Ancient Proof-Texting

By: Mormon Heretic
August 29, 2011

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?

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11 Responses to Ancient Proof-Texting

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on August 29, 2011 at 6:19 AM

    I was introduced to a much different way to look at proof-texting when some friends gave us a pamphlet designed to save Christians and return them to being Jews that went through analysis of a large number of proof-texts in the New Testament.

    It made me think that perhaps it is a valid technique for dealing with the ambiguity of scripture — and the fact that as far as I can tell, scripture is intended to be re-used, re-applied to each generation, so it means new things and is born afresh with each new generation.

    Liked your thoughts though.

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  2. Jeff Spector on August 29, 2011 at 6:47 AM

    This is the proverbial catch 22 situation. Proof-texting is used in every walk of life not just religion. It is pretty much ingrained in the human mind to read something with a certain bias attached. One has to be extra vigilant to avoid it or at least minimize it.

    The Talmud, for one, is full of discussion on this very issue.

    And I am not sure that trained Theologians are any less susceptible to this practice than anyone else.

    And yet, you do need some element of proof that the new Covenant is derived from the Old Covenant, let alone the Restored Gospel.

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  3. Morgan D on August 29, 2011 at 8:04 AM

    What is more annoying is modern proof texting. Most members take prophets word’s with a grain of salt, or they explain how many prophets are influenced by their cultural millieu. Around the bloggernacle they do this alot when prophets speak about homosexuality, gender roles, or racial topics. But when its an anti war liberal reading a pacifist prophet their words become unassaible. All nuance drops by the wayside and they turn into the very fossils they mock by dogmatically clinging to those talks. Even worse, they ignore prophets that have supported various forms of just war and end up prophet bashing other members with their pre selected proof texts.

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  4. shenpa warrior on August 29, 2011 at 9:00 AM

    @Morgan – It is interesting how both sides do that. Some (not all!) conservatives, on the church’s stance on illegal immigration like to say the same thing. I’ve heard it a lot – “It wasn’t official” or “They were just speaking as men.” Some members even started calling themselves “Herrodtics” (even printed up T-shirts or something pledging their support for Rep. Chris Herrod and his immigration policies that are not inline with the church). It’s not a liberal thing, it’s a human thing. Many members of the church will follow as long as it doesn’t cross their personal views. Perhaps that’s a good thing, perhaps not. I DO know some conservative (VERY conservative) members who changed their attitudes and beliefs on immigration policy after the church’s statements started coming out.

    As for the post, I enjoyed it MH. Good stuff. I agree, no one can escape proof-texting, but we can do our best. Frankly, I think that figuring out the original meanings or intentions is more interesting anyway.

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  5. Morgan D on August 29, 2011 at 9:05 AM

    Great points Shenpa warrior. I am one of those conservatives that changed my position on immigration after the church statement.

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  6. shenpa warrior on August 29, 2011 at 9:08 AM

    I really respect that Morgan. I know we’re all multiple shades of gray and complex and all that, fully of contradictions, etc. but I have more respect for people who consistently stick to their principles, even when it’s not easy or convenient.

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  7. mh on August 29, 2011 at 9:17 AM

    I agree that proof-texting is a human trait. I also think that finding parallels is an interesting process. the parallels between jesus and moses coming out of egypt are worthwhile. but it is important to make a distinction between the fact that they are parallels, rather than prophecies as matthew tries to claim. I don’t think proof-texts are all bad, just the overuse of proof-texts is bad.

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  8. Jeff Spector on August 29, 2011 at 9:44 AM

    The other issue, of course, is how much of the scriptures were actually “proof-written” as opposed to just proof-texted.

    The Jesus Seminar claimed it was substantial.

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  9. Paul on August 29, 2011 at 10:26 AM

    Jeff, interesting question (re: “proof written”).

    So what is a person of faith to do? It seems human nature to look for things that support our point of view.

    I do agree that finding symbolism after the fact is an interesting idea. Often symbolism that appears in literature and drama is there intentionally, but not always, and even if it is not intentional, it can still enrich the work.

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  10. Christian J on August 30, 2011 at 10:02 AM
  11. Heber13 on August 30, 2011 at 10:57 AM

    It seems we are asked to liken the scriptures and to seek inspiration in our lives through study of the scriptures.

    So I think they are used as proofs, not historical documents where we must understand what the authors meant to say, but more what it speaks to us.

    I think our church leaders use scriptures as proof-texts to establish creeds and doctrines.

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