Inspiration and Incarnation | Notes & Review

Posted on July 22, 2012


Petter Enns. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. Baker Academic, 2005. (197 pages)


The aim of this book is not novelty but synthesis. My focus is twofold: (1) to bring together a variety of data that biblical scholars work with every day for readers who do not have firsthand familiarity with these data and (2) to look at these data with a clear view toward discussing their implications for an evangelical doctrine of Scripture. (9)

1. Getting Our Bearings

What I Hope to Accomplish in This Book

The purpose of this book is to bring an evangelical doctrine of Scripture into conversation with the implications generated by some important themes in modern biblical scholarship — particularly Old Testament scholarship — over the past 150 years. (13)

In my view, what is needed is not simply for evangelicals to work in these areas, but to engage the doctrinal implications that work in these areas raises. (13)

My aim is to allow the collective evidence to affect not just how we understand a biblical passage or story here and there within the parameters of earlier doctrinal formulations. Rather, I want to move beyond that by allowing the evidence to affect how we think about what Scripture as a whole is. | The end result, I truly hope, will be to provide a theological paradigm for people who know instinctively that the Bible is God’s word, but for whom reading the Bible has already become a serious theological problem — perhaps even a crisis. (15)

The problems many of us feel regarding the Bible may have less to do with the Bible itself and more to do with our own preconceptions. (15)

I want to focus on three issues…

  1. The Old testament and other literature from the ancient world: Why does the bible in places look a lot like the literature of Israel’s ancient neighbors? Is the Old Testament really that unique? Does it not just reflect the ancient world in which it was produced? If the Bible is the word of God, why does it fit so nicely in the ancient world?
  2. Theological diversity in the Old Testament: Why do different parts of the Old Testament say different things about the same thing? It really seems as if there are contradictions, or at least large differences of opinion, in the Old Testament.
  3. The way in which the New Testament authors handle the Old Testament: Why do the New Testament authors handle the Old Testament in such odd ways? It looks like they just take the Old Testament passages out of context.

The first issue deals with the Bible’s uniqueness.
The second concerns the bible’s integrity.
The third deals with the Bible’s interpretation.

What is needed is a way of thinking about Scripture where these kinds of issues are addressed from a very different perspective — where these kinds of problems cease being problems and become windows that open up new ways of understanding. (17)

A Way toward Addressing the Problem: The Incarnational Analogy

The starting point for our discussion is the following: as Christ is both God and human, so is the Bible. In other words, we are to think of the Bible in the same way that Christians think about Jesus. (17)

How does Scripture’s full humanity and full divinity affect what we should expect from Scripture? (18)

“scriptural docetism” …But the human marks of the Bible are everywhere, thoroughly integrated into the nature of Scripture itself. Ignoring these marks or explaining them away takes at least as much energy as listening to them and learning from them. (18)

Here are some of these human marks of Scripture…

  1. The Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek (with a little Aramaic).
  2. The old Testament world was a world of temples, priests, and sacrifice.
  3. Israel as well as the surrounding nations had prophets that mediated divine will to them.
  4. Through much of its history, Israel was ruled by kings, as were the nations around it.
  5. Israel’s legal system has some striking similarities with those of surrounding nations.

That the Bible, at every turn, shows how “connected” it is to its own world is a necessary consequence of God incarnating himself.

People are time bound, and so God adopts that characteristic if he wishes to reveal himself. (20)

It is essential to the very nature of revelation that the Bible is not unique to its environment. The human dimension of Scripture is essential to its being Scripture.

What I propose, however, is an approach that accepts neither alternative as offering the final world. That the Bible bears an unmistakable human stamp does not lead to the necessary conclusion that it is merely the words of humans rather than the word of God. To those who hold such a position the question might be asked, “How else would you have expected God to speak? In ways wholly disconnected to the ancient world? Who would have understood him? (21)

With this in mind, we can now look at some of the evidence that has been part of the scholarly conversation for several generations, not to determine whether the Bible is God’s word, but to see more clearly how it is God’s word. (21)

2. The Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature

The Impact of Akkadian Literature

An Important Discovery. Between the years 1848 and 1876, archeologists working in the library of King Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC) in ancient Nineveh (the capital city of Assyria, located in modern-day Iraq) discovered thousands of clay tablets with markings on them. …the language came to be known as Akkadian, the language of two prominent nations: Assyrian and Babylon. (24-25)

Enuma Elish. “when on high.” 7 tablets, dating to the seventh century BC, but a date sometime in the second millennium BC is the consensus position for the age of the story, perhaps the earliest likely dates is the 18th century BC.

The degree to which Genesis and Enuma Elish are truly parallel is a debated point, but some of the more agreed upon similarities are the following:

  1. The sequence of the days of creation is similar, including the creation of the firmament, dry land, luminaries, and humanity, followed by rest.
  2. Darkness precedes the creative acts.
  3. There is a division of the waters (waters above and below the firmament).
  4. Light exists before the creation of the sun, moon, and stars.

