Can we reproduce the apostles’ exegesis? Some say, for the most part, no. “Where that exegesis is based on a revelatory stance, or where it evidences itself to be merely cultural, or where it shows itself to be circumstantial or ad hominem in nature, ‘No.’ Where, however, it treats the Old Testament in more literal fashion, following the course of what we speak of today as historico-grammatical exegesis, ‘Yes.’ Our commitment as Christians is to the reproduction of the apostolic faith and doctrine, and not necessarily to the specific apostolic exegetical practices” (33).
How are we to interpret the Bible? How are we supposed to know our reading is correct if we can’t always follow the apostles’ methods? Isn’t the historico-grammatical method the only way to correctly interpret the Bible? Leithart challenges the strict historico-grammatical structure and brings us back to a time of the patristic authors.
Leithart finds meaning in the text itself rather than in the intention of the author. His reasoning for this is that the meaning of a text changes as time goes on (much like when a “shooting” at 10 AM becomes an “assassination” at 1:00 PM after the victim is pronounced dead). One can think of this in terms similar to G. K. Beale’s description of the OT being given in seed form, and the NT results in the tree with it’s fruit (founded in Christ). Leithart covers typology (chapter 2), semantics (chapter 3), intertexuality (chapter 4), structure (chapter 5), and application (chapter 6).
Read any detective book. The information given in chapter one means something entirely different to you the second time you read the book. Why? Because you know the ending! You see all of the clues and what they point to (typology). “Texts must be read in the light of ’the way things turn out’” (67).
Each word (semantics) acts as a player on a stage. They interact with each other to give meaning and detail to sentences. A blind man receives his sight in John 9. For twelve verses we read about about the joyous miracle until we run up against the words “Pharisees” in verse 13 and, even worse, “Sabbath” in verse 14.
Jokes (intertextuality) feed of prior knowledge. A story is told. Your expectations are flipped. You are surprised, and thus you laugh. The NT authors grew up hearing the OT stories, and it is pivotal to know the OT background to read the NT correctly. The more you understand the “Old Joke,” the more you’ll understand the “New.”
Like classical music, texts have multiple layers that hold up the structure. John 9 is a story of a new exodus, where Jesus gives a blind man sight, and leads him out of the dead religion and to new life. It’s a story of Genesis, where Jesus makes clay and gives sight and life.
Going with a chiasm,
“A. Jesus heals a man born blind, who did not sin [9:1-7] ->
aaA’. What is more, the Pharisees are blinded by their sin [9:39-41].
B. The blind man confesses Jesus as his healer [8:8-12] ->
aaB’. What is more, the blind man comes to confess Jesus as Lord [9:35-38].
C. The Pharisees doubt and interrogate the blind man [9:13-17] ->
aaC’. What is more, they accuse Jesus as a sinner and cast the man out [9:24-34].
D. The Pharisees threaten the parents with expulsion [9:18-23]“ (167).
We could even says this (at least, Leithart does):
“A/A’ Jesus gives sight and blinds.
B/B’ What is more, the blind man confesses Jesus.
C/C’ What is more, the Pharisees intimidate but cannot silence him.
D What is more, the Pharisees threaten excommunication against anyone who confesses Jesus“ (168).
Hopefully you can see that in this one chapter, there are many things going on. John knows how to pack in meaning.
Of course, the Texts Are About Jesus (Application). What happens in the scenes of the text, and what does it have to do with us? It’s more than a simple “Don’t-be-like-the-Pharisees” command. We look at the layers of the evidence to see what John has put together. We take what he is telling us and work it out in our own lives.
Finally, in the Epiolgue, Leithart advocates a return to Augustinian exegesis where the whole Bible points to Christ and, since the church is the body of Christ, it is about the Church too.
Leithart is an engaging writer. His words ooze off the page (or through the computer) with imagery. He shows how one can read not only the Bible, but other books as well (using many examples from literature and movies, e.g., Pride and Prejudice, Canterbury Tales, the many works of William Shakespeare and Homer, Atonement, No Country For Old Men, Cast Away, Groundhog Day, and Heath Ledger in The Dark Night). Knowing how to read and interpret other works gives one practice in interpreting the Bible. If nothing else, Leithart has introduced me into the beauty and the brains of fictional works (I was not a big reader growing up).
While I would have liked to have seen this exegetical method played out in other biblical texts, Leithart stays in John 9 to show the reader how one simple text can have so many layers, how it connects other parts of John and the Bible to each other, and how these deep layers can bring us to spiritual maturation in Christ.
With Leithart there are times when I think his interpretations are stretched. Yet here he gives enough detail and evidence to make a convincing case for the parts that seem stretched. Are they really as stretched as I thought? Some interpretations still seem stretched. But others, perhaps, are not as stretched as I once thought they were. Sometimes novel interpretations (like Lucy Ricardo) just have some more splainin’ to do than others.
This book seems to be a defense of Leithart’s exegetical method, and for the most part he’s very convincing. I’ve always heard negative examples of the medieval interpretive method (simply look up Augustine’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan) and found it to be plain weird. Yet throughout this book, it seems (almost) completely natural. Here Leithart shows what is really going on:
“For the medievals, the literal sense of the text [the “what is happening here”] opened out into a christological allegory [what we are to believe], which, because Christ is the head of the body, opened out into tropological instruction [what we are to do] and, because Christ is the King of a kingdom here yet also coming, into anagogical [spiritual/heavenly] hope” (207).
His reading makes sense, though I don’t see quite how it is quite the same as the medieval conclusions (Augustine wasn’t the only one to make strange conclusions about that parable [and more]). Regardless, aside from chapter one (which, though difficult to read, is reinterpreted as you read the book), I found this book hard to put down. Leithart’s conclusions are easy to latch on to, most of his examples were easy to follow, and his style of imagery writing enviable. He will have an impact on your interpretive thinking, whether you agree with him or not.
[Special thanks to David at Baylor University Press for allowing me to review this book! I was not obligated to provide a positive review in exchange for this book.]