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People ask me all the time—well, actually, they hardly ever ask me because who really cares about me and my life, by let’s keep up the facade—people ask me all the time what has been the most challenging thing I learned about the Bible, especially in graduate school.

My degree is in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and the usual suspects for challenging one’s views of the Bible are:

  • The creation stories in Genesis 1-3 are myth
  • So is the flood story
  • Abraham, etc., were not historical people but created by Israelites much later to explain where they came from
  • Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch, Isaiah didn’t write Isaiah, and Daniel didn’t write Daniel
  • Archaeology casts serious doubt on the historical nature of the exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan

But none of those did the trick. They were easy.

My uh-oh moment had to do with, of all things, the New Testament—the Jesus part of the Bible—and how the New Testament handled the Old.

Much of my coursework, in addition to “normal” Old Testament stuff, was in Jewish biblical interpretation in the centuries leading up to the New Testament period. And Jews during this postexilic period (5th century BCE and onward) had very creative ways of handling their Bible as they sought to apply the Bible to their own changing circumstances.

The New Testament, in its handling of the Old, fits nicely into that world of postexilic Judaism. A lot of creativity going on.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

The real monkey wrench that was thrown into my theology wasn’t how the New Testament writers creatively handled the Old. It was how they simply accepted, apparently without batting an eyelash, the creative interpretations of their Jewish predecessors.

To put it bluntly: The New Testament writers had a habit of saying things about the Old Testament that are not in the Old Testament but are in these creative, Jewish writings of the period.

three kings as creative interpretation in the New Testament

If I may give a modern example that will ring a bell, I’m sure:

You’ve probably heard of the “three magi” who came to visit at Jesus’s birth (at least according to Matthew’s Gospel). This idea of three magi is readily accepted by most people, seeing that it is repeated again and again in church Christmas pageants, Christmas cards, Christmas specials—and even canonized in Christmas carols (“We Three Kings of Orient Are. . . . “).

But the idea of “three” is not in Matthew’s Gospel or anywhere else in the New Testament. It is an “interpretive tradition” (as scholars call it) that got attached to the biblical story, and not without reason. After all, the magi bring three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. What could be more “logical” than to say there were also three magi, each carrying one of the gifts?

These interpretive traditions were created often to address some ambiguity or problem in the text, and so it’s no wonder they caught on. But to see the New Testament doing things like this seemed to fly in the face of everything I had ever been taught in conservative circles about how the Bible is supposed to work.

Here, briefly, are some examples.

Creative Interpretation: “The Rock was Christ”

Some early Jewish interpreters said that a supply of water in the form of a rock accompanied the Israelites during their period of wandering in the desert. They said this, apparently, to account for the fact that the Israelites get water from a rock at the beginning of the 40-year wilderness period (Exodus 17) and then at the end (Numbers 20). So they reasoned, “Maybe those two rocks are really one and it followed the Israelites around to supply then with water?” As silly as that may sound, Paul incorporates this interpretive tradition, with apparently no hesitation or even awareness, in 1 Corinthians 10:4: “For they [the Israelites] drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.”

There is no “accompanying rock” in the Old Testament.

Creative Interpretation: Noah is a Herald?

Some early Jewish interpreters thought of Noah not simply as the builder of an ark, but as a kind of prophet proclaiming to his contemporaries the coming wrath of God. After all, building a boat year in and year out on dry land would have roused some curiosity among the neighbors.  Second Peter 2:5 picks up on this tradition in referring to Noah as a “herald of righteousness.”

Noah doesn’t utter a peep to his contemporaries in the Old Testament.

Creative Interpretation: Cain’s Daddies

Some early Jewish interpreters said that Cain’s father was an angel Sammael [=Satan] to explain what made him into the first murderer. First John 3:12 gladly transmits the same tradition: “We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother.”

In Genesis, Cain’s father is clearly Adam, and not some supernatural being.