…both Genesis and Enuma Elish “breathe the same air.”

Flood: Atrahasis and Gilgamesh. …earliest copies of Atrahasis date to the seventeenth century BC. …tells of a flood that was the result of the decree of the god Enlil to destroy humans because they were making too much noise. Atrahasis, through the help of the god Ea, escapes the wrath of Enlil by building a large boat in which to save humanity. | The earliest copies of Gilgamesh are Sumerian and are dated to the first half to the second millennium BC. (27)

Israel’s Ancestors: Nuzi.

Law: The Code of Hammurabi. 18th c. BC.

Code of Hammurabi 195-97

Exodus 21:23-25

If a son has struck his father, they shall cut off his hand. If a nobleman has put out the eye of another nobleman’s bone, they shall break his bone. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, would for wound, bruise for bruise.

Code of Hammurabi 198-201

Exodus 21:26-27

If he has put out the eye of a commoner or broken the bone of a commoner, he shall pay one silver mina. If he has put out the eye of a nobleman’s slave or broken the bone of a nobleman’s slave, he shall pay one-half of its value. If a nobleman has knocked out the tooth of his equal, they shall knock out his tooth. If he has knocked out the tooth of a commoner, he shall pay one-third of a silver mina. If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of a manservant or maidservant, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the tooth.

Code of Hammurabi 209

Exodus 21:22

If a nobleman has struck another nobleman’s daughter and has caused her to have a miscarriage, he shall pay ten shekels of silver for her fetus. If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows.

What can we say about the uniqueness of the Bible when, in so many areas, it bears striking similarities to the beliefs and practices of the other nations? This is precisely where the tension lies: the truth faith of Israel and the false faith of her neighbors looks similar. (32)

Some Other Ancient Near Eastern Texts

Deuteronomy and Hittite Suzerainty Treaties. The biblical texts and the Hittite treaties have many things in common:

  1. The treaties begin with a preamble or historical prologue announcing the name of the king and what he has done for the vassals. Thus, the Ten Commandments begin, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” God announces himself and then reminds the Israelites of what he has done for them.
  2. After this introduction the Hittite treaties have some stipulations (or laws) that the vassal is meant to obey, the most important of which is loyalty to the king. This is not unlike the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
  3. The Hittite treaties include an explicit demand that vassals remain bound by oath to the king, otherwise they will have the gods to answer to. Some understand the third commandment to be functioning in a similar way: “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God.”
  4. Then follows a series of blessings and curses, blessings for those who obey and curses for those who do not. In the Ten Commandments, such a blessing is found in the fifth commandment, to honor one’s mother and father: “So that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.”
  5. One final parallel concerns the Ten Commandments being written on two tablets. Hittite treaties were written in two copies, one for the king and the other for the vassal. Although it cannot be proven conclusively, it is very inviting to see the two tablets of the Ten Commandments in the same light. Throughout history, the explanation for why Moses came down from the mountain with two tablets has been that half of the commandments (or perhaps the first four) were on the first tablet and the remaining commandments were on the second. That may be, but the Hittite evidence introduces another possibility: the Israelites were given two complete copies of the Ten Commandments. Regardless of how one answers these specific questions, the Hittite evidence affects how one goes about answer them.

Not only the Ten Commandments but hte structure of the book of Deuteronomy as a whole also seems to reflect the structure of the Hittite treaties. Each section of Deuteronomy reflects a section of the Hittite treaties:

  • preamble (1:1-5)
  • historical prologue (1:6-4:49)
  • stipulations (laws) (5:1-26:19)
  • blessings and curses (27:1-30:20)
  • the future (royal successor, among other things) (31:1-34:12)

David and the Tel Dan Inscription. Aramaic dating to ninth or eighth century BC. house of David.

Hezekiah and the Siloam Tunnel Inscription. 2 Kings 20:20. ~701 BC.

[The day of] the breach.
This is the record of how the tunnel was breached.
While [the excavators were wielding] their pick-axes, each man towards his co-worker,
and while there were yet three cubits for the brea[ch],
a voice [was hea]rd each man calling to his co-worker;
because there was a cavity in the rock (extending)
from the south to [the north].
So on the day of the breach,
the excavators struck, each man to meet his co-worker,
pick-axe against pick-[a]xe.
Then the water flowed from the spring to the pool,
a distance of on thousand and two hundred cubits.
One hundred cubits was the height of the rock above the heads of the excavat[ors].

Omri and the Mesha Inscription. Mesha was the king of ancient Moab around 830 BC. He erected a monument recounting his deeds as king. 2 Kings 3:4-5.

