Allegorical Interpretation

allegorical 1

Q. The Lord Jesus uses an allegorical approach to interpret the meaning of His parables in Matthew 13. In the early days of the church, use of such an approach to interpret biblical texts was overwhelming, but nowadays we adopt the historical-grammatical hermeneutical principle as far as possible. How should a balance be struck between the two? Or should it be that if a historical-grammatical interpretation is not evident (such as the number of the beast is 666), then allegorical interpretation would be used to look for an answer? How can we measure whether the interpreted result is correct or not? How far can we stretch this method?

A. The allegorical method is a method of interpretation which assumes that the Bible has a hidden, mystical meaning beyond the literal, which is not obvious from the surface meaning the words conveyed.

The word “allegorically” appears in the NASB only in Ga 4:24:

Ga 4:24 This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. (NASB)

It translates the Greek word “allegoreo“, which means “to speak in a figure”, i.e. figuratively or symbolically.
In Ga 4, Hagar = bond woman = covenant from Mt. Sinai
Sarah = free woman = New covenant
This meaning is not obvious until explained by Paul, under inspiration by the Holy Spirit, and goes beyond our ordinary figures of speech.

Some suggested that since Jesus Himself used an allegorical approach to interpret His parables, this method is justified. I do not think so. First, when the disciples did not understand a parable, Jesus Himself explained it to them – the parable of the Sower (Mt 13:3-9) in Mt 13:18-23; the parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Mt 13:24-30) in Mt 13:36-43. Although the explanation of other parables are not recorded in the gospels, Jesus did not leave them in the dark as to what He meant:
Mk 4:34 and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples.

Secondly, Jesus always used day-to-day illustrations e.g. sowing, seeds, soils, leaven, fishing, lamp etc. Unlike current allegorical interpretations, He did not use fancy ideas which the disciples could not relate to.

I believe therefore the historical-grammatical method should be used throughout, and that the allegorical method is not valid except in cases specifically identified in the Bible as symbolic. After all, if the meaning derived from analyzing the writing in its context, understanding the historical and cultural background and taking the grammar into account, cannot be accepted, language no longer has any meaning! If the plain meaning makes sense, seek no other sense! Otherwise what else can you trust? Some wild ideas concocted by the interpreter based on loose associations?

Having said that, I am fully aware of interpreting any passage according to its genre, and the use of figures of speech in literal interpretation. Much of apocalyptic literature, for example, was composed during times of persecution, and therefore written in symbolic language to protect the author and the reader. But that does not warrant spiritualizing everything to say whatever the interpreter wants it to say.

The measure of any interpreted result must be how well does it fit with all available evidence, including the context, background, biblical worldview, consistency with known biblical teaching and reality. All interpretation, historical-grammatical or allegorical, must pass through the same criteria for evaluation. Otherwise how can we compare which is more valid? The question then is not how far we can stretch the allegorical method, but how carefully we have done our observation and interpretation using all the tools available. If we have not done our homework, we are under a stricter judgment as we will be leading others astray.

Jas 3:1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.

This is my biased view. Don’t dig yourself into a dead-end (鑽牛角尖). Hope it will encourage others to be careful exegetes instead of pursuing human speculations.

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Chiastic Structure

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Q. Some verses of the Scripture bear specific structures, such as 22 verses of a certain chapter in Psalms, Lamentations etc. each of which begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order, but some other are rather difficult to identify, such as chiastic structure which the OT writers often used. Is there any rule in how to identify and establish such a structure, in particular the central event which would then bear the main theme of the structure?

A. I am not a bible scholar, only a small church pastor, so my knowledge of the chiastic structure is limited. I can tell you only the few things I learnt. The rest you have to study up yourself.

For the benefit of other readers, the chiastic structure, or chiasm, is a literary device in which a series of ideas is presented and then repeated in reverse order. A simple biblical example is Mk 2:27:
• The Sabbath was made for man,
• and not man for the Sabbath.

A famous secular example is Kennedy’s quotation:
Ask not what your country can do for you,
• Ask what you can do for your country.

