We sometimes forget that the first Christians were Jews and that the Bible is essentially a Jewish book, written by Jews, primarily about Jews and initially, at least, for Jews. All of the Biblical writers were Jewish, with the exception of Luke, who was a proselyte, that is, a gentile convert to the Jewish faith. The central figure of the New Testament, Jesus the Messiah, was a Jew, as were His twelve disciples and all of the earliest believers in the Messianic community, called the ecclesia, were Jews. Paul, the apostle to the gentiles described himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5).
One of the earliest issues of dispute and argument in the ecclesia was not whether a Jew could or should receive and accept Jesus as the Messiah, but whether a gentile was able to become a Christian without first converting to Judaism. Indeed, had not Jesus Himself taught that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22)?
It took Paul to resolve these issues by bringing forth the revelation that he had received from the Lord Jesus Christ that “…. There is neither Jew nor Greek” (Galatians 3:26).
But if the Jewish scriptures are to be deeply comprehended by the culturally alien gentile mind, some understanding of the Jewish literary style that is found in the scriptures is, at least, helpful and, probably, necessary. For that reason, we must begin with an explanation of Jewish Midrash.
The Bible contains more than just doctrine. Scattered throughout are allegories, types and symbols that seek to illustrate what is stated literally elsewhere. These manifestations of Jewish literary tradition are known collectively as Midrash, a topic that is discussed below. But first, a word of warning; interpretations of scripture should follow the principle that no doctrine should be built on Biblical allegories; they are for illustrative purposes only.
Before looking, however, at the Jewish midrashic interpretation of scripture, we need to identify the shortcomings of the traditional approach of the western Church to this subject.
Our cultural heritage has a profound impact on our interpretation of scripture and our interpretation, in turn, decides the way in which we apply it. Behind the apostasy of the Western Church lies a rationalistic, philosophical approach to interpreting the Word of God that derives from our Hellenistic cultural heritage; or our paradigm. The word “paradigm”, from the Greek paradigma, meaning “alongside illustration”, is the internal frame of reference through which we interpret information. Our paradigm not only influences our understanding but also our application of that understanding.
For example, when the world generally held a paradigm of the earth as being flat, there was no question that people would set off in ships to search for new lands to the east or west, for fear that the ships would sail off the earth altogether. While this may seem foolish today, the flat earth paradigm was a powerful influence on the way men thought of things such as exploration, governing their attitudes and behaviour until science was able to discover that the earth was round, not flat, and was not the centre of the universe at all, another paradigm of the Middle Ages.
Paradigms, then, influence the way we understand and apply information and it is vitally important to understand that there are fundamental differences in Hellenistic and Hebraic cultures and in the paradigms that derive from those cultures.
As Paul noted, the notion of a Messiah who would give His life to redeem a nation was “foolishness to the Greeks” (1 Corinthians 1:23). It was outside the Hellenistic paradigm, which is rational, philosophical and logical.
Throughout the “time of the gentiles”, much error has derived from the interpretation of Hebraic scriptures through a Hellenistic paradigm.
To a Hebrew, for example, faith implies fulfilment or completion and finds expression in works; in other words, faith will be recognised by its dynamic; that is, the energy it produces to drive the life of the one holding faith; Hebrew faith is seen in action, directing and governing the life in all its aspects. The understanding attaching to the word, in one with a Hebrew paradigm, is concrete, not abstract.
To the Hellenistic mind, on the other hand, faith is an abstract thing, able to be separated from the works that it might be expected to produce. The Hellenistic mind regards faith as a profession of allegiance to a philosophical worldview, surrounded by its own logic and reliant on the arguments given in favour of it. Belief, faith, fruit, justice, holiness, conduct – these are all separate issues to the Hellenistic mind. To the Hebrew however, they are utterly inseparable one from the other.
The Hellenistic paradigm has resulted in the Western Church being filled with Christians holding to “faith” while not intending to obey.
The Limits of Traditional Interpretation
All of the early reformers were Catholic priests, Luther, Calvin, Cranmer etc. who, in studying the scriptures in their original languages, discovered that many of the doctrines of the established Church – Roman Catholicism – were false; for example, salvation is not obtained through sacramentalism or the purchase of indulgences, but by grace through faith.
In their zeal to eliminate the errors of the Roman Church, they devised a system of interpreting the scriptures that in fact meant that they were endeavouring to correct error with error. They devised a system of scriptural translation and interpretation that is described as “grammatical historical exegesis”, which is right in what it says but wrong in what it fails to say. A cardinal rule of this method of scriptural interpretation says – “if the plain sense makes sense, seek no further sense”, but this overlooks the many applications of scripture made by Jesus and the apostles.
Another rule – “there are many applications of scripture, but only one interpretation” also denies the multi interpretations that Jesus applied, for example, to the “sign of Jonah”. He interpreted this to mean that He would spend three days in the darkness, as did Jonah in the belly of the whale, as well as meaning that just as the gentiles at Nineveh repented when the Jews didn’t, the same would be true of His earthly ministry.
Again Hosea 11:1 says; “And out of Egypt I called My son”. This clearly refers to God’s people Israel, whom He called out of Egypt to take them into the Promised Land. But Matthew says that when Joseph took Jesus to Egypt to avoid the Herodian persecution, the family remained there until the death of Herod, “that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son” (Matthew 2:15).
There are some limitations in translations of the Bible although it should be said that the Holy Spirit, as our Teacher, is able to bring light and truth to the serious and prayerful student from whatever texts are available.
One limitation is that the original Hebrew texts of the Old Testament have long been lost and modern translators rely upon copies that date from no earlier than the eighth century A.D. Moreover, the Hebrew texts have undergone constant revisions throughout the centuries and were revised comprehensively during the first and second centuries after Christ.
On the other hand, the Septuagint is a translation of the Hebrew scriptures by seventy-two Jewish scholars during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus, from 285 to 247 B.C. and was the Bible in use at the time of Christ. Some of the Old Testament quotations from the Septuagint used by the apostolic writers differ from the same passages in modern translations of those revised Hebrew Texts.
While the texts themselves differ, it is also inevitable that the religious prejudices of the seventy-two individuals translating the Hebrew would find their way into the completed Greek scriptures, particularly since they were endeavouring to express Hebrew concepts in a language to which those concepts were themselves quite alien.
Another limitation is that all Bible translators tend to allow their religious paradigms and philosophies to intrude upon their scholarship. Moreover, translators are beholden to those financing the work and this may have the effect of exercising some restraint upon the translator. This has been true of all English translations since the King James Version in 1611.
For example, the KJV refers to the “power of darkness” in its translation of Luke 22:53. The Greek word however excousia in anglicised Greek, and it means “authority”. The Greek word dunamis, from which the English “dynamite” is derived, is the word for power. There seems to be no reason for such an obvious error in translation other than to express an ecclesiastical opinion that darkness has no authority.