Proverbs and the Instruction of Amenemope. Proverbs 22:17-24:22 bears striking similarities to the Instruction of Amenemope.

What Exactly Is the Problem?

The impact of these texts leads to questions like these:

  1. Does the Bible, particularly Genesis, report historical fact, or is it just a bunch of stories culled form other ancient cultures?
  2. What does it mean for other cultures to have an influence on the Bible that we believe is revealed by God? Can we say that the Bible is unique or special? If the Bible is such a “culturally conditioned” product, what possible relevance can it have for us today?
  3. Does this mean that the history of the church, which carried on for many centuries before this evidence came to light, was wrong in how it thought about its Bible?

Is the Bible still the word of God?

Below I group into three headings the ten texts that we looked at above.

  1. Creation and the flood: Enuma Elish, Atrahasis, and Gilgamesh
  2. Customs, laws, and proverbs: Nuzi documents, Code of Hammurabi, Hittite suzerain treaties, and Instruction of Amenemope
  3. Israel and her kings: Tel Dan Inscription, Siloam Tunnel Inscription, and Mesha Inscription

Group 1 — Creation and the Flood: Is Genesis Myth or History? If we can properly define the nature of that relationship, debates about the implications of that relationship will fall into place. (40)

A more generous way of defining myth is that it is an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories: Who are we? Where do we come from? | Ancient peoples were not concerned to describe the universe in scientific terms. (40)

Are the early stories in the Old Testament to be judged on the basis of standards of modern historical inquiry and scientific precision, things that ancient peoples were not at all aware of? Is it not likely that God would have allowed his word to come to the ancient Israelites according to standards they understood, or are modern standards of truth and error so universal that we should expect premodern cultures to have understood them? The former position is, I feel, better suited for solving the problem. The latter is often an implicit assumption of modern thinkers, both conservative and liberal Christians, but it is somewhat myopic and should be called into question. What the Bible is must be understood in light of the cultural context in which it was given. What the Bible is must be understood in light of the cultural context in which it was given. (41)

Group 2 — Customs, Laws, and Proverbs: Is Revelation Unique?

…the problem really turns on what revelation means. What seems to be falsely implicit in the discussion is that revelation is by its nature unique, meaning that revelation will necessarily be thoroughly distinct from the surrounding culture. After all, it is thought, revelation is from God, but culture is a human product. But this is precisely the assumption that the ancient Near Eastern evidence forces us to look at more carefully. And this evidence indicates that (1) portions of the law and wisdom in the Old Testament have clear parallels in other ancient cultures, (2) those ancient Near Eastern parallels are older than their Old Testament counterparts, and (3) at least one of those parallels (Amenemope) seems to be the source for the biblical material. | In other words, the Bible seems to be relativized. (42-43)

What needs to be called into question is the assumption that both sides of the argument are making, namely, that the situated/enculturated nature of the Bible poses a problem to the definition of divine revelation. (43)

Group 3 — Israel and Its Kings: Is Good Historiography Objective or Biased?

What were the ancient conventions for writing history? What did it mean to record history? What can be called good or accurate history writing by standards that were in existence when the Bible was written? In fact, one must question the entire assumption that good history writing, whether modern or ancient, is concerned to transmit only bare facts of history. Is there really any such thing as a completely objective and unbiased recording of history, modern or premodern? (45)

How Have These Issues Been Handled in the Past?

…the issue began to shift from “What did the original documents look like?” to, “What did the documents mean in their original contexts?” (45)

The “context of Scripture” became the primary determining factor in defining what the Bible is. … The conservative’s reaction was also problematic in that it implicitly assumed what their opponents also assumed: the bible, being the word of God, ought to be historically accurate in all its details …and unique in its own setting. (47)

In other words, conservative scholarship, allowing modern scholarship to set the agenda while still trying to maintain older doctrinal commitments, was well positioned to listen to some evidence but not all. | To caricature somewhat, if historical context was everything for liberal scholars, regardless of its implications for Christian doctrine, for conservative scholars doctrine was everything, regardless of the historical evidence that challenged doctrine. (47)

How Can We Think Differently through These Issues?

As I see it, the issue concerns the assumptions made by both sides of the debate about how to understand that evidence. …If, in full conversation with the biblical and extrabiblical evidence, we can adjust our expectations about how the Bible should behave, we can begin to move beyond the impasse of the liberal/conservative debates of the last several generations. (48)

Toward that end, I wish to make clear two assumptions that will be important in what follows:

