#contextchangeseverything – yes, it does. But how?
With the vast array of Bible study materials that are available in the English language comes a problem. How does one choose what materials are worth my time, shelf space (or HD space!), or money? If you search my blog for posts about study Bibles, you’ll find that I have a love-hate relationship with them, and it tends to be mostly hate. Nonetheless, I own—and use—a variety of study Bibles, and you’ll even see some positive reviews.
The reason for the hate side of the equation is that far too many people purchase a study Bible that’s recommended by someone they trust, or even written by someone they trust, not to mention randomly selected from a bookstore shelf and then accept what the notes say because they are written by biblical scholars after all. I recall being accosted by a church member some years ago who asked me about the notes on a particular text. I can’t even recall which text it was. Her problem was that she couldn’t figure out how the meaning presented in the note could be extracted from the text itself. I strongly recommend asking just such a question! I asked her if she’d considered the possibility that the note could be wrong. That was a revelation for her.
What I recommend is that a reader make sure to get study Bibles that are written from different perspectives and use them as an aid, not as a source of the answers. To some extent one should study the Bible text first, and then the notes, but sometimes one can read background material first. A study Bible that provides notes that tell you directly what the passage means can be quite convenient, but also quite misleading.
But one of the key problems for Bible students in the 21st century western world is the extent to which our culture is different from that of the world of the Bible. Very frequently what seems quite plain to us is not at all what the Bible writer is trying to say because we simply don’t share enough of those norms. I have come to believe that I have benefitted more by coming to understand human culture and language over the last 30 or so years than I have by learning the biblical languages. I do not mean to underestimate the value of learning Greek and Hebrew, but if my language learning had not been enhanced by the study of linguistics, history, sociology, and anthropology, it would have been of little value.
Pastors frequently proclaim that “the Greek word ____ means” or “the Hebrew word ____ means” and then build their exegesis on what is essentially simply another gloss. This makes people believe they have been enlightened by the ancient languages, when they have actually simply transferred their 21st century attitudes and presuppositions to a set of sounds they are told is Greek or Hebrew. Understanding a language means to some extent understanding a culture. Similarly understanding a text means understanding something about the person or persons who wrote it and the audience for which it was intended.
This is the key element that I believe a study Bible can provide. Certainly cross-references and historical connections are important, but letting the reader know how people in that time and place lived and thought is much more important.
NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible
(Note: I am basing my notes on the Olive Tree Bible software edition provided to me free of charge as I did not receive my print edition. I will not make comments on the layout or usability of the print edition.)
Thus I come to the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. They use the provocative (and obviously true) URL contextchangeseverything.com. I should note here that there are many types of context. There is a literary context, historical context, linguistic context, and (among others) cultural context. We usually think of context in a fairly narrow linguistic sense. A word study might be done by finding a variety of sentences that use a particular word. We know that when Jesus says, “Go and do likewise” we need to look at the context of what has been commanded. We can’t grab some other activity and make that the command of Jesus instead.
Study Bibles generally examine a range of these ideas as well as proposing interpretations for difficult passages, often without providing enough information so that the reader can follow the logic. The final reader is left with the simple logic that the skilled scholar who wrote the study notes concluded X, so X must be correct, an assumption that will be severely shaken in many cases if one compares other Bibles written by skilled scholars.
The Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible aims to help you understand the Bible writers, their audience, and their times. In the notes you will find direct connections between ancient culture(s) and the text itself. Rather than just being told that a certain phrase means a certain thing, you will be given the reason why one might come to that conclusion. This is no guarantee that every interpretation is correct; that would be expecting the impossible. (Which perfect one of us would make the determination in any case?) What it does mean is that for most explanations in the notes in this Bible you can follow the logic path. If you want to, you can do deeper research, and the notes are specific enough that you’ll be able to do your search, Bible dictionary reference, or deeper study in a commentary or at a good library.
Since I’m not reviewing the Bible overall, but rather looking in particular at one book, I won’t spend more time on an overview. Let me simply say that I’m delighted with the intent, and quite impressed with the implementation. There are obviously limitations. This is a study Bible, not a multi-volume commentary or an encyclopedia. It would be easy to complain about what’s not there. In my review of the book of Hebrews, I believe that the editorial choices made were quite good. I would doubtless have chosen differently in some cases, as would just about anyone, but that’s only to be expected.
