Hermeneutical Hall Passes

Have you ever read the New Testament and wondered if the apostles would have passed a contemporary hermeneutics course? Sure, they quoted and alluded to the Old Testament, but carefully considering the original context just wasn’t very high on the apostolic priority list.

Or was it?

More than two decades ago, Greg Beale wrote a brief article for Themelios (the entire archives can be accessed for free at TGC) entitled “Did Jesus and His Followers Preach the Right Doctrine From the Wrong Texts? An Examination of the Presuppositions of Jesus’ and the Apostles’ Exegetical Method.” Ponderous title aside, Beale’s article forcefully contends that the NT authors in fact did interpret the OT in a hermeneutically responsible manner—indeed, one we ought to emulate.

Sloppy Exegetes? 


It’s commonly assumed that the NT authors paid paltry regard to the context surrounding their passages of choice. “With all due respect,” the thinking goes, “it sure seems that the NT authors treated Scripture like a gigantic grab bag from which to cherry-pick whatever suited their needs at the writing moment.” Nevertheless, such a mindset maintains, “Even if their OT excursions were exercises in missing the contextual point, the infallible end justifies the exegetically iffy means.”

Beale objects to this reasoning. He writes, “[The] proposal of many that the NT’s exegetical approach to the OT is characteristically non-contextual is a substantial overstatement.”

I remain convinced that once the hermeneutical and theological presuppositions of the NT writers are considered, there are no clear examples where they have developed a meaning from the OT which is inconsistent or contradictory to some aspect of the original OT intention.

Beale also challenges the popular notion that since the apostles were inspired by God, we should not emulate their methodology.

[It] is not necessary to claim that we have to have such inspiration to reproduce their method or their conclusions. The fact that we don’t have the same “revelatory stance” as the NT writers only means that we cannot have the same epistemological certainty about our interpretive conclusions and applications as they had. Exegetical method should not be confused with certainty about the conclusions of such a method, since the two are quite distinct.

In other words, the idea that the NT writers’ supposed exegetical freedoms were a function of divine inspiration fails to convince. These guys weren’t “irresponsible yet inspired.” Emulating apostolic interpretation, Beale argues, isn’t somehow conditioned on sharing apostolic inspiration. The reason their exegetical approach ought to be reproduced is because it was faithful. The apostles were models of “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15)—and not just because they were penning infallible sentences.

Test Case

So what does this look like on the ground? In Matthew 2, having just learned of Herod’s scheme to massacre every Bethlehem male under the age of two, we read in verses 17-18:

Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

It’s essential to observe that the quoted verse, Jeremiah 31:15, is situated in a setting of hope. In fact, it’s the lone note of doom in a symphony of grace. Taken as a whole, Jeremiah 31 is a complex of promises revealing what God will do in the future for his soon-to-be-exiled people. Judgment won’t be the last word. There will be life after Babylon when he returns them to their land, restores their fortunes, and grants them a heart to obey.

Ramah, a little town about six miles north of Jerusalem, was the site where the Jewish captives were rounded up before their death march to Babylon. To the Jews, then, it came to represent a place of heart-wrenching agony. Ramah was where friendships got ripped asunder, where husbands gazed upon their wives for the last time, and where children were pried from the fingers of wailing mothers. As the idealized mother of Israel, Rachel weeps over the impending slaughter of her descendants at Babylonian hands.

But why does Matthew grab Jeremiah 31:15 to make sense of the Bethlehem massacre? It’s not as if that verse is a prediction—it isn’t even in the future tense. How, then, can he see it finding fulfillment in the events surrounding Herod’s holocaust?

On one level, the verse is no doubt a poignant reminder that God works to bring blessing through disaster, life through death. Just as the horror of Jeremiah 31:15 is planted in the soil of future hope, so Matthew’s readers can rest assured that Herod’s murderous machinations will finally fail. The newborn King will be spared.

But is that it? Does Matthew simply want us to assure us that God will bring blessing out of bereavement?

I think there’s a bit more going on. Matthew understands Israel’s long exile—her banishment because of sin—to have finally reached its climax. The end is now in sight. Indeed, Rachel’s weeping is about to cease, for God’s Messiah has finally come to bring an end to Israel’s—and humanity’s—exile from God’s favor and blessing.

Matthew is showing us that the King is on the scene to bring God’s people home, and no human monarch can stop him. Jeremiah 31:15 was couched in the hope that God wouldn’t leave his people in exile forever. In Jesus he has arrived to accomplish that homecoming—not simply from Babylon to Israel, but from judgment to forgiveness and from death to life.

The tears of the exile, then, are finally being “fulfilled,” for the tears begun in Jeremiah’s day reach their climax in the tears of the mothers of Bethlehem. David’s royal heir has arrived, the exile is ending, and God’s true Son will soon inaugurate the new covenant promised in Jeremiah 31.

So does Matthew play fast and loose with the Old Testament in order to suit his purposes? No. Rather, he’s showing his readers how Jesus Christ fulfills all the hopes and relieves all the tensions of the Old Testament and the history of Israel. The question, then, of whether a New Testament apostle would pass a contemporary hermeneutics course may have more to say about our hermeneutics than the apostles’.


To learn more about these complex issues, I’d recommend the Beale-edited volume, The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?: Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New (Baker, 1994), as well as the comprehensive commentary, edited by Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Baker, 2007). The latter work deals with every NT text in which the OT is quoted or clearly alluded to.

