What to Do When You Find an Interpretive Quandary

interpretive-quandaryThe viewpoints of Christians of the past are not authoritative over us in the same way the Bible is—or even the same way our pastors are (Heb. 13:17). Past generations of believers made theological errors just like us, because they were fallen and limited just like we are.

But, then again, they were not limited exactly like we are. As C.S. Lewis famously pointed out in Surprised by Joy, it is “chronological snobbery” to assume that we are more advanced in every way than people from centuries past. We shouldn’t get busy congratulating ourselves for avoiding their vices before we remind ourselves how far we fall from their virtues. We need to listen to how other Christians, in all centuries, have used the Bible.

One important element of Bible interpretation is to see how other Christians throughout history have used the passage you’re studying. Logos 7 provides three brand new datasets that you can use to help you do that with a minimum of page-flipping: the Systematic Theology, Biblical Theology, and Confessional Documents datasets.

“They made his grave with a rich man”

A few weeks ago, I was writing about a recently discovered first-century tomb. (This was for an interactive devotional included with Logos 7—a very fun project.) And it led me across this Old Testament prophecy:

And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

This is Isaiah 53:9, part of what is clearly a premier messianic passage. The New Testament picks up multiple lines from this “Servant Song” and applies them to Jesus. Early Christians like John, Peter, and Paul used this song under the inspiration of the Spirit to build their knowledge of and love for Jesus.

But I have always been surprised that no New Testament writer mentions an intertextual relationship that has always seemed obvious to me. Namely, that Jesus was in fact buried in the tomb of a “rich man” according to Matt 27:60. I checked the New Testament Use of the Old Testament interactive in Logos to confirm this: neither Peter nor Paul nor John nor Luke nor any New Testament writer ever makes the connection between the “rich man” of Isaiah 53:9 and Joseph of Arimathea. Peter cites the verse, but not that particular phrase.
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So I wanted to know: have any other Christians throughout time made the connection I did? Novelty is good for dime store toys, but not for Bible interpretation. If the connection is there, others will have seen it.

Exegetical commentaries on Isaiah 53:9

The verse is a poetically cryptic; the exegetical commentaries canvas the arguments well, but most readers of commentaries are going to be left in some uncertainty about who’s right once they read the grammatical discussions. There is no clear, obvious answer, or there wouldn’t be so much discussion.

So I’m left looking at the upshot: what do the commentators think, after all their grammatical study, about the connection between Isaiah 53:9 and Joseph of Arimathea? Thankfully, most commentaries I checked offered an opinion. They just didn’t agree.

A number of my commentaries on Isaiah do directly connect “rich man” to Joseph. Keil and Deilitzsch say, for example,

We see an agreement at once between the gospel history and the prophetic words, which could only be the work of the God of both the prophecy and its fulfilment (7:515).

But Smith in the NAC distinctly disagrees:

Jesus’ burial in the grave of the rich man Joseph of Arimathea (Matt. 27:57) is sometimes associated with this prophecy, suggesting that the people intended to bury him with the wicked because they thought he was a criminal, but in actuality he was buried in the grave of a rich man. It is very difficult to derive this understanding from this verse. (456)

Splitting the difference, the top-rated modern commentator on Isaiah, Oswalt in the NICOT series, brings up the possibility only in a footnote and expresses a distinct ambivalence:

The circumstances of Jesus’ death and burial are, of course, urged in support of this reading [of the grammar in Isaiah 53:9]…. But we should not press the text to say more than it does. There are more than enough connections with the life and ministry of Christ in this poem to force any on it. (397)

This is precisely my question as a preacher or teacher of this text: how strongly can I urge my hearers to see this particular connection between Isaiah and the Gospels? Should they use this text to increase their faith in God’s power to predict the life (and death) of the Messiah, and therefore their faith in his plan for the world? Should I mention it at all? Calvin doesn’t in his Isaiah expositions. Maybe that’s safest.

I like the warm hearts of Keil and Deilitzsch, eager as they are to give glory to God; I like the backbone of Smith, refusing to twist the text; I like the care of Oswalt to be utterly fair. But my Hebrew skills are unlikely to exceed those of these disagreeing experts: so what should I do in my writing or preaching on Isaiah 53:9?