On to Hebrews
To study Hebrews most effectively using this Bible, start first with the introduction to the Old Testament. Why? Because Hebrews displays an interesting interplay between the text of Hebrew Scripture, seen generally through the LXX translation, and then interpreted in a particularly New Testament light. The details of how these elements interact require some discussion, and that’s why you study and compare, but you need to understand the sources. The introduction discusses 12 issues in which we will see the world differently, and I think all of these issues will impact your reading of Hebrews.
While reading the text of Hebrews you can use the links (if you’re using Bible software) or follow the references to Old Testament passages. You cannot impose your own exegesis of passages of Hebrew Scripture on Hebrews, but it is important to know not just the text that is quoted, but also its literary context that might be brought to the audience’s mind by the reference, and also by ways in which that text might have been understood. It is not sufficient to treat the Old Testament quotations in Hebrews as words used in the context of Hebrews. Of course, the context of their use in Hebrews is the most definitive when we determine how the author of Hebrews intended them, but we need to do everything possible to get into his (or her) world in order to understand that context.
This is the value of a volume like this. I’m currently reading a commentary on Hebrews that is more than 600 pages. I have another on the shelf in front of me that is of similar length. It’s hard to back off and get an overview of the forest using those commentaries, though both are extremely valuable. What I enjoyed with the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, even as someone who has read the book of Hebrews many times, and studied the works of many commentators on it, was this broader view. Having dealt busily with the trees, putting each leaf under a microscope, it was nice to get so much material easily available. (This is a general advantage with study Bibles over detailed commentaries, at least the better ones, but the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible excels).
I’m going to compare the content of several study Bibles I have on my shelf. Where I give word counts, they are loose estimates based on line counts and my eyeball count of average words per line. The Bibles I’m using to compare are: The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), The Orthodox Study Bible, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, The NLT Study Bible, and of course the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible.
First, let’s compare sheer quantity of text. First, the introduction. (I’ll add a note on approach.)
NOAB: About 450 words, no outline, though an outline can be extracted easily from the notes. The approach of the notes is often technical. Users complain that they don’t get enough theological help.
OSB: About 220 words, short outline provided, stronger suggestion of possible Pauline authorship than others. Theology is consistent with that of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
NISB: A bit more than 1000 words and a mid-length outline. The NISB is kind of the pastor’s answer to the NOAB for mainline teachers/preachers. It provides more theological reflection, a fact I receive with definitely mixed emotions, though the material is generally helpful in its place. Theology is mainline with a bit of a liberal lean.
NLT Study Bible: About 1500 words and a brief outline. Theology is strongly evangelical
NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: About 800 words, no outline, features “Quick Glance” section. Theology is evangelical.
Now let’s consider a specific passage, in this case Hebrews 4:12-13, and look at the quantity of notes, along with a count of insets or excurses in the whole text of Hebrews:
NOAB: 21 words. No excurses.
OSB: 54 words. One excursus.
NISB: 75 words. No excurses.
NLT Study Bible: 74 words. 9 excurses.
NIV Cultural Background Study Bible: 136 words. Two excurses.
The critical value of these notes is that they are aimed at the background and at helping you draw a line from the background to the meaning. I would say that the NOAB is great at pointing to technical details, but not so much at theology, while the NISB spends less time on technical details while using much of its space to reflect on theology. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible uses its space in drawing a picture and pointing that to possible theological conclusions without trying to be a theology text.
Over the next few days I will post something on a couple of my favorite passages and the specific comments provided by this study Bible. I would consider this an excellent Bible to have at hand for a study of any biblical book. In my To the Hebrews: A Participatory Study Guide (currently under revision), I recommend that a study group have more than one study Bible available. I think it would be good for a group studying Hebrews to have this one at hand. One of the reasons my own guide is being revised is that it is largely a collection of thought questions. I’m going to provide more of a basis for those questions in the second edition. But the book will still be intended for use by a study group that has available multiple resources to compare. This will be one of the few that I recommend.
Note: All of these introductions to the book of Hebrews tend to dismiss Pauline authorship, with the Orthodox Study Bible being the most favorable. My own position is that it is not possible to determine the author. I used to exclude Paul as a possibility, but have been persuaded by the writing of David Alan Black that Paul should be kept as a possibility. I publish his little book The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul.
A second law and a second note on introductions to biblical books. Goes together, no?
