Religious Statements: Against Their Environment or In Them?

Rainer Albertz gives several reasons in his introduction to the first volume of A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period for why he prefers a history of religion approach over a theological approach to writing a history of Israelite religion. In this post I’d like to highlight one of the reasons he gives and discuss its relevance to biblical interpretation. He states,

[The history of religion approach] takes seriously the insight that religious statements cannot be separated from the historical background from which they derive or against which they are reinterpreted.

In other words, religious statements are products of their historical background, as is their reinterpretation in separate historical backgrounds. Practically speaking, then, religious statements from different historical backgrounds are not going to be exactly identical. This flatly undermines a univocal reading of the Bible, which was written and edited over the course of around a thousand years by numerous writers from numerous different historical backgrounds. Some attempts to harmonize portions of the Bible to differing degrees were executed at different times in the course of the Bible’s literary and textual development, but this only partially mitigated the text’s overall pluriformity. But is this axiom accurate, or is it an assumption that evinces “anti-supernaturalism” or some other crippling bias that truly objective interpreters will avoid? Does the evidence support the ideological unity of the scriptures from beginning to end, and thus the notion that the Bible is inerrant and/or univocal?

The most obvious place to start is the comparison of Hebrew Bible material to its quotation in the New Testament. I will start with Messianic readings of select Hebrew Bible texts. One of two conclusions will be reached: either the religious statements will be shown to be identically understood in both, or they will be shown to be differently understood, according to their individual historical backgrounds. What about the notion that multiple readings are possible and even intended in Hebrew Bible texts? While polysemy was certainly a possibility back then, I would suggest that the notion that a Hebrew Bible text was written with a secondary interpretation in mind that didn’t manifest itself for centuries must be evidenced rather than assumed.

Let us start with Acts 15:15–17, which quotes a version of Amos 9:11–12. The aim of the text is to find scriptural support for the opening up of the gospel to the Gentiles. I quote the RSV version of Acts (simply because I have it open in a tab):

And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.

The Hebrew does not mention the “residue of men,” though, it mentions the “remnant of Edom.” At the time, hegemony over Edom was a significant issue for Davidic idealists. “Edom” looks a lot like “men” in Hebrew, though, especially if you don’t have the internal mater lectionis like you do in MT (אדום = Edom; אדם = human/humanity). Acts is quoting from a Greek translation of Amos that has misread the Hebrew word Edom. The scripture James quoted in Acts 15 actually does not bear on humanity in general (nor does the Septuagint version mention seeking after the Lord). The New Testament interpretation of Amos 9:11–12, then, is far removed from the original sense of the verse and is based on a mistranslation, intentional or otherwise (See Glenny on this, but also Decker).

Let us move on to Heb 1:6, which quotes a Greek version of Deut 32:43 (or Ps 97:7). It states,

And again, when he brought the Firstborn in to the world he said, “Let all the angels of God worship him.”

The first indicator that this is an interpretation of the original text of Deut 32:43 (or Ps 97:7) that was never intended is that it does not exist in any Hebrew version of Deut 32:43 or Ps 97:7. It only exists in the Greek translations of those two texts, which date somewhere between the third and first century BCE. In the Hebrew both texts read, “Let all the gods worship him.” In both the Hebrew and the Greek, the object was not the messiah, though, it was Yhwh himself. The author of Hebrews appropriated it as a reference to the messiah and used it for a rhetorical purpose it simply cannot fulfill in its original form. In the early Hellenistic period the gods began to be identified with angels. The reading in Hebrews is entirely dependent upon that contemporary reinterpretation. The situation is similar for Heb 1:8, which takes a psalm directed explicitly at the king (v. 1: “I address my verses to the king”) and reinterprets it as directed at the messiah: “But to the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever . . .” At the time of the composition of Hebrews, Christians could not have read “O God” as a vocative aimed at a human king. When the text was first written, however, that would not have been objectionable.

