Studying the Bible through the Eyes of Jefferson, Lincoln and King

If you’re American and you want to understand how allusions in the Bible work – how a later biblical author (say, Paul) quotes or alludes to an earlier part of Scripture (say, Deuteronomy) – I’ve got a fun little exercise for you.

Begin by reading the Declaration of Independence and conjure an idyllic image of patriotic colonial America.

Then, picture Honest Abe in his stovepipe hat and read the Gettysburg Address, given 87 years later in a time of great national trial.

Finally, watch or read Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech from August, 1963.

Pay attention to the way Lincoln alludes to Jefferson’s Declaration and how he uses Declaration imagery for his own specific time and place.  Note how King draws from both Lincoln’s lasting legacy and the Declaration as he applies it to the plight of the 1960’s black community.

With a single, well placed word, Lincoln and King are able to call to your mind a vast image of America’s history, hopes and ideals.  Neither has to paint that picture.  Nor do they need to quote vast swatches of their predecessors.  They simply reference the past with a word or two and allow you to apply it to the present day.

This is how many biblical authors alluded to their history as well.  So when Mark, for example, quotes from Malachi, Isaiah, and Exodus in his opening verses, he has just opened a vast pre-existent world for his hearers.  With just 27 Greek words in Mark 1:2b-3, a foundational framework for the following 16 chapters is laid.

And that, friends, is biblical allusion.

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4 thoughts on “Studying the Bible through the Eyes of Jefferson, Lincoln and King

    1. How about Jesus allocating for himself Psalm 22 while hanging from the cross? Jews on the scene, or Jews hearing the account would immediately recall the entire Psalm and be forced to reinterpret it in the face of the present situation.

      1. That’s a good one. I think Psalm 22 should force modern protestants to reinterpret “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me”. The Psalm contains that phrase, but the point of the Psalm is that God is always faithful.

        However, I meant examples from the American History documents.

      2. Aside from the example in the blog itself (Declaration of Independence -> Gettysburg Address -> “I have a dream”)? Most presidential inaugural addresses and states of the union have key references to predecessors that particular president wants to emulate or whose work they wish to symbolically continue. I’d look up some specifics, but I’m at work.

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