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.
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.