Creative Interpretation: Names from Nowhere

Some early Jewish interpreters gave names to otherwise unnamed biblical figures. One example is naming the magicians in Pharaoh’s court who opposed Moses, Jannes and Jambres. We find this tradition in 2 Timothy 3:8: “As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these people, of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith, also oppose the truth.”

These names are found nowhere in the Old Testament.

Creative interpretation in the New Testament

Creative Interpretation: Satan vs. Angel

Some early Jewish interpreters thought that Satan and an angel fought over the body of Moses after his death in Deuteronomy 34. This tradition seems to have arisen to account for a curious comment in Deuteronomy 34:6, that “to this day” no one knows where Moses’s body was. Jude 9 repeats this tradition: “But when the archangel Michael contended with the devil and disputed about the body of Moses. . . . “

The Old Testament knows of no such battle (and the mystery of where Moses is buried has more to do with when Deuteronomy was written—many centuries later—long after the Israelites had left their desert wanderings behind).

There’s more where these came from, but these will do.

Isn’t this fun?

Maybe you can feel my pain as a graduate student. These New Testament writers, who were supposed to be perfect, seemingly without thinking transmitted these interpretive traditions (some of which are quite bizarre, like the “rock that followed them”).

But it’s all good, for this was my first deeply felt lesson about a basic property of the Bible: it is relentlessly connected to its time and place.

I think to be troubled by this phenomenon we are looking at today—though understandable—betrays a misunderstanding of the heart of the Christian faith—not a “perfect book” or a God who keeps a safe distance from the human drama, but a living faith that reflects the untended contextual messiness of those who wrote about their experiences.

As we see so often, watching how the Bible behaves is a theology lesson in and of itself.

If you’d like to read more about these “interpretive traditions” of Judaism, I can’t recommend highly enough the work of James Kugel, especially How to Read the Bible, The Bible As It Was, and Early Biblical Interpretation. I’ve also written on this issue quite a bit on this blog, and in Inspiration and Incarnation and The Bible Tells Me So.

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    Pete Enns, Ph.D.

    Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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    • Phil Ledgerwood says:

      Not long ago, I was reading some early rabbinical commentary on Isaiah 52, and one rabbi declared that Isaiah 52 was about six different people and did a little write up on each one. Boaz, Solomon, Israel, the Messiah, David, and (I think) Hezekiah.

      That was interesting to me, because I’ve gotten used to the idea that rabbis disagree about passages and Judaism just lets that disagreement coexist in authoritative writings without batting an eye. But that was the first time I’d seen a rabbi actually record multiple interpretations -of their own- and hold them side by side.

    • Phil Ledgerwood says:

      Not long ago, I was reading some early rabbinical commentary on Isaiah 52, and one rabbi declared that Isaiah 52 was about six different people and did a little write up on each one. Boaz, Solomon, Israel, the Messiah, David, and (I think) Hezekiah.

      That was interesting to me, because I’ve gotten used to the idea that rabbis disagree about passages and Judaism just lets that disagreement coexist in authoritative writings without batting an eye. But that was the first time I’d seen a rabbi actually record multiple interpretations -of their own- and hold them side by side.

    • Krista Smith says:

      A pastor friend of ours who read TBTMS quickly pointed us to our ESV Study Bible footnotes regarding your mention of the rock in 1 Corinthians. He said he didn’t follow your line of thinking because Paul links it to Christ —so obviously thought it was not a real traveling rock. I think your point is that early Jewish traditions/interpretations heavily influenced our Bible writers…not whether Paul had ever thought through the feasibility of a moving rock?

      Also, how do you respond to others who think that the added names or ‘extra info’ that appears in the NT is a product of divine revelation? It feels like it’s a different plain of thinking, and I have a hard time navigating those conversations because they seem to value accuracy over the understanding of how it was written in the first place.

