The Thorny Issue of Historical Background Research

I just sent in a review of David DeSilva’s recent book, The Letter to the Hebrews in Social Scientific Perspective (Cascade Companions; Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012). As the title indicates, it is a social scientific study of Hebrews. In the review I articulated my concern with some fundamental assumptions with this approach to biblical studies, which I’ve reproduced below.

(If anyone knows if quoting my own review on my own blog is copyright infringement, please let me know. I’ll adjust accordingly. I also plan on updating this post with the relevant bibliographic info if/when the review is published.)

. . . the issue is with the broader tendency in biblical studies to make a sharp distinction between what it meant and what it means (xii) and therefore to place the onus of interpretation on reconstructing historical background, from author to audience to cultural influence, rather than on the text itself.

The issue here lies primarily in the idea that the intended audience of the biblical books, and even more conspicuously, the biblical canon, is almost completely focused on first century readers. But this, both for non-believing interpreters and for confessional Christians, is not the case; the biblical authors frequently mention other readers besides the community to which the letter is originally addressed, and, for confessional Christians, the Bible is not only a collection of historical documents but also and foundationally the Word of God for the people of God. That is, it is the Word of God for all Christians, near to the original context and far from it. To thus locate the interpretive crux on reconstructing the context of the original audience seems at best to dichotomize falsely the book’s readership between original readers and future readers; this is neither authors’ intent, human or divine.

Furthermore, this exacerbation of the importance of historical reconstruction often yields little actual benefits. Ironically, this is nowhere a more acute problem than with Hebrews; we are left in the dark, or at least in the twilight, on both authorship and audience. DeSilva cannot escape this despite his best efforts, and is left to generalizations that are of little assistance. So, for instance, on the question of audience, even after a detailed discussion of its makeup, DeSilva is left to this innocuous conclusion: “In all probability, the community was probably composed from a wide range of social strata . . .” (37). Additionally, this approach tends towards valuing cultural background over Old Testament background, and DeSilva does not escape this. A mere page after listing the litany of OT books upon which Hebrews’ author draws (10), DeSilva makes the altogether puzzling comment that Heb. 12:5–6 is much more dependent on Seneca than it is on Prov. 3:11–12, the passage that is directly quoted (11).  This sort of baffling retreat to cultural background over explicit OT quotations and allusions is frequent throughout the book, and is symptomatic, in this reviewer’s opinion, of this type of approach to biblical interpretation.

This is not to deny the validity of studying the cultural milieu of the biblical books, or even the fact that at times this study may provide valid insights, but rather to say that I think modern biblical studies overemphasizes it to an unhelpful degree.



Textual Method

Well after blogging for four days straight a week and a half ago, an unprecedented blogging feat for me, the law of averages kicked in and I haven’t written my final two posts on method.

I’ll try to get back into the swing of it with this post on textual method.

By textual method I mean that,

Christian interpretation ought to place primacy in hermeneutics on the text itself and not on reconstruction of a provisional, incomplete, finite, and uninspired historical framework.

There are a few things to note here, and I don’t pretend that any of these posts or this outline of method as a whole are complete, but here I want to focus on the locus of interpretation. Modernity has pushed our focus to empirical evidence for everything, including exegesis. Can it be verified? Is your interpretation objective? Are you approaching the exegetical task without bias? As I noted in my previous post on pneumatological method, this arrogance in regard to our ability to objectively approach the text and grind out the correct interpretation is rooted in modernity’s god-like claims of omniscience and comprehensive comprehension of data. This is seen most prominently in how interpretation has shifted from being focused on the actual text to focused on the historical framework constructed around it. Biblical scholars in modernity began constructing vast amounts of historical struts and trellises on which to place the text before they interpreted it. There are, as with any historical event or development, myriads of reasons for this, but primary in my opinion is an Enlightenment distrust of religious texts and especially the inspired nature of the Bible and, therefore, the need to find some other “objective” measure for interpretation besides the (in their mind flawed) text.

