Exegesis and Hermeneutics – Oct 29, 2017
From that day, nobody dared ask him any more questions.
Way back in the spring, with the inspiration and example of the disciple Thomas early in the Easter season, we brought out a small question box and I encouraged your questions about theology, faith, church, God… anything. Among the questions that were received, some were answered with children, another with a sermon, another personally one-on-one and some have simply been left as a kind of prayer. I’m a big believer in questions. I suspect that’s why the narrative signal of a change, an ending, in our Gospel reading this week stood out to me: “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”
Over the past couple of chapters in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has been in open conflict with the religious authorities at the Jerusalem temple. The scene began with the chief priests and elders challenging Jesus’ authority, to which Jesus responds with a question of his own. It continued with parables and then a series of 3 questions from religious leaders designed to trap Jesus. Today we hear the third and last one: “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” The trap was in a rabbinical debate about the relative importance of the 613 Torah commandments. Some teachers would give summaries of the law, but others held “that all commandments were equal, with any ranking of them being mere human presumption in evaluating the divine law, all of which was equally binding.” (NIB, 424) Jesus responds by quoting 2 verses from the Torah: Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 about love of God and love of neighbour… and declaring these central: “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” With this declaration, Jesus provides for us the hermeneutical key, a key interpretative principle, for how we are to interpret “all the divine revelation – not only the Law, but the Prophets as well.” (NIB, 425) We’ll come back to this in a moment…
The scene continues with one final question, this time addressed to the Pharisees from Jesus. He asked: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They reply: “the son of David,” which Jesus rebuts with another quote from scripture and a follow-up question. And the Pharisees finally cry uncle by not saying a word: “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” In this culmination of the series of controversies between Jesus and the religious leaders, “Jesus exposes the Pharisees as inadequate interpreters of Scripture.” (NIB, 426) It happens first as Jesus confidently expresses the key interpretive principle for the divine revelation of law and prophets and ends with Jesus showing their lack of understanding of scripture. The first is an issue of hermeneutics; the second is an issue of exegesis.
Exegesis and hermeneutics are the 2 different aspects involved in reading the bible. We use them today just as much as they did back then. We can define exegesis as “a systematic way of interpreting a text” with the goal of reaching “an informed understanding of the text.” (Hayes, 23) This means learning as much as we can about the text by asking as many questions as possible: Where and when was it written and by whom? What was the social, economic, cultural context in which it was written? What form of literature is it? How good is the original text and what translation issues or options might there by? Can we analyze its poetic or narrative structure? Can archeology tell us anything important? We could go on… Exegesis is about asking as many questions as we can to discover what the text might be saying on its own terms. It is about understanding the text, with the greatest depth and breadth possible. The more we ask, the more we can learn.
In the case of our Gospel today, Jesus catches out the Pharisees based on an exegetical point about the quoted Psalm 110. The Pharisees say the Messiah is David’s son but in Psalm 110, the writer calls him “lord”: “The Lord said to my Lord…” The understanding at the time, the understanding Jesus expresses, was that King David was the author of the psalm and so Jesus asks: “If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” This is the question none of the Pharisees or other religious leaders could answer. Jesus’ point is that they don’t understand the riddle of whose son the Messiah is because they don’t understand the scriptures properly.
Seeking an exegetical understanding of a text is, however, distinct from seeking the meaning of the text. Understanding a text and evaluating its meaning are two separate, if interrelated, disciplines and so hermeneutics is the sibling discipline to exegesis. Hermeneutics is about how we apply meaning. It’s about “so what?” With all the many questions we can ask about a biblical text, with all that we can learn about its historical and literary features, the question remains: “so what?” It’s a question of what we value… how we evaluate the knowledge we gain through exegesis to determine meaning.
In our present Gospel, for instance, what happens if we acknowledge that most scholars no longer believe that King David wrote most of the psalms. If Jesus got his exegesis wrong… if the writer of Psalm 110 wasn’t King David, then Jesus’ question is moot. Our question then becomes one of meaning… does it matter that Jesus’ exegesis was wrong and if so, how does it matter? Do we then dismiss Jesus’ ‘proof’ of besting the Pharisees? Do we push even further to conclude: “therefore, Jesus couldn’t have been the Messiah?” Or do our pre-existing beliefs about who Jesus is mean that he couldn’t have gotten it wrong in the first place? The mistake must be elsewhere… the mistake is ours. These are questions of our interpretive principles. If our interpretive principles say: “Jesus is God. God is perfect. So Jesus couldn’t get biblical exegesis wrong,” then our evaluation of the passage will necessarily be impacted. On the other hand, if our interpretive principles are more concerned with the structure and rhetoric of the narrative – the storytelling – then our conclusions about its meaning will be quite different. Whether Jesus got it right or wrong would cease to have much meaning at all. Exegesis matters, but it isn’t everything. We can only determine what any particular fact about a biblical text means through the various lens of our interpretive principles.
In our “How Now Will We Believe?” study session a few weeks ago we explored how we read the bible. More than that though, we have also been journeying through several decades of Christian thinking and our session on the bible highlighted the 80’s and 90’s when biblical study came more and more into popular consciousness. The “ah ha!” moment for me was in realizing that one of the key transformations in 21st century thinking is in our biblical hermeneutics. In other words, many current theologians are exploring new ways of believing based on new interpretive principles applied to biblical exegesis. For example, one of the most popular movements in the late-20th century was called the Jesus Seminar. This project lasted roughly 20 years and brought many scholars together to study and vote on what the historical Jesus actually said and did. For many, the underlying interpretive principle was that only what was authentic to the historical Jesus, the actual man who lived and taught and died in Palestine 2000 years ago, was meaningful. All else could be dispensed with. This is not, however, the only interpretive principle we can use.
In our study session last week about understanding the crucifixion of Jesus, we discovered that the key interpretive principle that theologian Tony Jones uses is “God is love.” In a book titled “Did God Kill Jesus?” he dedicates a whole chapter to his key interpretive principles, writing: “I tend to be a pretty logical person. I like debates, reasoned arguments, and rigorous thinking. But after many years of searching and studying the ways of God, theology, and the Bible, I’ve concluded the following: Bad theology begets ugly Christianity. Good theology begets beautiful Christianity. I call it the smell test. It’s an aesthetic argument.” (24, italics his) He’s an academic who overtly uses an aesthetic argument to determine meaning. Later in the book when he finally turns from detailing various earlier understandings of Jesus’ crucifixion to developing a new one, he returns to this interpretive principle, writing: “the crucifixion must show the love of God, and it must provoke us to greater love for one another. This, the sweet small of love, will be our test.” (210)
Today Jesus too expresses the key interpretive principle for a life of faith as rooted in love: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus offers the love for God and the love for neighbour as the hermeneutical keys for understanding the fullness of the scriptures and for living the fullness of faith. And then with one final riddle they’re unable to answer, his opponents finally give up their questions.
Perhaps today it is time, for now, for we too to give up our questions and instead to simply live our lives, watching for love, because we know that is where and when God is found. We don’t need to know the answers, for today Jesus says that all we need to know is love… to love God, to love our neighbours, to rest in being loved.