The structure in both is ABB’A’, with AB reflected like in a mirror as B’A’. Some structures are more complicated with many layers, but essentially they are like a ring with the opening and closing completing a circle. The name chiastic comes from the Greek alphabet chi, which looks like the English letter X, with the left half reflected in the right half, or top reflected in the bottom.

What are some basic rules? I use the formula in swearing an oath “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” as a memory aid:

The Unit. Since the structure is purposely built into the design by the author to highlight his emphasis, it must be “discovered” by carefully observing the literary unit rather than imposed by the reader. The unit may be as short as one sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, or as long as the whole book. So there may be micro as well as macro chiastic structures.

The Whole Unit. You must deconstruct the whole literary unit to expose the chiasm. You cannot leave out some parts which do not fit your proposed structure. That is a sure sign that you are trying to force the text to fit your mold.

Nothing but the Unit. Besides not taking away any parts to force fit, you cannot add in your own ideas or change the meaning of words to come up with a nice structure. Only the author’s thoughts are allowed, not yours.

Simplicity. The last rule is not from law, but logic – Occam’s or Ockham’s razorthe simpler the better. This philosophical principle states that given two possible explanations for an occurrence, the fewer assumptions you have to make, the better that explanation is. God gave the Bible to everyone, not just scholars. He wrote it such that ordinary folks like you and me can know Him and His truth. So to adapt Occam’s razor to chiasm, the simpler the structure, the better. Of course the biblical author can have a complex structure in mind too, it’s just less likely if the Bible is for the average person and not academics.

Other than these basic rules, I don’t know much about the art of deconstruction. I am an engineer and logician by training, not a poet; a left-brain and not a right-brain thinker. I can recommend two books which might help you:

The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi by David Dorsey http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0801027934/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0801027934&linkCode=as2&tag=biblediscernm-20&linkId=E326CK6SG7AWW2JY
The Companion Bible by EW Bullinger http://www.amazon.com/Companion-Bible-E-W-Bullinger/dp/0825422035/ref=sr_1_1_twi_har_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1439757633&sr=1-1&keywords=companion+bible

Beyond this I don’t have much to offer. Hope this helps.

Jesus Loves Chinatown

Jesus loves Chinatown 2

Jesus loves Chinatown 1

Every year the Toronto Short Term Mission Training Center (TSTMTC) hosts a week-long evangelistic event to reach out to various communities in Toronto. Sometimes it is held in a mall to engage the shoppers, but this year and last it is targeted at Chinatown, the oldest Chinese community in Greater Toronto Area.

It is not surprising that many churches, both Caucasian and ethnic, are aging rapidly. With the younger generation staying away from church and the older generation shrinking by attrition, many churches are experiencing a post-80 (80后) or post-90 (90后) drought. Some big churches that used to have a congregation of over 500 have now shrunk to below 200 in attendance, and for some churches the age of the youngest members have climbed to over 60. When a church loses her youth, she loses her future.

To reverse this trend, some tried to break out of their program mode to reach out beyond their four walls. The TSTMTC does a good job assisting church members to overcome their fear of witnessing by providing demonstrations, role-plays, and accompanying them to put what they learned into practice. Too bad some are still stuck in their nearsightedness and not engaged in active evangelism, preferring to stay within their comfort zone and not waking up to the realization that they have been disobedient to the Great Commission. I pray more churches would support mission, both local and beyond, because the alternative is decay and self-destruction. May the Lord help us.

Setting up to do street preaching at corner of Dundas and Spadina

Setting up to do street preaching at corner of Dundas and Spadina

Sharing with pedestrians of all ethnicities

Sharing with pedestrians of all ethnicities

Temple Tax and Principles of Interpretation (5 of 5)

Matthew 17 24-27 e

(Continued from yesterday)

(4) Did the disciples need to pay this temple tax? The following summarizes opposite views:

YES
• Since they were Jewish males aged over 20, they need to pay
• Jesus’ parable only gave exemption to the sons of the king, not other family members or servants
• The disciples hadn’t received the Holy Spirit yet & hence needed redemption. Also salvation was not by default given by Jesus to all disciples or else Judas Iscariot wouldn’t fall from grace.

