Previous posts on topics related to Peter Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation: The Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature and Variation in Old Testament teachings.
Finally, how Jesus and the New Testament writers interpreted the Old Testament. It wasn’t the same way we do it today.
Misusing the Old Testament?
Thoughtful and doctrinally focused christians today tend to interpret the Bible very factually and systematically. We even have a big word for the correct way to do it – hermeneutics. And when we hear someone interpreting the Bible in a cavalier manner which breaks all the rules, we are uncomfortable.
So we need to get used to discomfort, because Jesus and the New Testament writers tend to do the same sometimes. They take passages out of context, they change the meaning, or they just change the words a little. What’s going on?
Trying to avoid problems
Peter Enns outlines three different approaches to explaining this so that there’s no problem, but argues that none of these do justice to the NT writers, who were giving new understandings of the OT “in the light of Christ’s coming.”.
They lived in a different world, with different approaches to interpreting the OT, and they were seeing new things in the scriptures.
Within the Old Testament
We can see creative re-interpretation even within the OT. An example is a prophecy of Jeremiah’s that the Israelites would be in captivity in Babylon for 70 years (Jeremiah 25:11, 29:10). But Daniel reports that the angel Gabriel gave him a new understanding of the prophecy, that the 70 years were actually 70 x 7 years (Daniel 9:21-27) until events that can reasonably be applied to the coming of Jesus.
Enns says there are other examples of significant reinterpretation of passages within the OT.
First century Judaism
Jewish scholars in the centuries leading up to the time of Jesus had developed creative approaches to interpretation. Enns gives two examples:
Part of the Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha re-tells Israel’s early history up until the Exodus, based not only on the Old Testament text, but on “an interpretive tradition about the Bible story that by this time had already become part of the common understanding”.
There were many different interpretive traditions, but Wisdom of Solomon is illustrative of interpretations common in the period, which added details and comments to the Biblical text.
A text from the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QpHab) interprets the book of Habakkuk based on hidden meanings which were being fulfilled in the Dead Sea community. These were clear to the community but could not have been in Habakkuk’s mind.
Enns concludes that these interpretive traditions would have been in the mind of Jesus and his followers.
There are many places in the New Testament which show similar approaches.
Using the Old Testament to support a new teaching
- In Luke 20:27-40, Jesus quotes Exodus 3:6 to support belief in the resurrection, something not at all in the original text.
- Matthew 2:15 quotes Hosea 11: 1 (about Jesus and his parents escaping to Egypt) as if it were a prophecy, when in context it clearly wasn’t, reflecting a belief that all the scriptures were ‘really’ about Jesus.
- In Galatians 3 Paul talks of Abraham’s seed, which originally referred to many descendants, but applies it to just one descendent – Jesus. Again, this isn’t an objective assessment of the meaning of the OT passage in context, but is a re-interpretation based on his belief that everything must be re-interpreted in the light of Jesus.
Other examples are given. The point is this: we can see that it makes sense to re-interpret the OT scriptures to illuminate teachings about Jesus – but what does this say about our interpretive methods today?
Using non-Biblical traditions
Most of us will have noticed how some of the NT writers quote non-scriptural traditions (which would have been developed and become popular in the previous few centuries, using processes outlined above), for example:
- 2 Timothy 3:8 refers to Jannes and Jambres,
- 2 Peter 2:5 refers to Noah as a “preacher of righteousness”,
- the dispute over Moses’ body in Jude 9,
- Jude 14-15 refers to the book 1 Enoch,
- Acts 7:21-22 provides a detail in Moses’ life that isn’t scriptural,
- Galatians 3:19, Acts 7:52-53 and Hebrews 2:2-3 qll refer to the law being put into effect through angels. which isn’t mentioned by the OT, and
- in 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, Paul says that during the Exodus, the Israelites drank from a spiritual rock which accompanied them, which isn’t an OT teaching, but is found in other Jewish texts.
Understanding apostolic hermeneutics
We shouldn’t be worried about this, but we should take notice. Jesus and the NT writers were using approaches which we would be alarmed at today, but which were meaningful and communicative to the people of their day. We can believe the Holy Spirit guided them to interpretations that better explained Jesus, even if they were sometimes based on fanciful traditions.
What should we learn?
We need to take notice that some of our present strictures on Biblical interpretation may be too strict. God is more flexible than we often are, and we need to be humble about what we think we know. Different interpretive approaches were used in the past, and will be in the future – our present approaches are not the last word.
But should we adopt similar approaches?
Enns suggests that we should follow them in seeing the OT in the light of Jesus, but we do not live in the same culture as they did, so we shouldn’t use the same methods. This makes sense, but I can’t help feeling that it ignores the role of the Holy Spirit in interpreting scripture to us.
In the end, the scriptures are a means to the end of knowing and obeying God, and knowledge is not an end in itself. I think we need both good scholarship and the freedom of dependence on the Holy Spirit speaking to us.
More on the same
I have discussed this topic before, but from a slightly different perspective, in Interpreting the Old Testament.