Is This How We Should Do Exegesis?: A Biblical Case Study

Here's but one example of how the New Testament uses a mistranslated word from which a faulty interpretation of the Old Testament is made, adapted from a previous post and highlighted for discussion. Is this not stupid? Is this not a problem for inerrancy?

Let's take a good look at Psalm 8:3-8 (New American Standard Bible, NASB). What we'll find is a mistranslated word, a misinterpreted Psalm, and a pre-scientific cosmology:

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,

The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;


The Psalmist is not conceiving of the type of universe we do today, as we’ve seen…by far.

What is man that You take thought of him,

And the son of man that You care for him?


Notice this is a case of Hebrew parallelism for future reference below. The first phrase is paralleled by the second one, even though no parallel phrase is exactly similar in all respects. “Man" = "son of man”; “thought of” = “care for.” This is basic wisdom literature exegesis here.

So if by the word “man” the Biblical writer thought of the phrase “son of man,” then this same phrase, when applied to Jesus, must mean little more than what it means here. If, however, the phrase “son of man,” when applied to Jesus, means “son of God,” then all human beings should be considered "sons of God.”

According to Bruce Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, "the phrase such as 'son of X' means 'having the qualities of X.' Thus the 'son of man' would mean having the qualities of man, hence human." [Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 2nd ed, p. 408).

In any case, Hebrews 2 is obviously a misinterpretation of this Psalm, since Hebrews claims Psalm 8 is speaking exclusively about Jesus as the “son of man” in comparison to angels (a comparison made throughout Hebrews), whereas Psalm 8 is really speaking about how human beings rule over creation, who are just a little lower than God himself in status. The Hebrews writer misunderstood Psalms 8 to be primarily messianic, about Jesus, but there is no reason to read it as such in the Psalm itself…none!

The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (2:784), admits of the Hebrews writer: "No doubt the familiar messianic designation “Son of Man” (v. 6) contributed to this understanding." Or, shall I more correctly say, misunderstanding!

Yet You have made him a little lower than God,

And You crown him with glory and majesty!


Again, a Hebrew parallelism. God is crowned with unique glory and majesty that none other receives, so also God crowns man with glory and majesty no other creation receives.

Here’s how the Hebrew writer understood this verse, according to The Bible Knowledge Commentary: "while total dominion over the created order is not yet His, Jesus is at last seen as crowned with glory and honor because He suffered death. The One so crowned was made a little lower than the angels for the very purpose of dying, that is, that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. This last statement is best understood as the purpose of the Lord’s being made lower than the angels in His Incarnation." Again, there is no reason to read the Psalm this way…none! If anyone else misinterpreted a text in this manner Christians themselves would laugh at him or her.

Psalm 8:5 uses the word Elohim translated "God" (NASB) whereas the Hebrews writer followed the Septuagint (LXX) in translating this word αγγελους “angels.” Thus in Psalms 8 we find that human beings were created as God’s ruler-representatives on earth, over all his creation, although lower than God. But in Hebrews we read that it's Jesus who was made lower than “the angels” in the incarnation, so that he could redeem mankind. Thus Hebrews interpretation is fundamentally flawed based on this mistranslated word.

Evangelicals want to affirm the fact that since the author of Hebrews (2:7) renders the word "Elohim" (God or gods) as αγγελους (angels) it establishes the intended meaning of Psalm 8:5. But this opinion is nothing different than saying: "The Bible said it; I believe it; that settles it." It’s just illegitimate to claim to have a correct understanding of an original Hebrew word by referring exclusively to a Greek translation of that word. It's also illegitimate to take a particular passage out of context and claim to properly understand that passage. Hebrews 2 is clearly based on a misinterpretation of the text of Psalm 8, as well as a mistranslation of a word in it. Is the LXX inspired when it translates "Elohim" (God or gods) as αγγελους (angels)? Tell me! And does inspiration guarantee that what the Bible says is accurate even when it can clearly be shown to be incorrect? How is this even possible?

Biblical scholar Hector Avalos informs me about the translation of Elohim and wrote this:
The translation of 'elohim’ as "god(s)" in Psalm 8:5 (English; verse numbers may differ in some translations) is not controversial anymore, and is accepted in the following translations:

NRSV: "lower than God."
REV: "less than a god"
NAB: "less than a god"
NJB: "less than a god."

To be more literally accurate, "less than the gods" would be better because Elohim is plural.

This is also the opinion of Mitchell Dahood, the Catholic biblical scholar, in his commentary on the Psalms I:-1-50 (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1965), p. 51. He translates it, "Yet you have made him a little less than the gods" on p. 48.
Man was created a little lower than the gods, which reflects a polytheistic religious viewpoint. In order to soften the polytheistic implications of this the translators do some interesting things with this Hebrew word.

