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Inspired Reading

Notes on the New Testament - Part I

It is sometimes overlooked that the New Testament as a whole is largely the work of masterful exegesis. When St. Augustine said that the New Testament is in the Old concealed and that the Old is in the New revealed, it was the finest summary of the interpretive principle that governed its authors. In this sense, the literature of the New Testament owes its creation not simply from divinely inspired writers but from divinely inspired readers.

Let us take the word “exégeomai” (ἐξηγέομαι), which is can be translated as “to tell” or “to relate” or “to declare.” Though this word appears in various forms, it only occurs six times in the New Testament, a seemingly insignificant sum, the context, position, and etymology of this word sets it apart. The first mention is in Luke 24:35: “And they told (ἐξηγέομαι) what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in breaking of bread.” The next occurrence is at the prologue to the Gospel of John: “No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared (ἐξηγήσατο) him.” Already we are presented with a very interesting comparison; both verses speak of Jesus, and both verses speak of him in terms of some disclosure or revelation. The etymology of exégeomai is revelation in itself. According to Strong’s, the verb literally means “to show the way” and shares the same root for our English word “exegesis.” We might conclude in Luke that the disciples “showed” or “explicated” the things Jesus had done and said. And we might affirm with John that Jesus has not only “declared” God to the world but that as the “only begotten Son” he is himself the very “exegesis” of the Father.

According to Strong’s, exégeomai occurs only four more times, and all of the in the book of Acts. The references are contextually similar: these verses all speak of how the disciples “declared” (KJV) and “rehearsed” (ASV) “one by one the things which God had wrought among the Gentiles through his ministry” (Acts 21:19). This suggests that the story of Christ does not end with the gospel narratives. God’s story of redemption in Christ is ever unfolding. And this curious word also suggests that the apostles did more than simply talk about the facts of God’s doings; it suggests that the apostles and followers of Jesus also showed and interpreted what God was doing in the world.

If there is a Christian “way” of living, then there is also a Christian way of thinking. Naturally, this involves the act and ability of reading as well. When Jesus is questioned by a lawyer, he gives an answer that shows how important one’s ability to read is, and not simply to read the right books but to read them in the right way.

And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?
And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. (Luke 10:26)

Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with a question: how do you read? And although it is a simple question, it is far from simplistic. The same question is put to us as well. How well do we read? Notice, also, this is not the same as asking as fast we read. It is question about meaning. It is question about exegesis. When Jesus instructs the teachers and scribes, for instance, we often hear the refrain, “Have you not read the Scriptures?” (Matthew 19:4-6; Luke 6:3). Nor are these merely esoteric matters of Hebrew Law. Reading well involves the practical concerns of life, of love and marriage, of life and death. When the disciples, for instance, are confronted with who Jesus is, it is a question of how their understanding of the Scriptures participates in the understanding of their own lives. How well one reads affords one the ability to discern the times. In St. Peter’s case, it obliged him to forsake all and follow Jesus. When Peter confesses, “Thou art the Christ, Son of the living God,” he was reading well. But recall, his confession was not reveled to him by the will of “flesh and blood” (Matthew 16:16-17).

We are perhaps too accustomed to thinking that inspiration only benefits writing. It is easy to forget that it is the Spirit who leads us into all truth, that we need inspiration as much for reading (and interpreting) as for writing. So Augustine’s Novum testamentum in Vertere latet, Vetus Testamentum in Novo patet might serve as a means of interpreting more than the Scriptures. Whether it be the letters of a page or the days of one’s life, reading well is matter of wisdom and discernment, and of being able always to see the Old concealed in the New, the New revealed in the Old. Even eternity revealed in the present.

The grammar of life is difficult and the literature of our days can seem almost at times inscrutable. Even in small matters, how often do we miss the moment of a word fitly spoken because we couldn’t discern the moment to begin with? Chesterton tells us that when St. Thomas was asked for what he thanked God most, he answered simply, “I have understood every page I ever read.” We invoke the Spirit to compose our songs or to shape our arguments; let us also invoke the Spirit to read well, to understand the pages put before us.

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