Magnificent Monograph Monday: The Later New Testament Writings and Scripture, Reviewed

Eisegesis. Not a label most evangelical Biblical interpreters want to wear. If exegesis is drawing the meaning out of a text–with a careful eye toward its original context and authorial intention–eisegesis is taking one’s own set of meanings and intentions into the text. Evangelical scholars aim to practice the former and avoid the latter, although of course everyone comes to any text with some presuppositions. (And new hermeneutics like reader response criticism may see this as a good thing anyway.)

My seminary teaches an exegetical method that majors on reading a text in its original context and understanding its original purpose. I’ve often thought that if New Testament writers submitted any of their works as exegesis papers, they’d fail because of the various “hermeneutical fallacies” they commit! It seems that New Testament writers freely appropriate or proof-text Old Testament passages for their own purposes, no matter the original context or intention of the passage at hand. They might even be accused of eisegesis, were they employing their methods today.

Baker Academic has just published the third volume of Steve Moyises’s de facto trilogy, in which he examines how Jesus, Paul, and the later New Testament writers use Scripture. He seeks to “give an account of” and “consider the use of Scripture” in the later NT writings. This is a “study” of “important engagements with Scripture.”

Just picking up the book before reading it was a pleasure–the layout is great, the paper quality is high, the font is clear and easy to read, and the cover design is appealing. Especially for a paperback, it’s an attractive volume to have on a bookshelf. (I note here that I received a free copy from Baker in exchange for an unbiased review.)

Moyise treats Acts, 1 Peter, Jude/2 Peter, James, Hebrews, Revelation, and includes a brief excursus on 1-3 John. He is thorough in the Scriptures he treats, which is especially aided by a UBS index in the back that serves as an index of all the quotations of the Old Testament in the above books. (There are full Scripture and author/subject indeces, too.)

The author groups the Scriptures thematically or by Old Testament book, rather than going verse by verse through each of the New Testament writings under consideration. In Acts, for example, he considers how the author Luke uses Old Testament Scripture to address themes like “Salvation for Jews and Gentiles,” “Christ’s death, resurrection, and exaltation,” “Judgement,” and so on. In 1 Peter Moyise has sections devoted to I Peter’s use of the Psalms, of Isaiah, etc. Moyise does this so as not to “miss the wood for the trees,” and he is successful. The reader, then, can conclude each portion of the book with a solid overview of how each NT writer uses the OT.

The text is accessible to a non-scholar or non-specialist in this field. For example, Moyise explains on p. 4:

[I]n some cases the New Testament authors appear to know a version of the text that differs from the majority of manuscripts that have come down to us. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1948–) has shown that the biblical text existed in several forms in the first century and it is not always clear which form is being quoted.

He uses gray shaded boxes at various points to succinctly explain key concepts such as “typological interpretation” or to address things like 2 Peter’s use of the largely unknown 1 Enoch. The endnotes include more textual details and point the reader in the direction of the scholarly writings about each book. One does not need knowledge of the original language to read Moyise, but he does at times use transliteration of various Greek words if it helps his explanation.

The potential reader might be concerned that a book about intertextuality could end up as just a dry list of references. Moyise does thoroughly catalog the quoted OT passages, yet he draws conclusions from such use, as well:

Although James’s use of Scripture is not christological in a doctrinal sense, it bears comparison with Jesus’ own interpretation of the law, particularly his emphasis on seeing the law in the light of the twin commands to love God and neighbour. (63)

Moyise presents various interpretations in an even-handed, balanced way. I felt more than once like I was reading R.T. France, a favorite commentator of mine. He includes, too, the full text of many of the verses he cites, eliminating the need to flip back and forth through other reference works while reading this one. Jude and 2 Peter have a helpful table of comparisons where the two are lined up side-by-side, and this feature is present for other passages also.

There were a couple times where I thought Moyise might be guilty of the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (inferring causation just because one thing chronologically follows the other). In Revelation, for example (which he notes quotes no Scripture explicitly but is full of allusions), he speaks in terms of the “source” of (129, 137) or “inspiration behind” (130) John’s descriptions of his visions. My response to this was–just because John’s language has much in common with the Scriptures that came before him, do they therefore have to be his source? What if his source was, in fact, the vision he had, and he just used Scriptural language to express it?

Finally in the conclusion to his section on Revelation, Moyise addresses this very question. In fact, he is quite aware of questions like mine, and in the end treats it thoroughly and fairly, citing those who advocate a “scribal model” (where John is said to have basically just compiled Scriptures into a new presentation) and those who advocate a “rhetorical model” (where John uses OT language to express something new that he actually saw).

My question about whether or not NT writers are in some sense eisegetes is not an uncommon one. Students often ask: If we’re not supposed to handle Scripture that way, how can they? Though Moyise doesn’t necessarily set out to answer that question in this volume, he answers it beautifully:

The important point in all this is that the Scriptures did not exist in a vacuum. They were part of a living tradition where text and interpretation were transmitted together. (148)

In describing Revelation’s use of Daniel, for example, he says it is “not necessarily an ‘improper’ use of Scripture but hardly what Daniel had in mind” (140).

Moyise (87) quotes Susan E. Docherty from her book The Use of the Old Testament in Hebrews:

The author of Hebrews as much as any ancient Jewish exegete…regarded it as legitimate interpretation to seek out what scriptural texts imply as much as what they actually say, presumably believing that the new meaning he gave them was inherent in the original revelation, which he regarded as having endless depths of meaning and real contemporary relevance.

That Moyise’s trilogy of books on NT use of Scripture exists is a testament to the depth of Scripture. Moyise is a fantastic guide for exploring what can be confusing and difficult territory.

(Here’s the book at Amazon.)

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