Is There Only One Correct Way to Interpret a Given Passage of Scripture?

white ballpoint pen on book pages

In the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew explains how different aspects of Jesus’ life fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. However, upon examinations, some of these prophecies bring up interesting questions.

Yesterday I addressed one such question: Is There a Prophecy that Says that Jesus Would Come from Nazareth? – based on Matthew’s claim in 2:23 that Jesus was raised in Nazareth in order to fulfill what was spoken by the prophets.

The Issues: Authorial Intent and Multiple Meanings

Another verse in Matthew chapter 2 brings up a different issue: In Matthew 2:13-15, Matthew describes the flight to Egypt, when Jesus and his family fled to Egypt for several years because Herod wanted to kill Jesus. (See also: Advent Meditations: Jesus Was a Refugee) In Matthew 2:15, Matthew says that when Jesus returned from Egypt, it was a fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Here’s why this is interesting: When Hosea wrote these words, he was speaking of Israel as God’s “son” whom he brought out of Egypt in the Exodus. Hosea’s intention was not to speak of the Messiah. However, what Matthew is saying, assumedly under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is that even though Hosea’s intent was merely to refer to Israel, he was also writing (by the inspiration of the Spirit) about the Son of God, i.e. the Messiah, whom we now know to be Jesus of Nazareth – even though he did not realize it at the time.

Furthermore, this means that there are two meanings and interpretations of this passage which are both correct: historically it speaks about God bringing Israel out of Egypt, and prophetically it foretells that the Messiah would sojourn in Egypt for a time.

Polysemy and Multivalence

There are several Old Testament prophecies which are used in the Old Testament in this way: while they have a historical meaning, which corresponds to the authorial intent of the original writer, they also have a prophetic meaning, which the author was unaware of, which found (or still will find) its fulfillment in the future.

For example, several passages in the prophetic books warn of an exile which is to come, but then conclude with a promise of the regathering of the people of both Israel and Judah to the land, as well as a time of peace and prosperity to follow. The return of the people to the land was fulfilled in the time following the Babylonian exile. It could also be said that this was fulfilled again through the Zionist movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. And yet, both of these were only partial fulfillments, since the ultimate fulfillment of promised kingdom of peace, justice, and righteousness will only see its complete fulfillment after the return of Jesus.

What this means is that many biblical texts are polysemic and multivalent. 

  • Polysemic: “multiple meanings”
  • Multivalence: “many appeals or values”

Scholars of textual hermeneutics, like Paul Ricoeur and Hans G. Gadamer explain the polysemy of biblical texts by saying that, unlike scientific formulas and computer codes, the texts of Scripture sometimes contain “surpluses of meaning.” [1]

This is why some texts in the Bible are not entirely controlled in their interpretation by their original human writers (i.e. authorial intent). The Hosea passage cited in Matthew 2 is a perfect example of this. What is notable here is that the different meanings do not contradict each other.

John Goldingay explains, “An element of polyvalence or irreducible ambiguity characterizes parts of scripture.” [2]

Thus, Scripture cannot be used to say anything we want it to, but we would be contradicting Scripture itself to claim that there can only be one correct interpretation of every passage in Scripture. What is important is that the different interpretations do not have contradictory meanings.

Above all, this should leave us in awe of the rich complexity and beauty of the Word of God, and it should leave us all the more convinced of its divine inspiration.

Multivalence and Multivocality

Multivalence means different appeals or values, and Multivocality means that Scripture speaks to different listeners in different voices that say different (but, again, not conflicting) things.

