A Fundamental Exegetical Principle
Richard W. Coffen | 27 October 2020 |
For decades, Bible lovers, like feral rabbits, have produced numerous explanations of scriptural apocalyptic passages:
- times for the Second Advent, predicted from Jesus’ own words;
- identity of the sanctuary referenced in Daniel 8:14—an objective place on earth or in heaven, or subjective experience;
- “little horn”—friend or foe of God and/or of his people;
- cruelty of Roman emperors or alleged conflagration of Nashville;
and many other conjectures.
Two Examples of Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic
My uncle, James L. Hayward, Sr., whom I was fond of, mined the writings of Ellen White for a chronological chart of the last days. As a result (I always wished he had spent as much—or more—time with the Bible as he did with her writings!), he produced a book titled The Time of the End. In it he projected a timeline of final events. I used to mutter that if Jesus’ second coming, like his first, would not comply with all inspired expectations, then Uncle Jim would shout, “That is not Jesus!”
Then there was a newbie author whom I helped enter the SDA publishing world—Marvin Moore. As an aspiring author, he read Norma Youngberg’s book Creative Techniques for Christian Writers. Marvin was so self-disciplined that he did the exercises at the end of each chapter!
At first, he wrote (and we published) numerous novels for young readers. As time went on, he was hired as editor of Signs of the Times. Marvin has become an authority on end-time scenarios. To his credit, he has spent more time with Scripture than did Uncle Jim! Marvin has written various books and has held numerous seminars in which he explicates his unraveling of the obscurities of biblical apocalyptic.
A Modest Proposal
In this essay, first, I uphold a fundamental affirmation, which most of us will value.
Second, I will explain what I consider a logical conclusion deduced from that basic principle when applied to exegeting Scripture.
Communication—The fundamental principle is: God’s Word is communication. Because we identify Scripture as communication, we call it “Word.” Because we affirm that the Bible is divinely inspired, we categorize this communicative word as “God’s.” Got it? God’s Word is communication.
I assume we all concur with this theoretical construct. It is a theoretical construct because our affirmation of Scripture as God’s Word is not informative discourse but rather cognitive speech.
God’s existence is not an empirical datum as is the existence of Ted Wilson, who as president of the Review and Herald Publishing Association was my boss for several years. My senses of touch, sight, and hearing provided me with empirical data supporting the conclusion: Ted Wilson is. Existence of God may have some supportive evidence, but it is not an empirical claim based on demonstrable proof. White made clear that “faith rests upon evidence, not demonstration.”
Since the existence of God is a theoretical construct and not an empirical conclusion, therefore, the Bible as God’s Word is logically a theoretical construct rather than a demonstrable assertion.
The Model—In 1948, Claude Shannon, mathematician, and Warren Weaver, scientist, proposed a paradigm for the process of communication. The Bell System Technical Journal published their insight. Their graphic depiction has since been called the “mother of all models.”
Their model depicts communication as follows. (I have renamed some of the elements.)
Communicator → Encoding Communication → Channel for Communication → Decoding Communication → Communicatee
Another element—an important one for our discussion—constitutes part of the communication model: noise. Noise denotes anything that obscures the process of communication. Noise can affect any part of the process of communication. (1) The communicator might use improper grammar, ambiguous terminology, or language alien to the communicatee. (2) Noise can work to obfuscate the channel used for the communication if the written communication may be smudged or the penmanship unclear. (3) Noise can keep the communicatee from grasping the communication because the room she or he is in may be hot and muggy.
If God had written the Decalogue in Koine Greek, the language used by the New Testament writers, rather than in Proto-Sinaitic script, then Moses would never have understood it. If Isaiah were to have penned his messages in Proto-Sinaitic script rather than biblical Hebrew, then his sermons would have been lost on his intended communicatees.
Back to the Bible
The process of communication can occur multiple times, with each duplication possibly adding noise. For instance, when it comes to the Bible, several processes of communication repeat the communication activity.
Communicator [God] → Encoder [Holy Spirit] → Channel [dream/vision/idea] → Decoder [Holy Spirit] → Communicatee [Jeremiah]
Communicator [Jeremiah] → Encoder [Baruch writes the communication in Hebrew] → Channel [scroll] → Decoder [Baruch] → Communicatee [King Jehoiakim]
Communicator [public reader of manuscript] → Encoder [listening copyist] → Channel [written codex of what was read] → Decoder [monk] → Communicatee [monk]
Communicator [Textus Receptus] → Encoder [translators of Hebrew and Greek into English] → Channel [printed copies of KJV; some of which contain typos, such as “Thou shalt commit adultery”] → Decoder [editions updated to modern English] → Communicatee [You; I]
The Consequence—First, as with most any attempt at communication, it is important for the muddling element of noise to be reduced as far as possible. When it comes to interpreting Scripture, several manifestations of noise need diminishing. Examples include: (1) Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages, which most of us do not know; (2) subtleties in grammar and syntax of the ancient languages, which most of us do not understand; (3) ancient Near Eastern culture, which is foreign to moderns; (4) manuscript “glosses” inadvertently or purposefully introduced by copyists (So-called “lower criticism” has been viewed by conservatives as a legitimate endeavor.); and (5) unfamiliarity with the Elizabethan English of the King James Version. (There are at least 300 words in the KJV considered archaic.)
Second, eliminate any of those main steps, and no communication happens or is misunderstood.
Example 1—Ahaz’ kingdom was under attack by a coalition spearheaded by kings Pekah and Rezin. Isaiah, God’s communicator, assured Ahaz that all would turn out well. Isaiah, for God, challenged: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God” (Isaiah 7:11, NRSV).
