How to Read the Bible like Jesus and Paul (Your Seminary Prof Wont Like It)

Monday, May 29, 2017

In seminary one learns to interpret Scripture in order to best arrive at the authorial intent. This is known as exegesis. So we look at all the evidence, including cultural background, understanding the original languages, and so on, to arrive at what Isaiah or Moses or Paul meant. We are taught to avoid what is called "eisegesis" which is where you read your own values and agendas into the text.

As Richard Hays and many other scholars have noted however, this is not what Paul or Jesus are doing when they interpret the Hebrew Scriptures. This conclusion is frankly inescapable. Both Jesus and Paul frequently interpret Scripture in ways that so obviously override the clear intent of the original author that it is impossible to imagine this is accidental.

The question then is, what is driving their interpretation? How would we evaluate whether it is a "good" or "right" interpretation if they are not trying to follow authorial intent? If we wanted to read the same way they do, how would we similarly evaluate whether we are arriving at a good or right interpretation?

This is the kind of question that gets scholars like Richard Longenecker confused. He recognizes that Paul is doing this, but suggests that we cannot do it ourselves. In part, his argument is that Paul has a sort of apostolic "free pass" to do whatever he wants when he reads the Bible, but we do not. A second part is that Longenecker sees that this type of reading was regarded as compelling at the time, but he claims it would not be compelling to people in our time. 

I'd like to propose that the problem is that scholars like Longenecker don't really get what Jesus and Paul are doing, and so the interpretive methods of Jesus and Paul just seem -- to use the term famously employed by E.P. Sanders -- "weird." It appears to be a sort of random just-make-it-up-as-you-go-along kind of approach. Understandably, he does not want us to read like that. Nor do I. But again I think the problem is not that what Jesus and Paul are doing is actually random, but that it looks that way to Longenecker.

Richard Hays argues against Longenecker that we should adopt this "creative" reading of Paul and Jesus. The problem is that Hays does not really ever identify what they are doing, other than that it is "imaginative" and "creative," which sounds great, but does not provide us with the means to follow them in this. Even if we are thinking of this as a form of art (as the terms "imaginative" and "creative" imply), as any practicing artist can tell you, art is not random. You need to understand what you are trying to accomplish, and how you will use your medium to achieve that.

To get to this, I find the work of James Dunn helpful. Dunn identifies the baseline interpretive approach (i.e. the hermeneutic) of Jesus as interpreting so as to lead us deeper into love. I think it can be argued that this telos (aim) of love is equally the baseline hermeneutic of Paul as well. 

So how does this love-telos work into Jesus and Paul's approach to interpreting Scripture? What we can observe is that they both read Scripture so that the result will be that the way it is interpreted leads us into more compassion, more goodness, more reflection, more mercy. At times this leads them to take an idea in a new direction, and at other times this leads them to take it in the opposite direction of the original author. Sometimes it even seems that they take it in a direction that appears to completely ignore what the original author had in mind. 

To the question of "Is this what was originally intended when this was written?" their answer would be "Who cares?" (that is, this was not something they were focused on at all, contrary to those doing exegesis today, hence their indignant confusion at the question). Instead, they are asking "If we did this, would it result in abundant life? Would doing this lead to goodness and restoration? Will this lead to compassion and justice and wholeness in my life and the lives of others?" If the answer to these questions is "Yes!" then that is what makes the interpretation right. Here right interpretation and right-eousness become synonymous. It is however not exegesis. It requires, as Hays says, creativity and imagination because we need to know how to understand and build upon something, taking it higher. For that we need to know what the aim is (the aim is love) and we need to know how to take things a step further in that direction. 

This is something that needs to be evaluated in conversation, and in lived community. I say here "lived community" because it is not simply theoretical, but practical. The question is, "when we walk this out, can we observe that this leads to love and flourishing? Or does this in fact lead to harm?" We can only observe that by living it out in relationship, not simply as an abstract theory. That goes for how we interpret the words of Jesus and Paul, and it goes for how we evaluate their reading of Scripture as well. 

For example, when Jesus asks, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" and then a bit more broadly asks "Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, or evil, to save a life or destroy it?” (Mk 3:4) we can see Jesus applying this approach. The question is not so much "What does the command say?" nor is it "What is the tradition of interpretation here?" In this case the answer would have been that unless this was a life-threatening situation (which it was not) one must wait until after the Sabbath to heal. Jesus argued instead that the way we honor this command is to do all the good we can. That is the right interpretation because it leads us to right-eousness which is another way of saying towards good-ness. You might say the way Jesus and Paul read Scripture is to ask "Does this way of interpreting lead to doing good or evil, does it save life or destroy it?"

So with this example of how Jesus used this love-telos approach to interpret Scripture in mind, let's see how we might apply that love-telos approach with how we interpret the teachings of Jesus. I frequently hear people make the argument that since Jesus got mad and used a whip once, therefore we can just ignore all that stuff about nonviolence and love of enemies he taught. If we evaluate this approach using the criteria of the love-telos approach, we would need to ask: does reading in this way serve to challenge me to go deeper into the way of Jesus, or does it simply serve to let me find a way to side-step the hard teachings of Jesus and feel justified in doing so? I'd say that the latter is the case and that this is an example of what Bonhoeffer might have called "cheap discipleship." It's a reading that gets us off cheap, that does not challenge us, does not change us, does not move us towards love.

