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A Jewish Approach to the New Testament

A few years ago I wrote a review of the following book: 

Manns, Frédéric.  Une approche juive du Nouveau Testament.  Initiations bibliques. 

Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1998.  Pp. 298.  F195.AAA 220px-Frederic_Manns_OFM

I thought I’d share it here with you.  

Frédéric Manns has contributed widely to biblical studies within the Franciscan tradition.  Over the last years he has published translations and commentaries of the Targums from Codex Urbaniti 1.  He has proven to be a competent and insightful reader of both early Christian documents and Jewish literature of late antiquity including the Dead Sea Scrolls, Pseudepigrapha, the Mishnah and Talmud.  Several sections of this book reprint some of Manns’ earlier articles published in Revue des sciences religieuses.

Manns distinguishes between “methods” of interpretation and “approaches” to scripture.  While the former appears more scientific, reading the NT within a Jewish perspective offers rich results, particularly for those who read and interpret within a faith community.  Manns begins by acknowledging that Christianity and rabbinic Judaism emerged from a common heritage, namely, ancient Judaism.  Accordingly, both movements share a canon of inspired texts and use similar principles for interpreting and applying them.  Early Christian interpretations, however, did not simply derive from Jewish thought; they were worked out through the experience of the church, especially through its conflict within the synagogues.  Modern interpreters who privilege the historical-critical method over a Jewish approach to the texts are astonished at the readings of early Christians and Jews.  Manns overall purpose is to analyze Christian texts in light of the traditions and principles of Jewish hermeneutics.  Therefore, he offers a modified “Strack-Billerbeck” approach to the NT.

Part one of the book deals with methodological considerations.  Therein Manns rehearses a brief history of NT interpretation and shows how Jesus’ authority as a teacher would have been understood by his disciples.  Following a survey of Jewish hermeneutical principles, the author reflects on how NT writers utlized them. Manns is interested not only in the rules of Hillel, but also the the popular use of etymologies and word plays from the Hebrew as they relate to the names of people and places.  No doubt he offers a number of creative readings, but it is not at all clear that Greek writers or readers could have caught any of these possibilities.  Similarly, Manns takes up the rabbinic use of al-tiqra and finds evidence of a similar phenomenon in the NT Gospels.  Using al-tiqra (translated, “do not read”) readers could vary the vowels of a word or phrase to discover a different sense to a text.  Since Hebrew texts contain no vowels, this became a common practice for deriving other meanings.  With these principles and methods in mind Manns is ready to approach selected NT passages in light of other Jewish texts from the same period.

Part two deals with Matthew’s treatment the story of Judas’ death (Matt 27:3-10) as a Christian midrash and the parable of the wedding feast (Matt 22:1-10).  In part three Manns argues that the source for Luke’s special material derives from a Palestinian setting. He deals with the question of women in the synagogue during the time of Jesus and shows how the literary and archaeological evidences elucidate Luke’s unique perspective.  In another section Manns argues for a causal reading of hoti in Luke 7:47 based upon the insight that Luke may have modified his account of the sinful woman in light of Jewish reflection on Rahab.  Having gathered ample rabbinic evidence, he relates the conviction that just as God justified Rahab because she acted hospitably toward the spies, so Jesus announced the forgiveness of the sinful woman because of her loving act.  In a sense the story of Rahab provides the basis for the Gospel account.  Manns also deals with other Lucan texts including Luke 1:68-69, 4:16-30 and 24:32.

In part four Manns submits that the Fourth Gospel comes from a Jewish-Christian source as well.  Regarding 1 John 3:4, he suggests that anomia be understood as a personification of those powers hostile to God which lead humans to abandon God’s law.  In his investigation of the phrase “the angel of the church” in the seven letters of Revelation (chs. 2-3), he concludes that “angel” is best read as a symbol of the bishop which heads each Christian community.   Mann also takes up the language of the hymn found in Rev 12:10-12 and explicates it neatly with regard to Jewish apocalyptic and liturgical interests in the period.   In part five Manns expands his investigation into the Catholic letters with sections on (1) a Jewish liturgical tradition behind Jam1:21b, (2) the phrase “confess your sins to one another” in Jam 5:16 and (3) Sarah as the model for an obedient wife from 1 Pet 3:5-6.  In each case Manns finds ample material in Judaism to explain the source and meanings of these texts.

