Source Criticism and Intentional Narrative

(Whew, life has been busy these days, and posts have been few. I formally apologize to both of my readers for keeping you waiting. =)

The Gospel writers were intentional in writing everything they did. They were narrators, not copyists.

I think the source criticism movement has forgotten about the ending of the Gospel of John: "Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." Sadly, the picture that many have of the (synoptic) Gospel writers is that they were limited to source documents they basically copied from, of course with some stylistic adjustment here and there. 

Such is certainly not the case.


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Justifying God in Luke and Malachi

I "attended" The Gospel Coalition's 2011 conference via online stream this past week, and I must say, it was worth it. The theme was preaching Christ from the OT. It was basically a bunch of really good sermons from the OT to teach by example of how to connect from the OT to the NT. D. A. Carson closed it out with a (fascinating!) sermon on Melchizedek, and in his conclusion he made a comment that greatly resonates with me: "I want you to see the NT authors are reading the OT carefully."


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Understanding More than the Disciples

When studying the Gospels, it is a valid interpretative principle that we can, nay, we must understand more than the disciples did. If we were to only understand Jesus and his words based on what they understood at that time, then we would be radically misreading the Gospels.


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MacArthur on Reading the Old Testament

There was an interesting aside comment John MacArthur made in one his sermons on Luke that I ran into awhile back. The comment was spoken toward the end of his sermon where Jesus says, "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath" (Luke 6:5). He moves beyond this situation and generalizes an interpretive principle with the following words:

And, beloved, I say it to you, you can never ever understand the Old Testament law without the New Testament interpretation of that law by Christ and the apostles who wrote the words that Christ wanted them to write to interpret the truth. Jesus is the interpreter of God's will, God's law and God's Word.  (cf. Jesus: The Divine Truth-Teller; emphasis mine)


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A Simple Reading of the Bible?

I recently listened through the messages from the 2009 "People Growth" conference, and they were fantastic. Much to be challenged about and to put into practice.

However, Philip Jenson at one point began to talk in "Biblical Theology of Ministry 2: All God's People as Prophets and Disciple-Makers" around 50:54 about interpretation, which I found rather unhelpful and harmful.  He said (among other things):

Hermeneutics is a load of nonsense . . . a silly subject . . . it's meaningless and stupid.

Never interpret the Bible. . . . The Bible is the interpretation. 

You don't interpret literature, you read literature.

Now, I appreciate much of what I heard from Jenson, and I appreciate much of what I see coming out of Matthias Media, and have a whole lot to learn from him, but I think this way of speaking is naive and harmful. I think it will lead to frustration in those trying to understand the Bible to simply be told "just read it".

He is right to avoid an overly scholastic approach, and I think he is reacting against false ideas of interpretation today which exalt the role of the interpretor as having something to add to the text, and he rightly places the focus on comprehension and obedience, but I think the way he talks about it discourages precise and careful study altogether.  (At another point, he dismissed commentaries as just scholars talking to each other.)

The question I would like to ask is, Whose reading, then, is the right one? To what, then, do we appeal when my reading of the text and yours are different. Are there not principles governing our "reading" of the text? Is all scholarship, then, in vain? Changing out the word "interpret" for "read" avoids the heart of issue.

He chooses 1Co 15 as the example text. "'Christ Jesus died' is the fact, and 'for our sins' is the interpretation." That is a simple enough passage. How about Hebrews 6? How shall we go about discerning which reading is right? Pretending that we don't have any preunderstandings approaching the text and saying "just read it" doesn't make our reading any more accurate nor our job any easier. Being aware of our biases, and having principles to guide our reading is a matter of wisdom.

I love what he had to say about people growth and gospel growth, but I don't like what he had to say about hermeneutics and interpretation. I am all  for a focus on obedience, and for the avoidance of an overly scholastic focus in interpretation. I am definitely against current postmodern trends in hermeneutics. But the way he has tried to do this, I think, encourages individualism in interpretation and discourages rigorous study. I am all for focusing on what the text simply says--but I think it is unhelpful to pretend this is always simple.




Grammatical-Historical Interpretation, Matthew 2:3, and the Rejection of Christ

How are we to interpret narrative texts? This has been a big question on my mind these days, largely raised by Sailhamer's The Meaning of the Pentateuch. What role does history play in the interpretation of the biblical text?

Is the locus of meaning in the historical reconstruction of the event, or in the written text itself? i.e. Is the "meaning" found by reconstructing the event, filling in the details, etc.? Or is the meaning found simply by understanding what the text says? 

One very intriguing thing Sailhamer says is that "Grammatical-Historical" originally meant "grammatical, namely, historical", rather than describing two parts of a process: analyze the grammar and analyze the history, our present "grammatical and historical" approach. That is very interesting indeed.

