New Testament Interpretation of the Old Testament: The Theological Rationale of Midrashic Exegesis

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Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, evangelical scholars discussed extensively the NT's use of the OT, paying special attention to the fact that the NT sometimes interprets OT passages in ways that depart significantly from the apparent meaning of those passages in their original context.1 Many OT verses that are cited as eschatological prophecies of Jesus Christ, when read in their original context do not appear to have been speaking of the eschaton or the Messiah at all. Such cases provided grist for advocates of a liberal view of biblical authority.2 The challenge for evangelical scholars, then, was determining whether NT writers presented something other than a grammaticalhistorical interpretation of the OT and, if so, how such interpretations could square with conservative views of biblical inspiration and inerrancy.

Various proposals were suggested and debated. Perhaps the fault lay in our own reading of Scripture, so we should accept the NT writers' interpretations of the OT even when we do not understand how they derived their interpretations.3 Maybe the OT passages in question should be seen as generic promises that included the NT's messianic application,4 or as texts that related to the Messiah on the basis of corporate solidarity,5 or typology.6 Perhaps NT writers gave the sensus plenior ("fuller sense") of an OT verse which they themselves were now revealing as inspired Christian interpreters,7 or which a canonical-process reading of the OT had indicated.8 Each of these proposals made a partial contribution to the resolution of the problem by explaining the NT's use of the OT in certain instances, but none of them alone provided an overall solution. Nor did there appear to be a way to tie all of these proposals together under one all-encompassing rubric that might explain how the NT could so freely use OT passages in ways that differed from their plain-sense meaning while still claiming to be doing actual exegesis.

Despite the lack of consensus after two decades of debate, virtually all evangelical scholars acknowledged that, to some degree at least, the NT's method of exegesis resembled Jewish hermeneutics of late antiquity. Yet this admission was usually made reluctantly.9 Ancient Jewish exegesis of the OT-a methodology that may be designated broadly as midrashic exegesis10-at times offered interpretations far more fanciful than anything found in the NT, and often those interpretations were associated with unhistorical embellishments of OT narratives.11 The additional fact that liberal critics began to suggest that the four Gospels of the NT might themselves be classified as Christian "midrash" (in the sense of unhistorical literary creations) could not help but turn conservative minds away from considering the possibility that midrashic hermeneutics might be the overall explanation for why the NT departed on occasion from the grammaticalhistorical sense of the OT. Still, the "Jewishness" of the NT's use of the OT was too glaring to dismiss entirely. So while evangelicals were willing to acknowledge a degree of Judaic influence in the NT's use of the OT, most still felt uncomfortable with the questions that arose if NT exegesis were categorized as fundamentally midrashic.

In recent years, a few evangelical scholars have reopened the issue,12 raising again the familiar questions: Did NT authors employ midrashic techniques that derived meanings going beyond what the human author of an OT passage intended to communicate? If so, did they employ these midrashic techniques not merely as accommodative, ad hominem arguments when addressing Jewish opponents, but as inherently valid ways of reading the OT? Is such a hermeneutic legitimate, and does it truly comport with a high view of Scripture? Can we today employ this non-grammatical-historical method of reading the OT, rather than seeing it as something confined to inspired interpreters of the first century? …