Book Review: The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers: Learning to Interpret Scripture from the Prophets and Apostles, by Abner Chou

What hermeneutical methods are employed by the New Testament authors in their utilization of the Hebrew Bible? And to what extent should our own interpretive methods be shaped by theirs? Dr. Abner Chou attempts to address these questions in his book, The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers: Learning to Interpret Scripture from the Prophets and Apostles (2018, Kregel). Chou’s book is a thoughtful contribution to the discussion of the New Testament use of the Old Testament, which commands attention from those who would dismiss the New Testament authors as taking passages from the Hebrew Bible out of their original context and contorting their meaning to confirm their Christian bias. Chou begins his work by laying out three key presuppositions that undergird his thesis. The first is the existence of authorial intent. “After all”, writes Chou, “the quest for authorial logic cannot exist (or would be meaningless) if the author’s intent is not the substance of the Bible’s true meaning,” (p. 26). The second presupposition is that there exists a natural distinction between the “meaning” of a Biblical text and its possible “significance” (pp. 30-34). His third presupposition is that “figuring out the author’s logic is far from subjective. Rather, it is textually expressed by the intertextuality in Scripture,” (p. 36).

Summary of the Book’s Thesis

Chou’s thesis is that the writers of the New Testament had deep insight into the context of the Old Testament passages they quote or allude to, and that their hermeneutical method is consistent with, and in fact arises from, the prophets themselves. Chou argues that “The Old Testament writers themselves were experts and theologians who understood and correlated their texts with previous revelation. This formed intentional ‘networks of texts’ in the first canon,” and that “[t]he apostles thought through certain passages with certain biblical theological ideas because the prophets had already made those associations” (p. 21).

The first section of the book examines the prophetic hermeneutic. Chou asserts that the prophetic authors were themselves theologians. He observes the existence of a plethora of threads that consistently weave throughout the prophetic writings and suggests that “Old Testament theologians use intertextuality as part of their method to trace the progressing themes within the first canon,” (p.89).

Chou subsequently, in the second section of the book, investigates the apostolic hermeneutic. He argues that the New Testament authors utilized the Hebrew Bible in a manner similar to its usage by the prophetic writers, and that quotations that on first blush are difficult to understand the authorial intent in fact make sense when considered in light of intertextuality. Chou contends that the New Testament authors, “by a series of textual clues draws the reader to [a] chain of texts. The prophetic hermeneutic continues into the apostolic hermeneutic thereby,” (p. 141).

In the third and final part of the book, Chou turns his attention towards how the conclusions he has drawn might inform our own interpretation of Scripture. He implores us to engage in deep study of the intertextuality of Scripture and to let these principles guide our own exegesis.

Critical Appraisal

The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers is an important contribution to the scholarly discussion of the Old Testament in the New. He marshals convincing evidence that both the New and Old Testament authors frequently had wider literary contexts in view than they are typically given credit for. Indeed, since the prophetic writers “intentionally positioned their writings for later writers to use” (p. 119), the New Testament handling of the prophetic corpus underscores the fundamental continuity that exists between the two testaments.

One challenge for any investigation of Biblical intertextuality is the question of precedence. For instance, is Joel literarily dependent upon Isaiah, or the other way round? The answer to such questions depends upon how one adjudicates the question of which was written first, an issue for which arguments can be brought to bear in favor of either conclusion.

Chou’s work could have benefitted from some discussion of first century rabbinic practice, or perhaps the extent to which the deuterocanonical (apocryphal) literature is consistent with the hermeneutic method that Chou argues was employed by the prophets and apostles.

There were also certain examples covered in the book where I thought Chou missed a key point. For example, Chou covers Matthew’s utilization of Hosea 11:1 (Matt 2:15) (pp. 105-110). Chou appropriately notes that the king is also referred to as God’s son (2 Sam. 7:13), just as Israel is called God’s son in Hosea 11:1 (and in Exodus 4:22). This suggests the notion of corporate solidarity, that is, “[t]he king embodies the nation” (p. 107). Chou also observes that Hosea 1:11 speaks of “one leader” leading his people home from exile – a leader who “functions like Moses, who led God’s people from Egypt in the first Exodus” (p. 108). This leader is identified in 3:5 as “David their king”. Chou concludes that “when Hosea talks about a new Exodus in Hosea 11, he has already established this liberation is led by a new David,” (p. 108). However, Chou omits mention of key texts that would make his case for Messianic corporate solidarity stronger (e.g. Isa 49:3,5). In Numbers 23:22, Balaam, speaking of Israel, says, “God brings them out of Egypt” (resembling Hos 11:1), and later says, speaking of the Messiah, “God brings him out of Egypt,” (Num 24:8) This intertextual link is plausibly what Matthew had in mind with his citation of Hosea 11:1.

A related key point missed by Chou is Matthew’s reason for quoting Hosea 11:1 upon Jesus’ entry into Egypt. Furthermore, in the Exodus account, Egypt was the place of slavery and death, whereas in Matthew’s account Egypt is the place of safety. Matthew appears to be intentionally reversing the roles of Egypt and Canaan. Israel left Egypt for Canaan; Jesus left Canaan (Israel) for Egypt. Israel had a pagan king who, like Pharaoh, ordered the massacre of infants. With irony, Herod was aided by the religious leaders (Matt 2:3-6) while the gentile Magi are on Jesus’ side (Matt 2:9-12). The roles, it seems, have been reversed. Israel is the new Egypt. In fact, Revelation 11:8 even refers to Jerusalem as symbolic Egypt.

To conclude, Chou has offered us a provocative case for the New Testament hermeneutic being anchored in the interpretive method of the prophetic writers themselves. At times I thought his argument could be strengthened by recognition of other intertextual links. Nevertheless, he has laid the groundwork for future writers to uncover more of the complexity of the apostolic authorial logic.