Nine Benchmarks for Healthy Intrabiblical Exegesis

bealeOkay, so I admit “intrabiblical exegesis” is a mouthful, but it sums up in two words what any student of the Bible does when he or she tries to understand why Jesus calls himself the Son of Man (e.g., Mark 10:44–45), or what Jude is doing when he says that first century false teachers are walking in the error of Balaam (Jude 11). Intrabiblical exegesis is the process of comparing the Old Testament to the New and seeking to understand how the New Testament writers employed the Old. In short, it is a process of interpretation that engages the whole Bible.

Why Method Matters

Since the Bible was composed over many centuries (about 14 in total), it has many layers of divine revelation. And those layers (read: prophets and apostles) that come later depend upon and recycle (through citation and allusion) antecedent stories, images, turns of phrase, theological ideas, and so on. Therefore, as anyone reading the book of Hebrews knows, it is impossible to understand the New Testament without a general understanding of the Old. And the more you know of the Old Testament, the more you see the way the New Testament writers wrote what they did.

On Monday, I listed five basic principles for discerning types in the Bible. For those just beginning to think about intratextual exegesis, these five “best practices” are a good starting point. But they are only a starting point. So, today I want to go to the other end of the spectrum and consider the very best ways to interpret the New Testament’s uses the Old. And instead of providing my own list, I will cite G. K. Beale who leads the way on helping evangelicals think about these things.

Here’s what he says about faithful interpretation and doing intrabiblical exegesis—which, by the way, is a term he uses instead of intratexuality.

There is no airtight method that can be followed in interpreting the Bible that will guarantee a true or exhaustive meaning. The reasons for this are manifold. First, interpreters are fallible creatures: despite whatever procedure they are following, their fallibility extends to their ability to interpret. Second, the task or interpretation is not merely a science but also a literary art, which defies the following of strict rules. Third, no one person can exhaustively understand what anotehr has said, whether that be understandding what someone has said or written in the modern setting or in the ancient world. An authorial speech act is ‘thick,’ and it is impossible for any one interpreter to unravel all the layers of meaning in it.

Nevertheless, this does not mean we can retrieve nothing from what has been said or written. (Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 41 emphasis mine)

Rightly, Beale calls for epistemic sobriety and humble dependence on the Spirit as prerequisites for rightly interpreting the Scriptures. But such a recognition of our human fallibility does not cancel out the need for good interpretive methods; all the more, it calls us to greater diligence in the way we go about interpreting the Bible. And in the case of seeing the connections between Old and New Testaments, Beale is at his best when he outlines nine benchmarks interpreters should use for healthy exegesis.

Nine Benchmarks for Intratextual Exegesis

These nine steps come from chapter three of his Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and InterpretationI list them in outline form, including a previous section in his book that enumerates Richard Hays’ seven criteria for allusions (33, citing Hays, Echoes of Scripture in Paul29–32). In what follows, I have quoted, summarized, and turned some of his assertions into interpretive questions.

  1. Identify the OT reference. Is it a quotation or allusion? If it is an allusion, then there must be validation that it is an allusion, judging by criteria provided by the likes of Richard Hays. (Hay’s criteria, listed below, are not infallible, but they do provide a concrete set of questions for biblical interpreters; in his book Beale shows the strengths and weaknesses of Hays’ approach).
    1. Availability—Was the source text available to the original author?
    2. Volume—Is there a significant degree of verbatim repetition of words? What about syntactical patterns?
    3. Recurrence—Are there references in the immediate context (or elsewhere by the same author) to the same OT context from which the purported allusion derives?
    4. Thematic coherence—Does the meaning of the OT passage in its original context illuminate the purported NT allusion?
    5. Historical plausibility—Is it plausible that the original author intended for his original audience to understand the allusion on the first, second, or third hearing.
    6. History of Interpretation—Has this allusion been observed by other biblical interpreters? A negative answer does not deny the allusion, but it does make the burden of proof greater.
    7. Satisfaction-–Does the purported allusion “enhance the rhetorical punch of the point being made by the NT writer?”
  2. Analyze the broad NT context where the OT reference occurs.
    1. Overview the broad NT context.
    2. Over the immediate NT context.
  3. Analyze the OT context both broadly and immediately, especially thoroughly interpreting the paragraph in which the quotation or allusion occurs.
    1. Overview of the broad OT context.
    2. Overview of the immediate OT context.
    3. Relate the OT quotation to what comes earlier and later in the canonical Scripture.
      1. How does the historical and redemptive epoch of this OT passage relate to the earlier or later stages of redemptive history with the OT itself?
      2. Try to determine if the quotation in its original literary context is itself a quotation of or an allusion to an earlier written OT text.
      3. Tentatively apply the findings from this step to the NT quotation: Are there similarities in theme, argument, problems between the OT and NT quotations or allusion, and so on?
  4. Survey the use of the OT text in early and late Judaism that might be of relevance to the NT appropriation of the OT text—explain the relevance of Jewish background for the use of the OT in the NT.
  5. Compare the texts (including their textual variants): NT, LXX, MT, and targums, early Jewish citations (DSS, the Pseudepigrapha, Josephus, Phil). Underline or color-code the various differences.
  6. Analyze the NT author’s textual use of the OT—How does the NT author use his sources? Does he make deliberate changes to the biblical text(s)?
  7. Analyze the author’s interpretative (hermeneutical) use of the OT.
    1. Overview of the immediate context.
    2. Relate the quotation to other quotations from or allusions to the same OT passage elsewhere in the NT.
    3. Relate the quotation to other quotations from or allusions to the same OT passage elsewhere in post-NT literature (i.e., the NT Apocrypha and the early church fathers).
    4. Survey the possible categorical uses of the OT in the NT (e.g., direct fulfillment, typology, analogy, rhetorical, etc.)
  8. Analyze the author’s theological use of the OT—How does this passage inform biblical and/or systematic theology?
  9. Analyze the author’s rhetorical use of the OT—What was the author’s purpose in referring to the OT?

Go Deeper in Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

For pastors and Bible teachers who are conversant with the biblical languages, Beale’s nine benchmarks are incredibly helpful for sound exegesis that relates large sections of Scripture. Even for those who don’t have the knowledge, resources, or time to incorporate every aspect of the approach, the elongated process shows what is needed to fully uncover the riches of God’s word. For that reason, I will keep these benchmarks handy as I preach and teach, and I would encourage you to do the same.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

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