In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete discusses how New Testament authors use the Old Testament in their writings as he explores the following questions:
- Why do the New Testament authors use the Old Testament?
- How often is the Old Testament quoted in the New Testament?
- Is Jesus really mentioned in the Old Testament?
- How does the New Testament resemble Jewish Midrash?
- What does Christotelic mean?
- Where did Christians get the idea that Jesus is hiding in the Old Testament?
- What do the people of the Qumran community teach us about interpreting the New Testament?
- How did the Babylonian exile influence the trajectory of biblical interpretation?
- What is the Talmud and how does it compare to the New Testament?
- How does Paul use the Old Testament in light of his understanding of Jesus?
- What was the function of prophesy in the Old Testament?
- What is a throne name?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete you can share.
- “[New Testament writers] go back and read their scripture in such a way to support what they already know to be true by faith.” @peteenns
- “What we see in the Bible is a lot of diversity. And that diversity reflects the fact that times were changing and different questions were being asked and God was being perceived differently.” @peteenns
- “When we read the Old Testament, when we see things like the diversity of theological views among the biblical writers, what we’re seeing actually is a sort of overview, snapshot of developments of Jewish tradition over time.” @peteenns
- “What we’re watching these New Testament writers do is talking about how this Jesus fits with that long [Jewish] tradition.” @peteenns
- “The logic is not a modern one, it’s an ancient, midrashic logic and to accept that rather than fight against it… is the true beginning of trying to understand the nature of how scripture behaves.” @peteenns
- “How you read the Bible, the method for which you read the Bible, serves the goal that you know the story points to.” @peteenns
- “If our understanding of what it means to have an inspired text can’t account for how the Bible actually behaves, we need a new way of talking about what an inspired text means.” @peteenns
Mentioned in This EpisodeRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty Intro Music]
Pete: Hey everybody, welcome to this episode of the podcast and today we’re going to talk about a topic that is very close to my heart. In fact, it’s one of these topics that when I started exploring in more, especially in graduate school, not so much in seminary, but definitely in graduate school, especially having Jewish professors – this is a topic that really got me thinking about the kinds of things we talk about on this podcast all the time. What is the Bible? What do we do with it? And a way of getting to that question is, for me the way I put it is, “watching how the Bible behaves.” And a great way to see how the Bible as a whole, the Christian Bible behaves, is by looking at this very important topic of how the gospel writers or Paul or somebody else, how they handle their Scripture, what Christians call the Old Testament. There is no New Testament, obviously, they’re writing it. And they’re not even thinking about writing the New Testament, they’re just writing. Eventually it becomes part of the Christian Bible, but for Paul, and for the gospel writers and everyone else in the New Testament, really, it’s their Scripture and their tradition that is very important for understanding who Jesus is. And what we’re going to look at is how they actually do that and what that might tell us about what the Bible is and what we do with it.
So, the first thing to point out, I have several points to make here. The first thing to point out is that the New Testament writers, well, they use the Old Testament a lot. It’s like they can’t make a move without bringing their Scripture into it, and that’s because they saw Jesus as somehow a continuation of this Abrahamic and Mosaic (Moses) tradition and Jesus is sort of, I guess you could say for them, the culmination, the final clarifying moment of Israel’s entire story. Now so, they’re going to cite the Old Testament an awful lot. In fact, statistically speaking, the exact numbers elude me at the moment, but it’s about 350 times the New Testament cites the Old Testament and that’s a lot. I mean, in one of the Bible’s that I have without any footnotes or anything like that, that comes out to about two and a half Old Testament citations per page. And not only that, but there are a number of passages of the Old Testament that seem to be popular for New Testament writers. I know, for example, Paul uses one in Genesis, Genesis 15:6. Abraham believes, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Paul uses that, he uses a citation from Habakkuk more than once. All in all it might be, it’s under 300 Old Testament passages that make their way into the New, but because some are cited more than once it’s over 300 times. Who cares? Who cares about numbers? This is not a math class, right? It’s just a lot. They can’t make a move without it, but here is the point. When you start investigating, and just, forget investigating, just reading carefully, being a careful reader of Scripture. When you read how these New Testament writers use their Scripture, you begin to notice something that everyone notices really at some point when they start looking into this issue a bit more carefully. They see that the way in which a New Testament writer, say a gospel writer, uses the Old Testament, the way they interpret it, doesn’t really match with what that Old Testament passage meant in its original context. And I don’t know if any of you have ever been involved in, or maybe come into contact with Christians, you know, missionaries or evangelists who want to say that “my goodness gracious, Jesus is so clearly articulated in the Old Testament, why can no Jew believe this?”
And I’ve heard Jews respond that, “well, the reason we don’t buy it is because this is not what our Scripture actually says, Jesus isn’t there. You’re putting him there.”
“Yeah, but right here it says Paul say this,” yeah, well, they’re doing that. They’re actually putting Jesus into the Old Testament, when, if you look at its original context it has nothing to do with Jesus at all. And that has caused some challenges for people, and it gets really interesting, you know, when you start looking at these examples you begin to wonder, you know, what is the connection between this story of Israel and then the New Testament. How do those two parts of the Christian Bible tie together?
That is a great question and I want to get to some of that stuff, but first, I thought it might be good to illustrate the problem with an example. And this is one of my favorite examples, and it’s just illustrative and it’s just a wonderful entry point into a deeper discussion of this, and it comes from Matthew. Matthew has a lot of things to say about the Old Testament. Probably because his audience is largely, his followers of Jesus that he’s writing to are largely Jewish, that’s what most people think. And so, he’s really going to a great length to establish this connection between Jesus and Israel’s story. So, here’s one example just to sort of kick this off, and it’s found in the book of Matthew and in chapter 2, and this is a story of when the holy family escapes to Egypt after Jesus’ birth and we read that Joseph, you know, had a dream and an angel tells him to “’Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.”
Now, here’s the point, verse 15, “this was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt, I have called My Son’”. Now, here Matthew is citing Hosea 11:1, and what Matthew is saying is that this moment in Jesus’ young life, when they are fleeing to Egypt and then escaping to Egypt and then coming back again eventually, they od come back a few verses later, but this trek down to Egypt is a fulfillment of something that Hosea says. And the thing is, that you go back and read Hosea chapter 11:1, the whole context of Hosea is not a prediction forward, but it’s looking backward. Chapter 11 begins, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son”. Right? That’s exactly what Matthew cites. And what Hosea clearly means, is that he’s looking backward to this time hundreds and hundreds of years earlier when God delivered the Israelites out of the hands of Egypt, out of slavery. Matthew takes this as a fulfillment, and that’s a little odd isn’t it? See, Hosea’s not even predicting anything, he’s just talking about, matter of factly rather, about a past event and he goes on to talk about this and saying, listen, you know, I brought out of Egypt – God’s talking – but you’ve done nothing but disobey me and I really should reject you but how can I do that, you’re my child. It goes on like that, it’s sort of a chiding, not a very positive section in Hosea here, but Matthew says this is fulfilled in Jesus as a child going down into Egypt to escape the massacre of Herod and then coming back again. And a lot turns on what Matthew means by fulfilled, okay? Matthew is, I don’t think saying this is predictive, but he’s saying there’s something in this Old Testament story that connects with Jesus here in a vital way. And all that is fine, and we’ll get into, you know, why New Testament writers sort of do what they do, but for us, for readers of the Bible today, if you’re looking at this, you might be scratching your head and saying how in the world can Matthew get this out of that passage, and that’s a good question. And there are a few hundred other examples of this sort of thing that happens in the New Testament, typically what we find is that the New Testament writers are not doing what modern interpreters of the Bible normally do when they interpret the Bible. We try to understand the original context, and we work with that, and we look to that as sort of maybe an anchor for how we understand this text and, you know, if my students were to interpret a passage of the Old Testament like Matthew dos with Hosea, I might say, have you even looked at a commentary to understand what’s happening in this moment. See, that’s the dilemma. The New Testament writers rely on this Old Testament story, the story of Israel for explaining Jesus. But yet, the way they approach it seems so, just counterintuitive and odd and weird to modern ears. That’s where the challenge lies. Okay, so that’s one point.