I completed my reading of Numbers along with the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary yesterday and today read the introduction from the section on Deuteronomy. In it the author, Eugene H. Merrill (professor at Dallas Theological Seminary) argues forcefully for Mosaic authorship and for an early (1446 BC) date for the exodus. In school I learned 1445, but the majority position is that the exodus occurred in the mid to late 13th century, and critical scholars in general would reject at least direct Mosaic authorship in favor of a date of writing in the 7th century BC.
In the course of presenting these positions and his basis for them he makes the statement (p. 449) that “there is absolutely no objective evidence that compels a late provenance for the book.” I would first point out that it is useful to realize that evidence rarely compels, especially in historical situations such as this. Secondly, there is evidence that would point to the composite nature of the book and some that would suggest a later historical setting. Certain Merrill, along with many others, has provided explanations for this apparent evidence, but having provided an alternate explanation, however convincing it may be to the one providing it, does not make the evidence go away.
I like to look at introductions in various study Bibles. I’m not sure why, as the usual result is simply to raise my blood pressure a bit. In this case I have at hand The Oxford Study Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, and the NLT Study Bible. Out of these, only the NLT Study Bible would tend to agree with Merrill. That count is not important, however, because it doesn’t constitute a good survey of quality scholarship on the issue.
The problem with the lot of these is that they each assert their position with confidence and provide a couple of notes on things that favor that position, but give very few reasons why anyone might disagree. If you read the conservative introductions, you might well conclude that the critical scholars who disagree are just perverse, while if you read the more critical introductions, you might not be aware that there are modern conservative scholars who would hold to such views as a 1446 BC date for the exodus or Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy around 1406 BCE.
You may think I’m being unfair, as each introduction must be short, especially in the study Bibles. Merrill’s can be somewhat longer as he is writing for a substantial commentary on just three books of the Bible. But my point is not to chastise the scholars for their positions or for espousing them in their introductions. I do find their language a bit intemperate, and I would also point out that it doesn’t take many words to indicate that other scholars disagree with at least some indication of why that might be.
My interest is in what you do about it. I’d suggest strongly that you don’t surround yourself with books that agree with you and that come from scholars that are in your own religious/denominational tradition. I am generally convinced, though I wouldn’t use “compelling” for any evidence, that the Pentateuch, including Deuteronomy, is a composite text containing some ancient traditions, but built up with case law and later additions and adaptations. Yet I will carefully read Merrill’s commentary as I also read through the Hebrew text. What’s more, I can predict right now that I will learn a great deal from Merrill’s work.
The reason I can do that is that I’ve read this introduction, and while I disagree with the dating and authorship section, it is followed by a discussion of structure and themes that is extremely helpful. I frequently encounter the idea that a certain writer is just a liberal, or too conservative for me, so why should I read his material. We could go for “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17). But I think perhaps Provebers 27:21 is better:
The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold,
so a person is tested by being praised. (NRSV)
Or as I translated it for a Tweet (I like literal in this type of poetry):
As refining fire for silver,
As a furnace for gold,
So to a man is a voice praising him (Prov. 27:21).
I really need to read someone saying that there is “no compelling evidence” for the position I hold. If I only read The Oxford Study Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, and The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, I would never be pushed to look more closely at the evidence.
I think it is particularly important in using study Bibles, because people seem to get the idea that whatever is in the notes is what “scholars” believe regarding the passage. They often also decide that if “scholars” believe it, then they must too. But scholars as a group rarely agree on anything. It’s one of their best features, because they all want to refine things and find some new, good ideas. The results are sometimes crazy, but nothing like as bad as the results of not doing so.
Introductions are hard to write and often don’t prove that useful. But using a range of them can be quite enlightening!
Since I wrote recently about biblical culture shock, and have also commented from time to time on our impatience with the process in politics, it was interesting for me to come to Numbers 30 and 31 in my evening reading.
Numbers 30 is a sort of kinder, gentler sort of culture shock. It’s about vows in general, and more particularly about women and vows. When can “a woman’s man” abrogate her vow. If you read this passage negatively, there’s a certain sense that a woman needs to be protected from rash vows by a sensible man, whether by her father or her husband.
Underlying that is a much more robust view of the sacredness of the vow in the first place. Promises are somewhat weaker in our modern society, so we really have two levels of culture (at least) in this passage to get past. The first is the idea that a rash vow to do something stupid would actually be binding. I think our modern view would be that if it’s rash and stupid, don’t do it, and God will forgive you. If it’s a verbal agreement with someone else, we still might wiggle out. Even if it’s in writing, we’ll probably try. But those “outs” are not permitted by the text.
