Should We Reject Background Studies for Interpreting the Bible?

bibleI recently heard it stated, building on the approach of John Sailhamer, that background studies is not necessary to understand the text of Scripture. It is argued that there is nothing in Scripture that dictates using anything outside of the text to understanding or apply the text. While there is some validity to this argument, I would like to offer some arguments in order to bring some necessary nuance to this line of thinking.

But first it’s important to state what is meant by background studies. Many OT and NT scholar see understanding the cultural milieu of a given biblical text as a perquisite to truly understanding a passage. The example that comes to mind for many is the comparison of Gen 1-2 to ancient Near East (ANE) stories of creation in order to demonstrate that it ought not to be taken as a literal six-day creation event. Another controversial example is the employment of a so-called ‘covenant nomism’ by the adherents to the New Perspective of Paul (though ‘perspectives’ is more accurate) to understand the apostle Paul’s teaching. But do these and other abuses warrant the rejection to such an approach? In what follows, we’re going to offer some arguments against a wholesale rejection of such an approach. Not every argument will be as strong or persuasive as the next but the cumulative case of these taken together should suffice to demonstrate our point.

To being with, the nature of language admits of culture. As most know, the Bible was not originally written in English (or anything close to it for that matter) but rather Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. So, how do we know these languages in order to translate them into English? Well, that’s easy. The meaning of the many words, verbal tenses, moods and aspects, and syntactical details has been preserved from the time of origination (more or less). It’s not as if English-speakers inherited the Bible in the original languages and without any help knew how to translate them. Rather, the reception of the Bible has a complex history where such information was passed on from previous generations. For example, with regard to the Hebrew, Jerome, the famous translator of the Bible into Latin (the Latin Vulgate) learned Hebrew under the tutelage of a Jewish rabbi. The retention of the meaning of the many peculiarities of Biblical Hebrew was then preserved by Jewish culture; it was in fact a cultural decision and would not have happened without it.

Now, taking a step further back, the art (‘art’ is intentional) of translation is, at base, interpretation. There are many interpretative decisions made in the process of translation. Many if not most of these decisions are relatively benign and straightforward, but they are interpretations nonetheless. The act of interpretation has two corollaries: (1) application of one’s knowledge to the subject in question (Hebrew grammar to Hebrew text) and (2) application of the subject to broader fields of knowledge (Hebrew meaning to oneself, society). The second of these, while more under the surface with translation (though not always; cf. discussion of Isa 7 on the identity of the virgin), gives way to another important piece to consider.

Interpretation is in essence a form of application. To interpret is to apply previously held knowledge to a subject and to let the further knowledge that emerges add to the previously existing base of knowledge, which in turn informs future efforts at interpretation.

But, moving beyond interpretation narrowly considered, it is important it understand that interpretation is a theological act; that is, interpretation is not easily divorces from one’s view of God, the world or oneself. Although these larger beliefs may not be directly discernable in the process of interpretation, it would be naïve to suggest that they have a negligible effect, especially when the subject at hand is one that demands the attention and response of the entire person, and it is this kind of demand that the biblical text places on the interpreter.

Interpretation is a theological act because theology is application, and, as I argued earlier, interpretation is a form of application (crudely: interpretation = application = [doing] theology). This may not be obvious at face value so let me explain. For theology not to remain locked inside the printed pages of the Bible, relegated to the realm of intellectual curiosity, it must be applied to the reader/hearer and the world around us. This then requires some understanding or awareness of oneself and the world around you. Put simply, to do theology from the Bible, to truly apply the Bible, requires the Bible to engage with the world outside of it. We and our culture are not enclosed in the narrative of the Bible. Rather, the truths of the Bible come alive and invite inhabitants of a world from without to respond to its truth when they are applied to them.[1] To suggest otherwise and in turn divorce theology from application is to render theology, which is in fact the application of the Bible, an intellectual exercise with no real-life import.

This brings us back around to our original concern. If it is the case with us that theology is application, then it is just as true that this was the case for the many authors of the books found in the pages of Scripture. They didn’t just write Scripture and leave it at that. They wrote it with the hearts and minds and souls of men and women in their mind. They wrote it with a concern for the context that they were addressing. They were responding to the world around them. Because if their writings were never applied to inhabitants of the culture of their day, then the very word of God would bounce and never penetrate the hollowed-out, empty hearts of the listener/reader. Never mind the fact that these same biblical authors were cultural inhabitants themselves.

If therefore theology is application and the biblical writers sought to do theology (to speak anachronistically), then a question arises: would modern-day teachers of the Bible be missing something of its substance, force and power if they failed to apply it to the lives of those they were teaching? Yes, they would, and they would be out of step with the intentions of the biblical authors. If we grant then that theology is application, and that the prophets and apostles of old did theology, then does it not follow that knowing the original cultural context of the biblical authors has some significance and value?

To conclude, it’s important to notice that little qualifying word: ‘some.’ It’s best to start with the lexemes, verbal tenses and moods and syntax, then move into larger units, such as sentences, paragraphs, and finally the largest literary context, the entirety of Scripture, in the process of interpretation. But along the way, one must also have in mind one’s neighbor. Indeed, one’s friend, enemy, lover, or even a passing acquaintance, not to mention the societal and moral ills of one’s generation. As the teacher begins on the journey of theology, it would be wise to put oneself in the mind of the author of the book in question. To whom was he writing? Why? What were his concerns and challenges? This imaginative exercise is not superfluous, but is part of applying the living word of God to the lives of others. To deny background studies any interpretative significance is to, at best, lapse into a gross naiveté; it is, at worst, to lose a sense of the nature of theology as at its very core application.


[1] I’m not suggesting that the truths of Scripture are somehow activated once responded to, but rather that these truths, while still true, will not fulfill their purpose which is to bring people into relationship with the living God.

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