We could count numerous other places where New Testament authors quote Hebrew Bible texts but either quote a secondary version or themselves alter them to make them fit their contemporary needs. For instance, in John 19:37 the author quotes Zech 12:10, but changes “they shall look upon me whom they pierced” to “they shall look upon him whom they pierced.” Matt 1:23 quotes Isa 7:14, but instead of “she shall call his name . . .” it reads “they shall call his name . . .” (Isa 7:14 was also originally a reference to the king Hezekiah, not to a messiah). Heb 2:6–8 quotes Ps 8:4–6, but reinterprets what was originally a reference exclusively to humanity as a reference exclusively to Jesus. In order to do this, of course, the author had to remove a portion of the quote which got in the way. “You have given him dominion over the works of your hands” is removed because the author believed that the universe was the work of Jesus’ own hands. Notice also that the Hebrew “you have made him a little lower than the gods” is changed to “you have made him a little lower than the angels.” The list goes on and on, but the two examples shared above make the case clearly enough.

For the most part, the New Testament’s usage of the Hebrew Bible is mediated by the Septuagint, which not only translated its text according to contemporary theological and linguistic norms, but also used Vorlagen that were transmitted under the influence of contemporary theological and linguistic concerns. Throw into the mix the coming of the messiah and the Christian interpretations are going to differ vastly from the original contexts. I would conclude then that Rainer’s axiom is supported by the evidence, whereas the notion of the univocality of the Bible is not supported. With each generation, the scriptures evolved to mean whatever that generation needed them to mean, given some continuity with the readings of the previous generation. Over several generations quite a disparity can develop. The benefit of being aware of this disparity is that we can better understand what the authors were trying to say. I propose this is a better exegetical guide than the notion that “you have to look at the picture on the box to see how the individual puzzle piece fits.”


14 responses to “Religious Statements: Against Their Environment or In Them?

  • eric bess

    Of course, I agree with all this, I’m just tired of seeing the point having to be renewed in biblical studies. I think in order to seriously study the bible academically, thoughts and dictums such as ‘the univocality of the bible should not be presupposed’ should by now certainly go without saying. Apologists like to make it into a philosophical issue, often like you said attributing this kind of handling of the bible to ‘anti-supernaturalism’, but the same could be said of this kind of handling of any religious literature ever written. And I even get the feeling that studies ostensibly approaching the bible secularly are often linked to issues of purely religious concern. Biblical studies are frustrating.

  • Paul Owen

    Hey Daniel. I think there are two issues at play here. 1. Did the NT authors base their interpretations of the OT based upon mistaken readings? 2. Is there such a thing as dual authorship and thus dual meaning in the Scriptures? In other words, did God’s Spirit inspire the authors and editors of the OT so that what they wrote had a meaning that was more expansive than their original human intent? The second question can only be answered on theological grounds; it is in fact a point of considerable debate within evangelical biblical scholarship (some want to insist on a single meaning that is consistent and frozen across the canon). Obviously, as a Latter-day Saint, in light of the way Scripture is appropriated in the BoM and the D&C, you would have to be sympathetic to the possibility that apostles and prophets were given insight into the spiritual meaning of earlier texts that was deeper and richer than the original authorial intent.

    But what about the first question? Your appeal to Acts 15:16-18//Amos 9:11-12 involves a lot of issues. The essence of the question though is whether James (or Luke) distorts the meaning of Amos through his appeal to a faulty LXX translation. It is not clear to me that this is the case. Amos predicted that when the kingdom of David is restored, that the Gentiles would be incorporated into God’s people alongside the Jews. Obviously a relevant issue in light of the Jerusalem council. The reference to the nations who are claimed by the divine name (9:12) is consistent with this reading, as is the previous context, which speaks of God’s gracious dealings with the Ethiopians, Philistines, and Arameans (v. 7). Every unique feature of James’ reading of the text has an explanation.
    1. “After these things” (Acts 15:16) alludes to the judgment of Israel in the previous verses of Amos 9. “In that day” (Amos 9:11) refers to a shift from judgment to restoration, so the meaning is consistent.

