During ETS and SBL this year I was able to read through Andrew Streett’s welcome contribution to Fortress Press’ “Emerging Scholars” series, The Vine and the Son of Man: Eschatological Interpretation of Psalm 80 in Early Judaism. Streett, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Redeemer Seminary in Texas, revised his dissertation (Univ. of Wales Trinity St. David) for this volume.
In the monograph Streett argues
(a) that Jewish and Christian interpreters found material in Psalm 80 pertaining to events at the end of the age, a time that some interpreters believed had already come upon them and their communities; and (b) that the meaning derived from Psalm 80 most often comes from the images of the vine (vv. 9-17) and the potentially messianic man (vv. 16b, 18), which because of the ambiguity of the text are open to a wide variety of interpretations (1).
The reader familiar with the Jewish and Christian Scriptures will recognize the potential fruitfulness of exploring the history of interpretation of Psalm 80, as it is alluded to in significant passages of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, as well as in Second Temple literature and Rabbinic Judaism. But, as Streett notes, the study of Psalm 80 and its use in later Jewish and Christian writings, and particularly a study of its eschatological interpretation, is relatively scant. Streett’s volume therefore fills a lacuna in the study of ancient Judaism and early Christianity.
The book is tightly organized, beginning with two chapters on Psalm 80 in its historical and literary contexts respectively. Over the course of the remainder of the work (chapters 3 – 7), Streett traces the use of Psalm 80 through various Hebrew Bible, Second Temple, and New Testament texts, including Daniel 7 and John 15:1-8. Streett is particularly keen to show how Psalm 80 came to be read messianically and then christologically, and how it is an exegetically feasible reading.
This type of book – one that traces the history of interpretation of a particular passage through its various stages- seems to me to be increasingly popular, and I think rightly so. While the outline of this book and others like it may appear relatively simple, the work done by Streett in this volume is important and useful on a number of levels. First, it sheds light on a comparatively understudied but still important passage in ancient Judaism and early Christianity, and one whose varied interpretations helps us to understand why Christianity ultimately departed from Judaism. The interpretation of Psalm 80, and particularly the Gospel authors’ reading of it as a reference to Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, is one of the hermeneutical tipping points for early Christianity. Streett’s careful exegesis of the passage, coupled with his nuanced explanation of how ancient Jewish and early Christian writers read it differently, is of great assistance to scholars of these ancient texts and of the history of religion.
Second, Streett provides readers with what I consider to be a robust interpretive method. He describes it as “eclectic”, drawing on both historical and literary tools. On the latter, he is most interested in describing how Psalm 80 can be read canonically and intertextually (11). This type of reading, that situates a passage of Scripture while at the same time reading it as part of a larger whole, is one that I wholeheartedly commend.
Third, while Streett does not describe his project this way, in my mind it is helpful for Christians who wish to understand better the rationale of the New Testament writers as they used the Old Testament. The Vine and the Son of Man demonstrates that, while there are other interpretive options for the passage, early Christian messianic and christological interpretation of it fits well within the realm of possibilities when considering the intentions of the author of Psalm 80.
On that note, one question I continue to have after reading the book, and after re-reading the relevant passages to this question a number of times, is what Streett means by “meaning,” “intention,” and “intentionality.” A number of times Streett uses these terms to my mind in seemingly disparate ways, so that at one point they can refer to a (single?) intent of the original author – i.e. “what it meant” – while at others they seem to refer to what later readers understood it to mean, and at still other times they appear to refer to what the passage means in a canonical context. Perhaps Streett means all three, and maybe more, but it is still not clear to me exactly what he means by meaning or intention.
I would also hope to see a subsequent article or book on the interpretation of Psalm 80 not just in the New Testament but in early Christianity and perhaps even beyond. It seems to me that these types of projects would be bolstered by looking at the history of interpretation not only in the Christian canon and its background literature but also in subsequent Christian writings.
That question and small quibble aside, The Vine and the Son of Man is a carefully argued, methodologically robust, and therefore welcome addition to the study of the Hebrew Bible in subsequent literature. I would recommend it to those interested in a rigorous study of the Psalter, the history of interpretation, or early Christian origins and exegesis.
NOTE: I received this book in exchange for a fair and impartial review.