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Tag hermeneutics

The Virgin Will Conceive

When Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14, is he really making an assertion about the meaning of that passage? > This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the > prophet would be fulfilled: "***Look! The virgin will conceive and > bear a son, and they will call himEmmanuel***,” which means “*God with > us*.” When Joseph awoke from sleep he did what the angel of the Lord > told him. He took his wife, but did not have marital relations with > her until she gave birth to a son, whom he named Jesus. There is a lot of controversy concerning Matthew's quote and the meaning of the word "young woman" in the original context of Isaiah. Namely, some suggest that Matthew is exploiting a mistranslation in the Septuagint to prove the virgin birth from the Old Testament, while Isaiah itself is not talking about a virgin at all. First question: Is Matthew making an assertion that the meaning of "alma" is "virgin" over and against "young woman"?  It is not entirely clear. Remember, there are two parts of the prophesy, the conception of a child, and his name. I wold raise the question of whether Matthew is actually quoting this as a proof of the virgin birth as opposed to quoting as a prophecy about the salvific mission of Jesus. The emphasis in Matthew is on salvation and not on virginity, if you look at how the quote is framed. See what the angel says directly before what I quoted above: > She will give birth to a son and you will name himJesus, because he > will save his people from their sins. This leads to my second question: Is Matthew even making an assertion about the meaning of Isaiah 7? This goes to the heart of what is meant by "fulfilled." I have become convinced in my studies that fulfillment formulae often are analogical or typological. They are a way of showing the connection between a past action of God and Jesus' present work. Matthew is not saying that it was a virgin in Isaiah 7. What he is saying is that Mary was a virgin, and that Jesus' birth was a sign of deliverance in a greater way than the salvation Judah experienced in the days of King Ahaz. **Note**: This article of mine was previously published on another site.

The Old in the New: Modes of Rhetoric

Having made a distinction between rhetoric and exposition in the New Testament's use of the Old Testament, I thought it fitting to outline some more specific examples of each. In this post I examine the rhetorical use of scripture and provide several rough classifications.

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants.

Here in Galatians 4 we find a passage which has given fits to those who have attempted to construct a normative hermeneutic from the New Testament. Paul is apparently using a figurative interpretation - an allegory (αλληγορουμενα) nonetheless - to explain his point. This is particularly scandalous for those of us trained in the literal-grammatical-historical school of hermeneutics. Many explanations have been offered: Paul, through the Holy Spirit, had special authority to use such interpretive methods; the Sarah-Hagar story is a living allegory written by God (which is not without its charms); Paul must mean something other than what we understand as "allegory;" etc. I would suggest that Paul is not making a claim about the original meaning of the passage at all. Allegory can be both a valid interpretive strategy (employed to understand those stories which were written by their authors as allegory) and a rhetorical device (a cousin to the analogy). Paul is using the latter. He is re-appropriating the story of Sarah and Hagar to illustrate his point about the two covenants, not trying to tell us what that passage means. He even expands the allegory with two addition scripture references. The wording here cannot be definitively called down on either side:

ἅτινά ἐστιν ἀλληγορούμενα· αὗται γάρ εἰσιν δύο διαθῆκαι

The question is whether Paul is saying they were composed as allegory or are presently being employed allegorically. I don't think ἐστιν can tell us either way. However, given Paul's interpretive activities in his other letters, I believe that the rhetorical mode is the best explanation for his usage here. Allegory is perhaps the most extreme example since it was connected with medieval catholic interpretive methods which were repudiated by the reformers. So, having introduced allegory as a valid rhetorical use of scripture, the rest should come quite easily. I've already reference allusion (as in "out of Egypt have I called my son"). There is also an interesting case in Ephesians 4 where Paul perhaps deliberately changes the quoted text for rhetorical effect. I'm not sure what to call that, but I have seen the same tactic employed by modern preachers. Perhaps in the future I will endeavor to more exhaustively catalog all the rhetorical uses of scripture in scripture. As I have said previously, the study of these modes of rhetorical use of scripture in the New Testament cannot inform a normative hermeneutic. What can be gleaned are ways in which our own preaching and teaching can be enriched by following the models of the biblical authors. The question of a normative hermeneutic can be answered in two ways: 1) by examining the exposition of the Old Testament in the New; 2) by determining if there can truly be more than one hermeneutic (not just scripturally, but in general).

The Old in the New: Analogies and Exposition

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

Here Jesus uses an Old Testament reference to illustrate the nature of his coming death. That is, he uses the story of the bronze snake as an analogy. Jesus did not say that his own death was the true meaning of that incident. Not every reference to the Old Testament in the New is aimed at telling us the "real" meaning of the text. So the next question when approaching the use of the Old Testament in the New is: is the author making an assertion about the meaning of the text which is being referenced? In Jesus' case above, no he was not. It was an analogy, a reference. In other cases (and the Apostle Paul could provide many examples), the author is making an assertion about the meaning of the text. In those cases, it is an exposition. The difficult task is of course determining which is which. There are passages where analogy and exposition can both serve the same rhetorical function. For example, Matthew's infamous use of Hosea:

So [Joseph] got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."

