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Susan Wise Bauer

Messy Revelation

Why Paul would have flunked hermeneutics.

Sometime this past year, I was reading Sumerian poetry (for work, not for pleasure) when I came across a 4,000-year-old epic describing the Sumerian paradise, a garden city free of evil and sickness where

the raven utters no cry …
the lion kills not,
the wolf snatches not the lamb,
unknown is the kid-devouring wild dog.1

If this doesn't bring you up short, turn to Isaiah 11, where the prophet tells us that when the Messiah returns, the wolf will live with the lamb, the lion will eat straw like the ox, and that the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. The words in which Isaiah describes the great hope of the believer, the words that inform John's own vision of the new heavens and earth: those words don't seem to have originated with—well, with God.

This is the opening dilemma of Peter Enns' Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. The uniqueness of the Old Testament as a piece of literature has been seriously dented by the discovery of more and more ancient texts that predate (and anticipate) biblical forms. Creation story, flood story, prophecy, proverb: all of these were in use in Mesopotamia long before the first biblical book was penned.

So how can we claim that the Old Testament—and it alone from all the texts of that pre-Christian age—is divine communication from God to man? It's an interesting question, but it turns out to be small potatoes compared with the next problem that Enns, professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, sets before us: It seems as though the Old Testament was also puzzling for Matthew and Luke and Paul. In fact, from where we sit, it looks as though the apostles were lousy at exegesis.

Enns gives us a number of startling New Testament passages that use the Old Testament by wrenching the original words violently out of context and even altering them. For example, Matthew 2 tells us with confidence that Jesus' trip down to Egypt ...

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