There is a common sentiment, one that I think displays a superficial understanding of hermeneutics, that attempts to divorce the “ancient hermeneutic” of the New Testament authors from that of the historical-grammatical hermeneutic used in our modern day by scholars and the like.
Within this concept is the idea that the New Testament authors, as ancient interpreters, do not interpret the text according to context, but instead, ignore context to interpret the text in the light of Christ.
Now, the New Testament interpreters clearly interpret texts in light of Christ. There is no doubt to this. However, the claim that this is done supposedly by ignoring the original context or the interpretive method that would understand the authorial intent from the original context is bogus. Second Temple interpreters do not reject the original contextual meaning for a more spiritual one.
For instance, in Qumran, we have texts that are interpretive texts called pesherim. One of the elements of pesher, as defined by Shani L. Berrin, is a “citation of a biblical text (the lemma)” that the author views as having “an application of the text to a contemporary reality outside of its original context” (“Pesherim” in Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 644).
There is nothing about negating the original meaning, only that the interpreter is seeking to apply it to new contexts. This is done by seeing a text typologically, not figuratively.
And God told Habakkuk to write what was going to happen to <to> the last generation, but he did not let him know the consummation of the era. And as for what he says: «So that /may run/ the one who reads it». Its interpretation concerns the Teacher of Righteousness, to whom God has made known all the mysteries of the words of his servants, the prophets. For the vision has an appointed time, it will have an end and not fail. Its interpretation: the ﬁnal age will be extended and go beyond all that the prophets say, because the mysteries of God are wonderful. (1QpHab vii.1-8)
The idea expressed here is that there is a plain reading that Habakkuk and the other prophets understood, but that the raz “mystery” of the text was something that went beyond all that the prophets said. This cryptic interpretation was left for the Teacher of Righteousness to reveal.
It is clear by the way the Pesherim interpret the texts that the mystery of the text is nothing more than exchanging the original context for a contemporary one. This can be a valid or invalid way of interpreting the text. In most 2d Temple interpretation, the attempt is to interpret the text in a way that is complementary, rather than contradictory, to the original context. In fact, in most forms of ancient Jewish interpretation it is a general rule that the extended meaning is not to contradict the original basic meaning.
In other words, the interpreter is not contradicting the original references of the text, as though the author believes that Habakkuk could not understand his own words, or that his original audiences was left dumbfounded by the text; but instead, that God made known to Habakkuk what was being said, but that its implications for future interpretation were a mystery ready to be unlocked by a future interpreter. This is the actual hermeneutic of most 2d Temple authors.
The 2d Temple hermeneutic, then, is not one where the authors are merely making things up and reinterpreting texts against their original context. Instead, they are often seeking to understand the original text in order to make further application to their own day. But by “application” I do not mean they merely seek to apply it as we would. Instead, they are arguing that the application to their own day is intended by God through the text itself. It is cryptically hidden. It’s further meaning needs to be brought out by an interpreter led by God.
But the plain meaning can be understood by everyone, and both are meant to be conveyed by God. The meaning one gains from the historical-grammatical hermeneutic, which is nothing more than understanding what the author in his own day meant by observing the internal logic of language, one which we acknowledge on a daily basis in our own speech, is foundational. To reject the historical-grammatical hermeneutic is to reject logic as applied to language itself, and this would render all speech as useless babel that can be refitted to any situation and interpreted in any way the reader sees fit. Indeed, the postmodern “reader-response” hermeneutic so popular in academics is a result of such thinking.
However, this is not the hermeneutic of the New Testament. The New Testament, like other 2d Temple interpretive literature, receives the plain meaning and the spiritual meaning of a text as existing in harmony with one another. Paul does not think that Abraham and Sarah are merely allegories and not real persons. He does not reject the story and theology surrounding them and conveyed by the original plain reading of the text. Instead, he acknowledges this story when he notes how Abraham received righteousness from God by believing Him. This would not be possible if Paul rejected the original plain reading. However, does Paul see that there is more to the story that can be made of these characters? Absolutely. They can be used in an analogy to represent law and promise and applied to the contemporary debate in Galatia.
Likewise, does Paul really believe the original legal command concerning oxen was not about oxen, or does he believe that it is about oxen, but stated mainly as a principle that is expressed through oxen but meant to be applied to people, namely, those who make their living from the gospel? I think the latter is clear, as Paul affirms the plain principles of the law in general.