It’s important to note a category of cultural issue here. We have to adjust to the question in order to understand the answer. No, this isn’t presented in question and answer format, but much of Torah is answering various questions about how a group of people will come to be a society and live together. How do we work things out? There are other passages in scripture where this problem occurs. Take 1 Corinthians 14:40 as an example. I’ve heard this quoted so many times, often to state that we must rigorously follow the order of service contained in the bulletin. But the question Paul is answering here is not “can there be deviations from the church bulletin?” Rather, he’s talking about a large group coming together in which most people feel they have something to express in the gathering. (What about church bulletins? Use your common sense. I’d suggest saving trees by not printing them.)
So once we’ve gotten past that, we have the next issue which is the subjection of the women to men in what is clearly a serious spiritual issue. There is an assumption underlying this passage that the responsible spiritual decision maker in the home is a man, whether the father or the husband. It is on his action that the result is based.
I’m an egalitarian, and so, I suspect, are many of my readers. I don’t want to debate that right now. Whether you are egalitarian or complementarian, consider your reaction to the passage in connection with your existing beliefs about the roles of men and women. I’m reading this passage through with the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary on Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, with the Numbers portion written by Dale A. Brueggeman. Here’s a quote regarding vows in the New Testament:
So we’re going to find some variety among Christians today in how they might relate to the relationship between men and women reflected in this passage, as well as to the general idea of a vow.
The attitude toward vows becomes a critical element of Alden Thompson’s exposition of what he calls “the worst story in the Old Testament” in chapter 6 (pp. 99-123) of his book Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. The passage covered is Judges 19-21. There the nation of Israel has sworn a rash vow that they will not give any of their daughters to the Benjaminites as wives. When they find that they have reduced the tribe of Benjamin to a small number of men (no women at all!) they want to find a way out. Now the modern idea would be to get together and repeal the previous vote, but the sacredness of the vow/oath is such that this isn’t an option for them. Instead, they find alternative ways to provide wives. (You’ll have to read the passage.)
I would suggest that, contrary to Alden’s chapter title (as much as I like it), the next chapter in Numbers may be the worst story in the Old Testament. Numbers 31 is pretty dismal. Those who might call Christianity or Judaism violent religions might well cite a passage like this one.
And herein lies the question of interpretation. We find it easy to bypass or ignore a passage like Numbers 31. You’ll find very few Christians who believe that the behavior of the Israelites, even though it is presented as divine command, is something we would apply today. We’ll have various reasons for doing so, and in looking at how we apply this passage, we can discover a great deal about how we interpret scripture.
Think about how you do it. Then compare how you respond to Number 31 with how you responded to Numbers 30. Are the two approaches the same? Or do you have a sort of ad hoc explanation which comes out with a result you “know” is right, but which cannot be applied universally?
I’d suggest that we need to consider our method of biblical interpretation carefully and ask whether the same method works everywhere.
No, I’m not going to do it, but I’m going to ask Dr. Bob Cornwall some questions about it. He’s currently preaching a series in his church from 1st & 2nd Samuel. Bob is one of my Energion authors (see his book list here), and is editor of the two book series we publish in cooperation with the Academy of Parish Clergy, Conversations in Ministry and Guides to Practical Ministry. You can find more information about this event on its Google+ event page.
I’m going to ask Bob how he handles the authority of the text he is preaching from, and especially whether he will deal with some of the more violent passages and how he will preach from them. There are quite a number of passages in the books of Samuel that could be very troubling to a 21st century conversation.
This morning, I was reading one of those: 1 Samuel 15. You can read the whole thing if you want to get a general picture, but let me just summarize here. God tells Samuel to pass the order to Saul, King of Israel, that he should go and wipe out the Amalekites. He is supposed to designate them as herem, meaning that they are devoted to destruction, every person, every creature, every thing is to be destroyed. And lest we be tempted to soften the story, we are told that this included men, women, and even nursing babies.
Saul disobeys God and doesn’t kill everyone. The best of the animals are preserved, and the king is taken captive. Saul blames this on the people. God blames Saul and says he has cut Saul off (or at least Samuel says God says this) from being king over Israel. This story opens the cycle of stories about the conflict between David and Saul, which ends with Saul’s death in battle and David’s accession to the kingdom.
I have heard this story handled in a number of ways:
- Get a modern lesson from it, ignore the gory details, and hope nobody notices. I remember hearing it in my early years taught as a story about obedience. When God tells you to do something, you better do it. When I did ask about the killing, I was told that it was God, so it was OK.