Here’s a second point. What Matthew is doing in what we will see other writers do, a bunch of examples later on in the podcast, but what we see them doing is actually, it fits very nicely with the Jewish world at the time, and the word that comes up to describe this kind of creative approach to Biblical interpretation is midrash. That’s a Jewish word that has to do with interpretation, but not interpretation the way we might think of it today. Read the text. What does it mean? Explain what it means. Midrash is a creative way of handling past texts; of course, all texts are past. It’s a creative way of handling these traditions and these stories from the Bible in order to make it connect to the present moment. It’s making the past present and connecting the present with the past, but very creatively. You know the Bible is pretty old and it has its own topics, and those topics make sense in antiquity, but as time goes on the circumstances change and these texts have to be brought in more creatively to the present moment. And that whole approach, that whole procedure is referred to typically as midrashic interpretation. Very creative and very much focused on what that text has to do with our present moment. Even if it doesn’t speak to the present moment directly, it can be made to speak to the present moment.
So, to explain this and to understand it and try to communicate it, I use a term that I have found to be very helpful. Others have used it in a very different way than I intended to use it, but let me sort of explain what I mean by this term. The term is Christotelic. The way the New Testament writers used the Old is in a Christotelic manner. Christo = Christ. Telic is built off of a Greek word which is telos and that telos means something like a purpose or goal, something like that. So, when I say the New Testament writers approached the Old Christotelicly, what I mean is this, they see Christ as the telos, the goal, the purpose, the end point of Israel’s story. That’s their starting point. Their starting point is their faith in Christ. Christ is the telos; they know that by faith. Now what they do is they go back and read their Scripture in such a way to support what they already know to be true by faith. Namely, that Jesus is God’s Messiah, crucified and raised, and this is the culminating moment, this is the telos of Israel’s story. That’s their beginning point.
Another way of putting it, one of my teachers in seminary put it this way. He said for the New Testament writers the method, the way they interpret the Bible, it actually serves their goal. The goal is Jesus. That’s their goal. That’s their starting point. That’s the telos of Israel’s story. I don’t mind beating a dead horse here, I’ll be repeating that a few times, but it’s very important. To put it another way, let me say this. It’s not that Jesus is somehow, you know sort of, in a veiled sort of way, he’s really in the Old Testament. That’s a common Christian confession. This goes back, you know, a long time. Augustine talks like this too, that Jesus is in the Old Testament concealed. He’s there, he’s just hiding a little, but you have to find him. But I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think Jesus is in the Old Testament. Let that sink in for a second. I don’t think Jesus is in the Old Testament. But I think what these New Testament writers did was they took the Old Testament and they reread it with this unusual surprise ending, namely Jesus, as the goal. They know where the story goes, they’ve experienced it, it’s by faith. And now they look to the Old Testament, their Scripture, for connections. And some of those connections with just a little bit of teasing can make a certain degree of sense and others are maybe a bit more adventuresome, but they’re working with this text to bring that text to bare on this culminating moment in the story of Israel, again, which is Jesus.
You know for Matthew, for example, I don’t think Matthew was simply winging it and just sort of like, oh, here’s an old passage in the Old Testament that says Israel is God’s son and I’ll just use that because Jesus is the Son of God. I think it’s probably deeper than that, I think Matthew has a method to the madness, so to speak. It’s not clear to us and I suspect it’s something like, well you know, listen, Israel is God’s son in Hosea and we are community and others like us refer to Jesus as the Son of God, so maybe there’s some connection between the story of Israel and the story of Jesus. Maybe, to be more specific, that Jesus, in some sense, embodies elements of Israel’s story. For example, Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Moses, even though Jesus isn’t Moses. Even though the story of Moses doesn’t predict Jesus, he presents Jesus as a new Moses because Jesus has a Sermon on the Mount, where he gives law to the people, even citing the Ten Commandments and saying “you’ve heard it said, but I say to you.” Jesus is Moses. He’s Moses 2.0. He’s not the same as Moses, but he’s deeply connected to this Moses story. That’s Matthew’s thing. He really likes to show that. I think that citation here of Hosea 11 is like that. Matthew has a scheme, a plan, he understands Israel’s story and Jesus’ story in a certain way, and he brings these two together, and I think it’s enlightening. I think it’s beautiful theology. My only point is that he has to read Hosea very creatively in order to get that point across. See, it’s a prior conviction, in other words, that determines how Matthew reads Hosea. Matthew would never read Hosea 11:1 the way that he does, were it not for the prior conviction that Jesus is the Son of God. That goes first, the Bible comes along for the ride, so to speak. The driving force isn’t what the Bible says, the driving force is who Jesus is.
I think, in my opinion, and people disagree obviously, but, in my opinion, this is fundamental to understanding the nature of our Bible and how it works and what it means to read it well. And in this respect, this sort of midrashic use of Israel’s tradition and Israel’s Scripture, this use of it that sort of looks at the present moment and says this is the culmination of God’s purposes and Scripture speaks to it in some way, let us try to see how we can get it there. That is not something that’s unique to the New Testament, and this is where, you know, we won’t belabor this point, but this is where the Dead Sea Scrolls come in which were discovered in the 1940s and really revolutionized certain elements of New Testament study. And one of those things that was revolutionized was the very thing we’re talking about here. Because here we have the Dead Sea Scroll community, also known as the Qumran community. Qumran is the town where they were sort of holed up. This Dead Sea community saw itself as the true, pure, chosen people of God and they’re in the desert because they left Jerusalem, which had become very corrupt. This is like in the second century and first century BCE, before Christ. So, they left Jerusalem because of corruption and they became sort of like the pure ones who were waiting for the end for the cataclysm, for the apocalypse.
And they saw themselves because they rejected the corruption of the priesthood in Jerusalem, I mean, you know, you could buy and sell the priesthood, the high priesthood. During that time there was a lot of corruption between some of the Jews and Greek influences and appeasing people, it’s a very complicated and somewhat difficult history to read. But this Qumran community separated itself and said basically, we’re the chosen people, we’re the folks of God. And so, they too began reading their Scripture in such a way that helped them understand who they are. They knew they were the chosen people, they knew they were God’s people, they knew that they were the children of light rather than the children of darkness, they knew that the truth was on their side, they knew that God was on their side, and Scripture refers to “us,” and so they too would take prophetic passages and do something similar to what we just saw with Matthew. They would read that in light of their own situation and say, well, this passage there that seems to talk about the Babylonians is actually talking about us and talking about our leader. They even had a leader called the righteous teacher and people have said that’s similar to how Jesus functions in the Gospels as the authoritative interpreter of Scripture.
My point is that the New Testament writers are doing what they do, and it’s odd and it’s weird, but in the context of the world in which they lived, this was not all that shocking. And I have to tell you, this is getting to sort of I guess another point here, a third point, a brief one. But this is the issue that really made me stand up and take notice about how our Bible works and I came to terms with how thoroughly Jewish the New Testament writers were. Obviously. Yeah, but maybe not. It’s not obvious for everyone, you know, sometimes you can get buried under a lot of Christian thinking and assumptions, but these writers fit very well, these New Testament writers, Matthew, he fits very nicely into an ancient world. And we might not access the Old Testament the way they do, and that’s another discussion altogether. My only point here is I’m just observing what I’m seeing here, and it is not the way I was taught to think about the Bible. So, it was a little bit of a shock to the system. Again, this happened a lot in graduate school with Jewish professors who had no idea they were stepping on certain toes, evangelical toes or fundamentalist toes. They just were doing what they do, and what they showed me was so compelling. It was so, my goodness gracious, wow. Boy this is different than what I thought! And for me, as I said, that sort of was a big moment early on that started a journey for me, an intellectual and spiritual journey to come to terms with how the Bible behaves.
