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Do the New Testament Writer’s Care About Context, Part 6: Common Hermeneutical and Homiletical Practices Inform Us

Today I want to consider the 5th of seven paths of investigation that a person should take in an attempt to understand a New Testament author’s USE of an Old Testament text.

Some falsely imagine that texts like Matthew 2:15—in which an historical comment in Hosea 11:1 is said to “be fulfilled” in Jesus’ childhood departure from Egypt—proves that NT writers used “pneumatic hermeneutics” i.e. spiritual interpretation that doesn’t care about things like grammar, word meaning, and historical or literary context. A fuller investigation of the process by which they went from there to here just may dispel that notion.

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 potentially varied purpose of a NT writer in using an OT passage.

Step #3: Discern the form and source of any NT reference to an OT passage.

Step #4: Discover what you can about the influential “life” of an OT text in the Jewish community prior to its use.

And now for path #5: Make sure you have an understanding of the homiletical & exegetical practices of the 1st century to make sure that you do not assume things about the NT writers that would not have been likely given their general environment.  

This is difficult. Most of the works preserved for us about this period were recorded much later and contain diachronic mix. Popular methods employed after 70 AD were radically different from those employed before 70 AD and the distinction in preserved Rabbinic writings can be fuzzy. [1]

It is also a common error to consider radical contemporary interpreters as legitimate parallels with NT writers. The interpretive records from figures who were further afield from the practical lives of the NT writers (like Philo & the reclusive Essenes) may seem a tempting explanation for things that the NT writers do with texts, but one should be slow to assume them.

The allegorical methodologies of Philo [who saw every historical text as concealing allegorical messages for the astute reader] being both contemporary and radical and Grecian, are unlikely influences on men like Paul who while well-read was also the grand student of Hillel’s grand student, and on men like the Disciples whose walks of life were, by and large, connected to the synagogue systems dominated by Pharisaic traditions.

This is not to say that Qumran Pesherim methodologies[2] (read that foot note, I’ll come back to it a few posts down the road] could not play some role in how some NT writers handle Scripture, but they provide too easy of a solution for us given the exclusive nature of the community and its rather weak influence on Jewish life in general. Being essentially Jewish, even these radical communities had hermeneutical and homiletical affinities with mainstream Judaism and it is the use of similar techniques and their hermeneutical foundations there that should be sought out first… even if it is harder to sort out.

Rabbinic Interpretive methods and Ideas, which were most immediately influential on the earliest Apostles are summarized well in Bernard Ramm’s Protestant Biblical Interpretation & Earl Ellis’ Paul’s Use of the Old Testament.

Being more practical than theological Rabbinic interests sat mostly on issues of Nomology (i.e. seeing all the Scriptures as a means of adapting legal codes for society.) The Rabbis were the great “How Should We Then Live” scholars before Dr. Francis Shaeffer ever thought to right his book.

In that habit, 7 Principles from Hillel were primary in converting Sacred text to Halakic law (also called oral law) before AD 70. I’ll list but not fully explain these here.

  1. Light and Heavy — That which is true of the lesser is all the more true of the greater.
  2. Equal Decision — That which is true of something equal to a matter may be applied to the matter — equal analogy.
  3. A main proposition from one passage of Scripture — deducing a law from a parent law.
  4. A main proposition from two passages of Scripture related to the same issue may be compiled.
  5. General and Particular, Particular and General — Rules applied to a general law, apply to particular instances of that law. Laws applied to a particular type of law may be applied to the general category.
  6. A similarity in another passage — laws that appear similar may be applied together.
  7. A thing which is learned from its context.

The practice of wisdom was often advanced through Haggadah, in the telling of meaningful tales, asking important questions about what lay between the lines of Sacred text, using Scripture to make serious points in non-serious, but memorable, ways. Since these were not binding, Haggadah could be developed through a wide variety of methods.[3]

Bernard Ramm makes six observations about Pre-AD 70 Jewish Exegesis.

  1. A word must be understood in terms of its sentence, and a sentence in terms of its context.
  2. Scriptures dealing with similar topics should be compared. A third text can relieve apparent contradiction between the two.
  3. A clear passage is preferred to an obscure one.
  4. Close attention is paid to spelling, grammar, & figures of speech.
  5. Logic of deduction or implication can determine the application of Scripture to those problems in life which Scripture has not specifically treated.
  6. Their insistence that the God of Israel spoke in the tongues of men was their way of asserting that God adapted His revelation to its recipients.

He also notes that the early Rabbis applied the rule of absurdity. If an interpretation led to a natural absurdity it was seriously reconsidered.

So, while there were some tangential groups floating around Palestine during the NT era who defied Historical Grammatical Literary context in some of their use of texts, and while rabbinic sources after the NT era grew increasingly loose with context after the destruction of Jerusalem, the bulk of biblical use in the religious communities in which the NT writers were raised and traveled through most of their lives, regarded a commonsense, historical, grammatical and literary context essential for properly understanding and living out Scripture. Their relationship to Scripture had more going on than strict interpretation but, based on their world view of God, Man, Scripture and reality, they were quite sensible in their handling of texts… more on this next time with #6.

[1] For my academic friends let me recommend David Instone-Brewer 1992: Techniques and Assumptions in Jewish Exegesis Before 70 CE. (Mohr & Siebeck, Tübingen, Vol.30 of Texte und Studien zum Antiken Judentum).

[2] Here is a quick summary from Charles Pheiffer’s The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible: Qumran PesherimPesher interpretation sees all Scripture as eschatological prophecy being fulfilled in the now existent eschatological community.

  • The Qumran Community Made Collections of Old Testament Scripture portions called Testimonia focusing on certain themes, mostly Messianic, which are lifted out of the Scriptures and brought together in a new context. They often contain conglomerate text quotes. Texts from different portions run together to make a single statement.
  • The Qumran Community Applied Historical References in Scripture to Contemporary Situations. Everything in Prophecy was taken to reference this community, even things that do not seem to have any futuristic reference at all. The Qumran Community Particularized General Biblical Statements. General blessings, and curses made against certain individuals are taken as prophecies about particular members or enemies of the community. The Qumran Community Interpreted Scripture in the Light of Their Eschatological Viewpoint. They believed that all Scripture had reference to their own period. Their community was the pinnacle of the divine work to date and they would be the fulfillment of all Scripture. The kingdom would break forth within 40 years of their teacher’s death. The Messiah was not the sole eschatological figure, but he would hook up with the community.
  • The Qumran Community Prepared Paraphrases of Scripture. These are targum-like works in Genesis, Exodus, I and II Samuel. The earlier mentioned Testimonia also incorporate large amounts of paraphrase. These provide no textual substance for text criticism but do give insight into community understanding.
  • The Qumran Community also Possessed Traditions which vary from those of the Canonical Scriptures.

[3] After AD 70, methods once only used to craft Haggadah, began in increasing measure to be used to establish Halakah… which leads to modern forms of Orthodox Judaism.

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