- Emphasize the gory details. We’ve all become too cowardly to truly uphold God’s will in the world. (Yes, I’ve actually heard this.) We can just hope folks like this aren’t too serious.
- Some things in the Bible are less inspired than others, and this is one of the less inspired. Bloodthirsty people did bloodthirsty things and blamed God.
- When people lived in a violent world God worked within their context. So things that might be commanded then could be forbidden now, not because God has changed but because he is staying the same, and working with us where we are.
- The Old Testament God was violent. That’s why we stick with the New Testament. (If you take this approach, you should likely avoid texts like most of Revelation and Acts 5:1-11.)
- Let’s never read this in church and hope nobody notices.
I could probably come up with some more given time. I’ll be interested to see how Bob Cornwall handles the text. He’s both a good preacher and accomplished scholar, so I expect his comments to be helpful.
In the meantime, two things. Following a challenge on a similar text, I wrote two blog posts. The first was a story/dialogue discussing the text, titled The God-Talk Club and the She Bears, on my Jevlir Caravansary fiction blog. (In the God-Talk Club series I write dialogue without any intention of expressing my own point of view. It’s sort of an exercise for me in trying to express several views on a topic.) The second was a homily on the same passage, titled Real Guy Interpretation.
Finally, I recently interviewed two authors, Allan Bevere, author of a book based on a series of Old Testament sermons he preached titled The Character of Our Discontent, and Alden Thompson, author of Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. I’m embedding that video below.
In September of 2013 I published a book titled The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul by David Alan Black. It has been interesting to read material on this topic since. I would note that while I believe Dave’s case is well presented, and was convinced by it to give more room to the idea of Pauline authorship, I have not been convinced to abandon my agnosticism on the authorship of Hebrews.
Today my attention was drawn to two more posts. The first is by Dave Black, which I copied to the Topical Line Drives site to create a permanent link (Dave’s blog doesn’t support this). It’s a short comment, but makes clear Dave’s view that Hebrews is not so anonymous as one might think.
There is a broad consensus among scholars that Paul did not write the book of Hebrews. There is no similar consensus about who did write the book. There’s an easy explanation, however, for the difference between these positions. It’s simply the view of the authors in question of the external evidence. Is the testimony of the early church fathers reliable on matters of authorship? While there are some disagreements about precisely what each church father said (Dave Black provides his own translations of many of these references in his book), in general if one is prepared to accept the testimony of the early church fathers, one is likely to accept Paul as the author of Hebrews.
On the other hand, if one favors internal evidence over this external testimony, one likely will not favor Paul. Note that I do not mean here a simple differentiation between how one favors internal over external evidence, such as one might have in textual criticism. In this case, we’re looking at specific testimony with specific issues. How much could each witness have known? To what extent are they reporting hearsay? To what extent might they be trying to shore up the claim of Hebrews to be scripture? So one can have a general position favoring external evidence on many other topics, but nonetheless not have the same emphasis with regard to authorship.
In my view, if we did not have the testimony of the early church fathers, nobody (or almost nobody) would assign Hebrews to Paul based on the internal evidence. But I also believe that if you don’t accept the testimony of the early church fathers on this point, there is no basis to claim any particular author for the book. The problem with determining authorship based on internal evidence is that you must have a body of material with known authorship with which to compare the book. Of the proposed authors of the book of Hebrews, only three have a significant body of written material, Luke, Paul, and Clement. For others, such as Apollos or Aquilla and Priscilla, we have no written material, and precious little biographical information. It is always possible that one of these many candidates wrote the book, but the evidence just isn’t there.
That’s why, having decided that there is enough internal evidence in the book to question Paul’s authorship, I do not propose an alternative. I don’t know who wrote it. I realize there are answers to the difficulties with Pauline authorship, but in my view it seems that there’s just a bit too much to explain away. It could be Paul, but then again, not so much.
It’s interesting how strong the consensus against Pauline authorship has become. I would think that there would be a greater body of argument in favor of the testimony of the early church fathers. A very slight swing in favor of that testimony would probably shake the consensus quite substantially.
My friend and Energion author Allan Bevere posted this morning on this topic, and I want to call attention to it for several reasons. First, this is a topic I find very interesting. Second, I think it’s appropriate to discuss the problems of violence and suffering together at some points. Third, I don’t think that emphasizing a distinction between the Old and New Testaments really solves the problem. It ditches some texts, so if your plan is to explain things away text by text you make your task easier. But the basic issues remain the same.
