Home » Biblical Studies » Do the New Testament Writer’s Care About Context, Part 2: Pinpoint Quotation and the Importance of Original Context

Do the New Testament Writer’s Care About Context, Part 2: Pinpoint Quotation and the Importance of Original Context

Matthew 2 15 2In part 1 of this series I introduced the common accusation that Matthew 2:15 proves that the New Testament writers don’t care about context. Matthew takes a text that was clearly intended to make an historical statement about God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt and declares it to be “fulfilled” in Joseph’s flight to and return from Egypt during Jesus’ infancy.

We warned the reader not to jump to conclusions, not to imagine that every use of the world “fulfillment,” nor every employment of an Old Testament text was to be regarded as NT interpretation so much as NT use, that there might be something deeper going on than a rigid sense of “interpretation.”

We recommended a 7 point avenue of investigation… the first of which is…

#1: An interpreter needs to discover the original context of the passage being employed and its meaning through HAGALAH (Historical, Grammatical, Literary Hermeneutics) i.e. try to understand the larger context of a quote or allusion in its full context in the ancient world… culture, history, language, etc…  and in its ancient document context in keeping with the historical rules of its genre, or literary form—Proverbs are different than Psalms are different than parables are different than epistles are different than oracles, etc.

This must always be first and must be carefully obtained. A superficial understanding of the true point or embodied principles of the original context can make a valid understanding of the NT author’s use of the text impossible later on.

In the ancient world, ink and parchment were expensive. You find very few large quotes of scripture in the NT… large blocks of quote, if found, are usually strings of quotes from multiple contexts.

This is not unlike my own use of texts when I lecture an audience who is familiar with Scripture. When my listeners are knowledgeable I can move faster and make shorter reference to passages that weaker audiences need explained to them I don’t need to retell basic Bible stories, but can allude to them and focus only on some particular piece that is important.

In Jesus’ day, even work-a-day Jews strove to learn Scripture by wrote, and the Scribes and religious leaders memorized most if not all of it. When they reference texts, therefore, it is not surprising to find that the NT writers do what is called “pinpoint” quotation. The chosen text is given as a pin of reference in a larger discussion. You are expected to understand the quote in context.

For example, when Jesus is challenged about Sabbath breaking because he allows his disciples to pick heads of grain on the Sabbath, he defends himself with an appeal to David who is given sacred bread to eat. He adds a tag… “during the days of Abiathar the high priest.” The problem is that Abiathar was not the high priest who gave David the bread. Abiathar only becomes high priest by default when, because of this aid, Saul has every other priest of Nob, slaughtered. So, whatever else we imagine by Jesus’ use of David’s and Ahimelech’s action to defend himself, Jesus has intoned a dynamic drawn from the larger context with his pinpoint references. “David had his Saul, and Jesus has his Religious leaders.” God’s rising leadership is always the target of failed leadership. Jesus’ pinpoint allusion to the fallout from David’s eating of sacred bread is interpretive not of the David and Saul moment, but of the “Jesus accused of Sabbath breaking” moment. The Old is not being re-interpreted… the New is being interpreted in light of the Old, by the Old.

We might also consider Paul’s discussion of tongues as a sign for unbelievers which I unpack more fully in “A Tongue Lashing Over Tongues”[1] in which the entire key to Paul’s logic is found in the larger context of Isaiah 28, which you can read more about in “Drama and Ditty in Isaiah 28:1-13.”[2] There, babbling tongues are given as a prophetic sign to the Northern Kingdom leaders who have repeatedly rejected prophetic warnings, mocking the prophetic word. In contrast, this promise of the dooming sign of tongues to the North, is used as a clear prophetic warning to the rulers in Jerusalem, who may yet hear and repent and be spared. This paradigm is applied to the unintended fall out of the immature Corinthians who, while trying to demonstrate their spirituality by showing off their “gifting” drive away those whom God might still reach through clear proclamation.

The important thing is that one never ignore the larger context of a quote, but treat it as a touchstone for the NT writer, whose true concern is the larger context and discussion in which the quote is found. Discovering it’s relationship to everything that is happening around it with its historical, grammatical and literary context is a vital step in coming to grips with the NT author’s intention in using the text in the first place.

Whether or not this particular avenue provides THE key to Matthew 2:15 is beside the point… It might… therefore this step is essential, but there are six more to go, so stay tuned.

[1] http://drandrewsargent.com/2014/07/a-tongue-lashing-over-tongues/

[2] http://drandrewsargent.com/2014/07/drama-and-ditty-in-isaiah-281-13/

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