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Five essentials of Biblical Interpretation 1: canon

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailThree years ago, I started a mini-series on key elements of biblical interpretation, and never quite got round to completing it. But there appears to be continued interested in this, so I am reposting the ones I wrote previously, with updates and additions, and will be completing the series.

As I have explored previously, it is impossible to read the Bible without ‘interpreting’ it, whether we realise it or not. To read is to interpret; to translate is to interpret. This is because we live in a different cultural and historical context from those who wrote the Bible, but also because

The Christ event is an act of interpretation.

So if we are going to interpret, how do we do it well? In these posts I want to offer what I think are five essential elements of a responsible interpretive strategy. These are not so much techniques or methods as dimensions to responsible reading. As a bonus, they all begin with the same sound!


The first essential in interpretation is to read the Bible canonically. By this I mean to read whatever particular text we have in front of us in the light of its place in the immediately surrounding texts, within the book of the Bible it occurs, and most broadly within the whole sweep of whole of the Bible.

Our word ‘canon’ comes from the Greek word for ‘reed’, and came to mean the act of measurement for which the reed was used. Applied to the Bible, the term first meant the way in which Scripture functions to ‘measure’ our lives, a standard to live by, but also came to mean the ‘measure’ of what constitutes the books of the Bible. So the ‘formation of the canon’ relates to the process by which Christians discerned what should be included between the covers of the Bible.

If you watch the TV programme Time Team, you will see the archaeologists on the ground exploring the details of a feature. But they only make full sense of it when they pull back, usually in an aerial shot, to see how this detail fits in with the bigger picture. That is what we are doing when we read canonically; we are standing back to see this text in the context of the bigger picture of a passage, a book or the whole of Scripture. To read canonically is to ask the question:

What does this text mean here, in this part of the story of Scripture?

The reason for asking this question is two fold. First, many of the writers of what we now call the Scriptures already had Scriptures of their own. So we find traces of the Ten Commandments in even the earliest prophets (for example, Hosea), and we find ideas and phrases (‘The Lord is gracious and compassionate’, swords and ploughshares, people sitting under their own vine and fig tree) recurring and being reworked. In this sense, reading canonically is about taking seriously the world of the text and of the author. The most obvious case of this is the function of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) as the canonical context for the writing and reading of the New Testament documents. This means that we cannot to responsible exegesis (reading of the texts) without attending to this dynamic.

But, secondly, the Scriptures we have have been collected by earlier generations of believers in the conviction that, as the testimony to God’s saving actions in history, they belong together and, at some level, share a common voice. This means that we cannot do our biblical theology without taking into account the wider theological picture of which any individual text is but a part.

So asking the question of canon immediately opens up important issues, deepens our understanding and can transform our interpretation. Here are some examples that spring to mind.


Last Sunday I was preaching on 2 Tim 1.7 ‘For God has not given us a Spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.’ Reading this canonically meant seeing where the construction ‘not…but’ comes elsewhere in the letter (it comes again in verse 9) and elsewhere in Paul (Romans 8.15), where power and love are associated with the Spirit in Paul and elsewhere, and the importance and role of power (dunamis) in Jesus’ ministry.

In Luke 4.17, Jesus is in the synagogue at Nazareth and reads from Isaiah 61. But Luke’s quotation of the passage misses out an important part. Compare the texts and you will see something significant!

In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25.31–46), the sheep are those who have given aid to ‘one of the least of these my brothers.’ Most contemporary interpretations read the ‘brothers’ as the poor in general, and some have even mounted relief campaigns on the basis of this (I heard it yet again on Thought for the Day this morning!). But Matthew consistently uses the word ‘brother’ (which we might now want to translate ‘brother or sister’) to refer to fellow believers; see Matt 5.23, 5.47, 18.15, 18.21, and especially Matt 12.48-49 and 28.10. Jesus’ brothers are the disciples and anyone else who joins them in following Jesus. We need to read Matthew 25 quite differently! (See my complete post on this question here.)

