A Controversial Take on the Bible: How the New Testament Treats the Old

We’re nearing the end of our exploration of Peter Enns’s Inspiration and Incarnation. Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen how Enns pushes back against the traditional evangelical way of reading the Bible and has attempted to offer in its place an “Incarnational” way of reading.

Enns begins the second to last chapter with an illustration:

You’re sitting in church and the preacher turns to Genesis 31:22 and reads, “On the third day Laban was told that Jacob had fled.” The preacher then explains that this verse refers to the resurrection of Christ, since he rose from the dead “on the third day” and “fled” from the grave.

Though the sermon could be uplifting, likely something would not sit well with you about the message. If you only casually flip over to Genesis 31 and scan the chapter, it becomes abundantly clear that the chapter has nothing to do with Christ.

Using this common church experience as a starting point, Enns directs his attention this chapter to how the biblical writers interpret each other. It seems like a lot of the time when the authors of the Bible are reflecting on the writings that came before them, they read the text in funny ways or make interpretive leaps that we would never feel comfortable with today. They treat it a lot like how our hypothetical preacher treated the story of Jacob.

At times, we even see Jesus do this. Take for instance his argument in Luke 20 in which he declares that because God introduces himself as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” we can know that there is a resurrection. For most of us Christians, we trust Jesus that there is a resurrection but it’s hard to follow his logic.

To better understand this phenomenon, Enns directs our attention to the “Second-Temple” period. For those unfamiliar, the “Second-Temple” period refers to that stage in Judaism’s history after it had returned from exile and rebuilt the temple (516 BCE) but before the temple was destroyed again (70 CE). During those intervening centuries, the Jews saw considerable development in their religion and also wrote much that interpreted the Scriptures of their past.

We’ve already talked about how this can be seen in Chronicles’ quoting and interpreting of Samuel/Kings. More dramatically, however, this can be seen in Daniel 9 when the prophet reinterprets Jeremiah’s oracle of seventy years of exile as “seventy sevens” years of exile (see your footnotes). Daniel acknowledges Jeremiah but seems to explicitly supersede him.

This sort of stuff is all over the place when you consider non-canonical Second-Temple Jewish literature, books of the Apocrypha like Wisdom of Solomon or various Dead Sea Scroll findings. When we examine these other contemporary works, we find the writers often assuming certain traditions about their Israelite history (e.g. the flood was the fault of Cain or that Lot was acclaimed for his righteousness). We see in this period a way of writing that assumes narrative traditions and that feels free to reinterpret that which came before it. This is the same period—the Second-Temple period—out of which we received the New Testament.

Daniel in the Lions Den

When we look at the writers of the New Testament, we see a lot of these same features. In the very first book, Matthew, we are given multiple prophecies which Jesus is said to fulfill. They generally seem to correlate pretty well with Christ’s life; the only problem is, when you look back at the context of Matthew’s quotations, they have nothing to do with Jesus or even the Messiah. Most of the time they’re about the children of Israel as a whole or some other individual.

Paul makes strange interpretive decisions as well. Consider his argument in Galatians 3 based on the word “seed.” As in English, the word seed in Hebrew and in Greek is a collective noun, meaning it is both singular and plural in its base form. Moreover, the usage of the word in Genesis when applied to Abraham is clearly plural, referring to his descendants (something Paul recognizes in 3:29). Yet Paul says because the word is singular, it is referring to Christ.

In other places, Paul seems to misquote the Old Testament, not reciting scriptures as we know them in the Masoretic Text or the Septuagint (e.g. Romans 11 quoting Isaiah 59). Still, the most well-known example of strange content coming from Paul is his allusion to the rock that followed the Israelites through the wilderness, something not found in the Old Testament but known from extra-biblical sources to be a common Jewish tradition.

Jude does something similar when he alludes to a story involving Moses that is also not known from the Old Testament. Again, his blasé remark can be found in a non-canonical story in The Assumption of Moses. Regarding both Jude and Paul’s allusions to non-canonical material, some have been tempted to write these oddities off as special revelation given to these authors. This is not helpful though, since the authors do not acknowledge anything special about these passing remarks; they assume them without any need to defend them to their readers.

