Oct 18, 2017

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PRINCIPLES OF INTERPRETATION

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In publications dealing with prophecy, all too often Biblical (prophetic) prediction and what is considered to be its fulfillment are neither presented with any reference to an author's underlying presuppositions (which are statements or 'facts' that the author assumes to be true about Scripture), nor with any comment on principles of interpretation used by that author. Many prophecies and fulfillments are as clear as the sunlight, and need little or no interpretation. At the other extreme there are veiled prophecies for which a good knowledge of the Bible is required to recognize them as prophecies. (It is helpful to read an introduction to Biblical prophecy and its interpretation.) Without wanting to go into details, we propose the following checklist to determine whether or not a particular view of scripture corresponds to the principles of Biblical interpretation while also doing full justice to an evangelical AND messianic-Jewish perspective at the same time.
"No prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." (2Pet 1:20-21) This applies to the Scripture as a whole. The Holy Spirit is needed to interpret the text but even the Holy Spirit pays attention to rules of grammar and semantics so that His message can and will be understood. We nevertheless need to allow the Holy Spirit to shed light on the deeper meaning of a text that previously was not recognized as a prophecy for our time. For instance: the last prophecy of the Old Testament (in Malachi) is now seen as a promise of what the Spirit will do. He is reconciling and uniting the fathers with the children,which means uniting the Jews with the Gentiles - a view that is confirmed in Ephesians 2:14,16 by the symbol of the breakdown of the dividing wall between the two groups.
[An observation: there is currently a growing evangelical movement that is rallying behind the concept of the 'One New Man', but instead of applying it to the needed reconcilation and unification of the Jews and Gentiles, they are using it to tout a reconciliation between American Christian churches and ethnic minorities, such as the disenfranchised American Indians. Though this is certainly a worthy cause, it is only second best, because Christians should be focussing their primary efforts on the original intention of Paul's word regarding the "One New Man". This concept refers to the unification of Jews and Gentiles under the Messiah for which all of creation waits eagerly (Rom 8:19). By trading in the best, primary use of this Scripture for a second best cause, are we not doing harm to the original cause by misapplying its meaning? Also, if Christians can do this for ethnic minorities, how much more so for the Jews, whom the Church has wronged throughout history. See antisemitism and VI.D.1.Reconciliation].
Here is a CHECKLIST for evaluating any particular "view" of scripture. ('View' = meaning the prophecy as well as the fulfillment that belongs to it):
  1. Does this 'view' (or interpretation) of a) Scripture derive its meaning within its context, or is it taken out of context? Context is defined as follows:
    1. context at the level of the text:
      context from phrase to sentence to paragraph to book including the Bible as a whole, without cutting out all or parts of the OT [for instance of Daniel or of Zechariah] or even parts of the NT, Scripture interpreting Scripture. [The analysis of specifically apocalyptic books like the book of Daniel or of the Revelation given to John require additional treatment as they constitute literary units of their own.]
    2. context at the level of culture:
      Jewish, Hebrew culture of the time of the original recipients and their ability to understand the message concerned]
    3. context of the specific time of Jesus/Yeshua, the apostles and the Early Church that indicate how OT prophecies are to be understood
(Note in particular that the Master quoted from a very important passage in the book of Daniel when He referred to the end-times in Matt 24:15, confirmed by Mark 13:14)
  1. Does this view follow a basic rule of thumb for interpretation: "Interpret the Bible literally unless implicit or explicit teaching of the NT suggests typological interpretation". (1)
  2. Does this view do justice to the principle of "progressive revelation"? "Progressive revelation" means that as scriptural revelation unfolds and expands, any preceding revelation is not superceded and replaced.

THEREFORE . . .

