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Words over Meaning?

Joel Hoffman makes an interesting point about the interest ancient interpreters (both Jewish and Christian) had in the exact words of Scripture, often at the expense of what those words mean in context:

I have always tacitly assumed that the primary point of the Bible’s narrative text was to convey meaning, the point of the poetry to be poetic, and so forth. But that may not be so.

In fact, the evidence we have from antiquity is that the words were more important than what they meant. This is why, for example, the NT frequently quotes the words of the OT out of context. (The early-first-millennium collection of Jewish writing known as the Midrash does the same thing.) Modern readers sometimes see this approach as deceptive, but ancient readers would probably be baffled by our modern insistence on quoting meaning instead of quoting words.

This reminds me of the thesis John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno present in Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible—a book I absolutely must re-read this summer!

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