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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

How Should We Hermeneutic?


In the Evangelical branch of the Christian community, we have been taught that the right way, the proper way to interpret a passage of scripture is to attempt to understand it in its historical-grammatical context. We are to put aside (as best we can) our own worldview and attempt to find the author’s original intent.  We are to ask ‘what did the author write?’ and ‘what did the author mean?’ before we even begin answering the question ‘what does it mean to me?’ Observation and interpretation before application.

And I appreciate this method. It is an attempt to be objective in our exegesis. It is an attempt to favor exegesis over eisegesis. Properly followed it would keep us from wild interpretive flights of fancy and from reading our own issues backwards into the sacred texts.

But this is not the way that our biblical predecessors worked; this was not their hermeneutic.
I’ve been reading from Luke 20: 27 – 38[i] this week, in preparation for Sunday’s sermon – the story of Jesus’ singular encounter with the enigmatic Sadducees in Luke’s gospel – and thinking about the question of hermeneutics. How should we hermeneutic? How should we interpret the scriptures?

In the story we are told that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. And this is, apparently, all that we need to know about them for the story to play out. In fact we know little about them at all – and what little we do know comes from sources that were biased against them.

In addition to their denial of the resurrection, one of the things that is commonly said of the Sadducees is that rejected everything except the Pentateuch. The Jewish historian Josephus said that they observed nothing apart from the Law. “But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this: that souls die with the bodies; nor do they regard the observation of anything besides what the law enjoins them…” and “…the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the law of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers…” (Antiquities of the Jews 18.17 and 13.297)

This should not be read to mean that they kept only the Torah and rejected the Writings and the Prophets. It may mean only that they elevated the authority of the Torah over the other books of Hebrew scripture (which had not yet been firmly established. It may be “that at a time when the Jewish canon was still in flux, the best ‘ground rules’ for a dispute among the Jews who differed in their theological outlook were for both sides to draw their scriptural citations and their arguments from the universally revered written Torah of Moses” (Meier 420).

When the Sadducees approached Jesus that day with a question about the resurrection, it wasn’t specifically an attack on Jesus or his followers (though as a group that denied the resurrection, this certainly set them in opposition to the Christian audience reading the gospels.) They came to him with one of the theological questions of the day.

It was, of course, a trick question, a question designed to make the idea of a physical resurrection of the dead (and anyone who held that belief) look as foolish as possible. Their question revolved around the hypothetical ridiculousness of the system “Levirate”marriage. They took the situation and stretched it to what they felt were absurd, ludicrous conclusions: Polyandry is ludicrous – Resurrection will lead to polyandry - Therefore resurrection is ludicrous.

Jesus answers in two parts – first to side-step their trick question. He nullified their ridiculous conclusion by showing that they really didn’t understand the concept that they were trying to refute. There won’t be any need for marriage in the resurrection because the resurrected will be immortal and there won’t be the need for procreation to create children to carry on one’s name.

Then, secondly, Jesus attempts to prove the resurrection to the Sadducees by citing one of the texts that he knows they can both accept as authoritative (Exodus 3:6), but it is his interpretive hermeneutic that is under question here.

There is little in the Old Testament that speaks about a resurrection. The idea of a resurrection of the dead “does not appear except in texts that are rare, obscure with regard to their precise meaning, and late” (Martin-Achard 680). In the Old Testament there is no concept of resurrection, life after death, or rewards or punishments in the afterlife. In the Old Testament, the dead, all of them –the good, the bad, and the ugly, go to the grave, the pit, to sheol. And that’s it.

The origins of Jewish belief in a resurrection after death are unclear (Nickelsburg 685). But by the time of Jesus, many (but not all) Jews accepted the idea of a life after death. The Sadducees did not accept this theological point, and thus the debate we have recorded in the gospels. 

The text that Jesus chose to use as a defense of the resurrection, if we are following our historical-grammatical method, says absolutely nothing about resurrection.  “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Exodus 3:6 NRSV) You can pull it apart, you can examine the verse in the larger context of Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush, you can parse the words and phrases of the text, but you won’t find any clear, authorial intent to describe, define, or defend the resurrection in Exodus 3:6.

Jesus was not interpreting the scriptures the right and proper way – not the way that we have been taught to do it.  Jesus (along with the Jewish rabbis) started from a different point and followed a different set of interpretive rules and guidelines. Jesus started with his community of faith, a community “that already held to belief in the resurrection. Already confident that God does in fact raise the dead and that he had revealed this truth to Israel in the Scriptures, [they] readily found clues and intimations of resurrection in texts whose literal sense has nothing to do with the subject” (Meier 426).

So how should we hermeneutic? Should we be objective and neutral? Should we favor exegesis over eisegesis? Or is interpretation more fluid? Should we look for support of theological concepts we believe in texts that may not apply in the plain sense to those concepts?



Martin-Achard, Robert. “Resurrection (OT)” The Anchor Bible Dictionary Volume 5. New York. NY: Doubleday. 1992. Print.

Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew Volume 3: Companions and Competitors. New York, NY: Doubleday. 2001. Print.

Nickelsburg, George W. E. “Resurrection (Early Judaism and Christianity)” The Anchor Bible Dictionary Volume 5. New York, NY: Doubleday. 1992. Print.





[i] The story is also in Mark 12: 18 – 27 and Matthew 22: 23 – 32.

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