One way that I like to sort of think differently about this issue is not to think in terms of like, well, here’s sort of this solid Old Testament and that hasn’t changed much and then Jesus comes around and says a bunch of stuff and the New Testament writers say a bunch of stuff and then you’ve got this New Testament. I don’t like to think of it as, so much, how the New Testament uses the Old Testament. I like to think of it a bit differently, and that is how the Jesus story fits with Israel’s tradition. That may sound like I’m saying exactly the same thing, but for me it’s not. I look at the Old Testament itself as, itself a tradition that develops and changes over time where you have, you know, biblical writers of a later period discussing or debating things that earlier writers said. It is really a living tradition that we see in the Old Testament. When we read the Old Testament, in my last book, How the Bible Actually Works, I talk about this in great length. I won’t repeat it all here, but what we see in the Bible is a lot of diversity. That diversity reflects a fact that times were changing, and different questions were being asked, and God was being perceived differently at different times in different places. When we read the Old Testament, when we see things like the diversity of theological views among the biblical writers, what we’re seeing actually, is a sort of an overview snapshot of developments of Jewish tradition over time. And that didn’t end somewhat magically, you know, at some random point in the past, but, you know, as Jews came back from the exile, this is in 539 BCE, few hundred years before Jesus. As they came back, they were wrestling with their old traditions and what relevance those traditions had for them. And those developments kept appearing and different Jews had different ways of looking at, you know, what does it mean to be Jewish, how are we tied to the past, what does the Bible require of us as people living, you know, this life of faith in the line of Abraham and Moses and David, etc. And Jews had very different points of view on those things, they weren’t all the same.
So, when you come to the story of Jesus, what we’re seeing here is another Jewish development in this story. No one is starting a new religion. Jesus isn’t, Paul isn’t. They’re deeply connected to the tradition of the past, and so, I’d like to think of the New Testament writings not so much as like a set thing, a closed New Testament cannon, which doesn’t happen until like, the fourth century anyway. But I like to think of it as Jews, for the most part, except possibly the author of Luke and Acts, but, you know, be that as it may. I like to see this as Jews at the time who were aligned with this particular Jewish movement, the Jesus movement. They’re writing about how this movement fits with their tradition. They’re not saying, well, here’s a new religion. How can we make it fit into this other religion? They’re saying – we believe this is fundamentally the right continuation. This is the telos of Israel’s story. And what we’re watching these New Testament writers do, is talking about how this Jesus fits with that long tradition, diverse as it is, but how this Jesus fits with that tradition.
So really, in what we call the Old and New Testaments, we have a series of documents that all come from different historical moments in different times and places and we’re seeing Jews of a particular time, specifically the first century of the common era, AD. We’re seeing them think out loud, if I could put it that way, about how this moment that they’re a part of fits with the tradition as whole and that is what drove them to do some creative handling of that tradition in order to explain it. And I really can’t stress this enough folks, it’s not just followers of Jesus who had to do that. Who else had to do that? Well, Judaism, throughout its tradition, going back hundreds of years before the time of Jesus. Jews also had to rethink their tradition again and again in light of changing circumstances. And I think this is really, really important and not always given its due weight, at least in popular circles. But, you have, you know, the story of Israel, I mean how does, okay…
Where does Israel’s story go? It lands them in exile. Okay, to back up a little bit. You’ve got this story where God has chosen Abraham and the patriarchs, and this promise is being funneled through them and it culminates in Moses and the departure from Egypt and God is with them; and the whole point of leaving Egypt is to go to Mount Sinai to get the law so you know how to act and also instructions for building a tabernacle so you know how to worship, and the whole point is you move through that to the land and you set up a monarchy and everything goes downward spiraling from there, right? But the point is that God’s promise is, it goes back to Abraham – land, and a lot of offspring. A lot of offspring and a place to put them, and this is my promise to you, I’ll never break it, this is what I’m going to do, I’m going to make a great nation out of you and the whole world’s going to see it and they’re going to glorify me. That’s sort of the mainstream story, but where does it go?
It ends, first of all, with this monarchy dividing into two, north and south. This happened after the reign of Solomon. His son, Jeroboam, was not a very wise king, and the nation split into two. And the north, confusingly called Israel, they retained the name of the entire nation and then the southern nation of Judah. And, a couple hundred years later, this is around 930 that happened roughly, around 722 the northern nation of Israel, which was comprised of ten tribes, was taken captive by the Assyrians and never heard from again. If you’ve ever heard the term, the lost tribes of Israel, there they are. And what’s left is little Judah, very small, not very powerful, and they hang on until 586. This is when the Babylonians came and this initiated the Babylonian exile, but the temple was leveled to the ground, the walls of Jerusalem fell, and the elite were taken captive into Babylon and they return in 539 under the Persians in captivity for forty-something years, and, you know, to set up show again. And these Judahites returned to the land and that land eventually came to be called Judea and the residents were Judeans or Jews or Jewish. All these terms come from that southern tribe of Judah, the nation of Judah that returns from Babylon.
But my point is this, this is really not how the story is supposed to end. It’s not supposed to end in exile, it’s supposed to end in some triumph. And they do have some triumph, they come back to the land. The Persians take over and they come back to the land, they let them come back and they rebuild the temple, they rebuild the walls, which is great. But what they don’t have is a king. They don’t have a king sitting on the throne. And this is, you know, you’re not really completely back in the land, you’re not really completely back the way things should be, if you’re in your land but still, it’s run by other people. It’s run by other nations, so first the Persians and then after a while in the fourth century, the Greeks come. And the Greeks are in charge of this part of the world from the 330’s down to about the 160’s, you know, I guess a hundred, two hundred years or so. Two hundred something years. And, actually, let me do that math, that’s embarrassing. No, it’s about a hundred, uh, two sixty, three sixty, yeah, about a hundred and fifty years roughly. And the problem though, is that around 200, the Greeks become sort of hostile to the Jews and there’s a lot of persecution and martyrs and because the Greeks were trying to force some Jews to convert to Greek ways, like eating pork and things like that and it’s really, it’s a horrible story. The story of Hanukkah comes to us from that time, and that inspires the Jews to rebel against the Greeks, and here’s my point in all this. There was a period of Jewish semi-independence from about 167, 164 down to about the 60’s, about a hundred years, but it was semi-independence. There were kings who ruled, but there was just a tremendous amount of infighting and stress, and still people wanted to adopt Greek ways, and others didn’t, and this is the corruption of the priesthood, where they were buying and selling it, and this is what the Qumran community took off and broke the Dead Sea Scrolls and things like that.
This is not the way the story is really supposed to go. It’s not going in a really good direction, they’re supposed to be triumph for God’s people, and instead there’s infighting, and in due time, the Romans come and take over. And, of course, a hundred years later, around the year, in the year 70 after a period of rebellion on the part of the Jews, the temple is destroyed once again and the rest is history, as they say. The Jews disperse, and, you know, they have not really been living in their land from the early second century until the 1940’s when Israel became a state again. So, it was a long time where they’re not really in the land, and this has created challenges for Judaism, not just throughout history after AD 70, but even before that. Because, you know, you’re in the land but you’re not really in the land and their whole tradition assumes them being in the land, it assumes them having kings and priests and prophets, and everyone sort of tight with God and you’re obeying the covenant and God’s blessing the people.