  1. I assume that the extrabiblical archeological and textual evidences should play an important role in our understanding of Scripture. Ours is a historical faith, and to uproot the Bible from its historical contexts is self-contradictory. In and of themselves, these evidences are not wholly determinative; some are clearer and more relevant than others. They must be looked at carefully and patiently and thus interpreted as to their importance. Though they are not determinative, they are wholly relevant to how we understand today what the Bible is. To state the opposite, I reject the notion that a modern doctrine of Scripture can be articulated in blissful isolation from the evidence we have.
  2. All attempts to articulate the nature of Scripture are open to examination, including my own. I firmly believe — although it may seem somewhat paradoxical — that the Spirit of God is fully engaged in such a theological process and at the same time that our attempts to articulate what God’s word is have a necessarily provisional dimension. To put it succinctly: the Spirit leads the church to truth — he does not simply drop us down in the middle of it. To say this is not a low view of Scripture or of the role of the Holy Spirit. it is simply to recognize what has been the case throughout the history of the church, that diverse views and changes of opinion over time have been the constant companions of the church and that God has not brought this process to a closure.

Is Genesis Myth or History? I question how much value there is in posing the choice in Genesis as either myth or history. (49)

But one might ask why it is that God can’t use the category we call “myth” to speak to ancient Israelites. (50)

Myth is an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories: Who are we? Where do we come from? (50)

We must begin our thinking by acknowledging that the ancient Near Eastern myths are almost certainly older than the versions recorded for us in the Bible. How can we say this? For several reasons. (50)

First, Israelite culture is somewhat of a latecomer in the ancient Near Eastern world. …Second, the culture of Israel’s ancestors was certainly oral. …Third, the Hebrew language we know from the Old Testament did not exist in the second millennium. (50-51)

…when [did] the stories of Genesis [come] to be written in Hebrew? (51)

First, the Semitic alphabet, which formed the basis for not only Hebrew but also other Semitic languages (e.g., Aramaic, Moabite, Edomite, Ammonite) — not to mention the Greek and Latin alphabets — did not come on the scene until about 1700 BC and then only in a very rudimentary fashion, and it did not catch on right away. …Second, we have no extrabiblical evidence for the existence of Hebrew before the first millennium BC.

Earliest Hebrew text: Gezer Calendar. (10th c. BC. There is still some qustion, however, about whether it is written in Hebrew or in Phoenician, Hebrew’s parent language. The text is fairly short [nineteen words], so there is not much to go on.)

Earliest biblical manuscripts are the Dead Sea Scrolls (no earlier than the second century BC).

The Mesopotamian world from which Abraham came was one whose own stories of origins had been expressed in mythic categories for a considerable length of time. Moreover, the land Abraham was going to enter, the land of the Canaanites, was likewise rich in its own myths. (53)

We must surely assume that Abraham, as such a man, shared the worldview of those whose world he shared and not a modern, scientific one. The reason the opening chapters of Genesis look so much like the literature of ancient Mesopotamia is that the worldview categories of the ancient Near Easter were ubiquitous and normative at the time. (53)

What makes Genesis different from its ancient Near Eastern counterparts is that it begins to make the point to Abraham and his seed that the God they are bound to, the God who called them into existence, is different from the gods around them. (53)

Ancient Near Eastern religion were hierarchical and polytheistic. (53)

…the point here is not one of textual dependence but of conceptual similarity. (55)

To put it this way is not to concede ground to liberalism or unbelief, but to understand the simple fact that the stories in Genesis had a context within which they were first understood. And that context was not a modern scientific one but an ancient mythic one. (55)

Therefore, the question is not the degree to which Genesis conforms to what we would think is a proper description of origins. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of Genesis to expect it to answer questions generated by a modern worldview, such as whether the days were literal or figurative, or whether the days of creation can be lined up with modern science, or whether the flood was local or universal. The question that Genesis is prepared to answer is whether Yahweh, the God of Israel, is worthy of worship. (55)

The point I would like to emphasize, however, is that such a firm grounding in ancient myth does not make Genesis less inspired;… (56)

We must resist the notion that for God to enculturate himself is somehow beneath him. This is precisely how he shows his love to the world he made. (56)

Is Revelation Unique? However indelicate such a family dynamic may appear to us, the point is simply this: what constituted Israel’s proper social — and, in this case, even ethical — behavior seems to be a matter of cultural convention. There is no suggestion in Genesis that these social customs are there by God’s design and that is what makes them “okay.” These customs were simply there, before Abraham came on the scene. (57)

What makes Israel’s laws revelatory is not that they are new — a more about-face vis-a-vis the surrounding nations — but that these are the laws that were to be obeyed in order to form Israel into a godlike community. (57)

…despite the common, even secular feel (as some put it) to Proverbs, it is at the same time a book that claims that, in following the path of wisdom laid out therein, one is connecting with God’s wisdom. …To put it another way, God’s law and wisdom are incarnated in the world of the ancient Near East: they fit. (58)

Is Good Historiography Objective or Biased? Historiography is not the mere statement of facts but the shaping of these facts for a particular purpose. To put it another way, historiography is an attempt to relay to someone the significance of history. (60)

…all historiography exhibits the interplay between event, presentation, and purpose. To be direct, there is no historiography that does not have a decidedly interpretive element. (62) [VIA: By definition, history is biased. If it is not biased, it is not history.]

