Conventional or Contextual? Hebrews 10, Psalm 40, and the Use of the Old Testament in the New

Many explanations offered for the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament can be categorized as either “conventional hermeneutics” or “contextual hermeneutics.” Conventional hermeneutics points to an interpretive technique drawn from the NT author’s contemporaries to explain why he utilizes an OT text in a certain way, while contextual hermeneutics locates such explanations in the meaning of the OT passage within its original context. Conventional hermeneutics can be further categorized according to the source of the literary/reading convention the NT author is thought to be utilizing: Christian, Jewish, or Greco-Roman conventions.

Using Hebrews 10:5–10 as a test case, this paper will argue that the conventional approach to explaining the NT author’s use of Psalm 40 in this passage is exegetically inferior to the contextual approach, for at least three primary reasons. (1) The former approach undermines the author of Hebrews’s argument, while the latter strengthens it. (2) The former discourages deeper study of Psalm 40, while the latter encourages closer study of both OT and NT passages. (3) The former is primarily shaped by historical reconstructions based on extrabiblical data, while the latter is primarily shaped by the textual content of Psalm 40 itself. By arguing these points, this paper will demonstrate that the attempt to explain the NT author’s interpretive moves in terms of conventional hermeneutics ends up creating far more exegetical problems than it solves, while viewing the NT’s use of the OT in terms of contextual hermeneutics rests on a firmer exegetical foundation and opens the door to greater illumination of both OT and NT texts.

My argument will proceed as follows. First, I will briefly summarize the immediate contexts of both Psalm 40:6–8 and Hebrews 10:5–10. Second, I will provide an overview of some of the specific kinds of conventional hermeneutics that have been proposed to explain the use of Psalm 40 in Hebrews 10. Finally, I will offer arguments against the conventional hermeneutics model and for the contextual hermeneutics model, showcasing how the latter approach has far more strengths and fewer weaknesses than the former when it comes to interpreting this passage in Hebrews.

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