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N.T. Wright on Understanding Ancient Texts

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May 12, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's video features N.T. Wright. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

In this video Conversation, N.T. Wright emphasizes the importance of understanding the context of biblical texts in order to know whether to read them as literal or metaphorical narratives.

Wright begins by referencing the example of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31) as an example of a text that is recognized not to refer to an actual historical event. We understand it as parable on account of its genre. Similarly, when Isaiah writes that the sun will turn dark, the moon will become blood, and the stars will fall from the sky, we know that this is not “a primitive weather forecast.”

Thus, we are able to distinguish between parable and resurrection narratives, and we know that apocalyptic texts are not weather forecasts. But with Genesis, the question remains of what clues we can find as to the author's intention –– or better, as to the author's "conceptual world" within which the narrative of Genesis makes sense. For additional perspective on this, see Pete Enns’s recent post on “genre calibration”.

Wright describes the use of biblical metaphor as “[the] language people use to refer to concrete events, but to invest those concrete events with their theological significance.” To use that framework then, the creation story becomes one where we can affirm some of the concrete events—the earth is created by a good God who has chosen human beings to be his image bearers on earth. But we cannot ignore the theological picture that the use of metaphor in Genesis adds to the text.

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

N.T. Wright is a leading biblical scholar, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, and current Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, University of St Andrews. He studied for the ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and was ordained at Merton College, Oxford. Wright holds a Doctor of Divinity from Oxford University in addition to several honorary doctorates. Wright has also written over fifty books, including the multi-volume work Christian Origins and the Question of God and his two most recent books Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters and How God Became King.

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Norm - #13328

May 12th 2010

I think that in evaluating Genesis we need to copy the approach of comparing how scriptures are used in the bible instead of overly relying too much upon comparing ANE literature to draw our conclusions. The Bible acts as its own commentary if we will let it perform that task for us. Seeing Genesis through the prism of the rest of the scriptures allows us to discern its meaning from those who would best understand it. Now if one evaluates it through a scientific or literal prism without the background of strong scriptural knowledge then that approach may lead to what I call a “Sterilization” and removal of the Spiritual nature of the “Logos”. We lose the sense of direction or theme in other words that emanates from scripture.

As Wright says “it doesn’t take a huge amount of intelligence” to put two and two together. So we understand that: “the sun will turn dark, the moon will become blood, and the stars will fall from the sky, we know that this is not “a primitive weather forecast.”
So also should we recognize that when Rev 21 say that the first Heavens and Earth of Genesis 1 is passing away that it might be instructive to investigate whether it is a physical passing of H & E or is it something else.

Chris Massey - #13329

May 12th 2010


I can understand how it would be useful to use the OT to help you interpret the NT or to use early OT books to interpret later OT books. After all, the worldview of the later authors would have been shaped by the earlier OT writings. But I don’t see that the logic works the other way around (i.e. when trying to interpret some of the earliest Hebrew texts). Does it make sense to interpret a text like Genesis in light of texts written hundreds of years later?

Suppose you have a text written in the 8th century BC. Does it make sense to interpret it in light of a text written in the 2nd century BC or 1st century AD? Don’t we run the risk of foisting a more modern meaning onto the ancient text than was actually intended?

I understand that if Scripture is inspired, there will be unifying elements throughout the narrative, regardless of the time difference. But if we’re trying to answer the question N.T. Wright is asking, viz. “What genre is this?” we are much better off comparing a biblical text to its cultural contemporaries than to other biblical books written hundreds of years later in different cultural contexts.

Norm - #13332

May 12th 2010

Chris # 13329

My view is that we bring everything at our disposal to bear which of course is obvious. I think your thoughts might carry more weight if we weren’t dealing with inspired scripture in which I’m convinced is much more consistent from beginning to end than we realize. Also if Genesis was redacted say 800 to 600BC during the first Temple then we can surely compare Genesis with Ezekiel (circa 500bc). In fact I would say that just comparing Genesis, Ezekiel and Revelation is an extremely helpful tool as it is recognized that Rev gets much of its structure from Ezekiel. Also the fact that Ezekiel draws comparison to Eden, the Garden, and the creatures along with only one new river instead of four provides us with some insight into how the Jews viewed Genesis during this time. .

