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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Digging for deeper meanings that don’t exist

Jerel Kratt has been making a vigorous case against my suggestion that Isaiah 60-66 describes an enhanced but essentially historical future for Israel that was not fulfilled, either in the decades after the return from exile or in the events narrated in the New Testament.

He thinks that Isaiah was not talking about a new Jerusalem on earth but a new Jerusalem in heaven. I don’t see anything in the text to support that contention.

Jerel makes a further hermeneutical point about the relationship between the Jewish scriptures and the writings of the New Testament:

Part of the problem I think you are having is you are reading the OT literally in certain places, and when that literal interpretation of fulfillment didn’t happen in the NT narrative or in history, then you are pushing it out into the future. But that seems arbitrary to me.

The prophets all had deeper meaning behind the literal fulfillment (e.g., the dry bones in Ezek 37 not being literal resurrection but of a new covenant community of people coming out of the old covenant community; yes the text was looking partly to some sort of exilic return from Babylon, but as you said earlier that didn’t quite fulfill the text by the time of Jesus).

This allows him to argue that the deeper or spiritual meaning is there in Isaiah because Paul or the writer of Hebrews said it was there.

The comment draws attention to a fundamental dilemma that we face when it comes to interpretation. Do we trust the historical method, with its admitted and unavoidable shortcomings and limitations, or do we rely on some theological superstructure or other—whether Evangelical or Reformed or Preterist or whatever—to fix the problems, resolve the conflicts, plaster over the disjunctions, filter out the irrelevancies, override the innate direction of the texts, in order to sustain a simple and credible reading for our particular tradition?

I don’t regard this as an absolute choice, but it is real enough to make a difference to how we understand and apply the Bible.

In my view, the historical narrative works for us perfectly well as it is. Leave it alone.

The previous post offered a historical reading of Isaiah 60-66, as best I could represent it in a short space without it dying the death of a thousand qualifications. It wasn’t meant to be a Christian or a theological reading. It tried not to introduce knowledge or perspectives or a worldview that Isaiah didn’t have. Isaiah shows no awareness of later inspired readings from beyond his own historical horizon. Whether or not his predictions would be fulfilled in the first century AD was of no interest to him. He speaks to Israel under specific historical conditions, perhaps in the late sixth century.

To what extent Jesus and the authors of the New Testament attributed “deeper” meanings to Old Testament prophecies is debatable. There is no deeper meaning to the dry bones prophecy, for example—indeed, the New Testament makes no reference to it. It is only a symbolic vision for the renewal of Israel as a covenant people and their return to the land.

If people in the New Testament choose to interpret the Old Testament allegorically or metaphorically, that is up to them. That is another aspect of our historical reading of the Bible, but that does not put us under an obligation to reinterpret the older text ourselves just to save our theologies. All we do is read their reading of the scriptures. It adds complexity, but my view is that history will serve us better than theological reinterpretation in the long run.

So my basic point is that, however New Testament folk made sense of the Jewish scriptures, we as modern interpreters don’t have to allegorise or theologise or dig for deeper meanings where they don’t exist in order to tell a good “evangelical” story about God’s people, its mission, and his Son. In my view, the historical narrative works for us perfectly well as it is. Leave it alone.

Jerel provides two other instances of New Testament reinterpretation of the Old Testament.

The first is from 1 Peter 1:10-12, where Peter says that “the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you….”

Jerel infers from this that Peter thought that “the ultimate meaning of Scripture was how the Apostles were revealing it to mean in his day”. But Peter makes reference specifically to “the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories”. That’s not an example of imposing an alien meaning on the Old Testament. There are powerful stories of suffering and vindication in the Old Testament (notably Ps. 22; Is. 49, 53; Dan.7) that can very easily be read—historically—in the way that Peter indicates. God uses a suffering king, a suffering servant, a suffering people, the persecuted saints of the Most High, to bring about his purposes.

Secondly, there is James’ quotation of Amos 9:11-12 as a reason for not troubling Gentiles who turn to God (Acts 15:13-19):

After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.

