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to which the letter is originally addressed, and, for confessional Christians, the Bible is not only a collection of historical documents but also and foundationally the Word of God for the people of God.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

Thoughts?

 

TEDS Lecture Series

I think I may be a little late to the party, but TEDS is now posting a series of video lectures by various faculty members, including D. A. Carson on Hebrews and Kevin Vanhoozer on the theologian’s task. The other two lectures on the docket for now are Dana Harris on Luke-Acts and Dennis Magary on Advanced Hebrew Exegesis. The Harris and Magary lectures have yet to be posted, but you can currently access both Carson’s and Vanhoozer’s videos.