NO
• Disciples were servants of the King (some disagreed saying they were no longer servants) and hence treated as family of the King
• Disciples were not only family members, but were sons of God (Rom 8:5; Gal 4:6)

Which view is more convincing, or in effect is this irrelevant because no matter what, the tax collectors will still consider Jesus and also these disciples had a duty to pay the tax?

I think we should draw our conclusion first from the text, and only secondarily from other passages. Let’s go back to Jesus’ answer.

He said, “Then the sons are exempt. However, so that we do not offend them, …” (Mt 17:26-27a). By using “we” instead of “I”, Jesus was including Peter in “sons”. The implication is that Peter, and by extension to other apostles, are “sons of the King” and not strangers, and therefore do not have to pay customs or poll-tax. I therefore side with NO, the disciples do not need to pay. They paid to go above and beyond what was required, not out of necessity, but to fulfill all righteousness.

I also agree that this is perhaps a moot point as outsiders may not see this, and would consider Jesus and His disciples have a duty to pay the tax.

Postlude. I dealt with this passage at considerable length to illustrate the proper use of rules of interpretation – observation, context, both immediate and broad from other Scriptures, exegesis vs. eisegesis etc. Studying the Bible is not a matter of private interpretation (2 Pet 1:20), saying what you want and justifying it by quoting verses out of context. I hope everyone, especially Sunday school teachers, would learn basic hermeneutics well before they teach either verbally or in writing. And I hope if you have rightly divided the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15) you will share it with others.

Temple Tax and Greatness? (4 of 5)

Matthew 17 24-27 d

(Continued from yesterday)

I tried to adopt the historical-grammatical approach, but my view is at odd with others:-
e) If Jesus is just to demonstrate humility, kenosis etc., then why did He also pay the tax for Peter? He could simply pay His own. I think He demonstrated to the disciples the rule of the Kingdom of God that whoever wished to be the greater had to serve others, and He exemplified serving Peter by paying for Peter. The immediate preceding text (Mk 9:33-34) tells that inside this house were not only Peter, but all disciples. Before entering the house, they had just argued who was the greatest. The immediate following text (Mk 9:35-37 / Mt 18:1-5) talks about the same thing, so the temple tax incident is the core of the chiastic structure and should revolve around this theme.
Which interpretation is correct?

I have problems about your inserting Mt 17:24-27 in between Mk 9:33-34 and Mk 9:35-37 and calling them immediate preceding and following texts. You yourself noted that the temple tax incident is recorded only in Mt 17:24-27 and not other gospels. Its immediate preceding text is Mt 17:14-21 on the healing of a boy with a demon, and 22-23 on Jesus foretelling His betrayal and resurrection. Its immediate following text is Mt 18:1-6 on rank in the kingdom.

Mk 9:33-37 on who is the greatest is one single unit. It’s immediate preceding text is Mk 9:14-29 on the healing of a boy with an evil spirit, and 30-32 on Jesus foretelling His death and resurrection. Its immediate following text is Mk 9:38-41 on whoever is not against us is for us.

Although the immediate preceding texts of Mt 17:24-27 and Mk 9:33-37 are similar, the immediate following texts are different. You cannot simply insert Mt 17:24-27 into Mk 9:33-37, split the latter into two halves, and call them Mt 17:24-27’s preceding and following texts. Of course they are talking about greatness, because they are actually one unit! Matthew is Matthew and Mark is Mark. You can’t mix the two. It is an artificial construct, and the chiastic structure simply does not apply. I will deal with chiasm in a separate post.

(To be continued)

Did Jesus break Jewish Laws? (3 of 5)

Matthew 17 24-27 c

(Continued from yesterday)

b) Another said by voluntarily paying the tax, Jesus taught humility to His disciples.

In interpreting the Bible, there is often a primarily meaning as intended by the author, and other meanings of secondary importance. I do not think teaching humility is the primary meaning here. The context is not about humility.

c) Another said He demonstrated kenosis to the tax collectors.