When you’re in foreign territory, when you’re taken away to Assyria or to Babylon, or you come home and you’re still being run by pagans – Persians, Greeks, Romans, whoever – you have to think really hard about what it means to be Jewish. And a lot of Jewish traditions began during this time as creative ways to connect them with the God of old. You know, when you’re in exile or after the temple is destroyed in AD 70, you don’t sacrifice anymore. That’s a pretty fundamental thing in Judaism. Sacrificing is a big deal, right? It’s atonement for sin, it’s a way of communing with God, you need to do this. God commanded it to Moses in Mount Sinai, it’s not really a negotiable, but yet they can’t do it. So how do you stay Jewish in a totally different context when you’re not in the land and in charge of it? Well, they had to think about what it means to be Jewish, and certain customs were developed, and a lot of that has defined Judaism over time and it’s a huge issue, not, we don’t need to get into.
My point is that the Jews themselves had an ancient tradition that they had to think creatively about in order to maintain the tradition. You couldn’t just do what it said in the Bible. You had to adjust, you had to make amendments, you had to think creatively. You had to employ a midrashic mentality towards that text. Because, again, circumstances have changed rather drastically and unexpectedly. Our story is not supposed to end in exile or with foreign occupation or with the temple being destroyed a second time. Our story is supposed to end differently.
So, history of Judaism, let me just, this is a bit, maybe a slight overstatement and just too simplistic, but from the time of the exile, again, this is in the sixth century BCE. From the time of the exile, and from that point on, Judaism has had to be creative in engaging its tradition in order to maintain that tradition. That’s a great irony. You have to be creative with the tradition to keep the tradition going. Well, all traditions work that way. I think of the New Testament analogously to this situation because it is a Jewish movement, but what the New Testament writers are doing is they are also approaching their tradition, what we call the Old Testament. They’re approaching that tradition creatively because they can’t just sort of do what the Bible says. Something has happened, namely, for them, Jesus, who they believe was God’s Messiah, God’s king, who was completely, utterly, unexpectedly crucified by the Romans, and as they believed, raised from the dead.
This is an unexpected shift in events. This is not the way the story is supposed to continue. It is a telos, it’s a goal, it’s a purpose, but it’s something of a surprise telos, a surprise purpose. It doesn’t jump off the pages into your eyes as you read the Old Testament. No one reads the Old Testament saying – I wonder when Jesus is going to come and die on the cross. This was offensive. This was an indication that Jesus was not the Messiah. That’s why, you know, a lot of Jews didn’t believe, because you’ve got to be kidding me. He lost, how can he be our king, how can he be our Messiah if he’s crucified by the Romans? It just defies logic. So, many Jews, and history shows us that Christianity became very much a Gentile faith already in the second century, sort of losing some of its Jewish roots over time, but that’s because this is a story that is so counter-intuitive to the story of Israel that it makes some sense to see the New Testament writers, who were Jewish, remember, not third century Gentiles, philosophers, they were Jews, just normal, every day people. It shouldn’t surprise us to see how they are approaching the reading of their Scripture in such a creative way because you want to forge this connection between Israel’s story and this unexpected surprise ending of a crucified and risen Messiah. I think this is the problem, right, that is being addressed by New Testament writers by how they handle their Scripture, creatively.
Again, who else handled their Bible creatively? They all did. The Dead Sea Scroll community, or many, many other Jewish communities. You can read about them in the Apocrypha, or in the pseudepigrapha. You can see this in various translations of the Old Testament like the Greek translation called the Septuagint, or the Aramaic translation called the Targum. You see there all sorts of creative handlings of the ancient tradition, because the ancient tradition is now being asked to address issues that the tradition itself never anticipated. And if you want to stay connected to that past, guess what? You’ve got some creative reading to do in order to forge that connection. And so, I like to think of the New Testament as sort of like a, this is not the best analogy, but I like it anyway.
I think of the New Testament as sort of a Christian version or alternative to the Jewish Talmud. What’s the Talmud? Well, the Talmud is a compilation of a long history of discussion in Judaism that goes back, at least to the second century of the common era and certainly before that, although, it’s much more difficult to document there. But, you know, the way I would put it, the Talmud is all discussing about what it means to be Jewish. And it’s engaging Scripture and law and debating it and thinking about it and moving past it if need be, or interpreting it in creative ways to, you know, maintain Jewish distinctives when you’re living in Poland or Spain or Canada later, or the United States or wherever, right? This is what the Talmud is doing, it’s engaging this ancient tradition and adapting it for people living in different times and places. And the New Testament does that too on a smaller scale, because it’s restricted to, you know, the first century. But I would argue that the history of Christian theology is analogous to the Talmud in that it’s different followers of Jesus at different times under different circumstances are making sense of that ancient tradition for changing times and changing circumstances.
To me, if I can put it this way, that’s almost too obvious to even say, but it has implications for how we view our Bible because this process of reengaging the past creatively because of changing times and changing circumstances, for Christians, this is embedded in our New Testament. In Matthew is just, Matthew’s use of Hosea is just one example. There are many others, we’ll look at some in a minute, not drive them into the ground, but at least to give an overview. Maybe just a sense of how the New Testament writers handle Israel’s story in light of this Jesus. But for me as I said before, this was an enlightening moment to see, my goodness gracious, what, what is our Bible doing? And on one level it’s really exciting, and another level, it’s a little bit disturbing, because it’s not at all how Christians are typically taught to understand how their Bible works.
Okay, so let’s move on to a few more examples, actually, three to be specific. I want to look at examples that I think are really good at illustrating this Christotelic midrashic creative handling of the Old Testament on the part of these New Testament writers that we’re looking at and all these citations they have, but just three I think are really, really illustrative. And the first one, and again, we don’t have to go into tremendous detail, this is a thirty-thousand-foot thing. You know, details are really interesting, but they’re not necessary. You can just sort of look at the big picture and say, my goodness gracious, what are the New Testament writers doing here?
Okay, one example comes from the book of Acts 2. This is Peter, is giving a speech proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus after Pentecost, and he’s talking about Jesus, and he cites Psalm 16. This is in chapter 2 of Acts beginning in verse 25, goes on for a few verses, and he’s citing Psalm 16:8-11 and there are some interesting differences here between the Psalm itself, how it’s cited here in Acts and how the Psalm appears back in the Old Testament. And that a lot has to do with the use of the Greek Old Testament on the part of these New Testament writers. Shifts already began with the Septuagint with the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Adjustments, changes, updating, that sort of thing happened. And that’s reflected here in this passage, but again, I don’t want to dwell on those things too much. Let me just read where Peter is saying here, how he’s citing Psalm 16.
He is talking about Jesus’ resurrection and he says in verse 24,
“But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says…”
Now he’s getting to Psalm 16 –
“For David says concerning him,”
Who is him? Well, Jesus. See, right away Peter is saying that David is saying something that concerns Jesus. I’m not sure if Peter is saying that David is predicting Jesus, he’s just saying this concerns him, this has to do with Jesus perhaps. Let’s read it and see what he says. This is the citation of the Psalm.
“‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,’
That’s the Greek word that really takes the place for the most part of the Hebrew word Sheol, which is like the abode of the dead, right? So,
‘For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption.’
Like decay, rot.
‘You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ “Fellow Israelites,”
Peter continues –
“I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God has sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne.”