The fact Revelation picks up these similar icons and metaphors circa 60’s AD demonstrates that continuity especially the curse removal. Of course many other pieces of OT literature and extracurricular second Temple literature adds to our understanding of the Spiritual world view of the Jews.  My point is that bringing in the ANE cultural aspects are indeed very important but the Jewish view is the one we really want to zero in on first.

Norm - #13333

May 12th 2010

Chris I might add that Paul said that he taught nothing but the Law and the Prophets which means he developed his insight from OT literature and not a Greek view. So in studying Paul then we should see that OT dependence highly visible which I believe many contemporary scholars are now agreeing with. So to say Paul’s view would be modern would be only in the sense of the illumination of Christ and the Resurrection. I think Paul had a little eye opening experience concerning that point.

Chris Massey - #13338

May 12th 2010


I certainly agree that understanding the Jewish worldview is key to understanding the Bible. But I’m not so comfortable with assuming that the Jewish worldview in the Second Temple period is the same worldview from which the author(s) of Genesis wrote. Quite clearly those are two very different worldviews. In fact, isn’t much of Second Temple Jewish literature an exercise in RE-interpreting their scriptures in light of the exile? (I’m no expert in this, I confess, but that’s my understanding)

Do you think that we should be interpreting passages in the OT on the basis of how they are handled by Matthew, for example?

Norm - #13346

May 12th 2010


I don’t think we have much choice but to accept the interpretation by the NT writers of the OT as that is the focal point of time. I believe where the problem occurs is that those who see Paul’s and the other NT author’s interpretation of the OT they think that there is a change in the game plan. That’s what the Pharisees thought as well about Christ. As I stated earlier a lot of the apocalyptic langue becomes clear when we see the end point. If we don’t think the end game is the same then I think one needs to determine why they differ from the NT viewpoint. This is where learning to differentiate between a wooden literal view of scripture becomes important. The example Wright presents about the hyperbolic language being misunderstood is exhibit A of the problem. If we perform our due diligence concerning scriptures I believe they will substantiate the NT understanding.

I believe it is a vast mistake to think the NT authors changed the intent of the OT but one needs to prove that for themselves. Concerning second Temple literature, I believe differences in its focus are akin to style rather than substantial theological differences. When I read Enoch and Jubilees I’m very comfortable with what they are doing.

Chris Massey - #13351

May 12th 2010


If you’re feeling that we “don’t ... have much choice but to accept the interpretation by the NT writers of the OT”, you would probably get a lot out of reading Peter Enns’s book “Inspiration and Incarnation”. He proposes some other ways to think about that issue.

Norm - #13357

May 12th 2010


I’m a big fan of Peter’s work and have already read I&I. I agree with much that he writes and am very open to some of his ideas that may challenge me. I however see a tension in interpretive methods out there. As an example I like a lot of Dick Fisher’s ideas but I do not take his strictly literal historical method as strongly as he does. It’s the same with Peter, I like a lot of his approach and I’m open to it but I also feel that it “may” reflect more ANE application than called for. I’m proably somewhere in the middle tending to be open to Peter’s approach but not 100%.

As an example I did a lot of my earlier work investigating the escatalogical end before getting into Genesis as strongly as I have. When you have firmed up escatology which includes a heavy dose of Pauline theology you start to see things a little differently because you become much more comfortable with how the NT authors viewed the OT and particulary Genesis as it relates to escatalogy.  I believe it provides an insight that I’m reflecting which also include a strong embracing of some second Temple literature that affected the NT writers.