We need to read the discussion about justification in Romans 3.28 and James 2.14 in the light of each other. There is a long tradition of setting them against one another—but several generations of Christians clearly thought they were both true.

The debates about same-sex unions often founder on the failure to read this issue (and other issues where the church has supposedly ‘changed its mind’) across the whole canon of Scripture. In relation to food laws, all of creation was first declared ‘good’ by God, and the Levitical restrictions were understood by Mark to have been repudiated in Jesus’ teaching (Mark 7.19). Slavery was not part of the creation of humanity, who were all equally created in the image of God; God’s central act in the OT (the exodus) was understood as liberation from slavery; and NT teaching such as Gal 3.28 and Eph 6.9, seriously undermine the distinction between slave and master (see the long exposition of Philemon in this regard in the opening of Tom Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God). But the Levitical text prohibiting same-sex unions (Lev 18.22) echoes quite strongly the language of creation in Gen 1.27, and Paul coins a new word in 1 Cor 6.9 and 1 Tim 1.10 as a reference back to the Leviticus text. So there is a consistent canonical connection between these verses—in marked contrast to the other two issues.

(It continues to puzzle me how people can mention slavery, the ministry of women, and same-sex sexual relations in the same breath, as if there is any connection between these issues within the biblical texts. The shape of the debates about these questions within the church have also been quite different.)


If seeing reading canonically, by seeing the big picture and locating individual texts within it, is so important, how can we develop our skills in this area? Here are some suggestions:

  • Do it for yourself. Rather than reading the fragmented lectionary morsels, once a week sit down and read through a whole book.
  • Make sure you have ‘pew Bibles’ in your church—never put Bible readings on a screen or printed in a news sheet. Extracting readings in this way removes them from their context; by contrast, if people need to pick up a Bible for the reading, they immediately see what comes before and after, and whereabouts the reading is within the whole story of Scripture.
  • When preaching, make a habit of commenting on where this reading comes from and how that shapes our understanding of it.
  • Preach single sermons on longer passages, perhaps even of two or three chapters, rather than focussing on a few verses.
  • You might like to write your own summary of What the Bible’s All About to help you understand the whole story of the Bible.
  • I’ve offered a range of other resources in my earlier post Seeing the Big Picture

Happy canonical reading!


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26 Responses to Five essentials of Biblical Interpretation 1: canon

  1. Jonathan Tallon October 3, 2016 at 10:25 am #

    It would be nice to discuss canon etc without having to go back to the same-sex issue. But since you introduced it…

    You are making a big assumption that Leviticus 18.22 is echoing Genesis. Sticking with the LXX (so we can follow the Greek from NT back), some points:

    1. The verse says nothing about how females should lie, which we might expect if it is referencing Genesis.
    2. The comparison in 18.22 doesn’t use the word female (thelu) that is used in Gen. 1.27 (which you would expect if it is deliberately echoing this language) but uses the word for woman (gunaikeian), which is alien to Genesis 1.
    3. A more plausible reason for using ‘male’ rather than ‘man’ in Lev. 18.22 is to include the practice of pederasty (boys are males, but aren’t men).

    I also question strongly whether readers in Corinth would have read ‘arsenokoites’ and caught a reference to Leviticus, and from there to Genesis. And in any case, the Levitical verses at this time were used to condemn pederasty, which is what readers in Corinth would have assumed Paul was condemning.

    I’m all for reading the Bible canonically. But I’m not for finding tenuous links between verses to justify controversial positions.

    • Jonathan Tallon October 3, 2016 at 1:25 pm #

      A couple of other points. It seems downright bizarre to attempt to find a link from 1 Corinthians back to Genesis, and then ignore the much clearer link in Galatians 3:28 (male and female, an exact quote of Genesis 1:27) which is also referenced in the same-sex debates.