More examples could be given (and are given in Enns’s book), but the point he eventually reaches is that there is something different about how the biblical authors wrote and interpreted, and we have to deal with it.

According to Enns, evangelical Christians have dealt with these peculiarities in a number of ways—either arguing that despite appearances the authors are respecting the Old Testament context or admitting that the authors are not honoring the context but it doesn’t matter because they’re “applying” and not “interpreting.” Some Christians give the authors a pass because they’re apostles or inspired but say that we are not to follow their lead, while others affirm that we should model our hermeneutics exactly as theirs—finding Christ in every nook of the Old Testament.

Enns rejects all of these approaches. He is not comfortable relinquishing our modern standards for authorial intent and historical context (what we sometimes call the grammatical-historical method), but as a believer, he is certain that the apostles are our guides. On account of this, Enns insists that we must understand the biblical authors in their context, we must understand that they wrote just like other Second Temple authors wrote.

The Second Temple method of hermeneutics displayed by the writers of the Bible is one that appreciates interpretation as more of an art than a science and realizes that reading Holy Scripture must be done community. Second Temple authors wrote with a goal in mind.

Beyond this, we see in the New Testament writers a new way of looking at things—a Christotelic way of seeing the world. For the apostles, all of the Old Testament was leading to Christ. This is clearly not the case at face value—and you would never know it on your own—but Jesus revealed to his disciples the true meaning of the scriptures: himself.

For Enns, beyond their Second Temple paradigm, the authors of the New Testament demonstrate how Christian interpretation is to be done. It is not “Christo-centric,” where Jesus is found in every detail. Rather it is Christotelic; where at the end of it all, we can rightfully look back and know that Christ was there all along.

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  1. First, I agree that the OT is not Christo-centric. But I do not agree with Enns that the OT writers meant for it to be. Luke 20 is not directly referring to Christ’s resurrection, but that we live again after death in eternal life. And the fact that Moses’ statement references this, means that he also affirms this.
    Galatians 3:29 does not make seed singular in Greek or any English translation that I know of. I’m not sure how Enns comes to that conclusion.
    His assertions that we are to be skeptical upon a reference to the rock in Exodus is hypocritical to his stance that we are also supposed to judge the validity of scripture based upon outside historical works. When you break down his stance we are critiquing a work of men by other works of men and assuming that one’s that are not scripture hold more validity. That stance is flawed and from a practical standpoint, backward. From this viewpoint, I do not believe there is any detriment to modern standards and leads me to conclude his viewpoint on inspiration is flawed.
    To this point in his book, I do not see any concrete arguments that Enns proposes that lead one to conclude that man’s fallacies have seeped into the canon. Enns’ points are beginning to stretch much further than any of the liberties he is trying to identify in scripture. As a result, I becoming exhausted with the direction he is going and I am beginning to form an opinion that he is approaching his conclusions with a large bias.

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    • As with all of these posts, I have to condense a lot of what Enns says, and in doing so, I’m not sure I clearly communicate all of his ideas. I think there may be some confusion, so let me clarify a few things:

