The recent publication of Fr. Stephen De Young’s bookThe Religion of the Apostles: Orthodox Christianity in the First Century, has ignited debate about the legitimacy of modern historical scholarship in helping to clarify the meaning of Scripture. I am in the process of writing a positive review of Fr. Stephen’s book, but here I want to reflect on the larger controversies surrounding the role of modern historical scholarship in Biblical interpretation. This is a type of throat-clearing exercise that is upstream from the more specific issues I hope to deal with in my review.
My intention is that this post can provide a reference point in ongoing debates with well-meaning brothers and sisters who keep telling me that knowledge of the Ancient Near East (ANE) is neither necessary nor helpful for understanding the Old Testament, or that knowledge of the Second Temple period (roughly the period in Jewish history from the reconstruction of the Temple at the time of Nehemiah through it its destruction in AD 70) is neither necessary nor helpful for understanding the New Testament.
Some Personal Background
Ever since my years as a history undergrad, I always wanted to understand any text (whether religious or secular) by looking at other literature from around the same period as the text I was studying. For example, to properly understand Shakespeare we need to look at texts that help us gain a sense of the larger context of Elizabethan theatre: everything from the work of other playwrights to the books Shakespeare would likely have read. This larger context gives rich insight into ways that Shakespeare was working within, and challenging, the conventions of his day.
The same applies to music. For me personally, a broad knowledge of eighteenth-century musical culture helps me to understand that the brass in Mozart’s Magic Flute was intended to give a royal sound, which in turn causes me to hear the opening of this opera in a different way. Similarly, knowing that the oboe and flute were reminiscent of the rustic bagpipe and shepherd’s pipe in Bach and Handel’s day, greatly informs and enhances the aesthetic qualities I hear in their music.
So it always seemed to me very straight-forward to assert that historical context is crucially important to the task of interpretation, especially if we want to take ancient texts on their own terms and not impose a modern interpretation on them. To ignore history is to be indifferent to the intended meaning of a text. The intended meaning of a passage is simply what the original author intended it to mean for the audience to which the words were originally addressed.
While doing undergraduate studies in the UK, I encountered objections to this approach in the work of Monroe Beardsley, who famously argued that historical information about authorial intent is never relevant to interpretation. Beardsley teamed up with W.K. Wimsatt to try to make historical approaches to texts and artwork universally recognized as a fallacy—a fallacy they called “The Intentional Fallacy.” While at college I found the arguments of Beardsley and Wimsatt unconvincing for reasons I explained in my 2008 article, “Artistic Intent.” Their theories have recently received a recapitulation in popular postmodernism, which asserts on epistemological grounds that trying to reconstruct the original meaning of a text is a fool’s errand; since all readings are misreadings, the meaning of a text remains open-ended. But I again remained unconvinced, for reasons I discussed here and here (see section on German Hermeneutics especially). While I found all such ideas to be theoretically convoluted and problematic, the main reason I rejected them was practical, since it is opposed to how I interact with texts and art on the most fundamental and intuitive level. Another example can illustrate the practical problem.
In 1852, Charles Dickens wrote a letter to his friend Mrs. Watson to express regret at the death of her late husband. Dickens said, “We looked forward to years of unchanged intercourse.” Nowadays the word intercourse has a rather restricted meaning, referring to you-know-what. But when Dickens was writing it simply meant conversation and social exchange. We know this because of other literature from the period. To interpret Dickens’ use of the word intercourse based on contemporary meanings of the term would be absurd. This is an example of how a good historian must try to submit to the mindset that persisted at the time a text was written, especially when we are studying texts from cultures that are far removed from our own in both time and language. But to become familiar with a different mindset, one has to read widely in the works from that period, or at least to read scholars who have themselves devoted their careers to studying those ancient texts and who have synthesized the material for lay people. And of course, this same principle applies when trying to understand religious texts, both the Patristics and the New Testament.
