Can We Read Like Apostles and Prophets? A Nuanced Answer to an Important Question

Recently, many scholars have argued that the apostles and prophets should be viewed as model readers whose hermeneutic is to be discovered and adopted by Christians today. In this paper, I propose a modest nuance to the prevailing perspective. In particular, I will argue that the biblical authors were model readers who nevertheless occupied a privileged hermeneutical space which afforded them access to the fuller sense of biblical texts. I will make my argument in three stages. First, by building upon the work of Iain Provan, Abner Chou, and others, I will demonstrate that, when interpreting texts, the biblical authors predominantly read texts according to their enriched literal sense. Thus, I will contend that those who wish to follow the example of the prophets and apostles should likewise read the Scriptures for its enriched literal sense by seeking a passage’s authorially-intended meaning and allowing the intended meanings of other, relevant biblical texts to shed further light on the passage in question. Second, after showing that the biblical authors normally interpreted texts according to their literal sense, I will nevertheless posit that certain texts are best understood as exceptions to the rule. I will focus on two examples where the prophets and apostles seem to read biblical texts extra-literally: namely, the Chronicler’s use of 2 Sam 24:1 (1 Chron 21:1) and Matthew’s use of Zech 11:12–13 (Matt 27:6–10). After surveying the ways that scholars have understood the hermeneutic that was operative in these cases, I will support my claim that these are examples of extra-literal readings. Furthermore, I will also contend that these two passages are problematic for those who believe that complete continuity should exist between the prophetic/apostolic hermeneutic and contemporary, Christian hermeneutics. Lastly, I will contend that these (and any other) extra-literal readings are best explained by an appeal to the concept of sensus plenior and the concept of privileged hermeneutical space. I will claim biblical warrant for both concepts in Daniel’s reading of Jer 25:11 and the angelic revelation granted to him (cf. Dan 9:2–3, 24). Specifically, I will argue that the account in Daniel demonstrates that Jeremiah’s prophecy had a fuller sense beyond the literal which was known to God and was revealed to Daniel. On this basis, I will argue that the prophets and apostles all occupied a privileged hermeneutical space, so that that they alone were made aware of which texts have a fuller sense and of what the divinely intended meaning of those texts is. Thus, I will posit that the concepts of sensus plenior and privileged hermeneutical space together provide a coherent and satisfactory explanation for why readers today can generally follow the hermeneutical example of the biblical authors while simultaneously acknowledging that the prophetic/apostolic hermeneutic may not always be discernible or entirely replicable.

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