Interpreting the Old Testament


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.

Creative interpretation

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.

Apostolic hermeneutics

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.

Photo Credit: stevegarfield via Compfight cc

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  1. Hi UnkleE,
    I’ve spent quite a lot of time with Enns’ materials. Evolution of Adam, Inspiration and Incarnation, various lectures on podcast, etc. I’ve even been fortunate enough to exchange some emails with him, as he is a friend of our former pastor. Interesting guy, and honest to a tee. And I’ve tried very hard to mine his works. My notes from Evolution of Adam alone were 60 pages long.
    Anyway, there are a few points of discussion I’d like to raise, as they are the issues that, in the end, I could not get around.
    Enns’ position about the changing interpretation of past scriptures – i.e., the allowance that “creativity” and infusion of new meaning is acceptable – raises a difficulty that I find very few Christians can speak to. How do we detect fraud?
    The global gamut of religion, the splintered 30,000 Christian denominations, etc., raises the specter that fraudulent claims of revelation are *normative*, not exceptional.
    Taking but the simplest example, how does one establish that Judaism was ever legitimate in the first place? Shape shifting in revelation and interpretation does not intrinsically reflect an unchanging source for such revelations.
    Taking the next serious example, what if the Jews were right all along, and Jesus was a fraudulent Messiah? The fulfillment of prophecy was a major argument that Christians were correct (one cannot but think of Matthew here), yet we find that much of the OT prophecies had been retooled to fit Jesus – the fit was not intrinsic.
    How does one determine the source of the “creativity”? It could be argued that it is simply human lurching and confirmation bias at their worst, entirely consistent with the many fraudulent faith practices the world over. On what basis can we discern that with Christianity, we do not have a similar fraud? By what criterion?
    Still further, we have practical issues of “quality control” in the present. We wind up, to put things very simply, in a place where all interpretations could be valid, and we ultimately have no referee – not even a hermeneutical method – by which to know what is real and what isn’t.
    Perhaps the empty tomb was simply a literary device that came to be thought of as literal. Perhaps those who say that Paul only believed in a spiritual resurrection were correct (he never mentions an empty tomb).
    Perhaps the creation account is simply allegory. That would mean that God’s Word does not actually tell us where anything came from. And millennia of believers have asserted that it did, and so were quite misled by “revelation”.
    Perhaps there is no afterlife for believers. Perhaps discussions of heaven (eschatology) are as allegorical as our discussion of origins (protology). Afterlife expectations in the OT were slim to none, and such ideas appear to only have come into Judaism when cultural forces from the Persians and Greeks moved the needle. Why think that the NT expectations were ontologically real if the OT expectations were not?

    In short, we are left with a sort of license… You are free to believe the Bible despite the fact that the writers contradicted each other and shape shifted as time went on, because on the incarnational model, that’s the way God wanted it. Perhaps its simply the way *we* wanted it. We are left without the slightest evidence that these texts are something more than human… they are permitted error on historical fact… they are permitted error on scientific fact… they are permitted internal contradiction with one another… they are permitted license to redefine meanings over time, ad hoc… they are permitted to change prophecy to fit the events we observe…
    We give a warm embrace to these actions on Enns’ approach – but these are the very means by which we could normally detect fraudulent revelation.

  2. Hi Brisancian, thanks for those thoughts and questions. I think they are really interesting and worthwhile. I am going away today for a week (in a couple of hours), and I don’t think I will have much internet access while away, so please be patient while I consider, and respond (probably in a week). Best wishes.

  3. unkleE,
    Thanks for taking the time to consider. I think your blog post is great, and quite fair in representation. I like the notion of making a post out of it… it keeps it from getting lost down in some comment thread somewhere. I may follow suit, since my thoughts are probably long enough for a post as well.
    BTW, I appreciate your tone of civility and mutual dialogue. Something for everyone in the blogosphere to aspire to, myself included. I really enjoy “level chair” conversations without people talking down to each other. Been hard to keep that hat on lately, so much blowback on my change in views. Anyway, thanks for being an honest interlocutor.

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