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OT Audiences: Beyond the Bible (Clarity of the Bible IV)

Are there any books by the audiences of the Old Testament? Yes. As we have seen earlier on in the series, the Bible is a whole library of books, and many of the authors were each other’s audiences. Also, voices of audiences outside Scripture have also come down to us as well: translators, commentators, and authors of other books.

These voices slightly overlap with the latest Old Testament authors, but with all the authors, they shared the unique, strong Jewish heritage and the ancient pre-Christian environment. So what they say about the meaning of the Old Testament is a huge help to us.

In Greek

Starting in the third century B.C., Jews translated their Scriptures (our Old Testament) into Greek. Their translation is known as the Septuagint.

‘Wait,’ someone might say, ‘I thought this was a list of voices outside the Old Testament.’ True, translations (if they are good) say the same thing as the original. But they say it in entirely different words, chosen (in this case) by entirely different people.

Here’s why this is great. Language naturally has fuzzy bits, but different languages have different fuzzy bits. If I say to you and your friend, ‘How are you?’ I might be asking about you alone or about both of you. The English you is fuzzy in this way. However, Chinese does not have this particular fuzz. Ni means you (one person) and nimen means you (two or more). Is Chinese the more specific language? Only in some ways. It has its own fuzzy bits that are not in English! So if you have the same message in two languages, each one of them clears up things that the other leaves fuzzy.

This is what happens with the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament. Because the Greek version comes from ancient Jews, who had special insight into the original Hebrew, it is the same message in a different language. Lots of fuzzy verses in the Hebrew Old Testament are clear in the Septuagint, because Greek has different fuzzy bits. Examples are pointed out in the footnotes of many English Bibles. (Often they refer to the Septuagint by the abbreviation LXX.)

In Aramaic

After the Exile (6th century B.C.), Jews more and more wanted translation and commentary in the Aramaic language on their Scriptures. The first were oral. This is probably what the Book of Nehemiah refers to in 8:8: ‘They gave an oral translation of God’s Law and explained it so that the people could understand it.’1 Written editions survive from the first few centuries after Christ, but the oral material is linked with the growth of synagogues long before Christ.2

This Aramaic material includes the Talmud, which comments on how to apply the Books of Moses. In the Talmud, ‘a whole people has deposited its feelings, its beliefs, its soul’,3 and these feelings, beliefs, and soul centre around Scripture.

The other major part of the Aramaic material is the Targums: translations/paraphrases of not only the Books of Moses but almost the whole Old Testament. Both as translations and sort-of commentaries, the Targums are ‘an important witness to the text of the Old Testament, comparable in value with the Septuagint’4 (italics mine). Like in a courtroom, the more witnesses to what was said, the better.

Hebrew grammarian Heinrich Prinz drew on the Old Testament and Targums together to study the teaching of the Trinity. Contrary to the common Muslim claim (since the 7th century A.D.) that the prophets had always been anti-Trinitarian like them, Prinz showed that many pre-Christian Jews (including the writers of Scripture) recognised the Word/Angel/Son of God and Spirit of God, laying the groundwork for the clear teaching of the Trinity.5

Other Books

In the centuries leading up to Christ, Jewish literature produced several books outside the Old Testament set. (There are traditions of publishing them along with the Bible under headings like Apocrypha.) We will look at two examples: Ecclesiasticus, a set of proverbs similar to the Biblical Book of Proverbs, and Tobit, a fanciful tale of the fortunes of Tobit the righteous Jew. Both books show respect for the Old Testament set.

Some in atheist/sceptical circles claim to see little or no real morals in the Old Testament, only selfish Israelite patriotism and priestly elitism. (This criticism perhaps says more about our own age, which is cynical about both patriotism and priesthood.) The wisdom in Ecclesiasticus and the righteousness in Tobit certainly affirm patriotism and accept priesthood, while also putting them together with some of the values that people do like nowadays, like compassion. The Old Testament itself does this, but Ecclesiasticus and Tobit help by further confirming that early audiences took it that way. They do this as independent voices, not just copying the statements of Scripture.

