Notes from “Messianic Exegesis” by Donald Juel

The following is a collection of unorganized notes taken from reading Donald Juel’s Messianic Exegesis: Christological Interpretation of the Old Testament in Early Christianity (1988).

I wrote a review of the book, which can be found here.

I also wrote a post about Juel’s reference in this book to the “occasional” nature of the New Testament documents.

I also have posted a short glossary of terms relevant to first-century biblical understanding, which relies on Juel’s view.

Where I am quoting the book directly, I use quote marks below.  Otherwise, I am recording an idea or thought that I either found in the book, or that occurred to me while reading the book.

In this book, Juel builds on the work of, among others, Nils Dahl, Geza Vermes, Alan Segal, and C. H. Dodd.

On p. 17 Juel writes that his interest is principally in “the preliterary period in the history of the Christian movement.”  This would be ca. 30-50 A.D.  since seven of Paul’s letters (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) are believed by scholars to have been the first New Testament documents written, that these were written ca. 50-50 A.D. (though not in the order listed above), and also since scholars generally agree that Jesus died ca. 30-33 A.D.   Thus ca. 30-50 A.D. can be called the “preliterary period of the Christian movement (which, of course, was a Jewish, or Jewish sect, movement).

During this “preliterary period” oral teaching, and thus oral tradition, would have prevailed.  Therefore, the literary period (ca. 50 A.D. and after) would have inherited an oral “canon” of confessions, creeds, and hymns – some of which can be found sprinkled, and thus preserved, throughout the New Testament and elsewhere (e.g. Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho).

Examples of these oral vestiges include Romans 4:25 (rooted in Isaiah 53:5, 12?), Romans 8:32 (rooted in Genesis 22:5?), and Romans 1:2 (rooted in 2 Samuel 7:14 or Psalm 2:7?).

(The apostles were obviously in no rush to write things down.)

The most notable of these confessions might be 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 and Philippians 2:6-11.

We see the recurring theme of suffering and glory in the expressions of crucifixion and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).  We see it also in humility and exaltation (Philippians 2:6-11).

In his Introduction, Juel writes, “The thesis of this book can be summarized in a two-part sentence: The beginnings of Christian reflection can be traced to interpretations of Israel’s Scriptures, and the major focus of that scriptural interpretation was Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah.”  He goes on to explain why this thesis is not as mundane as it might first seem (mainly contrasting it with that of Barnabas Lindars and C.H. Dodd; Juel contending that those two said the OT was used for arguing in behalf of the gospel while Juel said the OT was used first to understand the gospel).

At the end of his first chapter, Juel says, “The extensive exploration of the Scriptures generated by faith in Jesus the Messiah is what we will examine in subsequent chapters of this book.”  Can you not picture the earliest disciples exploring the Scriptures to find how it spoke of the One they had seen resurrected?  Of course, Luke 24 tells us that Jesus Himself  got them started on this exploration.

Other noteworthy quotes from the book:

“In Jesus the Jew, Vermes nicely summarizes evidence that the “Lord’s Anointed” from the line of David was a recognizable figure in pre-Christian tradition.”

“Without some striking new piece of evidence, there is little reason to disagree with Vermes that the definite the Messiah” could have been understood in NT times only as a reference to the coming King.”

“What stands at the heart of the kerygma-and thus at the beginning of Christian tradition-is the surprise that God’s Messiah should appear as one who died on a cross.”

“Biblical material did affect the shape of religious expressions and reflection, even if the texts exercised a control of a different sort than we presume should be the case in contemporary exegesis.’ And however we may evaluate the appropriateness of midrashic productions, we must reckon with the fact that scriptural interpretation was the primary mode of theological reflection.”  Juel then quotes Geza Vermes from his Scripture and Tradition on the same point:

“Doctrinal exegesis was similarly influenced by the evolution of Jewish religious thought, and its impact was the more obvious because, in ancient Judaism, systematic theology was unknown, and the establishment, transmission, and development of doctrines and beliefs were effected within the framework of scriptural interpretation.”

Back now to Juel:  “The focus of this book is christological exegesis. The general thesis is that we cannot understand the evolution of Christology without appreciating the place of exegesis, and that we cannot understand early Christian exegesis without knowing something about the way people read the Bible in the Jewish world of the first century of our era.”

Juel contrasts Rabbinic midrash, which he characterizes as “scholastic” (and corresponds to  “the academy” and its ethos today) with the “sectarian” approach of Qumran and NT midrash, saying:

“The self-conscious use of interpretive principles and discussions of hermeneutics display a confidence in reason and logic to disclose the truth within the Scriptures that is not found at Qumran and rarely in the NT. This feature once again has something to do with the scholastic setting of the tradition. Similarly, the playfulness of interpretation, the concern to preserve a variety of opinions, and the lack of preoccupation with opponents are signs of an established institution and contrast sharply with the “sectarian” character of Qumran and NT midrash.”

“Whereas the rabbis spoke of the essential timelessness of the Torah, the Qumran group stressed the nearness of the end of days.”

Of the Qumran group, Juel says, “Scriptural interpretation is portrayed as a prophetic enterprise, possible only to those inspired by the Spirit of God.”

“And it is hardly accidental that interpretation is portrayed as a matter of revelation rather than reason. They were well aware that the most sophisticated arguments would never convince outsiders of their views. Central to their own hermeneutical reflection were not the principles of intellectual discourse but the insurmountable barriers to communication that seemed to defy rational solution. True understanding, they knew, could only be revealed.”

“The exegesis was not offered as an argument calculated to convince outsiders but was expected to be persuasive to insiders who knew certain fundamental secrets and who knew the rules of interpretation. Discovering the mysteries of the Scriptures required the inspiration of the Spirit, particularly apparent in the career of the teacher who founded the sect.”

