Were Jesus, Peter, and Paul interpreting the Bible wrong?

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Today we conclude our discussion of Peter Enns’ excellent book, Inspiration and Incarnation, as part of our series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be. We’ve already discussed Chapter 2—“The Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature”—in which Enns tackles the difficult question of how to understand the Bible as special and revelatory when Genesis in particular looks so much like other literature from the ancient Near Eastern world, and Chapter 3-—“The Old Testament and Theological Diversity”—which addresses some of the tension, ambiguity, and diversity found within the pages of Scripture. Today we turn to Chapter 4—“The Old Testament and its Interpretation in the New Testament” to discuss a phenomenon that has bothered me for years: the seemingly strange interaction with Old Testament texts by New Testament writers.

I’ll never forget the first time I found myself questioning Matthew’s interpretation of Hosea. I was in high school, doing some sort of Bible study centered around Christ’s fulfillment of prophecy, and I encountered Matthew 2:12-15, where Matthew recounts the family of the young Jesus feeing Egypt. Referencing Hosea, Matthew writes, “and so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’” But a simple reading of Hosea 11:1 revealed that the prophet was not writing about the young Jesus or even a future Messiah, but of Israel being “called out of Egypt” and slavery under Pharaoh. (See Hosea 11:1-3.) To say that this text referred to Jesus seemed to go against the grammatical-historical grain; it seemed like a bit of a stretch. But who was I to criticize a biblical writer for his exegesis?

Through the years, I would encounter New Testament passages like these over and over again, passages that seemed to play fast and loose with the original meaning of Old Testament texts. I’m obviously not the first to notice this, as Enns explains: “To observe how the New Testament authors handle the Old Testament is to conclude that their notions of what constitutes a proper handling of the Old Testament do not always square with our own instincts-in fact, quite often, the differences are striking....A convenient label often attached to such an approach is ‘grammatical-historical,’ meaning that the words of the text in front of you must be understood in their original grammatical (i.e., interpreting the text in the original language) and historical contexts. Although this is a healthy approach to reading literature in general, when this method is applied rigidly to apostolic hermeneutics, we sometimes find we have painted ourselves into a theological corner…” (p. 116).

According to Enns, the only way we can begin to understand why New Testament writers handled scripture this way is to understand the hermeneutical conventions of their time, which are rooted in the literary conventions of the Second Temple period, and to appreciate the degree to which the apostolic writers positioned their reading of Scripture in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

“To put it succinctly,” writes Enns, “the New Testament authors were explaining what the Old Testament means in light of Christ’s coming.” And they were doing so using Second Temple interpretive conventions.

Enns goes on to examine various passages from Second Temple literature to show how “biblical interpreters exhibit for us an attitude toward biblical interpretation that operates on very different standards from those of modern interpreters. They were not motivated to reproduce the intention of the original human author. They were much more concerned to dig beneath the surface to reveal things (“mysteries” as the Qumran scroll put it) that the untrained and impatient reader would miss” (p131).

He points to five examples of New Testament authors utilizing Old Testament texts in this way:

  • Matthew 2:15 quoting Hosea 11:1
  • 2 Corinthians 6:2 quoting Isaiah 49:8
  • Galatians 3:16, 29 speaking of Abraham’s seed 
  • Romans 11:26-27 quoting Isaiah 59:20
  • Hebrews 3:7-11 quoting Psalm 95:9-10

He also points to examples in which New Testament writers refer to the extra-biblical accounts from Second Temple Judaism in their writing:

  • Jannes and Jambres in 2 Timothy 3:8 (Their names do not come to us from the Old Testament text but from the second temple interpretative world.) 
  • The dispute over Moses’ body in Jude 9 - (an account not found in the Old Testament text itself but in Second Temple literature). 
  • The account in Acts 7:21-22 referencing Moses’ Egyptian education (found not in the Old Testament, but in Second Temple works like Philo’s Life of Moses)

These examples show that, just as the creation account of Genesis 1 should be read in light of other Ancient Near Eastern creation texts, so the New Testament writers should be read in light of Second Temple texts. Reading them in this way does not diminish their authority or power, but simply helps us understand them better when our own cultural and hermeneutical assumptions may get in the way. It helps explain why the text behaves differently than we expect, (or perhaps want), it to behave.

Enns argues that when New Testament authors spoke of Old Testament passages, they were bringing a specific hermeneutical insight to them. “The term I prefer to use to describe this eschatological hermeneutic is christotelic," he writes. "I prefer this over christological or christocentric since these are susceptible to a point of view I am not advocating here, namely, needing to 'see Christ'; in every, or nearly every, Old Testament passageTelos is the Greek word for “end” or “completion”. To read the Old Testament 'christotelically' is to read it already knowing that Christ is somehow the end to which the Old Testament story is heading." (p154).

He points to Luke 24:44-4 where Jesus said, “This is what I told you while I was with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.’’ The text goes on to report that Jesus “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

According to Enns, Jesus is not appealing to the Old Testament for proof texts, but rather saying that “all Scriptures speak of him in the sense that he is the climax of Israel’s story.”

(If you’ve read any N.T. Wright this is starting to sound eerily familiar.)

“The Old Testament as a whole,” Enns concludes, “is about [Jesus], not a subliminal prophecy or a couple of lines tucked away in a minor prophet. Rather, Christ—who he is and what he did—is where the Old Testament has been leading all along. To see this requires that Christ open our minds as he did the minds of his disciples. In other words, to see how Christ fulfills the Old Testament—the whole story, not just some isolated prophecies—is not simply a matter of reading the Old Testament objectively, but reading it ‘Christianly,’ which is what we see in the New Testament time and again.” (p. 120)

“There can be no question that such a thing can be counterintuitive for more traditional evangelical doctrines of Scripture,” Enns confesses, “since this is eisegesis (reading meaning into Scripture) rather thanexegesis (getting meaning from Scripture).” Still, there are practical applications for followers of Jesus and readers of Scripture today:

“A Christian understanding of the Old Testament should begin with what God revealed to the apostles and what they model for us: the centrality of the death and resurrection of Christ for Old Testament interpretation. We, too, are living at the end of the story; we—as were the apostles—are engaged in the second, christotelic reading by virtue of our eschatological moment, the last days, the inauguration of the eschaton. As we read and interpret, we bring the death and resurrection of Christ to bear on the Old Testment. This is not a call to flatten out the Old Testament, so that every psalm or proverb speaks directly and explicitly of Jesus. It is to ask oneself, ‘What difference does the death and resurrection of Christ make for how I understand this part of the Old Testament?”

I love that last line, and I long to see those who teach, preach, and write about Scripture do more of this.

So, what do you think? Does Enns’ approach help resolve some of the tension you have observed in how New Testament writers interpret Old Testament passages? What does it mean, practically, to preserve and celebrate (as much as we can) the original intent of the authors of the Old Testament while still asking ourselves, ‘what difference does the death and resurrection of Christ make for how I understand this part of the Old Testament’? And can you think of a sermon, book, or conversation in which this was done well?

As a former English Lit major, I find myself wondering if we might think about this as we think of references to poetry in literature, where the meaning of the original poem carries new weight in light of the context of the second piece. What do you think?

And a programming note: We’ll take a little hiatus from our Bible series while I choose and start on another book for our discussion. Any suggestions?

Check out the rest of the series

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