Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Pesher of Paul

Originally published in my column on Adventist Today

“The pesharim are commentaries upon prophetic texts, which apply the biblical writings to the history and life of the community. The commentators aim to demonstrate the fulfillment of biblical prophecies in their own time, especially with respect to reward and punishment, and they assert the imminent doom of their opponents in contrast to their own salvation. This “contemporizing” interpretation, or application, of the text is called “pesher,” a term related to dream interpretation.” (The Virtual Qumran)

Pesher is a method of interpretation used as a solution, usually to a contemporary situation. There are several methods of Midrash (exposition) interpretation techniques. These methods of rabbinic exegesis can range from clever and fanciful, to simple plays on the number of letters in a word, but what they most have in common is to bring the Biblical text to deal with some element of contemporary thought that the expositor is interested in talking/writing about. (See the article on Jewish Interpretation here for examples)

Once clued into this concept it is not difficult to see it is used fairly commonly in the New Testament. If you are like me you have often wondered how the Apostle Paul could say in one place that sin came from the woman and in another that sin came from the first man. Roman 5:12 “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (All texts NIV). 1 Timothy 2:14 “And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”

The verse from Roman 5:12 has taken on a life of its own, in particular when it comes to those who hold that there was a literal recent 6 consecutive 24 hour day creation.  All death must have therefore come after the sin of the one man, therefore the fossil record and dates cannot possibly be true. and there can be no other methods allowed to explain the how of creation.  The problem with this is that we are taking the “Pesher” of Paul to a conclusion that is not his intent. His application of the verses is to entirely different subjects. Take a look at the context of 1 Timothy 2:12-13: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”

The Pesher there is certainly questionable; does the creation order really have anything to do with the ability of a woman to teach or speak or have any authority? This is a common conclusion given our modern standards of interpretation and the product of years of debate and study by Christians, philosophers and scholars.

Paul was certainly in good company. For example, Clement of Alexander, when writing about the Mosaic prohibition of eating swine and certain birds says “The sow is the emblem of voluptuous and unclean lust of food…. The eagle indicates robbery, the hawk injustice, and the raven greed.” There is a reason behind his application of a particular bird to a particular human characteristic. “Clement of Alexandria and Philo represent two adherents to the Alexandrian school, which believed that each word in the Biblical text was chosen for a precise reason.” Against their view was the “Adherents to the Antiochene methods of interpretation include the following: Eusebius of Caesarea, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, John Chrysostom and Basil of Caesarea” (The explanation of the Antiochene school is more varied and too complex to describe here, see the article Antiochene Methods of Interpretation)

The fact is we interpret things much differently because of the battles between the various schools of thought in the Christian church, from the Early Church Fathers on. Just as knowledge in most all areas of mankind has advanced so too we have advanced in methods of interpretation and analyzing written works. When we re-examine Paul on the subject of Romans 5, we can see that he is not saying there was no sin before the first man, but is instead working on his contemporary theme that Jesus brings reconciliation and that Adam was the pattern of the one to come.

Romans 5:14 “Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.” But it is not a pattern as we typically understand; it is a reverse image pattern. It is a contradistinction between the failure of Adam and the success of Jesus. Romans 5:15 “But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!”

The subject is not “there was no death before Adam sinned”. Instead, the subject is the reconciliation provided by Christ, contrasted to the failure of Adam (and all human beings). The powerless man was reconciled by the gift of God in that even when we were yet His enemies, God, through the incarnation of Jesus, reconciled us back to Himself. When we take the text out of this context and purpose and assign it a significance that it should not have we revert to methods of interpretation that cannot be reconciled to the age of reason.

There are Jewish expositors that could take any text and cleverly manipulate it to work for their own purposes. I dare say Adventism still has those kinds of people and those who use those techniques, but they ignore the reason and science so necessary to really create a comprehensive hermeneutic. There is an art and science to Biblical interpretation.

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