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«EXEGETICAL FALLACIES: COMM ON INTERPRETIVE MISTAKES EVERY STUDENT MUST AVOID W illiam D. Barrick Professor of Old Testament Stud ents of the Bible ...»

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TMSJ 19/1 (Spring 2008) 15-27




W illiam D. Barrick

Professor of Old Testament

Stud ents of the Bible often make mistakes that can be avoided if they are

awa re of errors that others have committed. One of the errors is the “Evidential

Fallacy” which fails to approach the text with the presumption that it is accurate.

Another mistake is the “Sup erior K now ledge Fa llacy” which occurs when one, in approaching difficult texts, practices textual emend ation to accom mod ate the critic’s ignorance. A third mistake is the “Word Study Fallacy” which uses imaginative extrapolations to find unjustified meanings in individual words. The “Fallacy of Reading Between the Lines” read s into the Scriptures what one thinks the text implies. Another mistake occurs in improper explanations of the two tenses of Hebrew verbs, the pe rfect (or qatal) and the imperfect (or yiqtol). Occasion ally in the NT, the “Fallacy of Ignoring Particles” causes an interpreter to m iss empha sis that is conveyed by G reek pa rticles. Sometimes a translation leaves out words found in the original language causing the “Fallacy of Reduction.” Correct interpretation results from close attention to details of the text in avoiding the mistakes mentioned above, as well as o thers.

***** Introduction Over twenty years ago, D. A. Carson published his volume entitled Exe geti- cal Fallacies (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984). In it he covers the areas of word-study fallacies, grammatical fallacies, logical fallacies, and presuppositional and historical fallacies. This writer believes that the book should be required reading for every Bib le student. Although Carson might be faulted in his own exege sis for some of the examples he employs, he does a respectable job of covering the issues. Why, then, go over ground already covered by Carson? Rep etition is instructive, but it can also 15 16 The Master’s Seminary Journal be boring, unless the presentation has some new twists. Therefore, this article’s focus will be on its sub title: “Com mon Interpretive M istakes E very Student Must Avo id.” Forty-five years of preaching, forty-one years of teaching, and over twenty years of Bib le translation ministries have provided an abundance of personal examples. Lest this article beco me a litany of mea culpas, however, the author will not reveal how many of the following mistakes have been his own at one time or another.

The Evidential Fallacy In the evidential system of American and British jurisprudence the concept of prima facie (literally, “at first view”) evid ence is very imp ortant. Prima facie evidence is evidence that is sufficient to raise a presumption of fact or to establish the fact in question, unless evidence of equal veracity is presented in rebuttal. Included in this evidential system is the presumptio n of inno cence until proven guilty and that witnesses must present facts, not o pinions. In the area of biblical studies this evidential methodolo gy stands in opposition to the hermeneutics of doubt (or, the Troelschian principle of skeptical criticism). 1 As Robert Dick Wilson observed, “[O]ur text of the Old Testame nt is presumptively correct,…its meaning is on the whole clear and trustworthy.” 2 W hether discussing the Old Testament’s historical narratives or the Gospel narratives, evangelicals should approach the biblical text with a presum ption of factuality.

One of the gre atest fallacies students of Scripture can co mmit is failing to recognize adequately the prim a facie nature of biblical evidence. It is fallacious to condition acceptance of the biblical text upon corroboration by external evidence.

W hen the student encounters interpretive pro blems in the biblical text, he must allow the text to speak and must accept the testimony of the text with a presumption of accuracy. Therefore, reading about the Chaldeans in Gen 11:28-31, for example, should not bring doubt about the veracity of the text even though the extrabiblical Assyrian records do not mention Chaldeans until the 9th century B.C. The Assyrian evidence is not contemporary with Moses (the author of Genesis 11) nor with Babel (the historical setting of Genesis 11). Acceptance of Assyrian evidence over biblical evidence denigrates the biblical record and treats it with skepticism rather than as prima facie evidence. As Kenneth Kitchen points out, inconsistency dominates the appeal to Assyrian historical texts, since the Egyptian pharaohs of the period from the

