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Ancient Proof-Texting

Back in 2008, Jeff Spector introduced me to the concept of proof-texting.  I think we’re all familiar with the idea of taking a scripture out of context to support a certain religious belief.  However, I didn’t realize that this practice goes back thousands of years.  Charles Harrell and Greg Kofford Books has recently published a new book This is My Doctrine: the Development of Mormon Theology.  They noted that New Testament writers were guilty of proof-texting as well.

On page 8, Harrell describes what a proof-text is.

A proof-text is a scriptural passage lifted out of its original context and given an interpretation other than that which was originally intended–or at least as can be determined by the most reasonable reading of the text.  BYU religion professor Stephen Robinson notes that even Latter-day Saints have a tendency to read Mormon beliefs into the Bible as proof-texts, largely because they assume that the doctrines of the Restoration are all corroborated in the Bible.40 Most occurences of proof-texting are the innocent result of careless or uninformed reading of the scriptures, though they can still be detrimental.  When however, one deliberately twists the meaning of a passage in order to justify a personal belief or bias, it is condemned in both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon as “wresting [i.e. twisting] the scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16; Alma 13:20, 41:1).41

Harrell describes a proof-text well known to missionaries.  Often Christians will refer to Revelation 22:18, and state that the Bible is the end of God’s word, so there is no need for a Book of Mormon.  Missionaries will often counter that a similar scripture is found in Deuteronomy 4:2, and would have left the Bible far smaller if Deuteronomy was the end of scripture.

But Christians are guilty of proof-texting as well.  Zechariah 13:6 reads (quoting from page 9, formatting changed):

And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands?  Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.

Latter-day Saints, like many other Christians, interpret this passage as a prophecy of Christ.44 The Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 45:51-52) alludes to Zechariah 13:6 this way and even adds wound to the “feet”, which makes the fit more obvious.

According to most biblical scholars, the wounds referred to in Zechariah are actually in the chest (the Hebrew reads “between” the hands) and, in the context of Zecharaiah 13:2-6, were inflicted on “the [false] prophets” in Israel (v. 4).45 The NSRV uses the pronouns “they” and “them” thoughout verses 2-6, making it clear that verse 6 is speaking of the same false prophets alluded to in verse 4.  Pagan prophets were often self-lacerated (Lev. 19:28; Deut. 14:1; 1 Kgs. 18:28) for reasons that are not entirely clear.  Methodist Bible commentator Adam Clarke censured popular Christian applications of this verse to Christ noting that it was clearly referring to false prophets who alleged that they have received these marks in their own families when, more likely, the wounds “had been dedicated to … idols.”46

Harrell notes that New Testament writers often looked for parallels in Christ’s life, and then found them in the Old Testament.  Some examples found on page 10: (formatting changed)

  • Hosea 11:1:  “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt”; he then applies it as a prophecy of Christ’s infancy in Egypt (Matt 2:15), even though in its original context it had reference to the historical exodus of Israel from Egypt.49
  • Matthew also cites Jeremiah 31:15 (“A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not”) as a reference to Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s male children, while the original context referred to the slaughtering of Jerusalem’s inhabitants and the Babylonian exile of the children of Israel (Jer. 31:16).

There is no harm in finding shadows and types of Christ in these passages, but one should not confuse later allegorical meanings with the originally intended meaning.

Harrell describes other proof-texts in the New Testament.  He also notes that there is a common misperception about Old Testament prophets.  While many of us like to think that ancient prophets saw our day clearly, Harrell says that ‘Old Testaments prophets were more forthtellers than foretellers, with their attention being focused on immediate times and situations” rather than being prophecies of the distant future.’

A recent comment on Stephen Marsh’s Sunday School post decried the use of “proof texting of modern LDS concepts from the ancient texts”.  However, it seems that the LDS, like ancient and modern Jews and Christians, are all guilty of proof-texting.

In order to avoid proof-texting, one must really understand the ancient cultures of the Bible.  Is it realistic to believe that church members without a degree in theology can really avoid proof-texting?  Is it acceptable to look for parallels between Christ and the Old Testament? Are these proof-texts valuable in finding new meanings from old scriptures?

