Over the past two weeks, I have been excerpting Dr Craig S Keener’s introduction to biblical hermeneutics: Biblical Interpretation.  My recent entries, taken from Chapters 7 – 10: Context of Genre, have focused on literary genres in the Old Testament. Today’s post looks at New Testament genres.

Emphases below are mine.

6. Jesus’ Teachings

Jesus’ teachings are not a broad genre like poetry or narrative; in fact, they mix together elements of different kinds of genres. Jesus was, among other things, a Jewish sage, so he often uses the teaching style used by Jewish teachers in his day: for example, rhetorical overstatements, wisdom proverbs (see [previous post]), and parables. At the same time, Jesus was a prophet, and sometimes gave oracles like prophets did (“Woe to you, Capernaum…!”) Of course, as the Messiah, Jesus was more than a prophet or a sage, and he often spoke with greater authority than either prophets or sages did. But he also used many teaching techniques that were familiar to his people in his day.

For our example, we will take Jesus’ teaching on divorce. Many people assume that what Jesus said on a particular occasion covers every situation, but while that is often the case, sometimes Jesus himself provided different perspectives for different kinds of situations. Thus we recognize that while Jesus wants us to love him more than our parents, we “hate” them only by comparison with our love for him (Lk 14:26); elsewhere he instructs us to provide for them in their old age (Mk 7:10-13) …

First we should examine the “why” of Jesus’ teaching, as best as possible. In Jesus’ day the Pharisees debated among themselves as to the grounds for a husband to divorce his wife; the stricter school said a man could divorce his wife if she were unfaithful to him, but the more lenient school said he could divorce his wife if she burned his bread. In Jewish Palestine (as opposed to Roman laws), husbands could divorce their wives for almost any reason; wives could not divorce their husbands or prevent themselves from being divorced. Jesus was at least in part defending an innocent party from being wronged: the husband who divorces his wife and remarries commits adultery “against her”–against his wife (Mk 10:11). This was a sin not only against God, but also against another person innocent of the divorce (cf. also Mal 2:14).

Second we should examine what this saying literally claims. “Adultery” in the literal sense is being unfaithful to one’s marriage partner; for remarriage to be adultery against a former spouse means that, in God’s sight, one is still married to one’s former spouse. If we take this literally, this means that marriage cannot be dissolved, and that Christians should break up all second and third marriages. (Interestingly, despite the scandal this would have caused in ancient society, we have no record of anyone breaking up later marriages in the New Testament.) But is this a literal statement, or one of Jesus’ deliberate overstatements meant to grab people’s attention–like plucking out the eye, a camel passing through a needle’s eye, or a mustard seed of faith? We can easily answer this question by examining Jesus’ other sayings on the same subject.

In the same context as Mark 10:11, Jesus also says, “What God joined together, let no one separate” (Mk 10:9). In 10:11, marriage cannot be broken; in 10:9, it should not be and must not be, but it is breakable. The difference in meaning here is this: one says that one is always married to one’s first spouse; the other says that one should remain married to one’s first spouse. The one is a statement; the other is a demand. Yet marriage cannot be both unbreakable and breakable; so it is possible that 10:11 is a deliberate overstatement (hyperbole) whereas 10:9 communicates its real intention: to keep us from divorcing, not to break up new marriages.

Other sayings of Jesus help us further. For instance, Jesus himself did not take Mk 10:11 literally: he regarded the Samaritan woman as married five times, not as married once and committing only adultery thereafter (Jn 4:18). Further, Jesus himself allows an exception in two of the four passages where he addresses divorce. A follower of Christ must not break up their marriage, but if their spouse breaks it up by sexual unfaithfulness, Jesus does not punish the innocent person (Matt 5:32; 19:9). In that case, the marriage may be broken, but only one person is guilty of breaking it. (Because both Jewish and Roman law required divorce for adultery, Mark and Luke could assume this exception without having to state it explicitly.) When Paul quotes Jesus’ prohibition of divorce, he tells Christians not to divorce their spouses, whether or not the spouses are Christian (1 Cor 7:10-14). But if the spouse leaves, the Christian is not held responsible for the spouse’s behavior (1 Cor 7:15). His wording, “not under bondage,” “not bound” (7:15), is the very language used in ancient Jewish divorce contracts for freedom to remarry. Paul therefore applies Jesus’ teaching as a demand for faithfulness to marriage, not a statement about breaking up marriages: Christians must never break up their own marriages, but if the marriage is broken against their will, we must not punish them, either. Jesus spoke to defend an innocent spouse, not to make their condition more difficult!

