Wednesday, February 11, 2004

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

RSSAbstract: Are the Rabbinic interpretive methods of value?

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.

Is it for Today?

Must one be an inspired writer of sacred scripture to detect and teach from hints, allegories, and hidden meanings from the scriptures?  There is no suggestion in the scriptures that this is so, and many who employ a grammatical-historical hermeneutic also acknowledge the existence of types (drashim). All that’s left is to add the use of hints (remezim) and possible discovery of hidden meanings (sodim) to our interpretive toolkit. The scriptures model all four and, therefore, they seem to be legitimate.

The fundamental issue with this notion is quality control and purity of doctrine. One can dialog over the simple meaning of the text and arise at consensus meaning (most of the time). How might one dialog over subjective interpretations?  How do we avoid the pitfalls of error and protect people from falling prey to cults?  Here are some actual instruction from a church membership class that illustrates the problem:

The Kingdom of God, like any other kingdom has a culture and a language all of its own. Its language is of divine origin. It is the way in which deity has chosen to communicate with humanity. If we are going to dialogue with God in his word or in prayer we best learn the Language of his Kingdom. One cannot understand much of the Bible, without understanding the language of symbols, types, and shadows. Until we see the divine intent in the OLD TESTAMENT we will never fully comprehend the contents of the NEW TESTAMENT. (Emphasis is in the original. I am maintaining the anonymity of the pastor and church)

The pastor’s sermons, at this church, are filled with symbols, types, and shadows. Consequently, he can say anything that he wants. There are no controls. His approach removes understanding of the scriptures from the common person and places it in the domain of the enlightened, i.e. those who “understand the language.”  If this leader develops cultic tendencies, his congregation will be ill equipped to challenge him. The situation could become bad indeed.

Paul also warns us to be careful.

As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith. (1 Timothy 1:3, 4)

In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following. But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. (1 Timothy 4:6,7a)

Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, (2 Timothy 2:14-16)

If it were not for the contraindications of the New Testament authors’ use of the Old Testament (i.e. (remezim, drashim, and sodim), there would be no clearer proof texts than the above to promote a strict grammatical-historical interpretation. Instead, we must take them as severe warnings about their misuse. We must work hard to discern when, why, and how to use them. The answer, it seems, is to use the scriptures as a model. And from that model we can derive these principles:

1. New Testament quotes of the Old Testament are largely in the p’shat sense. Christianity represented a dramatic change for the Jews and the Gentiles. It had to swim against the current of centuries of entrenched doctrine. Its champions had to show from the scriptures that the “new order” was not entirely new or unexpected. Nothing but a consistent presentation of plain simple passages from the Old Testament could win the day. They were the proof texts for New Testament doctrine and were quoted to convince the Jews and the Gentiles of the truth about Jesus the Messiah.

Our first rule must be to use the simple p’shat sense predominantly. People must first of all know what the Book says in order to benefit from its message.

2. New Testament quotes of the Old Testament never introduce or establish doctrine with anything other than the simple p’shat sense. Instead, the use of remez, drash, and sod serve to amplify and illustrate themes established by the sounder method. To put this another way, remez, drash, and sod are not a bridge to esoteric knowledge. They are servants of the p’shat. Paul, in Galatians, firmly laid a plain text foundation for justification by faith, before using an allegory to provide a human dimension. In the allegory, Paul was not trying to be deep, he was trying to be clear. The story of Hagar and Sarah would stick much better and longer than his propositional logic. On the other hand, without the logic the allegory has no power.

3. The more error prone is an interpretive model, the less frequently the New Testament uses it. Thus the New Testament employs p’shat, remez, drash, and sod in decreasing frequency. Mysticism attracts people with a promise of a deeper experience with God that transcends the need for righteousness. Because of this, there is a persistent temptation to create a biblical mystique by emphasizing hints, allegories, and hidden themes above simple understanding. This is the area that Paul was warning Timothy about.

4. The New Testament books that favor a Jewish audience have the highest frequency of remez, drash, and sod. Matthew, Hebrews, and the writings of John contain the highest concentrations of this material, whereas Paul’s letters use it very sparingly. This suggests that their use today has favorable implications for Jewish evangelism. Also by communicating outright that these are Jewish authors using Jewish principles of interpretation, we disarm the efforts of the anti-missionaries, who stridently use the quotes in Matthew to turn the ears of seeking Jews from the claims of Messianic Judaism.

5. Remezim derive their meaning by semantic association with New Testament events or by communicating universal principles in pictorial form.

6. Drashim make room for expanded meditation on major p’shat themes. One can even see where the force of the allegory stems from the maxim, “History repeats itself.”  Thus the choice of Abram to father a child by Hagar stems from the same misunderstanding driving the Galatian churches to choose justification by self-effort. The meaning of an allegory does not derive from a symbolic language of the scriptures, but on the common behaviors in the human heart that link past events to a current situation.

7. There is some room for seeking hidden messages in the scriptures, subject to the restrictions noted above. An important criterion before teaching from such a text, though, is for us to discern author intent. One could imagine the human author intentionally hiding a message in his text and that he gives clues to its presence. Such a criterion protects us from efforts like the equi-distant letter sequences concept discussed by Michael Drosnin in his book The Bible Code[1]. This is certainly true of Genesis 1:1, where one can connect aleph and tov (the basics of language) with the phrase “And God said.” The abrupt appearance and disappearance of Melchizedek, who was obviously of great significance to Abram, leaves us wondering who he was and why more is not said about him.

And so, I would conclude that the use of these methods is for today subject to the above guidelines.

Thursday: Some practical points and some examples.

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

[1] For an interesting debunking of Michael Drosnin’s book, see: McKay, Brendan Assassinations Foretold in Moby Dick (1997) [On-line]. Available:



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