      • Pete E. says:

        I would put it more or less the way you do in the first prg. Paul was an unconscious conduit for a tradition that he, as a Jew, simply accepted, as we do the “3 magi.” The “divine revelation” argument is ad hoc–made up to preserve inerrancy at the expense of, as you also say, looking at how these texts were produced. And they would have to argue that these traditions were given by divine revelation to *Second Temple Jewish sources* and not directly to NT writers.

        • Derek says:

          Pete, I have a few questions here if you’d be kind enough to answer:

          1) There seems to be an assumption that tradition cannot be based on actual history, why make this assumption?
          2) Some traditions were adopted by the biblical authors for illustrative purposes — why assume the biblical authors were “unconscious” and/or “unaware” when handling these traditions?
          3) Is the NRSV the best translation for 1John 3:12? Other translations state that Cain was “of” the evil one — just as Jesus in John 8:44 told the unbelieving Jews that they were “of” the devil/evil one because they wished to carry out his desires, namely, the desire to murder — just like Cain.

          • Pete E. says:

            It might be best if you just read the relevant section in I&I, Derek, for 1 and 2. #1 is not an “assumption” but a scholarly conclusion. #2 is clear because of the manner in which these traditions are incorporated. Neither point is really disputed among biblical scholars (though some evangelicals kick against the goads). On #3, the Greek is ek tou ponērou, not simply tou ponērou. I would bet money that the ESV is here, as elsewhere, motivated by conservative apologetics to avoid the very issue before us.

            • Derek says:

              Thanks Pete, I don’t have I&I but I’ll see what I can do. In regards to the translation issue, it’s not just the ESV. I think the other translations fit the context better as well. 1John 3:12 serves as an example to bolster the point being made in 1John 3:8 that the one who practices sin “is of the devil”.

            • Skeptical Christian says:

              ” Neither point is really disputed among biblical scholars (though some evangelicals kick against the goads”
              In keeping with your style, and for biting effect, you aught to have retained the KJV here.
              You thought about it….didn’t you?
              Hmmmh?

        • Krista says:

          Thanks for the reply.
          I really enjoy your blogposts.

    • Paul D. says:

      I think it has serious repercussions for people’s idea of biblical inerrancy and the nature of scripture when a biblical author treats an apocryphal tradition or document as factual. Jude’s quoting from the book of 1 Enoch (which includes an affirmation of authorship by Enoch himself) is a prime example. Heck, 1 Enoch is so important to the development of Christianity I think it *should* be in the Bible — as the Ethiopian church has always acknowledged.

      • newenglandsun says:

        There are a lot of inspired texts that are not in the Scriptures that are held authoritative by the Church.
        The Protoevangelium of James (1st-2nd century)
        The Didache (1st century)
        The Assumption of Mary (4th century)
        etc.
        In addition, St Maximus’s “The Life of the Virgin” was read regularly by the Medieval Georgian Orthodox churches but is neither considered canonical nor part of Scriptures.

    • Paul D. says:

      I think it has serious repercussions for people’s idea of biblical inerrancy and the nature of scripture when a biblical author treats an apocryphal tradition or document as factual. Jude’s quoting from the book of 1 Enoch (which includes an affirmation of authorship by Enoch himself) is a prime example. Heck, 1 Enoch is so important to the development of Christianity I think it *should* be in the Bible — as the Ethiopian church has always acknowledged.

      • newenglandsun says:

        There are a lot of inspired texts that are not in the Scriptures that are held authoritative by the Church.
        The Protoevangelium of James (1st-2nd century)
        The Didache (1st century)
        The Assumption of Mary (4th century)
        etc.
        In addition, St Maximus’s “The Life of the Virgin” was read regularly by the Medieval Georgian Orthodox churches but is neither considered canonical nor part of Scriptures.