      Also, the parallels with slavery and women have to do with an overall approach to the Bible. In both cases (though less so with slavery), the Bible was thought to justify the traditional position. Philemon in particular was regularly trotted out as justifying slavery. In particular, it was possible to find particular verses which made it easy to say ‘The Bible says…’ to support the position. The arguments against were more complex, harder to justify in a simple way, and required arguing about the trajectory of scripture as a whole, as well as bringing in other verses that had an indirect but important element to play.

      The arguments for same-sex marriage thus have a parallel with those: a ‘straightforward’ reading of scripture appears to condemn it; arguments over the trajectory of scripture and also pointing out the particular context of the ‘straightforward’ verses are more complex.

      Of course, the closest analogy is lending money at interest, which the church uniformly understood the Bible to be straightforwardly condemning for 1500 years until Calvin began arguing that what the Bible called money-lending wasn’t quite the same thing as what we were calling money-lending.

      • Phill October 3, 2016 at 3:11 pm #

        “The arguments for same-sex marriage thus have a parallel with those: a ‘straightforward’ reading of scripture appears to condemn it; arguments over the trajectory of scripture and also pointing out the particular context of the ‘straightforward’ verses are more complex.”

        The snag is, arguments against the ‘straightforward’ reading of Scripture also allow Scripture to support polygamy, polyamory, incest etc. It seems straightforward because it is straightforward. (Apologies for self promotion, I wrote a blog post about this a couple of months back).

        I agree with Ian that not all issues are the same and each one must be taken on its own merits. But sex and marriage are pretty fundamental to the Bible – e.g. it begins and ends with a wedding, marriage is a pre-fall institution, for example – and I just don’t think the parallels with money-lending or even slavery are in the same ballpark (or whatever the next one up from ballpark is.)

        • Jonathan Tallon October 4, 2016 at 1:26 pm #

          When I read the Bible I find quite a lot about money…

          Is the debate over same-sex marriage similar to those over the place of slavery or those over the role of women? Yes. Is it the same? No. But it seems bizarre to me to pretend that there are no similarities at all. Does this give same-sex marriage a free pass? No – as you say, each case ultimately needs to be argued on its own merits (which is why bringing in polygamy etc is irrelevant).

          Why is it worth mentioning usury/money-lending? Because it is the closest parallel. It shows, in principle, that the church can change its mind over something that it had understood the Bible to condemn unreservedly, on the basis that what the Bible was condemning was different enough from modern money-lending. Does this give same-sex marriage a free pass? No – it still needs to be argued on its merits. But the argument does not involve an innovation in how the church has handled scripture or debate in the past. Methodologically, there is continuity.

          • Phill October 4, 2016 at 2:32 pm #

            I don’t understand here. For you, as I understand it, same-sex marriage and usury are parallels, but SSM and polygamy are not. I’m at a loss.

            I am glad we agree that each case must be decided on its own merits. But to draw the parallel “the church has changed its mind over this issue, therefore the church could change its mind over that issue” a bit of a strained argument in and of itself – it could in theory be used to justify anything. To take an example – “the church used to understand the Bible to condemn adultery unreservedly, but now …” That’s not an argument for thinking adultery is permissible. Parallels must be worked through Biblically and theologically. This is why I think parallels need to take into account the actual arguments used, rather than simply asserting it’s about a change in opinion.

            Polygamy etc. is not irrelevant, the field of sexual ethics is all bound together.My argument against SSM and polygamy is the same. Your arguments for SSM could also be deployed for polygamy, or incest, or some alternative marriage arrangement. That’s the point. Your arguments and the arguments for alternative forms of marriage are the same. They are true parallels, usury is not a parallel at all because the arguments are very different. That’s why I said it wasn’t in the same ballpark.

            (As a slight aside, I’d be interested to see if you could name one New Testament reference which is a general prohibition on usury.)

          • Jonathan Tallon October 4, 2016 at 3:38 pm #

            Phill,
            ‘I am glad we agree that each case must be decided on its own merits.’ Both agreed here.

            ‘Parallels must be worked through Biblically and theologically. This is why I think parallels need to take into account the actual arguments used, rather than simply asserting it’s about a change in opinion.’ Absolutely. This is what I meant by ‘each case must be decided on its own merits’.