A basic rule is that we must always discover what it means to the original hearers, before we see what it means to us the current readers. I doubt very much the tax collectors recognized Jesus as God Incarnate emptying (kenosis) and humbling Himself in paying the tax. I don’t think kenosis is the point at all.

d) Yet most commentators linked this to giving Caesar what belonged to Caesar and said He demonstrated to His disciples on submission to the authority because the bible said His act was to avoid offending the tax collectors, but then why did He challenge and break other Jewish laws?

Rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s is a separate teaching. There it was giving to a pagan emperor. Here it is a contribution to God. The only thing common was giving. Submission to authority is taught by the Bible, but I don’t think that’s the point here, as the tribute money was for God, not an earthly authority.

Mt 17:27 says, “so that we do not offend them”. Jesus was never afraid of confronting the Jewish authorities. Why did He make a concession here? First, note that Jesus came to fulfill the Law, not break it. He broke the tradition of the elders, to teach them the spirit of God’s Laws:

Mt 5:17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.
• Mt 15:2-3, 6b Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? … And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition.
• Mt 7:5, 8-9, 13 The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” … Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. … thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.”

The two drachma tax was part of the Law, not a tradition of men; therefore Jesus willingly complied. Or it may be that He was a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Mt 11:19; Lk 7:34) and knew that they were only doing their job. So just as He did not need to be baptized by John but did anyway, He paid the tax voluntarily to “fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15).

(To be continued)

Redemption Money (2 of 5)

Matthew 17 24-27 b

(Continued from yesterday)

(2) Evidently Peter had to pay this temple tax too (otherwise there was no need for Jesus to pay it for him), but why didn’t the tax collectors also chase Peter for payment? Some commentator said their primary target was Jesus not Peter, so they didn’t bother chasing him. Again my question is the same as above. Would this constitute eisegesis?

The “temple tax” was tribute money started by Moses for the upkeep of the tabernacle, and collected from every male 20 years old and over:

Ex 30:13-14 This is what everyone who is numbered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as a contribution to the LORD. Everyone who is numbered, from twenty years old and over, shall give the contribution to the LORD.
• Ex 38:26 a beka a head (that is, half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary), for each one who passed over to those who were numbered, from twenty years old and upward, for 603,550 men.
• 2 Chron 24:9 They made a proclamation in Judah and Jerusalem to bring to the LORD the levy fixed by Moses the servant of God on Israel in the wilderness.

To outsiders, both Jesus and Peter would fall under this law and have to pay the tax. The commentator’s assertion that they may be after Jesus and not Peter is remotely possible, but highly unlikely given the background. Again, I do not see this as eisegesis. He does not seem to be pushing his own preconceived ideas. It is just one not carefully thought out explanation without a systematic bias behind it.

(3) There are different interpretations on Jesus paying the tax. These include:-
a) The temple belonged to God, so as Son of God, Jesus need not pay temple tax. On the other hand, as Son of Man He had to pay it as it was universal for men aged over 20, so it’s a case of struggle within His duality. Other disagreed saying that apart from being used to maintain the temple, this tax has the inherent meaning of redemption of sin and since Jesus did not sin, so even though He was Son of Man, He still need not pay.

The key turns on Jesus’ question and answer:
Mt 17:25b, 26b From whom do the kings of the earth collect customs or poll-tax, from their sons or from strangers?” … Then the sons are exempt.

Jesus asked “sons”, not “Son”. He was not referring to Himself as the Son of God, and the Son of Man was never in the picture. So this is not a struggle within His duality, especially when Jesus knew sons are exempt.

Regarding redemption of sins, it is true that when Moses levied this tax, it carried the meaning of atonement:

Ex 30:12 When you take a census of the sons of Israel to number them, then each one of them shall give a ransom for himself to the LORD, when you number them, so that there will be no plague among them when you number them
• Ex 30:15-16 The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than the half shekel, when you give the contribution to the LORD to make atonement for yourselves. You shall take the atonement money from the sons of Israel and shall give it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may be a memorial for the sons of Israel before the LORD, to make atonement for yourselves.

Jesus did not sin and did not need to make atonement for Himself. So He did not have to pay the tax.

(To be continued)