Letting the centuries vote

Bible interpretation isn’t won by popular vote, but this is the kind of situation in which I want to hear from as many accredited voices as possible. I’ve looked at four commentaries so far, from four different centuries—that’s just four votes. If I found, for instance, that pretty much everybody else in the history of the church saw Joseph of Arimathea in the “rich man” of Isaiah 53, that fact would have a significant influence on my interpretation.

In the past, I would open up every single one of my Logos commentaries on a given book (I did this for Judges 11 and Jephthah, for example) and tallied up the votes. That’s definitely something to do for Isaiah 53:9. But I never thought to check my theologies or confessions; it would just be too much index-searching and too much page-flipping.

Three new datasets in Logos 7 can help. Don’t let the word “datasets” make your head swim: these are just handy indexes, popping up in the Passage Guide, that show you where Isaiah 53:9 appears in various resources. How have systematic theologians used this statement? How have biblical theologies used it? How have church bodies in past centuries used it?

Systematic Theologies

Isaiah 53:9 shows up in multiple places in the systematic theologies I own. Baptists, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Medieval and Modern Catholics—they’re all discussing the verse. I see a similar ambivalence among these writers: Aquinas brings up the verse but makes no mention of Joseph of Arimathea; he sees the statement only as a prediction that Jesus would be buried. But a later Anglican theologian cites the Joseph of Arimathea connection very confidently and without discussion, as if the prophecy fulfillment is obvious and incontestable. Here’s what I see under systematics:
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Biblical Theologies

Biblical theologies are likely to be interested in cross-testamental questions, especially statements in the Old Testament which point to the climax of the story in the New. And, sure enough, Isaiah 53:9 shows up in many of my BTs. I’ve got the whole New Studies in Biblical Theology series and N.T. Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God—series I would never have time to check without this tool. Looking through these volumes, however, yields the same ambivalence about the “rich man’s” link to Joseph of Arimathea.
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Confessional Documents

Confessional documents are a way to access the wisdom of past ages of Christians. They gather together the doctrines various church bodies confess, what they believe. These, too, mention Isaiah 53:9. Several votes for the connection to Joseph of Arimathea, no votes against.
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You’re not just looking for “votes” when you survey the history of systematic, biblical, or confessional theology, of course. Depending on the passage you’re studying, you’re going to need theological reflection, too. For that reason you won’t always want to check every resource; the more interested you are in theological reflection (and not just interpretive “votes”) the more likely you will focus on names you know and trust or a denominational perspective you already value. So in these three sections of the Passage Guide you can sort by resource, not just by theological locus. That way you can easily narrow your reading to the resources you’re truly interested in.

The rich man and the NT

And what did I conclude? My readers may think I lead the easy life of a writer, a pampered aesthete who reads as much as I want, but the truth is I have deadlines, just like preachers. I didn’t get to tabulate all the votes I wanted to before I had to stop and make a decision—just like preachers. At this point I’ve concluded that I cannot say with authority, “Thus saith the Lord: Joseph of Arimathea fulfills the prophecy in Isaiah 53:9.” Neither do I feel safe passing it over, because I think it’s a real possibility—and because that possibility may occur to others (or be mentioned in their study Bibles). They’ll be curious, distracted, or confused if I just skip the question.

So, keeping the needs and capacities of my audience in mind, I will explain. I will take them through the high points of this very post, trying to teach them a little bit about what to do when they have trouble interpreting a certain statement in the Bible.

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mark ward
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

