Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period

Written by Richard N. Longenecker Reviewed By Robin Nixon

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing theology today is the hermeneutical one. In an ecumenical age, when everyone has to take some notice of how other people do their theology, it becomes apparent that in many cases what divides us is the way in which we interpret and apply the teaching of the Bible both in the construction of systematic theology and in the approach to practical problems of ministry, worship and ethics. ‘The Use of the Bible’ has now become a paper for Anglican students in the General Ordination Examination. But behind this lies not simply the old ‘principles of interpretation’ (the grammatico-historical approach and all the rest), but also the new more sophisticated study of hermeneutics which has been developed in Germany and which people like Tony Thiselton are trying to introduce particularly to evangelical circles in this country. If the subject is so vital and affects us at so many levels, including of course our preaching, then any careful study of the approach to Scripture by the biblical writers themselves must have an important part to play in the exercise. In the nature of the case such a study will normally be of the way in which the writers of the New Testament used the writings of the Old Testament. We are most grateful therefore to Professor Longenecker, who holds the chair of New Testament at Wycliffe College, Toronto, for providing us with an up-to-date and definitive survey written from the conservative point of view. It is a book which most theological students would be well advised to buy and it is to be hoped that there will soon be a British edition.

Dr Longenecker begins by making the important point that ‘historically, differences between Judaism and Christianity can in large measure be traced back to and understood in light of differing exegetical presuppositions and practices’. After noting that ‘the evidence relating to first-century Jewish and Christian exegetical procedures is both voluminous and partial’, he presses into his first chapter on ‘Jewish Hermeneutics in the First Century’. The four main sources of information are the writings of the rabbis, the apocalyptists, and the sectaries of Qumran and Philo. From these he shows that Pharisaic scribes particularly developed midrashic exegesis, the Qumran covenanters pesher exegesis and Philo allegorical exegesis.

When dealing with the use of the Old Testament attributed to Jesus, Longenecker faces the problem of the septuagintal form in which some of the quotations are set. He suggests that this may be explained by postulating both a use of an early Greek compilation(s) of the sayings of Jesus by the evangelists and a degree of textual selection from among different versions by Jesus himself, who normally spoke in Aramaic but could also use Greek and Mishnaic Hebrew to some extent. The author thinks that ‘we need not insist that he simply schooled his disciples in verbal retention and that they reproduced his interpretation as memorized “Holy Words” going no further’. Rather the analogy of Qumran helps us to see that the disciples were encouraged to continue their own study following the example of the incarnate Jesus and being guided by the Holy Spirit.

Next comes a chapter on early Christian preaching and the Old Testament. Dr Longenecker follows the general line of C. H. Dodd in According to the Scriptures about the use of larger units of Old Testament material. He discovers as exegetical presuppositions the ideas of corporate solidarity, correspondences in history, eschatological fulfilment and messianic presence. He notes literalistic midrashic and pesher modes of interpretation. There then follow four chapters on the New Testament writings, section by section: Paul, the Evangelists, Hebrews and what he calls Jewish Christian tractates. In all these fields he shows himself well read and to have on the whole a sound judgment. Perhaps there are places where, had he been able to stay longer, he could have indicated more fully the way in which the context of the Old Testament passage shed a good deal more light on the way in which a particular quotation was used.

The concluding chapter is on the nature of New Testament exegesis. He sees this as essentially christocentric. ‘The christocentric perspective of the earliest Christians not only caused them to take Jesus’ employment of Scripture as normative and to look to him for guidance in their ongoing exegetical tasks, it also gave them a new understanding of the course of redemptive history and of their own place in it.’ Longenecker sees, as well as a basic unity of approach, a certain diversity which was partly due to the personality of the writer and partly to the situation to which he was writing. Finally there comes the crunch question, ‘Can we reproduce the exegesis of the New Testament?’ I suggest that we must answer both ‘No’ and ‘Yes’. Where that exegesis is based upon a revelatory stance, where it evidences itself to be merely cultural, or where it shows itself to be circumstantial or ad hominem in nature, ‘No.’ Where, however, it treats the Old Testament in more literal fashion, following the course of what we speak of today as historico-grammatical exegesis, ‘Yes.’ ‘Our commitment as Christians is to the reproduction of the apostolic faith and doctrine, and not necessarily to the specific apostolic exegetical practices.’ Whatever your answer to that may be, there are few books which could help you to understand the problem better.

Robin Nixon

Principal of St. John’s College, Nottingham, England