Proof Texts

Charles David Isbell cisbell at
Tue Dec 19 17:13:20 EST 2000

Dear John,

Each year I teach an undergraduate course titled
"Judaism-Christianity-Islam" here at LSU.  My Christian students are totally
comfortable with the view you are espousing, and are often startled to learn
that the prophetic words meant SOMETHING [and I thought that something was
the object of inquiry on a list called  "B-Hebrew" (sic!)] before being
given what the NT trumpets as THE meaning for all time.  They are quite a
bit less comfortable to hear the Quranic viewpoint teaching them that their
own holy book screwed things up and can be understood ONLY through the lens
of Muslim faith.  I admit that I rather enjoy seeing them subjected to the
same arguments by Muslims that Jews regularly endure from Christians.  I
consider it a quintessential element of their general education.  But I
suspect that you consider the Quranic interpretation of the NT no more
authoritative or binding on you than I do the NT interpretation of the
Miqra' on me.

In other words, we are apparently not arguing about exegetical methods as
much as about the relative authority of texts that are sacred to you but not
to me.  As I said, I am quite willing to accept NT points of view as valid
for the Christian.  I would ask only that you accept the fact that the NT
does not carry the same weight of authority for me that it holds for you.
It is only the assumption that Jesus was what the NT acclaims him to be that
allows for the validity of your interpretations.  Since I do not make that
assumption, the conclusions of the NT are quite beside the point for me, and
presumably for all non-Christians.  {Now, Bill Rea, I do not make this as a
blatant assault on the personal faith of anyone.  It is simply a matter of
fact that different starting points yield different exegetical results.}  As
I said, I am not bothered by these differences until they are used to foist
onto me a point of view that I do not accept as binding for me.  You think
Isaiah was referring futuristically to Jesus of Nazareth.  I do not.  Vive
la difference.   But I think your attempts to discredit the work of Liz with
respect to the Isaianic texts in their own right are unsound.  You derive
your understanding by starting out as a Christian.  Lacking your starting
point, reasonable exegetes may arrive at different and equally valid

Your attempt to push into my wagon the idea of Isaiah as a "pious fraud"
[your words, not mine] seems rather shrill to me.  I certainly do not agree
that Isaiah was talking about the end of the world.  I think rather that as
his words of relevancy to the sixth century lived on, they acquired new and
fresh relevancy to many other, later eras.  And since we still have not seen
the end of the world, there is no way for us to know whether his words will
continue to have meaning when that end arrives.  For me, the genius of
Scripture is that his sixth century words are seen to have relevancy to many
later times, not because he had originally beamed them down into the future,
but because the human condition does not change that much from generation to
generation, and because the one God whom he proclaimed does not change
either.  Still, modern "relevancy" is something quite different from
original authorial intention, and is a matter over which an ancient author
has no control.  Later generations are always free to make of his words
whatever they wish, and he is not here to defend his own meaning or question
any new interpretations that may be offered of them.

I note once more that this list should not be about the relevancy of texts
for particular paths of personal faith, mine or anyone else.  If Liz is
wrong, demonstrate her error from the text of the Bible itself.  But do not
assume that your retreat to the NT reconstruction [no matter how precious it
may be to you] has any relationship to what Liz is attempting to do.

Charles David Isbell

P.S.  I just read postings by Ian and Dan Wagner.  I agree with Ian that a
literary text is not the same as a historical one.  But in any case, surely
Isaiah was some time before Matthew, non?  I think Dan's formulation is
quite reasonable, and see no serious conflict between it and what I am
posting here.  Thanks to you both.

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