“The differences between midrashim and pesherim should be understood properly. They are largely formal differences, arising from distinct social settings, which may be classified as scholastic and sectarian.”

“Lengthy debates about whether a particular exegetical comment within the scrolls should be termed a midrash or a pesher are not very helpful.” Differences among various approaches to interpretation within postbiblical Jewish tradition should not obscure similarities. Rabbinic midrash, Qumran pesher, and NT scriptural exegesis belong within a common ethos in which texts are read in particular ways.”

“At first glimpse, the NT is very different from the rabbinic and the Qumran literature. It contains not a single commentary. It is made up of letters, narratives, and an apocalypse. Behind the formal differences, however, lie notable similarities. Biblical interpretation plays a central role in NT literature, as it played a role in preliterary tradition.”

“The greatest difference between early Christian exegesis and other forms of Jewish scriptural interpretation is the impact made by Jesus. That is only to state the thesis, however, it does not explain the precise shape of the tradition. That is the task of our study.”

Juel talks about “the Nathan oracles,” by which he means 2 Samuel 7:10-14, with parallels in 1 Chronicles (17:13-15) and Psalm 89.

“The thesis will look something like this: convinced that Jesus was the promised Messiah, Christians undertook the task of reflecting on the gospel of his death and resurrection in light of the Scriptures.2 What came first was not apologetic argument but scriptural reflection whose goal was to understand the gospel and its implications. If my proposal is tenable, it should be possible to find evidence that royal texts, meaning OT passages acknowledged as messianic in postbiblical Jewish tradition, have played a critical role in the development of Christian exegesis.”

At the beginning of his sub-chapter on “2 Samuel 7 in the New Testament,” Juel writes, “On the basis of casual observation, it would be difficult to argue that Nathan’s oracle was a text of major importance to the early Christian movement.”  By the end, however, he says, “The paucity of allusions to 2 Samuel 7 suggests that its importance was located at a stage in the history of interpretation soon superseded, a stage to which we have only limited access. Enough traces remain, however, for us to identify Nathan’s oracle as one of the foundational christological texts. The oracle provided a way into the Scriptures for those who confessed Jesus as the promised Messiah, and it generated interpretive traditions that led into the more developed reflection of the early church.”

Along the way, Juel says, “Messianic oracles like 2 Samuel 7 have provided a basis for speaking of Jesus as God’s Son, even if the connections lie buried deep in the tradition,” and  “Christian interpreters were more interested in the images used of the coming king, like ‘seed’ and ‘son’.”

Juel begins chapter 4 (“The Role of the Psalms in the Passion Tradition”) saying, “The Psalter played a critical role in the development of the passion tradition.”  Nevertheless, he maintains “The thesis I am arguing in this book, however, is that the starting point for interpretation of the OT was the confession of Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah.”

“The point is that words and phrases from the psalms were used to construct a framework within which to make sense of Jesus’ death-and to offer testimony that his death was “in accordance with the scriptures.”

Juel make the points repeatedly through this book that to say things happened to Jesus “according to the Scriptures” is to say that they happened “according to the will of God” because the Scriptures reveal the will of God.

“Early Christian interpretation was far closer to that of the rabbis than to that of modern biblical scholars.”

“As we have observed in the case of 2 Samuel 7, frequency of citation does not always provide a reliable indicator of exegetical priority. I wish to propose Psalm 89 as one of the keys to the interpretive tradition.”

“For students of royal traditions in the OT, Psalm 89 is of obvious importance. It provides perhaps the earliest version of Nathan’s oracle, the promise of God’s eternal support for the Davidic dynasty.”

“The influence of Psalm 89 is remarkably widespread in the NT. Nestle lists over twenty allusions to the psalm, to which a few others may be added.”

“If there is a pre-Markan passion tradition that can be isolated, the psalms surely form the basis of the tradition. It is unlikely that Jesus’ story was ever told as a recitation of facts. And from the outset, psalms were employed to tell the story not of a paradigmatic righteous one or a prophetic martyr, but of the King of the Jews, “the Christ, the Son of the Blessed,” whose resurrection proved that he was indeed the Christ, the Stone, rejected by the builders, which became the head of the corner.”

“From the outset the psalms were part of a tradition that narrated the death of the King of the Jews.”

“The confession of Jesus as Messiah is not a goal toward which scriptural interpretation moves but the presupposition for the interpretive tradition.”

“As befits the whole spirit of midrash, the appropriateness of a particular interpretation to the original setting in Isaiah is not a criterion for exegetes.”

“Since tradition knew nothing of a crucified Messiah, it could hardly have any conceptions of a resurrected King.”

And here is the opening paragraph of the conclusion to this book:

“I have attempted to examine christological exegesis in early Christian tradition. The work has involved attention to specific passages as well as to the character of scriptural interpretation in the first century of the Christian era, comparison with postbiblical scriptural exegesis in Jewish sources, and the testing of a hypothetical model for the development of the tradition. Of particular concern has been identifying a starting point for the historical development of the tradition to which the NT writings bear witness. I have argued that the confession of Jesus as the crucified and risen King of the Jews stands at the beginning of christological reflection and interpretation of the Scriptures-at least the reflection and interpretation that form the substructure of NT Christianity. Beginning with the historical realities of Jesus’ passion as King of the Jews, we can understand the process by which a variety of biblical passages came to be enlisted in the task of making sense of Jesus and his career, and how they were combined. The exegetical data, I have argued, confirm the hypothesis regarding a starting point.”

(All quotations taken from the Kindle Edition.)

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