            ‘Parallels must be worked through Biblically and theologically. This is why I think parallels need to take into account the actual arguments used, rather than simply asserting it’s about a change in opinion.’ It’s actually prior to the argument proper. It is asserting that there is nothing about the method which is in principle wrong or contrary to what the church has done before. It does not prejudge, in itself, the outcome. Also note that the argument isn’t simply that the church has changed its mind, it is that the church has decided that the biblical context is sufficiently different from the contemporary context to mean that the issue needs careful attention and isn’t ‘straightforward’.

            ‘Your arguments and the arguments for alternative forms of marriage are the same.’ No they are not. Polygamy and incest involve different factors which require deciding on their own merits. Thus, as far as I am concerned, they are irrelevant. I am not interested in arguing for polygamy. The issue of same-sex marriage should be decided on its own merits, not those of something else.

            (As a response to your slight aside, I don’t think there is a single New Testament reference which is a general prohibition on committed, faithful, same-sex relationships. I don’t expect you’ll agree with me on this.)

          • Christopher Shell October 4, 2016 at 9:37 pm #

            Jonathan – when you say ‘relationships’ (a vague word, so why use it?) is what you mean sexual relationships or non-sexual? Where does the New Testament say even an atom that is any way positive about any such thing or even the things most closely related? (I speak as someone who does not in any way subscribe to ‘The NT says it therefore it must be true’.) This is an obvious delusion born of conformity to a very particular transient and confined contemporary culture, isn’t it?

          • Phill October 4, 2016 at 10:28 pm #

            “’s actually prior to the argument proper. It is asserting that there is nothing about the method which is in principle wrong or contrary to what the church has done before. ”

            I still don’t understand here. Saying that the church has changed its mind before doesn’t really add anything, unless you look at the specifics of *why* the church changed its mind – as I said, looking at the actual arguments.

            On polygamy etc – you keep saying these are separate issues. I don’t think you can justify that. If male-female is not intrinsic to the Bible’s view of marriage, nothing is. I read a satirical article a few months ago which demonstrates the point quite well – How to make the Bible support any sexual practice in 3 easy steps.

          • Jonathan Tallon October 5, 2016 at 12:13 pm #

            Phill, I am making the point about methodology because I get sick of being called a ‘revisionist’ (not in this thread, where the insinuation is that I am gnostic). I am no more or less of a revisionist as Calvin, and the whole protestant tradition since.

            For more on the methodology, see Andrew Goddard’s piece in Fulcrum on Calvin and usury (note that Goddard himself is conservative on the issue of same-sex marriage).

            It is easy to caricature any method. The danger is that it results in a failure to look at the actual arguments.

            You claim that polygamy is not a separate issue from same-sex marriage, and then say that male-female is intrinsic to the Bible’s view of marriage. I would just say that, if you are right, then that does not alter the case at all regarding polygamy and incest, both of which could accommodate male-female. This is just one example of the way in which same-sex marriage is different from the others you cite. I am uninterested in arguments against polygamy and incest. Arguments against same-sex marriage have to stand or fall in their own right, or, to use a phrase with which we both agree, on their own merits.

      • David Shepherd October 3, 2016 at 5:16 pm #

        Jonathan,

        What’s truly bizarre is for you to take a quotation which specifically makes God’s promised redemption of Abraham’s offspring applicable to Christians from all walks of life and to re-purpose it in support of the notion that God is for gender-indiscriminate marriage.

        Okay, so, in Galatians 3, is St. Paul’s principle of unity in Christ also completely age-indiscriminate? Yes?

        So how does that principle extend to legal age restrictions for marriage?…Exactly. It doesn’t.

        • Jonathan Tallon October 4, 2016 at 1:19 pm #

          David, if you think this verse has nothing to contribute to the debates about race, slavery or women, then I will accept that for you this also has nothing to say about same-sex marriage.