To ask the question slightly differently, we might ask whether there is a better way to read Jesus besides this "cheap" way? Is there a way to interpret the words of Jesus that will lead me to a more costly following of Jesus and his way? Is there a way to read this that would do a better job at challenging me to move deeper into the way of compassion and forgiveness, and moving me closer to justice and making things right in the world? If so, then that is the right interpretation, or perhaps I should say, it is the righter interpretation. We evaluate the rightness of an interpretation on the fruit it bears. That is not a static process where we find, once and for all, the one right way of reading. Rather it is something that needs to grow and develop, just like a living thing does. So if in practice I find that I need to modulate that righter interpretation a bit in order to make it more loving, then we arrive at an even righter-er interpretation -- each time developing it further, expanding and growing towards love. That's what I see Jesus and Paul doing as they interpret and apply Scripture, and that's how I plan to read them, too. Jesus says, "Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these." That work, my friends, is the work of love. So let's get to work.

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At 11:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! Excellent! May I ask what works by Dunn and Hays – or anyone else – you would recommend for learning more about how to read scripture in this manner?

At 4:14 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I think what Jesus and Paul (as well as the other New Testament authors) engage is a very rabbinic mode of interpretation. At times they even engage in some kind of deconstructionism in order to open us to the horizons of love.

At 7:39 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


I think we only get clues from Dunn and Hays. Dunn points out the focus on love, and Hays suggests we read with "imagination." I'm trying to connect the dots between the two. As far as understanding the baseline of love in Jesus I'd recommend Jesus and the Fundamentalism of His Day. As far as the baseline in Paul I'd recommend Michael Gorman's books on cruciformity. I've tried to expand on both of their work in my own book Disarming Scripture.

At 7:48 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes, this is indeed a way of reading that is very "rabbinical" in the sense of it employing a form of midrash reading. The idea is to find what the text has to say to us today in our contemporary situation. I like to think of it as similar to how a rapper will take a track from an old tune and mix it into a new song.

At 10:19 AM, Anonymous Scott Bennett said...

Wonderful thoughts, but also a bit disturbing to the idea that anyone can understand scripture. On the surface scripture is a history of God's people, what they thought, how they lived, how they perceived God. But, a greater theme is the spiritual one that is a golden thread weaving into the historical account through symbols, stories, types, and all pointing to salvation in the "ONE" God would send to save us. I like to call it "prophetic evidence" of Jesus. It pinpoints every major event in his life from His tribe, family, place of birth, time of death, time of resurrection, and the time of fulfilling the promise of the New Covenant. With this spiritual knowledge one can proclaim with assurance, "I know that Jesus is the One God sent to save us!" Historically the common Hermeneutic and exegesis works fine but falls apart when dealing with the Spiritual. Spiritual things require a spiritual mind that is born again. Surrender yourself to God and you will understand the things of the Spirit. No surrender and no deep knowledge. Fundamentalism hates that idea because it can't be controlled, measured, or quantified. Eternal life is not knowing about God, but knowing Him intimately. Thanks, Derek, for the great article!

At 9:45 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

"Wonderful thoughts, but also a bit disturbing to the idea that anyone can understand scripture."

Yes, it would be nice if the Bible was easy to understand. Unfortunately that's not the Bible we have :)

"Spiritual things require a spiritual mind that is born again. Surrender yourself to God and you will understand the things of the Spirit. No surrender and no deep knowledge. "

I agree that it is crucial that one has a heart open to the Spirit, and that this is a necessary prerequisite to reading Scripture in a way that brings us in contact with the Spirit. At the same time, even then we are still human and can get things wrong. I know I have, even though I had a heart surrendered to God. So we need a good dose of humility here. We also need each other.

At 10:00 AM, Blogger Rob said...

Really, really helpful stuff here, Derek. Sort of a broader application of the "trajectory reading" idea you develop in Disarming Scripture.

Of course, those for whom the black and white words of scripture are the basic authority for all belief and action, this sort of approach will probably be seen as just another example of wandering off the safe map of rigid textual certitude into a liberal wasteland. But one could flip that around and say that to reject this way of reading scripture is to set the black and white words of scripture above Jesus' call to love God and neighbour as the greatest commandment.

(Aside: you reference J.P. Sanders – I'm assuming you mean E.P. Sanders…)

At 5:25 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yeah, that's a weird brain glitch of mine. I think EP but write JP, and do it over and over. Don't know why. Anyway I corrected it above.

I think your conclusion is right, that those who are "black & white" will end up missing the love part. In fact, that pretty much sums up what Jesus was always saying about the Pharisees. You can't follow Jesus's teachings and way and at the same time read the Bible like a Pharisee (=like a fundamentalist).

At 10:37 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Once you see that God is love everything else God would want us to know/be becomes redundant. People who are uncomfortable with this don't understand love enough yet or worse if they do they then do God an immense disservice by clinging to secondary principles,to the letter, in an effort to "stay onside" with God.
They are not fully trusting in God- they are not persuaded that God can be fully loving without the need for punishing some.
As long as we can think like this it gives us carte blanche to behave badly.
What would God prefer for us to love everyone? Surely not!!
Thanks Derek.


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