A good example of this Matthew 2:3, "When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him." The "this" that they heard was that the King of the Jews--Jesus--had been born. 

Now, it is very understandable why the ungodly power monger Herod would be troubled by this. Why, however, all of Jerusalem would be troubled with him is a little bit more perplexing. Why would they be troubled by the news of the birth of their promised King? Why be troubled when they at present had such a wicked king (Herod) and lived under the rule of the Roman Empire? Why be troubled, especially during a time in history it appears that messianic expectation was indeed at a high point?

Now, most commentaries will give an explanation something along the lines of this: All of Jerusalem feared as well because they feared what Herod would do as a result of his rage over the birth of this opposing King. Robertson is typical in commenting that "the whole city was upset because the people knew only too well what he could do when in a rage over the disturbance of his plans." (Word Pictures)

Is this what Matthew intended? Where does one see this in the text? This interpretation might be called "historical" since it involves a historical reconstruction of the person of king Herod and about his megalomania and his cruel actions, and the people's dislike of him, etc.

The conclusion of this kind of interpretation seems to be that Jerusalem was not exactly opposed to the birth of the Messiah, they were simply afraid of how Herod might react. In general though, Jerusalem was open and excited about the possible coming of the Messiah. 

But is that how Matthew presents this event? He says the king was troubled and all Jerusalem with him." The preposition "with" is meta. BDAG defines this usage as denoting "the company in which an activity or experience takes place". Jerusalem is in company with Herod in being troubled. It is difficult to see the Jerusalemites distancing themselves from Herod and being disturbed for a different reason or cause than he, in the way Matthew phrased it.

Matthew Henry, I think has a better commentary:

Yet, it seems, all Jerusalem, except the few there that waited for the consolation of Israel, were troubled with Herod, and were apprehensive of I know not what ill consequences of the birth of this new king, that it would involve them in war, or restrain their lusts; they, for their parts, desired no king but Herod; no, not the Messiah himself.

I think he rightly picks out Matthew's meaning here. Jerusalem was not excited about the coming of the Messiah. They did not rejoice at his coming. Fear at Herod's response may be involved, but it is not what Matthew highlights. 

I found this fact particularly significant in studying the introductory chapters of Luke's Gospel. In particular, in Luke 2:21-40, we see the witness of faithful Israelites Simeon and Anna, which demonstrates the continuity between the OT and Jesus. Luke intends to connect Jesus with the faithful remnant. The OT faithful received their Messiah with great joy. Christianity, therefore, is the proper heir of the OT faith and Scriptures, not Judaism. Judaism parted with God before Christ came, and demonstrated it when they rejected Christ.

I believe this truth is what is communicated (albeit in part) in Matthew 2:3. Jerusalem did not rejoice in him, but rather rejected him. The capital and religious center of the Jews was troubled at the birth of their Savior! Is not the solemn and horrible fact of John 1:11 hinted at by this verse? "He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him."




Reading Narratives

It is tempting when interpreting narratives to not actually read them.

For some reason there is a nasty habit we have picked up that tries to figure out everything that the text doesn't say (i.e. historical reconstruction) rather than figuring out what the text actually does say. Much time in commentaries is spent filling in details that Luke did not record. But does this really help us understand what Luke said?

I had started reading The Meaning of the Pentateuch by John Sailhamer around February, but have since put it on the back burner. I am suspicious of the thesis of the book and don't want to spend too much time on it right now, but some parts of it are simply fascinating, especially regarding his long discussion on hermeneutics as it relates to historical narratives. He argues evangelicals have largely (and unwittingly) shifted the locus of meaning to the historical event rather than placing it in the text itself. The question is this: Where is God's revelation? Is it in understanding the historical event, or in understanding the biblical text? Where is the "locus"? Is it in the "things" or is it in the words?

He has a great illustration of a Rembrandt painting. Would you understand Rembrant's point by studying his painting or by studying the object he painted? By studying his painting of course! (Do not misunderstand: he does not say the text misrepresents the historical reality; it presents it accurately, but including, excluding and arranging material so as to communicate a particular meaning.) 

You do not fill in the places Rembrandt shadowed. You understand the text through understanding what the author said, understanding things left out were left out by the author, and thus are not part of his point.

It was a very interesting discussion. It has helped me as I've been starting preaching on Luke (which has been largely the culprit for the lack of activity here lately). It is tempting to want to spend much time filling in gaps, rather than understanding what was not gapped. Luke told us what he wants us to know. What Luke didn't say is not pertinent to understanding Luke, otherwise he would have told us. Sola Scriptura!

Interpreting narratives requires reading narratives, and understanding what the narrator said, not worrying about what he didn't say. 

Matt Hauck (郝柏昇)

A once enemy now son, forgiven and freed by Jesus' blood, adopted and called by grace for glory.   (more...)