Multiple Meanings and Control

H.L. Strack and Gunter Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash: Second Edition, trans. and ed. Markus Bockmuehl (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996) 238-239.

The rabbis are also convinced of the ambiguity of Scripture: ‘A Scripture passage has several meanings’ (Sanh 34a).

 Where are evangelicals on this? Do they agree that a Scriptural passage can have more than one meaning? In many cases, their views on this issue depends on how they handle the Old Testament passages that supposedly point to Jesus. The New Testament applies Old Testament passages to Jesus, when the OT passages appear to have different meanings in their own contexts. For example, Matthew 1:23 applies Isaiah 7:14 to Jesus’ virgin birth, when the passage related to a geo-political incident in the time of Isaiah. Matthew 2:13 relates Hosea 11:1 to Jesus’ departure from Egypt, when the passage is clearly about the Exodus.

I know many conservative Christians who say that a biblical passage has “only one meaning, but many applications.” Some of them don’t realize that the New Testament interprets the Old Testament in a manner that isn’t always faithful to the OT passages’ original intent. For example, on my Christian dating site, I asked a question about Isaiah 6:9-10: “And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed” (NRSV). I asked how Isaiah was supposed to “make” the hearts of the people dull. A man who claimed that Scriptural passages have “only one meaning, but many applications” replied that the passage was a prophecy about Jesus’ parables. This, even though it occurs in the context of Isaiah’s mission.

But there are many conservative Christians who are aware of this issue. Some of them try to force the passage to relate to Jesus in its original context, sometimes fairly convincingly, and sometimes not. Others assert (like the rabbis) that a passage can have more than one meaning. This allows the passage to relate to Jesus, while also having a distinct meaning in its own context. Even hard-core conservatives like John MacArthur and Jimmy Swaggart approach the OT in this manner (see Christians and the Passages that Don’t Fit). The growing evangelical awareness of this issue may have to do with evangelicals actually reading the Old Testament, or their increasing exposure to alternative interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, whether by rabbis seeking to counter Christian missionaries, or biblical scholars.

Some Christians tend to straddle the lane-line between these two poles. For example, notice Article VII of the Chicago Statement of Biblical Hermeneutics, along with the comments by Dr. Norman Geisler:

WE AFFIRM that the meaning expressed in each biblical text is single, definite and fixed.

WE DENY that the recognition of this single meaning eliminates the variety of its application.

The Affirmation here is directed at those who claim a “double” or “deeper” meaning to Scripture than that expressed by the authors. It stresses the unity and fixity of meaning as opposed to those who find multiple and pliable meanings. What a passage means is fixed by the author and is not subject to change by readers. This does not imply that further revelation on the subject cannot help one come to a fuller understanding, but simply that the meaning given in a text is not changed because additional truth is revealed subsequently.

Meaning is also definite in that there are defined limits by virtue of the author’s expressed meaning in the given linguistic form and cultural context. Meaning is determined by an author; it is discovered by the readers.

The Denial adds the clarification that simply because Scripture has one meaning does not imply that its messages cannot be applied to a variety of individuals or situations. While the interpretation is one, the applications can be many.

This article isn’t very sympathetic to the idea that Scripture can have multiple meanings. It thinks that it has only one meaning: the intention of the author, as determined by the “given linguistic form and cultural context.” Yet, the Statement is open to applying passages beyond their contexts to a “variety of individuals or situations.” Is that how it would handle the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament: the NT is not changing the meaning of the OT passages, but it’s applying that fixed meaning to new situations?

Sometimes, this can work. For example, the Psalms that apply to David’s flight from Saul and later Absalom (according to those who entitled them with reference to those events) can understandably be applied to Jesus’ own feelings of frustration, his betrayal at the hands of Judas, his rejection by his own people, and his crucifixion. But there are times when the meaning of the Old Testament passage and the New Testament’s interpretation of it appear so different that it’s no longer a matter of simply applying a verse, but of seeing a meaning different from what the original author intended.

For example, although Matthew 1:23 renders Isaiah 7:14 as “a virgin shall conceive,” “almah” in Isaiah 7:14 means “young woman.” Even if one wants to claim it can mean “virgin” (and there are some who make that argument), does that mean a virgin birth occurred in the seventh century B.C.E., the time when the birth of Emmanuel was to be a sign? What would that do to the Christian conservative claim that Jesus’ virgin birth made him unique?

I can understand the point of Chicago’s Article VII, though. Its author and signers don’t want the Scripture to mean anything and everything. They want some sort of control, so the one they propose is the original meaning of the author according to the passage’s grammar and context. The only problem is that New Testament authors don’t always seem to follow that rule when they interpret the Old Testament.

The rabbis were also concerned about the issue of “controls.” Strack and Stemberger quote Ishmael’s reproach of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus: “Behold, you say to Scripture: be still while I interpret you” (Sifra, Tazria Negaim 13.2, W. 68b). Ishmael didn’t like Eliezer imposing his eisegesis on the biblical text. Moreover, rabbis established certain rules of biblical exegesis. For example, when a rabbi wanted to argue that a word in a verse could have an alternative meaning, he often cited places in Scripture where the word had that meaning. And if that meant that a verse could mean different things, so be it! Scripture was all the richer!

I once asked a professor how the rabbis could argue against Christians, if Christian exegetes could use rabbinic hermeneutical strategies to apply the Bible to Jesus. In Messianic Exegesis, Donald Juel argues that the New Testament does precisely that. My professor responded that the rabbis would reject the Christians’ conclusions, even if the Christians arrived at them through the same sort of exegesis that the rabbis used. The reason is that the rabbis didn’t think the text could be utilized to overthrow what the Jews believed about God, themselves, and the world around them. So the religious community and its beliefs acted as controls as to how far a text could go in its meaning. And this makes a degree of sense: God gave the Scriptures to the religious community, so any interpretation that undermined its basis for existence would be incorrect.

But those are my inadequate musings for the time being!

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 Multiple Meanings and Control

  1. Joel says:

    I believe that the OT must be interpreted through Christ and the NT. Further, I would prefer the Antiochian School, which tends to be more conservative and seeks out first the intended meaning, and then moving to the meaning of the Church.

    I cannot see Isaiah knowing everything that he was writing about, but the Author surely did.

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  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    There’s so much that I don’t know about the Antiochian school. I know they were literal and not big on allegory, yet they tried to tie the OT to Christ through typology. Did they have other ways of going beyond the literal meaning?

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  3. Joel says:

    They started with the historical sense, then applied it to Christ, then to the individual.

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