You make him to rule over the works of Your hands;

You have put all things under his feet,


Again Hebrew parallelism. Notice the phrase “works of Your hands” here. That phrase can only parallel the earlier phrase “the work of Your fingers” in verse 3 above, and this refers to “the heavens,” which include “the moon and the stars.”

Only one evangelical conclusion about the central role of man can come from for a correct reading of Psalm 8, human beings are the highest creation, above angels, and any other alien life form.

All sheep and oxen,

And also the beasts of the field,

The birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea,

Whatever passes through the paths of the seas.


This is what the Psalmist thought all creation involved. It’s crystal clear he said mankind rules over all the works of God’s hands earlier, and here he tells us what this means. There are no references to aliens or angels or galxies far far away. He just didn’t think of them, or they just didn’t compare to the status of mankind. But it is surely refective of a prescientific cosmology, and as such, considered as disconfirming evidence that there is a God behind the human words in the Bible.

23 comments:

larryniven said...

A little bit of postdiction going on here? You're right, it's hard to see how anybody can take this seriously. This is along the lines of those people who say that the Bible includes a description of gravity because it says that the planet hovers "over" other things in the cosmos. It's just a stretch too far.

Jason said...

Psalm 8, like many other messianic Psalms, is a typological fulfillment. It appeals only to the basic principals of the verses in question, not the actual mechanics (as you're suggesting). For example, Hosea 1:11 and Mat. 2:15 use the same technique. Matthew looked at the historical data and interpreted it 'typologically' - as a figure or prototype of something to come in the future (from the OT perspective), which he sees as 'fulfilled' in the person of Jesus. Hebrews 2:12 and Psalms 22 is another example.

Many NT writers used typological fulfillment, as did OT writers and non-Christian writers in NT times.

John W. Loftus said...

Are you really intellectually satisfied with your answer Jason? If so, there is nothing I can say to you. "The Bible (Hebrews) says it, that settles it." But if the Bible settles all issues for you then what is it that proves the Bible in the first place? This passage doesn't.

Thomas Paine said, "Before anything can be proved by the Bible, the Bible itself must be proved to be true; for if the Bible be not true, or the truth of it be doubtful, it ceases to have authority, and cannot be admittted as proof of anything." [Age of Reason, part 2, Chap. 1]

When you want to actually think through these issues let me know. Until then check this out.

Jason said...

John,

I never said "The Bible says it, that settles it". I said Psalms 8 is a typological fulfillment. Typological fulfillment is a common technique found throughout Scripture and was used by many non-Christians writers from the NT period.

John W. Loftus said...

Jason, that's what you end up saying since typology is all in the eyes of the beholder. Why should I believe the anonymous author of Hebrews, a book that many early church fathers didn't think should be included in the NT in the first place? You have to start by defending the early church decision to incude Hebrews in the NT. Has the church down through the centuries always been right? Certainly not. Then why believe Hebrews is God's word in the first place?

larryniven said...

Moreover, Jason, does that make it right? We can excuse them for basing their work on a wrong idea, to the same extent that we forgive people for believing that diseases were caused by demons, but at what point does that mean that we should go along with them? A wrong idea is wrong, no matter how well it fit in its original historical context.

Jason said...

John,

I'm not asking you to believe. I'm simply explaining that typological fulfillment this is how Christianity views these passages. They're only misunderstandings, misinterpretations and inerrant from an unbeliever's perspective.

Jason said...

Larryniven,

If it is typographical fulfillment, from the point of view that this section is a "faulty interpretation", yes, that makes it right.

John W. Loftus said...

Wrong Jason! Most Christians do not believe in inerrancy.

Northrop Frye wrote: “How do we know that the Gospel story is true? Because it confirms the prophecies of the Old Testament. But how do we know that the Old Testament prophecies are true? Because they are confirmed by the Gospel story. Evidence, so called, is bounced back and forth between the testaments like a tennis ball; and no other evidence is given us. The two testaments form a double mirror, each reflecting the other but neither the world outside.”

After noting that the standard treatment of typology was done by Leonhard Goppelt, in his book, Typos, where he claims typology is the dominant hermeneutical method of exegesis in the New Testament understanding of the Old, David L. Baker maintains that “typology is not exegesis.” He wrote, “the exegete has to find the meaning of the text and its witness to an event, and for this the tool is grammatical-historical exegesis.”

Jason said...

John,

I'm not sure what your last post has to do with the topic but Psalms 8 is still a typological fulfillment. It's not a misinterpretation or misunderstanding as you claim.

larryniven said...

(I wish there were a way to speak slowly over the internet, but alas...)

