Thursday, March 15, 2012

Non-Historical New Testament Studies?

There has been a shift over the last few decades to begin to read the Bible more from a literary than historical perspective. Rather than understand it first within its historical, cultural and linguistic setting, some are reading and interpreting it solely within the contemporary setting.

Over at the Bible and Culture Ben Witherington has a post on the topic that he has titled "post-Christian New Testament Studies." Here is a bit of what he has to say:

Strange winds are blowing in the field of Biblical Studies these days, and some of them involve clouds that carry no rain, and promise no lasting crops. What I am referring to is the growing trend to assume that you should be able to do a higher degree in the Bible without: 1) learning any of the Biblical languages, and 2) without learning the proper history of the Biblical cultures and times, and 3) without assuming that these ancient texts need to be studied in their original contexts, because, it is assumed, ‘meaning is in the eye of the beholder’
The problem here is not just an anti-historical approach to the Biblical text, the problem is also an anti-linguistic, anti-contextual approach to the meaning of texts, and thus it involves epistemology, assumptions about how meaning is formed, and the like. These assumptions are seldom argued for, they are simply taken for granted, as if Stanley Fish wrote the Bible on meaning and texts and how they work (or don’t)
One manifestation of this proposed new model for studying the Bible could be called the purely literary approach. The Bible is literature, therefore we will read it in light of modern assumptions about, for example, fiction. Not mind you, ancient approaches to novels or histories or biographies, no modern approaches entailing modern theories of meaning. The Bible on this approach is treated as a document originally appearing in English and subject to the trends in analysis of modern English literature.

Ben goes on to use post-colonial approaches as one example of this type of reading. He is appreciative and critical of this approach. It is an interesting read. I don't want to critique Ben's post since it is a short entry and I am sure he has more nuanced thoughts on the topic. But I will note that I gained a greater appreciation for non-historical approaches as I did my work on Cain and Abel. What I discovered there is that many interpreters were trying to make sense of the Bible for their time period. And that meant that often the original setting and context was not always as important to them as it is to us today. Our preoccupation with the original setting has much to do with our heritage from the protestant Reformation than an interpretive method that extends back through church history.

What do you think? How important is it that we interpret the Bible in the context of its original linguistic, historical and cultural context?


  1. Is it important to understand the historical, cultural and linguistic atmosphere? Yes. Not to accept and understand the time in which any piece of literature was written is faulty study right out of the gate.

    But can pastors just leave it there? Absolutely not. Works that survive, survive because they transcend their own time period.

    But they cannot be separated or removed from it.

  2. John, this is a great question. In my view, any trustworthy interpretation of a biblical text (or any ancient text) MUST take into account the nuances of language, historical, social and ancient literary context first. That's the only way we can get a fairly accurate view of what the text may have meant in its original setting.

    However; we are so far from the original context that we must approach that task with humility, knowing that we are aiming for a target as if from very far away and with one eye covered. And our job is not done when we've done that work.

    There needs to be a movement from the ancient world to the contemporary world, because biblical texts particularly, many believe, are still living, in the sense that they still hold meaning for us now. So we must take whatever insights we've gleaned from our historical inquiry and search out meaning for our contemporary context. But again, we must do so with humility, understanding that in this case we are always aiming at a moving target.

    I don't think any well-rounded scholar can do without either of these options. If you forsake the contemporary context, you end up with work that means nothing to most people. If you forsake the historical context, you end up with work that has no validity or authenticity. You need both.

    The Bible is not a book; it is a library. We must view it that way. You wouldn't analyze a novel by Jane Austen in the same way that you would a book of poetry by T. S. Eliot. One needs to know what one is dealing with when approaching a biblical (or ancient) text.

    Thanks, John!


  3. After just taking Historical and Literary Approaches to the Bible with Dr. Hawk, I too have gained a greater appreciation for non-Historical approaches (especially Deconstructionism in relation to Mark's Gospel). These other methods provide other avenues into the text that may help us see something in a way we previously did not. Furthermore, these methods help bring humility to the Historical Critical Method. Too often those approaching the text from the HC perspective apply too much "certainty" to their conclusions. If we couple both approaches, we can argue from "probabilities" rather than certainties as well as letting the Scriptures speak for themselves in our current contexts.

    Thus, I would say that the HC method helps to serve as a "tether" or "range" to the meaning of a text. These methods should not be an either/or, but a both/and-informing and shaping one another.

  4. " if Stanley Fish wrote the Bible on meaning and texts and how they work (or don’t)"

    Is this really a significant/sizable movement in biblical studies? That is, are such views really generating that much of a following? I really wonder if anyone who has thought for more than a minute about it takes Stanley Fish's work seriously. Certainly some people in English departments take this stuff seriously, but nothing really follows from that other than that some people in English departments take this stuff seriously.

    "...the problem is also an anti-linguistic, anti-contextual approach to the meaning of texts, and thus it involves epistemology, assumptions about how meaning is formed, and the like"

    Honestly, I think that Witherington is giving too much credit to approaches like Fish's. These are not epistemological in any proper sense of the word--they're unintelligible nonsense that even many professional philosophers are unable to make sense of. If anyone takes this Fish stuff seriously, I'd encourage you to attempt explaining it to one of your (non-academic) family members. If you find yourself unable to do so without sounding completely vacuous, then I suggest that this is more a sign of the silliness of the viewpoint than it is a sign of their lack of academic prowess.

