Lesson One: Learning to Listen for Echoes: A New Approach to the New Testament

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Lesson Outline:

  1. Course Introduction and Overview
    1. The Power of Allusion
  2. Giving the New Testament a New Hearing
    1. Testimonies and Proof-Texts: What Scholars Used to Think
    2. New Testament in a New Light
  3. The New Testament and Jewish Interpretation
    1. Common Assumptions About Scripture
    2. Methods of Interpretation in the Bible
    3. Typology and the Biblical Worldview
  4. How the New Testament Uses the Old
    1. C.H. Dodd’s According to the Scriptures
    2. Subtexts and New Contexts
  5. Study Questions
  6. For prayer and reflection


I. Course Introduction and Overview

A. The Power of Allusion

This past August marked the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous "I Have A Dream" speech, surely one of the most important in our nation’s history.

It’s a beautiful speech. It’s powerful, it’s evocative. It stirred thoughts and emotions in the hearts and minds of the people who heard it then and it still makes for stirring reading and listening today (read it here, listen to it here).

What makes King’s speech so powerful and evocative is the way it’s written, the way it weaves a subtle skein of literary and historical allusions and echoes.

Without ever quoting directly from anybody, King brings together references to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Shakespeare’s Richard III, the biblical prophets Amos and Isaiah, The Declaration of Independence, and the old hymn, "America." It wasn’t a case of plagiarism or King flexing his intellectual muscles or showing off his knowledge.

As the Protestant Scripture scholar, Dale Allison, observes in his book, Scriptural Allusions in the New Testament: Light from the Dead Sea Scrolls:

King’s borrowing from and allusions to traditional texts constitute more than simple ornamentation. The use of Lincoln implies that King’s cause is the continuation or completion of the freeing of the slaves. The allusion to Shakespeare is a way of asserting that King cannot be easily dismissed - he is intimately familiar with the educational tradition of his white opponents. the lines from the Bible make appeal to a sacred text with authority for both the white and African American communities and, more than that, imply that God is on King’s side. The use of The Declaration of Independence and ‘America’ announce that King is a patriot - some had slandered him for not being such - whose dream for his people in particular is the fulfillment of the American dream in general.


Allison, who is one the very best New Testament scholars in the world today, sees the same kind of evocative artistry at work in the Bible. This is the artistry that we’re going to study in this course.

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II. Giving the New Testament a New Hearing

A. Testimonies and Proof-Texts: What Scholars Used to Think

But before we start our close reading of Matthew, which we’ll begin in our next lesson, we’re going to spend some time looking at what is a relatively recent advance in New Testament scholarship - this whole business of reading the Old Testament in the New.

Actually, in many ways, it’s a rediscovery of the way the Catholic Church has always read and interpreted the Bible in its liturgy and in its early dogmas and creeds. We’ll come back to that later on.

For now, it’s important to remember that the way we’re going to be approaching Matthew is not the way the Bible has been read by scholars for most of the modern period.

We’re going to over-simplify here: But the scholarly consensus for many years was that when New Testament writers were quoting the Old Testament, they were wrenching the texts totally out of context and giving them new meaning just to make their point.

Scholars had decided the New Testament writers didn’t even have complete copies of the Old Testament to work from. They were presumed to be working from so-called testimonia - anthologies of "messianic proof-texts," quotes they pulled out of the Old Testament to convince or "prove" to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah.

This, the scholars said, explained why so often the Old Testament quotes in the New Testament don’t seem to make any sense. Or, if they do make sense, they seem to distort the original meaning of the Old Testament passage.

B. New Testament in a New Light

In the mid-20th century, this scholarly consensus was turned upside down.

Up until then, we didn’t have a lot to compare the New Testament to. If we wanted to see how it stacked up next to other religious writings from the same time-frame and culture, we didn’t have much to go on. We had some texts written by the rabbis from a bit later than the period of Jesus and the apostolic writers. We also had some "inter-testamental" writings - texts written in the period between the Old Testament and the New Testament. (For more, see "Introduction to Intertestamental Judaism" in the SalvationHistory.com Resource Library.)

This all changed in the 1950s when archeologists began uncovering and translating the Dead Sea Scrolls. These were religious writings by a radical Jewish community known as the Essenes. Many, written between 200 and 50 years before Christ, were in effect detailed commentaries and elaborate interpretations of Old Testament texts. (For more, see Links on the Dead Sea Scrolls in the SalvationHistory.com Resource Library.)