    2. “I will return” (Acts 15:16) is an interpretive gloss, speaking of God’s change of action from judgment to grace for the kingdom of David, as the royal palace is rebuilt.

    3. The reference to the “rest of humanity” seeking the Lord (Acts 15:17) may be based directly on a Hebrew textual variant in Amos 9:12 (or one underlying the LXX), or it may be more loosely based on the reference to “all the nations” in addition to Edom, upon whom God’s name is proclaimed. If God’s name is put upon all of them, this transfer of ownership can certainly be understood in terms of their inclusion in the restored kingdom of David. In which case, the “remnant of Edom” is understood as a symbol of humankind outside the elect boundary of the Jewish people of God. The reference to their “seeking” the Lord is based on the fact that the restored kingdom of David’s taking possession of the remnant of Edom coincides with having God’s name put upon them.

    Similar explanation could be offered for all of the examples you cite, but this is illustrative.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Hi Paul. Thanks for the comments. On your first point, I don’t approach things “as a Latter-day Saint” in my academic writing, for the most part. I obviously deal from time to time with LDS issues, but I try to keep it academic even then. I would say I approach all these questions from the point of view of a sympathetic outsider. Even when dealing with LDS topics I usually refer to Latter-day Saints in the third person.

      On your second point, while every unique element of the Greek may have an explanation, I would disagree that every unique element has an explanation that is preferable. The two links I provided on this topic provide some good discussion that parallels yours in many ways. I would also disagree that pointing to the nations called by Yhwh’s name in v. 12 makes the assertions between the two texts consistent. In the LXX and NT the idea is that the nations will seek after Yhwh. This is a voluntary desire. MT Amos says that Israel will possess Edom and the nations called by Yhwh’s name (present tense and distinct from Edom). This is the language of conquest, not soteriology and blessing. Israel will take over these lands, and there’s no real indication Yahwism would be forced upon them. This is obviously not what took place with the advent of Christianity, so even there the translator is moving away from the original meaning. Whether intentional or accidental, it is a disparate reading.

      Next, I don’t think one can really posit that a textual variant led to “remnant of humanity,” since the texts would look absolutely identical without the mater lectionis. The difference is interpretive, not textual. Edom was read as /adam/. Some say it was intentional, but the evidence favors a less exegetical rendering on the part of the translator for v. 12. The Septuagint retains the word order and the constituent elements of MT. The only changes in all of v. 12 are the ignoring of the direct object marker and the additions of “God” after “Lord” and “all” before “this.” The rendering is, literally, “So that they seek, the remaining of humanity and all nations upon whom my name is called upon them.” The translator provides no object for the verb. This creates a syntactical problem, but that’s very common in the more literal translations of the Septuagint. There is little in the way of translator exegesis in our verse, even to the point that the verse’s main transitive verb has no object. Some have argued that the object is implied, but that’s a bit of a stretch, and the fidelity to the Vorlage makes it far more likely that the translator just didn’t bother with one. The rendering of this particular verse does not seem to be the result of any extended consideration.

      Also, “the remaining of humanity” are distinguished from “all the nations.” Edom is not a synechdochic reference to all the nations of the earth in the Hebrew, and I’m skeptical that it is in the Greek. Some have said kai should be read “even,” but given the woodenness of the LXX translation, I see no reason to prefer that reading. I don’t think the nuances of good idiomatic Greek should be appealed to when the shape of the text clearly derives from a slavish rendering of the Hebrew. It’s clearly not the sense of the Hebrew. If one does posit that nuance, it further removes the New Testament reading from the original Hebrew. The New Testament is likely based on another version of the Old Greek (v. 11 is very different), but clearly one that is secondary to one we have.

  • Ben S

    “Acts is quoting from a Greek translation of ***Acts*** that has misread the Hebrew word Edom.”

    Pretty sure you mean Amos there.