Jerel argues that “a literal interpretation of Amos would not yield the interpretation James gave”. But it’s quite plausible to think that James reasoned as follows: Amos foresaw the restoration of the Davidic dynasty following the scattering of Israel among the nations; it didn’t happen after the exile; but it appears to have happened now, or to be under way, because God has raised Jesus, a descendant of David, from the dead and made him Lord and Christ (Acts 2:22-36); therefore, we may assume that many from the nations will understand the significance of these developments and seek the Lord.

That sort of account seems to me largely to absolve James of the charge of misinterpreting Amos. As far as the apostle is concerned, the given fact that God has raised Jesus from the dead makes it now intrinsically likely that they will see a positive response from the Gentiles.

These are just a handful of examples, hastily considered, but they seem to me to work against, rather than for, the view that the New Testament foisted novel meaning on the Jewish scriptures.

Comments

Andrew,

Before getting into all your arguments, we need to start with one primary thing. I never said the new Jerusalem was “in heaven.” “From above,” “heavenly,” yes. But not in heaven. My actual argument was that it represented a new covenant people, and I actually stated that straightforwardly. You seem to have misrepresented or misunderstood me. I think you need to understand my argument more correctly before we engage in your broader argument on how the NT writers interpeted the OT.

You’re right. I got hold of the wrong end of the stick. Apologies.

However, I’m not sure about your reading of the New Testament passages.

Paul speaks of the “Jerusalem above” (hē… anō Ierousalēm), not “the Jerusalem from above” (Gal. 4:26). He also says that “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior” (Phil. 3:20), which could perhaps be taken to mean that the city which determines our citizenship is neither in Israel nor in Italy but in heaven. I rather think that Hebrews 12:22-24 speaks of a Jerusalem in heaven, where Jesus is high priest in the heavenly temple. And of course, John sees the new Jerusalem descending from heaven to be part of the new creation (Rev. 21:2).

The passages can be discussed, but I got the impression that you wanted to read Isaiah 65-66 on their authority.

I think it is a mistake, too, to identify the “heavenly Jerusalem” with the new covenant community. Jerusalem is a city, not a community. People live in a city, but they can also be exiled from it.

Isaiah describes the reconstruction of ruined Jerusalem and its re-inhabitation by new generations of Jews. His new Jerusalem is still a real place in the midst of the nations, not an allegory for the New Testament people of God.

By saying that folks in the New Testament are free to speculate it, but that we should avoid it, it seems to me that you are not taking the authority of the Apostles and their commentary on old testament scripture very seriously. If there is anything should be trusting in scripture it seems to me it should be interpretation by inherently qualified people such as Peter, Paul, and James. They seem to pretty clearly describe the believers as properly understood spiritual bricks in the new spiritual temple, which is directly connected to the New creation temple in heaven and in the New Jerusalem. I think I would understand being careful about coming up with a specific spiritual interpretation of, say, the ante-rooms connected to the Ezekiel temple. But the Apostles seem clear on some of the interpretive basics.

Hi Doug,

My general argument is that we can trust the narrative-historical method to give us a solid “evangelical” (whatever exactly we might mean by that) ground for defining the identity and purpose of the church. If we are to do that properly, we have to read both the Old Testament and the New Testament historically, which potentially means acknowledging that people in the New Testament imposed non-historical meaning on the Jewish scriptures. If and when that’s the case (it may not be as often as we think), we can take the New Testament interpreter seriously, but the question we are asking primarily is not whether he got the original text right but how his interpretation sheds light on the witness of the New Testament community.

But your example, in any case, is not problematic. I agree that the early church thought of itself as a replacement for the Jerusalem temple and, accordingly, used “temple” as a metaphor to explain the nature and function of the community. That is very different to saying that Isaiah was—wittingly or unwittingly—describing a heavenly or spiritual Jerusalem in chapters 60-66.

I don’t see that Ezekiel’s temple vision has much to do with the matter. It is a prophecy of the restoration of Israel in the land following the exile. Apart from a handful of allusions in Revelation, which do not amount to interpretations, the New Testament shows no interest in the passage.

Andrew,
Could you comment on Luke 24:44?

Thanks
D

My understanding would be that he is speaking specifically of those passages in the scriptures from which it might be possible to construct a narrative about a suffering servant or Messiah whom God would vindicate, leading to a widespread turning to the God of Israel among the nations: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Lk. 24:46–47).

