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 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 woulnd 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?