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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 as a boy (and his eventual return to Galilee) fulfilled Hosea 11:1, "Out of Egypt I called my son." But Hosea 11:1 is simply describing the Exodus; it is a passage, Enns points out, which "is not predictive of Christ's coming but retrospective of Israel's disobedience." In other words, Matthew is shamelessly proof-texting, in a way that would get any student enrolled in Practical Theology 221 (Expository Skills) sternly reproved.

Or consider Paul's use of Isaiah 59:20 in Romans 11, where he winds up an argument by announcing, "And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: 'The deliverer will come from Zion.' " But Isaiah says something quite different: "The Redeemer will come to Zion," he tells us.

Changing the words of Scripture to suit your own purposes? Paul wouldn't get past the first week of New Testament 123 (Hermeneutics) like that. He is breaking every rule of thoughtful evangelical scholarship, which holds that the proper way to approach inerrant Scripture is with careful grammatical-historical exegesis: painstaking analysis of each word of the Scripture and its relationship to other words, the setting of the sentence in the verse, the verse in the chapter, the chapter in the book, and the book in the historical times of its composition.

Of course Paul breaks those rules, Enns says; they are our rules, not Paul's. Inspiration and Incarnation offers us passages from such extrabiblical texts as the Wisdom of Solomon and the Book of Biblical Antiquities in order to show that, far from doing something extraordinary and super-apostolic, Paul and Matthew were doing exactly what most of their contemporaries did. Both apostles had been trained by the scholars of their day, the so-called "Second Temple" period, to come to a text looking for the "mystery" beneath the words: the deeper truth that an untrained reader might not see. Both of them came to the Old Testament already convinced that they knew what that mystery was: the incarnation, death, and resurrection of God in Jesus Christ.

Paul knows, by faith, that this truth underlies all of the Old Testament. He knows that it will be in Isaiah; he looks for it in the 59th chapter, and—as we might expect—he finds it. And if he has to change a preposition or two to make this "mystery" clear to the rest of us, he is not violating any sort of interpretive rule. His own principles of exegesis allow him to "read into the prophet's words," as Enns puts it, what he "already knew those words were really about."

This is the exactly the kind of exegesis that terrifies most evangelicals. The man who admits that meanings can be "read into" Scripture stands on the fabled slippery slope, right above a sheer drop-off, while below him churns a sea of relativism, upon which floats only a single overloaded lifeboat, captained by a radical feminist gay & lesbian & transgender activist who is very anxious to make the final decision about who gets pitched overboard.

Nevertheless, Enns is willing to plant his feet on the slope and stand there long enough to ask two disturbing questions. The first is this: Are we really saying that the apostles used an interpretive method that was not particularly inspired, and which in the hands of many Second Temple scholars led to enormous distortions of the original texts? And that this "mishandling" of the Old Testament produced, somehow, an inspired and trustworthy New Testament? Enns' answer to this is an unequivocal yes. "This makes revelation somewhat messy," he writes, "but … it would seem that God would not have it any other way. For the apostles to interpret the Old Testament in ways consistent with the hermeneutical expectations of the Second Temple world is analogous to Christ himself becoming a first-century Jew."

In other words, the God who spoke to man through Christ also speaks to man through Scripture, and in much the same way: he enters into our world and uses our own cultural patterns to reveal himself. We cannot insist that there is a separate, ahistorical, all-divine message in any part of the Bible that somehow triumphs over all contemporary thought and custom. This, Enns writes, is a modern version of the ancient Docetic heresy, which held that Christ only seemed human. "What some ancient Christians were saying about Christ," he writes, "… is similar to the mistake that other Christians have made (and continue to make) about Scripture: it comes from God, and the marks of its humanity are only apparent, to be explained away."

Which leads Enns to the next disturbing question. If Paul and Matthew use Second Temple techniques to interpret the Old Testament, should we follow their example—beginning with what we know to be true, and taking our interpretation from there?

This question gets a conditional yes: as long as we begin with the same central mystery as Paul and Matthew, the "reality of the crucified and risen Christ, [which is] both the beginning and the end of Christian biblical interpretation." This reality, not the method which we use to affirm it, should be at the center of our doctrine of inerrancy.

This means, unfortunately, that we cannot cling to the comforting notion that grammatical-historical exegesis is a kind of high road to truth. Like the Second Temple exegesis of Paul and Matthew, it is a method—the method produced by our own time and place. Like the Second Temple exegesis, it can produce both truth and error. "Our own understanding of the Old Testament—and the gospel—has a contextual dimension," Enns writes. "As subjective as this sounds, it is nevertheless inescapable… . If any of this is troublesome, it may be because we have not adequately grappled with the implications of God himself giving us Scripture in context."

Well, of course it is going to be troublesome, and Enns, who knows the evangelical community well, is perfectly aware of it. But Inspiration and Incarnation makes clear that Scripture, like the Incarnation itself, is a scandal: like Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the wise. It takes ancient and unreal images, like the lion and the lamb together, and demands that we look back on them with faith in the resurrection of Christ. It claims, against all common sense, that this faith will transform the dead pictures into a living hope. It is loaded with problems and imperfections. And it is the Word of God, which means that we must engage in as much prayer as study of Hebrew vocabulary, as much faith as reading up on the history of the ancient world, as much charity (something remarkably lacking in most of the debates over how to read Scripture) as Greek grammar. It means that when an evangelical scholar like Enns—teaching in an evangelical seminary, a faithful member of his local church—writes, "There do not seem to be any clear rules or guidelines to prevent us from taking [the process of interpreting Scripture] too far," we must recognize this as an honest and truthful statement of the difficulties rather than an open door to chaos. It means, in the end, that we must take incarnation seriously.

Do we know what we are saying when we stand in an American church on a Sunday morning in 2006 and recite, "He was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried"? This polished, grammatical, creedal acknowledgment, transmitted to us via centuries of church tradition, of liturgy and Advent custom and carols, of Bible-school illustration and triumphant hymnody, has scrubbed up and made deceptively commonplace the essential weirdness of God becoming man.

I believe in the Incarnation, but then on the other hand I have never had to stand face-to-face with a grimy, troublemaking, blue-collar worker who claims to be God.

I do have to stand face-to-face with the Old Testament and its excessive, contradictory, harsh, alien texts. Enns encourages us to recognize the Old Testament for what it is: the anteroom of the Incarnation, the practice ground where we are brought nose-to-nose with the true difficulty of believing that God ever came to earth.

Susan Wise Bauer is writing a history of the world for W.W. Norton.

1. Trans. Samuel Kramer in History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine "Firsts" in Recorded History, 3rd. ed. (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), p. 144.

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