  • Paul Owen

    Hey Daniel. Good reply. I understand your point about maintaining neutrality, though I think it is ultimately impossible. Plus, if one really believes that their religion has access to an objectively true theological perspective, then it is crazy to try and bracket out those insights.

    One question. I understand the issue with the vocalization. But do we really know for certain that there would have been no waw (Edom vs. Adam) in the Hebrew text that the LXX (or even James) was translating? Others seem to say that this is an open question.

    Also, the text does not simply speak of Edom, but the “remnant” of Edom. This could easily be understood to speak of those Edomites who survive God’s judgment, and are permitted to enter the restored Davidic kingdom. The reference to “all the nations” who are called by God’s name could still be understood positively, along the lines of Genesis 12:3; Isa. 61:4-5; 66:18-21. It is not obvious to me that your reading is preferable to that of the LXX and Luke (and James) in the NT.

    • Paul Owen

      Just to cite a couple of examples on the issue of the spelling of Edom/Adam: “To their observations may be added the evidence of the defective spellings of the proper names scth (v. 11) and ‘dm “Edom” (v. 12). Both words lack the mater lectionis waw, which originated in internal positions about 700 B.C. and became common internally by the sixth century” (Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, WBC, p. 397). Stuart is of course arguing for a pre-700 B.C. origin for Amos. And in the Anchor Bible Commentary on Amos by Francis Andersen and David Noel Freedman: “Defective spelling of Edom is unknown in the MT (except for the gentilic form), but it is possible that ‘dm survived to the time of the LXX alongside of ‘dwm” (p. 890). They say it is possible, but that is far from saying that it is certain. In fact, the paragraph from which this quote is drawn says that the LXX reads “as if it read ‘dm,” which is at best viewed only as a possibility. So it seems that the possibility of textual variation here is an open question, at least in the view of some scholars.

      • Daniel O. McClellan

        I would agree that there’s no textual data that compels one to accept a defective spelling. I happen to think the spelling was defective because rendering a word that was knowingly different from the Vorlage but was based on a similarly spelled word in Hebrew is a quite rare translation practice in the Septuagint, and one that is pretty hard to identify. In my last thesis I explained why I preferred the textual approach to translation technique over and against the exegetical approach. That preference is another reason I support understanding this as a misreading. Whether or not the word originally said ‘dm or ‘dwm, though, I think the translator’s understanding of the verse was quite far removed from that of its original context, and when appealed to in the book of Acts it meant something quite different from what it meant when it was first written.

  • Paul Owen

    Thanks for the clarifications Dan. I certainly do agree that the NT writers derive meaning from OT texts that goes beyond the intentions of the human authors.

  • eric bess

    Well…I don’t have a devoted interest to fish for errors or deliberate alterations distorting original meanings or historical events in the bible, as many non-believers do (I am agnostic), but after reading the comments, I think the principle that simpler explanations are better obtains in the case of the Amos/Acts issue. The sheer number of the alternative conjectural explanations for why things appear quirky is in my view, a point against they’re being something other than an error here. Confusing words is not uncommon in scribal practice, and the author of Acts (or the LXX translator) just seems to have a made a mistake.

  • Paul Owen

    Hey Eric. Well, as I have argued, both the LXX translator and/or James may well have been working with a Hebrew text that read Adam (‘dm) and not Edom (‘dwm). The rest of the “mistakes” can be attributed to a number of factors, as I discussed in brief.

  • eric bess

    Well, the only thing I called a ‘mistake’ was the misreading of Edom on the part of the LXX translator. As far as how Acts interpreted it, I don’t see that it’s congenial with the meaning intended by Amos.

  • Gavriel

    I think this relates to context and how many view it. Some feel since the “author” of all Biblical books is God, then they can mix and match passages written over several hundred years to arrive at theological opinions. Personally I strongly oppose this view, and feel each author wrote in very specific times (temple times, exile) to specific audiences (for instance some prophets were speaking to both northern/southern kingdoms, some only one) and should generally not be used in conjunction to interpret each other.

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