Dunemeister - #13405

May 13th 2010

One of Wright’s major points in his academic series on Jesus and the NT is that the early Christians reinterpreted the OT through the lens of recent history—the resurrection of Jesus and the giving of the Holy Spirit, particularly to the Gentiles without circumcision. They found that when they did so, much of their understanding of the meaning of the OT was significantly reshaped. So yes, it’s possible to revisit the meaning of the OT in light of events and find there a different meaning than what the original author(s) may have had in mind.

And one thing Wright might say to our current discussion partners: Eschatology is important, but it’s not the end of the world.

Pete Enns - #13418

May 13th 2010


Well put. You are correct in what you say here. Let me add a little twist. The resurrection of Christ, according to the NT, is the first installment of the end, the inauguration in the resurrection. Is this “eschatology” that actually drives the OT authors back to the OT to “revisit it’s meaning” (as you so well put it). That is only part of the story, because the NT writer’s hermeneutic is also explained as a function of the Second Temple hermeneutical milieu they participated in. To understate the matter, quite a lot has been written on that.

norm - #13430

May 13th 2010

Dunemeister - #13405
Here is the problem.  Wright doesn’t completely follow his own interpretive rules 100% concerning his application to eschatology.  As I mentioned in an earlier post you have to recognize the language of the scriptures and stay within its Hebrew interpretive framework otherwise you can come up with an assortment of bizarre applications that have nothing to do with the writer’s intent. As an example, biblical eschatology has nothing to do with the end of the physical planet or in Wrights case reestablishing a new planet Earth that no longer are governed by the laws of physics. Eschatology from the Hebrew point of view was always about what was going to Happen to the Jews when the “END OF THE AGE “occurred not the end of planet earth (world). The end of the old covenant age was always about bringing in the Holy Spirit to end the “curse” of the Garden experience.

Let me make this comparison: most Old Earth Genesis adherents realize that the YEC view of an earth in which there was no “death” until the fall is a goofy misreading of the Garden scene. Many realize that Adam’s death was a spiritual death and that there were preadamites and a regular physical world for a long time span.

norm - #13431

May 13th 2010


However those who follow Wrights approach and realize the YEC are wrong in their understanding of Genesis turn around and use the same YEC approach to eschatology allowing them to come up with an assortment of various millennium end times scenarios. Wright has actually stated publicly that he believes that a recreated earth will be established in the future similar to what the YEC say was in place before the fall. The YEC is consistent on both ends of the bible yet Old earthers while disagreeing with them in Genesis accepts their wooden literal hermeneutic application for Revelation.  My premise is that until Old earth Genesis exegetes get both ends of the bible correct they will misapply half of the story which will keep one groping around without complete clarity.

The idea that the OT scriptures reflect a different eschatological end than came about is a misreading of scriptures IMO. In fact that idea takes away from the consistency and inspiration of the totality of the scriptures if one thinks about it. Wright is correct concerning Genesis in correcting the YEC about their paradisiacal earth but he needs to follow the same rules in Revelation and not try to get his own paradisiacal version back in.

Jeffrey L Vaughn - #13451

May 13th 2010


In your first post above, you assumed that the earlier texts helped shape the worldview and understanding of those who wrote the later texts.

Then how does that not make the reverse application applicable?

We do not have an ancient worldview.  The ancient world view would have changed more slowly than our modern worldview.  Getting into the worldview of those ancients should help us understand better, the worldview of the even more ancients.

Similarly, words and concepts change over time and change more rapidly now than then.  In the prophets and the New Testament, the phrase “heaven and earth” means God’s covenant people.  John Walton of The Lost World of Genesis One agrees.  Yet nobody wants to take that ancient definition and apply it to the even more ancient text and see if it works.  Everybody assumes the very ancients had a modern definition.  No one is willing to consider that the mere ancients got their definition from the very ancients.  Does that make sense?


