The Defense of New Testament Prophetic Writings

      In recent years, many of the prophecies concerning Messiah in the New Testament have been called into questions.  Many object to the prophecies as being too figurative or even twisted from the Old Testament writings. Many Torah-observant Christians have been incited away from Christianity because of this perspective.  Particularly the Jewish sect of Karaite Judaism has influenced torah-observant Christians to leave the Messiah.  Reason being, their approach and methodology of scripture interpretation.

 

     “The Karaites are a Jewish sect which does not recognize the authority of the post-Biblical tradition incorporated in the Talmud and in the latter rabbinic works.” (1)  The Karaites reject that the Talmud/ mishnah/ targums of the orthodox community are inspired by God.  They believe solely in the inspiration of the Old Testament (Tanach).  Their approach to biblical interpretation is as follows: 

 

“Karaites (Karaim/Qaraim) are followers of the Hebrew Scriptures (Miqra/Mikra). We use Peshat (Plain Meaning) to interpret the Miqra. This does not mean we are strictly literalist but are contextualist. We study and interpret the scripture based upon the context in the scripture, the historic context and a language context. Not all Karaites interpret the Miqra exactly the same but we are dedicated to the following of YHVH and him alone. There is no other Elohim (God) but him.” (2)

 

     Their approach, a Peshat or literal interpretation of scripture, is one of the four methods which are used by the rabbis to interpret scripture.  In essence, the Karaite approach, as well as the approach of modern scholarship, utilizes only one of the four methods commonly used during the time of the writing of the New Testament for biblical interpretation.  (More on this later).  This particular mode, the Peshat, is what modern scholars call a historical-critical exegesis.  Exegesis means that they are drawing the meaning of a text out of the text itself by literally translating the language and then placing it within its historic framework. This is the most common approach of modern scholarship.  Personally, this is my own favorite approach to scripture.  However, I’m forced to admit that this method is not comprehensive and can be very short-sighted. Although this is a great method for textual examination, it’s not comprehensive enough to cover all the aspects of the spiritual gamut.  Why?  Risto Santala, author of The Messiah in the Old Testament, explains, “Mental and spiritual concepts must, by their very nature, described figuratively.” (3). This figurative approach is what we see God using with many of the prophets of the Old Testament itself.  It is also the approach of many of the New Testament writers.  Let me give you an example of how an angelic messenger deploys this method.

 

     In Zechariah chapter four, the prophet is having a conversation with an angel.  The angel says to Zechariah, “What do you see?”  Zechariah responds, “I see a solid gold lamp stand with a bowl at the top and seven lights on it, with seven channels to the lights.  Also there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.  I asked the angel who talked with me, ‘What are these, my lord.’”(Zechariah 4:2-4)  The angel seems surprised that Zechariah would ask such a question.  To the spiritual being, the interpretation of this vision (now a passage of scripture) is very clear, but it is not so clear to the prophet.  Things in the spiritual realm do not always fit into the mode of modern scholarship or the Karaite approach to biblical interpretation.  The angel responds, “Do you not know what these are?” Then he will explain, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel:  Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty.” (Zechariah 4:6).  It appears that the angel has twisted the vision to explain something that is not “literally” present. The angel is privileged to certain information that makes little sense to the human intellect but makes perfect sense in the realm of the spirit.  Hence, the Peshat approach to scripture can be short-sighted.  I will allow that it has a tremendous place in biblical interpretation.  Perhaps even a place at the foundation, but it is not the end all and be all of biblical interpretation.  There are spiritual principles that simply cannot be explained by using a historical-critical syntaxical exegesis.  The full gamut of spirituality will require more than just the use of our brains. 

 

     As noted above, the Karaites and modern scholarship use a method of interpretation known as Peshat or “simple.”  The ancient rabbis, however, recognized a need for something more comprehensive than historic-critical methods of interpretation and develop a different approach.  The developed a system of biblical interpretation which is called  sdrp, (PaRDeS) an acronym for the four modes of interpretation.   Dr. David Stern gives us an explanation of what these different approached to scripture can mean to us:

 

