What Is Polyfunctional Old Testament Text? (see Introduction)
A polyfunctional Old Testament text is any passage that functions in more than one context. Context includes audience, time frame, and referents. To be polyfunctional, a text need have multiples of only one of those items. For example, there may be two distinct audiences for a text in the same time frame, or there may be two referents for the same text in a given point in time. Similar to scientists’ new understanding of polyfunctional nucleotides within a given DNA strand, a polyfunctional biblical text must broaden our biblical understanding away from strict single purpose, single audience, single meaning kinds of interpretation. The same God who created the language of polyfunctional DNA nucleotides is the same God who wrote Old Testament Scripture. God is the living Word. He designed Scripture with his own audiences, time frames, and referents in mind. Jesus the Son of God, one of the triune God, had to correct even his disciples for their lack of biblical understanding (see especially Luke 24). This author wants to be one of their number.
The Old Testament and Polyfunctional Texts
I. Introduction (Part 1)
II. Authorship of Scripture
A. God is the primary author of Scripture.
(Unless otherwise noted, all biblical quotations are from the English Standard Version, ESV.)
2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is breathed out by God…
“Thus says the Lord”… 417 times in the Old Testament
“Write…” God telling a prophet to write–85 times in the Old Testament
Isaiah 34:16 Seek and read from the book of the LORD:
Romans 1:1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures,
B. God as the ultimate author of Scripture has the authority and the power to write polyfunctional text.
1. Jesus Christ is the living Word of God. He is the ultimate communicator.
John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.(NIV)
2. God himself with and through the living Word is creator and author of everything.
Genesis 1:1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
John 1:3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
Hebrews 1:1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power…
Revelation 1:8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
Revelation 21:6 And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.
Revelation 22:13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
3. Therefore, God as creator of everything and as the living Word has authority and power to write polyfunctional Old Testament texts.
He has the capacity (brilliance, power, creativity, sovereignty, and intelligence) to do so:
- As creator
- As maintainer
- As the Alpha and Omega
- As the author of Scripture
- As the living Word
C. What about the human authors?
Clearly, God used intermediaries to write the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, these were people like Moses, David, Ezra, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and many other prophets. The New Testament human authors included Jesus’s disciples (Matthew, John, 1-3 John, Peter, and Revelation), Paul the apostle, Luke the historian, and at least one who remains anonymous (Hebrews).
Did the Old Testament authors fully understand what and to whom they were writing? New Testament Scripture tells us they did not.
Luke 20:28 They asked him, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies leaving a wife but no children, that man must marry the widow and father children for his brother. (NET)
Comment on the above verse: Did Moses specifically know when he wrote those words for the Israelite community of his day that he was also writing for a group of Sadducees (no such group existed in Moses’s timeframe) who would be reading his words many centuries later? Did he know that these Sadducees would be quoting his words as their own Scripture (Moses wrote for us) in order to argue with the incarnated Son of God?
The New Testament also records a prophecy spoken by someone whose intention explicitly differed from God’s.
John 11:49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. 50 Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. 53 So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.
Analysis: The gospel writer John identifies Caiaphas as the high priest who spoke the prophecy John quotes in verse 50. John then reveals God’s intended blessing for the people and nation through Christ’s death (verses 50-51). He also explicitly states (vs 51) that God used Caiaphas in his role as high priest to prophesy; Caiaphas did not do so of his own accord, or “out of his own intention,” (2). Verse 53 reveals Caiaphas’s attitude toward Jesus–he wanted to “put him to death,” i.e., to kill him. Caiaphas appears again in John 18:13-28, where he indeed does participate in the religious judgment against Jesus that led to his crucifixion.
The reader can minimally conclude from John 11:49-53 that Caiaphas the human prophet’s authorial intention differed completely from God’s authorial intention, as recorded by John in his inspired gospel. Caiaphas’s attitude revealed animosity against Jesus, the Christ. God’s attitude toward his Christ revealed that he intended him as a blessing to many. John’s text in this passage is polyfunctional. To Caiaphas, the prophet-speaker, the meaning of his text was (paraphrased), “Let’s get rid of this man causing us so much trouble. It will be better for ourselves and the nation.” To God, the source of the prophecy, the meaning was (paraphrased), It’s a blessing for many that Christ will die a substitutionary death for my people everywhere (1).
