FSE: My Senior Thesis

I’m at my dad’s in Indiana for a week, so I’ll be writing free style entries. I introduced my readers to this on Thanksgiving. Basically, my dad doesn’t have high speed, and my BibleWorks is at my place. So these posts are a lot freer. They are not as well documented, and they’re rather informal. What I say in them should not be used against me (though, of course, I welcome correction).

I woke up at about 5 a.m. last night, and I could not sleep. I went to our book room, saw a purple folder, and looked inside it. Lo and behold, there was my senior undergraduate thesis.

As I said in my post on Krister Stendahl, my topic was Matthew’s interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. When I was at DePauw, I heard Jewish and historical-critical arguments that Matthew was playing “fast and loose” with the Scriptures. The main charge was that Matthew disregarded the contexts of the passages he cited. Isaiah 7 doesn’t relate to Jesus’ virgin birth, for example, but to a geopolitical crisis in the time of King Ahaz, or so their argument went.

What I found was not really original, but it was interesting. I learned that the vast majority of interpreters in antiquity went beyond the literal, contextual meaning of Scripture. One rabbi said that a single text could contain a multiplicity of teachings, many of them not apparent on the surface. The rabbis could see the Messiah in Genesis 1, for example. Philo often dismissed the text’s literal meaning as absurd, seeking a deeper, philosophical sense. The Qumran sectarians interpreted the Hebrew Bible in an eschatological sense that related to their own community.

And interpreters often acknowledged that they were seeking meaning beneath the surface. Jesus Ben Sira said that this was the role of a scribe. Somewhere in the Dead Sea Scrolls is the statement that the Teacher of Righteousness uncovers the mysteries of Scripture (Unfortunately, I just cited a book and a page number for this, rather than the specific Dead Sea Scrolls reference). And so I think that Jewish counter-missionaries, the types who accuse Matthew of playing fast and loose with the Scriptures, are disingenuous. Who are they to attack Matthew for not sticking with the Hebrew Bible’s literal, contextual meaning, when the rabbis they revere did not always (or even usually) do so?

I was surprised to find that my thesis was a lot better than I remember it being. And I’m not being proud here. I’ve read many of my own papers and have thought, “What the heck? I don’t understand what I was trying to say!” My thesis was actually pretty lucid in a number of places, plus I used clear examples from primary sources of ancient biblical exegesis. That was good for me, for I often walk around with generalities in my head about what ancient exegesis was all about. Unlike a lot of my HUC colleagues, I’m not exactly a walking encyclopedia. I usually don’t have a lot of specifics in my mind, but mostly generalities. Or I focus on specifics that few people consider important, but that’s another story. But my thesis gave me examples of ancient exegesis, and that is helpful to me as I read Matthew for my daily quiet time.

Strangely, I remember my thesis being bad. Maybe that was because I didn’t care for my conclusions. I mean, I’d like Matthew to be faithful to the literal, contextual sense of the Hebrew Bible, not looking for “hidden meanings.” As a professor told me when I presented my paper, “If anything can mean anything, then nothing means anything.” Sticking with the literal sense at least allows one to say that some interpretations are right while others are wrong.

But Matthew perhaps wasn’t writing to convince non-believers. Rather, he was telling believers that their faith is continuous with the Old Testament. One of my midrash professors at HUC said that, even if Christians of antiquity used some of the same hermeneutical methods as the Jews, the Jewish authorities would not accept their conclusions. Communities had their own beliefs, which were the starting point (and not really the conclusion) of their biblical exegesis.

So could Jews and Christians in antiquity arrive at enough hermeneutic common ground for a genuine debate to occur? Well, they certainly did try. In Acts, Paul and Apollos debate with the Jews about the true meaning of Scripture. They manage to convince some Jews that the Hebrew Bible points to Jesus. And the Bereans could search the Scriptures to check whether or not Paul’s teachings were true. For this to happen, there needs to be some objective (or agreed upon) criteria of interpretation, doesn’t there? I mean, I doubt that the “hidden meanings” approach would persuade the Bereans. “We couldn’t find Jesus.” “Well, he’s hidden underneath.” “Yeah, right!”