Suddenly, a whole new world had opened up for us. We could see that the New Testament writers were a part of a larger tradition of interpretation in first-century Judaism.

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III. The New Testament and Jewish Interpretation

A. Common Assumptions About Scripture

Keep in mind that Paul, Matthew, John, Peter and the rest were all first-century Jews. What scholars started to notice is that they shared certain habits, assumptions and techniques with other first-century Jewish writers.

David Instone Brewer, in his book,Techniques and Assumptions in Jewish Exegesis Before 70 C.E., identifies three important assumptions of all Jewish interpreters:

* First, that the Scripture, read as a whole, is totally self-consistent. Jewish interpreters assumed the Scriptures were written under God’s inspiration and hence couldn’t possibly contradict each other. If they found a passage in Isaiah, for instance, that seemed to contradict something they read in Genesis, they would head back to drawing board. Even the "apparent" contradictions were assumed to point to more penetrating, deeper truths.

* Secondly, every detail in Scripture is significant. Because God was the author of Scripture, Jewish interpreters presumed there was no word or phrase that wasn’t intended to communicate divine meaning. Even minor and seemingly trivial details should be mined for further insights into the mind of God.

* Finally, and most importantly, Jewish interpreters believed Scripture is always understood according to its context. They never read a text out of context. In fact, many interpretations that we find in the writings of the scribes and rabbis don’t make any sense at all unless you know the context of the texts they’re referring to.

Scholars found all three of these assumptions at work in the New Testament.

B. Methods of Interpretation in the Bible

Scholars also found certain methods of interpretation in the New Testament that are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and elsewhere in early Jewish interpretation. We’ll point out two:

* Pesher or "explanation." That’s taking a Scripture text and applying it to your own contemporary situation. This kind of commentary "actualizes" the Old Testament text. That means it relates the text to the here and now.

Peter is doing a sort of pesher in his great speech at Pentecost where he quotes the prophet Joel and explains that what’s going on is "what was spoken through" Joel (see Acts of the Apostles 2:14-36 and Joel 3:1-5).

* Derash is another method found in the New Testament. That’s searching out the deeper, hidden meaning of a text and applying it to present experience.

Paul does this when he describes the story of Israel’s Exodus in writing to the Corinthians about the dangers of temptations and false worship (see 1 Corinthians 10:1-22). He does this by making an interesting and telling comparison.

He likens Israel to the baptized Christian, implying that each was born by Spirit and water. Israel was under "the cloud" (that is, the shekiniah, the cloud of glory that represented God’s abiding presence), and Israel passed through the waters of the Red Sea in its Exodus. In the same way, the baptized Christian passes through water and receives the Holy Spirit in Baptism. After its "baptism," Israel was given "spiritual food" and "spiritual drink," Paul says, just as the newly baptized Christian is admitted to the Eucharistic table.

Paul explains this to get to his more critical point - that though they were given new life and new nourishment, many Israelites fell into idolatry and immorality and because of that failed to make it to the Promised Land. He refers to the golden calf incident and the worship of Bael Peor, the two great rebellions in Israel’s history (see Exodus 32, Numbers 25).

The lesson he intended the Christians at Corinth to draw from this was clear. But what’s important for our study of the Bible was that Paul seemed to be assuming that there was some deeper, more symbolic connection between Israel’s history and the experience of the Church.

He says that what happened to Israel was intended by God to be an "example" for the Christians "upon whom the end of the ages has come" (1 Corinthians 10:11).

The word Paul uses here, typikos in the Greek, implies more than a simple "lesson" to be drawn from the past. In Jewish interpretation, "a type" implies a certain symbolic, futuristic quality or meaning - as when Paul says in Romans 5:14 that Adam was "the type of the one who was to come." A "type" is a divine announcement ahead of time of things to come in the future, in the Church, when the end of the ages has comes.

C. Typology and the Biblical Worldview

The widespread use of typology - from the Greek word typos ("model" or "pattern") - is the major difference between the New Testament and other writings from first-century Jewish writing.

Everything in the Scriptures of Israel was seen as pointing to the coming of Jesus and His establishment of the Church. In fact, we have evidence to suggest that it was Jesus Himself who taught the apostolic writers to read "typologically" (see Luke 24:27-45)

While the word "typology" was coined later by scholars, it’s operation in the New Testament is unquestioned. Throughout it, the events, promises and people of the Old Testament are assumed to be patterns or "types" that prepare, prefigure and announce the realities that God brings about in Jesus and His Church.