And he goes on and on talking about how basically, a lot of details, like I said. Jesus fulfills somehow, Psalm 16. Now, the problem with that from the point of view, like a simple prediction, is that Psalm 16, frankly, has nothing to do with Jesus and that’s not a stretch. You can go back and read Psalm 16 and what the Psalmist is saying is that, you know, you have been faithful to me God, you’re always before me, you will not abandon my soul to Hades, to Sheol, or let your holy one go to the pit. That’s what it says in the Hebrew, English translation of the Hebrew. But it doesn’t matter, it says you will not allow me, basically, to be, you will not abandon me to Sheol. You won’t let me see corruption or the pit or decay or rot. What that means, it’s self-evident in the context of Psalm 16. What it means is you will keep me alive, you won’t let me die. You won’t abandon me to Sheol, you’ll keep me here on earth. Thank you for not letting my enemies get the better of me so I don’t die. But notice Peter takes that, he gives it a little bit of a twist. For him, you will not abandon my soul to Hades means you’re already there, but God won’t leave you there. Won’t leave Jesus there, specifically. Do you see that? Is it too subtle? I hope not. Peter is using this Psalm in a very creative manner, in a manner that the author of Psalm 16 would not recognize. He says, I’m not talking about anybody rising from the dead, I’m talking about somebody not dying at all. But here it’s, again, as I said, not to repeat it too much, but this is about now resurrection from the dead, and Peter uses this Psalm. See, this is the hard part. He’s not just sort of like riffing with words, he’s using the Psalm as, if I can say it this way, a proof text. For Jesus’ resurrection has always been part of what this story of Israel is about, because it’s predicted in Psalm 16, and I do think in this context in the book of Acts that that’s very much what is being implied here. That this is a prediction because David knew, gosh, you know, all people die. He must have been talking about Jesus.
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Pete: You know, I have a problem with that from, sort of an intellectual, logical point of view, in that Psalm 16, no one would ever get that from reading Psalm 16 on its own. You have to begin with a resurrection faith, and then go back and read Psalm 16 in a rather creative way. Again, this is this Christotelic notion that I’ve mentioned. This, we know the purpose and the goal of Israel’s story is Jesus, therefore we go back and look at the Hebrew Bible from that perspective and interpret it from that perspective. It’s hard for, I think, most of us. I don’t want to presume things, but I think it’s hard for us to read Psalm 16 and say, oh yeah, this is talking about resurrection from the dead. But this is a great example, because it’s such a difficult example of this creative view of Scripture on the part of the New Testament writers, and it’s something we shouldn’t shy away from. I think it’s very, very important. I don’t think this is, I don’t think this is like a haphazard sort of just, let’s just use verses and sort of, you know, worry about the consequences later. I do think that there’s a logic here on the part of Luke, you know, the author of Acts. I think in recording a speech like this, and whether Peter said it exactly this way, that’s a whole other issue. But whether it’s Peter or Luke, there’s a logic here. But my point is that the logic is not a modern one, it’s an ancient midrashic logic. And to accept that rather than fight against it, I think is the true beginning of trying to understand the nature of how Scripture behaves, how it works. And therefore, I think nothing is gained by going into sort of apologetic mode, and say, well listen, if Peter says Psalm 16 was about Jesus, obviously we read it as about Jesus on the part of the intention of the original author, but that’s not, that would not explain what we see throughout the New Testament. The New Testament invests meaning into these Old Testament passages that the original writer had absolutely no intention of putting there.
Okay, so, let’s now go to another example, more of the same. And this one comes to us from Romans 10. Again, I like these examples and I just think they’re so illustrative. So, in Romans 10:4, Paul says,
“For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”
And that phrase, I want to pause here for a second, because that phrase “Christ is the end of the law”, the Greek word there is telos. I’m sort of getting this Christotelic notion from places like Romans 10:4. Christ is the telos of the law, and he, he’s not the end of the law in which, you know, the law can now be ignored. Paul doesn’t say that. But he’s saying that Christ is the ultimate goal and purpose for which the law was given in the first place. Which sounds really great, but now you have to watch what Paul does to illustrate this point. And this starts in verse five. And he says,
“Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from that law, that ‘the person who does these things will live by them.’”
That’s in Leviticus.
“But, the righteousness that comes from faith…”
Not the one that comes from the law, but the one that comes from faith says, and now he’s going to quote Deuteronomy. So, the first thing to notice here, which is really creative on Paul’s part, is that he is in essence, pitting one part of Torah against the other. He’s contrasting the righteousness that comes from the law, which means “the person who does these things shall live by them.” That’s from Leviticus chapter 18:5. He says, okay, that’s one thing, “but the righteousness that comes not from the law, but from faith” says something else, and now he quotes Deuteronomy. So that’s just enough to take in for a second, that for Paul’s use of his Scripture, which he’s trained in, when he’s proclaiming Jesus, he feels free to contrast Leviticus, which says the person who does these things, obeys the law, will live by them. Life comes from obedience. And he feels, he feels a freedom to contrast that to what is in Deuteronomy, and here he is citing Deuteronomy chapter 30, the first few verses of it and it, actually, let me back up and talk about what Deuteronomy says.
See, in Deuteronomy chapter 30, we’re getting to the end of Deuteronomy, and there Moses is delivering a speech, which basically the whole book of Deuteronomy is a speech of Moses, but it’s sort of like a last minute pep talk and you’ve got this law and it’s in front of you and it’s something that is very, very doable. And I want to read what he says there, because this is really, really important for understanding against something of the character of this BIble that we read today, and how it behaves and does things that might not be exactly, well, in this case, not remotely like the way we look at it. So, Paul begins in Deuteronomy 30:11, he says,
“Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today…”
Which is to be faithful to the covenant –
“Is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No,
Paul says –
“The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.”
In other words, the whole point of this passage here in Deuteronomy 30 is that, listen, the law, it’s not too hard for you.
It’s not up in heaven so somebody has to go up and get it. It’s not across the ocean so you have to take a boat to go find it and bring it back. It’s staring you in the face, I’m giving it to you, I’ve been preaching this law to you since the very beginning of the book of Deuteronomy. That’s it. This is a very law centered passage, obviously; Torah centered, law of Moses centered passage. Paul, however, interprets this portion of Deuteronomy 30 very creatively, and what he does, and I’m going to read this here, and just to, you know, here’s the punch line. Paul replaces Torah with Christ, but he quotes Deuteronomy 30. He just replaces Torah with Christ. Here’s what he says.
“But the righteousness that comes from faith says,”
And now he begins quoting Deuteronomy.
“’Do not say in your heart who will ascend into heaven?’
Paul adds, “That is to bring Christ down.”
“’Or who will descent into the abyss?’”
Hmm, that’s interesting. The Old Testament doesn’t say who will descend into the abyss, it says who will go across the sea. Right, so in Deuteronomy it’s a vertical/upward, to the heaven and then a horizontal/across the sea, those two directions. For Paul, it’s vertical/upward, who will go into the heaven, and then vertical/downward, into the abyss. Who will descend into the abyss? That’s a major shift. That’s not in the Greek version of Deuteronomy; that’s not the Hebrew version. This is Paul. Who will descend into the abyss, that is, to bring Christ up from the dead. And his answer is nobody, you don’t have to do that. Who brought Christ down? Well, God sent Jesus. Who raised Jesus from the abyss, from the dead? God did that. See what he’s saying, he’s saying it’s not the Torah that is ever present with the people and now you can keep it. He is, let’s say, decentering Torah, putting it more on the periphery and putting Jesus in its place, which is a great thing to say. You know, if you’re Paul and you’re preaching the Gospel to these Jews and Gentiles who were probably the people getting this letter to Rome, but just, you could’ve said that without citing Deuteronomy 30. That’s sort of the point. But he takes Deuteronomy 30, he takes great liberties with it, to change the directional aspect, not up and not vertical/horizontal, but vertical/up, vertical/down; and then replacing Torah with Christ, right? And he continues, but what does it say,
“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.”
Which is a rough citation again, of Deuteronomy 30, but for Paul, the word is not Torah. For him, the word is Christ and that’s why if, what saves you, right, what shows true obedience to God, not obedience to Torah. But he continues,
“Because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
See, Paul creatively takes a Torah centered passage and makes it into a Christ centered passage. Now again, I really want to stress this, this is not Paul just being haphazard. There is a logic in Paul’s thinking that really begins with his faith in Christ that drives him to go back and to read his Scripture creatively. Again, a Christotelic approach. Deuteronomy 30, I will say this from a rooftop until the day I die, has absolutely nothing to do with Christ. It is drawn into the Christ orbit because this is Paul’s faith. Jesus is crucified and raised from the dead. He is God’s solution to a very big problem. We are now within our rights to read all of Scripture, to reframe it, to reread it, to rethink it around this risen Christ. Scripture serves Christ, Christ doesn’t serve Scripture. Scripture’s role now is to point to Jesus, the telos of Israel’s story, not to Torah. Torah now actually is there to point to Jesus as well.