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patriarchs to M oses also do not appear anywhere in the Assyrian record s.3 In other words, one errs when he automatically assumes that every major interpretive problem is due to an inaccurac y within the text itself. As we deal with problems in the biblical text, we must assume that it is accurate until proven otherwise by equally accurate, equally authentic, and equally ancient evidence. For example, when one reads in the superscription to Psalm 60 that Joab slew 12,000 Edo mites, he ought to accept that as prim a facie evidence. Of equal standing are the records in 2 Sam 8:13 and 1 Chron 18:12. The former reveals that David slew 18,000 Arameans; the latter declares that Abishai slew 18,000 Edomites. Are these three contradictory acco unts or three com plementary accounts? Perhaps the differe nces in the individua ls involved reflect the chain of command. David, as king, was com mander-in-chief. Joab, being next in command as the chief of the armies, was the field commander and A bishai, a subo rdinate officer to Joab, was over one contingent of the field army participating in this particular action. Variation in the numbers of enemy casualties might reflect different methods of calculating the casualties at separate levels of the chain of command or different times for certain counts prior to a settled statistic. Possibly, the different casualty counts indicate different engagements within the greater battle or even a series of battles. As for the difference between Edom and Aram, we should keep in mind that both Edomites and Arameans participated in the campaign against David’s forces (see 2 Sam 8:5; cp. 1 Kgs 11:17 [the Aramean H adad with Edom ites]). The target area was Edom, but Aramea ns were present and had also created a diversion in Aramea (Syria) where David had gone to quell the uprising.

Another example from the OT helps illustrate the difference between what current archaeologists and historians are saying about the text as compared to a proper understanding of the text itself. Consider the exodus from Egypt. Grant Osborne mentio ns the lack of primary physical evidence for the exo dus. 4 He then observes that “there is a fair amount of secondary evidence for such a migration and sufficient data to accept the histo ricity of the events.” 5 Th at kind o f thinking is antithetical to the co ncep t of a priori evidence and demeans the authority and accuracy of Scripture. The Scripture is itself sufficient evidence to accept the historicity of the events. O ne nee d not wait for “sufficient data to accept” any declaration of Scripture.

In his Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New versus the O ld, Robert Thomas 3 “If Assyrian mentions are the sine qua non (the absolute criterion) for a king’s existence, then Egypt and her k ings cou ld not h ave e xiste d be fore th e sp ecific nam ing of (U)shilkanni, Shapataka, and

Ta(ha)rqa in 716 -679!” (K. A. K itchen, O n th e R elia bility of th e O ld Te sta m ent [Grand Rapids:

Eerdm ans, 200 3] 12).

4 Grant R. Osborne, “H istorical Narrative and Truth in the Bible,” Journa l of the Evangelical Th eolo gica l Soc iety 48/4 (Dec 2005):685.

5 Ibid. (emphasis added) 18 The Master’s Seminary Journal addresses this tendency among some evangelical interpreters to exercise the secularist mindset, resulting in the magnification of “the human element in inspiration above the divine.” 6 Integrating antisupernaturalistic secular disciplines with biblical interpretation is fraught with pitfalls. As T hom as po ints out, the issue is not whether we ought to consider extrabiblical eviden ce, but whether we should allow such evidence to supersede the text or cause the exegete to revise (as opposed to refine) his interpretation of the biblical text.7

The Superior Know ledge Fallacy

Exegetical problems most often arise from human ignorance rather than any fault in the text itself. It has become customary among evangelical scholars to resort to textual em endation in o rder to explain some difficult texts. For example, Alfred Ho erth resorts to scribal glosses for the mention of “Chaldeans” in Gen 11:288 and a later “ed itorial touch” in his treatment of the phrase “in the land of Ram eses” in Gen 47:11.9 His preference for later textual revision as an explanation make s his accusation against critical scholars (“To accept the biblical ac count is now said to be naïve”1 0 ) ring hollow. It also contradicts his own principle that it is not a sound practice to emend “the bib lical text to m ake the identification fit.” 1 1 Scholars too often pursue many such textual emendations merely because the interpreter has insufficient knowledge to make sense of the text as it stands. Ignorance should never be an excuse to emend the text to make it understandable to the m od ern W estern mind. Above all, the evangelical exegete/expositor must accept the biblical text as the inerrant and authoritative Word of God. Adhering consistently to this declaration of faith will require an equal admission of one’s own ignorance and inability to resolve every problem. Ignorance, however, should never becom e the excuse for comp romising the integrity of the Scriptures. Our first assumption should be that we are in error instead of applying the hermeneutics of do ubt to the text.