But even though Jesus is not really calling Christians to break up remarriages, this does not mean we should not take seriously what he is saying. The point of a deliberate overstatement is not to let us say, “Oh, that is just overstatement; we may ignore it.” The point of overstatement is to grab our attention, to force us to consider how serious is his demand. Genuine repentance (expressed in restitution) cancels past sins, but one cannot premeditate sin and expect one’s repentance to be genuine. Christians are not held responsible for marriages broken against their wills, but they are responsible before God to do everything genuinely in their power to make their marriages work. In this example, we have tried to show how we need to listen carefully to why Jesus speaks certain ways, and to examine all of his teachings to discern when he speaks literally and when he overstates his point parabolically. But overstatements are not meant to be ignored; they are meant to grip our attention all the more! We should also add two words of caution: Jesus himself uses principles like “compassion rather than sacrifice” (Matt 9:13; 12:7) and looking for the heart of the message (Matt 5:21-22; 23:23-24). But also we should be honest in grappling with what he says: proper fear of God will give us integrity in searching for truth rather than trying to justify how we want to live (cf. Prov 1:7).

7. Gospels

The Gospels are a specific kind of narrative, but rather than treating them only as narrative we make some special points here. The Gospels fit the format of ancient biographies. (Some early twentieth century scholars disputed this premise, but more recent scholarship has increasingly returned to the historic view that the Gospels are ancient biographies.)

Ancient biographers followed some fairly standard conventions in their writing, but some of these differed from the ways we write biographies today. For example, ancient biographies sometimes started with their subject’s adulthood (as in Mark or John) and sometimes arranged their story in topical more than chronological order (so, for example, Matthew’s reports of Jesus’ teaching; that is why events are not always in the same order from one Gospel to another). Nevertheless, biographers were not free to make up new stories about their heroes; they could choose which stories to report and put them in their own words, but other writers criticized those who made stories up. Further, one need not quote people verbatim, though one did have to get correct the sense of what they meant. Knowing such details about various kinds of ancient narratives helps us be even more precise when we learn principles for interpreting narratives. (We can also identify other kinds of narratives in the Bible more specifically than we have; for example, the Book of Acts is a special kind of history book that was common in the first century.)

Here we offer just a few comments on the historical trustworthiness of the Gospels as ancient biographies, using Luke 1:1-4 as a simple outline. We know from Luke 1:1 that by the time that Luke wrote, many written sources (other Gospels) were already in circulation. (Most of those Gospels no longer exist. Apart from the Gospels in the New Testament, all first-century Gospels have been lost. The so-called “Lost Gospels” some people speak about are forgeries, novels, or sayings-collections from later eras.) Luke himself writes in the lifetime of some of the apostles, and already many others have written before him! People were writing Gospels when others still remembered Jesus’ teachings very accurately ...

Further, we can trust the testimony of these eyewitnesses. The apostles remained in positions of leadership in the early church; both Acts and Paul mention Jesus’ brother and the leading apostles in Jerusalem. (No one had any reason to invent such people, and the spread of Christianity started somewhere; further, diverse sources attest them. So virtually no one today denies their existence.) Because of their leadership, no one could make up stories about Jesus that contradicted their true reports about Jesus. Further, no one can accuse them of lying about Jesus. They were so convinced that they spoke truth about him that they were prepared to die for their claims. Moreover, they were not simply dying for what they believed; they were dying for what they saw and heard when they were with him.

Third, Luke had the opportunity to investigate their claims (Lk 1:3, according to the Greek and most translations). Back when it was still possible to do so, Luke verified his sources by interviewing witnesses, wherever possible. Some sections of Acts say “we” because Luke was traveling with Paul at those points, and those sections include their journey to Jerusalem and Palestine, where they remained two years (Acts 21:15-17; 24:27; 27:1). That gave him the opportunity to interview Jesus’ younger brother James, among others (Acts 21:18).

Finally, Luke himself would not be able to make these stories up. He is confirming accounts for Theophilus, not introducing new ones (Lk 1:4). That is, while some eyewitnesses are still alive, the stories Luke records were already known by Theophilus. This further confirms to us that, even on purely historical grounds, the Gospels are trustworthy. (In the same way, Paul can remind his readers of miracles they themselves have witnessed, often through his ministry, or mention that other witnesses of the risen Christ are still alive and hence available for interview: 1 Cor 15:6; 2 Cor 12:12; Gal 3:5.)