The New Testament writers don’t deny the "actuality" or "historicity" of the Old Testament. What they assume, however, is that these moments and figures from Israel’s history were intended by God to have even greater meaning once Christ comes and shows us that meaning.

In other words: Moses was real. But he was also, as we’ll see in our next lesson, a "type" of Jesus. So was King David. The Exodus was real, as Paul assumes in writing to the Corinthians, but it was also a "type" of Baptism. The feeding of the Israelites with manna in the wilderness was also a real historical event. But it was also a "type" of the Eucharist, the true bread from heaven. (For more on typology, see Catechism, nos. 129-130, 1094).

It’s important to understand what typology is and isn’t. Typology isn’t a technique by which New Testament writers mechanically read the Old Testament like a fortune-teller.

Typology, really, is a whole new worldview, a way of seeing all of reality - past, present and future - according to the certain patterns. patterns of God’s consistent dealings with His people. Typology, as it’s practiced in the New Testament, presumes that there is a divine economy, a divine plan at work in the world (see Ephesians 1:10). It assumes, too, that God works in certain consistent ways and that we can understand what God is doing in Jesus and the Church by looking at the models and patterns of His dealings with Israel in the past.

It’s not that they believed history repeated itself. Elijah or one of the prophets doesn’t come back from the dead, as many of Jesus’ contemporaries expected (see Mark 8:28). Instead, God raises up a new and greater prophet in Jesus. What Jesus says and does evokes and builds upon the symbolic words and deeds of Elijah and the prophets, but goes way beyond them.

Elisha multiplied barley loaves to feed His followers. So did Jesus. But when Jesus does it, He not only points backward to Elisha, but points us forward to a new and even greater miracle - the giving of His flesh and blood as bread and wine in the Eucharist (see John 6:1-14; 2 Kings 4:42-44).

As we said, Jesus appears to have taught the Apostles to read the Old Testament this way. But in the Old Testament itself, we can see Israel’s prophets taking the same approach.

As scholars like Cardinal Jean Danielou, S.J., have shown, for the prophets the past was prologue and preparation. God’s great works in Israel in days gone by were seen as the foundations, the promissory notes, for new and greater works He will do in the messianic age to come. The shape of what’s to come can be seen in what’s already been (see, especially Danielou’s The Bible and the Liturgy).

Prophecy is nothing but the typological reading of history. Take a look at the later chapters of Isaiah, especially chapters 65 and 66. Isaiah is describing the future redemption the coming Messiah will bring. He describes this redemption in terms entirely drawn from the high points of history as it’s told in Israel’s Scriptures. He says what’s coming is a new creation, a new paradise, a new exodus, a new kingdom and a new temple and a new Jerusalem. Which is it? It’s all of the above.

The New Testament writers saw all these "types" being fulfilled in Jesus. He is the New Adam (see Romans 5:14), the first born of a new creation. His body is the new Temple (see John 2:19-21). He leads the new Exodus (see Matthew 2:15) and His Church is the new Jerusalem and the new Kingdom (see Galatians 4:26; 1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6).



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IV. How the New Testament Uses the Old

A. C.H. Dodd’s According to the Scriptures

All of what we’ve been talking about so far represents a relatively new discovery (or re-discovery) for New Testament scholarship.

Probably the decisive turning point in the scholarship was a little book published in 1953 by a Protestant scholar, C.H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures: The Sub-Structure of New Testament Theology.

Dodd started off by challenging the presumption that the New Testament writers didn’t know what they were doing or that they quoted the Old Testament out of context. His careful study proved two things:

First, that the New Testament writers always quote Old Testament passages in context. And although they bring a fresh and deeper interpretation to those passages, their interpretations remain largely faithful to the original intentions of the Old Testament authors.

Secondly, Dodd proved that in their citations of verses and sentences from the Old Testament, the New Testament writers always pointed the reader to the "the whole context" of the passage being referred to. In interpreting these passages, he added, the New Testament writers always followed "intelligible and consistent principles." That is to say, they operated from a basic agreement that there was a "right way" to read and interpret Scripture and they always followed those rules.

