Home » Biblical Studies » Do the New Testament Writer’s Care About Context, Part 3: What is This Guy Doing?

Do the New Testament Writer’s Care About Context, Part 3: What is This Guy Doing?

Matthew 2 15 3In this series we are laying the ground work for analyzing the common suggestion that Matthew 2:15 proves that the New Testament writers don’t care about the original context of the Old Testament texts that they interpret …and, thus, neither should we.

I insist that they did care about historical, grammatical and literary context but that there is a dynamic at work that we overlook; they USE Scripture rather than interpret Scripture.

I’ve recommended seven paths of investigation every time a NT writer uses an OT text in any way. Step # 1 was go back and read the entire context of the referenced passage, knowing that NT writers use pinpoint reference to snap at a context and not just a proof-text.

Step #2 is: One needs to understand the larger context of the quotation in its new setting, and the point of its quotation.

One should consider the various “relationships” which a quoted text may potentially have to the subject, or subjects, at hand, and, therefore, the means by which it may be employed to serve its function.

In short, rather than assuming that a NT writer referenced an OT text because he wished to provide an interpretation of the OT text for his readers, let’s actually ask the question, “Why did this writer reference this text here?” with an awareness of the possible answers.

We must not be limited here. An imagination and an artistic mind can be helpful in understanding what the writer is attempting to do with a quote or allusion.

He may be drawing upon or extrapolating a principle in it.

In Romans 5, Paul extrapolates from the Adam texts that the same basis upon which all men became sinners was the same process by which they might find a way out, saying in Romans Rom 5:17-18 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.

He may actually be explaining or interpreting it. The very idea that laws are meant to be applied by principle is clear in Paul’s explanation of Deu 25:4  “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain,” In I Corinthians 9:9-11, saying, “For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?”

So we have extrapolation in Paul’s outright interpretation of intension in the giving of the law. God wrote these kinds of laws not about oxen and donkeys but about how people should treat one another, the kinds of things that should come out of people’s hearts toward all God’s creatures. If we should have this regard for oxen and donkeys should we not much more have this regard for men, and if for men, all the more for men who dedicate their lives to the ministry?

He may be illustrating a point with it.

When Jesus is rejected by his hometown of Nazareth, and challenged to perform miracles in the face of their distain and wondrous LACK of faith, he answers this challenge with a declaration in Luke 4:24 “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” which he illustrates from the lives of Elijah and Elisha, saying, in Luke 4:25-27, “But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, 26  and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

He may be developing analogy with it?

Like Peter does in I Peter 3:1ff where the suffering of Jesus and Noah establish hope for those facing suffering during the church era. Jesus suffered as a righteous man and won many of those who persecuted him to God. And while you’d need to do some digging to draw it out, Noah suffered as a righteous man, saved his family and himself, and rose victorious of his persecutors when he lived and they died. Which is the exact point he draws out in I Peter

1Peter 4:1-5 Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2  so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. 3  For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. 4  With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; 5  but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.

He may be playing a homiletical game with it.

We’ll talk more about this under another research avenue, but for now let’s understand that it was common in Jesus’ day to make a serious point with a text in a non-serious way. Jewish Haggadah is full of this playful seriousness.

We might consider the playful way in which Genesis 1:1 is supposed by some to be handled in Proverbs 8:22, where wisdom is declared to be YHWH’s “first.” Thereafter, according to some, Jesus as “the wisdom of God” causes Paul in Colossians to pontificate in a serious yet playful application of Genesis 1:1 to Jesus, exploiting all the variation of the Hebrew pronoun. He says in Colossians 1:16-17  For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

He may be creating an artistic effect with it.

Take for instance the rich use of typology throughout the gospels where Jesus is subtly depicted in terms of the great saints of the Old Testament. Such as Mark 1:13 where Jesus departs from his Holy Spirit baptism into the wilderness where images of Israel, Job and Daniel cast a shadow over the event that is hard to articulate in theological postulations; they merely color the reading, suggesting lenses for interpretation. It reads, Mar 1:13  And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.

An author may do many things with a text besides “interpret” it.

We are too ready to assume that Historical, Grammatical, literary context is being ignored because of a limited understanding of what an author CAN intend by using it.

And again, USE is not necessarily interpretation.

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