And, you know, some of us might sit there and say, well, obviously. Yeah, obviously for Christians, but, not if you’re a Jew living in the first century. And again, for us to enter into this hermeneutical adventure, which is to read Paul’s letters, I think especially Romans. To do this, really is an eye opener to help us understand the nature of Scripture and what it means to see Christ in our Bible and is it obvious, it is not obvious? Well, I think it’s a matter of creative interpretation. And again, to try to defend Paul as doing, let’s say, good exegesis, good interpretation the way modern people do, I think we’re really not seeing what’s directly in front of us. A creative handling of the text driven by the foundational commitment of Paul. Not that the Bible is the word of God, which he believed, the more foundational commitment of Paul’s, is that Christ is the purpose and goal and end of Israel’s story and now we are bound as people who understand that, who have experienced that, to go back and read Scripture creatively. And again, that’s not really satisfying, I understand this, to a lot of modern ears, but this creative use of Scripture on Paul’s part is, well, pretty normal among Jews in the centuries before Paul and certainly during his time. A creative handling of Scripture to adapt it to new and changing circumstances, that’s what faithful people do. “Well, we don’t.” Yeah, because we’re modern people. We have different approaches to reading any text, let alone the Bible. Anyway.
Okay, hey, one more example, because we’re in Romans, what the heck. In chapter 9, Paul is talking about the election of Israel and his, one of the goals in Romans, and I think I’m on very safe ground saying this, is to show that both Gentiles and Jews are on the same boat, so to speak, and not one is over the other, but Gentiles are fully a part of this faith of Abraham as Gentiles that don’t have to convert to Judaism. They don’t have to maintain dietary restrictions or male circumcision and stuff like that. In fact, this is part of God’s plan all along. This is one of Paul’s arguments, that the Gentiles have always been a part of God’s plan exactly the way it’s happening now.
This is now new. This is part of the biblical tradition. How does he do this? Well, by citing things from the Old Testament. But that’s again where we run into this challenge that we’ve seen with these other two examples, because here he’s citing a couple of passages in Hosea. This is Hosea 2:23, also Hosea 1:10 and he goes on to bring Isaiah into it a little bit. But if you want to look at this on your own sometime, this is in Romans 9 beginning in verse 25. And I want to back up just a little bit to get the context of what he’s saying, and again, let’s not get bogged down in the details. This is a thirty-thousand-foot view, alright? So, let’s start in verse 22. Paul says,
“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory – including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”
This is the section, like, the real big predestination section, and Paul that has been used by Calvinists to support the notion that God picks individuals and I don’t think that’s what Paul is saying. I’m certainly not alone in this. I think in this section as a whole, what Paul is saying is not that he picks people that the chooses to save individuals, but if God wants to save Jews and Gentiles in the same way, God has every right to do that. And the hard part to handle there for Jews at the time might have been this kind of Gentile inclusion, sort of just as Gentiles, you’re part of the children of Abraham. It might have been a difficult pill to swallow, and apparently by the reactions Paul got in like, Galatians, that’s probably what happened. But, leading into the citation of Habakkuk, he says,
“Including us, whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says…”
God says –
Interesting views there of biblical inspiration. You know, when Hosea speaks, it’s God speaking? Right, so, that’s interesting, so. Anyway, he says,
“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”
Now, catch that, okay? He’s citing Hosea 2 and the context of Hosea makes it absolutely, perfectly clear. What he’s talking about is that those whom God has rejected among Israel because of rebellion, he is going to call them his people again. So, when Hosea says, “those who were not my people, I will call ‘my people,’” he’s talking about Israelites. He’s not talking about, hey, I’m going to bring Gentiles into all this. And again, thirty-thousand-foot view. You’re welcome to read the first three chapters of Hosea and any Old Testament prophet, and their focus is on the faithfulness, the fidelity on the part of Israel or not. So, Hosea means to say, like, “those who are not my people I will call ‘my people,’” and “her who was not beloved, I will call ‘beloved.’” In other words, I’m going to reconcile with you, Israel, despite your rebellion, but notice what Paul does. That phrase, “those who were not my people,” Paul, he, okay, he interprets it. That’s really the best word to use, he interprets this by really forcing something into this context that simply isn’t there. And that sounds like reading into the text for us, well, he sort of is. But, in ancient Judaism, that’s what you do when you interpret. You bring in ancient text into your present moment because times and circumstances have changed and what Paul is living in, in his view, and the view of others, is that Gentiles are part of the kingdom of God. As Gentiles, without conversion, without becoming Jewish first. That’s what’s happening. That’s the reality. That’s his telos. That’s the goal of the story of God and it’s been reached and they’re living in it. Now, they go back and look at these passages, like, in Hosea 2, and where Paul sees “those were not my people I will call ‘my people,’” and Paul reads the Gentiles will now be called “my people.” Not repentant Israelites, but the Gentiles will. That is a very forceful, creative reading of this text. And, you know, if you asked me, and let’s pretend you are, I don’t think that Paul misunderstood the original intention of Hosea. I think Paul understands exactly what that’s about. I think, frankly, all the New Testament writers, if you push them and you say what might this have meant to the people back then? I think they would’ve given an answer like, well, Hosea’s talking about, you know, unrepentant Israel, you know, God will bring them back and “those who were not my people will be called ‘my people’” and “those not beloved I will call ‘beloved’” and this is a story of repentance on the part of Israel.
But that won’t stop a Jew of antiquity, and Paul was a Jew of antiquity, from employing some creative license in bringing this passage into what he knows to be true. So, let me put it this way. I believe, very firmly here, that the Jewish readers, whoever they might have been, when they saw Paul doing this, would not have said, “boy, you’re taking the Bible out of context,” because this kind of approach to Scripture was in the air, very common, not at all unusual. It had to be done after all, this Bible is so old, what do these passages have to do with us today? They have to be brought into our world. Circumstances change, right? And that’s a Jewish thing, that’s also a Christian thing on the part of Paul; bringing this ancient text into the present moment. I know I’m repeating myself, but I think it’s important because it’s easy to lose track and to miss the main point of all this, which is Scripture serves the goal. How you read the Bible, the method for which you read the Bible, serves the goal that you know the story points to. This is Paul. What makes Paul distinctive from other Jewish interpreters that he learned from, and probably his contemporaries, isn’t that, you know, he’s creative or he’s not creative. He is creative. It’s that what he is being creative about, which is Jesus of Nazareth. That’s his focus, that is what makes Paul distinct in his world, not whether or not he’s creative.
That’s a very different way of thinking about the nature of Scripture. And again, for this example as well, this is not just, it’s not haphazard, but Paul has a logic. It’s an inner logic, but it’s also a logic that only works with a midrashic interpretive mindset. In other words, people today who don’t have a midrashic creative mindset, which is basically all modern people. You know, we don’t read, we’re not taught to read Scripture the way Paul is reading it. That’s why it seems so foreign to us. “Well, he can’t possibly be doing that, that’s so wrong!” Well, it’s not wrong for him. See, here’s the irony of it, for the way many people today, and let me just say evangelicals and fundamentalists generally, but also Christians who are not like that at all, our tendency, our assumption is to read a text and say “what did the author mean, well, that’s the meaning.” With that kind of an attitude, we will never get to what Paul is doing here with Hosea, or what he’s doing earlier with Deuteronomy, or what the author of Luke is doing with Psalm 16, or what Matthew is doing with Hosea, or the other three hundred something examples that we see in the New Testament. We’ll never see the logic. It will always escape us; it will always be this profound mystery. It’s really not that much of a mystery, what they’re saying is that Jesus is the answer, this is the story, and we’re going to appeal to it in a manner that helps us to see that goal more clearly. And in doing that, Paul is no different, Matthew is no different, Luke is no different from other Jews at the time and even in the centuries before.
