“The Challenges of Gospel-Shaped Hermeneutics” « Biblical and Early Christian Studies

The good folks over at Reviews of Biblical and Early Christian Studies have been blogging a series of lectures by Richard Hays on the topic “Israel’s Scripture Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers.” This is a topic I think is very important to understand, if we as modern Christian readers are to hear in the words of the gospels what the writers intended us to hear.

I haven’t caught up with the whole series yet, but there were some points in the review of the concluding lecture that particularly caught my attention.

First, looking at the four Gospels as a whole, Hays’ stresses the uniqueness of each writer’s hermeneutical strategy, appealing to the image of musical polyphony to clarify how he envisages the value of both similarities and differences among the Gospels. The fact that four texts with such different methods of scriptural interpretation were canonised creates a de facto canonisation of a principle of diversity where lines of emphasis shift in time and space, according to the needs and contexts of individual writers and, presumably, Christian communities.

Emphasis mine. This principle reminds me very much of the instruction that “the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.” The gospels were made for the church; and particularly for the local church.

Then, a few points from the nine principles for “a hermeneutic for the modern church that was shaped by the methods of the Gospel writers”:

Each Gospel author seems to operate with a de facto canon within the canon. In particular, one sees a preference for the Torah, Isaiah, and the Psalms, though each author gives a slightly different set of emphases. Generally, the emphasis is not even given to whole books, but particular passages (Daniel 7, for example).

The notion of a “canon within the canon” has struck my fancy since I was first introduced to the concept: out of the whole canon of the Bible, which are the really important books? Which are primary? Which are used in worship? If two passages conflict, is one more important than the other? And how do you decide?

My experience as a Roman Catholic is that the New Testament has primacy over the Shared Scriptures; and within the New Testament, the Gospels have primacy over the other books; and that the portions in the lectionary have primacy over what’s not in the lectionary; and the portions in the Sunday lectionary have primacy over the portions in the daily lectionary. By primacy here, I mean de facto effectiveness: these are the texts that we know the best, that we hear most often, that therefore we are most shaped by and tend to think of first.

I’ve noticed while studying with a Jewish friend that she knows the Torah much better than I do, but I know Isaiah and some of the psalms much better than she does. So it’s interesting to see those texts called out as emphasized by the gospel writers.

In light of the fact that most of the citations in the Gospels (with a few exceptions) are derived from the Septuagint, Hays suggests that it, rather than the Masoretic Hebrew text, may be the more appropriate version of the Old Testament for Christian Scripture.

I’ve had the impression that there has been a stream of thought suggesting this within the Roman Catholic community for some time.

Kerry Lee, who reviewed this lecture, has some concerns about this:

The use of the Septuagint as the Christian Old Testament presupposes quite a bit. First of all, it presupposes that there is such a thing as a “right” Old Testament that is recoverable, that one of the early text traditions of the Hebrew Bible is more … inspired, I suppose … than the others. There is now evidence that a Hebrew text tradition different from what became the Masoretic Text stands behind the Septuagint, so are Christians to accept the Hebrew behind the Septuagint, or the Greek translation?

I disagree that this presupposes that there is a “right” version of the Shared Scriptures, or one that is more inspired. The question is, right for what?

I asked a rabbi, once, “What if we found a more ancient text that was different from the Masoretic, or filled in some of its gaps? Would the Jewish bible be updated to include it?” His response was, “No, we believe that the text we have now, that was passed down through the rabbis, is the Bible that God wants us to have.”

That makes a lot of sense in the context of the believing Jewish community. In the context of the believing Christian community, it makes a lot of sense to me that if we want to know what the NT writers meant by “the scriptures”, we should give primacy to the version of the scriptures that they used.

Furthermore, Hays himself admits that the NT use of the Septuagint is not universal. At times, the NT writers pick and choose among a variety of versions of OT texts, Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew, some of which we cannot identify with 100% accuracy.

This presents a pragmatic problem — if we don’t know which version they’re using, we can’t use that version ourselves — but it also seems just another example of the canonized principle of diversity discussed above. I might still give preference to the Greek version of the text, because the NT writers were writing in Greek themselves.

Hays’ principle 4,

A Gospel-shaped hermeneutic reads backwards. In other words, it reads scripture in light of the resurrection, and this requires reconfiguration.

also causes Lee some concern:

Principle 4 risks subordinating OT texts to Christian understandings of NT texts (not even simply to the NT texts themselves). Even in a faith context one wonders at the wisdom of this strategy, at least as an exclusive hermeneutical strategy. The fact that a modern reader unconsciously brings foreign presuppositions to ancient texts creates an ever-present danger of suppressing certain features of those texts. The task of a skilful reader is to try, as much as possible, to align his or her presuppositions with those of the implied audience of a text. . . . In what way is this different from the way Christians have always read the Old Testament, and has not Old Testament scholarship been trying over the last 200 years or so, often in Christianity’s interest, to be doing precisely the opposite of this?

I agree that this is problematic as an exclusive strategy. It strikes me as an important second stage, after a first stage in which we try to read the Shared Scripture texts as the Jews of Jesus’ time would have read them.

The first time I studied scripture with Jews and Christians together (thanks to the fabulous ICJS), it blew my mind. Seriously, I felt like a whole new wing had opened up in my brain, the first time I heard a Jewish man respond to one of the sayings of Jesus by saying, “Oh, that’s so much like what the prophet said in…” I forget the exact references, but the powerful thing was, he was hearing the words of the gospel with an ear that was attuned to the Torah and the Nevi’im. He was hearing things that I had entirely missed, and they were things that Jesus’ original followers would have heard.

So I think that Christians need to take a two stage approach, that recapitulates the process taken by the early Jesus followers: first, learn to listen to the gospels with the ears of a first century Palestinian Jew (as best we can, which will be imperfect; and, which will almost certainly not be with the ears of a 21st century Jew); and then, listen to them again, in light of the resurrection.

This is what the gospel writers tell us they did — after the resurrection, they saw everything differently. And this is compatible with a principle that James Alison often affirms: that the resurrection is the light by which we begin to see where we have come from, where we still are, and where, by God’s grace, we are going.

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