I also was reading my own book notes on Bart Ehrman’s book God’s Problem. Ehrman tends to set a lot of people off, but I don’t find him all that annoying. Do I disagree? Yes, in many ways. But that just makes life interesting. Recently, I published a book on this topic, Bruce Epperly’s Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job. It’s interesting to see what different results people get from reading the same material. Note that Epperly is a progressive Christian and his approach illustrates one of the problems in religious dialog: We dialog with one group and it is applied to a much broader group. I used Waltke in my notes (link above), and Waltke definitely takes a different approach from that of Ehrman. Yet so does Epperly, and it’s a different different approach.
Then there’s the book Allan is reading, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? As the publisher, I’m obviously very happy with that book, but I should add that Alden Thompson was my undergraduate advisor and taught me Hebrew (2nd & 3rd year). The fourth edition of the book was also the first title released by Energion Publications.
Now, to add to the fun, we’re planning a discussion between Allan Bevere (The Character of Our Discontent), Alden Thompson, and myself. It’s scheduled for June 2, 2015. Watch for more information here or on any of my social media feeds.
I was mentioned by Ed Brayton (blogs at Dispatches from the Culture Wars) in a comment to a post on Facebook, and made a couple of comments myself. Here’s the Facebook post:
There are two things here that interest me. First is the claim that moderates and liberals don’t take their faith seriously. This is silly, sort of like the claim that atheists really do believe in God, they’re just rebelling against him. What these two things share in common is that the person making the accusation makes assumptions about the other person’s mental processes that are not justified.
I have spoken to people who called themselves atheists, but who were actually angry with God. They say certain things that tell you they actually believe. I also have spoken to any number of atheists. While they vary in the reasons they don’t believe in God, I have found their thinking quite clear. I have actually occasionally told someone who claimed to be an atheist that they sounded more like a deist or an agnostic (or a whatever to me), and asked them to explain their use of the term. It’s amazing what you can learn just by asking and listening to the response.
On the other hand my faith is my faith, i.e., I have come to believe certain things. I don’t deny that many of these result from my upbringing. I was born into a Christian home, and that does predispose me to be a Christian. On the other hand, I know atheists who were born into a Christian home as well. More importantly, I don’t believe the same things my parents did. My Christianity is somewhat different. They were (and are) Seventh-day Adventists. I am not. They accepted and taught me young earth creationism. I have rejected that and am, to the extent I can tolerate the term, a theistic evolutionist. There are parts of the Bible that they treated as historical that I do not.
How do you find that out? In my case, of course, you could read. But if you want to have dialogue with someone, it’s a good idea to find out what they actually believe. It may differ from your assumptions. I am probably more frequently accused of not taking my faith seriously by people who are more conservative Christians than I am. What they mean, generally, is that I don’t take their faith seriously, and generally I don’t. No, I don’t mean that I don’t take the faith of conservative Christians seriously. What I don’t take seriously is the faith of people who are so shallow as to make such accusations without bothering to investigate and learn.
Let me illustrate this with a more specific example. While guest teaching a Sunday School class I stated that I found prayer at public events questionable at best, and that if asked (unlikely) I would decline to participate. I emphasized that I was not speaking here of constitutionality. This was not a political position, but a religious one.
One of the class members immediately accused me of not really being willing to stand up for my convictions because I would not uphold them publicly by praying there. But you see, those were his convictions about prayer, not mine.
My convictions say that prayer is communion with God. My prayer takes place most commonly in my office while I’m studying my Bible. My prayer time is largely silent. You might even think I’m sleeping. If I pray in a group setting, I want that to be in a setting where we, as a group or community, pray. My city, county, state, or country does not constitute such a community. I can guarantee that someone in that audience is being forced to participate in my spiritual activity.
I’d like to say that I don’t do it because I don’t want them to be forced to pray, and indeed I don’t want them to. But what drives me is that my own idea of what it means to commune with my heavenly parent is so contradictory to the idea of someone being involved involuntarily, that I find it offensive. I find it hard to pray. You may think I’m stupid, but those are my convictions, and they are the convictions that I will take seriously and uphold.
I feel the same way about public school prayer. I would find it personally offensive for my children or grandchildren to be drafted into a government organized (or any other imposed) form of spiritual activity. So when I oppose prayer in public schools, I am not refusing to uphold my faith. Rather I am upholding it against something that is offensive to it. In my view the place for prayer with children would be at home with their parents, or in some sort of voluntary faith community, not in the classroom with a public official.
