In my previous discussion of James White’s reading of Psalm 82 I pointed out that James appeals fallaciously to the notion that Jesus’ reading of the psalm (John 10:34-35) must govern a believer’s interpretation. This is the principle of univocality, or the notion that the Bible represents a single, unified worldview, from beginning to end. This post will draw upon two places where the New Testament demonstrably misreads the Hebrew Bible, whether on its own or through the mediation of a mistranslated Septuagint, in order to show that assumptions like univocality are precluded by an informed reading of the biblical texts.
Heb 2:7–10 quotes LXX Ps 8:5–7, but the reading provided in the former is vastly different from the meaning of the latter. Here’s a brief look at Ps 8:5–7 as found in the Hebrew:
מָֽה־אֱנֹ֥ושׁ כִּֽי־תִזְכְּרֶ֑נּוּ וּבֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם כִּ֣י תִפְקְדֶֽנּוּ׃
וַתְּחַסְּרֵ֣הוּ מְּ֭עַט מֵאֱלֹהִ֑ים וְכָבֹ֖וד וְהָדָ֣ר תְּעַטְּרֵֽהוּ׃
תַּ֭מְשִׁילֵהוּ בְּמַעֲשֵׂ֣י יָדֶ֑יךָ כֹּ֝ל שַׁ֣תָּה תַֽחַת־רַגְלָֽיו
The first line is clearly referring to humanity collectively. Both singular references to humans are indefinite and generic. The second line is grammatically contrastive (lowered // crowned), but semantically synonymous. The human is given a place of honor within the hierarchy of being, namely just under the gods (or “God,” although less likely). The dominion mentioned in the last line should not be understood as dominion over all God’s creation, terrestrial and celestial. Humanity obviously has no dominion over astral bodies. The following two lines provide proper contextualization: “sheep and oxen, and also cattle of the field; birds of the sky and fish of the sea, that which passes along the courses of the waters.” The author likely has Gen 1:28 in view: “. . . have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
The Septuagint translation is little different, although “gods” is rendered “angels.” The spatial “a little less than” of the Hebrew is also translated with βραχυς, which can be read spatially or temporally. This is the text quoted by the author in Hebrews 2, although the meaning there is altered. To begin, the author applies Psalm 8 exclusively to Jesus. The seemingly generic singular is used throughout, as with the Hebrew, but the referent is identified as Jesus when the author finishes the quotation thus (NSV):
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one.
“All things” is understood by the author of Hebrews to signify all created things, not just those put under humanity’s dominion. Heb 2:7 also omits the first half of Ps 8:6 (according to the best manuscripts), which states (in the Greek), “And you placed him over the works of your hands.” Other witnesses have this section, but the critical editions omit it. In the original composition this could not remain, since it was Jesus who was thought to be creator of “all things.”
The RSV translates βραχυς temporally here. Other translations offer a spatial rendering, but the author seems to be contrasting Jesus’ temporary subordination to the angels with his crowning with glory and honor. In other words, his death elevated him above that subordination. The author is likely reading βραχυς temporally. (The NRSV, by the way, changes the generic singular to plural and attempts to salvage the quotation as an accurate reading of the text as referring to humanity in general.)
What we see here is an example of a text being read according to contemporary ideologies and expediencies which differed greatly from those of its original author and community. Psalm 8 does not refer to Jesus, to the incarnation, or to his glorification. It refers to God’s grace in giving humanity a place of honor, which it does not merit, within God’s glorious created order. The author of the psalm and the author of Hebrews thus present two conflicting readings, undermining the notion that any principle of univocality governs the literature of the Bible. This does not mean the reading in Hebrews is useless, though. It renegotiated Christianity’s relationship with its sacral past, injecting new relevance into the text for Christians and strengthening their connection to Judaism’s sacred literature.
My next case study involves the application of a mistaken translation to a question of doctrine. In Acts 15:13–17, James appeals to Amos 9:11–12 in an effort to support through scripture the taking of the gospel directly to the Gentiles. It even seems James’ quotation settles the debate. The critical portion of Amos 9 reads,
I will rebuild the tent of David, which has fallen, and from its ruins I will rebuild it and set it up, so that the remnant of the people might seek the Lord, and all the nations which call upon my name.
This reading comes from LXX Amos, although there is a bit of movement. For instance, “the Lord” is an addition. The LXX actually omits the object, reading, “so that the remnant of the people might seek, and all the nations . . .” There is also a clause missing from Acts’ quotation (“as the days of old”). The important observation, however, is the Greek translation’s relationship to the Hebrew. The crucial section reads in the Hebrew, “that they may possess the remnant of Edom,” but is translated, “so that the remnant of the people might seek,” in the Greek. The confusion arises likely because of the lack of the mater lectionis which we find in MT in the word אדום. Without it, the word looks an awful lot like אדם, “man,” or “humanity.” The verb “to possess” (יירשׁו), was also misunderstood as “to seek” (ידרשׁו).
It is unlikely that MT is secondary. First, there’s no object for the transitive verb εκζητησωσιν, “that they might seek.” Second, the reading in MT makes more sense within the context. David’s fallen house would be restored so that it might reassert its authority, specifically in overtaking the remnant of Edom (see Amos 1:11–12) and “all the nations,” for which Edom functions as a synecdoche (Edom commonly acts as a symbol for all of Israel’s enemies [Ps 137:7; Isa 34:5–15; 63:1–6; Lam 4:21]). The notion that the restoration of the Davidic kingdom would cause the remnant of the people (why are they only a remnant?) and all the nations to seek the Lord is also a bit of a disconnect within Amos.
This quotation shows not only that the early church relied on the Septuagint, but that it rested significant doctrinal decisions on the Greek translation, even when it represented a misreading of the underlying Hebrew.
The notion of univocality within the Bible as a whole is irreconcilable with these data. The axiom that scripture should interpret scripture is wholly undermined by these two examples (and many others could be pointed out). There is not only one voice in the Bible, and I do not think it prudent to approach any single chapter or verse within the Bible assuming that it contains only one voice. There are numerous voices throughout the biblical texts saying numerous different things for numerous different reasons. New Testament exegesis of an Old Testament text is no more authoritative a reading than that of any other exegete.