Contemporary Trends, Bible, Christianity

The Rabbis and Biblical Interpretation

Mike Heiser makes a compelling case against referring to the rabbinical authors uncritically when trying to understand the Bible:

You have to realize appealing to rabbis means nothing. Rabbinic thought and biblical thought (and academic work) are miles apart. Hey Christians enamored with rabbis: The rabbis can’t even get the messiah right (or, to be more charitable, the two powers in heaven doctrine right — that belief they used to have in Judaism until it became uncomfortable due to Christianity). If you’ve ever listened to Ben Shapiro (I’m a fan of the show) you know what I mean. He often does “Bible time” on his podcast. But what you get isn’t exegesis of the text in its ancient context. What you get is rabbinic opinion (with all the contrarian rabbinic opinions shelved to the side). Rabbinic interpretation (think Talmud and Mishnah) contradicts itself over and over again. That’s what those works do — they fling opinions at each other. That Hebrew food fight got codified into the Talmud and Mishnah. And Judaism is fine with that. We shouldn’t be. Most of what you’d find in rabbinic writings bears little to no resemblance of exegetical work in the text understood in light of its original ancient Near Eastern worldview. Not even close. They’re frequently making stuff up (they apply biblical material to situations in which the community found itself in; the work of the rabbis was responsive to community circumstances — it’s very applicational or situational).

I thought I would preserve this valuable paragraph before it got somehow removed from the internet.

But I will add that the Rabbis, while not worth reading at length if you read slowly, is not utterly without merit. For instance, sometimes material in the Talmud makes arguments for an interpretation. Such an interpretation is either right or wrong, in whole or in part. He observes that his anti-rabbinical argument is effective against early Christian writers as well:

This is also why the church fathers aren’t authorities in biblical exegesis, either. They are centuries (even millennia) removed from the biblical period and had no access to things like ancient Near Eastern texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls for help in interpretation. They were brilliant, but far removed from the right contexts and under-sourced.

While I think that early Christian Biblical interpretation, particularly of the New Testament, is more valuable than Heiser does, I do understand his point and it is valuable. The antiquity of an opinion no more makes it right than it’s Hebrew-ness or Greek-ness. To think an opinion’s source guarantees it to be right or wrong (excepting that the opinion come from God) is the genetic fallacy, a short-cut in thinking.

Do read the whole piece.

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