So…

Septuagint, Talmud, Targums, Apocrypha: It’s not just a list of words for a spelling bee; it’s a diverse set of witnesses that show us how the books of the Old Testament came across to early audiences.

References

1F. F. Bruce. (1950). The Books and the Parchments (3rd ed., p. 53). London: Pickering and Inglis.

2Payne. D. F. (1996). Targums. In I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.

3Darmesteter, A. (1897). The Talmud. Jewish Publication Society of America.

4Payne. D. F. (1996). Targums. In I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.

5Prinz, H. (1863). The great mystery: How can three be one? London: William Macintosh.

Earth viewed from space

Is a young earth necessary?

Preemptive apology – Trump shall be mentioned.

In some of the circles I found myself in these days, I have found just as much contempt for newly elected Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, than for the new President himself, Donald J. Trump. One American colleague went as far as to say that a Trump assassination wouldn’t do America any good because then “a pro-life, homophobic, evolution-denying evangelical” would ascend the throne.

To avoid contributing to the countless words already spent and spilt on this latest election, I am only going to focus on the last part of this blanket statement. Are evangelicals – those who trust and share the Good News of God saving sinners through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – fairly criticised as the science-haters that so many people seem to think they are? To put the question differently – are Christians required to read the first three chapters of Genesis in a literal sense?

Some readers may be shocked that I am not “taking the Bible seriously” in rejecting a literal interpretation of this passage. Others may be relieved that I have broken the chains of orthodoxy, freeing myself from absolute meaning altogether. These are those who declare “Ask not what this text means, but what this text means to you.” Sorry to disappoint both of you.

What does literal even mean?

Literally

The word literal and its derivatives are having a rough time at the moment. Modern English speakers use the word all the time, ridding it of all meaning in the process. The word means literally nothing right now. In fact, Justin Taylor has recently called for a moratorium on the use of this word in biblical interpretation, due to the varying meanings this word can take.

My experience with literal in a biblical interpretive setting is that of the ‘plain interpretation’ of any given text. In other words, interpreting something in a basic or common sense way, without metaphor or exaggeration. A plain sense reading of Genesis 1-3 seems to suggest a six 24 hour days view with the varying genealogies of Genesis adding up to a rather youthful 6,000 years old.

We could go at it for hours over exegesis and hermeneutics and be no closer to unlocking the meaning of Genesis’ beginning. While I personally think that the text itself does provide strong arguments for particular positions, a much simpler point of view provides some much needed clarity:

What is the purpose of the Bible?

Two Books

In a previous post, I mentioned the distinction between the two books that God has written – creation (God’s general revelation) and salvation (God’s special revelation). Theological concept becomes reality when we approach the creation account with this distinction in mind. God’s intent in Genesis, as with all other parts of the Bible, is to communicate his great plan of salvation for all of those who would trust in Christ. This means that he is not primarily (or even at all) concerned with teaching his people the age of the earth or the precise processes by which it came into existence.

Any serious student of Scripture knows that the plot of the biblical drama is the salvation of sinners by a gracious God, who has cast Jesus Christ in the leading role of Saviour. This story of salvation is only found in the pages of special revelation – nothing in nature contains words this sweet. If God’s book of salvation (the Bible) has the story of salvation as its content, then what does nature contain? A whole lot of juicy content for sure, but nothing salvific, nothing of utmost importance to beggars like us.

So what about the age of the earth? God may well have had a different intent in these chapters of Genesis 1-3, but can we still discern anything concrete via exegesis? I believe so. Study. Read. Discuss. THINK. But if you miss the forest for the trees, as so many “defenders of the faith” have done in advancing a young-earth-or-go-home ideology, you will end up doing an injustice not only to yourself, but to the world at large. 

