Monday, January 18, 2016

The Center of the Bible

Most modern scholars will tell you that the primary rule in approaching the Biblical texts is to look for what the original author was trying to say within his own time, culture, and context. That is, do not start out with "What does this mean to me?" or "What is this symbolic of?" or "What is the hidden meaning here?" Questions like these circumvent what the author is trying to say. Rather we should seek to understand the language and the culture and then let the text speak for itself.

For example, take the temptations of Yeshua. Oftentimes when approaching this text, we start out looking for the practical application. "Ah, this is an example of how to use the Word to combat temptation!" That might not be a bad message (I know I've said it before), but, is that really what the Gospel writers were trying to get across? Was their intent really to write a how-to manual on combating the adversary? That doesn't fit the context. The Gospel writers sought first and foremost to provide a record of the life and teachings of their master (Luke even makes this explicit). What we have in the passage about the trials of Yeshua is an event that the Gospel writers deemed an integral part of who Yeshua was. This story follows the familiar refrain of God's agents being tested, perhaps more specifically a parallel to the original temptation.

Or take the first chapter of Genesis and the various mystical teachings that have come up about it (such as the significance of the first beit, or the aleph-tav, or the six days corresponding to six thousand years). None of that fits the plain meaning of the text--what the original author was trying to get across. These ideas assume a cryptic text. Seeing the Bible in this way is, I believe, a side effect of how we have "religified" the text. Once something is regarded as holy and sublime, it is only natural to begin reading all sorts of things into it (especially those things which are in accord with your own values and preconceptions). Back to the creation narrative--it's primary meaning is actually quite simple: God created the universe and in doing so instituted the Sabbath.

It's only after you have found the meaning (what Tim Hegg has defined as "that which is represented by the words, sentences, paragraphs, etc. of the text; it is what the author meant..."), that you can move on to looking for significance (i.e. "the relationship between the meaning and a person, or persons, in a given situation...the proper application of the meaning to our lives")*.

*these concepts of meaning and significance are mentioned in Tim Hegg's course on "Interpreting the Bible" (which I recommend); they are also mentioned in Kaiser's article "Legitimate Hermeneutics" and originate with the scholar E. D. Hirsch.

In letting the text speak for itself, one might begin to notice a few curiosities. It is a unique feature of our Bible, being written over many centuries by a variety of authors, that we are actually able to see how people within the Bible interpreted the Bible. Of special note, consider these passages:
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, ... For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. - John 5:39, 46 ESV

Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, - Luke 24:44-45 ESV

What we see here is Yeshua Himself reading the Tanak, not from a historical-grammatical hermeneutic, but from a Messiah-centric point of view. He makes the bold claim that the whole of the Tanak from Moses to the prophets to the Psalms was all written about Him, pointing to Him.

We also see how the Prophets and the Psalmists, etc. built upon the foundation of the Torah. David writes of the majesty of the Torah. The historians of the Tanak recount Israel's rejection of the Torah. Ezekiel and Isaiah exhort Israel to return to the Torah. Everything points back to this central foundational text. In a sense, the plain reading of much of the Bible has a sort of Torah-centricity to it.

On the one hand, various threads flow out of the central idea of Torah. On the other hand, these same threads all flow into the central idea of Messiah.

Back when I first began this blog, I noted how the Messianic faith is built upon these two great pillars. I have also written about how the rest of the Bible spirals outward from these two moments of revelation. I would put forward that this should be a defining feature of a Messianic hermeneutic. To be sure, we should always begin with the plain text reading to understand the original meaning of the author. But, while each of these stories has its home in its own unique time and culture, when you pull them altogether into this anthology we call the Bible, they take on a significance much greater than they had on their own. They become part of this grand story of Redemption and Sanctification.

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