Of course for conservative biblical scholars (like myself), the text is still inspired, authoritative, and trustworthy. But evangelical biblical scholarship has capitulated to much of modernity’s methods by adopting many of the tools of the historical-critical approach while rejecting its conclusions about the nature of the Bible. Again, nowhere is this more prevalent than the continued propensity to build historical frameworks on which the text is hung for interpretation.

There are a number of problems with this approach, but the most important are that a) it is a capitulation to modernity’s idolatrous and vainglorious pursuit of “the objective” and b) it shifts interpretation’s focus from the inspired and revelatory biblical text to the uninspired, limited, interpreted, and perspectival historical reconstruction. Christian interpretation ought to be humble in its approach to the text and realize that Christians are given only one enduring form of special revelation by God – Scripture. Historical frameworks are not inspired, and yet they are so often the arbiter of how we approach the text. Should this not be reversed? Shouldn’t we approach our finite historical reconstructions through the lens of God-given and authoritative revelation and not vice versa?

A couple of caveats as I finish here.

  1. This is not to deny the importance of history, and especially the historicity of the text. It seems nonsensical to me to affirm the inspiration of the human authors by the Holy Spirit and then treat the historical verity of their material as unimportant or secondary. No, the biblical authors are claiming something about reality that is rooted in history, and to claim otherwise seems to ignore the biblical authors’ intent in writing their material. The historicity of the text is of utmost importance when we talk about the authority of the Bible (and if you can’t tell by now, I’m an inerrantist; if you didn’t see that coming, you haven’t read much of my blog…).
  2. This is also not to deny the provisional benefit of historical background and worldview reconstruction in interpretation. We ought to, however, greatly mitigate our reliance on that reconstruction in our interpretation of the Bible. The Bible already gives us a worldview – starting in Genesis 1:1 – and many (most?) times it gives us the historical background necessary to understand the author’s message.

For an article on this type of approach, I’d recommend Bruce Ashford and David Nelson, “Meaning, Reference, and Textuality: An Evangelical Appropriation of Hans Frei,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 28/2 (2010): 195-216.

Southeastern Theological Review’s Round Table Discussion with Michael Licona

I’m thankful for STR for conducting a round table discussion concerning some of the brouhaha around Licona’s interpretation of Matthew 27. I won’t get into my own personal feelings of how this situation unfolded. You can read the dialogue here and decide for yourself.


(HT Ben Blackwell)

John’s Use of Drama

I’m currently reading George Parsenios’ work Rhetoric and Drama in the Johannine Lawsuit Motif for review. In it Parsenios explores the implications of reading John’s Gospel through the lens of Greek tragedy and forensic rhetoric. I must admit that I’m a bit skeptical of this endeavor, namely because I don’t see how we are supposed to conclude that John had Greek tragedy or legal rhetoric in mind while writing his Gospel. Parsenios admits as much in his opening chapter, saying:

We can say almost nothing with certainty about what [John] read, apart from the Old Testament. We know only such generalities as the fact that the tragedians were part of the school curriculum throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods in the East, or that many prose authors in the Roman Empire regularly rely on tragic language and scenarios in a phenomenon that is called the “thearicalization of ancient culture.”

Parsenios then concludes this section by arguing that:

regardless of what John read, if we read John in concert with ancient rhetoric and ancient drama, we will read John differently, and with greater insight.

My question is whether Parsenios can legitimately move from his first statement to his second without doing detriment to John’s intention for his Gospel.

I’m inclined to say that he cannot and should not.

What about you?

Pet Peeves, Soapboxes, and Hobby Horses

Was Paul intending for his readers to conjure this picture in their minds in Ephesians 6:10-20?

Or this?

Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins (Isa 11:5).

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’ (Isa 52:7).

The LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak. According to their deeds so will he repay, wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies; to the coastlands he will render repayment. So they shall fear the name of the LORD from the west, and his glory from the rising sun; for he will come like a rushing stream, which the wind of the LORD drives. ‘And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,’ declares the LORD (Isa 59:15b-20).

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness… (Isa 61:10).