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to which the letter is originally addressed, and, for confessional Christians, the Bible is not only a collection of historical documents but also and foundationally the Word of God for the people of God.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.



5 thoughts on “The Thorny Issue of Historical Background Research

  1. Thanks for posting, Matt. Helpful reflections on what can be gained. I definitely agree that there is a danger of overemphasising historical reconstruction to the point that literary usage becomes obscure. I also (like you) don’t think we should put a hard division between text and referent. As soon as we do we no longer have any basis for semantics, lexicography, etc. I’m glad you highlight some of the theological issues that revolve around this issue. But because we are dealing texts with word meaning located in time you can ever fully move beyond ‘what it meant’ ‘what it means.’

    • Good points Luke. I am not trying to throw the baby out with the bath water here (as you and I both know I’ve been prone to do in the past), and that is especially true in our understanding of the biblical languages. I also do think that this sort of inquiry can be beneficial, especially as it pertains to understanding how these books would have been applicable to their original audience. That in turn helps us understand how to apply it. But how it applied then and how it applied now is not some grand leap from “what it meant” to “what it means”, but rather an understanding of its reception history . I also think our contemporary articulations of and methodological foundations for studying the text in this way are fundamentally flawed philosophically and theologically, in that they smack of historical positivism and the neutering of the influence of the divine author. I also think, as you said, we overemphasize it and that it tends to yield less fruit than we often think. Anyway, I’m now just restating what I already said; thanks for the comment and I agree that we shouldn’t jettison this type of inquiry completely.

  2. Interesting thoughts Matt. It never crossed my mind that the common distinction between “what it means” and “what it meant” might make too little of the divine author’s role.

    There is a good chance I will make some basic blunders here in my question. And maybe I don’t understand the full scope of what historical background study entails. But I’d still like to ask…

    As an evangelical, of course it seems right that the NT is not merely a first century collection of historical literature, but also a message written by God for all the centuries thereafter. Now if we say this reality lessens the desperate need for thoroughgoing historical background research, the next question to ask is: Is the bible less contextualized than other historical works of antiquity? Do the biblical writings have more a-cultural elements (i.e. a-cultural categories and language and illustrations and metaphors) than other ancient Near Eastern literature? It would seem like we should say no. God is a-cultural, but not his message. But then how does divine authorship or broad intended audiences across centuries lessen the need for historical background research when it is just as culturally saturated as every other work of antiquity?

    • Thanks for the question Anthony. The short version of my answer is that, while not jettisoning historical background, I am saying that biblical studies perhaps requires less than we assume. Not every text requires the same amount of research in this area to be understood, and some texts even minimize their historical particularity.

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