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Comments

  1. Hi Mark,
    Just wondering why you did not access the Church Fathers writings in your interpretive investigations? Also, there was not mention of the necessary exegetical work necessary before consulting commentaries. . . book context, passage context, biblical cross referencing, etc,. etc. Not to be unnecessarily critical. I understand you are writing for a somewhat mass, generic audience. But your suggested process might give the impression that when facing an interpretive dilemma, Bible students should just scan the commentaries to find a camp they most comfortably fall into. Proper Bible interpretation is an extremely critical issue in this era. There is a large void of knowledge of orthodox interpretive principles even amongst contemporary pastors. And even though it is true as you stated, that Scripture teaches a flock’s submission to the authority of it’s pastors and elders, the apostles also taught that these “overseers” of the church had to be able interpreters of God’s word to defend their flocks against false teaching derived from false biblical interpretation. My point is this: the main responsibility for proper biblical interpretation falls on the pastors and elders of local church bodies. Unfortunately, there is a glut of interpretive incompetence with teachers throughout the contemporary church spectrum. Therefore, rank and file christians within many modern churches do not receive good teaching from properly interpreted passages. If scores of pastors do not model orthodox interpretive methods, then yes, most likely, when consulting historical commentaries, the average lay Bible student will simply gravitate to those commentators that allow them, as you stated, to “easily narrow your reading to the resources you’re truly interested in” In other words the Bible student will commit eisegesis, reading into the passage what they want or expect to see, based on their own presuppositions,even their own denominational preferences, the very thing that proper orthodox interpretation is meant to avoid. That is why I think it is not a good idea to offer a technique for consulting Bible commentaries outside of the context of principled, exegetical, hermeneutical technique. This is because many readers will not be familiar with the necessary exegetical steps required before they consult commentaries. In a blog driven western world, where sound-byte commentaries rule, many important traditional Bible teaching and study disciplines have been lost and cast to the wayside for the most part. It takes training and time intensive academic investigation to develop objective, exegetical, hermeneutical skills as a pastor/teacher …. if many seminaries have lost and are losing this perspective, and if many “pastors” and “teachers” in contemporary churches do not even have thorough bible interpretive training, and do not practice sound orthodox interpretation, then presenting the important step of consulting commentaries, out of the context of a sound exegetical process, could simply encourage your readers to just find the interpretive position that makes them feel most comfortable, instead of helping them to understand how to arrive at a properly interpreted biblical passage. Well, I have “spoken my mind”. Thank you for letting me comment.

    • Phil, this is fantastic and I agree completely. I don’t know if you’ve seen other things I’ve written here, but I’m 1000% for the exegetical process we were apparently both taught. I almost never check commentaries until I’ve done exegetical work myself. View this post as recommending a supplement to the normal process of exegesis—specifically a supplement to the use of commentaries. At that same stage in the exegetical process, it’s helpful to see how history has “voted.”

      I also agree that my own pastoral leadership is given a sway over me that no one else is—because they’re also given a responsibility for me and will have to answer for how they exercised it.

      With regard to Isaiah 53:9 in particular, as I dug into the commentaries I could tell that the Hebrew grammatical discussion was very difficult and, I felt, probably not conclusive. This is one thing that led me to put more weight in this particular post on the vote of history. Make sense?

      • Hi Mark! Thank you for your gracious response to my reply! Didn’t mean to imply you are not aware of proper exegetical method. As a supplemental to your other postings I’m sure your article is helpful. I guess I was just concerned that it’s possible a large percentage of your readership may be those who utilize Logos from an uninformed popular perspective concerning bible study. If your article was specifically aimed at an academic audience then perhaps it could be safely assumed that your article was simply a supplement to a wider context of orthodox interpretive method. But I applaud your desire to share an approach to investigating historical perspectives through commentaries. I guess I’m just a little sensitive to an apparent lack of discussion about a difficult issue … the dearth of knowledge of, or practice of, proper interpretive method amongst pastor/teachers in today’s churches, not to mention the huge influence of popular teaching personalities who are often teaching outside the pale of historical interpretive practices. Many pastors are influenced by these popular teachers, even attempting to be like them. Therefore I often assume the lowest common denominator when it comes to knowledge of a somewhat forgotten skill … proper Bible interpretation. So I “spoke my mind” about this issue in relation to your article. Apparently you saw this as a concern relevant to your article, and expressed a heart that shares this concern. Thank you … that is encouraging. Keep up the good fight! Phil

        • My impression is that most people who invest in and use Logos are “the choir” to whom you’re preaching—they use Logos because they love and rely on that exegetical method.

  2. Thanks for sharing your process here, Mark. I think the new Systematic/Biblical Theology tools and the Confessional guide are the most interesting new features to me in L7, but this NT use of the OT Interactive also looks really useful. Right now I’m doing some study on Romans 9-11, where OT citations are a key factor.