Jason, clearly believers find this to be plausible - that's by definition of "believer." The question, as I understood it, was whether we can distinguish this practice among Christians as being a special indicator of truth. As John has pointed out, even those who believe this do not have philosophically valid reasons for doing so.

Jason said...

Larryniven,

Addressing the original issue, since believers find this (typographical fulfillment) to be plausible, believers don't view Psalm 8 as a misinterpreted Psalm. Problem solved.

As for how atheists can distinguish this practice as being a special indicator of truth, why bother? Judgment's already been passed.

larryniven said...

Perhaps I was unclear. "We" in my comments does not refer to atheists, but rather all non-Christians (this is irrelevant, really, but I feel like you've taken a somewhat skewed vision of this topic due to this faulty assumption). It's part of being a Christian, or so I've been led to believe, that one ought to try to win over converts. If you expect these kinds of prophecies to win over (smart) converts, then you must expect people outside of Christianity to find them convincing, which would require them to have some kind of plausibility outside of Christian circles. If, alternatively, this isn't what you expect - that is, if you believe that (among smart people) only Christians will find this postdiction process plausible - then "why bother [trying to defend them]? Judgment's already been passed."

More generally, it seems like you could make this argument about any Christian tradition. Problem of evil? "Well, Christians believe that it's not an issue, and if you're not a Christian, then you'll never get it." Euthyphro? "Well, Christians believe that it's not an issue, and if you're not a Christian, then you'll never get it." And so on and so forth - in other words, this doesn't seem like an attempt on your part to legitimize the practice, but rather an attempt to be left alone. Is that about right? If so, why don't you just come right out and say that? Why hide behind this pseudo-philosophy?

Jason said...

Larryniven,

John claimed Hebrews 2 is a misinterpretation of Psalm 8. How anyone goes about preaching or the problem of evil is therefore irrelevant to Psalm 8 and the topic. I've explained why Christianity doesn't view these verses to be misinterpretations and subsequently why Christianity continues to treat Psalm 8 as messianic.

David said...

John, your view of inspiration seems to be such that God completely removes all human elements in revealing the scriptures. Did your church believe in mechanical dictation?

Considering the well documented exegetical practices of the first century Jews.....why is this suprising?

I'll agree with you typology is a strange bird to our literary ears....does it follow that it is incorrect? Should one criticize an ancient author for not adhering to a relatively modern hermeneutical standard?

larryniven said...

Jason, I understand that. But your explanation has, in fact, nothing to do with the verses themselves. Although you say there is a process of intellectual consideration that happens before they arrive at their conclusion, in reality the opposite is true. Because this interpretation of the Jewish texts only arrived well after the need for it arrived, your explanation reduces to, "They find it plausible because they're Christians." These verses could have said anything and your explanation would still hold. Similarly, we could, as I said earlier, abstract your argument to any philosophical or theological quandary relating to Christianity and we could still apply your explanation, again without actual reference to the problem at hand. In other words, you haven't done any work to show why it is reasonable to believe a Christian doctrine that needs help in order to be internally consistent. We all understand why this sort of thing happened, we don't need you to give us a history lesson, what we're looking for is an explanation of why Christians believe that these historical factors are irrelevant - that is, why we should ignore them in the case of Christianity but not in the case of every other religion.

Jason said...

Because this interpretation of the Jewish texts only arrived well after the need for it arrived...

OT writers (Jews) used typographical fulfillment. It's not something unique to NT writers.

In other words, you haven't done any work to show why it is reasonable to believe a Christian doctrine that needs help in order to be internally consistent.

I've explained how Christianity interprets these verses and why we don't view them as misinterpretations. This isn't an argument. Believe the explanation or not - it doesn't bother me either way.

what we're looking for is an explanation of why Christians believe that these historical factors are irrelevant - that is, why we should ignore them in the case of Christianity but not in the case of every other religion.

Larryniven, I'm simply showing you how Christianity views these verses. I'm not interested in discussing how best to appease an atheist's skepticism.

David said...

"Are you really intellectually satisfied with your answer Jason? If so, there is nothing I can say to you. "The Bible (Hebrews) says it, that settles it." But if the Bible settles all issues for you then what is it that proves the Bible in the first place? This passage doesn't."

John are you really intellectually satisfied with your response to jason? When did he say "the Bible says it, that settles it." Seem like your argumentation based on your assumed hermeneutical superiority to the author of Hebrews is based on "this is the literal meaning, that settles it."

But if literal interpretation settles all issues for you then what is it that proves literal interpretation in the first place? Its raining cats and dogs outside...prove it. This passage doesn't.

John W. Loftus said...

David, I won't long tary over your argument. I'll be brief.