I wonder if Matthew knew about the literal, contextual meaning. When he read Isaiah 7, for example, did he have any awareness at all that the passage relates to the time of Isaiah? Maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t. There are plenty of exegetes in antiquity who speak with contempt about the literal sense of Scripture, which shows that they knew about it. That doesn’t make much sense to me, since, as far as I’m concerned, what the passage literally means in its context IS the meaning of Scripture. Other interpretations are eisegesis.

One book I’d like to read sometime is The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? This is published by the conservative Baker publishing company. One question it addresses is this: Do Christians today have the right to approach the Bible as Matthew did? Or do we have to stick with the literal-contextual sense, a good arbiter of meaning, whereas Matthew could be freer because he was divinely inspired? I remember that Peter Enns addressed this question in his controversial book, Inspiration and Incarnation, but I don’t remember what he said.

My project as an undergrad exposed me to how messy religion can be. I was in an evangelical Bible study at the time, and we were continually encouraged to defend our faith to save souls. The leader of it, as a matter of fact, wrote an apologetic sort of thesis that defended the cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God (while rejecting the ontological one). I was trying to defend the faith myself, but I didn’t exactly succeed. My conclusions were too messy. A belief that the Old Testament prophesies the New Testament and that this is obvious to anyone who reads the Hebrew Bible with an open mind is neat and clear. What I did was messy.

The leader of the Bible study group once had the view that the Old Testament in its literal, contextual sense prophesied Christ, and my thesis perplexed him. But at least it encouraged him to compare how the New Testament used the Old Testament with what Old Testament passages said in their own contexts, and he found that the two can often conflict with one another. Were his beliefs as neat as they were before? Not really. Did I help him by showing him complexity and messiness? Maybe, and maybe not.

In the old days, I was always reluctant to share my thesis or scholarship with believers, including people in my family. I feared that what I wrote would make people think I was a unbeliever, or (worse) shake their faith (an arrogant thought on my part, I know). What I find today is that people outside of academia are familiar with the messiness of religion. Maybe this is because of shows on the History Channel and A&E. The Internet is enough to convince anyone that there are all sorts of ways to look at issues, not all of them fundamentalist. People can be dogmatic only so long on the Internet, before someone challenges them and they see a need to defend their doctrine (for themselves, or to win the debate).

My exposure to Jewish counter-missionaries came through my Armstrongite background, as some spin-offs from that movement were converting to Judaism and circulating “Jews for Judaism” cassettes to promote their anti-Christian beliefs. That forced Armstrongite Christians to formulate a response! And so perhaps the widespread availability of information makes people think about why they hold the beliefs that they do. Or maybe they always have done this on some level, I don’t know.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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3 Responses to FSE: My Senior Thesis

  1. Pascalian Awakenings says:

    I always cringe at the thought of reading my work after a few months. It does not matter how much editing I did, I always find something that makes me go: “What was I doing?”
    I’m happy for you that you were pleased.

    Questions:

    What is Armstrongite? World Wide Church of God?

    Are you familiar with Michael Brown’s three volume series of Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus ? If so, what are your thoughts on it?

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  2. James Pate says:

    Hey Yvette,

    Yes, Armstrongite is Worldwide Church of God, Herbert Armstrong’s movement.

    Actually, Brown’s series now has four volumes. The latest one is on New Testament objections. I think they’re good to have. I just think that so many of his arguments are “You criticize Christianity for this, but Judaism has what you’re criticizing too.” I guess that’s appropriate for his goal, which is to persuade Jews of Jesus being the Messiah, but he does not prove that the Old Testament points to Christ. He just shows that the Jews have similar arguments to the Christians.

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