Reading the New Testament Historically
Studying the original context in which the Old Testament was written and received (what historians refer to as the Ancient Near East) and studying the original context in which the New Testament was written and received (what historians refer to as the Second Temple Period), enables us to approach these documents through the eyes of the original audience, and thus to grasp many nuances and shades of meanings we might otherwise miss. If we dismiss this scholarly work as unnecessary—perhaps on the erroneous assumption that the Bible can just “speak for itself” or that we can approach “the plain meaning of Scripture”—then by default we will unconsciously read Scripture in light of our own tradition. Then when we hear words like “justification,” “salvation,” “faith,” or “gospel,” we will assume we know what these concepts mean based on how these words function in our own culture or subculture. Often, we may not even realize that we are reading the Bible through the lens of a tradition, because that tradition simply forms part of the taken-for-granted-background of how we interact with key concepts we find in Scripture.
Historical scholarship can help peel away these unconscious biases. As an example, let’s consider a very ideology-laden term from the New Testament: “repent and believe.” What do you think of when you read this phrase in Mark 1:15 and elsewhere? For a long time, I associated this phrase with having a conversion experience, which included a range of associations I picked up from being an evangelical in the 1980’s. But if we consult the works of Josephus, a Jewish writer from the time of Christ, we find an interesting interchange that sheds light on this question. Josephus, representing Rome, tells a Jewish revolutionary to “repent and believe in me.” The context is clear that when Josephus tells the revolutionary to “repent and believe,” he is inviting the revolutionary to abandon his previous loyalties and adopt a new set of priorities—a total change of orientation. Josephus isn’t urging the revolutionary to believe he exists or that he is who he says he is; rather, Josephus was urging a complete change of heart, a switching of loyalties from one cause to another. Knowing that this is how the terminology of “repent and believe” was used in the Second Temple Period (and Josephus isn’t the only source here), sheds fresh light on Christ’s use of the same phraseology. When Christ commanded his hearers to repent and believe, he was not just inviting people to a mental assent, a one-time sinner’s prayer, but a total change of loyalties that overturns all previous priorities and commitments. Could we understand Mark 1:15 if all we had was the gospels? Perhaps, but the works of Josephus greatly assist us in this interpretative endeavor.
Josephus is only one example of how a text from the Second Temple Period helps give context to our understanding of the New Testament.
Approaching the New Testament historically—using historical scholarship to put ourselves in the shoes of those who originally received the texts, and how they would have understood key phrases and ideas—enables us to overcome the limitations of our own unconscious biases. I have experienced this many times myself when studying Scripture. For example, understanding the religious and political significance of images in the ANE helped to clarify the full significance of the Genesis teaching that men and women were made in God’s image. This has been enormous in understanding my own humanity and helping me overcome the passions. (I have shared a bit about this in my article “From Eden to New Creation.”) Or again, understanding the way Roman-era kings extended their reign into enemy-occupied territory helped to contextualize the meaning of 1 Corinthians 15 for me.
When this historical approach is applied to the New Testament, key questions include:
- What texts, ideas, and customs were popular when Jesus walked the earth, and how might these inform our understanding of the context of the gospels and epistles?
- How did Jesus and the New Testament writers work within existing customs and norms while also subverting them?
- How can historical scholarship help us better understand how the original readers of the New Testament would have understood key concepts we find in these texts?
Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid 20th century, scholars have been able to address these and other questions with increasing precision, leading to an entire branch of Biblical scholarship that seeks to situate New Testament studies within our expanding knowledge of the Second Temple era and its literature. And, of course, similar scholarship is happening with regard to the ANE context of the Old Testament, as archeology brings to light new inscriptions and epigraphic evidence that enables us better to clarify the Old Testament. This is exactly the approach that Fr. Stephen De Young and Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick are taking with their popular “Lord of Spirits” podcast: using material from the ANE to clarify truths about the unseen realm, including angels, demons, and shadowy powers.
Objections to Historical Approaches to Scripture
Although it may seem like simple common sense to use whatever historical, archeological, and literary information is available from the ANE to help interpret the Old Testament, or from the Second Temple Period to help interpret the New Testament, I continually run into hesitation about this project from well-meaning Christians. Indeed, over the years as I have talked to Christians from all traditions—Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox—about the need to understand the Bible in its original context, I routinely encounter the same objections and mental roadblocks. Some of these objections have surfaced in the last few months in conversations about Fr. Stephen De Young’s work. Here are five of the most common barriers I have encountered which block historical approaches to the New Testament. As you will see, some apply mainly to Protestants (#2 & 5), some apply mainly to Americanized Eastern Orthodoxy and/or Catholicism (#3 & 4), and some apply to both (#1).
