In my last post, I briefly described the process of historical-grammatical exegesis. This method of interpretation is long, drawn out, and complicated, but we can boil it down to two major spheres: historical, which includes everything outside the text, and grammatical, which includes everything within the text. Most of my posts in this series are going to center on the second part of this method, the grammatical section. This is what I’m most interested in and what I’ve devoted most of my undergrad and graduate studies to. However, before I jump into that, I wanted to write a short post about the historical piece to the exegetical puzzle. And for this I want to focus in on one particular subject: background studies.
Background studies is, just like it sounds, studying everything you can about the background of a text. So if you’re reading the Old Testament, background studies would consist of learning ancient Near Eastern backgrounds. For the New Testament, this would be learning about Second Temple Judaism in tandem with Greco-Roman backgrounds.
I believe taking a closer look at the purpose of background studies can help us to understand the purpose of the entire historical aspect to the historical-grammatical method, and maybe even the method as a whole. But first, let’s talk about American History.
American History: A Thought Experiment
By the time students get to American History in their high school classes, they’ve already gone through a course on World History. Which makes sense. It would be hard to really understand the roots of American history without a basic understanding of what was happening in the rest of the world leading up to that time. Then we typically split the whole thing in two, to allow students to spend an entire year studying just a couple of centuries.
Why? What’s the point in spending so much time studying American history?
I believe developing a deeper understanding of where we’ve been will give us valuable insights into where we are now and where we’re going. And developing a deep understanding of a subject involves a bit more than memorizing facts and dates.
Imagine, if you will, a world in which American History is the only history course we teach in schools. Anything that happened before 1776 just doesn’t matter. Also, instead of a textbook, we give our students just a few documents: the Declaration of Independence, the U. S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights. Maybe the Federalist Papers. Then we say their only homework is to open up any document of their choosing and read a few sentences of it here and there. If they get stuck on a part and don’t quite understand what it means, then maybe we’ll teach them just enough history to be able to understand and interpret that one little part. But what’s more important than studying the history of it, we teach them, is asking ourselves, “What does this mean for me?”
What would we end up with? A country full of people that know our founding documents like the back of their hand, but that don’t really understand them. Everyone might have the preamble to the Constitution memorized, but no one would understand what it means because they were never given the right tools to develop a proper understanding.
We would never teach a history class like this. That’s because primary sources inform our understanding of history, which in turn informs our understanding of the primary sources. That’s how we treat every historical discipline. So why don’t we, the church, treat reading the Bible like this?
The Purpose of Cultural Backgrounds
I’m not suggesting that everyone in the church ought to devote their lives to studying ancient Near Eastern cultures or Greco-Roman history. But I am saying we need to stop treating the Bible as if it was written on an island, secluded from the rest of human history.
So this is what typically happens when we think about studying the cultural backgrounds of a biblical text. We read the text, we try to understand the text by itself, we try to understand the text from the point of view of a 21st century westerner. Then, if we’re still confused, we consult commentaries and other secondary sources that help us better understand the passage. The problem with this is that cultural backgrounds becomes a sort of proof text. We can pull it out when we need it, so we can make the text say what we want it to say. Or at least so we can make the text say something we can understand.
But that’s not how history works. History informs our understanding of primary sources, which in turn informs our understanding of history. We have to have some basic knowledge of the historical backgrounds of a text before we approach it.
Because here’s the bottom line: we don’t study the historical and cultural backgrounds of the Bible to understand the Bible. We do it to understand the world in which the Bible was written. Our goal is not to learn interesting tidbits that we can bring up in Sunday School to make ourselves look smart. It’s to step into the shoes of a 6th century B.C. Israelite or a 1st century A.D. Jew.
Reading the Bible is hard, and that’s okay. That’s the way it should be. I don’t mean to say this to scare anyone away from reading the Bible. I do think it’s important that all of us take part in the important task of biblical interpretation. I just think we all ought to give it a bit more effort than we’ve been doing. The effort that the text deserves. And if we believe that the Bible is what we say it is, then it deserves a lot.
If the Bible is the result of human hands, then it’s going to take a lot of work to really understand it, because that means it was written in a particular time and place to a particular group of people, not to us. If the Bible is a divine book that reveals the Word of God, then it’s going to take a lot of work to really understand it because its subject matter is infinitely deep.
A Way Out
So now that I’ve sat here and ranted about the lack of effort with which we typically read the Bible, what can we do about it? I don’t expect everyone to go out and get a PhD in first century Second Temple Judaism. Well, to be honest, I really don’t know. I’m trying to figure that out myself right now. But here are my suggestions. Maybe these have nothing to do with background studies, but I would rather leave this post on a constructive note.
- Read the Bible every day. I believe this is an important step in the process. But take a good, hard look at the why. Why are you reading your Bible? Try to avoid reading the Bible with an overly applicable mindset. Keep in mind that most of the time the Bible is trying to make you think a certain way, not necessarily do a certain thing.
- Read communally. I’m not sure when the church turned Bible reading into an individual activity, but it wasn’t meant to be that way. Scripture was written, formed, and canonized in a community. That’s how it’s best received. You may not understand everything you read, but that’s why we read scripture together. Consult a commentary for goodness sake. Talk to a friend or your pastor. Don’t try to do this thing on your own. That’s typically when we make the most mistakes in our biblical interpretation.
- Always ask questions. I think this is something that our church culture has taught us is not okay. At least that’s the impression I got growing up. When we read the Bible, when we listen to sermons, when we do any kind of learning about God or our faith, we have to take everything at face value. Eat your spiritual meat and be quiet. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Bible is a book that naturally sparks curiosity. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to explore.
- Be comfortable not knowing the answers. I think a lot of our problems today with reading the Bible boils down to this: we are so uncomfortable with ambiguity and with not knowing. If we have a question that really doesn’t have an answer, we drive ourselves crazy. I think this is really what has sparked the whole field of apologetics in recent years. We have to convince ourselves that our faith is logical, that it makes sense. Well you know what? There is absolutely nothing logical about our faith. And that’s okay! Embrace the ambiguity.
1 Corinthians 1:20-31
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”