  5. The historical critical method gives scholarship a false sense of objectivity. This method has led to a wide diversity of interpretations(ironically this is the same accusation aimed at non-historical approaches). The historical critical method has exposed that there is no objective place to stand in order to start the constructive process. In this way, Derrida is right,"There is nothing outside the text." There is interpretation all the way down. So anyone who makes the claim that the historical critical approach is the best way to frame the boundaries of interpretation is mistaken. This of course does not mean that the historical critical method does not have its strengths, but it does mean that non-historical approaches are just as valid.

    1. Could not disagree more. Indeed, the so-called Bible is actually a long collected tradition of texts and traditions that rewrite early texts and traditions. If, for example, I wanted to know more about how the author of Deuteronomy rewrote and reinterpreted his source (Ex 21-24), I would need to know the historical concerns and needs that prompted the Deuteronomist to rewrite Exodus. Same with the Chronicler on Samuel-Kings, and Luke on Mark. Texts, like anything else, are products of their historical environment. When this is ignored there are no foundations for proper understanding of a text's intent, targeted audience, and reason for its having been written.

      Second, I would say that a large majority of interpretations that parade themselves as historical-critical approaches in modern scholarship are nothing other than theological (always with modern interest and intent) interpretations. Really, in fact, is good historical critical interpretation applied in biblical studies.

    2. Take the phrase "There is nothing outside the text." Is that phrase contained in a text or not? If it is, then it cannot have universal applicability beyond the text in which it is contained. If it isn't contained in a text, then it appears to contradict itself. In either case, it can't do the work you want it to do.

      The reason everyday people often see figures (I refrain from using the term "thinkers") such as Derrida as making no sense is because they don't. Imagine interpreting a letter from your grandma using the dictum "There is nothing outside the text". That would be completely nonsensical, right? There are, of course, differences between letters from St. Paul and letters from your grandma, but I suggest that the difference is a different in degree and not a difference in kind.

    3. @ Steven
      First off, for decades scholars have been trying to work out the JEDP theory and it has led to one dead end after another. Getting behind the text is an impossible task. Quite frankly, what matters more than the various origins of these text is the final form we have in hand. Even if we were to get behind the text we would still be lacking an objective inquire of the data.

      Second, even when we look at historical data we are viewing things subjectively.This is why people, who experience the same event, almost always have a different experience and interpretation of it. With that said, this does not means that the historical critical method is not useful. But it does mean that even the "pure" historical critical method, to which you refer are referring, is not void of subjectivity.

    4. @ Marcus

      I'm not sure what you mean with the "granny letter." But if you are suggesting that Derrida is some sort of linguistic idealist, who denies the existence of the material, than you are mistaken. As James Smith says, "to claim that there is nothing outside the text is to say that everything is a text, which means not that everything is a book, or that we live within a giant, all-encompassing book, but rather that everything must be interpreted in order to be experienced" (Smith, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism, 39).

      If this is true than even grandma's letter is an affirmation Derrida's claim.

    5. Bryan,

      I'm happy to leave to the side the issue with the letters and, since I have no desire to engage in Derrida exegesis, I'm also happy to grant that some think Derrida isn't a linguistic idealist (I am not convinced by such attempts, even with all the fancy footwork people try to do). But there's Derrida and then there's the way Derrida is used; the latter was my interest since you brought him up. Really I don't care at all what Derrida has to say. I think the more important issue is that an argument be made.

      Here's another way of putting my primary point. Take an idea like "There is nothing outside the text". Assume we understand this to mean "everything must be interpreted in order to be experienced". FWIW, this is how I meant it, knowing of course that we don't, e.g., "live within a giant, all-encompassing book."

      So say we take this idea "everything must be interpreted in order to be experienced". Does that idea, i.e., the one in quotes, have to be interpreted too? Whether you say yes or no, you run into a stop sign. Unless we're given an independent reason for holding this principle that "everything must be interpreted in order to be experienced" then it's unclear why we should view it as having universal application (i.e., as a principle holding for all people who read it).

    6. @ Marcus

      Thanks for the response. I fully understand your point. By claiming no absolutes, we are in a sense stating an absolute claim. This is over course the problem with the the post-structuralist approach.

      With that said, since you are interested in the ways that people use Derrida, I will say that I used Derrida to highlight the ethos of the day. Whether we like it or not the claim that "truth is subjective" is reality for most people. While for some this subjectivity would mean that all we have is the material, for others it means that there is an Ultimate Reality to be known, but that this reality is known subjectively. I am more interested in the latter.

    7. @ Byran.

      Again, I think this is inaccurate. For a good, yet somewhat polemical account of this issue with reference to the Bible, read William Dever's What did the biblical writers know and when did they know it. He has one of the best treatments on the fallacies and presuppositions associated with non-historical approaches to the Bible.

      Concerning JEDP, that is just the Torah. Many other texts of the Bible we are more familiar with. And just because one cannot with 100% certainty identify where the J source came from, nonetheless there unanimous agreement that the Torah is a composite text.

      About objectivity. I've made no claims. My basic point is that a texts meaning is best understood with reference to the historical audience and purpose for and to which the text was written. Void of that, the Bible in particular is open up to any and all types of fraudulent, incorrect, and ideological purposes.