One day an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law?… How do you read it?” (Luke 10: 25-26)

“How do you read it [the Bible]?” Nothing like such a very basic question to make one squirm. Not only should the legal expert, who posed the question, squirm; so should we, the readers. We stand in a long line of Biblical interpretation with and after the scribe who posed the question, that got that question.

Over the course of this past weekend (April 20-22), we turned the question around to ask, “How does Jesus interpret the Bible?” At least, the Bible in his First Century setting (most of our current Old Testament). The setting was a series of seminars entitled, “Interpreting the Bible with Jesus,” led by Bryan Moyer Suderman, of Mennonite Church Canada, sponsored also by Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, of Elkhart, Indiana. In particular, we looked at how Matthew’s Gospel portrays Jesus as interpreter of Scripture.

We focused most on Matthew 12: 1-14 (a conflict over Sabbath observance);  Matthew 21: 12-17 (the cleansing of the Temple); and Matthew 21: 33-46 (the parable of the wicked tenants and the vineyard). For each passage, we looked at their roots, references and counterparts in the Old Testament. They are:

  • For Matthew 12: Exodus 20: 9-11; Leviticus 23: 3; Deuteronomy 5: 12-15;
  • For Matthew 21: 12-17: Isaiah 56:7; Jeremiah 7:11
  • For Matthew 21: 33-46: Isaiah 5

Cross-referencing Jesus’ words and actions with their Old Testament references was itself an enlightening exercise. It also locates and identifies Jesus in relationship to his time, his people and their shared faith and scriptures. It also corrects the ways in which we often read Bible passages in isolation from each other.

Here’s what we noted and recorded about Jesus’ way of interpreting the Bible:

  1. In all the cases above, Jesus shows and expresses great respect for the authority of the Bible. He draws upon it extensively, for nearly everything he does or teaches.
  2. Jesus also makes great, even stunning, claims of authority for himself, not only as interpreter of the Bible, but as its focus. The desire of his enemies to harass or even kill him may not be simply over their differences in interpretation, but in the authority he claims for himself, e.g., “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” and “one greater than the temple is here.” Even his appeal to the example of David and his band taking and eating the showbread from the Tabernacle, and his appeal to the example of priests who “violate” the Sabbath by their ministry, would have flabbergasted his adversaries.
  3. Jesus knows the Bible and the traditions and interpretations that have accumulated around it quite intimately and extensively.
  4. We discussed whether or not Jesus claimed greater authority than Scripture, or, simply, greater authority than the traditions and the conventional interpretations that grew up around Scripture?
  5. Jesus also recognizes the limitations of the Law, what it does not say, as well as what it does say. For example, what constitutes work on the Sabbath?
  6. When push came to shove, Jesus prioritizes human need (for food) over ceremonial and civil aspects of the law (or the traditions protecting it), like not gleaning wheat on the Sabbath.
  7. Yet, whenever he does so, he actually gets closer to the meaning of the scriptures than do the traditions by which his contemporaries tried to protect it. By healing on the Sabbath, or gleaning handfuls of wheat on the Sabbath, he was releasing people from carrying burdens of hunger, exclusion or of uncleanness.
  8. Jesus is not afraid to broach, approach or even provoke controversy over interpretation and application of the Bible
  9. Jesus not only teaches the Bible, he demonstrates and enacts it, via prophetic symbolic action, like driving the moneychangers and merchants out of the temple court. That was similar to some of the parables enacted by Isaiah, Jeremiah or Ezekiel.
  10. In the ways that he appeals to the prophets, the laws and the psalms of the Bible, Jesus locates himself within the lineage of the prophets, the lawgiver, and the psalmists.
  11. Some of his interpretations and applications of the Bible were surprising, even disturbing, to Jesus’ contemporaries.
  12. Whenever Jesus quotes a few words from a passage (e.g., “my house shall be called ‘a house of prayer’”) he was thinking of the whole context from which it came, and so should we.

Our main take-away lessons from these sessions were:

  1. Jesus actively and intentionally interpreted the Bible; it didn’t just interpret itself automatically for him, nor does it do so for anyone else.
  2. Biblical interpretation is a lot of work.
  3. We’re in this process of interpretation together; it’s not a DIY project.
  4. Reading how Jesus interpreted and applied the Bible is itself “a good read.”
  5. Extensive knowledge of the Bible is critical, even indispensable, for interpreting the Bible in the way of Jesus. Some have found memorization helpful for this.
  6. Those who think they know the most about the Bible and its interpretation may be most in danger of missing the point, including oneself [writer and reader].
  7. We must pay attention to the development, dialog and conversations throughout all of Scripture, and not just to one time, voice or part.
  8. Questions and questioning are very important.


Some Reflections:

Considering how Jesus interpreted Scripture is in line with the Anabaptist/Mennonite emphasis on Jesus as the key, focus, foundation and capstone of the Bible, and of its interpretation. In so many of our discussions, discernment, and, yes, debates about the meaning and application of scripture, we often talk past each other because of the unstated and unrecognized differences not only in our interpretations of the Bible, but in our ways of interpreting the Bible. Jesus’ way of interpreting the Scriptures contains guidance and correctives for the various Christian approaches (progressive, fundamentalist, literalistic, symbolic, etc.).

While Jesus ascribed ultimate authority to all the scriptures, he also prioritized some parts of it over others. For example, saving life and addressing human need took priority for him over details of ceremonial and civil law, such as when the Samaritan courted ritual uncleanness by helping a possibly dead man, while the priests and Levites avoided helping him (Luke 10). This was not unique to Jesus, Suderman pointed out. The long body of Jewish interpretation in The Talmud also prioritizes saving life over keeping ritually and ceremonially clean. The issues, discussions and controversies which Jesus had with fellow rabbis were not often unique to him and his time.

Jesus knew and respected the traditions of interpretation that had built up around the Bible. We must, as well. But, he also challenged any interpretations, applications and traditions that violated the intent and the spirit of the law, while protecting the letter. Distinguishing between those aspects, the spirit and the letter alone, are not always easy, nor visible in the same way to all people.

If anything, Jesus’ way of interpreting the Bible poses equal opportunity challenges to all of us, and has the power to expose any motives for which we might engage in Biblical interpretation, other than pleasing God. The fact that the “experts” so-called of the time could be the most defensive, reactive and hostile to Jesus and his interpretation of their shared scriptures should humble and chasten all of us. It’s always easier to see the self-interest and short-comings in them (liberals or conservatives, progressives or fundamentalists or evangelicals) than it is to see our own. Perhaps the advice which Jesus gave in the Sermon on the Mount about correcting our brothers and sisters should also apply to Biblical interpretation: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Mt. 7: 3-4).