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We’re in finals week here at Eastern University, so I am in testing/grading mode. So here you go (all answers must be completed in the space provided):

What do all of the following words have in common?

  • baptism
  • centurion
  • crucifixion
  • demons
  • devil
  • exorcism
  • Gentile
  • messiah
  • Pharisee
  • rabbi
  • Roman
  • Sadducee
  • Samaritan
  • synagogue
  • tax collector

If you said, “They are all words that occur in the New Testament,” I will give you partial credit (though I am largely still disappointed in you as a person). The full answer is:

These are words that all occur in the New Testament and either not at all or with significantly different meanings in the Old.

The New Testament isn’t simply “part 2” of the Bible. Simply paying close attention to the Old will not lead you nicely to the New. Nor, conversely, will the New Testament simply connect effortlessly to the Old.

These common New Testament words alert us that we have stepped into a world that is not simply a later version of the Old Testament world, but a different setting, with different sets of assumptions—a different worldview.

The pressing theological challenge for Christian interpreters of such a diverse Bible is: “What does it mean for this Bible to ‘cohere’ and what does ‘coherence’ even mean?” By putting it that way, I have just described much of the diverse history of the Christian thinking about the Bible.

In an article written several years ago, Larry Helyer (following David Hubbard) said:

. . . the train of revelation, at the end of the Old Testament period, enters an intertestamental tunnel. Upon reemerging in the New Testament period, it obviously carries additional cargo. (“The Necessity, Problems, and Promise of Second Temple Judaism,JETS 47 [2004] 597).

I love that quote. It nails the problem of the Bible pretty well.

What we read in the New Testament is not simply a “continuation” of the Old Testament, as if we are bicycling through the Old Testament and into the New without much of a change of scenery. Rather, we find ourselves in a very different land—politically, culturally, religiously—accompanied by an Old Testament that itself had been engaged and interpreted for several centuries amid varying, changing, and tumultuous historical contexts—thus taking on “additional cargo.”

The New Testament authors, to put it differently, had an “interpreted Bible”—a Bible that had been subject to creative interpretive handling.  And that Bible—not a neutral one accessed through objective exegesis but passed on to them within the vagaries of human history—formed the basis of their theological reflections.

One example is Paul’s “already/not yet” eschatology—i.e., the last days, the end (Greek eschaton) was inaugurated when Jesus died and rose from the dead but is not consummated until the Second Coming.

What exactly Paul meant by that is a debated issue, to be sure, but my main point here is that this “two-stage eschatology” was not an innovation in Paul’s theology, nor did it drop out of heaven as some new piece of information. Rather it is dependent to a significant degree on earlier Jewish thinking, most notably as found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

A key element of Paul’s thinking is “additional cargo” on the train as it emerged from the “intertestamental tunnel.”

Even Geerhardus Vos, the generally “conservative” Princeton theologian of the first half of the twentieth century, felt compelled to point out that neither the Old Testament alone nor a unique dose of revelation account for Paul’s thinking here:

There is no escape from the conclusion that a piece of Jewish eschatology has been here by Revelation incorporated into the Apostle’s teaching. Paul had none less than Jesus Himself as a predecessor in this. The main structure of the Jewish Apocalyptic is embodied in our Lord’s teaching as well as in Paul’s. (The Pauline Eschatology, pp. 27-28; also Ecclesiastes, pp. 180-81)

Paul and Jesus himself “embody” a Jewish eschatology that is strictly speaking not “biblical.” (Side note: I’ve always considered Vos’s unusual [for his conservative setting] sensitivity to historical context to be a byproduct of his doctoral training in “Arabic Studies,” which is what they called “Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern Studies” back in the 19th c.)

Our theologically diverse Bible is a product of diverse historical settings. Getting our arms around all that—developing a “unified field theory” of theology, where disparate factors can be synthesized somehow, continues to be a pressing project for Christian theology.

Failure to address the Bible’s diverse witness amid diverse historical consequences quickly devolves to biblicism, to proof-texting.

The Bible demands—and deserves—better.

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.

No Comments

  • Orion Silvertree says:

    “(though I am largely still disappointed in you as a person)”

    What? Why?

    • peteenns says:

      For not getting s perfect score on the quiz–I’m kidding. 🙂

      • Orion Silvertree says:

        Oh – sorry. I thought that since the joke was that… um, pointed, that there was an additional moral significance to that cluster of concepts that I was missing.

    • HZD says:

      Though I appreciate what you are doing here, and I realize that you can’t add all the details to every blog post, I think that it’s also important to recognize that the Old Testament itself is not a single entity, except via its canonical status in the Jewish and Christian traditions. It too has a very long historical development and is keenly shaped by different elements of the ANE cultures, as well as later Greek ideas, not to mention different voices within the Israelite/Jewish communities themselves. The Old Testament is also a long conversation that moves and develops over time. In that sense, the NT does just continue the OT, not because it says the same things, but because it just picks up the conversation maybe two centuries later. The conversation continued in between. It just wasn’t canonized.

      • peteenns says:

        Absolutely. I only alluded to that briefly in this post, but a lot of writing is on that very subject.

