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Do the New Testament Writer’s Care About Context, Part 7: The Impact of Worldview on “Contextual Reading”

Today I want to consider the 6th 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.

Do 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—prove that NT writers didn’t care about the original contextual meaning of OT passages? I don’t think so, but a fuller investigation of each “use” will go a long way to discovering the truth.

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.

Step #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.

And now, Step # 6: One needs to consider the world view of the writers concerning the nature of God, man and reality.

This is where many get lost on seeing a contextual, or even a literal, use of a text. Our sense of “literal” or “sameness” is often radically different than theirs.

Biblical authors were dedicated to conceptions of God as immutable, man as corporate, and reality as an ongoing struggle for order against chaos… all of which is expressed through minds that perceive truth analogically. They see connections between things that seem disparate to many of us.

For instance, they conceive of word/wind/storm/voice/spell/thunder/breath/spirit as intimately connected… they are not distinct things. Because Creation is functional order and not material origins to the ancient Hebrews, they do not divide initial creation so sharply as we do from re-creation, newly ordered creation, or sustained creation. These are all one essence to them. The concept of ordeal runs throughout the Scriptures building a meaningful mental bridge between events like Noah in the ark, Israel through the Red Sea/desert/Jordon, Moses & Korah’s entrance before YHWH in the incense contest, David in his fight with Goliath, Jonah in the sea & monster of the deep, Daniel in the lion’s den, Daniel’s friends in the fiery furnace… perhaps even Esther who marches to her death before her enthroned husband to secure the salvation of her people, etc, etc, etc. In each instance one is cast, or casts oneself into the mouth of death before God who either saves or permits death, decreeing innocence or guilt, election or rejection. Baptism as an ordeal image is naturally to be conceived together with things like this.

God as immutable establishes perpetual analogy between like actions from age to age. The Jews pawed over texts in which God acts and speaks looking for patterns and projecting those patterns forward to address ever changing conditions in Israel.

Man as corporate body means to the ancients that things like prophetic fulfillment can have a literal fulfillment within the bonds of corporate relationship. Jesus’ 3rd day resurrection for instance is decreed by Paul as Scripturally anticipated in the prediction of Israel’s 3rd day resurrection in Hosea 6:2,  which reads, “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him,” because Jesus is the corporate head of Israel; Jesus is true Israel. Isaiah makes his predictions concerning The Servant in the same duality.

The irony should not be lost on us that the biblical authors emerged from analogical societies and wrote in keeping with long standing poetic traditions, while most modern academics who do commentary on their writings emerge from dialogical[1] societies and tend to be more analytical. In brief, most of the history of biblical scholarship is left brained people trying to make sense of right brained literature… the mathematician seeking to explain the artist.

Just so, “Typology” is constructed on an understanding of the nature of God as an immutable savior and judge who always acts in accordance to His own patterns and principles in working out His ultimate plan in the world, and of Man as consistently man, finding himself easily within the paradigms of history and Scripture.

Biblical writers sought to explain things in terms of sacred or important patterns from the history of their audiences, relying of the sameness of all, the cosmic & microcosmic essence of existence at every level, to inform readers about the nature of things. By describing one thing in terms of another, biblical authors colored their subjects with a meaning that is deeper than mathematical explanation can hope to disclose.

This analogical thinking extends to the presentation of Jesus as the fulfillment of sacred patterns from the whole history of God’s work with Israel. The Word of YHWH will not return void without accomplishing that for which it was sent, and the sending of one Moses promises other Moses-es until a Moses comes who is all that Moses should have been but failed to be… same with Adam, Israel, David, Elijah, Priest, Sacrifice, Temple, creation, etc.

This is not interpretation of an OT text, but extrapolation of observable patterns within God, on one level, and within men, on another level, which are analogous to present and future circumstances.

For instance, both Jesus and David have their Saul and their Ahithophel.[2] They reflect the plight of the righteous sufferer who emerges to power through struggle, aided on his way by faithful YHWH, whose purposes WILL be fulfilled through them.

It is the application of these patterns to Jesus from Psalms that stands behind what many mistakenly call the prophetic (as in predictive) psalms. All the Psalms are prophetic in that they are the result of divine inspiration, but they are not specifically predictive.[3] Fulfillment does not only apply to prediction-fulfillment, but also to the replication of sacred patterns and to the keeping of a standard.

All these things are not non-literal uses, as westerners are prone to imagine literal and non-literal, but are an aspect of literal use which dialogical, individualistic societies do not readily grasp.


[1] Dialogical thinking starts with an observation of the cause effect realities of life and attempts to reason its way to truth. Analogical thinking starts with certain basic truths of reality as revealed by truth tellers, that establish the basic patterns of life in which one can find order or chaos, life or death. Both are logical and reasonable, but each starts from a different place. Both are perfectly met in the wisdom literature of Scripture where the sage embraces sacred truth but turns to the observable patterns of the world to better understand them.

[2] Psa 41:9  “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me” is thus quoted in John 13:18  I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.” in reference to Judas’ betrayal.

[3] Take Psalm 22 for instance; while many aspects of the Psalm have striking similarities to what happens to Jesus, these similarities are part of standard forms of judgment and abuse. Many aspects of the Psalm are in direct contradiction to the life of Jesus.

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