8. Letters

As we read letters in the Bible, we must read them first of all as letters addressed to real people in the writer’s own day, for this is what they explicitly claim to be (e.g., Rom 1:7). Only after we have understood the letters in their own historical context can we consider how to rightly apply them to our situations today. In contrast to those who assume that letters require less interpretation than other parts of Scripture, they are actually among the parts of Scripture most closely tied to their historical situation …

As we noted in more detail above, cultural background in Bible study is not optional; we must take the original situation into account to fully understand the Bible. This is at least as true of letters as it is of every other part of the Bible, and maybe more so, because letters explicitly address specific congregations or people facing specific situations. Some passages are difficult to understand because the original audience already knew what was being addressed, and we are not always able to reconstruct it (2 Thess 2:5); in such cases we must learn humility!

Writers of biblical letters often followed standards of “rhetoric,” proper speaking and writing conventions of their day. Knowing some of those customs can help us understand the letters better (for instance, why Paul often opens with “grace and peace be with you, from God and Christ,” which links Christ as deity alongside the Father). At the same time, those writers were not simply showing off their writing abilities. They were making points, correcting problems and encouraging Christians in particular situations … These writers applied eternal principles to concrete situations in their own day

When we apply them, we must make sure that we find the appropriate analogies between the situations Paul addresses and our situations today. For example, some interpreters believe that Paul prohibits most women in one congregation from teaching because they were generally uneducated, hence could prove easily misled (1 Tim 2:11-12). In that culture, his command that they should “learn” (2:11; “quietly and submissively” was the appropriate way for all novices to learn) actually liberated women, who normally did not receive direct instruction except by sitting in services. It makes a difference whether or not this is the issue: if not, the appropriate analogy today may be that women should never teach the Bible (though this would leave in question what to do with other texts, like Rom 16:1-2, 7; Phil 4:2-3; Judg 4:4; 1 Cor 11:4-5). If so, the analogy today may be that unlearned people, whether male or female, should not teach the Bible.

Gordon Fee, in one of his chapters on “Epistles” in his book co-authored with Doug Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Zondervan, 1993), suggests two main general principles for interpreting letters. First, “a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers” (p. 64). He notes for instance that one cannot argue that the “perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13:10 refers to the completion of the New Testament–since Paul’s readers had no way of knowing that there would be a New Testament. Second, “Whenever we share comparable particulars (i.e., similar specific life situations) with the first-century setting, God’s Word to us is the same as his Word to them” (p. 65). Murmuring, complaining, sexual immorality and greed will always be wrong, no matter how much or little any culture practices them.

What do we do with texts that address situations very much unlike our situations today? Jewish and Gentile Christians divided over food laws and holy days, and Paul warned them in Romans 14 not to divide over such secondary matters. If we are in circles where we do not know any Christians who keep Old Testament festivals and who abstain from pork, do we simply skip over this chapter? Yet Paul’s advice in this chapter works from a broader principle in addressing the specific situation. The principle is that we should not divide from one another over secondary issues, issues that are not at the heart of the gospel and Christian morality.

Paul wrote to specific, real-life congregations. Because he was not expecting Christians for many centuries later to keep reading his letters in different cultures and situations (cf. Mk 13:32), he did not stop to distinguish for us his transcultural principles on which he based his advice from the concrete advice he gave to these congregations in their situations. Fee lists several principles for distinguishing transcultural principles from the specific examples the Bible gives us, the most important of which we have adapted here. First, we should look for the “core,” or the transcultural principle in the text. This is important so we keep the emphasis on Christ’s gospel and do not become legalists on details like some of Jesus’ enemies were. Second, the Bible presents some matters as transcultural moral norms, such as in Paul’s vice lists (Rom 1:28-31; 1 Cor 6:9-10). But in different cultures the Bible allowed different customs in terms of women’s work outside the home (Prov 31:16, 24; 1 Tim 5:14) or various forms of ministry (Judg 4:4; Phil 4:3; 1 Tim 2:12). If different passages allow different practices, we see these practices as providing guidelines in a specific culture, but not a transcultural principle behind them without exceptions.