          • David Shepherd October 4, 2016 at 8:03 pm #

            Jonathan,

            The issue is not whether it has *nothing* to say about race, slavery or women, but whether it specifically has *something* to say about gender in relation to marriage as instituted by God as part of the goodness of His creation.

            If slavery, racial exploitation and male tyranny were also instituted by God as part of what he confirmed as the goodness of His creation, you’d have a point.

            As they weren’t, you don’t.

    • David Shepherd October 3, 2016 at 4:54 pm #

      Hi Jonathan,

      Inasmuch as you’ve explained that Leviticus 18:22 says nothing about how women should lie, we could make similar inferences about women involved in close-family sexual relationships.

      While Lev. 18 condemns incest generally, it doesn’t directly prohibit a woman from lying with her son-in-law or grandson ( (Lev. 18:15 and Lev. 18:10 refer to male sexual offences).

      Unless you assume that omitted behaviour is automatically excused, the absence of female mirror-equivalents for every male sexual offence in Leviticus is more attributable to Moses’ devolving his authority with guiding principles of the revealed law to the patriarchal judiciary responsible for its application to entire tribes (Exodus 18:17-24) than to minor incongruences between the language of Leviticus and Genesis.

      • Jonathan Tallon October 4, 2016 at 1:30 pm #

        You seem to miss my point, which is that I find the link between Lev. 18:22 and Gen. 1:27 tenuous because it is based on one word from the verse. Other words in the verse do not match, when they might be expected to if a deliberate reference is being made.

        Otherwise, every single reference to ‘male’ would logically also refer to Genesis (does Numbers 1:30 really reference Genesis?).

        • David Shepherd October 4, 2016 at 8:56 pm #

          Jonathan,

          Oh, I get your point.

          There is a notable lack explicit female equivalents to the prohibited male sexual offences. Yet, for reasons explained above this does not significantly diminish the case for suggesting that the Levitical prohibitions derive directly from Genesis.

          My point is that, while such omissions may make its link between Lev. 18:22 and Genesis 1:27 tenuous, we know that it neither implies that the specific omissions were excused, nor that there is no link to Genesis at all.

          In his magnum opus Leviticus, Ephraim Radner makes a far stronger for linking Leviticus 18 to Genesis 2:25 – 27 without particularly singling out same-sex sexual prohibitions. He wrote:

          The sexual couplings prohibited in Lev. 18 sketch the shape, by way of contrast, of a proper ‘union into one flesh’ from which the purposed descendants of Adam and Abraham will lead towards the coming of the Christ. They also point towards the obstacles that be overcome in moving to his advent. In all of this, the root shape of the movement is first given in Gen 2:23-25. Here from the beginning, ‘uncovered nakedness’ is the primordial gift of man and woman joining in fruitful union.

          https://books.google.com.pe/books?id=jdFFyoU1Y5UC&q=187#v=snippet&q=187&f=false

          The ensuing explanation in support of this is far more comprehensive than any other I’ve seen.

        • David Shepherd October 4, 2016 at 9:23 pm #

          Also, in referring to the medieval Torah commentator, Radner explains ‘as noted by Rashi and the tradition on the use of the plural in Lev, 18:6, Lev. 18’s prohibitions apply to women as well as men’.

          • Blair October 4, 2016 at 10:59 pm #

            Hello David,

            I may regret entering this conversation… but a little thing: am not sure your (Radner’s?) point entirely works here. Lev 18:6 indeed looks like (& is, I don’t doubt) a general prohibition of incest, applicable to men and women. But I don’t see that it follows that all of Lev 18’s commands can be read like that. The language of Lev 18:22 is starkly different from that of verses 7-17. The second part of Lev 18:23 is specifically addressed to women – why is this, if all the chapter’s prohibitions can be generalised? Furthermore, if Lev 18:22 was taken to imply a direct prohibition of female-female sex why did the rabbis need to develop one? (My source here is Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s brilliant ‘Wrestling with God and men: homosexuality and the Jewish tradition’, University of Wisconsin Press, 2004 – which may well still be available on Google Books).