The second thing that interests me is the question of what the Bible actually is. Is it metaphor? Is it myth? Is it history?
The problem here is that the Bible is many things. It contains history, fiction, a legend or so, plenty of metaphors, liturgy, political discussion, and even occasional theological discourse. In addition, it contains literature that is not commonly found elsewhere, such as visions and apocalyptic passages.
Anyone who says the Bible is any one thing is either ignorant or not paying attention. The idea that there is a variety of types of literature in scripture is not a liberal or progressive idea. Conservatives are aware of it. Many fundamentalists will try to deny it. But where the serious divide comes is in determining what is what. Is Jonah some sort of historical story or is it fiction? (I would say fiction, and written to challenge the activities of some folks like Nehemiah, but it’s hard to pin down precisely.)
One of the big questions is whether the early chapters of Genesis consist of myth or history. Obviously, young earth creationists regard them as history. I’ve heard people use the question “Is Genesis 1 a myth?” as a sort of touchstone. If you say “yes” you’re a liberal, but if you say “no” you’re a fundamentalist.
Well, I say no, and yet I accept the theory of evolution. How can this be? Well, quite simply the question of whether a passage contains accurate history and science is quite different from the question of its literary genre. The genre of Genesis 1 is, in my opinion, liturgy. Liturgy does not need to portray accurate history. Genesis 2:4ff, on the other hand, shares most of the characteristics of myth. It’s a different story, told in a different way.
I’ve been asked why, if the two stories are contradictory, they appear side by side. The reason is that they function in such different ways that they cannot really contradict, any more than an Easter liturgy, celebrating the resurrection at 11 on Sunday morning in Pensacola can contradict an account of a missing body at about dawn near Jerusalem. They’re just not talking the same language.
I find it annoying that so much Bible study has to do with proving or disproving the Bible. This often results in people taking positions because of what they need the result to be. One person wants to believe that the gospels were written late because he doesn’t want them to be eyewitness accounts. Another wants them to be written early because he does. Neither desire is relevant to the actual dating. I wrote a post about an hour ago maintaining that I thought it probable that Paul wrote Colossians, a position challenged by some scholars. Does this make me conservative? No, nor does it make me liberal. It means that’s what I believe the balance of the evidence is.
Whether you are a Christian supposedly defending the Bible or a non-Christian who wishes to challenge it, contrived arguments aren’t going to help. Ultimately they’ll undermine your position with thinking people. I don’t mean every wrong conclusion is somehow a disaster. What I mean is every trite, contrived solution whose best evidence is the fact that you need it to be true, is going to backfire.]
Well, at least it will backfire eventually with thinking people.
In my Google Hangout discussion I mentioned using the development of theological concepts in dating a particular writing. I don’t think I really covered the issue involved all that well, so I’m going to follow up briefly here. My purpose is not to argue any particular position, but to illustrate the issues.
If I might start from a slightly broader approach, one of the ways in which one dates a particular writing is by looking at things in it that connect to events outside of it. Hopefully some of those things outside of it can be dated more precisely than the writing itself. In all cases, one should be aware that no single element provides an absolute answer. One normally gathers a set of arguments and searches for the best possible explanation of all the data. Often people reject an argument as weak when it is not intended to stand alone at all, but rather is just suggestive. It has to be combined with other data.
To take an example from the Hebrew scriptures, the destruction of Samaria (722-721 BCE) is described both in 2 Kings and in Assyrian records. We can get quite precise dating from the Assyrian records, while we only have relative dating from Kings. We can tie the events together with a high degree of accuracy because the event is described in both.
Narrowing it down a bit, consider both the authorship and dating of the pastoral epistles, Titus and 1 & 2 Timothy. Many scholars believe that these were written by someone in Paul’s name after Paul had died. Note here how authorship and dating interact. If Paul wrote the pastoral epistles they must date no later than the early 60s CE, since Paul dies in that period. He is unlikely to be producing new epistles after his death! Here, however, it works the other way. If it isn’t Paul that wrote them, then it is likely they were written after Paul’s death. Nobody is likely to be sending around letters claiming to be from Paul while Paul was still alive, at least not without inviting scandal.
But why the later date? One argument relates to church history. Some would hold that the church organization displayed in the pastoral epistles is too advanced to reflect the time of Paul. In a sense, then, the later writer would be using Paul’s name to bless these developments in church organization. I’m not going to try to argue this one way or the other as that’s not my purpose. What I do want to point out is that this form of dating requires two things: 1) A correct reading of the level of church organization reflected in the epistle, and 2) An accurate assessment of the development of church organization.