  • http://www.dogmadoxa.blogspot.com Dane

    This is outstanding, Matt. Thanks.

  • http://thecrossingfc.org Gary McQuinn

    Great post. The Beale article in the online version of Themelios is missing a few (crucial)pages. I emailed them a while ago, but it has not yet been updated. The article is also republished in Right Doctrine From the Wrong Texts? The Beale article was a paradigm-shifter for me.

  • http://beingandyjones.tumblr.com Andy Jones

    Many thanks for the post. Though I agree with the overall analysis of intra-biblical hermeneutics, there are still exceptions to the norm. I attended an evangelical seminary where every professor in the biblical studies department warned about “allegorizing” Scripture. I sympathize with the point they were trying to make as I do yours. However, Paul unashamedly admits that he allegorized Scripture (Gal. 4:24). All that to say, we teach the norms not the exceptions. I don’t want to teach people to allegorize Scripture but there are moments in the Bible where apostolic hermeneutics make us uncomfortable.

    • Caleb B

      Andy, would the apostle Paul (or anyone at that point in history) have understood the word translated “allegory” or allegorically to mean the same thing we mean when we read allegory? Could the allegorizing Paul was doing be different than the allegorizing your professors warned you about?

      • http://beingandyjones.tumblr.com Andy Jones


        You ask a good question. I’m far from being an expert on hermeneutics. I think it is fair to say that the allegorizing of Paul is not one-to-one to the allegorizing of today. However, I also don’t think most evangelical seminary professors would be comfortable with describing Sarah as the heavenly Jerusalem when exegeting the original story in Genesis, which is what Paul did. I guess my assessment would be Paul allegorized at least to an extent that would make most of us uncomfortable. I think we need to be honest about that when teaching hermeneutics.

  • jeff weaver


    Thank you for doing this hard work for us. Another resource, possibly abridged of the two resources you mentioned above, was done by Dr. Michael Vlach and can be accessed online:


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  • Nate Jones

    Wonderful, thanks Matt.

  • http://schreinerpatrick.wordpress.com/ Patrick

    Great Matt. Although the great lengths that we must go to explain this makes me wonder if our hermeneutics might need a little tweaking. On other other hand, it could just be a lack of understanding our OT as Beale argues.

  • Larry Geiger

    The apostles were taught these things by Jesus. They still had his words echoing in their ears when they wrote this stuff down. They were quoting the passages that Jesus quoted them when he taught them.

    • http://tomlarsen.org Tom Larsen

      I really don’t think we’re in a position to know that.

  • Nathan Lugbill

    Very helpful post. The Beale article is the best I’ve read on NT use of the OT.

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  • Craig H Robinson

    A potentially different approach to the passage, which remains faithful to the OT context:

    Who is Rachel weeping over? Her children or the children slaughtered? The children slaughtered are not her own, and she is hardly the idealized mother of Israel. The slaughtered children belong to Leah. Genesis 30 shows Rachel and Leah as rivals, and the embedded stores reflect unfavorably on Rachel. She gives her handmaid as a wife to Jacob (like Sarah) and then sells her rights to Jacob for food (similar to Esau). Then in the next chapter we see her steal the family idols. Throughout the rest of the OT, there is tension between the house of Rachel (Joseph/Ephraim) and the house of Leah (Judah). This tension will not be resolved until the fulfillment of the prophecy to Ezekiel in Ezek 36:15-23 where the stick of Joseph/Ephraim is combined with the stick of Judah/Israel.

    A pregnant Rachel dies short of Bethlehem giving birth to Benjamin. A pregnant Mary arrives at Bethlehem in this passage giving birth to the King of Judah. Notice it is Leah, not the favored Rachel, that is buried with Jacob, and Sarah and Rebekah along with their husbands Abraham and Issac.

    Notice that it is the house of Rachel that is the “ruling” house for the next 6 books of the Bible from Joseph to Joshua to Saul. Leah’s house or Judah’s line is not truly dealt with again until the book of Ruth. One thing that I have not seen any commentator mention is that in the book of Judges all the major judges are descendants of Rachel or her handmaid. It is not just that there was no king in Israel, but that there was no king found suitable from the house of Rachel.

    Notice the literary structure in I Samuel 16:13-14 when the “ruling” house switches from Rachel (here Benjamin through Saul) to Leah (house of Judah through David):

    A. And the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David (house of Leah).

    X. And Samuel rose and went to RAMAH.

    A’. Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul (house of Rachel).

    When there there is a switch in the “ruling” houses, Ramah plays a prominent role. Samuel a descendant of Ephraim was ruling/judging from Ramah.

    Later when the tribes split, the leader is Jeroboam who comes from the tribe of Ephraim, and what does he say? “What portion do we have in David?” (I Kings 12:16). The tension between the two houses remain.

    So what am I suggesting?

    I am suggesting that Rachel is not crying over the slaughtered children of Bethlehem, but rather in a sense that Jesus was not among them. The fulfillment is not in the prior verse in Matthew but looks back over the whole chapter. If Jesus is the Promised seed, then her rival Leah has the final triumph over her. But Jeremiah (31:16) is telling her not to weep. For no seed coming from Rachel can die and conquer the sins of the world. But a seed coming from Leah who escapes Herod but dies on the cross for the sins of the world can not only save the children of Leah but also bring to salvation the wayward children of Rachel (Ephraim) and the children of all the nations.

    I think this is a potential explanation that is faithful to the OT context of Jeremiah but also the whole OT story.

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