            My point is not that “omitted behaviour is automatically excused” but that one element of canonical reading is surely close textual attention to determine what is actually prohibited, and what the rationale might be. I am well aware that we disagree on the question of same-sex sexual relationships…..

            in friendship, Blair

          • David Shepherd October 5, 2016 at 11:11 pm #

            Hi Blair,

            You’ve provided a very interesting question.

            The quote is Radner’s and while Rashi argues for treating the Lev. 18 prohibitions as complementary to each other, ( http://www.sefaria.org/Rashi_on_Leviticus.18.10.1?lang=en&with=all&lang2=en),
            I’ve found no evidence that using the plural in verse 6 extends ipso facto to all subsequent verses.

            That said, we do know that incest and zoophilia was rife among the Egyptians (for instance of the former, the Pharoah most likely to be the biblical adversary of Moses, Thutmose II married his half-sister, Queen Hatshepsut; and there are many other examples).

            There is also ample evidence that other proscribed forms of sexual behaviour (as you’ve identified in the second part of Lev. 18:23) were practiced by male and female Egyptians alike.

            So, although Lev. 18:3 contains a general prohibition forbidding Israel from adopting these sexual customs, which we know were practiced by male and female Egyptians and Canaanites, you ask: ‘The second part of Lev 18:23 is specifically addressed to women – why is this, if all the chapter’s prohibitions can be generalised?’

            My own counter-question is how could one explain that, despite historical evidence of Egyptians committing both male and female variants of Lev. 18:23, only the female perpetrator is specifically prohibited?

            Most likely, it’s that, these examples were provided as non-exhaustive guidance to the judicial hierarchies which Moses set up by Moses on the kind of offences which were generally prohibited by vs. 3, (Exodus 18:21)

            The alternative is your argument from silence. In disputing the validity of that approach, Frederick W. Knobloch wrote: ‘The silence of biblical law collections may simply reflect their selective and incomplete nature’.

            I would tend to agree.

  2. Matt Sheffield October 3, 2016 at 11:03 am #

    In the paragraph you begin with “Last Sunday…”, the linked verse and the translation you typed out are different.

    I would not normally be so pedantic as to point this out in the comments (of what is otherwise a helpful article), but I find the two translations of 2 Tim 1:17 to be saying quite different things. “Self-Discipline” (as per the NIV) implies willpower and a change in attitude, even ongoing Spirit-driven change within the person; sanctification in other words. “A sound mind” (as per the other translation) implies mental health, reasoning/conscience, sanity etc.

    • Matt Sheffield October 3, 2016 at 11:05 am #

      Please correct my incorrect link. It’s obviously meant to be 2 Tim 1:7.

  3. Alan Darley October 3, 2016 at 6:13 pm #

    It is also important to situate canonical reading in distinction to non-canonical heresies such as Gnosticism.

    For example, it was a tenet of Gnosticism that Adam was androgenous before being divided into male and female (the Gnostic reading of Genesis 2:21-13) and that the eschatological age would inaugurate a return to this primordial state. Interestingly, Gnostic rituals included a ‘sacrament of the bridal chamber’ to enter this superior state.

    The so- called Gospel of Thomas reflects this same background.

    Saying 11. Jesus said: ‘This heaven will pass away and that which is above it will pass away, and the dead are not living and the living will not die. Today you eat dead things and make them alive, but when you are in the light, what will you do? On the day when you were one, you became two; but when you have become two, what will you do?’

    An abolition of sexual difference is likewise suggested in Saying 22, (a Gnostic interpretation of Galatians 3:28).

    Saying 22: ‘ Jesus saw some infants at the breast. He said to his disciples: ‘ These children at the breast are like those who enter the kingdom’. They said to him: ‘Shall we, then, enter the kingdom as children.?’ Jesus said to them: ‘When you make the two one, and when you make the inner as the outer and the outer as the inner and the above as below, and when you make the female one, so that the male is no longer male and female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter the kingdom.’