Scandal! I would have certainly failed a theology essay where I used a verse so flagrantly out-of-context to prove my point. Hosea is talking about Israel, clearly. Yet it seems that Matthew is saying that Hosea was really talking about Jesus. But is that really the case? "Fulfillment" language comes with its own debate, but allow me to suggest this: Matthew here is not making an assertion about the meaning of Hosea's words; rather he is pointing out how God's providence worked in a way parallel to another time in Israel's history. Furthermore, I believe he is using this parallel to "read in" the context of Hosea 11, which talks about Israel's rebellion and God's forbearance and compassion. In other words, Jesus' return from Egypt is an illustration of the core message of the gospel.

The use of the Old in the New is not always simple. That being said, I think the analogy/exposition dichotomy provides an important tool for forming a normative hermeneutic. To say what a passage means (the task of hermeneutics) is not always always the sole purpose of OT references in the NT. The rhetorical force of the quotation (which is always present) must also be considered. I think that a confusion between these two types of analysis (hermeneutics v. rhetorical analysis) has lead to a lot of confused "hermeneutical" systems for understanding the OT in the NT - namely midrash, pesher, sensus plenior, double-fulfillment, and the lot. Those are primarily describing the rhetorical force of OT quotations in the NT while not actually evaluating how the New Testament authors understood the meaning of the text. Evaluating their understanding, however, is the goal of the search for a normative hermeneutic. We can see that the New Testament authors used the Old Testament in a variety of ways. The greatest value in studying their usage is perhaps in forming a normative framework for how the scriptures may be employed rhetorically in sermons and theological writings. I suggest that such a framework would be relatively broad, based on the examples in scripture. Still, this task is distinct (though not unrelated) from the task of forming a normative hermeneutic.

The Old in the New: Quotations and allusions

Studying how the authors of scripture themselves interpreted and used scripture in their arguments should provide a normative framework for our own use of scripture. That is, if there is a "true" hermeneutic, certainly the divinely inspired authors of scripture would abide by it. In spite of a few cross references within the New Testament, the bulk of evidence in this inquiry comes in the form of quotations from the Old Testament. This is not always a straight-forward endeavor, so I will here provide a few observations about the task of studying the use of the OT in the NT. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus said:

You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor' and 'hate your enemy.'

Here Jesus gave us something to think about: the first admonition is from scripture, the second is not. That is, finding and studying uses of the Old Testament in the New is not always easy nor clear-cut. Based on the formula which he had been using throughout the sermon on the mount, we should expect to see scripture quoted (which is partially the case). Still, we have to be careful not to allow the form to overly influence our understanding of the content. No doubt many scholars have embarked on fruitless missions to find "hate your enemy" in the scriptures. Revelation is another interesting case. It has zero direct quotes from scripture. Of course anyone who has read Revelation and is familiar with the Old Testament knows that there are dozens of allusions and references thereto. When approaching references, we must ask, "is this really a reference to the Old Testament?" The next step is of course to find the source of the quotation or reference. The New Testament writers had no chapters nor verses, but occasionally there are references to the specific book or collection (i.e. "the Prophet Isaiah" or "Moses").

My personal favorite is the author of Hebrews and his formula: "somebody said somewhere." There are places where quotations cannot be linked with a single passage. For example, when Jesus uses "son of man" to refer to himself, he could be referring to Ezekiel (where it is God's title for the prophet) or Daniel, where there is recorded a vision of one like a son of man (however Jesus eventually made his meaning clear). Moreover, there are lengthier repetitions of passages (for example in the Psalms or in the prophets). So it is not always clear which of the options is being referred to (though it does not always make a difference). And of course there is the most infamous citation in Mark 1:1 where the author invokes Isaiah and proceeds to quote a conflation of Malachi and Isaiah. So, the second question which must be asked in approaching references to the Old Testament is "which scripture is being referred to here?" More questions are coming.

In search of a "true" hermeneutic

The Supreme Court nominations highlight various judicial philosophies. On the one hand, there are the textualists who are seeking the original meaning of the text and the intent of its authors. On the other hand, there are those who subscribe to the concept of a "living constitution" and who affirm flexible, changing meaning. The conservative textualists are particularly likely to assert that their philosophy is the only true and proper one, though liberals may assert that for themselves as well. There's just one problem: the constitution itself affirms neither.

As a matter of fact, the constitution does not give any criteria for judicial rulings. There is no "how to decide cases" clause in the constitution. We who seek to interpret the Bible face the same dilemma. The Bible lacks a "how to read the Bible" section. It lacks a clear pronouncement that "thou shalt use the literal/grammatica/historical method in interpreting scripture." The various systems of interpretation for the scriptures run a similar gamut to American legal theory. On the one side you have strict literalism, and you can go right over to subjective hermeneutics, with the various "spiritual" interpretations (including allegory) in there as well. Each side can argue about which approach is best, but none can authoritatively demonstrate that there is only one permissible hermeneutic. In addition to the issue of hermeneutics is the issue of rhetoric. Is it proper for a preacher to use a passage out of context in illustrating a godly point, or must all refernces to scripture be contextually grounded? The use of the Old Testament in the New is an important topic for parsing these questions, and I will soon have a post up about it.