  1. 1.       Peshat (simple)—the plain, literal sense of the text, more or less what modern scholars mean by “grammatical-historical exegesis” which looks to the grammar of the language and the historical setting as background for deciding what a passage means.  Modern scholars often consider grammatical-historical exegesis the only valid way to deal with a text.  (As we have demonstrated this cannot always be the case)
  2. 2.      Remez (hint)—wherein a word, phrase or other element in the text hint at a truth not conveyed by the Peshat.  The implied presupposition is that God can hint at things of which the Bible writers themselves were unaware.  (Passover and the Messiah for example.  There is not explicit statement connecting the two but the clues are self-evident)
  3. 3.      Drash or midrash (search)—an allegorical or homiletically application of a text.  This is a spercies of eisegesis (reading one’s own thoughts into a text) as opposed to exegesis, which is extracting form the text what it actually says.  The implied presupposition is that the words of Scripture can legitimately become grist for the mill of human intellect, which God can guide to truths not directly related to the text at all.  (The entire concept of Talmud and midrash comes from this interpretation.  Where the orthodox ere, as the Karaites have pointed out, is that the orthodox have elevated a method of interpretation to the level of scripture itself.  This is a mistake.)
  4. 4.      Sod (secret)—a mystical or hidden meaning arrived at by operating on the numerical values of the Hebrew letters, noting unusual spellings, transposing letters, and the like.  For example, two words, the numerical equivalents of whose letters add up to the same amount, are good candidates for revealing a secret through what Arthur Koestler in his book on the inventive mind called “biosociation of ideas.  The implied presupposition is that God invests meaning in the minutest details of Scripture, even the individual letters. (4 parenthetical notes are mine for emphasis and clarification)

    

     The word PaRDeS literally means garden or orchard.  The supposition underlying this mode of biblical interpretation is that God, in His love for humanity, expresses ideas to us through a wide variety of methodologies, not just intellectually.  Many struggle with this concept of interpretation because it has a subjective ring to it.  Their objection is noted and valid.  We must remember that these are approaches to biblical interpretation and that interpretation, in and of itself, cannot replace what is inspired and written.  (Again, this seems to be the error of orthodox Judaism in its elevation of the oral-torah as inspired.)

 

     In the defense of the New Testament, we must evaluate the text according to its historic context (both scholars and Karaites should agree with this because it is based upon a historic contextual model).  What we will find, is that all four of these methods of PaRDeS existed at the time of the writing of the New Testament and were commonly used in Jewish circles for biblical interpretation.  Therefore, when evaluating the New Testament application of the prophecies concerning Messiah, we must consider these methods.  To reject the methods of PaRDeS is to reject a historical critical approach to the New Testament because the New Testament writers deployed these methods many of the passages where they found Messianic fulfillment in the life of Jesus.  Let’s look at an example.

 

     “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet:  Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:15)  Matthew writes this as the fulfillment of a prophecy written in Hosea 11:1.  Well, let’s take a look at it.  It states, “When Israel was a child, I loved him and out of Egypt I called my son.” This fulfillment makes absolutely no sense from a historical-critical model.  There is absolutely no mention of anything related to Messiah in this chapter.  Therefore, the Karaites dismiss it as being messianic and believe that Matthew was twisting the scriptures.  Is this the case?  I think not.  Again, Dr. Stern, “What then, is Mattityahu doing here?  Some allege he is misusing Scripture, twisting the meaning of what Hosea wrote from its context in order to apply it to Yeshua.  Such an accusation stands only if Mattityahu is dealing with the peshat.    For there is no question that the peshat of Hosea 11:1 applies to the nation of Israel and not to Yeshua.  Some think Mattityahu is using the drash approach, making a midrash in which he read the Messiah into a verse dealing with Israel.  Many rabbis used the same procedure; Matthew’s readers would not have found it objectionable.  Nevertheless, I believe Mattityahu is not doing eisegesis but is giving us a remez, a hint of a very deep truth.  Israel is called God’s son as far back as Exodus 4:22.   The Messiah is presented as God’s son a few verses earlier in Matthew, reflecting a Tanach passages such as Isaiah 9:5-6-7, Psalm 2:7 and Provervbs 30:4.  Thus the Son equals the son; the Messiah is equated with, is one with, the nation of Israel.  This is the deep truth that Matthew is hinting at by calling Yeshua’s flight to Egypt a “fulfillment” of Hosea 11:1.” (5)  It would be easy to see how someone with only a short-sided methodology would reject this as a fulfillment of the prophecy.  Many other examples could be used here, both from the Talmudic passages discussing Messiah, as well as, other references of fulfilled prophecies from the New Testament.

 

     As Dr. Stern noted, none of Matthews’s original readers would have taken objection to this application/interpretation of scripture.  They would have considered it a common approach to biblical interpretation (according to the PaRDeS method of biblical interpretation.)  Hence, in order to give the New Testament a fair assessment, it must be examined under the light of its historical context which has a PaRDeS approach to scriptural interpretation at its core.  When seen in this light, the prophecies of the New Testament can be fully explained inside of their historical approach to scripture.

 

    

Endnotes

  1. http://www.karaites.org/history.html.
  2. 2.       Hazzan Yochanan Zaqantov, http://www.karaitejudaism.org.
  3. 3.       Santala, Risto,  The Messiah in the Old Testament in the Light of Rabinical Writings, Keren Ahvah Meshihit, Jerusalem Israel, 1992, page 43.
  4. 4.       Stern, David, Jewish New Testament Commentary,  Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., 1992, page 12.
  5. 5.       Ibid
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