    • newenglandsun says:

      I’m really not certain what to say about this as a more traditionalist Christian (High Anglican) who accepts all sorts of things such as Superior Roman Commanders fighting fire-breathing dragons to free England from the reigns of the evil one along with King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, and the lot. As well as giving names to such figures as St Dismas the penitent thief on the cross.
      I suppose I would state that it is part of the never-ending revelation that God gives us as opposed to traditions that we ought to now “graduate” away from and then proceed to contextualise and pin to another point in time that is no longer relevant to us.
      The tradition is not a dead one but a continuing relationship and when you meet someone, you don’t learn about all of them or their friends from the start. Rather, as the relationship develops you learn more and more.
      So when the Scriptures give us certain information, this invites us to join a tradition and a relationship that continues to unfold as we develop and we learn more and more things and enter into the relationship with the Church, the communion of saints, and Christ himself.
      Far from the conclusion that the Scriptures “got stuff wrong”, I would say that Scriptures are the invitation that God gives us and then we dive deeper into the full relationship.

    • newenglandsun says:

      I’m really not certain what to say about this as a more traditionalist Christian (High Anglican) who accepts all sorts of things such as Superior Roman Commanders fighting fire-breathing dragons to free England from the reigns of the evil one along with King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, and the lot. As well as giving names to such figures as St Dismas the penitent thief on the cross.
      I suppose I would state that it is part of the never-ending revelation that God gives us as opposed to traditions that we ought to now “graduate” away from and then proceed to contextualise and pin to another point in time that is no longer relevant to us.
      The tradition is not a dead one but a continuing relationship and when you meet someone, you don’t learn about all of them or their friends from the start. Rather, as the relationship develops you learn more and more.
      So when the Scriptures give us certain information, this invites us to join a tradition and a relationship that continues to unfold as we develop and we learn more and more things and enter into the relationship with the Church, the communion of saints, and Christ himself.
      Far from the conclusion that the Scriptures “got stuff wrong”, I would say that Scriptures are the invitation that God gives us and then we dive deeper into the full relationship.

    • Tim says:

      I’m curious how scholarship views the virgin birth. Is this widely considered interpretive tradition?

    • Tim says:

      I’m curious how scholarship views the virgin birth. Is this widely considered interpretive tradition?

    • Skeptical Christian says:

      I love these, Pete. Is there an online source that has a pile of these? What would be the most helpful resources?

    • Skeptical Christian says:

      I love these, Pete. Is there an online source that has a pile of these? What would be the most helpful resources?

    • Michael Royer says:

      I am so confused, by “Hebrew bible” do you mean TaNaKh? You reference Kugel, but your whole article seems to lack any knowledge of his response to Spinoza’s four assumptions? Did you read his book? The biggest issue you had with the TaNaKh is midrash? Did you not read midrash before you got your degree? Yet you do not quote anything from midrash, so have you still not read any of it? You have a degree in TaNaKh and have not read any midrash? Wait, you can get a degree in a book? Can it be any book? Can someone get a degree in Hamlet?

      • newenglandsun says:

        The new age of Biblical scholarship. Write a bunch of words coherent to the average brain-fried liberal (and hopefully acceptable) appeal to the emotion and then state now all must refute this argument and if they can’t it means it’s irrefutable.

    • Michael Royer says:

      I am so confused, by “Hebrew bible” do you mean TaNaKh? You reference Kugel, but your whole article seems to lack any knowledge of his response to Spinoza’s four assumptions? Did you read his book? The biggest issue you had with the TaNaKh is midrash? Did you not read midrash before you got your degree? Yet you do not quote anything from midrash, so have you still not read any of it? You have a degree in TaNaKh and have not read any midrash? Wait, you can get a degree in a book? Can it be any book? Can someone get a degree in Hamlet?

      • newenglandsun says:

        The new age of Biblical scholarship. Write a bunch of words coherent to the average brain-fried liberal (and hopefully acceptable) appeal to the emotion and then state now all must refute this argument and if they can’t it means it’s irrefutable.

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