Chronicles was probably not written merely to supplement Samuel-Kings. Rather it is an independent piece of historiography that, although certainly interacting with Samuel-Kings, is nevertheless intended to stand on its own and be understood on its own terms. (63)

Chronicles is not interested in merely recounting past events for the sake of it. Rather the author is employing Israel’s past for the purpose of interpreting its own present circumstances in terms of the broadest possible context. The author is reminding the people that despite their difficult present circumstances, they have a heritage that is long and honored. To put it another way, the returning exiles were asking whether they were still the people of God, whether his promises to them were still true. How can they still be God’s people if all these promises have been dashed? Chronicles retells Israel’s past in order to encourage the Israel of the present. (64)

To insist that, somehow, Samuel-Kings and Chronicles must say the same thing about the same event tells us more about the modern interpreter than it does about the biblical texts. moreover, it flies in the face of both the evidence and common sense. The plain fact of the matter is that in Scripture we have two divergent accounts of the same event. The only question before us is how to handle this fact with integrity. (65)

It is a distortion of the highest order to argue that Jesus must have cleansed the temple twice. …it is based on an assumption about what constitutes good historiography that the Gospels themselves do not support, namely, that historiography must maintain chronological order. (65)

…what is true of all historiography is also true of biblical historiography — it is not objective. In fact — and this is getting more to the heart of the matter — in the strict sense of the word, there really is no such thing as objective historiography. (66)

To be able to confess that the Bible is God’s word is the gift of faith. To understand this confession is an ongoing process of greater clarification and insight, a process that will not end. (66)

Predictably, this raises the very good issue of the relationship between the text of the Bible and the events it reports. So, what did Nathan actually say? What 2 Samuel reports? What 1 Chronicles reports? Neither? A little of both? The answer is, “I don’t know, and neither does anyone else.” In fact, I am beginning to suspect that this is not the primary question the Bible is set up to answer. I am by no means saying that history does not matter. I am saying that the reporting of historical events — historiography — always involves the shaping of history for particular purposes. How much shaping goes on in the Bible and for what purpose is no doubt the topic of ongoing discussion. In the case of Samuel-Kings and Chronicles, I gave the explanation of their differing purposes that I feel makes the best sense of the evidence. But how we answer that question, as such answers may shift over time, is not nearly as important as the posture from which we attempt these answers: that we fully respect the Bible as God’s word at the outset, not because we can make sense of it all but despite our inability to do so at times. (66)

How Does This Affect Us?

First, a contemporary evangelical doctrine of Scripture must account for the Old Testament as an ancient Near Eastern phenomenon by going beyond the mere observation of that fact to allowing that fact to affect how we think about Scripture. (67)

Second, such a worked-out doctrine of Scripture should have implications for how Christians today use it. (67) …how we conceive of the normativity of authority of the Old Testament must be in continual conversation with the incarnate dimension of Scripture. In other words, what the Bible is should affect what we as Christians do with it. It simply will not do to assume that what was binding on Israel is binding on us because it is written in the Bible, and the Bible is God’s word, and therefore all of it is of equal weight through all time. (67)

All this to say that the central function of the Old Testament may not be there to “tell us what to do.” It may be more a part of a larger story that God brings to an end many hundreds of years later in Christ. And this story, which ends with the incarnation of God’s Son, had an incarnational dimension from the start. (67)

Third, the incarnational dimension of Scripture continues today.

3. The Old Testament and Theological Diversity

The Problem of Theological Diversity in the Old Testament

For the Jews, the Bible is a problem to be solved. For Christians, it is a message to be proclaimed.

(Knowing the original Hebrew does not always make the text “come alive”! It often introduces obscurities that English readers are not aware of.) (72)

The stress seems to be not on solving the problems once and for all but on a community upholding a conversation with Scripture with creative energy. (72)

At this juncture I simply wish to make the observation that Christianity, at least the Christianity with which modern evangelicalism is familiar, followed a different path. As quite distinct from Jewish interpretation, the history of modern evangelical interpretation exhibits a strong degree of discomfort with the tensions and ambiguities of Scripture. The assumptions often made are that Scripture should have no tensions and that any such tensions are not real but introduced from the outside, namely, by scholarship hostile to evangelical Christianity. (72)

The Christian task has been more defined by relegating such tensions and ambiguities to the background in favor of proclaiming a unified message. After all, the Old Testament is not there to set us on an interpretive adventure, but to tell us what God is like, what he has done, who we are as his people, and what we are to do in response. (72)

It is not simply a question of acknowledging diversity and then setting it aside at a safe distance. Rather, it is to ask what such diversity tells us about what the Bible is and who God is — a God who has given us Scripture that looks like this. (73)