Again, does Matthew really not know how to read Hosea when God says, “Out of Egypt I called my Son,” or could Matthew be using that text to apply the plain meaning of the text to Jesus Christ as the true Israel? In other words, the plain meaning must be understood first in order to understand the argument that Matthew is making about Jesus.
In fact, it was required to know the plain text well enough that one could start using it in more imaginative ways. It was, frankly, a test to how well one knew Scripture. Hence, Jesus and Paul use the very minutia of grammar to make their arguments against their Jewish counterparts (i.e., “I am the God of Abraham . . .” and “seed, not seeds”).
Jesus interprets the OT text plainly all of the time. He interprets God making them male and female to be one flesh as God made them male and female to be one flesh. There is no other typological meaning produced by Christ here. But Paul can use this typologically as well to say that the male represents Christ and the female the Church without rejecting the original contextual interpretation, since he quotes the plain interpretation elsewhere as he prohibits fornication.
It becomes clear that the New Testament author’s quote the Old Testament in two ways. The first is that they quote its plain, contextual meaning quite often. The second is that they use the text typologically, and as typology, it can be applied to new situations to come (i.e., to Christ or to preachers, etc.).
But the fact that they will interpret the texts they quote in both ways shows that they actually do believe that both are valid. In other words, if they rejected the plain, historical-grammatical, contextual reading of texts, they would never interpret texts according to that plain meaning. Yet, they clearly do interpret it in these ways.
Hence, it is not that Paul does not believe the original story of the rock that delivers water to the Israelites in the wilderness as it would be interpreted in its original context, but that he also sees a typological analogy with the water and Christ. In fact, the plain meaning is needed to understand the analogy. Even though the water existed in the midst of the Israelites and could have given them life, they still all died in the wilderness and did not receive the promise (the original interpretation in its original context and with its original authorial intent). Likewise, even though Christ may be present among those in the visible church at Corinth, if they persist in rebellion like the Israelites, they will perish without receiving the promise. Hence, the rock that gives the water of life is Christ (the typological interpretation of the text applied to a new context).
In fact, much of the New Testament builds on whole theologies gained from understanding entire literary contexts. John builds his theology from Pentateuchal themes as well as the overall theology of Exodus and Deuteronomy. The author of Hebrews seems to draw his warning passages from the theology of Numbers gained from a literary reading. Echoes of entire contexts exist in the New Testament, which is something that would be impossible if they did not interpret Scripture according to its authorial intent as evidenced by context. As my professors always said, “Context is king,” and the NT authors seem to be well aware of this. They just believe that much of the OT is typological and has further meanings to explore for the newfound context of Christ and His Church.
A good example for this is Jesus’ use of parables. He gives parables that have cryptic meanings for the hard-hearted masses, but when He wants the disciples to understand, He tells them plainly. If the Jewish mind were one where “plain meanings” were not a part of their hermeneutic, how are they understanding what Jesus says “plainly.”
And, in fact, what emerges is that the idea that the ancient reader did not interpret language according to the internal logic that the historical-grammatical hermeneutic seeks to expose is complete nonsense. The ancient speaker would be incapable of communicating and the ancient hearer would be incapable of understanding him.
Attempting to deny the internal logic of language in terms of how it conveys authorial intent via context is like attempting to deny the law of non-contradiction. It ends up being a self-defeating process of explaining away the internal logic of language by using the internal logic of language.
Instead, the ancient reader simply sought to apply the text to new found situations, and many times, interpretation was not seen as a mere human effort, but one governed by the Spirit of God to make such applications of texts that could be viewed both in their original contexts, and as typological of other future contexts to come.
It is also sometimes claimed that the modern approach is a Greco-Roman influence, but this is complete nonsense. Ironically, the idea that the text should be interpreted spiritually with only the allegorical meaning is truly the result of Greek influence, as it conveys a type of Platonism that one sees in circles influenced more by Greek thought, such as among the Gnostics.
Indeed, to divorce the two methods of interpretation from one another, i.e., divorcing the original meaning that was conveyed in words that have contexts that ground them in order to pursue some spiritual meaning only is truly a Greek way of thinking. Yet, even the Greeks had to communicate their interpretations to their students, and so the Platonists and Gnostics ended up explaining their interpretations using language that needed to be interpreted by its hearers/readers with the historical-grammatical/contextual hermeneutic. As one once said of the law of non-contradiction, the more one attempts to deny it, the more one affirms it.
The New Testament authors do not partake in such absurdities. They affirm the original contextual meanings, but also see God as conveying typology through those texts. As such, the either/or claim that most employ in order to dodge their having to grapple with the originally intended meaning of a text has no validity to it.