Okay, now, one more thing. I would like to address a couple of clobber passages. In other words, there are places in the New Testament that seem to contradict the way I’ve just explained Paul. One of them, actually, is Acts 2 and the use of Psalm 16 where it says that David is predicting Jesus, alright? Actually, let’s just start with that. As I suggested before, I mean, I understand the mentality, so to speak, of the writer to sort of, to a Jewish audience, to show this deep connectiveness between Jesus and what the ancient tradition said. Having said that, it’s still, it betrays our sense of the logic of things to simply say, “well, okay, I guess then it means it predicts it.” I would rather put that entire mentality of prediction, also in an ancient context, and not assume prediction means then what it sort of means today. Prediction for us means foretelling, it means, well, this is said, and this person is clearly talking about that.
I think in the first century world, and this could be developed at great length and, again, this is a thirty-thousand-foot thing, but the manner of prediction really in the Old Testament vis-a-vis the New is not a matter of foretelling the future, but a New Testament writer saying what we’re seeing here in front of us is like that. Like that thing back there. That thing back there is like what we see here. It’s a like thing. It’s an analogy, so to speak. You know the thing that happened back there that God did, well that’s like this over here. Remember Matthew’s use of Hosea, you know, “out of Egypt I call my son,” I don’t think Matthew is saying that’s being predicted, but I think he is saying Jesus fulfills it. It’s not a prediction, but Jesus fulfills it. That Jesus is the telos, the purpose, the goal of this. Jesus is the ultimate moment that reflects what we see here back in Hosea. That’s not a prediction, it could be a fulfillment, but it’s not a prediction. It’s not the same thing. So, I think understanding something of what prophecy was, even, in the ancient world, and wasn’t really long distance predictive, but more a proclamation of a reality in that moment in time. Well, in the New Testament the times have changed, the circumstances are very different. Hundreds of years have transpired, but how does the Scripture speak to us? Well, it speaks to us still, but getting and fostering that connection requires a creative imagination on the part of the New Testament writers.
Anyway, well, one of the, you know, better known clobber passages is II Timothy 3:16,
“All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
Amen. I have no problem with that. I think it’s completely irrelevant to the topic. This is about the usefulness of Scripture, and God inspires Scripture for it to be useful and profitable. That does not mean that God inspired Scripture so that the New Testament is simply the fulfillment of predictions from the Old Testament, right? In other words, this doesn’t, and it simply can’t discount for us the way in which we watch the New Testament writers handling their Old.
I think what’s really behind this clobber passage is that, well, the Bible is inspired and an inspired book by God would never do this sort of silly stuff because it’s really confusing to us, it makes no sense, and it makes me have less faith in the Bible. And I think the New Testament writers would say, well, God inspired the text and he’s inspiring the moment, and it is very convincing to us to see God at work in this way and others did the same sort of thing with Scripture. Other Jews did the same sort of thing. You know, it might not be convincing to us with a modern mentality where we have views of prediction that are, frankly, just out of step with the Bible itself. But, this is not an apologetic book written for us to prove Jesus. It’s an end time bit of theology. It’s an end time bit of interpretation in the first century to show something of Jesus on the basis of this old story, but still interpreted very, very creatively. And, to call the Bible inspired doesn’t discount what these New Testament writers were doing. What probably needs to happen is we have to think differently about what inspiration means. At least, some of us do; to be more in accord with what we’re watching the Bible actually do. That’s a huge topic folks. We’ve done a couple podcasts on that, we’ll do more, because it’s a big, big topic. But if our understanding of what it means to have an inspired text can’t account for how the Bible actually behaves, we need a new way of talking about what an inspired text means.
Okay, next passage is II Peter 1, actually, let me start in verse 19.
“So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”
And again, this is sometimes used as a counter argument to the creative use of Scripture on the part of anybody, including Biblical writers, because “no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” And it looks like Paul is sort of just like, riffing, and maybe just being sort of personally ingenious and making texts say things they don’t say, and especially if you understand that these men and women were moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God, right? So, if they spoke from God, you can’t really do something weird and haphazard with it, there’s one meaning, whatever the meaning was back then, that’s what it is now. And so, whatever you think Paul is doing, Pete Enns, he is not being creative with this text, he’s sort of just saying what the prophet said, because “no matter of prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation,” you can’t do that.
Well, two things to that. One, II Peter, the rhetoric of II Peter is very important. Again, it’s not the kind of thing we can get into in any depth here, but any passage of the Bible has to be understood within its context, and what is the argument that Peter is making here or whoever the author of II Peter is. Most people, including people like John Calvin, thought it was not Peter. It was after, it’s got stylistic issues that make it difficult to square with I Peter. But leaving that aside entirely, this piece of writing is not just, well, here’s a verse, let’s take it out of context and just use it to undermine what Paul and other writers are doing in other places quite clearly, which a creative bit of interpretation. I mean, I don’t, it’s sort of like, you know, when James says, you know, don’t waver and just believe, you know, don’t doubt. Don’t be rudderless, you know. And to square that with the passages in the Bible where there is a lot of doubting going on and nobody seems to be bothered by it, like Jesus on the cross, he’s in agony, he feels God’s abandoned him. Or in the Old Testament lament Psalms, or in Ecclesiastes, or Job, I don’t want James to discount that whole witness of Scripture. I don’t want II Peter to discount…
First of all, I don’t even think that’s the right interpretation that I just laid out for us here, but that’s the common way of looking at it. But I don’t want that to discount what we’re plainly seeing dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of times, not only within the New Testament, but actually in the Old Testament itself. A creative handling of past traditions and past texts. This is woven in, it’s baked into the nature of Scripture, and I want to understand II Peter in light of that. Not correct all that in light of what I think II Peter is saying.
Okay, three more clobber passages, but this is brief. They’re all in Isaiah, and the first one is Isaiah 7. This is where Isaiah says a child will be born to you of a virgin and he’s talking to the, King Ahaz, because he’s really concerned about a battle that’s going to happen and he doesn’t want to get wiped out, and he says, should I make alliances, what should I do. Isaiah says no, here’s a sign to you, a virgin shall conceive, and she’ll bear a son, and by the time the son is old enough to know right from wrong, basically, this problem that you’re concerned with, this political alliance from the north, it’s not going to be existing anymore, don’t worry about it. The problem is that this is Isaiah 7:14, which Matthew cites as supporting the virginal conception of Jesus through Mary. In Isaiah 7:14, it probably shouldn’t be read as virgin, but as young woman, and the context again there makes it very, very clear that Isaiah is not talking about, well, the sign is miraculous nature of the birth. The sign is that a young woman will conceive and bear a son, maybe Ahaz’s wife, maybe Isaiah’s wife. I mean, it’s hard to know who he’s talking about. But, she’ll conceive and bear a son. Here’s the sign: by the time the child is old enough to know right from wrong, within a very few short years, the problem that you’re facing now will not exist anymore and you need to trust God. Now Matthew, because he’s a creative handler of the Bible, uses this to connect Jesus’ birth and Jesus’ origins very deeply with Israel’s story. And again, there’s a logic to what Matthew is doing. There’s a logic there, but it’s not what Isaiah is saying. It’s not predictive, rather, the New Testament writer handles this in a creative midrashic way, knowing that Jesus is the end purpose and goal of the Scriptures.
It also is a factor, this is a little technical, but that word in Hebrew, when it’s translated into Greek, into the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, it took on a flavor that made its meaning a little bit more flexible and Matthew seems to be capitalizing on that as well, but that’s another issue of, not irrelevant to what we’re talking about, because, again, it’s part of the history, the circumstances, the moment that these New Testament writers are in. Anyway, not to dwell on that.
