The Role of Historical & Exegetical Background in Interpretation

Lately I’ve been reflecting on the place of the role that knowledge of background material plays in interpretation. In particular I have in mind the issue of Jewish exegetical traditions and interpretation of certain NT passages. One example that comes to mind is Paul’s reference to the rock following the Israelites in the desert in 1 Cor 10. On the surface the reference seems quite strange; but if one knows of various Jewish exegetical traditions about that rock Paul’s reference becomes more understandable, even if it remains striking.

The point I want to raise is the necessity of such background knowledge for understanding Scripture. On the one hand, my own work has revealed the value of understanding such exegetical traditions for illuminating Paul’s own use of the OT. But on the other hand I firmly believe in the perspicuity (i.e., clarity) of Scripture and want to affirm that those who lack the opportunity of graduate education are entirely capable of understanding God’s Word.

Perhaps the answer lies in asserting the general clarity of Scripture in its essential message and content while maintaining the value of background studies as providing a richness and depth to that essential message. One of the questions I was asked in my dissertation defense was something along the lines of “If Paul’s use of Isaiah in Galatians is not essential to understanding Galatians, what is the value of your research?” The question was asked in a good spirit and in no way attacking. My answer (one that I am still thinking through) was that although Paul’s basic message in Galatians is understandable even to those who do not notice the repeated allusions and echoes of Isaiah, the depth and richness of that message cannot be fully appreciated without recognizing Paul’s profound engagement with Isaiah (esp. chs. 49-54).

So what say you?

3 thoughts on “The Role of Historical & Exegetical Background in Interpretation”

  1. It’s a tricky one, this, for those who want to maintain a high view of Scripture. But, to me, a high view of Scripture means exactly doing justice to the ‘scandal of historical particularity’ factor.

    Every other year a student will raise a question of this sort in one of my Hermeneutics classes. I normally answer by, among other things, trying to point out that the NIV (or NRSV, etc.) they are reading means they are already dependent on quite literally thousands of hours that others have spent on their behalf pouring over ancient manuscripts, written in different languages from our own, utilising tools from history and linguistics just to bring God’s Word to them in their own language.

    If they’re still not satisfied, I try to point out that they can read (which is not to be taken for granted), which means that someone taught them the ‘secular’ skill, and provided the knowledge, the wherewithall, to read the Bible in the first place… so in their reading of Scripture they are already, necessarily, dependent on antecedent knowledge.

    I try to set all this in the context of a high view of Scripture, partly along the lines you suggest. I’m pretty sure I’ve read Kevin Vanhoozer make a distinction between sola Scriptura and solo Scripture, and Tim Ward make a distinction between the sufficiency of Scripture and the self-sufficiency of Scripture, both of which are suggestive, I think.

    Thanks for the stimulation.


  2. Matt,
    You couldn’t say it any better.
    I believe it comes down to levels of reading. I experienced something similar in my own work dealing with 2 Cor 3-6. The average,lay reader of Scripture can certainly follow Paul’s line of argumentation in this section. However, to get beneath what Paul is saying (i.e. his use of the OT), really brings out the profundity of his message.

  3. Antony,

    Thanks for your very helpful remarks. It is obvious you have wrestled personally and pedagogically with the issue. Appreciating the various contexts (literary, historical, redemptive) of a passage is so important, more so than many realize. I think that recognizing the context is so important in allowing each particualr passage speak on its own terms with its own (relatively) unique contribution. In fact, I think one of the dangers of reading Scripture theologically is that we can in fact lose the particularity of individual passages in a rush to understand the passage theologically. I think a good (or as Van Hoozer would say, virtuous) reader of scripture must learn to understand every passage on the level of the message to the original audience as well as the meaning of the passage for God’s people today.

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