    Saying 106: Jesus said: ‘When you make the two one, you will become sons of man, and if you say, ‘Move over, mountain!’ It will move.’
    This saying seems to be teaching that only when the two sexes are reunited into one personality will true humanity will be achieved. Such an anthropology is rooted in a non-trinitarian, undifferentiated monad as
    Saying 61 indicates:

    Jesus said: ‘Two will be resting there on one divan: one will die, the other will live.’ Salome said: ‘Who are you, sir, and whose son are you, that you have taken your place on my divan and eaten from my table?’ Jesus said to her: ‘I am he who derives his being from him who is the Same; to me has been given from what belongs to my Father.’ ‘I am your disciple’ said she). ‘Therefore (said he), I tell you this: when one is united, he will be full of light; when he is divided, he will be full of darkness.’

    There are clear parallels between non-canonical Gnosticism and the theology of same sex marriage today – producing similar conclusions.

  4. Alastair Roberts October 3, 2016 at 6:46 pm #

    You mention the importance of expanding attention beyond ‘fragmented lectionary morsels’. For those within a Church of England context or in another context that uses a similar lectionary this can be helpful. However, the lectionary can play an important part in teaching people to read canonically. Different lectionary readings often powerfully resonate with each other in a manner that is instructive. For evangelicals from churches that don’t employ the lectionary, encountering such resonances can be eye-opening, as they are less likely to encounter them in their own context, which places such an emphasis upon sequential reading of the text.

    Luke 4 is an interesting passage. It twice seems to play with excluding the expected end of a quotation, which like a missing stair may cause the reader to trip in a manner that raises their awareness. In both cases, the missing stair appears later. In verse 4, the reference to Deuteronomy 8:3 is only partial (cf. Matthew 4:4), omitting reference to the words proceeding from the mouth of God. However, the ‘missing stair’ of the reference is echoed in verse 22, where the people marvel at the gracious words proceeding from Jesus’s mouth. Anyone who jolted at the incomplete citation in verse 4 will be probably be alert to the rather unusual expression employed in verse 22.

    This separated reference establishes a brief tension, then a resolution, then highlights a subtle and suggestive set of intertexts. The words that Jesus speaks are, it is implied, the words that one lives by. An association is created between Jesus’s mouth and God’s mouth. Ezekiel has also been playing in the background of the chapter in several ways. Note the language of verse 1, especially when contrasted with the language of Mark and Matthew’s accounts, and paralleled with verses such as Ezekiel 37:1. Note the fact that Ezekiel is repeatedly referred to as ‘Son of Man’ and that his vision occurs at the age of thirty. Note the reference to a visionary journey with a similar itinerary to Ezekiel’s—wilderness (37:1), then to a very high mountain (40:2), various extremities of the temple (40:17, 24, 28, 32, 41:1; 42:1; 43:1; 44:1, 4). The same pattern occurs in Revelation: wilderness (17:3), mountain (21:10), temple (21:22ff.). Satan is given Jesus a false apocalypse. The attention given to the scroll that is handed to Jesus and to the fact that the words of it proceed from his mouth, especially in light of the implicit reference to ‘eating’ the word of the Lord, recalls Ezekiel 2:9 and 3:1-3.

    This interplay within the chapter invites us to reflect upon the possibility of a broader interplay of themes between the temptations and the rejection at Nazareth (and also with the temptations associated with the cross.

    Temptation 1: Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God / The words of God proceed from the mouth of Christ / Will Jesus drink the cup according to his father’s word
    Temptation 2: Will Jesus serve the devil or God alone / The true prophet does not serve his compatriots, but God alone / Will Jesus assert his claim over the kingdoms of the world in a demonic manner when he is tried by them, or will he take the route of the cross
    Temptation 3: Will Jesus cast himself down from the temple, testing God and abandoning his vocation / The people of Nazareth seek to throw Jesus down from the cliff, but Jesus walks away from them and continues his mission / Will Jesus cast himself down from the cross, saving himself and abandoning his mission

    Luke 4:19 has another ‘missing stair’: the reference to the days of vengeance. As Richard Hays observes, this should be understood as metalepsis. The unspoken threat hangs in the background of the text as an unresolved tension, but one purposefully kept to the background. It is made explicit, however, in the apocalyptic discourse of chapter 21, where the ‘missing stair’ appears in verse 22, where the unresolved tension of judgment in the background comes to the foreground.