A sin-sick world doesn’t need to hear the evils of evolution. It needs the gospel.

R.C. Sproul Interviews D.A. Carson on Biblical Exegesis

In this video, two scholars sit down for a short discussion about hermeneutics, problem Bible passages, and exegetical fallacies.

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Audio from the Bradley v Flannagan Debate: Is God the Source of Morality?

This last Monday we were pleased to have a great crowd of over 400 at the debate between atheist philosopher, Raymond Bradley, and Christian philosopher and blogger, Matt Flannagan.

If you weren’t able to make it but are interested in listening to the exchange, the audio is now available:

to stream the audio – click here,

to download the file – click here (it is about 45 mb).

You can also read the opening statements on Matt’s blog (Ray’s opening statement is here and Matt’s is here).

We’re hoping to get video from the debate up on YouTube within the next few weeks but until then, be sure to let us know what you think of the debate in the comments.

Don Carson on Learning How to Interpret the Bible

Modern Reformation have made available a good article by Don Carson, research professor of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, on the discipline of interpreting the Bible:

“Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpretation; biblical hermeneutics is the art and science of interpreting the Bible. At the time of the Reformation, debates over interpretation played an enormously important role. These were debates over interpretation, not just over interpretations. In other words, the Reformers disagreed with their opponents not only over what this or that passage meant, but over the nature of interpretation, the locus of authority in interpretation, the role of the church and of the Spirit in interpretation, and much more.

During the last half-century, so many developments have taken place in the realm of hermeneutics that it would take a very long article even to sketch them in lightly. Sad to say, nowadays many scholars are more interested in the challenges of the discipline of hermeneutics itself, than in the Bible that hermeneutics should help us handle more responsibly. Ironically, there are still some people who think that there is something slightly sleazy about interpretation. Without being crass enough to say so, they secretly harbor the opinion that what others offer are interpretations, but what they offer is just what the Bible says.

Carl F. H. Henry is fond of saying that there are two kinds of presuppositionalists: those who admit it and those who don’t. We might adapt his analysis to our topic: There are two kinds of practitioners of hermeneutics: those who admit it and those who don’t.

The fact of the matter is that every time we find something in the Bible (whether it is there or not!), we have interpreted the Bible. There are good interpretations and there are bad interpretations, but there is no escape from interpretation.”

Carson offers some guidelines for resolving difficult interpretive issues:

(1) As conscientiously as possible, seek the balance of Scripture, and avoid succumbing to historical and theological disjunctions.

(2) Recognize that the antithetical nature of certain parts of the Bible, not least some of Jesus’ preaching, is a rhetorical device, not an absolute. The context must decide where this is the case.

(3) Be cautious about absolutizing what is said or commanded only once.

(4) Carefully examine the biblical rationale for any saying or command.

(5) Carefully observe that the formal universality of proverbs and of proverbial sayings is only rarely an absolute universality. If proverbs are treated as statutes or case law, major interpretive and pastoral errors will inevitably ensue.

(6) The application of some themes and subjects must be handled with special care, not only because of their intrinsic complexity, but also because of essential shifts in social structures between Biblical times and our own day.

Read the whole thing here. You will need to become a subscriber to read back issues of the magazine, and this article by Carson will no longer be viewable after the close of the month. For further work by Carson on Biblical exegesis, check out his excellent Exegetical Fallacies. It is a must-have for serious students of the Bible.

(HT: Jonny King)

Hermeneutic Principles in Typological Interpretation

Introduction

McGrath says there is a sense in which the history of Christian theology can be regarded as the history of biblical interpretation.[1] This is particularly true of typological interpretation. It’s history touches the earliest stages of the Christian movement, and plausibly dates back to the interpretive method of the Christ himself. Over two thousand years it has been plagued by misuse and misunderstanding. A cloud of uncertainty lingers today over the nature of typology and the hermeneutical principles that might help establish the study of types. Read more