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This morning a question arose about whether Jesus fulfills a prophesy in the Old Testament. From a Christian perspective, this a fairly standard lens through which to look at the Tanakh. Obviously, the question is quite foreign (and potentially offensive) from the Jewish perspective. Richard commented:

This site is not about determining doctrine. Asking if this is a reference to Jesus is clearly asking about doctrinal interpretation. If you want to know that, you need to ask on Christianity.SE.

Should we redirect these questions to the Christianity site?


After-action report

This question was asked in October 11 of 2011. On October 15, the question was closed as off-topic. Presumably, this meta-question played a role.

In December of 2011, we agreed on a new guideline for questions:

Questions are on topic if they are focused on the text, rather than things to which the text may apply.

Under those guidelines, the initial version of the question is off-topic for us. It might have been on-topic at Christianity.SE. However, nobody addressed this particular question at that time, so it remained closed.

On February 21, 2013, the question was reopened and I initiated a conversation to decide what to do about it. As a result of that conversation, I edited the question into it's most recent form. The key changes were:

  • Add a reference to Matthew (and added the ).
  • Moved the text from the bottom of the question to the top.
  • Interspersed comments that clarify where the source of the question seemed to be.

In essence, I converted the question into "How does the New Testament interpret Micah?" But this took some heroic effort on chat and in editing to pull off. Leaving the question closed might have been the better solution.

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  • I've added a new meta question about doctrine that you might find interesting. It's related to this but more encompassing. – Richard Oct 11 '11 at 17:56
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    I think that this is further complicated by the difficulties with defining "Christian" that we've had on Christianity.SE. This would be the same as saying: "Are questions about the New Testament from a purely Jehovah's Witness perspective purely off topic?" (If "Christian", why not "Protestant"? If "Protestant", why not "Mormon"? If "Mormon", why not "Jehovah's Witness"?) – Richard Oct 13 '11 at 14:15
  • @Richard: I'd certainly welcome any questions about the text of the New Testament from any perspective. (But I can't answer them from any perspective by my own, which I hope represents a broadly Christian perspective.) – Jon Ericson Oct 13 '11 at 16:49
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The defining characteristic of this site (as I see it) is that it focuses on understanding the text of the Bible. Questions that encourage examination of that text are, by definition, on topic.

To my mind, doctrine is problematic because it can begin leading the site away from the topic at hand. Consider these similar questions:

Does this passage assert the doctrine of the Trinity?

How does this passage assert the doctrine of the Trinity?

The first is on topic as "It doesn't." is a possible answer. In this case, doctrine is part of the question, but not the focus. It doesn't matter if the passage is Galatians or Genesis. Meanwhile the second question has a really good chance of getting off-track because the passage is secondary to the doctrine. But doctrine is simply the most likely thing to be given priority over the text:

How does this passage justify slavery?

Putting aside questions on the rules of hermeneutics themselves, the degree a question is about the Bible is the degree to which it is on topic. How much doctrinal baggage a question (or for that matter, an answer) carries with it is completely orthogonal to its topicality.

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  • I agree the different between those two questions is significant and one is good and the other is bad. In general this whole answer makes a lot of sense on it's own -- but now how does it relate to the original question you pose? The second format of question would be closed on Christianity.SE as Not Constructive pending an edit that changed it to the first format. Basically that wording is a junk question no matter what the subject matter. Are questions that request only answers based in Jewish or Christian (or Islamic) doctrine on-topic here? Or do we have to stick closer to the text(s)? – Caleb Oct 14 '11 at 22:32
  • @Caleb: I think the key word I used in this answer is "degree". The more the question obscures the text it ought to be about, the worse it is. I don't think there is a bright line between on-topic and off-topic. If the passage is included only to make a doctrinal (or political or philosophical or...) point, the question is off-topic and not constructive. But if the question is about the interaction between a text and an outside point (including Islamic or political or whatever), the question might work. Lots of commentaries do this to a degree. – Jon Ericson Oct 15 '11 at 19:39
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    I think that makes a lot of sense. I agree it's never going to be an exact line, but rather than specifically sanctioning things up to a line, then switching gears -- set the center-mark of where the target is and discourage stuff that is wide afield of that more and more strongly as it wanders. – Caleb Oct 15 '11 at 21:09
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Yes, it's off topic

My explanation is below.

Definitions

For some rough definitions:
Doctrine is a set of beliefs that are associated with a tradition or religion
Exegesis is the translation or interpretation of Biblical text
Hermeneutics (for completeness) is the methods and theories used to translate and interpret Biblical text.

The current community guidelines:

Questions regarding how a passage is interpreted (exegesis) are fine. This has been established quite fully here on meta.

Questions regarding hermeneutics are also fine. That is, after all, the name of the site.

Questions regarding doctrine are off topic.

The problem

The problem with this delineation is that exegesis is based on a doctrinal stance. You cannot interpret text without some doctrinal background. Every text that we read and understand, we interpret based on our own understandings and beliefs. This concept is referred to as the hermeneutic circle (ie exegesis defines doctrine and doctrine helps interpret text).