Diversity in Wisdom Literature

Proverbs. …there is more to wisdom than simply reading a proverb. One must also have the wisdom to read the situation, to know whether a proverb is fitting. (74)

The point to be stressed here is that all of these proverbs are wise. All are correct. The question is not whether they are correct, but when. (76)

Ecclesiastes. …the contradictions in Ecclesiastes are there for a reason. They are not there to be resolved. (77) Wisdom does not guarantee a payoff, and this frustrates Qoheleth. (79)

Diversity is woven into Old testament literature. But note that diversity in no way implies chaos or error. (80)

Diversity in Chronicles

Diversity in Law

The Ten Commandments. …regardless of what theory of pentateuchal authorship on subscribes to, the simple fact of the matter is that Deuteronomy presents Moses as someone who, forty years after the fact, recounts God’s words differently than they were given in Exodus. There is diversity even in the Ten Commandments. (87)

God seems to be perfectly willing to allow his law to be adjusted over time. (87)

In other words, there seems to be a situational dimension to law, just as we saw with wisdom literature. …When we put flesh on the bare bones of the Ten Commandments, we see that there is a “wisdom dimension” to any attempt to keep the law. (88)

God and Diversity

One God or Many Gods? What I am interested in, however, is discussing how the Old Testament speaks of the existence of one God in the context of the religious systems of the surrounding nations. (97)

Pharaoh does not know who Yahweh is. The next several chapters, culminating in the Red Sea incident, are designed to acquaint Pharaoh and all Egypt with Israel’s God. (100)

Does God Change His Mind? Yet, in various places in the Old Testament, God acts more as a character in the story. Another way of putting it is that he acts more humanlike than godlike. (103)

I am not trying to drive a wedge between the Bible and God. Actually, and somewhat ironically, this is what I see others doing. I feel bound to talk about God in the way(s) the Bible does, even if I am not comfortable with it. (106)

What Does Diversity Tell Us about Scripture?

To accept the diversity of the Old Testament is not to “cave in to liberalism,” nor is it to seek after novelty. It is, rather, to read the Old Testament quite honestly and seriously. And if diversity is such a prevalent phenomenon in the Old Testament, it would seem to be important to do more than simply take note of diversity and file it away for future reference. We must ask why God would do it this way. Why does God’s word look the way it does? (107)

In other words, once we confess that the Bible is God’s word, we can look at how it is God’s word. (108)

After all, it was written over a very lengthy period of time, at least five hundred years and perhaps closer to one thousand years. (108)

…the messiness of the Old Testament tells us that God is very real to his people and very near. (110)

Christ is the ultimate example of how God enters the messiness of history to save his people. He did not keep his distance, but became one of us. This is true of Christ, the embodied word. It is also true of the Bible, the written word. To put it this way is to turn the entire debate on its head: the diversity of Scripture — and the tensions that this diversity introduces — bears witness to God’s revelation rather than detracts from it. (111)

4. The Old Testament and Its Interpretation in the New Testament

Do New Testament Authors Misuse the Old Testament?

It is a common occurrence for preachers to take a verse from the Old Testament, or part of a verse, and derive meaning from it that serves their agenda rather than clarifying the text. (114)

…I will state my conclusions up front:

  1. The New Testament authors were not engaging the Old Testament in an effort to remain consistent with the original context and intention of the Old Testament author.
  2. They were indeed commenting on what the text meant.
  3. The hermeneutical attitude they embodied should be embraced and followed by the church today.

To put it succinctly, the New Testament authors were explaining what the Old Testament means in light of Christ’s coming. (116)

Biblical Interpretation in the Second Temple Period

A convenient label often attached to such an approach is “grammatical-historical,” meaning that the words of the text in front of you must be understood in their original grammatical (i.e., interpreting the text in the original language) and historical contexts. (117) …the principle that “original context matters” must be applied not only to grammar and history but also to the hermeneutics of the New Testament writers. (117)

Interbiblical Interpretation: The Old Testament’s Use of the Old Testament.

  • 2 Chronicles 35:13 and Passover law.
  • Daniel 9 prophesied by Jeremiah (25:11; 29:10). Seventy years? “Seventy sevens” of years? Deportation was in 587 BC. Return begins 538 BC. First wave of deportation began in 605 BC. Second Temple completed in 516 BC.
  • Luke 24:44-48.
  • Hosea 6:2 as a proof-text for the resurrection?