According to Francis Andersen, “The notorious difficulties of the book of Job have b een largely blamed on a corrup t text; but it is more likely, in this writer’s opinion, that muc h of the incoherenc e is due to the artistic repre sentation o f the

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turbulent outbursts and hysterical cries of rage and grief.” 1 2 Because of his wo rk with David Noel Freedman for the Micah volume in the Anchor Bible series, Anderson and Freedma n dec ided that the unusual an d som etimes “crazy” character of the text “was exactly that. It is an effective rendition of the sobs and screams of a person who has lost all self-control in pa roxysm s of rage and grief.” 1 3 In other word s, the classical Hebrew authors of bo th Job and M icah really did know the langua ge be tter than mod ern He braists.

The W ord Study Fallacy

W ord studies are popular, easily obtained from available resources and an easy way to procure sermon content. However, word studies are also subject to radical extrapolations and erroneous applications. 1 4 It is not always possible to strike exegetical gold by extracting a word from the text for close examination. Word studies alone will not suffice. Indeed, over-occupation with word studies is a sign of laziness and ignorance involved in much of what passes for bib lical exp osition in our times. Nigel Turner, an eminent NT G reek scholar, correctly summarized the issue

as follows:

Just as a sentence is more revealing than a single word, so the examination of a writer’s syntax and style is that much more important to a biblical commentator. It is not surprising that fewer books have been written on this subject than on vocabulary, because whereas students of vocabulary can quickly look up lists of words in concordances and indices, in the field of syntax the study is more circuitous. There is no help except in a few selective grammars and monographs, so that the worker really must work his way through all the texts in Greek.15 Though we might dec ry over-emp hasis on philology or etymology, we must recognize that the choice of individual words was significant to the writers of Scripture. It is legitimate for the exegete to ask, “W hy did the writer choose this term 12 Fran cis I. Andersen, “Linguistic Coherence in Prophetic Discourse,” in Fortunate the Eyes That See: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman, eds. A strid B. Beck, et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) 147. Cp. John E. H artley, The Book of Job, New International Com men tary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) 3 : “The m any rare words an d textual disturbances m ake the Hebrew text of Job one of the most obscure in the OT. The ancient versions testify to the fact that many pass ages were unintelligible even to th e earliest translators.” 13 Ibid., 148. Cp. De lbert R. H illers, Micah, H erm ene ia (P hilade lphia: F ortres s, 19 84) 10: “ Bu t in the more corrupt passages of the book—an d M icah is often placed am ong the worst books in the ca non in this re sp ect— so m an y co nj ectur es ha ve be en prop osed tha t it w ou ld b e im po ss ible to lis t them all even if it mad e any se nse to d o so.” 14 See C arson, Exegetical Fallacies 25-66 (“Word-Study Fallacies”) for a fuller discussion.

15 Nigel Turn er, Gramm atical Insights into the New Testament (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1965) 2-3.

20 The Master’s Seminary Journal

as opposed to one of its synonyms?” Robert Renehan offers the following explanation:

Whether Euripides wrote *,Ã [“ought”] or PD­ [“must”] in a given passage is hardly of metaphysical import. But we must assume that he made a choice between them. This is sufficient justification for concerning ourselves with the problem. It made a difference to the poet; it should make a difference to us. This planet, I do not doubt, shall never want for people to despise such problems and those who try to resolve them. Such contempt is founded upon the remarkable premise that one who manifests a concern for minutiae must of necessity be both indifferent to and unequal to profound problems. The Greeks, on the contrary, in their simplicity had contrived a word to express this reverence before even the smallest truth; and that word is N48"8 Z2,4" [“love of truth”].16 Study of the words alone will not present us with a consistent interpretation or theolo gy. This is one of the misleading asp ects of theological dictionaries/wordb ooks.

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