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.”