To expand on that we might look at how Luke generally uses biblical quotation and allusion in his Gospel and in Acts to explain the significance of Jesus.

Andrew,

This allows him to argue that the deeper or spiritual meaning is there in Isaiah because Paul or the writer of Hebrews said it was there.

That’s twisting what Jerel stated. He was not saying that because Paul, or the writer of Hebrews, said there was a deeper or spiritual meaning that he (Jerel) could then come up with a spiritual or deeper meaning behind the text, one that would fit his position. The point was the NT authors interpreted the text for us. The meaning is stated. Now we today have to take their interpretation. This you seem to reject. If the NT author says is was meant to have a spiritual or deeper application, then the original intent (and correct interpreation) of that author was to communicate a spiritual application.

or do we rely on some theological superstructure or other—whether Evangelical or Reformed or Preterist or whatever—to fix the problems, resolve the conflicts, plaster over the disjunctions, filter out the irrelevancies, override the innate direction of the texts, in order to sustain a simple and credible reading for our particular tradition?

You’re doing it again. Jerel nowhere relied on some theological superstructure to fix a problem. He used the NT author’s interpretation and applied it. Again, you seem to want to reject their interpretation. Again, if they say it was spiritual, then the original text was meant to be spiritual, or deeper or whatever.

That is another aspect of our historical reading of the Bible, but that does not put us under an obligation to reinterpret the older text ourselves just to save our theologies.

Of course all would agree with that generally, but you’re implying that is what Jerel did. He did not. He took the NT author’s interpretation and applied it. He didn’t reinterpret it. You are the one who rejects their interpretation because it doesn’t seems to conform to a historical fulfillment (in your eyes). The biggest problem here is you are using newspaper theology like too many crazy futurist. You rely on your interpretation of the text and then look for some historical fulfillment. When you don’t find one you say they were wrong. The problem is your initial interpretation is what’s wrong. That is why you don’t find a historical and/or physcial fulfillment. Isaiah 60-65 being the perfect example.

So my basic point is that, however New Testament folk made sense of the Jewish scriptures, we as modern interpreters don’t have to allegorise or theologise or dig for deeper meanings where they don’t exist in order to tell a good “evangelical” story about God’s people, its mission, and his Son.

Jerel never interpreting an OT text by allegorizing it. The NT author (Paul) did that. Jerel took his interpretation. Again, you seem to reject the NT author’s interpretation because it doesn’t fit your theology.

I have to say Andrew. In my eyes, you have lost a lot of credibility on this one.

Well, I’m sorry to have caused offence, but I’m afraid that’s how I read Jerel’s comments.

He stated that “The prophets all had deeper meaning behind the literal fulfillment” and gave the example of Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones as “not being literal resurrection but of a new covenant community of people coming out of the old covenant community”. Earlier we had: “It was the Jerusalem above that Isaiah clearly had in mind in this new creation.” (Italics added.)

These look to me like fairly sweeping assertions of a general hermeneutical method, a way of reading the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, for which he then finds support in the New Testament: “Paul seems to take issue with your claim that a Jerusalem from above is nowhere to be found in the OT”. It appears to be an argument for a theological interpretation of scripture illustrated with a few New Testament references. That may have not been Jerel’s intention, but it’s how his argument came across.

To my mind this analysis gains further weight from the fact that the particular examples considered don’t stack up. Ezekiel’s vision doesn’t get a mention in the New Testament, as far as I’m aware, and the Jerusalem-above motif is not dependent on Isaiah 60-66. So if we want to attribute a deeper meaning to the valley of dry bones vision, we have to do it on our own authority, on the basis of a general hermentical method, rather than by appeal to an interpretive precedent set by the apostles. Likewise, Isaiah’s vision of a renewed Jerusalem.

Just because the apostles interpreted some unfulfilled prophecies “spiritually” (and this has to be established by careful reading of the texts, not just assumed on the basis of a common term) doesn’t mean that they would have interpreted all such prophecies in the same way.

Nor does apostolic reinterpretation alter the meaning of the original text. We can’t make Isaiah mean something that he didn’t say.