With this book Frédéric Manns joins a long line of researchers who find Jewish approaches to the NT rich and evocative.  No doubt Second Temple Judaism is the fertile  soil from which early Christianity springs.  Manns offers some creative and in some cases persuasive readings of the NT passages he selects.  One is left to wonder, however, to what extent the writers and first readers of these texts would have understood the rich imagery modern interpreters discover as they mine the many volumes of Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, Talmud, etc., which are readily available to us.  Are we the first to see these images, to hear these echoes?  In some cases the answer is clearly “no,” as Manns shows when he cites the early Christian fathers.  In other cases the answer may be “yes.”  Overall Manns’ book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of how early Christians approached the task of interpreting their faith through theological reflection on Jewish beliefs and practices.  Many useful insights await those willing to consider the playful and creative ways early Christians and Jews made use of their traditions.

How Paul Read His Bible

Paul was not trained in a modern seminary to read Scripture.  As a man of his day, he read Scripture like the rabbis he had heard in the synagogue or studied under in the academy.  Often the ways he reads and interprets Scripture seem odd to us.  Still they were the strategies his teachers and other biblical writers were using at the time.

Midrash is a term used to refer to how Jewish teachers approached and explained the biblical texts.  It begins with a healthy respect for the Scriptures as divinely inspired, as God’s Word to the world.  Yet as God’s Word the books of the Bible must do more than tell about what happened back then, they must be read against our current questions, crises and moments.  Whenever you hear a sermon about timeless truths or life principles from the Bible, the teacher is engaging in midrash.  One way to think of it is to say these ancient texts also speak to modern problems.rembrandt-saint-paul-in-prison

For Paul there are many ways of realizing the significance of the Scriptures in his day.  The allegory of Sarah and Hagar (Gal 4:21-31) is one of them.  Paul offers a figural reading of Abraham’s two sons, one born to Hagar, the other to Sarah, his wife.  For him, these two women serve as representative figures of the current problem Paul is addressing in Galatians.  Now, this does not mean that Paul discounted the literal, historical meaning—a memorable story of how God had been working out his promises to Abraham and his family—he just sees in the conflict within Abraham’s family a correspondence between the conflict that he was trying to work out among believing Jews and Gentiles in his day.

Like Hillel, one of the great rabbis of his day, Paul often made use of catch words to link one text to another so that they become mutually interpreting. You might call this “stringing pearls.”  In Gal 3:6-9 Paul mixes his own commentary (midrash) with Scripture:

Text (Gen 15:6) Abraham put faith in God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness

Comment           Those who put faith (in Jesus) are the sons of Abraham

Comment           Scripture foretold that God would makethe Gentiles right by faith

Text (Gen 12:3) in you, Abraham, all the Gentiles would be blessed

Comment          Those who put faith (in Jesus) are blessed with Abraham who had faith

The story of Abraham provides Paul with a Scriptural image for how to address the predicament in Galatia.  Abraham’s “faith” became the occasion for how the patriarch was reckoned by God as “right/righteous”; but what was true for Abraham is also true for all the sons of Abraham, defined by Paul as those, including the Gentiles, who put faith in Jesus.  As Paul continued to think through the story of Abraham, his mind shot back to the initial promise itself where God promised Abraham that he and his kin would become a blessing universally to all the nations/Gentiles.  These keywords within Abraham’s story (faith, right/righteous, blessing, Gentiles) became the pearls by which the apostle could string together his Scriptures to include this new chapter, the climactic chapter of God’s story in the world.

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