Those conclusions - which flew in the face of the scholarly consensus - were dramatic enough, especially coming from Dodd, who was one of the most respected New Testament scholars in the world.

But Dodd went on to argue - convincingly, too - that the Old Testament texts cited in the New were just the tip of the iceberg. He said the entire Old Testament served as a kind of "narrative sub-structure" for the New Testament, as well as for the dogmas, creeds and sacraments of the early Church. He writes:

Though not stated explicitly in the New Testament it is everywhere presupposed….[T]he history of the people of God is built upon a certain pattern corresponding to God’s design for man, His creature. It is a pattern, not in the sense of a pre-ordained sequence of inevitable events, but in the sense of a kind of master-plan imposed upon the order of human life in this world by the Creator Himself….It is this pattern, disclosed ‘in divers parts and divers manners’ in the past history of Israel, that the New Testament writers conceive to have been brought into full light in the events of the Gospel story.

What Dodd describes here sounds a lot like the way we described the "biblical worldview" above. And it is.

B. Subtexts and New Contexts

The implications of these findings for us, as present-day interpreters of the Bible, are significant.

Why? Because most of us have been brought up to read the Bible with the same prejudices that formed the scholarly consensus we have described.

We’ve been taught to read the Old Testament almost as if it’s a different book than the New. You can still hear this in parish Bible studies and catechesis - there’s talk of "the God of the Old Testament" as if He’s different from the God of the New; there’s talk of the "Hebrew Scriptures" as if they’re not a part of the Christian Scriptures, and so on.

This divorce of the Old Testament from the New was the stuff of heresy in the early Church.

What we have today is less heresy than naivette. We think we’re being more "scientific" in reading this way. We examine Scripture almost like a botanist might examine a leaf - through dissection and cross-section.

But what Dodd and others since him have shown, is that we can’t even scratch the surface of understanding the New Testament if we read this way. We have to pay attention to the "narrative sub-structure." Which means we need to study the Old Testament context of the New Testament texts.

So that’s what we’re going to do in this class, using the Gospel of Matthew as our subject. We’re going to study not the veins of the leaf, but the whole leaf. Not only the whole leaf, but the tree the leaf came from.

We’re going to be interested not only in quotations and citations from the Old Testament but also echoes and allusions. And we’re going to look at the larger contexts of those quotations. We’re going to find that the Old Testament - the entire Old Testament - forms the context for what Matthew is doing in his Gospel.

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V. Study Questions for Lesson One

  1. What did scholars used to believe about the way New Testament writers used the Old Testament? What do they now believe?
  2. What are the three main assumptions about Scripture that the New Testament writers share with other first-century Jewish interpreters of Scripture?
  3. What is pesher? Derash?
  4. What is typology and why do we say that it is the basis for the "biblical worldview"?


For prayer and reflection:

The Gospel of Matthew’s account of the Resurrection is the last of nine Scriptures that are traditionally read during the Easter Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday night. Read all the readings for the Vigil, the Responses and, if possible the prayers that go along with the readings. Ask God to help you understand how the liturgy envisions the promises of the Old Testament being fulfilled in the New Testament, using this prayer that’s said during the Vigil after the reading of Genesis and the Psalm:

Almighty and eternal God,

Glorify Your Name by increasing Your chosen people

as You promised long ago.

In reward for their trust,

may we see in the Church the fulfillment of Your promise.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.

Amen


The readings for the Easter Vigil are as follows:

  1. Genesis 1:1-2:2 Response: Psalm 104:1-2,5-6,10-14,24,35
  2. Genesis 22:1-18 Response: Psalm 16:5,8, 9-11
  3. Exodus 14:15 -15:1 Response: Exodus 15:1-6,17-18
  4. Isaiah 54:5-14 Response: Psalm 30:2-6,11-13
  5. Isaiah 55:1-11 Response: Isaiah 12:2-3, 4, 5-6
  6. Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4 Response: Psalm 19:8-10,17
  7. Ezekiel 36:16-17, 18-28 Response: Psalm 42:3,5; 43:3- 4
  8. Romans 6:3-11 Response: Psalm 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23
  9. Matthew 28:1-10 (Year A) or Mark 16:1-7 (Year B) or Luke 24:1-12 (Year C)


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Article URL: http://www.salvationhistory.com/studies/lesson/testament_learning_to_listen_for_echoes_a_new_approach_to_the_new_testament/