Another example, this is in Isaiah, keep flipping, chapter 9. And chapter 9 is about the near ascendancy of a righteous king, and some people think it might be Hezekiah or something like that but, we don’t have to ferret that out, but here we have the famous passage in Isaiah 9 that says “for a child has been born for us, a son given to us.” Which in the context is about the birth of a king, but how is this king described? Well,
“Authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.”
It goes on like that. And understandably, I mean, I get it, people say, well, that’s not a human being, that’s got to be Jesus. Who else could that possibly be? Well, the who else is an earthly king. Well, how can that be? How can a king be just a wonderful counselor or a mighty god? Well, in context, this is called a throne name and throne names are given to kings to connect them with God, to connect them with a divine source; this is outside of Israel as well. So, you know, when you call the king “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” you’re not saying this king is divine, you’re saying the throne name connects him with the power and the authority of Yahweh. It’s really not much more than that. It’s like Psalm 2, that when the king is anointed or coronated, we would say that God says this is my son, today I have begotten him. You know, you are my son, today I have begotten you. It’s very personal. That doesn’t mean the child is an offspring of God and therefore divine, that’s just a way of talking about royalty. Now, I can understand how we would look at Isaiah 9 and say, well, okay, but it sounds like Jesus. Yeah, well, let’s think of it this way. This is not predicting Jesus, this is not a passage that’s only, let’s say, applicable to Jesus, but Jesus in the minds of Christian theologians and the Christian tradition, he like, hyper-embodies this notion and let’s say, in a trinitarian theology, he embodies this notion more literally. He is Wonderful God, you know, Mighty Counselor, Prince of Peace, Everlasting Father, right? Even though Jesus isn’t Father, you know. So, you know what I mean. That’s, we just see the same thing happening again here. The context is one thing, the context of Isaiah 9 shows us that Isaiah 9 is not impossible to understand apart from Jesus, therefore it must be a prediction. No. Handling this passage in Christian theology is itself a creative handling of an ancient text to bring it into, let’s say, conversation or engagement with the true ultimate truth as you believe it, which is Jesus is Lord.
Okay, one more very quick example, because this is just so much fun. Beginning at the end of Isaiah chapter 52, we have what is called the fourth servant song. And there are others in chapter 42 and 49, and also in chapter 50. And the servant, like, who is this servant? Well, that’s a good question. Let’s see if we can figure that out. But the suffering servant here is described in ways that are very familiar to us, that are alluded to in the New Testament. Things like, “he was despised and rejected by others,” “a man of suffering acquainted with grief or infirmity,” and he was as one who hid his face from others. You know, Jesus was so beaten that he just hid his face. And –
“Surely he has borne our infirmities, and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities,”
He goes on like that. It’s a pretty long chapter, but he even talks about that this suffering servant experiences a death, and the grave and oppressed and afflicted and like a lamb led to the slaughter.
I mean, you look at this and understandably so, my goodness gracious, you read this and say, how can this possibly be about anything other than this one person who is stricken for others and who is afflicted and who has a marred appearance and who goes to the grave. It’s gotta be about Jesus. Well, this could be, let’s say, hyper-fulfilled in Jesus, just like the previous example. This is something where Jesus embodies this kind of an idea fully, which I actually, I do believe that. But Isaiah 52 and 53 is not a prediction of Jesus. “What do you mean it’s not a prediction of Jesus?” Well, here’s why. I am of the opinion, as are many others, not everybody, to be fair, the matter is a bit tricky. But the question is who is the suffering servant in these four servant songs starting in Isaiah 42? And, long story short, I am of the opinion that it’s the people, Israel. Well, it says “he,” it doesn’t say “them.” Yeah, it’s metaphorical language, right? Hosea, his wife Gomer is a “she,” but “she” is representing Israel as a whole, or rebellious Israel. I mean, you can have singular things representing something that’s more than one because it’s metaphorical language.
So, the suffering servant here is specifically, not Israel as a whole, but specifically the suffering servant here is those Judahites, specifically those were living in Jerusalem, those who were taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE and brought into captivity. See, the Israelites at this point, we have to say Judahites because the northern kingdom is gone, it’s just the southern kingdom of Judah left. But the Judahites, they believed that the Babylonian exile was God’s punishment for the sins of the people. Well, who went to Babylon to be punished? Everybody? No, a representative few. See, they are the servant of God, I believe. To me, that makes the most sense of this passage. They are the servant of God and it’s their suffering, it’s their rejection, it’s their being disfigured, which I think is also metaphorical, but it’s their experience which was a punishment and their punishment benefitted the whole, right? So, God’s forgiving the nation, but how is he forgiving the nation? By punishing a few in exile. A small number, a representative sampling, let’s say. They’re the ones who suffer, they’re the ones who are despised and rejected, a man of suffering acquainted with infirmity. That’s who this suffering servant is – it’s Judah. And the whole part about death and the grave, well, again, that’s metaphorical language, and we see this in, back in Deuteronomy 30. We see it in Ezekiel 37 to give two examples. Being outside of the land is death, being inside of the land is life. Yes, when you go into exile, you die. That’s really what that’s about. A spiritual death, but it’s a death nonetheless. And, you know, and maybe it’s something worth looking at on your own, or maybe we can bring some people on the podcast and talk about this sort of thing more, but it’s, you know, I’m not making this up. This is a way of reading this that makes a tremendous amount of sense, that a remnant of Judah, a small portion of Judah suffers, and their suffering atones for the sins of the people.
Now, obviously, when you believe Jesus died on the cross to atone for the sins of the people, you’re going to make a connection between Jesus and the fourth servant song. Which, I think is perfectly valid and really somewhat dramatic and enlightening, but it is still a creative piece of interpretation, because Isaiah 53 is not predicting someone who is not going to live for another 500-600 years. It means something to them right then and there. It’s a sort of comfort to the people, which is a big theme of this section of Isaiah. It’s comfort that God has taken care of the problem, the punishment has happened, the sin has been paid for, and now everyone gets a clean start. You press reset. So, that’s what I see happening in this passage and I hope this has been helpful.
You know, there’s a lot going on here with how the New Testament writers use the Old, and it seems like boy, they’re being really creative, and they are. And I think we can’t escape this creative dimension when we look at how the New Testament writers use the Old Testament. It’s there, it’s staring us in the face, and I think we need to make some sense of it. And the sense we can make of it is by employing these terms like a midrashic creative handling of the text, and the word that I like is a, to sort of put more, give it a little bit more punch, is to call is a Christotelic approach to handling their own Scripture. They’re trying to account for who Jesus is, and their faith in what Jesus is, and what he did. They’re trying to account for that within this old Israelite and Jewish Scripture and tradition. And to do that, they are employing creativity because you have to, because times have changed but God’s word still speaks, and here’s how it speaks to us. And in doing that, the writers of the New Testament who were essentially Jewish are no different than Jews who were living at the time, will come to live in later centuries, and who have been living for centuries before trying to bring this ancient story into their changing context. The New Testament is no different. Where it’s different is that it’s proclaiming Christ and not proclaiming something else.
Pete: Okay folks, let’s call it a day. I’ve had a great time, hope you have too. I could go on and on with this topic for hours, but I won’t. Instead, let me make a quick announcement. I’m really excited about this. On March 26, 8:30 PM eastern time, for ninety minutes, we’re going to have another pay-what-you-want course. We did this a few months ago, and it was just a great time was had by all. And this is going to be taught by me and Jared and the topic is “How to Read the Bible Like Grownups.” We’re going to cover all sorts of stuff in that class, and we hope you can join us, and they’ll be more announcements coming and you’ll know where to click and where to find this. Believe me, we won’t leave you in the dark. Just wanted to let you know now it’s coming up in less than a month. Alright folks, thanks for everything, and again, appreciate you listening, and we’ll be with you soon. See ya!