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Intertextuality and Intratextuality

By Luke Stamps —

One of the most useful skills or habits that we can develop as interpreters of Holy Scripture is the ability to discern what biblical scholars call “intertextual” and “intratextual” connections.[1] Behind both of these concepts is the observation that biblical passages not only directly quote but also allude to and echo other biblical passages.

Intertextuality is the biblical authors’ practice of quoting, alluding to, or echoing previous biblical revelation.  For example, Matthew creates an intertexual connection when he interprets the Holy Family’s departure from Egypt in the light of Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I called my son,” Matthew 2:15).  He does the same thing when he echoes the eschatological promise of Ezekiel 36:23 (“I will vindicate the holiness of my great name”) in the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer (“May your name be hallowed/sanctified/vindicated as holy,” Matthew 6:9).  By making use of these verbal parallels, Matthew intends for his readers to understand the story of Jesus in the light of its Old Testament background.

Intratextuality is a biblical author’s practice of alluding to, echoing or foreshadowing passages within his own book. For example, Matthew’s version of the Last Supper seems to deliberately echo his account of the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus performs the same actions—even in the same order—in both accounts: he takes the bread, says a blessing, breaks it, and gives it to the disciples (Matthew 14:19-20; 26:26; cf. Luke 24:30-31).  Matthew seems to want his readers to think of these two stories together: the same Jesus who miraculously met the physical needs of the five thousand (which itself involves an intertextual connection back to the provision of manna in the wilderness) is now giving his own body for the spiritual nourishment of his people.

So what is the point of these connections? Are they merely fun little discoveries for literarily-minded readers? To be sure, there is a real danger for those who have been exposed to the rich resources of biblical theology: we can tempted to read the Bible less as a direct word from the Risen Christ to his church and more as an intellectual puzzle to be solved by the astute interpreter.  But if we are reading Scripture with the appropriate spiritual “posture,” we can see these inter/intra-textual relations for what they are: divinely inspired spotlights onto the theological meaning of God’s redemptive acts.[2]

So how do we go about discovering these textual relationships? Is this interpretive method the exclusive preserve of some initiated scholarly group? Well, in one sense, it is helpful to know the biblical languages. There are some connections that are not easily discernable in English translations. For example, it is not readily apparent in English that the word for Moses’ “basket” in Exodus 2:3 is the same Hebrew word used for the “ark” in Genesis 6 (though the “pitch” lining is present in both English passages).  Furthermore, facility with biblical Greek allows readers of the New Testament to see linguistic parallels in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint.  So language skill does improve one’s ability to discern inter/intra-textual relations.

But that doesn’t mean that those of us without PhDs in the biblical languages are left in the literary dark, so to speak. There are several ways that we can learn to “think God’s thoughts after him” by seeing the textual connections that he has drawn in the inspired text.  Here are a few suggestions as we seek to improve our interpretive skills in this area:

(1) Read Scripture both broadly and deeply.

There is great benefit in slow and careful study of short passages of Scripture. It allows us to think through the meanings of words, the relationships between sentences and paragraphs, and the narrative details we might miss with a quicker read.  But there is also great gain in reading larger portions of Scripture in one sitting. One of the reasons we have difficulty with certain New Testament genres (gospel narratives and apocalyptic, in particular) is that we don’t know our Old Testament very well.  You won’t understand the meaning of the symbols in Revelation if you don’t understand Genesis’s description of Eden, Exodus’s instructions regarding the tabernacle, Ezekiel’s vision of the restored temple or Isaiah’s prophecy of the New Heavens and New Earth.  Similarly, you won’t fully understand the significance of Jesus’ nature miracles if you don’t understand the psalmists’ conception of God as one who stills the roaring seas (Psalm 65:7) or Job’s description of God “trampling the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8).  It would probably be a good idea to have two parallel Scripture reading plans: one that moves at a quicker pace and covers more narrative territory and one that slows down to enjoy the exegetical view.

(2) Utilize cross-references.

Find a Bible with cross-references. Some of the parallel verses in the footnotes will be connected to the passage you’re reading only thematically. It’s good to chase those down as well, but when looking for inter- and intra-textuality, we are after linguistic or verbal parallels (which, again, may be direct quotations of complete verses or may be shorter allusions or echoes). So when reading the gospels, for example, it may be helpful to read the thematic parallels in, say, Paul’s letters, but it will be especially illuminating to find verbal parallels back to the Old Testament or within each particular gospel account.

(3) Read good commentaries.

We all need teachers.  And, thankfully, Jesus Christ, as one of his grace gifts to the church, has given us teachers (Eph. 4:11).  This means, most immediately, that we need to learn from the pastors and teachers in our own local churches. We should learn to view listening to sermons and Sunday School lessons as a kind of hermeneutical apprenticeship.  For good or ill, we learn from our pastors how to interpret Holy Scripture (This obviously means that, when looking for a church, we ought to place a high premium on the quality of the preaching and teaching). But we also can learn from believers in the universal church—both around the world and down through the ages. So find good commentaries that can help you see the verbal parallels in Scripture. I’ve found several volumes in the Pillar New Testament commentary series to be particularly helpful in this regard.

(4) Pray for the Holy Spirit’s illumination. 

Praying for the Spirit’s help in the task of interpretation is a neglected habit for many Christians. We think that if we just study enough—if we just employ the right tools—we will come to a knowledge of the truth. But Jesus promised his disciples that the Spirit would teach them all things and that the Spirit would remind them of his teachings (John 14:26; cf. 15:26). This promise was fulfilled most immediately in the inspired writings of the New Testament: the Spirit inspired the apostles and other NT authors so that their writings are nothing less than the Word of God.  But there are certainly implications of this promise for believers today as we read these inspired writings. The same Spirit who inspired the teachings of the NT now illuminates our minds and hearts so that we can understand and receive these teachings.  Indeed, Paul makes it clear that only the Spirit can enable the believer to discern and embrace the truths of God (1 Cor. 2:14-16; see also 1 Cor. 12:3).  So, as you study, pray. Don’t see these things in competition with one another. Read, study, meditate, chase down cross-references, read commentaries—and pray that in all these things the Spirit of God would lead you into the truth of Christ.


[1] For more on these concepts, see Dale C. Allison, Jr., Studies in Matthew: Interpretation Past and Present (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 79-105; and Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 189-192

[2] Pennington discusses the concept of “posture” in Reading the Gospels Wisely, 136-39.  He states the matter like this: “Our goal in reading Scripture is not merely to understand what God is saying (via helpful exegetical tools) but to stand under his Word.”


Luke Stamps is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University (OPS). He is also a Ph.D. candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in systematic theology. Luke is writing his dissertation in the field of Christology. Luke is married to Josie, and they have three children, Jack, Claire, and Henry.

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