Ahaz, complying with the Pentateuchal warning not to test God (Deuteronomy 6:16), said “‘I will not put the Lord to the test” (Isaiah 7:12, NRSV). The same Hebrew word translated “test” occurs in both passages.
Isaiah countered: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (verse 14). Interestingly, Isaiah recorded that soon he and his wife had engaged in coitus, resulting in the conception of a baby boy (Isaiah 8:3).
The “sign” itself served as a communication for communicatee Ahaz (735 B.C.–715 B.C.). If the sign had been for people living circa 6 B.C. (time of Jesus’ birth), then no communication would have occurred for Ahaz some 700 years earlier.
Example 2—Communicator Jesus framed this communication: “‘I tell you the truth, . . . some standing here . . . will not experience death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’” (Matthew 16:28, NET; emphasis mine). The communicatees—Jesus’ audience (in A.D. 29/30)—were able to decode that communication. Had communicator Jesus aimed that communication at communicatees living in A.D. 1844 or A.D. 2020, then no communication would have occurred on the day Jesus communicated with his intended communicatees.
Example 3—Communicator Paul wrote the following communication to communicatees in Thessalonica. “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord . . . Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:15, 17, NRSV; emphasis mine).
Note that communicator Paul identified himself with communicatees in Thessalonica. They and he (“we”) would remain alive until the Second Coming. If the communication had not been addressed to communicatees living in A.D. 50 or 51 but to those living millennia later, then Paul was engaged in an exercise of futility. He failed at communicating to the Thessalonian believers to whom he had addressed his epistle (communication).
Example 4—If there had been no communicatees among Daniel’s compatriots who could make sense of Daniel 8:14, then no communication would have occurred at that time. In the historical context, communication did occur. The Jewish exiles (including Daniel, who had read the timeframe [Daniel 9:2] that Jeremiah had predicted [Jeremiah 25:11; 29:10]) were concerned about the predicted restoration of the Jerusalem Temple. The 70-year-exile was about finished. Would the Temple remain rubble? Was God reassuring communicatees living c. 600 B.C. – 500 B.C.? Or was he encouraging people living more than a millennium later? If the latter, then (1) God was wasting his breath, (2) Daniel was prodigal with his supply of ink, and (3) Jeremiah’s 70-year period was wishful thinking at best and a hoax at worst! (I recognize that scholars debate the time when Daniel was written.)
Those examples help us to understand that the identity and existence of communicatees is crucial for communication to occur.
Communication and Biblical Apocalyptic—This same dynamic should apply to the divine communication of God’s Word. If any interpreter assumes that the original communication formulated by the original communicator could be decoded only by communicatees millennia later, then what occurs is not solid exegesis. Why? Because there was no original communication for the original communicatees to decode.
That conclusion follows (1) from the assumption that God’s Word is communication and (2) from the Shannon-Weaver model of communication. If the communications formulated by communicators such as Isaiah, Daniel, Jesus, Paul, and other biblical writers had no communicatees contemporary with the coding of the communication, then no decoded communication could have happened. Noise that blocked communication would have occurred.
Careful Exegesis—Responsible exegetes today ply their skills by trying to minimize noise that muffles the communication of biblical communicators, who wrote (1) thousands of years ago, (2) using dead languages, (3) to communicatees steeped in an extremely different culture.
Modern exegetes, in turn, become contemporary communicators, and we become the communicatees.
What about Paul’s assertion in 1 Corinthians 10:11 that “all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come”?
- First, notice that he was speaking to a last-day audience: “our admonition upon whom the ends of the world are come.” [Perfect or aorist, depending on manuscript; not future. Better translation: “have arrived.”] The plural possessive pronoun referred to the communicatees living during Paul’s lifetime. He was not addressing you and me.
- Second, in keeping with rabbinical practice, Paul could repurpose Scripture, taking it from its original historical context and applying it (“admonition”) to his day. This is a homiletical not an exegetical task.
- Third, “scientific” exegesis did not exist in biblical times. Even for centuries afterward, the allegorical method of interpretation held sway. It was with the advent of the Renaissance that exegetical principles were formulated and used.
As my college homiletic teacher, Herbert Douglass, used to tell us: “Inspired writers have the privilege of taking texts out of context. You are not inspired and, therefore, do not have that privilege.”
I wish that contemporary interpreters had done and will do their research into apocalyptic literature based on the essential exegetical tenet that the Bible is divine communication to ancient communicatees. If the result of revelation and inspiration made no sense to those original recipients of the divine message, then God’s Word was not a communication!
Contemporary sermonizers, however, might repurpose those original communications so that now we become communicatees, as we eavesdrop on those communications given to ancient Near Eastern communicatees.
- Selected Messages, book 1, p. 28. ↑
- businesstopia, “Shannon and Weaver Model Of Communication,” in Businesstopia, January 6, 2018, https://www.businesstopia.net/communication/shannon-and-weaver-model-communication. ↑
- Https://www.preservedwords.com/wordlist.html.] Another count gives 500 terms that have changed meaning. [Https://gratefultothedead.com/2011/01/23/words-in-the-king-james-version-that-now-mean-something-else-have-you-ever-run-across-these-and-wondered-what-they-meant. ↑
- Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. ↑
- Scripture Quoted by Permission. Quotations designated (NET) are from the Holy Bible: The Net Bible® (New English Translation®) copyright © 1998, 2005 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. www.bible.org. All Rights Reserved. ↑
- Harper’s Bible Dictionary, p. 1063; Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 1298. ↑
- Some interpreters allow for the possibility of repurposing an earlier and original communication for later communicatees. ↑
Richard W. Coffen is a retired vice president of editorial services at Review and Herald Publishing Association. He writes from Green Valley, Arizona.