Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Clue from the Bible about Interpretation

As we ask where to go for helpful models of biblical interpretation, we must consider how biblical authors performed the same task. It's not that we can always follow the same strategies: I can't imagine a responsible way for modern readers to mimic Paul's appropriation of the Sarah and Hagar cycle (Gal 4:21-31). Of course, some people do it, but I'm not buying it. Nevertheless, Paul's move persuaded some people in his cultural context, and we might attend to that.

As presented in the Synoptics, Jesus' teaching on divorce provides an interesting case (Matt 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18; see 1 Cor 7:10-16). Luke only includes one saying, whereas Matthew and Mark provide a full scene on the subject. What do we learn?

First, we're talking not about Scripture but about the appropriation of traditions going back to Jesus. Note that Mark, presumably addressing a largely Gentile audience where women could initiate divorce, envisions contexts when a woman might divorce a man. Matthew, presumably addressing Jewish followers of Jesus, does not. We may never know what Jesus himself said about divorce -- maybe he spoke to the question on multiple occasions -- but that's not the point. The point is that both Mark and Matthew appropriated traditions concerning Jesus' teachings to address their own cultural contexts.

And Paul? Paul apparently knows the same tradition. There are three steps to his argument.
  1. In 1 Cor 7:10-12 he relies upon a word from the Lord to command women not to divorce their husbands.
  2. However, admitting people will divorce anyway, he continues to rely on Jesus tradition: If a woman leaves her husband, she ought not marry someone else.
  3. Finally, in 7:13-16 Paul addresses an entirely new context. Jesus could not have been speaking to "believers" married to "unbelievers," since there were no "believers" in Jesus' own day. Paul must address the situation, but here he speaks in his own authority: "I and not the Lord."
There's sooo much more to say about these passages, and others have done so. For now, here's the point. Early Christians did not passively repeat sayings of Jesus; rather, they adapted Jesus traditions to their own cultural contexts. The Jesus tradition figures strongly in their deliberations, yet it cannot be the final word. That seems about right to me.


Eric Rowe said...

Interesting point. One of the things that sometimes happens in investigating Jesus sayings behind passages in the epistles is that certain clear examples, such as 1 Cor 7:10 jump out immediately, and then upon realizing that Jesus sayings played a role in shaping other author's views on how to live, we start being able to see echoes of them all over the place. And the point you make might become even stronger when we consider all those other passages where a Jesus saying may lie behind them, but less obviously so. I think James is probably the book that's the richest with those types of passages. One book that investigates that phenomenon of Jesus sayings providing a basis for later extrapolation in James after the pattern of Israelite wisdom literature that I found very enlightening was this one:

Greg Carey said...

Absolutely, Eric. James is terrific for this stuff and raises tons of interesting questions.

Sabio Lantz said...

If the writers are appropriating the teachings of Jesus and fitting them to their goals, what is the believer to do with the words of the NT when trying to understand what Jesus would say? What methodology should be used? And it seems that for two thousand years people have not used the scripture with this sophistication, wouldn't you say?

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