      1) He does not think the NT writers had a Christocentric view; he thinks they had a Chirstotelic view, which he then advocates as what we should learn from them. (You may still disagree that the apostles had a Christotelic view, but I wanted to be clear on what Enns is suggesting.)
      2) Enns does not think that Jesus’s words in Luke 20:37-8 are about his own resurrection; he recognizes that Jesus and the Sadducees are arguing about the general resurrection. The point Enns is making is this:
      Jesus quotes Moses referring to YHWH as “the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” and then says that this suggests YHWH “is not God of the dead, but of the living.” Jesus’s argument is essentially that the assumed tense of Moses’s statement suggests that YHWH is currently the God of the Patriarchs which in turn suggests that the Patriarchs are alive (in some way or another). The problem with this is that this is not how we would understand the quote “the God of Abraham…” We would understand it (I think, rightfully) to be akin to saying “America is the Country of Washington, Jefferson, and Adams;” it doesn’t imply that they are alive. So even though we accept Jesus’s argument, it just strikes modern audiences as strange since it doesn’t follow our basic assumptions. That said, Enns is less concerned with the argument itself and more with the fact that the Sadducees accepted the argument. This is significant because it shows us that this strange way of making a point is not unique to Jesus but accepted even by his enemies.
      3) The point being made about Galatians 3 and Paul’s use of “seed” is this:
      Though Paul is not clear what he’s quoting, most agree that in Gal. 3:16 Paul is citing a verse from Genesis where God makes a promise to Abraham (see the quotation marks in most translations). Paul says that the promise was made concerning Abraham’s “seed” (rather than “seeds”), and because it is singular, it is referring to Christ. The strange thing about this argument is that Paul (and his audience) know that seed, even in the singular, can refer to multiple people (like the word “sheep” can mean one or many sheep). Moreover, the context of Genesis makes it clear that the promise was, in fact, about multiple people (the nation of Israel). As an aside, Enns points to Gal. 3:29 as an example of Paul using the singular “seed” as the object for the plural “you are.”
      4) I didn’t care for this chapter much myself because Enns is trying to make two distinct arguments but he weaves them together indiscriminately. The argument he is making regarding the rock that followed the Israelites in the wilderness is related to his argument concerning the Apocrypha and Dead Sea Scrolls (which I kinda skim over in my summary); his argument is this:
      When we look at the Bible, we see them doing the same things their contemporaries–other ancient Jewish writers–were doing. Particularly, they make a lot of assumptions when recounting biblical history. For example, when Stephen mentions Moses in his sermon, he says that he was educated in Pharaoh’s court. Stephen feels no need to comment on or defend this non-biblical claim that Moses was educated because he and every other Jew had learned this as a part of the Moses story. (It’s similar to how Christians today assume there were three wisemen.) This example along with many others (including Paul’s assumption of a traveling rock), indicates to Enns that the biblical authors (a) were influenced by their Jewish-but-not-necessarily-biblical culture and (b) they demonstrated traits of their Second Temple context in their writing. Enns is not making an argument about whether or not there really was a rock; he is rather trying to point out that the writers are assuming non-biblical accounts of biblical things to be true.

      Enns certainly is biased as all people are. But I hope it’s more clear that this chapter was for him not meant to attack Scripture as being unreliable, but to demonstrate that much of the Bible was written by authors with very different understandings of how interpretation is to be done. He even concludes by saying that the New Testament way of interpretation (what he would call Christotelic) is worth recapturing even if it doesn’t sit right with us modern readers.

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  2. I agree with #1, and it is not anything that causes harm to either side of inspiration.
    2) This argument doesn’t hold much weight because the accepted belief of Christians is that there is eternal life for those who follow God. America is not able to offer that same promise so the comparison does no good. Anyone hearing this message, regardless of time period, should be able to understand this. Why would Christ make this statement if there was no teaching behind it? The whole point is that it goes against basic assumptions.
    3) So Enns claims that Paul is misquoting “seed” when he quotes Genesis. That is an interesting view. There are a few different reasons that this could possibly be. But they all boil down to Paul trying to show that those that are in Christ are the seed (because they are “God’s chosen people”)
    4) The problem with this reasoning is that you have to have a foundation for beliefs somewhere. At what point can we agree on what is foundational and what needs to be explained beforehand. What is assumed vs. what is a new teaching? It immediately leads to the idea that we do not have a foundation in Genesis because it was metaphorical. The time between Noah to Abraham overlaps by ~58 years. How does Noah’s story become metaphoric while Abraham is literal?

    If Enns is asserting that biblical authors wrote based on their flawed understanding, then he is clearly attacking scripture. He assumes that modern readers can clarify what God meant to say. I am not comfortable with that all.

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