- Anti-intellectualism and Fear of Liberalism. Anglo-American culture has a strong tradition of anti-intellectualism, and American Christianity has not been immune to this. An anti-intellectual rejection of Biblical scholarship arose in Protestant Fundamentalism as a reaction to the liberal theology that has dominated so much academic discourse since the 19th century. This knee-jerk reaction to all academic Biblical scholarship causes even the historical approaches mentioned above to become suspect, which is ironic given that such approaches undermine the very structures of theological liberalism. Within Eastern Orthodoxy, an anti-intellectual dismissal of modern Biblical scholarship often arises from a similar impetus, although in this case the bugbear is not just liberalism, but also the type of hermeneutical free-for-all that is associated with Sola Scriptura, and the attendant assumption that Biblical scholarship functions as a proxy for whatever-I-want-the-Bible-to-mean-for-me. This again is ironic, since at least one type of Biblical scholarship (i.e., work being done on how the literature of the Second Temple Period can contextualize the New Testament) provides tools for a scholarly critique of interpretative subjectivism and theological liberalism.
- Perspicuity of Scripture. There is a type of popular Protestantism that confuses the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone is the highest authority for faith and morals), with the doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency (Scripture alone is all we need to understand Scripture), and confuses both with the doctrine of Scripture’s perspicuity (the theory that the right understanding of Scripture is clear), and then confuses all of these with the idea that a reader can understand the intended meaning of any scriptural passage without historical knowledge of the period in which that passage was written. Some evangelical teachers have even gone as far as to suggest that historical work contextualizing Scripture’s original meaning is devaluing the Bible through threatening the doctrines of Scriptural authority, supremacy, and sufficiency. Although this ecosystem of misunderstanding is a deviation from what we find in the Protestant universities and seminaries, where doctrines like Sola Scriptura, sufficiency, and perspicuity are treated with nuance and complexity (sometimes even dying the death of a thousand qualifications), nevertheless on ground level a watered-down version of Scripture’s Perspicuity has had enormous reach, dispelling interest in Biblical scholarship. This misunderstanding of the doctrine of perspicuity fuels the notion that the plain meaning of Scripture is always apparent on the surface, thus creating space for a fundamentalist literalism.
- Anti-Historical Appeals to Church Fathers. What I described above is a distinctly Protestant problem, since the Catholic and Orthodox do not hold to the doctrine of Scripture’s perspicuity. But in talking to Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic brothers, I often find them taking a similar approach with regard to the Church Fathers, and to the corpus of Patristic works that are thought to form a grid through which Biblical interpretation must occur. And this is something with which I have had a lot of sad experience. The most lamentable case involved a good friend who was a former Assembly of God pastor, who I helped convert to Orthodoxy. In talking to this friend following his conversion, it became clear that he was treating the Church Fathers like stereotypical Protestant fundamentalists are said to treat Biblical proof-texts. As various issues arose, this friend became more and more strident, emailing me and others quotes from the church fathers to try to correct us. I remember emailing back and asking for the historical context for some quotes, as well as pressing for more information about the texts from which the quotes were originally situated, in addition to asking how the texts have been handled in the secondary literature. Ignoring these and other questions, this new convert eventually concluded that he was more Orthodox then all the Orthodox churches in the area and withdrew from fellowship to perform Orthodox home church with his family. The last time I saw him, he was dressed in a priest costume. This is an extreme example, but the basic hermeneutical problem is common within Orthodox convert culture.
