Thursday, February 05, 2004

Hints, Allegories, and Mysteries -- The New Testament Quotes the Old

This series of essays comes from a complete paper available on this web site. I am serializing it on this blog to both advertise it and to invite discussion. You can read the entire paper by clicking here.

This second essay introduces the rabbinic methods for studying the scriptures. What I find attractive here is that there are logical reasons for connecting these methods to the New Testament authors.

What is going on?

Matthew, Paul, the writer to the Hebrews, Jesus and the other New Testament authors often quote scriptures removed from a grammatical and historical context. Note the troubling word “fulfilled” in the four verses above. In what way can anyone say that a verse quoted out of context is “fulfilled?”

The issue, of course, is that we cannot actually complain. We are not reading the papers of young biblical scholars. We are reading inspired Scriptures. It is not up for correction. We cannot give it a bad grade. One can find and read case-by-case attempts to say that the problem text, if read just so, is not a problem[1]. In truth, though, the more firmly one holds to the grammatical-historical method, the larger the problem looms!  Either you accept the violation or bend the method to remove the violation. Either way the strict application of the grammatical-historical method falters. It seems better to discover a paradigm for understanding the scriptural anomalies. But how might one go about it?

Coming to Grips

There are, of course, scholars for whom this is not an issue. For them, the grammatical-historical methodology is good for everything except prophecy. They understand prophecy to have a large symbolic element, and thus, for example, see the Church as the fulfillment of the Messianic Kingdom. As Robert P. Lightner wrote in his The Last Days Handbook:

All evangelicals do use the literal method for their understanding of most of the Bible, but some, namely those of amillenial and postmillenial persuasion, think it best to use a less than literal hermeneutic with much unfulfilled prophecy. It is at this point that the evangelical world is divided over things to come and this is what puts prophecy in the middle of the debate. Premillenialists cannot understand why their brothers and sisters insist on using a different method in interpretation with some unfulfilled prophecy but not with all of it. They wonder on what grounds is the less-than-literal approach to be restricted to only some themes of unfulfilled prophecy?[2]

Based on how Matthew, Paul, Jesus, and others sometimes quoted the Old Testament do the amillenial and postmillenial scholars have a better grasp of prophetic meaning? Should we abandon the grammatical-historical hermeneutic for interpreting unfulfilled prophecy? It is my thesis that this is not the case, but a satisfactory resolution only comes from coming to grips the hermeneutic used by the New Testament authors.

The Jewish Connection

One promising avenue of research toward resolving this issue emerges when we realize that the authors of these mysterious quotations were Jews writing and living in a Jewish context. This becomes especially apparent when we observe that the preponderance of the problem quotations exist in those books that have a distinctly Jewish focus. It is generally acknowledged that Matthew’s highlights Jesus as the King of the Jews. The gospel of John is increasingly regarded as a Jewish book. The writer to the Hebrews clearly wrote to the first century Jewish believers. These are the books that contain the most problematic of the New Testament quotes of the Old.

If one examines the Jewish roots of Christianity, one discovers that there is a long standing “rabbinical” hermeneutic that can explain the New Testament use of the Old Testament. Dr. David H. Stern, a Messianic Jew and translator of the Jewish New Testament, in his Jewish New Testament Commentary, describes four rabbinical modes of scriptural interpretation. According to Dr. Stern, the Jewish authors of the New Testament both understood and used these four modes. In his words:

We must understand the four basic modes of Scripture interpretation used by the rabbis. These are:

(1) p’shat (“simple”)—the plain, literal sense of the text, more or less what modern scholars  mean by “grammatical‑historical exegesis,” which looks to the grammar of the language and the historical setting as background for deciding what a passage means. Modern scholars often consider grammatical‑historical exegesis the only valid way to deal with a text; pastors who use other approaches in their sermons usually feel defensive about it before academics. But the rabbis had three other modes of interpreting Scripture, and their validity should not be excluded in advance but related to the validity of their implied presuppositions.

(2) Remez (“hint”)—wherein a word, phrase or other element in the text hints at a truth not conveyed by the p’shat. The implied presupposition is that God can hint at things of which the Bible writers themselves were unaware.

(3) Drash or Midrash (“search”)—an allegorical or homiletical application of a text. This is a species of eisegesis—reading one’s own thoughts into the text—as opposed to exegesis, which is extracting from the text what it actually says. The implied presupposition is that the words of Scripture can legitimately become grist for the mill of human intellect, which God can guide to truths not directly related to the text at all.

(4) Sod (“secret”)—a mystical or hidden meaning arrived at by operating on the numerical values of the Hebrew letters, noting unusual spellings, transposing letters, and the like. For example, two words, the numerical equivalents of whose letters add up to the same amount, are good candidates for revealing a secret through what Arthur Koestler in his book on the inventive mind called “bisociation of ideas.” The implied presupposition is that God invests meaning in the minutest details of Scripture, even the individual letters.

The presuppositions underlying remez, drash and sod obviously express God’s omnipotence, but they also express his love for humanity, in the sense that he chooses out of love to use extraordinary means for reaching people’s hearts and minds. At the same time, it is easy to see how remez, drash and sod can be abused, since they all allow, indeed require, subjective interpretation; and this explains why scholars, who deal with the objective world, hesitate to use them. These four methods of working a text are remembered by the Hebrew word “PaRDeS,” an acronym formed from the initials; it means “orchard” or “garden.”[3]

Here, then, are the tools to understand the New Testament’s uses of the Old Testament and to derive their intended meanings. There is even an English word, like the Hebrew “pardes”, that can help remember these strange terms: p’shat, remez, drash, and sod. That word is “PaRaDiSe,” in which the consonants provide a mnemonic for the four terms. Interestingly, both words can mean “garden.”

The New Testament quotes the Old Testament using all four rabbinical modes. The p’shat, of course, is easy to discern. So, the remainder of these essays will bring to light some examples of hints, allegories, and mysteries. They will discuss whether it is appropriate for us to incorporate these modes in our teaching and what the ground rules might be. Lastly, they will discuss how these four interpretive modes can bring together the covenant and dispensational theologians.

Friday: Hints

<>< Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>



[1] It is amazing to me how often I read that Isaiah 7:14 is literally fulfilled with no indication that there is a contextual problem.
[2] Lightner, Daniel P. The Last Days Handbook (Thomas Nelson Publishers 1990, pp. 130, 131)
[3] Stern, David H., Jewish New Testament Commentary (Jewish New Testament Publications,  1992) 11, 12

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