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8 comments on “Ancient Proof-Texting

  1. Awesome post!

  2. According to Luke’s account, Jesus was the first proof-texter:

    And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

    Since that point — it became almost like a game, to see how many obscure OT passages could be worked into stories or lessons relating to the life of Jesus [to prove beyond all doubt that he was the Christ].

    On the subject of:

    the use of “proof texting of modern LDS concepts from the ancient texts”.

    I had that problem when I was subbing Sunday School the last week in December. I had the lesson on that was to cover the second coming of Christ and the LDS practice of tithing — by using Zechariah and Malachi, respectively.

    Problem being — Zechariah was not written to address the second advent of the Messiah to end the world, and Malachi was not written to address the LDS practice given in D&C 119. I didn’t know whether I should talk about the second coming and tithing or if I should talk about Zechariah and Malachi — but you can’t do both at the same time.

  3. Interesting comment on Zech 3:16, and D&C 45:51-52. The D&C section is a revelation from Christ, so wouldn’t he know how Zech 3:16 should be interpreted? Or is he, Christ, proof-texting? And what should we make of that?

  4. Justin,

    I’m curious to hear more details. What did you decide to do?

    Skyler–those are interesting questions. Harrell says that not all proof-texting is bad, but it is interesting to see if such proof-texting is God-made, or man made. I don’t know if you saw the Bloom post I did last week, but Bloom says that revelation is not a passive activity (as if God almost takes possession of your mind), but more of an active collaboration. It is interesting to wonder if God is guilty of proof-texting, or merely using man’s ability to proof-text to make a point.

  5. I went with the scriptures, meaning I stuck to the historical meaning the scriptures would have had to the audience they were written to. And then passingly made sure to state why I thought the manual was using those scriptures to teach the “latter-day” lesson.

    For Zechariah — Paul’s letters show that early Christians expected Jesus to return within the generation after his death and establish His kingdom on the earth. I taught that the same was true for the exiled citizens of Judea in 500-400 BC. Zecharaiah wrote to them, not to us.

    I think it set everyone up quite well for the NT Sunday School curriculum — since people might wonder why the Jews weren’t expecting the “suffering servant” Messiah, but rather the Lord of hosts who would fight for Israel and crush the nations.

    Isaiah 53 had to be proof-texted to the first Jewish converts because of how they read their “Great and Dreadful Day of the Lord” lesson at synagogue. It’s not that they just couldn’t get it — but it’s how they read their scripture.

    For Malachi 3 — I talked about the kind of tithing he and his audience would have been thinking of, what its purpose was according to the scriptures, and how it differs from the D&C 119 law of tithing the LDS are to follow today.

    Basically, I tried to read the scriptures for what they say — instead of using them as (1) Second Coming (2) Tithing proof texts.

  6. Sounds like a very interesting lesson. What did you say about Malachi and tithing?

  7. Here — I found my notes:

    God’s Law of Tithing to the ancient Israelites:
    1/10th of your income is the Lord’s [see Lev. 27:30].
    You and your family spend that 1/10th on righteous things – make sure to enjoy yourself and honor Him [see Deut. 12:5-7, 10-12, 17-18; 14:22-26].
    To make sure you don’t forget the poor and the Levite priesthood – every third 1/10th must be given to them instead [see Deut. 12:19; 14:27-29; 26:12-13].

    This are what He wanted brought into the storehouse.

    The blessings of this law of tithing are the same as the blessings for LDS Sabbath observance:
    Compare Malachi 3:10-12 with D&C 59:16-19. Meaning, we get that just for showing up every week.

    The law of tithing given to the LDS has an entirely different, and altogether better promise:
    D&C 119:5-6

    “…all those who gather unto the land of Zion shall be tithed of their surplus properties, and shall observe this law, or they shall not be found worthy to abide among you. And I say unto you, if my people observe not this law, to keep it holy, and by this law sanctify the land of Zion unto me, that my statutes and my judgments may be kept thereon, that it may be most holy, behold, verily I say unto you, it shall not be a land of Zion unto you.”

  8. Great post. It didn’t know that what I disliked about some Sunday school classes was called proof-texting, but it has annoyed me for some time.

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