Much exegesis is nothing more than “axegesis,” a slaughter of the text. In The Slaughter of Isaac: An Exegesis “Axegesis” of Laughter in Genesis, I examined laughter occasioned by Sarah’s conception of Isaac. The very thought of it at her age! Though Abraham didn’t ultimately slaughter Isaac (Hebrew for “he laughed”), “axegetes” go all the way: laughter lies slaughtered on the slab. One example of this slaughter of context is the Jewish Bible commentator Kley Yakor’s (Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz) reason why Sarah laughed:
“Sarah saw that a miracle happened to her against nature. She went back to her youth, when she was a girl. She felt that not for nothing did a miracle happen to her…She said, I who received back my time and period, it is because of my worthiness. Perhaps I will live much longer. But my husband’s youth did not return to him and he will not live much longer. Why then does he need a son in his old age? That is the reason that she laughed [Genesis 18:13].”
Jewish believers in the oral Torah maintain that God speaks through it to the sages and rabbis. So, the above commentary sits very well in many Jewish minds, which helps us understand the Jewish mind. Another commentator said: “I admire Sarah for laughing. I wouldn’t find the news too amusing!” Sarah is decades beyond the normal children-bearing age Unless one ignores the context of the story, surely there’s no other possible interpretation? Not so, for in Jewish interpretation their are four levels, where the words on the page only signify the superficial level. I explain:
In linguistics, language contains the following four progressive levels, or layers:
1. An Alphabet – an agreed set of symbols such as letters or sounds.
2. Grammar – the forms of words and how they are arranged in sentences and larger chunks of language.
3. Meaning (dictionary/lexical/semantic meaning). In Geoffrey Leech’s terms, “What X means.”
4. Intention/context. In Geoffrey Leech’s terms, “What you mean by X.” In “de facto” Judaism (“Orthodox” Judaism), the straightforward contextual reading of the passage is called the p’shat/peshat (surface level). Judaism adds three other levels of meaning of which the deepest is the SOD (secret level). The SOD is the main domain of Kabbalah.
The Christian generally regards the surface text of scripture, namely, its normal linguistic and communicative properties, to be the best guide to its meaning. There are, of course, parts of scripture where the surface text (p’shat) may refuse to give up much of its meaning; for example, some of the visions of Ezekiel and parts of the book of Revelation. Christians who believe scripture is God-breathed (theopneustos – breathed out by God) also believe, as a corollary to its divine expiration (breathed out), that there are no deeper meanings lurking below the surface text of scripture. So, if Christians differ in their interpretation of a text, they lay the “blame” on the interpreter not on the text. In contrast, Orthodox Judaism views the surface text as superficial, as nothing but bed-time stories. Rabbi AkivaTatz said in one of his lectures, “any six-year-old can understand” the Written Torah. One has to enter the pardes (the deeper levels) of Torah to derive any lasting good. These deeper levels are not found in the Written Torah, but in the Oral Torah, which for some Jewish movements is not found deep in the Written Torah but above and beyond it. So, it is not always, or perhaps not even often, the case that the Oral Torah and the Written Torah complement each other. Often it is rather that the Written Torah implements what the Oral Torah dictates it to mean. (See The Written and Oral Torah: Which is Primary?
Roman Catholic biblical interpretation as in Judaism does not limit itself to context. Where the rabbis decide what the Bible means, the Roman Catholic Magisterium headed by the pope of Rome decides what the biblical text means. Both the rabbis (recognised by the “Orthodox” rabbinate) and the Magisterium believe that when they speak, on matters of faith and morals, God speaks. Here is the previous pope Benedict XIV’s interpretation of Matthew 27:25. “Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.” But first verse 25 in context:
When he [Pilate] was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him. 20 But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas, and destroy Jesus. 21 The governor answered and said unto them, Whether of the twain will ye that I release unto you? They said, Barabbas. 22 Pilate saith unto them, What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ? They all say unto him, Let him be crucified. 23 And the governor said, Why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out the more, saying, Let him be crucified. 24 When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. 25 Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children. 26 Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.
Here is Benedict’s commentary on verse 25:
When in Matthew’s account the “whole people” say: “his blood be on us and on our children” (27:25), the Christian will remember that Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb. 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment, it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone, it is poured out for many, for all. … Read in the light of faith, [Matthew’s reference to Jesus’ blood] means that we all stand in the need of the purifying power of love which is his blood. These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation. Only when understood in terms of the theology of the Last Supper and the Cross, drawn from the whole of the New Testament, does this verse from Matthew’s Gospel take on its correct meaning.”
This meaning is nowhere in the context of “his blood be on us and on our children” (27:25). Is, though, what Benedict says about Jesus blood true for a Christian? Of course; all Christians must believe that. Here is Benedict again: “Read in the light of faith, [Matthew’s reference to Jesus’ blood] means that we all stand in the need of the purifying power of love which is his blood. These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation.” Yes, please read in the light of (the Christian’s) faith, and we all indeed stand in need of the power of love that is in the blood. And if Christians say the words “His blood be on us and on our children!,” and mean by that they need the power of the blood, well, that, of course, what they should mean. It is, however, Benedict’s conclusion to what the Jews (some, many) meant that makes no sense, namely his: “Only when understood in terms of the theology of the Last Supper and the Cross, drawn from the whole of the New Testament, does this verse from Matthew’s Gospel take on its CORRECT [emphasis added] meaning.” In other words, those Jews who pressed Pilate to crucify Jesus didn’t, according to Benedict, mean “let the guilt of his blood be on us, and our children,” but meant that the power of love was in the blood of the person they were roaring at Pilate to crucify. “They open wide their mouths at me, like like a ravening and roaring lion (Psalm 22:13)
Here is a comment; from a Roman Catholic it seems:
“I just wanted to say that I don’t really read the language you’ve quoted from the now former pope the same way you do. I don’t see anything in what he says to suggest that the crowd didn’t mean what they said as an acceptance of responsibility for Jesus’ death (i.e., “for evil”), just that after the resurrection, in light of the purpose and meaning of Jesus’ blood, that self-imposed curse is redeemed (“for good”). Your quotation from the story of Joseph is salient and analogous – there is no question that Joseph’s brothers intended evil when they “killed” him, and took responsibility for it when they apologized. The subsequent events don’t change the brothers’ meaning, but they do reveal the true meaning and purpose of their words and actions. With the benefit of revelation and hindsight, Joseph sees that God intended their “curse” for good. In light of the resurrection, we are able to see Matt.27:25 the same way.” (Pope Benedict’s retake of “his blood be on us and on our children).
In reply, one may legitimately use “let his blood be on us and our children” and apply it to a different context. What one cannot do is say that these words mean in the original Matthew 27 what Benedict XIV says it means. If, however, you’re a Roman Catholic, your Church holds the keys to scripture, in which case, the pope would not be introducing an idiosyncratic meaning into the surface text but merely telling it like it is. My impression, from the “Catholic Forum,” is that some Roman Catholics would disagree with Benedict’s interpretation of Matthew 27:25; for example, here is one of similar comments on the Catholic Forum: “[The verse] was fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem and the slaughter of its inhabitants by the Romans forty years later. Note that the condemnation of the Jews by the Gospel writers, who we would now consider Jews, applied to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judea who rejected Jesus as opposed to the Galileans who followed Him.”
If Judaism had a pope, he would have retained the obvious surface meaning but added a second level – the popes rendition. In both Roman Catholicism and – with regard to biblical interpretation – its kissing cousin, Judaism, what we have, I suggest, is not exegesis but axegesis of the Word of God; a slaughter, a draining of its life-blood. And that’s no laughing matter.
Now p’shat up!