Christian Smith illustrates this by compiling a list of different lessons and applications which can be faithfully gleaned from Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in John 4:

  • Christians would do well to “get out of their comfort zones” in order to preach the gospel to those who are culturally different or who live in foreign lands, but are “ripe for the harvest”
  • A person who drinks of “the living water” that Jesus offers will never again “thirst” for the unsatisfying “waters” of “the world”
  • Jesus knows every detail about our personal lives, and loves us enough to confront us with hard questions in order to lead us to repentance
  • Jesus knows everything we have ever done, and still loves us and stands ready to forgive us
  • An effective strategy for evangelism is to build relationships, ask questions, and point people to Jesus
  • Those who have truly encountered Jesus and repented will naturally respond by telling others, i.e. evangelizing
  • The fact that Jesus was physically tired shows that he was fully human
  • The fact that the woman left her water jar to go and tell people in town about Jesus models the kind of priorities we ought to have in regard to possessions and the mission of God
  • By speaking to this Samaritan woman, Jesus reveals that he has come as the Savior of people from all the nations
  • Jesus’ reply to his disciples about hunger and food shows us the proper outlook on doing God’s will and God’s work [3]

Again, this is not to say that we can make Scripture say whatever we want; we certainly cannot. Yet any of these above messages – and more – would be faithful interpretations and applications of this text.

Considering Inspirational Intent

We must not only consider authorial intent, we must also consider the intent of the inspirer: God. To do this, we consider canonical, or biblical theology: i.e. the message and narrative of the Bible as a whole.

This is what Matthew is doing  in several instances where he re-interprets Old Testament passages and applies them to Jesus; he is considering the grand narrative and message of the Bible as a whole, as a story which – in all of its “sub-stories” – is about Jesus. He applies a Christo-centric hermeneutic, in other words; one that he likely learned from Jesus himself after the resurrection when Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45), and “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

May God help us to understand, interpret, and apply His Word faithfully and accurately – according to His intent!

If Jesus is the Son of God, Why Did He Call Himself the “Son of Man”?

Jesus’ favorite way of referring to himself was as the “Son of Man”. This term is used of Jesus 88 times in the New Testament, and Jesus refers to himself  as the “Son of Man” more often than as the “Son of God”.

I am often asked why this is, and why Jesus preferred this term over the term Son of God. Here are some thoughts on what that term means and why Jesus may have preferred it:

Son of Man is a Messianic title from the Old Testament

The title: “Son of Man” was a reference to a prophecy found in Daniel 7:13-14:

I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

This description of the “Son of Man” matches that descriptions of the Messiah found elsewhere in the Old Testament. What is particularly interesting is that the Son of Man is exalted, divine, and is sent from Heaven – and yet, is distinct from “the Ancient of Days”. This is in line with Trinitarian theology, which states that the Son and the Father are distinct persons within the Godhead.

The Son of Man according to this prophecy is both human and exalted. He does the work which only God can do, indicating that he is God, and yet he is distinct from the “Ancient of Days” who sends him. This tells us that the Messiah would be human, but he would also be God at the same time, while a distinct person from the “Ancient of Days”, AKA the Father.

As I discussed in a previous post – Why Did Jesus Tell Some People to Keep Quiet About His Miracles and Identity? – although Jesus was sometimes very explicit about his identity, other times Jesus was more subtle and implicit in how he revealed his identity. In that post I delve into some reasons why that was, but here it suffices to say that by using the term “Son of Man”, Jesus was using a term by which those who had ears to hear would pick up what he was putting down.

Son of Man speaks to Jesus’ humanity

The term Son of Man emphasizes the fact that Jesus was truly and fully human. Although he was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, he is nevertheless fully human.

Why are you telling me this?

Remember that the Gospels were written by humans under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. What that means is that there is a particular telos or objective inherent to what they have written and how they have written it. This is true of any historical account: any time anyone tells a story, they include certain details and leave out other details depending on what they want to emphasize for their audience. This is true of the Gospels as well. So what is the telos or objective of the Gospel writers in making sure we know that Jesus often used the title “Son of Man” in referring to himself (other than the fact that he actually did)? Probably it is to emphasize that Jesus was truly and fully human.

Trinitarian theology

We know from early church history, that there was a tendency amongst some Christians to emphasize the deity of Christ to the negation of His humanity. The converse was also true, and these discussions and debates culminated with the codifying of the doctrine of the Trinity at Nicaea and in the Athanasian Creed. Even to this day, there are some Christians, e.g. Coptic Christians, who are “monophysites”, which means that they believe that Jesus only had one nature: a divine one, and that he was not fully human. The use of the term “Son of Man” emphasized Jesus’ true humanity.

