The Interpretation of the Bible -
The Interpretation of the Bible
The New Testament Interprets the Jewish Scriptures
Michael D. Coogan
Scripture in the New Testament
The second‐century CE satirist Lucian of Samo‐sata, in Asia Minor, attacked the early Christian movement in the person of a charlatan prophet, Peregrinus. Peregrinus feigned conversion, rose to the position of local bishop, and gained con‐siderable prestige among his naïve coreligionists when he was imprisoned for the faith, before as‐suming another career. How did Peregrinus achieve his exalted position? According to Lu‐cian, “He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many and they revered him as a god, made use of him as a law‐giver” (On the Death of Peregrinus 11). By the mid‐second century CE, then, Christians could be mocked for their preoccupation with inter‐preting sacred texts as well as for composing their own writings. At least in part, such inter‐pretation was understood to involve the promul‐gation of laws. Whether “a lawgiver” pro‐nounced legal rulings on community discipline or codified ethical norms is not clear. From the point of view of the educated elite, Christians who followed such unlearned bishops could be duped because they, as well as their leaders, lacked the advanced rhetorical training required for the interpretation of texts.
Similar objections are given voice within the New Testament. Local Pharisees scorn the blind man's confession that Jesus is from God, not a sinner, on the grounds that he has no standing to interpret the Torah (Jn 9.24–34 ). Matthew insists that the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven brings from his storehouse both new things and old ones (Mt 13.52 ). He de‐fends Jesus' understanding of the Torah and the prophets as attending to the substantive mat‐ters—justice, mercy, and faithfulness—rather than making burdens of details about tithing as the Pharisees do (Mt 23.23–24 ). Paul insists that the true meaning of the law remains veiled, like Moses' face, from his fellow Israelites. They can only understand its meaning by turning to Christ (2 Cor 3.7–18 ).
Thus, most biblical interpretation in the New Testament serves a polemical or apologetic purpose: to defend Christian claims about Jesus. Neither the assertions themselves nor the pre‐suppositions employed to derive them from scripture would be acceptable to those who did not share those presuppositions. Nevertheless, the interpretative methods used, especially by Matthew and Paul, have much in common with those used in early Jewish tradition.
Though Christians had begun to consider their own writings as sacred texts by the mid‐second century CE, that was not yet true of the period during which the New Testament was being written. Only the latest of the New Testament texts, 2 Peter, suggests that a collection of Paul's letters was beginning to be regarded as authoritative (2 Pet 3.15–16 ). Thus, whenever a New Testament writer refers to or quotes scrip‐ture, he is interpreting texts so regarded by the Jewish community. The scriptures were known to these writers, however, not in their original Hebrew, but in Greek translation, the Septuagint (see “Hebrew Bible: Texts and Versions,” p. 462 ES and “The Greek Bible,” p. 456 ES ). Since var‐ious text forms of the Septuagint were known in Judea itself, it was clearly used by Jews and not only by Gentile converts to Christianity. In many cases, the text that a New Testament author quotes or interprets differs from that found in a modern translation of the Hebrew Bible. We cannot claim that the author is quoting from memory, misquoting, or altering the text unless we have compared it with the Septuagint and not only with the Hebrew.
The writings that counted as scripture for the New Testament writers are those they held in common with Diaspora Jews: the Torah, prophets, Psalms, and assorted texts from the Writings. In frequency of quotation and allusion in the New Testament, Psalms and Isaiah pre‐dominate, followed by Deuteronomy and other passages from the Torah. Some are introduced with a formula such as “it is written” (Mt 2.5; Lk 20.17; Acts 15.15–18 ) or “it was said” (Mt 5.21 ). In other cases, the expression “that is” combined with application of the text to reading the community's experience as part of God's es‐chatological plan resembles the interpretation of prophetic passages in the interpretive commen‐taries (“pesharim”) among the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran (Mt 3.3; 11.10; Jn 6.31,50; Acts 2.16; 4.11; Rom 9.7–9; 10.6–8; Heb 7.5; 1 Pet 1.24–25 ; see 1 QpHab 12.6; CD 7.14–15; 4Q174 1.11–14 ). Use of an adversative expres‐sion to correct a prior tradition of interpreta‐tion, as in Matthew's “you have heard … but I say” (Mt 5.21–22,27–28,31–32,33–34,38–39 43–44 ) resembles a rabbinic formula (Midr. Pss. 119.26 ). Matthew does not continue in the rab‐binic mode, however, which would require that Jesus establish his interpretation by appealing to other texts from scripture.