Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Out of Context

Clearly the best way of understanding a verse is to read the passages surrounding it.  Likewise other parts of the T'nakh can shed light on the meaning of a verse. But when we read "Messianic Prophecies" the interpretations given by Christians frequently they have no relation to the context of the verse.1 While the passage clearly speaks about a specific topic, Christians attribute Messianic significance to it. Often this divergence from the plain meaning of the text is obvious and not up to debate among reasonable people.

Christians, when forced to concede that the passage was not intended as Messianic by its author, frequently argue that it has a secondary meaning.  Messianic's apologist especially will use traditionally Jewish terms such as "Midrash" to describe their interpretations. But regardless of whether or not one cloaks this approach in Jewish trimming or not, it is clear that such a method is prone to abuse. It leaves one with no way to determine an authentic Messianic prophecy from a false and contrived one. Since the interpretation is un-falsifiable it is likewise unable to be established as intended by the author, God.

And Christians themselves would not accept this methodology from missionaries representing groups they deem deviant. Any knowledgeable evangelical Christian would scoff at a Mormon who came knocking at his door offering verses whose interpretation bears no resemblance to the context.  During my time in the Church the most common generic charge against the Watchtower Society or the LDS was that they take verses out of context.2 Nevertheless when it comes to identifying the Messiah, whom they say you must believe in or face eternal condemnation, they offer up proofs of the same caliber without any way to establish theirs as legitimate and their opponents as spurious:

It is always good to use Scripture verses to prove a teaching or principle, but it is important not to lift a verse out of its context; otherwise, as we have previously seen, instead of it being a proof text, it becomes a pretext. (LaHay, How to Study the Bible for Yourself. page 160
‘For example,’ he said, ‘failing to understand the context of the passage. This is the most common mistake critics make. Taking words out of context, you can even cause the Bible to prove there’s no God. After all, Psalm 14:1 comes right out and says it: “there is no God.’ But, of course, in context it says, The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ Therefore, context is critically important, and most often critics are guilty of wrenching verses out of context to create an alleged discrepancy when there isn’t one.’ (Case for Faith, page 138)
The Qumran sect, however, does not always give us such clarification. It had its own method of Biblical interpretation, which shows the dangers of a predetermined point of view on the meaning of the text. The sect interpreted the Old Testament against the background of its own belief that it was living in the last days, and thus discovered, so it believed, that the prophets had prophesied almost exclusively of those days. Therefore, by allegory and variant reading and words out of context, the sect found guidance in the prophets for the last, difficult times in which they lived.”(Laurin, Hermeneutics, page 74, italics mine.).

Indeed, Christians calling out others whose approach to scriptural interpretation is wanting goes back to some of the earliest Church Fathers:

Irenaeus precisely stressed the atomistic and incoherent use of Scripture by the Gnostics. "They abuse the scriptures by endeavouring to support their own system out of them." In a famous passage he asserts, "They disregard the order and the connection of scriptures...just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed...out of precious jewels, should this take the likeness of the man all to pieces, should re-arrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox...and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king." [Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1:9:1, 1:8:1]. Irenaeus calls, in effect, for a proper attention to context and genre, and attention to other parts of the Bible." (Hermeneutics: An Introduction, page 96).

Furthermore, amongst themselves Evangelical Christians are prone to adopting such an approach. When dealing with other areas of doctrine Christians tend to avoid any form of interpretation than understanding what the author meant given the immediate context of the passage, albeit illuminated by the history and cultural background. However, when it comes to Messianic prophecies they break with their normal approach. There are, in my opinion, two reasons for this. First is that the Christian Bible itself takes verses out of context. Since they cannot concede that their Bible made and error in its interpretation of T'nakh they must attribute a "creative" method of interpretation. The second is that, frankly, without taking verses out of context there would be little to no basis for Christianity in the T'nakh. But finding their doctrines in the T'nakh is what "proves" that their faith is a continuation and "perfection" of that of Jewish peoples. They are forced to use “creative” methods of interpretation to establish their legitimacy.

In contrast, it is precisely due to these difficulties that Judaism no longer originates new "d’rashoth", interpretations of scripture that go beyond the literal meaning. While we have many ancient and authoritative d’rashoth from the Sages, we no longer have the full methodology by which they developed their interpretations.3 Homiletical liberties may still be taken but their acceptance lies in their consistency with the corpus of Jewish teachings and not from the authority of the Biblical derivation. So although we do have quite a few of the rules which the Sages used we do not have a complete set and accordingly we do not have the authority to originate new ideas whose foundation is dubious.

1The propensity for sectarians to interpret Scripture contrary to the context was already noted in Talmudic times, “R. Johanan said: In all the passages which the Minim have taken [as grounds] for their heresy, their refutation is found near at hand.” (Sanhedrin 38b, Soncino Translation).
2”The average non-Christian cult owes its very existence to the fact that it has utilized the terminology of Christianity, has borrowed liberally from the Bible (almost always out of context), and sprinkled its format with evangelical clichés and terms wherever possible or advantageous.” (Kingdom of the Cults, page 30).
3 For an overview and sources on our inability to apply traditional Talmudic methods of exegesis to written Torah see Gateway to the Talmud, page 120 (ArtScroll Mesorah).

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