Son of Man actually had more significance in that context than Son of God

To the Jewish mind, the term Son of God might be used to refer to any person without too much controversy, because they would agree that we are all created by God, and therefore could be called “sons” of God. For example, Psalm 82:6 says, “You are all sons of the Most High.”

The same could be said of “Son of Man” for that matter, in the sense that all humans are sons or daughters of men. The difference is that in the Jewish context, the term “Son of Man” actually carried more significance because of Daniel’s prophecy.

Remember that Jesus actually did call himself the Son of God on several occasions, as John’s gospel in particular records. Again, this gets to the point of the telos of John’s gospel, which is to emphasize Jesus’ deity – whereas other gospels aim to emphasize his humanity.

But it is not only in John’s gospel that we see Jesus being called “Son of God”, which reminds us of the importance of his two-fold nature as both fully God and fully man, a nature that was necessary in order for him to be the perfect Savior that we need.

A case study

I will leave you with these words from Mark’s gospel:

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Living God?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:61-64)

Notice in this text:

  • Jesus said he is the Son of God
  • Jesus called himself the Son of Man – and connected that term with the imagery directly from Daniel 7:13-14
  • This was understood by the Jewish people to be a claim of deity, which is why they accused him of blasphemy and condemned him to death.

O Little Town of Bethlehem: What are the Odds?

A reader of this blog contacted me this week asking if I could write a few words about Micah 5:2

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.

Bethlehem = “House of Bread” – it is a small town only a few kilometers outside of Jerusalem. It was also the ancestral home of King David.

The older, pre-Jewish name of Bethlehem was Ephrathah, which is used on several occasions to speak of it in the Bible.

Micah’s prophecy is about the impending destruction of Samaria and Judea, including Jerusalem for their sins and refusal to repent of them and turn their hearts back to God. As a result, destruction would come upon them from other nations and they would be carried off in exile.

However, the final word of this prophetic message is one of hope and restoration, the message that God has not abandoned his people, but is wholly committed to them, and at a time when they have repented, he will fulfill his promises to them.

What promises were these? In particular it was the promise of a ruler, a King in the line of David, who would establish a Kingdom which would have no end; a kingdom of peace and justice and righteousness which would last forever.

That’s a pretty steep promise! Is it just meant as hyperbole, or was it meant to be taken as a literal promise? How could any king rule forever?

When you begin to take the different promises about this king together, the picture comes together of a King who is more than just a man, but who is actually divine in nature. Notice how Micah says that “his coming forth is from old, from ancient days” – this is saying that one is going to be born, who has existed from eternity past. This is speaking of divinity being born into the world to establish an everlasting kingdom. This is speaking of the incarnation: God coming to us, born in human flesh.

And where would this happen? In Bethlehem. A village of no consequence, only famous as the ancestral home of Israel’s greatest king – and significantly, a king who was promised by God that one of his descendants would establish an everlasting kingdom.

Micah 5:2 is one of 300+ prophecies found in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) about the Messiah, which speak of who he would be, what he would do, and how his coming would take place. 300+ – fulfilled by one person! What are the odds?

Peter Stoner, in Science Speaks (Moody Press) attempts to show how coincidence is ruled out by the science of probability. Stoner says that by using the modern calculation of probability in reference to eight prophecies, “we find that the chance that any man might have lived down to the present time and fulfilled all eight prophecies is 1 in 1017.” That would be 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000.  In order to help us comprehend this staggering probability, Stoner illustrates it by supposing that “we take 1017silver dollars and lay them on the face of Texas. They will cover all of the state two feet deep.

“Now mark one of these silver dollars and stir the whole mass thoroughly, all over the state. Blindfold a man and tell him that he can travel as far as he wishes, but he must pick up one silver dollar and say that this is the right one. What chance would he have of getting the right one? Just the same chance that the prophets would have had of writing these eight prophecies and having them all come true in any one man.”

Stoner considers 48 prophecies and says, “we find the chance that any one man fulfilled all 48 prophecies to be 1 in 10157. The estimated number of electrons in the universe is around 1079. It should be quite evident that Jesus did not fulfill the prophecies by accident.”