Monday, October 6, 2008

Christological Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible

My friend Josh at A New Testament Student has posted today raising some important questions about Christological interpretation of the OT. His questions were part of a larger debate over whether OT scholars, NT scholars, or theologians are better at interpreting the Hebrew Bible, an issue that has come up on this blog related to the messanism issue.

Josh seems a bit put out that Hebrew Bible scholars think they are the best ones to interpret the Hebrew Bible. Hmm....seems to make sense to me. Hebrew Bible scholars interpreting the Hebrew Bible. In that regard, I tend to agree with Jim Getz's post from today. Jim says Hebrew Bible scholars are "the only ones actually taking the text seriously. The only ones reading the text to hear what it is saying in and of itself." However, I also agree with Doug Chaplin's comment to Jim's post that texts never really speak for themselves, regardless of who is the interpreter. Jim, for his part, is weighing in on two duelling blog posts I read this morning between Phil Sumpter and Chris Tilling.

The point I think Jim was trying to make was that Hebrew Bible scholars often do better exegesis of what the text meant in its original historical and literary contexts (I'm using "original" in the sense of the earliest recipients of the text as well as the world the text describes). NT scholars tend to read the text with the perspective of what it meant for the NT audience, and theologians tend to read the text looking for what it means for their contemporary audience. Rabbinics scholars tend to read Torah with an eye for how the Mishnah or the Midrashim interpreted it. Different specialties bring different perspectives. The various interpretations aren't necessarily wrong - you just need to share the presuppositions that informed the interpretation.

I don't mean to imply that all OT scholars are objective or only OT scholars can objectively interpret the OT. The history of Hebrew Bible scholarship proves otherwise. Every generation of scholars had its POV just like the different branches of biblical studies/theology have their POV. The important thing is recognizing the presuppositions that inform the interpretation.

I think both Chris and Phil recognize they're asking questions from the framework of OT Theology. Phil's conclusion is that OT theologians are best for giving us the big picture on the OT because the OT and NT scholars' "job is just to work with the fragmentary bits and pieces." I'm not sure what that means, but as a Hebrew Bible person, it suggests to me that he doesn't exactly know what it is that OT and NT scholars do (I've explained what I think we do two paragraphs up).

Back to Josh's post, he asks:
"[W]ere the NT authors being fair in their hermeneutical practices? Were they
allowing a text to speak for itself or were they ripping it out of context? Can
one have a Christological interpretation that also pays due respect to the
particular OT text in its particular context, or is this having one's
theological cake and eating it too?"
The simple answer (in my opinion) is that you cannot "have a Christological interpretation that also pays due respect to the particular OT text" in context. Yes, that's trying to have your cake and eat it too.  I elaborated in a comment on Josh's blog post:
Christological interpretation is an innovation of the NT, not something inherent in the OT text. That doesn't mean the NT writers were "ripping it out of context." They were interpreting within a specific theological framework. The rabbis of the Mishnah, Talmud, etc. were equally innovative in their use of the Hebrew Bible. Jewish exegesis demonstrates that Christological interpretations aren't necessary readings of the text. Therefore, it can't be inherent in the particular context unless you take the theological commitment that reading Christologically is the only right way to read it.
I think the various insights brought to the study of the Hebrew Bible by OT & NT scholars, ancient historians, archaeologists, OT theologians, preachers, and rabbis are all important for different audiences and for different purposes.  We're trying to do different things.  Don't get me wrong - the interpretations produced aren't all equally valid, but there's nothing inherently wrong with having a multiplicity of approaches.

Of course, the Hebrew Bible/ANE scholars have the best shot at being right about pretty much anything...except for the minimalists and any others who don't agree with me.

UPDATE (10/7/08, 9:30 am):  Phil has posted additional reflections related to the relationship of dogmatics and exegesis, proving that he knows what Bible scholars do, but finds it inadequate in providing a coherent understanding of the text.  I can't really argue with that because he's also proving my point about the difference of a theological approach to interpretation.  Calvin is also reflecting on a similar issue at The Floppy Hat - N.T. Wright's position on the relationship of theology and biblical studies.

UPDATE (10/8/08, 10:10 am):  I think I can learn a lot about OT theology from Phil at Narrative and Ontology.  He continues this discussion with a very insightful post on the dialectal relationship between Old and New Testaments.  I highly recommend it.


  1. I didn't mean to seem "put out" by it - I was honestly just asking. I'm not really sure where I stand on the matter, so your input is definitely wanted. Thanks for posting this follow-up.

  2. I meant "put out" in a nice way. It was a bit of hyperbole to spice things up. It sounded more interesting than saying "Josh is honestly questioning what all the fuss is about."

  3. Very well put Douglas. Nice use of hyperbole, I might add. Excellent writing and compilation of the ongoing discussion. I will look forward to continue reading your blog.

    Neither minimalist, nor scholar (yet- about the scholar part, certainly not the minimalist. . .)

  4. so if the NT authors did it - can we? Did not the cross change just about everything?

  5. MLW: Thanks.

    Brian: Sure, we can use the same hermeneutical approach that the NT writers did if we share their theological commitments. And from the POV of Christian theology, yes, the cross did change everything. I might agree theologically that that is the best way to interpret the text, but I can't say exegetically that it's the only way, especially when it's an interpretation that would not have been clear in its original context to its original audience. That's why notions of layered meaning and progressive revelation are developed.

    In Jewish thought, the idea of layered meaning is called PaRDeS - the Peshat (literal), the Remez (allegorical), Derash (midrashic), and Sod (secret/hidden).

    Christian interpretation developed a similar allegorical model in the Middle Ages with categories of literal, typological, moral, and anagogical. They just don't have a cool acronym for it.

    As for which one is correct, it all depends on the interpretive framework.

  6. I had a professor in undergrad who said that Old Testament scholars had it easy, because they only had to know the OT and the various related fields to go with it. NT scholars had it a little bit more difficult, because they needed to know all the stuff OT scholars knew, but also the New Testament itself and related topics. Then Systematic/Dogmatic scholars had it the hardest because they needed to know everything the OT and NT scholars knew, plus philosophy, systematics, church history, etc, etc.

    That's really why I am an aspiring Hebrew Bible scholar. ;-)

  7. That's kind of true. But I don't think a NT scholar or a theologian really "knows" the Hebrew Bible the same way as an OT scholar. They're looking back and having a hard time separating what the text means in their area of specialty from what it meant. On the other hand, there are Hebrew Bible scholars who follow the history of interpretation of "their" text. Starting at the beginning and looking forward. Then they have to know everything, so they can recognize when others are importing philosophy, ideology, or theology into their interpretations. And they have the perspective to see when in the history of ideas certain things first enter the discussion. At least for me, studying Hebrew Bible has opened my eyes to how theology is created.