Thursday, May 3, 2018

Book Write-Up: The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers

Abner Chou.  The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers: Learning to Interpret Scripture from the Prophets and Apostles.  Kregel Academic, 2018.  See here to purchase the book.

Abner Chou teaches biblical studies at the Master’s College and Seminary.

Did the New Testament misinterpret the Old Testament?  Was Matthew 1:23 wrong to relate Isaiah 7:14 to the virgin birth of Jesus, when the context of Isaiah 7:14 was the destruction of the Syro-Ephaimite alliance in the time of Isaiah?  Did Matthew 2:25 err in applying Hosea 11:1 to Jesus’ departure from Egypt as a child, when the passage was originally about Israel’s Exodus from Egypt?  The examples go on.

Christian scholars have proposed various solutions to this apparent problem.  One solution is sensus plenior, the idea that there is deeper meaning to the Old Testament passages, of which even their authors were unaware.  Another solution is to say that the New Testament approached the Hebrew Bible like rabbinic Judaism or Qumran: in a manner that disregarded the passages’ original contexts and applied them to their own situations.  One can then inquire: Is interpreting the Bible out of context is acceptable, since the New Testament authors did so?  Some Christians claim that it was all right for the New Testament authors, since they were divinely-inspired, but it is not all right for you and me.

Chou disagrees with these proposals.  He maintains that the New Testament authors actually were faithful to the authorial intent behind the Old Testament passages.  That does not mean that the Old Testament authors had a perfect understanding of how their eschatological prophecies would be fulfilled in the New Testament.  It does mean, however, that the New Testament interpretations of these passages were consistent with those passages’ authorial intent, even if they built on it.  According to Chou, such an approach to Scripture was not new to the New Testament authors, for within the Hebrew Bible itself one can observe a process of passages building on earlier passages or drawing forth implications from them.  An implication to this, for Chou, is that the New Testament authors did not always have a single passage in mind when they interacted with a text from the Hebrew Bible, but a network of biblical texts.  Moreover, unlike many historical-critics of the Bible, Chou contends that the Old Testament authors themselves believed that their eschatological prophecies related to the future, not merely their own historical contexts.

A lot of the time, Chou argues his case effectively.  There were a many occasions when I was wondering how Chou would get out of a problem, then he would present his case and I thought to myself, “Hmm.”  To cite my favorite example in Chou’s book: Isaiah 7:14-16.  Many historical-critics argue that Immanuel was a child in Isaiah’s day, and that he was a sign that the Syro-Ephraimite alliance that was threatening Judah would be destroyed before Immanuel reached a certain age.  Chou, by contrast, interprets Immanuel as Jesus.  Chou states that Isaiah 7:14-16 can be translated and interpreted to mean that Jesus would experience poverty due to the events that were being set into motion in Isaiah’s day.  The Assyrians would destroy the Syro-Ephraimite alliance, but they would also devastate Judah and mark an early example of foreign subjugation of Judah, which would last until Jesus’ day.  In the midst of this darkness, Jesus would be light, a la Isaiah 9:1-2.  This interpretation was not entirely new to me, but Chou was the first I read who presented it in a manner that was lucid, without making it appear like a convoluted stretch.

Obviously, Chou had his assumptions.  He believes that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, and that the prophets were later than the Pentateuchal writings.  He thinks that David believed in a coming Messiah and that there would be a resurrection of the dead, whereas many scholars would place these ideas later in Jewish thought.  What Chou says may still be relevant to how the New Testament authors interpreted the Hebrew Bible, for the New Testament authors did not know about the historical-critical method; still, they may have believed that they were interpreting the Hebrew Bible in accordance with its original meanings.  Chou offers ideas about what may have been going on in their minds when they did so.  Moreover, Chou’s assumptions lead to intriguing possibilities, as when he argues that Moses in the “Thou shalt not covet” command was alluding to Eve’s coveting of the forbidden fruit in Genesis 3.

There were some occasions when Chou’s argument was somewhat of a stretch.  In Luke 10:25-28, a lawyer asks Jesus how he can obtain eternal life, and Jesus asks the lawyer what the law says.  The lawyer quotes the Torah’s passages about loving God and neighbor, and Jesus replies, “This do, and thou shalt live” (KJV).  Chou goes out of his way to argue that Jesus is not promoting salvation by works, that Jesus has in mind an intertextual web of texts that includes the idea that God must graciously circumcise people’s hearts for them to obey God.  That is not explicit in Luke 10, though.  Who is to say that, just because a New Testament author interprets a certain passage, he must have in mind the intertextual web of the Hebrew Bible’s interpretations of those passages?  Even Chou acknowledges that Second Temple Judaism arrived at a variety of interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, so the existence of the intertextual web does not necessitate that an interpreter would make particular interpretive moves.

There is also the question of whether the New Testament is always consistent with the Hebrew Bible, as Chou argues.  Even if Chou is correct that Hosea depicts a Davidic king leading Israel in a second Exodus, is that not different from Jesus leaving Egypt as a child?  Chou perhaps should have been clearer about how Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies relates to Israel, which is often a key figure in those prophecies.  Moreover, while Chou argues that the Old Testament itself predicts the nullification of a number of laws in the Mosaic covenant, in predicting the circumcision of the heart, what about passages that seem to indicate otherwise?  There is Jeremiah 33:21-22’s promise that the Levites will minister to God perpetually, after Judah is restored, and Ezekiel 40-48’s picture of an eschatological Temple with animal sacrifices and the Zadokite priesthood.  How can that be reconciled with what Hebrews says about the nullification of the Levitical priesthood and sacrifices?

I am still giving this book five stars, though.  It is orderly, methodical, and lucid, even if it requires some concentration to absorb the author’s arguments.  The author has definite views, but he approaches the topic with a tone of humility.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

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