The basic misunderstanding contends that the Fathers are sufficient for understanding Scripture, and what they say about the Bible is clear or perspicuous. Thus, we do not need any scholarly tools, including historical information that might contextualize the intended meaning of passages in the Patristics. Of course, if this is what you believe, then it is an easy move from this position to the idea that history is also irrelevant to the Scriptures. In fact, many will argue that to assert that historical approaches can help clarify the intended meaning of Scripture actually devalues the Church Fathers, for it implies that the Apostolic deposit is not enough. Thus, scholarship about the Second Temple Period is not only unnecessary for understanding Scripture, but a dangerous distraction. I ran into this view last month when talking to a Roman Catholic friend about the role that texts circulating at the time of Christ — books like The Book of Enoch or The Book of Jubilees — can serve in helping us understand the context of the New Testament. “The church did not canonize those documents,” he declared, “so I would rather spend my time reading the Church Fathers.” He continued: “If those documents can add anything to my understanding of Holy Scripture, then the church would have canonized those documents.”
But consider the implications that follow from these erroneous views. For starters, if historical scholarship about the ANE or the Second Temple Period is not helpful for understanding Scripture because the Church Fathers are all we need, then we want to know whether historical information can be helpful in clarifying what the Fathers meant. Either it is or it is not. If it is not the case that historical information can be useful in helping to clarify what the Fathers meant, then how is it possible to adjudicate competing claims about how to interpret the Church Fathers?
Moreover, in the religious marketplace of today, where everyone from Pentecostals to Roman Catholics claim to be faithful to the legacy of the early church, how can we adjudicate between these competing claims without digging into historical information that helps to contextualize and clarify the Fathers’ intended meaning? On the other hand, if we concede that historical information can indeed be useful in helping to clarify what the Fathers meant, then this implies that the Church Fathers are lacking in perspicuity, which, of course, is entirely true.
But then notice what follows: if historical information can be useful in helping to clarify what the Fathers meant, then on what basis do we have the right to deny that this is the case with those Fathers who also happened to be Biblical authors? If historical approaches are fruitful with the Patristic writers, then why not with the Apostolic writers whose texts form the New Testament?
- Uneducated Priests. When soliciting feedback from Orthodox priests prior to publishing this article, the following observation was pointed out to me by one priest-scholar. American Orthodox culture is not even a newborn church but is still gestating within the Orthodox Church proper. One of the results of this is that we have the strange phenomena of American priests setting themselves up as Bible experts without a background in Biblical Studies. They may have degrees in Theology or Patristics, but not Biblical Studies specifically. This gives them enough education to make them feel they can weigh into Biblical Studies and speak with confidence and even authority, yet not enough training to prevent them feeling threatened by actual Biblical research. These priests easily feel threatened because they are working outside their field, and as a defense mechanism they will attack the relevance of history. Of course, they cannot directly attack the relevance of history since Orthodoxy is a religion that stands or falls on history, but they will attack history indirectly through (A) claiming Biblical studies is irrelevant because all we need is education in theology and Patristics; (B) using the Bible to simply prooftext various dogmatic statements, rather than doing the difficult historical work of taking Scripture on its own terms; (C) approaching Biblical interpretation as if it is always sufficient to simply find out what the majority of Church Fathers taught about a passage without needing to do the difficult work of historical scholarship.
- De-Historicized Models of Biblical Inspiration. In certain circles of Protestant evangelicalism, there are theories of Biblical inspiration which deny the Holy Spirit worked through the personality and historical context of the author. God took over the hand and mind of the author, as a kind of direct download from heaven. Although this view of inspiration is not what is taught in the evangelical seminaries or by seminary trained pastors, it is an assumption that persists on ground-level among tens of thousands of lay people, who assume that the Biblical writers were passive recipients of inspiration and left no trace of their own quirks, idiosyncrasies, and historical context. Of course, if this is how you believe inspiration works, then naturally the historical context and even the genre of Biblical books will become irrelevant. The fact that Romans is a letter will make no difference to how we read it; the fact that John wrote his apocalypse during or shortly after the reign of Nero is irrelevant in understanding the meaning of Revelation. Questions of authorial intent can then be dismissed with a type of piety that is eager always to remind us that God is the author of Scripture. This theory creates straw men that scholars like Bart Ehrman can spend their entire careers debunking, and it fundamentally misunderstands what it means to say that Scripture is inerrant (see my earlier article about this, “Inerrancy of Scripture and Contradictions in the Bible”). This is a particular problem when it comes to debates about Genesis, as men like Ken Ham use a reductionistic de-historicized notion of Biblical interpretation to strip Genesis of its ANE context and then discover meanings in the text that were apparently lost on the original readers. (For more about this, see my earlier article Discussion Guide For Ham/Nye Debate, Part 2.)
