Closed-Minded Hermeneutics? A Proposed Alternative Translation for Luke 24:45

By Bates, Matthew W. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Closed-Minded Hermeneutics? A Proposed Alternative Translation for Luke 24:45


Bates, Matthew W., Journal of Biblical Literature


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For these words have not been fashionably arranged by me, nor embellished by human technique, but rather David sang them, Isaiah preached them, Zechariah heralded them, Moses recorded them. Do you recognize them Trypho? They are stored up in your Scriptures, or rather not in yours but in ours, for we are obedient to them, but when you read them, you do not understand the "mind" in them ....1 (Justin Martyr, Dial. 29.2)

Given the profound hermeneutical implications of Luke 24:45 regarding the relationship between the NT and the OT, critical scholarship has paid surprisingly little attention to this verse in its own right.2 Yet Luke 24:45 gives what must be regarded as one of the most important statements in the NT regarding the manner in which Christian readers appropriate the Jewish Scriptures: .... In modern parlance, the verse has been consistently translated across the major modern research languages as something akin to the following: "Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures" (NRSV), "Da öffnete er ihnen das Verständnis, so daß sie die Schrift verstanden" (Luther [1984]), or "Alors il leur ouvrit l'esprit à l'intelligence des Écritures" (Bible de Jérusalem [1961]). The hermeneutical implications that derive from this reading are simple yet far-reaching. Put quite simply, it was necessary for Jesus to "open the minds" of his disciples in order for them properly to interpret the Scriptures. Apart from Jesus' special action, their mental faculties were hermeneutically deficient. Moreover, there is a corollary to the need for Christian illumination. As Michael Wolter states regarding Luke 24:45:

Jetzt erst und endlich wird das Unverständnis der Jünger aufgehoben. . . . Indirekt wird damit nicht nur gesagt, dass das bisherige Unverständnis der Jünger auf einer Unkenntnis der heiligen Schriften Israels beruhte, sondern auch, dass die Abweisung der Christusverkündigung von Seiten der weitaus überwiegenden Mehrheit des Judentums ihren Grund einzig und allein darin hat, dass sie ihre eigenen Schriften nicht richtig verstanden hat.3

Thus, granted the traditional rendering, not only did the disciples need to have "their minds opened" by the Lukan Jesus, but the corollary to this proposition is that Jews who have rejected Jesus are not able properly to understand their own Scriptures unless Christ should happen likewise to "open their minds." In this way, seemingly, anyone who has not experienced mental reconditioning by Christ can not properly interpret-and this includes would-be disciples, Jews who have rejected Jesus, and all other non-Christians of whatever variety. A harmonizing explanatory appeal to Paul is not infrequently invoked by Lukan expositors at this juncture. Just as it is true for Paul that only in Christ is "the veil taken away" (2 Cor 3:16) so that the Jewish Scriptures can be read adequately, so also for Luke.4 This principle of "the need for the mind to be opened" in order properly to read the OT extends beyond NT studies proper, impacting relevant subfields such as systematic theology and biblical hermeneutics.5 But is this principle on firm translational ground insofar as it depends on the Lukan evidence?

In this article I would like to suggest that an alternative translation of Luke 24:45 merits serious consideration: "Then Jesus exposited the Scriptures so that the disciples could understand their meaning [...]"-that is, under the proposed alternative rendering, the "mind" in question is not a property of the disciples, but rather of the Scriptures. In light of my admittedly nonexhaustive scouring of the secondary literature, I have not been able to find anyone who has suggested this translation in the modern era.6 After presenting the basic syntactical features of Luke 24:45, I will present an overview of the early reception history of this verse in the hope that such an exploration might throw further light on the possibility of an alternative translation. …

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