  1. Does this view correspond to the Jewishness of the Gospel, the Jewishness of the Bible and the Jewishness of Jesus/Yeshua and the apostles themselves? (This follows from the principle of interpretation according to the cultural context.)
  2. Does this view define the use of its terminology, especially where it refers to the basic terms like 'law', 'Israel', 'church' and other key terms?
  3. Does this view confuse the Church with Israel or remove the identification of the Messiah with the nation of Israel? [As an example for the supreme authority for all messianic interpretation: Jesus/Yeshua on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:27,44) interpreted Scripture as all speaking of himself.]
  4. Is this view based on a translation, or does it draw its meaning from the source language? [Example: 'tabernacle' in the KJV is used for both Hebrew terms 'sukkah' and 'mishkan'. In Acts 15 the former is used (Greek equivalent) for the lineage of King David whereas the latter is normally used for the tent of the ark of the covenant.] It usually helps to consult more than one translation for those who cannot benefit from the original Biblical languages.
  5. Does this view confuse interpretation with application?
  6. Does this view claim a rigidity and exclusivity to the knowledge of God's plan that borders on arrogance (date setting?)?
  7. Does this view do justice to the nature of a Holy God as one who is graciously loving but also exercises his righteous justice?
  8. Is this view consistent with God's character, or does it slander His holy attributes? [particularly making him a liar, a covenant breaker etc.]
  9. Is that which may look like a 'fulfillment' of a prediction merely a quote of a passage that was not meant to be prophetic but simply serves to make a point? [If it is claimed that the mere use of OT quotes in the NT as such does not necessarily constitute a fulfillment unless this is explicitly stated, fulfillments may at times be listed in this concordance that could be handled as mere references to the OT. We are open to be corrected where this applies. This concerns mainly prophecies to the Messiah's first coming.]
  10. Does this view observe the limits of interpretation? Where is the limit between interpretation and speculation? It would seem appropriate to answer this question with an excerpt from Dr. David Stern's Jewish New Testament Commentary (2) on a passage of prophetic fulfillment in XYZMatt 2:15:
"We would recommend you to consider the following explanations on Matt 2:15 Out of Egypt I called my son. Hosea 11:1 clearly refers not to the Messiah but to the people of Israel, who were called God's son even before leaving Egypt (Exodus 4:22). The previous two Tanakh quotations (Mat 1:23; 2:6) involved literal fulfillment, but this does not. In what sense, then, does Yeshua's flight to Egypt fulfill what Adonai had said through the prophet?
To answer, we must understand the four basic modes of Scripture interpretation used by the rabbis. These are:
  1. P'shat ("simple")-the plain, literal sense of the text, more or less what modern scholars mean by "grammatical-historical exegesis," which looks to the grammar of the language and the historical setting as background for deciding what a passage means. Modern scholars often consider grammatical-historical exegesis the only valid way to deal with a text; pastors who use other approaches in their sermons usually feel defensive about it before academics. But the rabbis had three other modes of interpreting Scripture, and their validity should not be excluded in advance but related to the validity of their implied presuppositions.
  2. Remez ("hint")-wherein a word, phrase or other element in the text hints at a truth not conveyed by the p'shat. The implied presupposition is that God can hint at things of which the Bible writers themselves were unaware.
  3. Drash or midrash ("search")-an allegorical or homiletical application of a text. This is a species of eisegesis-reading one's own thoughts into the text-as opposed to exegesis, which is extracting from the text what it actually says. The implied presupposition is that the words of Scripture can legitimately become grist for the mill of human intellect, which God can guide to truths not directly related to the text at all.
  4. Sod ("secret")-a mystical or hidden meaning arrived at by operating on the numerical values of the Hebrew letters, noting unusual spellings, transposing letters, and the like. For example, two words, the numerical equivalents of whose letters add up to the same amount, are good candidates for revealing a secret through what Arthur Koestler in his book on the inventive mind called "bisociation of ideas." The implied presupposition is that God invests meaning in the minutest details of Scripture, even the individual letters.
The presuppositions underlying remez, drash and sod obviously express God's omnipotence, but they also express his love for humanity, in the sense that he chooses out of love to use extraordinary means for reaching people's hearts and minds. At the same time, it is easy to see how remez, drash and sod can be abused, since they all allow, indeed require, subjective interpretation; and this explains why scholars, who deal with the objective world, hesitate to use them. These four methods of working a text are remembered by the Hebrew word "PaRDeS," an acronym formed from the initials; it means "orchard" or "garden."
What, then, is Mattityahu doing here? Some allege he is misusing Scripture, twisting the meaning of what Hosea wrote from its context in order to apply it to Yeshua. Such an accusation stands only if Mattityahu is dealing with the p'shat. For there is no question that the p'shat of Hosea 11:1 applies to the nation of Israel and not to Yeshua.