    • Ross says:

      Having given up on more than a few certainties than usual over the past year or two, I am feeling a bit insecure at the moment.

      I suppose I would sort of need more certainty in He about who(m?) the book speaks, than the book itself. But that seems to be a bit tardy in coming.

      Also, as a non-academic, blue collar worker, I’m too lazy/busy/drunk to put in all the time which would be necessary in trying to give enough thought to the book, its historical context etc, and I am a bit sceptical about accepting anyone else’s presentation. (Though I do give a reasonable amount of credence to your thoughts Pete:-) (creep, crawl))

      So as usual the crunch for me is where do I look for some reliability in what I believe and how I live it out. (Although I suppose I probably have a fair amount of slack in the living-it-out department which I could take up!)

      Thankfully, I’m finding that the church I attend, does seem to have some noticeable element of divine intervention in how it seems to be going about this “God Business”, which so far has been very positive.

      Maybe it just has a lot to do with my own issues of trust. Plus I think there may be issues about how to align my intellect (or what stands in for my thinking bits) and my lived life. Which brings me back to the thankfulness about my church.

      Maybe the people of God are a bit more important than the “ahem” word of God. (I mean the written bit here).

  • Luke Breuer says:

    If the NT were completely derivable from the OT, how could we really say that God had acted, that “Behold, I am doing a new thing”?

    • peteenns says:

      Yes, among other things. Hence, the reason why real discontinuity is essential for Christian theology.

      • newenglandsun says:

        btw, i had a jewish professor for a history of philosophy course i took one semester who compared the nt to the jewish midrash. the midrash being the first jewish commentary on scripture and the nt being the first christian commentary on scripture. as well, the quran being the first islamic commentary on scripture. not certain how accurate such an understanding is…

        • Daniel Merriman says:

          That insight doesn’t, at least to me, explain everything that is going on in the NT, but it explains a lot. The same might be said for some inter-testament sources also.

        • Mark K says:

          I’ve just begun reading James Kugel’s “In Potiphar’s House,” and already he has made the same point. Fascinating stuff.

          • peteenns says:

            That’s the book that started it all for me. I started reading the NT in a very different light.

  • No_one_significant says:

    Nice list. If you include “Gentile” and “messiah,” you probably should include “resurrection” and “hell” as well.

    • peteenns says:

      True–although resurrection is known in the OT, though not a general resurrection (except for Daniel 12), and certainly not of the Messiah.

      • Luke Lively says:

        Dr. Enns, Excellent post and perspective. Shifting gears (slightly) to “hell”, the lack of the word/concept (as reflected in the subsequent Gospel writings) in Paul’s letters is interesting. Is this lack of discussing “hell” a result of Paul’s own interpretation of the intertestamental tunnel, his Jewish background and his own “revelation” from Jesus? Why would Paul leave “hell” seemingly out of his letters? Thanks again for sharing your perspectives, luke

        • peteenns says:

          In my opinion, “hell” (a.k.a Gehenna) is part of Jesus’s rhetoric esp. in Matthew channelling Jeremiah’s denunciation of Israel’s lack of obedience.

          • Luke Lively says:

            Thanks–I share that perspective. But, it is a challenge to discuss with those attempting to connect Paul’s use/discussion of “wrath” as Paul’s interpretation of the concept of “hell” (the Dante, fire-and-brimstone version) Any help in framing the discussion is much appreciated. Thanks again, luke

  • Rick says:

    Would you say that scholars such as NT Wright emphasize the OT, at the exclusion of other considerations such as the intertestamental period, too much?

    • peteenns says:

      Not at all. Those who have disagree with Wright often disagree with his interpretation or use of the 2TJ.

      • newenglandsun says:

        all the words have jesus in common. jesus interacted with all of these people and talked about all of these topics.

  • Daniel Fisher says:

    Right. Next you’ll be telling me that the New Testament wasn’t even originally written in the same language as the Old Testament. Piffle.

  • Mark K says:

    So then, it would seem there is no such thing as “Bible interpretation;” there is, even at the most meta level, only before the tunnel (OT) and after the tunnel (NT) interpretation, with the tunnel itself important to the process. I was snookered in seminary.

    • peteenns says:

      We all were.

    • Daniel Fisher says:

      I guess I’m not making the connection – unless your seminary was very unlike mine, we dove into significant portions of the larger background from which the ideas we have both derived and spoke to – in the OT it was very clear to us things that Peter had mentioned in his I&I book about the similar law codes, stories, etc., and that Moses (yes, even embracing Mosaic authorship) most certainly was a product of his times, and spoke both to and from his cultural assumptions and background.

      Similarly, we didn’t hit it nearly as intensely, but nothing Peter wrote here was particular surprising to me about the NT (about as shocking as the different langages, and the reasons behind it, each was written in); we certainly did some cursory review about the larger Jewish assumptions and development of religious belief, Talmud, Mishnah, and other insights were discussed, though at the MDiv level this wasn’t heavy.

      But I’m not following connection between observing the development and drawing on these developments (which all my inerrancy-affirming professors would have acknowledged without hesitation) on the one hand, and concluding that there is “no such thing as ‘Bible interpretation'”…??

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