Chris Massey - #13604

May 14th 2010


How could the worldview of the “very ancients” be shaped by the worldview and writings of people who wouldn’t exist for another several hundred years? It seems self-evident to me why the cultural influence only works forward in time. Plato shaped my thinking, but I can’t shape his.

Jeffrey L Vaughn - #13678

May 14th 2010


That is not what I said.

Where did the ancients get their worldview?  From the very ancients.

Why do we assume that the very ancients had a worldview more like ours than the ancients had?

2000 years ago, H&E in Scripture meant the covenant order/people.

What did H&E mean in Scripture 2600 years ago?  (Jer. 4:22-23) The covenant people.

What did H&E mean when Genesis was written?  2600 years ago, Jeremiah assumed it meant people.

From Scripture, we have some 700 years of understanding that H&E meant people and they applied that meaning to Genesis 1.  Where did they get that view from?

Why do we moderns assume H&E meant physical universe?  That’s what H&E means in our culture.  But we have no reason forcing that view on the culture that produced Genesis, especially when the newer culture that developed from that older culture did not do so.


PS:  Some here believe Genesis was written after Jeremiah and Isaiah used H&E to refer to the covenant people.  P in JEDP refers to Ezra.

Chris Massey - #13687

May 14th 2010


I don’t see how “heaven and earth” is properly interpreted in any of those texts as referring to the people of Israel. This seems like an idiosyncratic reading.

Perhaps Pete can give us some sense of how that phrase is understood in the field of biblical studies?

Pete Enns - #13694

May 14th 2010


Rather than just give my opinion on this, are there biblical scholars you can point to who read H&E in places like Jer 4, Deut 32 and Isa 1 as referring to covenant people? I don’t know of any (including John Walton whom you cited in another comment—but point me to where he does if I am wrong). I am certainly open to having missed something, but the conventional readings of these and other similar passages seem very well founded to me.

Norm - #13715

May 14th 2010


I’m not sure how familiar you are with scholars using the Preterist hermeneutic but unless you discount them as “legitimate scholars” I believe many of them might agree with Jeff.
Here is just one quick quote

James Jordan “Through New Eyes” page 67

“We have seen that the expression “stars of the heavens” and “powers of the heavens” often refer to human governors. This means that the expression “heaven and earth” can sometimes REFER TO THE BODY POLITIC. The expression “new heavens and new earth,” while it can refer to a transfigured cosmos, can also refer to a new order on the earth: NEW RULERS AND NEW PEOPLE.”

James Jordan “Through New Eyes” page 67


Isa 13:10 KJV For THE STARS OF HEAVEN and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine.

Rev 6:13 KJV And THE STARS OF HEAVEN FELL UNTO THE EARTH, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.

Pete Enns - #13723

May 14th 2010

Hi Norm,

I’ve known James for years and I have always enjoyed his “disciplined creativity” as well as his unwillingness to take the easy road. But, I disagree with James on this matter as well. I do appreciate, though, how he phrases the H&E/Covenant people connection as more of a possibility.

With absolutely no disrespect intended toward you, James, of Jeffrey—none whatsoever—can you point me to trained biblical scholars, perhaps commentators, who take this view? I in no way mean to imply that “trained biblical scholars” are a unified cadre of gatekeepers who have the last word. I am looking more for how others handle these passages and whether that might be more convincing, esp. to some of our readers who may not have the opportunity to do the independent work here.

Pete Enns - #13724

May 14th 2010

(cont). For example, Jer 4:22-26 (don’t stop at v. 23) is an example of the common creation reversal theme that includes the cosmos and in this case Israel’s demise. The cosmic disasters are, in my view, quite obviously not the covenant people. Likewise, Deut 32:1 and Isa 1:2 are simply examples of a covenant formula where the covenant maker calls upon witnesses other than the other party in the event that the covenant is broken. H&E is not the covenant people, or Israel would be the covenant parter and the witnesses to the covenant. Or am I missing something?

If I may add, all of this is rather ancillary to NTW’s video.

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