You said... Its raining cats and dogs outside...prove it. This passage doesn't.

The literal interpretation is the one intended, the one that best harmonizes with the context that it's found in. So to interpret your phrase correctly would be to say "it's really raining very hard."

But if the Bible said that cats and dogs were coming down you'd believe it because the Bible said it, and that's my point here.

David said...

John, thanks for your brevity in comments as opposed to your posts ;)

"Only one evangelical conclusion... human beings are the highest creation, above angels, and any other alien life form."

I'm scratching my head about that conclusion? Perhaps you I missed your point. Extra-Biblical sources confirm that the ancient audience probably understood this passage to include angels above man (3 Enoch 5:10, b. Sanh. 38b). Curious ones can dig up the others, to save space I'll digress here.

Elohim was also used to refer to judges (Ps 82:1,6) Moses (Exod 7:1), the specter of Samuel (1 Sam 28:13). Picking one semantic usage and then making an argument out of it is what we all must do; however, since most scholars reject that rendering of Elohim, I'll disagree but with due respect for your argument.

I take "son of man" to generally mean an appointed one or representative (Mark 2:10,28, John 5:27).

As for the use of angelos in the LXX (its usage can be found in the Syriac OT and a Targum on the Psalm)....consider the ESV rendering of the Psalm:

"Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings"

It makes more sense this way to me. Why would a passage addressed TO God, not render it "You have made him a little lower than Yourself" if the author were intending the convey this?

Given the Psalm includes angels as superior to man, and the author of Hebrews DOES understand the original context:
I think his argument fits in with the theological underpinnings of the Psalm.

Psalmist describes God's creation of man and his relative status.

Hebrews author denotes Christ's superiority to angels prior to incarnation and post-resurrection.

Christ restores man's status in creation. Only in the resurrected glorified state will redeemed man assume the role described in Psalm 8 again.

Please put up with my attempts to stifle the dark side...I am but a young Skywalker but I spent half my Friday night responding to you and it has more to do with respect than anything else.

Looking forward to reading your new book, whenever Amazon gets more.(estimated delivery: 5/1/08 and I pre-ordered last month)

Cheers

John W. Loftus said...

David, now that's how you do exegesis! Let's finally have done with typology or allegory.

However, you're doing what the writer of Hebrews didn't do. Why do you defend the writer of Hebrews with the grammatical-historical method when he or she didn't use it?

Furthermore, are those extra-Biblical sources inspired? They too used the LXX translation, so it all goes back to a mistranslation of a word, just like when Matthew used the Greek word "virgin" in the LXX for the Hebrew word "young girl" to show Jesus was to be born of a virgin.

As far as Elohim goes, you just differ with Biblical scholar Hector Avalos, that's all. And with regard to the "son of man," you disagree with Christian scholar Bruce Malina.

David: Why would a passage addressed TO God, not render it "You have made him a little lower than Yourself" if the author were intending the convey this?

Why does Moses talk about himself in the third person, "Moses said this," or "Moses did that," rather than in the first person? In any case the Psalmist was not referring to God, but to "the gods," that's why he didn't say "You have made him a little lower than Yourself."

David: I think his argument fits in with the theological underpinnings of the Psalm.

The Psalmist could not possibly be thinking of Jesus.

David: Please put up with my attempts to stifle the dark side...I am but a young Skywalker...

That's cute. :-)

David: Looking forward to reading your new book, whenever Amazon gets more.(estimated delivery: 5/1/08 and I pre-ordered last month)

Thank you. I'll be very interested in knowing what you think of it.

larryniven said...

"OT writers (Jews) used typographical fulfillment. It's not something unique to NT writers."

That's not what I said, Jason, please try to read my actual words. What I said was, this specific instance came along only after the need for it. I repeat, just because lots of people did it (and, in fact, just because we continue to do it) doesn't make it something we should take as a sign of truth. Not for the Hebrews, not for the Christians, not for anybody. If all you're trying to do here is to give us a history lesson, you should probably just leave. Nobody here was ever confused about who practiced this kind of behavior, when they did it, or why - and yet that's all you've told us. If you aren't interested in discussing the merits of such a procedure, why are you even here?

Shygetz said...

Typological fulfillment is a common technique found throughout Scripture and was used by many non-Christians writers from the NT period.

Is this not also the technique used by Nostradomians, John Edwards, and various phony "prophets" and "seers"? Make a vague and/or allegorical prophecy then do a post hoc stretching of the allegory to fit the facts? Is this type of prophecy, even if it were truly made and truly "fulfilled", impressive? Supernatural? Predictive in any sense? Am I supposed to read prophecy in the Bible as an ancient form of cold reading?

How can Christians find typological fulfillment anything other than second-rate hokum?