While this is an interesting situation, it's not one prevents us from distinguishing between exegesis and doctrine.

The clarification

The question is whether a post is off topic if it's about scripture from a given perspective. I would have to say that Yes, it is off-topic. The reason that it is off topic is because it's asking about a doctrinal stance on text, not about the interpretation of the text.

Therefore, since it's asking about doctrine, I believe it's off topic.

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I think if we start down the path Richard suggests, we will greatly limit the scope of the site and probably not get much traction as a community.

The simplest defense of these sorts of questions is that they reflect a particular principle of Biblical hermeneutics:

The Christo-Centric Principle: "The mind of deity is eternally centered in Christ. All angelic thought and ministry are centered in Christ. All Satanic hatred and subtlety are centered at Christ. All human hopes are, and human occupations should be, centered in Christ. The whole material universe in creation is centered in Christ. The entire written word is centered in Christ."

But how would a Jewish participant answer such a question? I don't think it's too much to ask them to apply their own principles to the text. A good alternative would be the Historical-grammatical Principle. Since the question leaves open the possibility of a different interpretation besides the Christian one (in fact the question is exactly about whether there is another way to view the text), the door is wide open for other answers than the one suggested by the asker.

Does that mean there will never be one, true answer for these questions? Yes.


Addressing dancek's comment:

The Wikipedia article reflects the historical fact that, for better or for worse, Jewish and Christian scholars have done the most to shape Biblical hermeneutics. Whether you like it or not, the experts in the subject will likely come primarily from one or the other of those traditions. (I should note here, that many scholars from the Christian tradition would reject the Christo-Centric Principle, but at least as many, following the example of St. Paul, believe it is the only correct way for Christians to interpret the Tanakh.) If we, who are generally not experts, pick and chose from the list of principles, we risk being unable to attract true experts.

There are a number of Talmudical methods that I'm not comfortable with:

  • the interpretation of certain words and letters and apparently superfluous and/or missing words or letters, and prefixes and suffixes
  • the interpretation of those letters which, in certain words, are provided with points
  • the interpretation of the letters in a word according to their numerical value (see Gemaṭria)
  • the interpretation of a word by dividing it into two or more words (see Noṭariḳon)
  • the interpretation of a word according to its consonantal form or according to its vocalization
  • the interpretation of a word by transposing its letters or by changing its vowels
  • the logical deduction of a halakhah from a Scriptural text or from another law

But if a Rabbi who was able to interpret the Tanakh in one or more of these ways were to begin participating here, I'd be overjoyed. For that matter, I'd welcome a Muslim scholar or any other expert who is willing to study the texts of the Bible with us.

Ideally, every question would have a handful of answers representing the very best that each school of hermeneutics has to offer. The danger with allowing too many questions from a single perspective (e.i., Christian questions) is that it will discourage participants from other traditions. But declaring all questions from particular viewpoints off-topic doesn't seem like the right solution to the problem.

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    -1 The principles you mention aren't principles of Biblical hermeneutics in general but Christian Biblical hermeneutics. This site is about Biblical hermeneutics, not Christianity. – StackExchange saddens dancek Oct 13 '11 at 15:14
  • I tried my hand at answering the question: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/208/… for what it's worth. – Jon Ericson Oct 13 '11 at 19:24
  • @JonEricson: I'm probably just not understanding you here, but help me out because I can't figure out what you're after. You start of rejecting Richards idea that questions scoped to a particular doctrine should be off-topic but then end by suggesting that you hope all questions would get treated from several major schools of hermeneutics. I realize hermeneutical approaches does not equal doctrine, but how is your final suggestion in conflict with not scoping questions to specific doctrinal views? – Caleb Oct 13 '11 at 22:45
  • @Caleb: I couldn't fit my answer into a comment. And this answer was beginning to collapse under its own weight. So I've tried to clarify the answer a touch and answered in a completely separate way in another post. I probably am hampering myself by not reading meta.christianity.stackexchange.com. I'm getting the feeling I'm stepping into a conversation that has been going on for a while. – Jon Ericson Oct 14 '11 at 0:19
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I'm the one who asked that question which brought up this discussion :)

I think it's fine as long as the context is defined.

This reminds me of the original stack exchange site, stack overflow. There's so many categories of programming languages it caters to: C#, Asp, Ruby, Python, JavaScript, etc.

Questions re: C# pertain to a certain number of people, and Ruby caters to a different group.

I think it's totally okay to ask how "Christians" interpret a certain part of the bible, and how "Jews" interpret a certain part of the bible.

I don't see why we can't do both.

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    I would argue you can't do both because your best experts are going to be the ones giving answers most closely tied to the text and using hermeneutics. What you suggest would favor your experts being theologians and this would become a battle ground for doctrine. I don't want to see that happen here. – Caleb Oct 14 '11 at 22:24
  • @Caleb, I definitely don't want to see that happen either. I guess what I mean is that there's going to be some passages which people from different backgrounds are going to interpret differently because of a theological bias, and I think that's okay. If it's not okay to specifically ask for a "Calvinist" interpretation of a certain passage, I can live with that. – stringo0 Oct 18 '11 at 17:01

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