The New Testament Interpretation of Scripture

Written by Anthony Tyrrell Hanson Reviewed By David L. Baker

Professor Hanson’s previous works on this subject, Jesus Christ in the Old Testament (1965) and Studies in Paul’s Technique and Theology (1974) are well-known, and no doubt this new volume will provoke similar interest. He writes with his usual vigour, combining fresh ideas with detailed exegesis. The first chapter is a programmatic essay on ‘The Significance of the Subject,’ and it is followed by five essays on the scriptural background to 1 Corinthians 2:6–16, the doctrine of the descent into hell, and John’s Gospel. So it should be clear that he does not set out to provide a comprehensive textbook on the New Testament use of the Old, but simply a collection of essays on specific aspects of the question.

In the first chapter, Hanson distinguishes three stages in the appreciation of the New Testament exegesis of Scripture during the past century and a half:

(a) traditional: scholars felt bound to interpret Scripture as the New Testament writers interpreted it, an attitude which persisted longer among Catholics than Protestants (but the footnote on this point is unclear, since both authors cited are Protestants, see p. 177, n. 2);

(b) liberal: scholars tended to ignore, avoid or explain away the New Testament interpretation of Scripture; and

(c) modern: scholars attempt to discover what was the New Testament interpretation of Scripture, without necessarily trying to conform it to ours—or vice-versa—or passing moral judgments on it.

The modern approach does not mean that the relation between the New Testament interpretation of Scripture and ours is irrelevant, but simply that the New Testament writers’ exegesis can and should be studied independently of our opinions as to whether or not it is correct. In any case, so Hanson argues, the whole concept of ‘correct’ interpretation is a questionable one. He points out that in the Roman Catholic modernist controversy about the interpretation of Scripture both sides agreed on the basic assumption that there is a correct answer to most questions of interpretation, which could—at least in theory—be discovered. The traditionalists would obtain the correct interpretation from the magisterium, the modernists from scientific criticism. But now, Hanson affirms, it can be said that both sides were mistaken: ‘there is no objective “correct” interpretation of Scripture which can be discovered if only the right methods are applied’ (p. 13). To be sure, if we were to ask what the author meant when he wrote the passage then a certain degree of objectiveness and correctness would be possible. But what is meant by the ‘correct’ interpretation of a passage is closely linked to the presuppositions of the interpreter, and thus far from objective. The Pharisees would interpret a text by asking ‘How can this passage help discover the right Halaka?’, whereas a Qumran monk would want to know ‘What light does this passage throw on the destiny of the true Israel?’ Philo would have been more interested to discover principles of philosophy in the passage, but for the early Christians their concern could only have been to know what light the passage shed on Jesus Christ. Thus the concern of each group is to relate the text in question to their own beliefs about its nature and purpose, and each could be ‘correct’ within that particular framework.

So Hanson concludes that the New Testament writers used an interpreted Bible, which they approached with Christocentric presuppositions and understood according to the Jewish traditions of exegesis on which they had been brought up. This does not mean that the New Testament writers were unaware of the author’s original meaning when he wrote a passage, but simply that there never was a time when the Bible stood on its own without interpretation, ready to be interpreted to find one ‘true’ meaning.

The study of the New Testament use of Scripture illuminates its theological and thought background, and is also one way into the pre-literary period of the formation of the New Testament. A three-stage technique is outlined for this study: firstly, to establish which text the writer is referring to (and which form of the text, e.g.MT or LXX); secondly, to examine the citation in its context in Scripture; and thirdly, to find out how the quotation was understood in contemporary Judaism. The essays which follow make use of this technique to study various New Testament texts.

By far the most substantial study is that of the ‘Quasi-Gnostic Pauline Midrash’ in 1 Corinthians 2:6–16, which occupies a little less than half of the entire book (44%). Professor Hanson identifies the ‘rulers of this age’ (v. 6) with the elemental powers, and the ‘hidden wisdom of God in a mystery’ (v. 7) with the life, death and resurrection of Christ. He disputes the conventional idea that the rulers failed to recognize ‘the Lord of glory’ (v. 8) because his divinity was concealed by his humanity, and argues for the very opposite: it was precisely in his humanity that Christ’s divinity was revealed, to the eyes of faith, but the disobedient powers did not recognize God revealed in weakness. He rejects any suggestion of the presence of the myth of the descending redeemer in the passage, suggesting rather that an ascent is involved, and relating this to Psalm 24. Then he discusses in great detail the citation in verse 9: it is a conflated citation of Isaiah 64:3 and another clause which occurs more than once in LXX, and the same conflation is cited independently by Pseudo-Philo. Paul used the citation to express the scandal of the gospel, the ‘unimaginable humility of God’s revelation of himself in Christ’. In verses 10–15 Paul shows that only God can reveal himself, and that he can reveal himself, and that Christians are people who can understand that revelation through the Spirit. Finally in verse 16 Paul cites Isaiah 40:13 (which he also cites in Rom. 11:34, a fact that Hanson makes much of) to confirm his point that we who have the mind of Christ (=we who have the Spirit) recognize God’s revelation to us. Thus scriptural background plays an important part in the development of Paul’s argument, and appreciation of this point provides the key to understanding 1 Corinthians 2. Many words in the chapter are apparently Gnostic, but as used by Paul they point away from Gnosticism, and so the passage is at most ‘quasi-gnostic’. Paul was struggling with something like proto-Gnosticism in Corinth, and he made use of some of the terms which they used and converted them to what he regarded as their true usage.

The third chapter on ‘John 1:14–18 and Exodus 34’ (reproduced from NTS 23, 1977) is a fairly conventional approach to the relationship between these passages. Chapter four examines the theme of Christ as the true Temple in John’s Gospel (1:51; 2:17–18; 12:1–8). The New Testament doctrine of the descent into hell is discussed in chapter five, concluding that it is based partly on a messianic interpretation of Psalms 88, 89, 68 and 16, and a typological interpretation of the book of Jonah (especially chs 1 and 2). Finally the sixth chapter surveys in a rather general way John’s technique in using Scripture.

The presentation of the work, although attractively printed and bound, could have been better. There are long sections of text with no subtitles, nor clear divisions of points being made, and much technical discussion is included in the main text, all of which makes it rather difficult to follow the argument. Some of the material would have been better in notes, small print or appendices (e.g. pp. 89 bottom to 93 top). The twelve-page bibliography of works cited rather expensively duplicates the material in the notes, which already give full bibliographical information, and to which there is an author index. An index of biblical and non-biblical references has been provided, which is useful.

To conclude, this is an important work containing much valuable material for biblical exegesis, and it ought to be in every theological library, though it is probably too specialized for the individual student to buy. Suggestion: read and think critically about the stimulating introductory chapter from your library’s copy, then note down which texts are discussed in the rest of the book so that when you are studying them at some later date you can look up Hanson’s interpretation!

David L. Baker

is the Deputy Warden and a Research Fellow at Tyndale House, Cambridge.