Third, we need to understand the cultural options available to the writer. For example, biblical writers wrote in an era where no one was trying to abolish slavery; that the Bible’s writers do not explicitly address an issue that no one had raised does not suggest that they would have side with slavery’s supporters had the question been raised! On the other hand, Greeks in Paul’s day held various views regarding premarital sex, homosexual intercourse, and so on, but the Bible is unanimous in condemning such practices. Fourth, we need to take into account differences in situation: in the first century, men were far more apt to be educated, including in the Bible, than women; would Paul have written exactly the same applications for today, when women and men are more likely to share equal opportunities for education? Fee’s principles resemble those we articulated above on the use of cultural background.

We may provide one stark example of how we need to take Paul’s situation into account. In two texts, Paul requires women to keep “silence” in church (1 Cor 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:12). If we press this to mean all that it could mean, women should not even sing in church! Few churches today press these verses this far, but are they ignoring the passages’ meaning? Not necessarily. In other texts, Paul commends women for their labors for the kingdom (Phil 4:2-3), and in Romans 16 commends more women for their services than men (even though he mentions more men!) Moreover, he at least occasionally uses his most common terms for his male fellow workers to some women: “fellow worker” (Prisca, Rom 16:3); diakonos (“servant,” Phoebe, Rom 16:1); and once even “apostle” (Junia, according to the best translations; Rom 16:7)! Even more importantly, he accepts women praying and prophesying with their heads covered (1 Cor 11:4-5). How can they pray and prophesy if later in the same letter he requires them to be completely silent in church (1 Cor 14:34-35)? Does the Bible contradict itself here? Did Paul contradict himself in the very same letter?

But the two texts about silence probably do not address all kinds of silence, but deal with special kinds of situations. The only kind of speech specifically addressed in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is asking questions (14:35). It was common for people to interrupt teachers and lecturers with questions in Jewish and Greek cultures alike; but it was rude for unlearned people to do so, and they might have considered it especially rude for unlearned women. Keep in mind that women were usually much less educated than men; in Jewish culture, in fact, boys were taught to recite God’s law but girls almost never received this education. As to 1 Timothy 2:11-12, scholars still debate how Paul uses the Old Testament background (he applies Old Testament examples different ways in different passages, even the example of Eve: 2 Cor 11:3). But one point, at least, is interesting: Paul’s letters to Timothy in Ephesus are the only letters in the entire Bible where we know that false teachers were specifically targeting women with their false teachings (2 Tim 3:6). In fact, they may have targeted widows (1 Tim 5:9) who owned homes so they could use their houses for churches–one of the Greek terms in 1 Tim 5:13 nearly always meant spreading “nonsense” or false ideas. Those who knew less about the Bible were naturally most susceptible to false teachings; those who do not know the Bible should not be allowed to teach it. Whatever other conclusions one may draw from this, it seems unlikely that Paul would have refused to let women sing in church!

But Fee also cautions against extending the application too far beyond the point in the text. If the law is summed up in love (Rom 13:8-10), we apply the text rightly to love our neighbor as ourselves, a principle which has a potentially infinite number of applications. But some people have taught as if this principle empties all the moral content of the law, so that adultery or bank robbery are fine as long as one is motivated by love. That such an application twists the meaning of the text is obvious, but we practice other such distortions all the time. For instance, we sometimes quote 1 Corinthians 3:16, “you are a temple of God,” … Paul’s own primary point, however, is that our bodies should not be joined to prostitutes (6:15-17). This is a text to be used against sexual immorality! If we try to apply the principle also to smoking, because that is not glorifying God with our bodies, then we should also apply it to gluttony, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, and other problems damaging to our bodies. Our extension of Paul’s principle in this verse may be legitimate, but it is certainly secondary to Paul’s own focus, and Paul’s own focus should be primary to us: if we are joined to Christ, we must avoid sexual immorality.

Different letters were written in different ways, but for the most part we need to read letters carefully in sequence and the entire way through. Romans develops an argument through the entire book (as noted above); 1 Corinthians takes on several related issues, but most of those issues take up many paragraphs through several chapters (1 Cor 1-4, the church divided especially over the most skilled speakers; 1 Cor 5-7, mainly sexual issues; 1 Cor 8-11, mainly food issues; 1 Cor 12-14, spiritual gifts). You might practice discerning that argument by thinking up titles for each paragraph and show how these paragraphs relate to one another, developing a continuous argument.

Keener offers a selection of questions to apply when reading the Epistles — well worth a look.

Monday: Old Testament prophets and New Testament end-times prophecy