    Jesus’s Nazareth sermon is also part of a broader chiastic structure within Luke, and paralleled with 7:1-23. Isaiah 61 is alluded to in verses 18-23 (verses 22-23 especially). Verses 1-10 relate to the healing of Naaman by Elisha (the foreign military man connected with a servant). Verses 11-17 relate to the widow of Zarephath. These miracles are the two miracles Jesus referenced in his sermon.

    These intertexts require both sequential and parallel reading. The Ezekiel parallels require that we read Ezekiel alongside Luke’s gospel (much as we should be reading the books of Samuel alongside it). The Isaianic reference requires a sequential reading alert to Luke’s unfolding of its thematics and the tensions it introduces. The Elijah and Elisha connection requires a sequential reading of Luke to appreciate the chiasm. However, it can also be strengthened by attention to the recapitulation of Elijah’s ministry in Elisha’s (compare 2 Kings 4:1-7 and 4:8-37 with 1 Kings 17:8-16 and 17:17-24), and the relation between their ministries and those of Moses and Joshua (Exodus and eremite prophet followed by miracles and conquest within the land). Jesus’s miracles, such as the feeding of the five thousand, echo Elisha’s and there are obvious parallels and associations between John and Elijah.

    To hear these, canonical reading is essential, but neither sequential not parallel reading is enough. At their best, lectionaries can hold both forms of reading in their appropriate generative tension.

    • David Shepherd October 3, 2016 at 10:40 pm #

      Hi Alistair,

      It’s an interesting reflection and the ‘missing stair’ (known as aposiopesis) was well spotted. We use it today when can say: ‘once a liar…’ or ‘a bird in hand…’, knowing that our hearers will complete the saying in their heads.

      Stephen use the same device, when addressing the Sanhedrin in Acts 7. What infuriates his accusers is when he quotes Amos 5:25,26, while leaving them to remember vs. 21 -24 and 27: ‘“I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!…Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is God Almighty.’

      He does the same (and probably sealed his fate) with Is. 66:1,2. Verses 3,4 are also ‘missing stairs’: ‘These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word. But whoever sacrifices a bull is like one who kills a person,
      and whoever offers a lamb is like one who breaks a dog’s neck; whoever makes a grain offering is like one who presents pig’s blood, and whoever burns memorial incense is like one who worships an idol. They have chosen their own ways, and they delight in their abominations; so I also will choose harsh treatment for them and will bring on them what they dread. For when I called, no one answered, when I spoke, no one listened. They did evil in my sight and chose what displeases me.”

      This precedes his final words in Acts 7:51 and in front of zealous, prideful guardians of man-made religiosity, it’s exactly the kind of inflammatory response that’ll get you killed!

      • Alastair Roberts October 4, 2016 at 10:50 am #

        Interesting! I hadn’t picked up on a couple of those before. Have you read Richard Hays’ new Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels yet? You’d probably enjoy it if you haven’t.

        • David Shepherd October 4, 2016 at 12:42 pm #

          Hi Alastair,

          Thanks for your reply. I haven’t read Echoes of Scripture, but I’ll certainly order a copy.

  5. Chris Clark October 4, 2016 at 10:48 am #

    To encourage you Paul when you presented this material at Hove my wife and I immediately decided to stop putting the readings on the screen and printing them out. We will give out bibles as people come in and train those reading the bible to give the reference, pause and then reveal the page number….
    Your point about the smartphone being a throwback to scrolls was not one I had thought about but you are quite right!

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