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Do the New Testament Writer’s Care About Context, Part 5: The Life of Biblical Texts

In this series I am unpacking seven paths of investigation that a person should take in his or her attempt to understand a New Testament author’s USE of an Old Testament passage.

Many imagine that texts like Matthew 2:15—in which an historical comment in Hosea 11:1 is used by Matthew as “fulfilled” in Jesus’ escape to and departure from Egypt—is proof that NT writers didn’t care about original intent and neither should we.

Step #1: Study the OT text in its larger original context. NT writers use pinpoint reference for a passage in context, and not merely proof texting.

Step #2: Discover the purpose of the NT writer in making use of an OT passage… he may be doing many things besides interpreting. It is USE and not INTERPRETATION that we should investigate.

Step #3: Discern and unpack the form and source of any NT reference to an OT passage. The way a reference is introduced, of the subtlety of its allusion can say a lot about a reference-er’s intentions.

And now, what you’ve all been waiting for. Investigation path #4: “One needs an understanding of the “life” of an OT text in the Jewish community prior to or concurrent with its use in the NT.”

If there is one thing I’ve learned in the church it is that texts have a way of developing a life all their own in a religious community. My entire course, 101 Most Misunderstood Verses is founded on this fact.

Just so, the nation of Israel gave many texts new directions in life that defy the texts themselves. Sometimes it is these “new directions” that are on the table and not the original text itself.

Texts about ritual purity were extended to apply to daily life issues like eating a meal that they were never originally designed to address. So, we find Jesus engaging in a battle of halakic rules of clean and unclean in Mark 7, and often misapply the discussion to Torah food laws.

Paul’s Romans 10:6-8 appeal to Deuteronomy 30—“Rom 10:6  But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7  “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8  But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim)—is, in fact, founded more in a rather loose targumic[1] rendition of Deuteronomy found in the Synagogues of Israel, than in Deuteronomy itself. There Moses’ accent up the mountain is paired with Jonah’s decent into the sea, and Paul applies each to Jesus’ respective decent from heaven and rising from the dead.

The Jewish community developed their liturgical calendar over centuries and often attached particular psalms to specific events… like the tendency to quote Psalm 36:7 “under the shadow of thy wings,” when tying on one’s tassels in the morning.[2] One cannot perpetually link Psalms with acts like this, or even specific festivals, without influencing the way the community feels about and applies these passages to life.

What some take as the setting aside of a biblical command in Matthew 5 is nothing more than the setting aside of a popular understanding, teaching or application connected to a biblical command. Jesus’ pronouncements against the lex talion [eye for an eye] in Matt 5:33 is an attack of the use of the text as a common excuse for personal vengeance, and vigilante justice, not a setting aside of necessary legal punishments for wrong doers.

Mat 5:21  “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

You can think back on #3 and consider that Jesus’ way of quoting these texts is rather ambiguous… “You have heard that is was said” and NOT “It is written,” is pit against Jesus’ teaching.

The oft attached “beloved” to combined quotations from Psalm 2:7, Deuteronomy 18:15, and Isaiah 42:1 in texts like Mark 1:11 [And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.] and Matthew 17:5 [He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.] is drawn not from some variant reading of those texts, but from Genesis 22:2 “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

While most Christians that I know see Isaac as a type of the sinner, who is “atoned for,” “exchanged out” for the one who actually pays the price of another, ancient associations often differ and cause us confusion. Its inclusion with Psalm 2:7 references appears play upon a rather varied Isaac tradition among the Jews, who made much of the role of Isaac in the sacrificial episode in that chapter. The place of Isaac as a legitimate type for a sacrificial, dying and rising Messiah is not something invented by the NT writers, but is explored in Rabbinic traditions both before and after the NT era.[3] No study of the NT writers’ Isaac associations (no matter how slight) would be complete without digesting the possible role of those traditions in the NT writers’ teachings.

We cannot touch a text in our churches without having to address, at least on some level, the life of that text in the Church. We must not, therefore, imagine that the NT writers could either. This path of investigation may not always provide the key to understanding a given author’s use of a text, but you’d be surprised how often it comes into play.

[1] Targumim are Aramaic paraphrases of Scripture used in the synagogues of Palestine.

[2] [2] It reads, “How precious is they lovingkindness, O God, and the children of men take refuge in thy shadow of they wings… For with thee is the fountain of life; in thy light do we see sight.”  I. Abrahams, “Notes on Numbers 15,” The Pentateuch and the Haftorahs (ed. J. H. Hertz; London: Soncino Press, 1979), 637.

[3] To get a quick overview of some of this tradition, and just for starters, do an “Isaac” search in Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer  http://archive.org/stream/pirkderabbieli00frieuoft/pirkderabbieli00frieuoft_djvu.txt.

One thought on “Do the New Testament Writer’s Care About Context, Part 5: The Life of Biblical Texts

  1. Deepa Yadav says:

    Praise the Lord Sir.I Hop you and your family will be doing well.Just I red the Bible texts the teaching of Matthew 2:15,5:33.thanks,really it spoke with me.If will have this kinds of Bible teaching in our area Churches and leader pastor Sir. really here in Chhattisgarh Bastar District Jagdalpur will be changed.
    your faithful Student
    Deepa Yadav.

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