…he is saying that all Scriptures speak of him in the sense that he is the climax of Israel’s story. | The Old Testament as a whole is about him, not a subliminal prophecy or a couple of lines tucked away in a minor prophet. Rather, Christ — who he is and what he did — is where the Old Testament has been leading all along. (120)

For the Qumran community, biblical interpretation was not a means of discovering ancient meaning but of using the Bible to validate the present self-understanding of the Qumran community. (131)

What Can We Learn from Second Temple Literature? …we can now turn to the New Testament, which is also a Second Temple interpretive text. This is not to say that it reflects precisely the examples above. Nevertheless, we should expect the New Testament, being a Second Temple phenomenon, to behave in a way that would make it recognizable to its contemporaries, rather than expecting it to conform to our own twenty-first-century expectations. (131-132)

Apostolic hermeneutics as a Second Temple Phenomenon: Interpretive Methods

  • Exodus 3:6 in Luke 20:34-38. It is precisely because Jesus employed Second Temple techniques that his interpretation was able to have apologetic import. (132)
  • Matthew 2:15 and Hosea 11:1.
  • 2 Corinthians 6:2 and Isaiah 49:8.
  • Galatians 3:16, 29 and Abraham’s “Seed.”
  • Romans 11:26-27 and Isaiah 59:20.
  • Hebrews 3:7-11 and Psalm 95:9-10.

Apostolic Hermeneutics as a Second Temple Phenomenon: Interpretive Traditions

  • James and Jambres. 2 Timothy 3:8.
  • Noah, the Preacher of Righteousness, 2 Peter 2:5. Peter refers to Noah in a way that has no explicit biblical support but is found in other ancient sources. Peter is not working on his own here. (Josephus, Antiquities 1.3.1 §74; Sibylline Oracles 1.125-95; a portion of the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 108a).
  • The Dispute over Moses’ Body. Jude 9. The Assumption of Moses (also called the Testament of Moses). The extracanonical origin of Jude’s comment is beyond debate. (145)
  • Jude and 1 Enoch. Jude 14-15; 1 Enoch 1.9. Why would Jude, an inspired canonical author, cite an uninspired noncanonical book? The more important issue is the traditions about Enoch that were in circulations and to which early interpreters — including Jude — had access.
  • Moses’ Egyptian Education. Philo’s Life of Moses, 1.5 §§21-24; ancient play by “Ezekiel the Tragedian,” Exagoge lines 36-38 (second century BC). (147)
  • The Law Was Put into Effect through Angels. Galatians 3:19; Acts 7:52-53; Hebrews 2:2-3; anchored in Deuteronomy 33:2-4? …angelic activity between Moses and God on Sinai is not a biblical notion but, for whatever reason, a Second Temple one. (149)
  • Paul’s Movable Well. 1 Corinthians 10:4; By calling the rock Christ, Paul is certainly Christianizing this Old Testament story. But Paul’s Old Testament is one that has already been subject to a rich history of interpretation. It is not just the words on the page but the interpretive tradition as well that made up Paul’s Old Testament. (151)

What Makes Apostolic Hermeneutics Unique?

The driving force behind their Old Testament interpretations was their belief that Jesus of Nazareth was God with us and that he had been raised form the dead. It was, as mentioned earlier, their belief that the eschaton had come in Christ. (152)

Another way of putting the problem is that apostolic hermeneutics violates what is considered to be a fundamental interpretive principle: don’t take things out of context. …It is not that the Old Testament words are taken out of context and tossed into the air to fall where they may. Rather, the New Testament authors take the Old Testament out of one context, that of the original human author, and place it into another context, the one that represents the final goal to which Israel’s story has been moving. (153)

The term I prefer to use to describe this eschatological hermeneutic is christotelic. I prefer this over chrostological or christocentric since these are susceptible to a point of view I am not advocating here, namely needing to “see Christ” in every, or nearly every Old Testament passage. Telos is the Greek word for “end” or “completion.” To read the Old Testament “Christotelically” is to read it already knowing that Christ is somehow the end to which the Old Testament story is heading. (154)

There is a variety in how the apostles handled the Old Testament, and I have no desire to gloss over the fact. I maintain, however, that the shape of apostolic hermeneutics is best explained by bearing in mind the Second Temple world in which they thought and wrote, as well as the fundamental conviction that Jesus is the telos of the Old Testament. These factors are seen again and again on the pages of the New Testament. (155)

Should We Handle the Old Testament the Way the Apostles Did?