Regarding the first, let’s consider the Greek word episkopos. When you see this word in the pastoral epistles how do you understand it and translate it? How do you see it’s relation to the diakonos? Is it bishops and priests, or perhaps a more informal general overseer and local minister? What is the role and authority of those making the appointments. I’m not an expert on any of this. What I will point out is that people see these terms and the discussion of church leadership in the pastoral epistles differently. This will impact any decision on dating that relates to the development of church organization.
Regarding the second, one has to determine just how church structure developed. This is a task for a church historian who will look both at the New Testament evidence, and the evidence of the early church fathers as they either reflect or describe the church organization that exists at that point.
Now remember that each argument need not be decisive. Far from it. There will be many minor indicators and many indicators that could be argued either way.
I referenced one in my discussion, the dating of Hebrews, and my difference of opinion with my friend (and Energion author), Elgin Hushbeck, Jr. One of the most important datable events of the first century of church history is the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Now, Elgin and I differ on the probable dating of the book of Hebrews. First, note that if the author of Hebrews is Paul (ably argued by David Alan Black in The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul), then it must be dated no later than the early 60s CE. Why? See above on Paul’s death.
But the particular point that I mention here is that Elgin and I take the same piece of evidence and see a different result. I see the author of Hebrews building his entire argument on the tabernacle in the wilderness, and thus see the destruction of the temple (not in existence at the historical time our author is referencing) as much less relevant. In fact, one might argue that the author uses the tabernacle because the temple was no longer in existence. But Elgin argues that one could hardly make this argument after the destruction of the temple without mentioning that event. And as much as I may hate admitting it, he does have a point. So the evidence weighs lightly in this case.
But now we finally get down to the issue at hand, which is dating based on theological development. This is akin to dating the pastoral epistles based on church organization but each element of the argument becomes harder. Let’s consider the case of christology. I would argue a high christology for the gospel of John. The Word was God. The Word became flesh. Case closed. Well, not quite as easily as all that, but I’d come back to those two points after arguing other interpretations.
To date a writing in this way requires one to both read the theology of the writing in question correctly and also to have a well calibrated idea of the way in which theology developed. If you move into later times, you can look at whether a writer argues for or against gnostic positions, and just what gnostic positions are reflected. I parallel John 1:1-18 to the thought developed in Hebrews 1:1 – 4:13. In both cases we have the message presented through Jesus (a Son/the Word) placed against the message presented by Moses, with superiority attributed to the message through the Son. I would argue that the christology of Hebrews 1:1-3 is as high as the christology in John. If I then date Hebrews to the decade or so following the destruction of Jerusalem, some would say that the christology is questionable at that point. Most interpreters since the time of the reformation, for example, have interpreted the term “Word of God” in Hebrews 4:12 as referring to the scriptures and not to the person of Jesus.
If we turn to Elgin’s dating, which is earlier, then his reading of Hebrews as high christology (as he does) means that a high christology and the associated vocabulary would be available much earlier. I refer to Elgin because he’s a friend. There are plenty of scholars who would hold either the position I do or that he does. Elgin and I hope to arrange a discussion of this between us, not so that one of us can win, but so that we can clarify the way these arguments are formulated and help readers make their own decisions. This particular type of argument is one of the weakest. I’m not arguing that it’s not worth doing, but it requires a broad knowledge and very careful work to make successfully.
A reverse effect is also possible. One might find a way to read Hebrews as having a lower christology, simply present Jesus as the Son of God, because one assumes due to date that this is the way it should be read. In doing this sort of work, one should always be very conscious of one’s own biases.
My point in going through all of this is to help readers get an idea of how to read introductions to Bible books, especially when those introductions differ. There are massive differences in dating given for portions of the New Testament. Matthew, for example, might be dated all the way from the 40s to the late 80s. Luke is often dated in the mid-80s, but there’s an interesting piece of internal evidence that suggests an earlier date. Acts ends before the death of Paul. One explanation for this is that the book was written before Paul died. There are other explanations; never imagine that a debate such as this is settled in one line! In addition, Luke was written before Acts (relative dating is important!), and so Luke must have been written before the mid 60s because it must have been written before Acts. But if there’s a good reason for Paul’s death to be left out of Acts, other than that it hadn’t happened yet, all this might change!
Knowing how these arguments are formulated will help you read introductions intelligently.