1 Corinthians 9:9 For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? 10 Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop.
Comment: Did Moses explicitly know that he was writing for people who would be living after the birth of God incarnate and who would put their faith in him? Did God know? Did he reveal his intention for this passage to the inspired writer Paul? Paul is not saying that he is using the passage in an extended application. No, but he states, “It was written for our sake.” In other words, God’s intended meaning for Paul and the Christians to whom he was writing was present in the passage from the beginning.
1 Peter 1:10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, 11 inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. 12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.
Comment: This passage indicates that Old Testament prophets who prophesied about a salvation and grace knew that they were not prophesying for their own time and place, but more than that, they did not know. Peter clearly and directly states that they knew they did not know the full meaning of their own prophecies. Are we then to conclude that what they spoke in their own context of time and place would have been unintelligible to those who heard them speak? Most likely not. I suggest that these prophecies would have been polyfunctional, able to serve two very different contexts.
Jesus’s comments to the two disciples whom he joined in their walk to the town of Emmaus shortly after his resurrection reveal a great deal about the Old Testament audience, who for centuries and centuries lived with Scripture before the Advent of Christ. Jesus spoke briefly and to the point–they missed its major significance.
Luke 24:13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them.
Luke 24:25 So he said to them, “You foolish people– how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (NET)
Luke 24:27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things written about himself in all the scriptures. (NET)
When Jesus “interpreted to them the things written about himself,” was he changing the text’s original meaning or creating allegories or making extensive applications? No, the text of Luke states clearly that he “interpreted to them the things written about himself.” The things written about him had been there in the original words all along. Jesus did not distort or change Scripture. Rather, he opened the disciples’ understanding to see a different pathway of communication in the identical words. The text itself was polyfunctional. If it were a crossword puzzle, we would just say that the disciples needed to read the text message not in a horizontal but a vertical direction (See the Introduction to this series).
So, to answer the question at the beginning of this section, “What about the human authors?” the above examples show that the human authors did not know all the functions of the text they were writing.
For centuries past, up to and including the present, believing Christians and biblical scholars have wondered about the New Testament’s use of Old Testament quotations. “Where did they get that?” is a common response (2). I propose the answer lies not with the original human authors of the Old Testament, nor the original audiences in Old Testament days, nor the New Testament human authors, nor the New Testament audiences. The answer to the puzzle of New Testament exegesis of the Old lies with the divine author himself–God–and with the texts themselves that he inspired and caused to be written. God intentionally wrote polyfunctional text. As an infinitely talented author (an understatement), God has complete control over all aspects of his Scripture: its content, its fulfillment, all history, the actual words of the text, the human authors, and the various human audiences. For his own reasons he chose to write text through Old Testament authors that would 1) be meaningful enough for the audiences of their day to take great care in their preservation and transmission, and 2) not be fully understood by them.
Next Time: Part Three–The Audiences
1 My thinking on this passage has been aided by reading Raju D. Kanjummen, who writes an excellent academic article discussing this and other biblical examples of non-confluence (non-identity, or non-overlap) of divine and human authorial intentions. See Kanjummen, Raju D., “The Single Intent of Scripture: Critical Examination of a Theological Construct,” in Grace Theological Journal 7.1 (1986): 81-110. The phrase “out of his own intention” is quoted from page 90. Kunjummen also writes that his argument concerning the non-confluence of human and divine authorial intentions, “… opens the possibility that God may through a later author explain more of what he had in mind in an earlier statement in a manner similar to how he clarified through John his intention through Caiaphas’s prophecy,” (90).
2 See, for example, Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Darrell L. Bock, and Peter Enns in a back and forth academic discussion on the ins and outs of this topic, located in the book: Kenneth Berding and Jonathan Lunde, eds. Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Counterpoints. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008. This book is also available in PDF format online at https://peiterleonardpesik.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/three-views-on-the-new-testament-use-of-the-old-testament-counterpoints-bible-and-theology-w.pdf, accessed April 7, 2020.