-> Some think Mattityahu is using the drash approach, making a midrash in which he reads the Messiah into a verse dealing with Israel. Many rabbis used the same procedure; Mattityahu's readers would not have found it objectionable.
-> Nevertheless, I believe Mattityahu is not doing eisegesis but giving us a remez, a hint of a very deep truth. Israel is called God's son as far back as Exodus 4:22. The Messiah is presented as God's son a few verses earlier in Mattityahu (Mat 1:18-25), reflecting Tanakh passages such as Isaiah 9:5-6, 6-7), Psalm 2:7 and Proverbs 30:4. Thus the Son equals the son: the Messiah is equated with, is one with, the nation of Israel. This is the deep truth Mattityahu is hinting at by calling Yeshua's flight to Egypt a "fulfillment" of Hosea 11:1.
This fact, that the Messiah Yeshua stands for and is intimately identified with his people Israel, is an extremely important corporate aspect of the Gospel generally neglected in the individualistically oriented Western world. The individual who trusts Yeshua becomes united with him and is "immersed" (baptized; see 3:1&N) into all that Yeshua is (see Actes 2:38&N), including his death and resurrection-so that his sin nature is regarded as dead, and his new nature, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is regarded as alive (Rom 6:3-6&N). Likewise, just as this intimate identification with the Messiah holds for the individual, so the Messiah similarly identifies with and embodies national, corporate Israel. Indeed it is only because Yeshua identifies himself with the Jewish people, national Israel, the "olive tree" into which Gentile Christians have been "grafted" (Rom 11:17-24), that he can plausibly identify with the Messianic Community, the Church, as "head of the Body" (1Cor 11:3; Eph 1:10, 22; 4:15; 5:23; 1Cor 1:18; 2:19) and "cornerstone" of the building (below at Mat 21:42; Mk 12:10; Act 4:11; Eph 2:20, 1 Pet 2:6-7).
Modern readers of the Bible, by using "grammatical-historical exegesis," ignore all modes of interpretation except the p'shat, discounting them as eisegesis. This is in reaction to the tendency of the Church Fathers in the second through eighth centuries to over-allegorize, an error which probably resulted from their misunderstanding the limitations of, and therefore misusing, the other three rabbinic approaches to texts. But the New Testament is a Jewish book, written by Jews in a Jewish context; and the first-century Jewish context included all four ways of handling texts. Mattityahu knew perfectly well that Hosea was not referring to Yeshua, to a Messiah, or even to any individual. Yet he also sensed that because Yeshua in a profound yet recondite way embodies Israel, his coming from Egypt re-enacted in a spiritually significant way the Exodus of the Jewish people. Since remez and p'shat have different presuppositions one should expect fulfillment of a prophecy by remez to be different from literal fulfillment. At Mat 1:23 and Mat 2:6 the plain, literal sense of the text, the p'shat, suffices to show how the prophecies are fulfilled, but here it does not.
The phrase, "what Adonai had said through the prophet," takes our attention off the prophet himself and puts it on God who spoke through him. It lets the reader understand that Adonai might have been saying more than what the prophet himself understood when he wrote. It prepares him for the possibility that behind Hosea's p'shat was God's remez to be revealed in its time and lends credibility to the "PaRDeS" mode of interpretation.
-> Recognition that there are four modes of Jewish exegesis also resolves much of the controversy concerning how certain passages in the Tanakh ought to be interpreted. For example, most Christians say that Isaiah 53 refers to the Messiah, and some (though not all) traditional Jews say it refers to Israel. But if there is a mystical identification between the Messiah and the people whose king he is (an idea expounded at length by the best-known Christian theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Barth, in his Church Dogmatics), then the interpretational conflict vanishes; both claimants hold part of the total truth.
Moreover, the idea that the Messiah personifies or is identified intimately with Israel is a Jewish one. First of all, we see it in the Tanakh itself. Compare Isaiah 49:3 ("You are my servant Israel, in whom I will be glorified.") with Isaiah 49:6 ("Is it too slight a thing that you should be my servant … to restore the preserved of Israel?"). The servant is at once Israel and he who restores Israel, that is, the Messiah. In chapter 12 of Raphael Patai's The Messiah Texts he quotes Pesikta Rabbati 161-162, where the Messiah is called Efrayim (a name symbolizing Israel) and is at the same time presented as bearing Israel's sufferings. Likewise the thirteenth-century work which is at the core of the Jewish mystical approach called kabbalah, the Zohar (2:212a), links the Messiah's suffering with that of Israel. Patai also retells the eighteenth-century Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav's story of the viceroy and the king's daughter, adding that most interpreters understand the viceroy to represent both Israel and the suffering Messiah."
(1) B. Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, (1950) p. 247 in J. Barton Payne, Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy, (1973), p. 107
(2) Dr. David H. Stern, The Jewish New Testament Commentary, (Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications) 1996. Used with permission of Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc.; PO Box 615; Clarksville, MD 21029. Quoted by permission.

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