I suggest that we distinguish between hermeneutical goal and exegetical method. (158)

“What difference does the death and resurrection of Christ make for how I understand this part of the Old Testament?” Our privileged status to be living int he postresurrection cosmos must be reflected in our understanding of the Old Testament. (159)

What drives apostolic hermeneutics is not adherence to a method. …To speak of the apostles’ exegetical methods may lead us down the wrong path to begin with. I do not mean to make sweeping statements against exegetical methods or grammatical-historical exegesis. But when we observe what the apostles did with their Scripture, we can only conclude that there must be more to Christian biblical interpretation than uncovering the original meaning of an Old Testament passage. | The New Testament writers were so consumed by Christ that their understanding of God’s past actions was brought under the authority of God’s present act, the climax of his covenant with Israel, the person and work of Christ. (160)

What We Can Learn From Apostolic Hermeneutics

…biblical interpretation is at least as much art as it is science. (161)

Moreover, inasmuch as Scripture is the word of God, I would expect multiple layers of meaning insofar as no one person, school, or tradition can exhaust the depth of God’s word. (161)

Perhaps, then, we can also appreciate that biblical interpretation is at least as much community oriented as it is individually oriented. …biblical interpretation is a true community activity. | Perhaps we should think of biblical interpretation more as a path to walk than a fortress to be defended. (162)

The goal toward which the path is leading is that which set us on the path to begin with: our having been claimed by God as coheirs with the crucified and risen Christ. The reality of the crucified and risen Christ is both the beginning and end of Christian biblical interpretation. (163)

5. The Big Picture

What Is The Bible, and What Are We Supposed to Do with It?

Whatever words Christians employ to speak of the Bible (inerrant, infallible, authoritative, revelational, inspired), either today or in the past, must be seen as attempts to describe what can never be fully understood. (168)

Perhaps, then, it makes more sense to speak of the incarnational parallel between Christ and the Bible. (168)

We are to place our trust in God who gave us Scripture, not in our own conceptions of how Scripture ought to be. (169)

To put it more positively, the Bible sets trajectories, not rules, for a good many issues that confront the church. (170)

Continuing the Conversation: Learning to Listen

…the attitude of an academic quest is very different from judgmental suspicion… (172)

We do not honor the Lord nor do we uphold the gospel by playing make-believe. (172)

Our God is much bigger than we sometimes give him credit for. It is we who sometimes wish to keep him small by controlling what can or cannot come into the conversation. (172)

What would be a breath of fresh air, not to mention a testimony to those around us, is to see an atmosphere, a culture, among conservative, traditional, orthodox Christians that models basic principles of the gospel:

  • Humility on the part of scholars to be sensitive to how others will hear them and on the part of those whose preconceptions are being challenged.
  • Love that assumes the vest of brothers and sisters in Christ, not that looks for any difference of opinion as an excuse to go on the attack.
  • Patience to know that no person or tradition is beyond correction, and therefore no one should jump to conclusions about another’s motives.

We must be very careful not to confuse God’s kingdom with our own. (172)

We must, therefore, be ever vigilant to inspect our own motives, lest we fall into the well-worn rut of thinking that study of the Bible prepares us to lead rather than to serve. (173)

— VIA —

The beginning and the end of this book are worth reading several times. Embracing the lessons of historiography when it comes to context and data are key and fundamental to any interpretive exercise. I’m thankful for Enns’s lay elucidation of this. Also, the imploring of each of us to love, humility, patience, understanding, check of motives, and the opportunity to see things differently is a never worn-out reminder. Thus the idea that the Bible is both human and divine is a helpful framework for approaching the Bible.

However, I can’t help but be left even more unsettled than before reading this book when it comes to the complex challenges of Old Testament and New Testament, historical context, evangelicalism and the entire hermeneutical enterprise. Enns mentions that understanding the Hebrew “often introduces obscurities that English readers are not aware of.” (72) I suppose as one becomes more educated, the more one will have to become comfortable with said obscurities, in addition to ambiguities, complexities, and non-conclusive results. So, here’s what emerges:

If the NT authors dismissed context, and in many ways recontextualized a passage for their setting (e.g., the fulfillment of Christ), does this not mean that any text is essentially subject to the whims of the readers? Does this mean that meaning is only contemporary, and cannot be historical?

How can the paradox of multiple interpretations (multiple lenses, or refractions) truly be viable? At what point can anyone say to any interpretation, “That’s incorrect”? Is Enns’s avoidance of Christological or Christocentric readings necessary? Why should those readings not be allowed?

Even if OT and NT authors/readers/interpreters created a hermeneutics of meaning that dismissed historical-cultural context, should we not “fix” that in our era, a time when we understand better the nature of hermeneutics, and the boundaries and guidelines of interpretation? Or, do we even really understand?

And my main problem is that a Christotelic reading of the Scriptures is narrow and sectarian, limited only to Christians. But the whole point of truth is that the writings, whatever they may be, are elevated beyond any sect, cult, or religious dogma. There ought to be a better way to understand the true nature of these writings beyond a “merely Christian” way of seeing them; an understanding that both includes and transcends (this to me includes a Jewish approach to interpretation).

Bottom line, read this book, and prepare to perhaps know more than when you started it, but definitely understand less after finishing it. Thankfully, Enns openly says this is the beginning of the conversation, not the end. I appreciate that humility, and will hold him duly responsible for the confused conversations I must now engage with.

Posted in: Bible, Reviews, Theology