hermeneutics of remez, derash, and sod, the traditions of pesher and the proto-midrashic interpretive methods - any way you cut it, these Jewish hermeneutics are bizarre and do not follow authorial intent and other contextual hermeneutics. I find it hard to justify the leap to say that Jesus' interpretations (some of which were undoubtedly put in his mouth by the Gospel writers) and Paul were 1) always "correct" (=interpreting it the way we think they should have) or 2) fraudsters.

    Am I misreading you?

  2. Hi Steve, perhaps I have over egged the custard here?

    What I was trying to get at was not that Jesus and Paul were either wrong or right according to our conception of correct hermeneutics, but that our conception of correct hermeneutics is either wrong or right according to Jesus and Paul.

    The target of my critique (however poorly aimed) is those that use their understanding of Jesus and Paul Hermenteutics to justify their own proof-texting and out of context-texting. Jesus and Paul did not do this, although what they did do, you are right, seems bizarre from our standpoint.

    I was not meaning to target those who think determining such hermeneutics is a complicated and controverted task. It is, that is why it needs to be done.

  3. Hi Jonathan,
    You said, ...understanding through their eyes what the OT means is essential
    By this I take you to mean that believers must assume that Jesus and Paul always interpreted Scripture the right way or else our faith is in vain. Is that about right?

    As far as Jesus' thoughts on the OT are concerned, what we actually have in the NT are two voices: 1) the actual voice of Jesus, 2) the voice of Gospel writers and/or their traditions speaking for him. A lot of people's take on what the Gospels say about Jesus' beliefs hinges on whether they're willing to accept that the evangelists are "faithful" in their representation of Jesus' beliefs (on the OT, e.g.), be it actual fidelity to or simple compatibility with his actual beliefs. That is certainly a matter of faith. I tend to assume provisionally that the Gospels don't totally misrepresent Christ, but I do expect that they augmented his own doctrine, and perhaps even his self-conception.

    When I see "Matthew", who is not speaking for Christ but who is surely no less authoritative than Paul, saying that the Holy Family's return after their flight to Egypt fulfilled Hosea 11.2 "out of Egypt I have called my son," I can't help but reject the notion that this is what Hosea 11.2 ever actually meant. I can't accept that this is a real fulfillment of that passage, but I can accept why the evangelist used that passage that way: he wanted to portray Jesus as the new Israel.

    Anyone who accepts evolutionary theory as mainstream science understands it cannot but recognize that Paul misunderstood the person of Adam (although in this case, he was probably interpreting Genesis 3 by authorial intent).

    I'm just saying, I have a hard time accepting that we should just take whatever interpretation the writers and other authoritative figures of the NT had of the OT as "gospel". Are you saying that we should?

    (Sorry if I'm being obtuse -- I really just want to understand your take on it.)

  4. Steve, this is a great discussion but not really the one I was aiming at! Yes absolutely there is a difference between Jesus words and the voice of the gospel writers. The above was not my take on that. Unfortunately you can only cover so much territory in a blog post!

    However to position myself, if I must, and the example of Hosea 11:2/Matt 2:15 is an excellent test case, what "Matthew" wrote presumably made sense to both him and his readers, this truly was in their minds a fulfilment of Hosea. Is it only the fulfillment of the verse, or the pericope, or the whole book? Of course "Hosea" did not intend this to apply to a 700 year later circumstance of newly wed couple and their child fleeing persecution. What does it mean to fulfill scripture? This is the question, and I don't think that (human) authorial intent necessarily restricts fulfillment if we accept that another creative force (the Spirit) was also at work in the writing of scripture. But it does require a paradigm shift for how we talk about the meaning of a text.

    I think that whenever the interpretation of scripture by NT authors doesn't make sense to us the problem is more likely with us than them. The question then arises as to what extent we are free to do likewise, and my (tentative)answer would be to the extent that we understand what they are actually doing. If our understanding is that they were doing whatever they felt like then we either don't understand what they are doing or must conclude that they are using scripture deceitfully.

    does that help? or muddy the waters?

  5. Ah, I think I'm getting your point now...

    Allow me to paraphrase something you wrote:
    I think that whenever the interpretation of scripture by [savvy blog] authors [like Jonathan] doesn't make sense to us the problem is more likely with [readers] than them.

    There. ;-)

  6. nah, i just had a rant and you helpfully made me nail down what i was trying to say :-)


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