All the five objections above, in their different ways, miss the point, and over-complicate what ought to be a straight-forward matter. It should not be so complicated to affirm that understanding the historical context of a text can help clarify the meaning of that text.
Consider that if we really did believe that scholarship about the historical context of the Bible is unnecessary or even dangerous, then we should throw away all Bible translations, since translators can only decipher ancient Biblical languages in reference to a wider ecosystem of textuality that, ultimately, depends on historical scholarship.
What This Does Not Mean
I have been arguing that Biblical studies, especially when it gives attention to historical scholarship, can be helpful in clarifying the meaning of Biblical texts. I have suggested that historical scholarship can give us valuable information about the original context of a document, and thus help to clarify the author’s intended meaning.
Before finishing, it is important to emphasize what this does not mean. It does not mean that historical interpretations of Scripture are the only legitimate, or even the most important, way of approaching Sacred Scripture. To interpret a passage according to the intended meaning (what the original author intended it to mean for the audience to which the words were originally addressed) is one way of interpreting Scripture, and from a Patristic perspective not even the most important way.
The Eastern Orthodox Church has historically recognized various levels of interpretation. For example, a single passage can have an historical interpretation, a moral interpretation, an allegorical interpretation, an anagogical interpretation, and so forth. And while application is not the same as interpretation, it is also worth noting that the Holy Spirit can and does use Biblical texts in a variety of fluid ways, making the Bible relevant in new contexts.
A tendency of the Western mind has been to think in terms of binaries, and to think that difference implies opposition; ergo, we think that to grant the legitimacy of historical approaches to the texts necessarily undermines all other hermeneutical frameworks. But this is simply not the case. Interpreting a text according to how it would have been understood by the original audience is simply one legitimate method of Biblical interpretation and sits comfortably alongside a variety of other modalities.
It is also worth pointing out that, at its best, historical scholarship is conservative: it does not help us find new meanings of Scripture, but to recover perspectives that have been lost. Curiously, we often find these lost perspectives have been retained in the Eastern Orthodox Church—in Her liturgy, traditions, and prayers—even after the original historical context receded into the mists of time. Fr. Stephen De Young gives an example of this towards the end of the first of his three-part interview, and he continues discussing this in part two. His example concerns a recently discovered Ugaritic Baal myth that gives insight into the original context of Psalm 24. Curiously, however, this context has been preserved in the Orthodox Paschal Liturgy long after the Ugaritic Baal story was lost. Commenting on this, Fr. Stephen said,
This isn’t new stuff; this is recovery. This is old stuff, and more of the fullness coming into English-language Orthodoxy and people being made aware of it and seeing the connections and seeing, starting to see the whole. If you never find out about that Ugaritic Baal story, you’ll be fine. You can go and participate in the Paschal Liturgy and get the point and fully understand Christ’s victory over death, the devil, and you’re fine. But if you do know about that, that can help you appreciate and understand what’s going on in a deeper level, so that’s a good thing, too.
One final thought and then I’ll finish. If I’ve convinced you that modern Biblical studies are important, and you want to begin educating yourself on how historical scholarship can help contextualize the Bible, where should you start? Here are some suggestions. All the resources in this short list are produced by Biblical scholars but directed towards a lay audience, and so you do not need to be a scholar to understand them. Not all these sources are Orthodox, so you will need to approach them with discernment, but at a minimum they will give you a fantastic introduction to the exciting historical work being done by modern Biblical scholars.
- The Religion of the Apostles: Orthodox Christianity in the First Century, by Fr. Stephen De Young
- The Lord of Spirits podcast, hosted by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick and Fr. Stephen De Young
- Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper, by Brant Pitre
- The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, by N.T. Wright
- The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, by N.T. Wright
- The Whole Counsel Blog: the Scriptures in the Eastern Orthodox Church, by Fr. Stephen De Young.