Category Archives: Biblical Interpretation

The Role of Background Studies in Interpreting the Bible

This current academic term I am teaching a course entitled Biblical Backgrounds here at Grace. The goal of the course is introduce students to how people thought, communicated, and lived in the ancient world during the Old Testament, New Testament, and Intertestamental periods. To do this I emphasize key people groups and political, cultural, theological, and literary developments that form the background to the Bible.  Students are exposed to insights from geography, cultural anthropology, sociology, philosophy, politics, literature, and history for the interpretation of Scripture in light of the history and culture of the people to whom it was addressed.

But the study of background materials raises some important questions. After all, sometimes information from background studies is used to claim that a biblical text cannot mean what it seems to say. While it is true that background studies can shed important light on a text, I am convinced that God has spoken in Scripture in such a way that believers can achieve a sufficient, basic understanding of the text without advanced training in backgrounds. Yet the use of background studies does have the potential to greatly enrich our understanding of the Bible and as a result our understanding of who God is and how he expects us to live.

Here then are four summary statements on the value of background studies in Interpreting the Bible:

  1. Studying the history of the Ancient Near East (ANE) and the Greco-Roman world is a means of recovering knowledge of the events that shaped the lives of people in the ancient world.
  2. Studying the archaeology of the Ancient Near East (ANE) and the Greco-Roman world is a means of recovering the lifestyle reflected in the material culture of the ancient world.
  3. Studying the literature of the of the Ancient Near East (ANE) and the Greco-Roman world is a means of penetrating the heart and soul of the people who inhabited the ancient world in which Israel and the early church lived.
  4. Studying the languages of the the Ancient Near East (ANE) and the Greco-Roman world is a means of gaining additional insight into the semantics, lexicography, idioms, and metaphors used in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

Special Note for Pastors & Teachers:

It is natural that those who have invested the time and energy necessary for studying background materials and languages to share the fruit of those labors. And pastors and teachers should use these tools to enhance their teaching and preaching of God’s Word. But it is possible to do this in a way that discourages people rather than edifies them. The person in the pew who hears a steady stream of “what the Greek actually says here” or “The [fill in Bible translation] gets it wrong here; the Hebrew should be translated…” is being taught to not trust their Bible. Why would the average layperson read their Bible on their own when they are constantly being taught that they really can’t know what it says since they don’t know the original languages?

Bottom line: Use the background tools to enhance people’s understanding of and confidence in the biblical text, not undermine it.

Review of She Must & Shall Go Free – Ciampa (JETS 55 [2012]: 199-202)

Part of life in the academy is having your work reviewed by other scholars. Since I have mentioned other reviews (see here) of my dissertation She Must and Shall Go Free: Paul’s Isaianic Gospel in Galatians, I wanted to draw attention to a recent review by Roy Ciampa, who is a NT professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a widely respected scholar in the field of the use of the OT in the NT. He also has written an excellent monograph on the use of Scripture in Galatians 1-2. The review was published in the March 2012 issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (pp. 199-202). Unfortunately it is only available online to members of the Evangelical Theological Society, so I will have to summarize its contents (I’ll skip the part where he simply summarizes the contents).

Ciampa begins with the positives. He commends my work in the relevant secondary literature and the effort to “turn over every rock and look behind every tree in order to bring to our attention both potential instances of Isaianic influence and possible ties between such instances within Galatians” (199-200).  While noting that other scholars have noticed some of these instances, he notes that a number are new and provide insights that others have missed. He especially appreciated my treatment of Galatians 4:21-5:1 and the role of Isa 54:1 in that section, even though he disagrees with the extent of the influence I propose. And he agrees with my conclusion that this section is not a digression but rather the climax of Paul’s exegetical argument.

The problem for Ciampa arises when he comes to my central thesis that Paul’s argument in Galatians as whole has been shaped by Isaiah 40-66. He writes: “While I am impressed with the boldness of the thesis and the work carried out to defend it, I find myself largely unconvinced, but still grateful for insights gleaned along the way” (200).  He claims that I do not pay enough attention to other sources of influence for Paul’s thought in Galatians (though he notes that such attention would require a much longer and more complicated study!). While acknowledging that Isaiah was an important influence, Ciampa contends that Paul draws his gospel “from a much wider swath of material” (200). He then provides examples of where other such sources do not appear to have been read through Isaianic lenses.

I am grateful that Ciampa devoted careful attention to my monograph. In many respects this is the highest compliment that a scholar can receive–to have his work taken seriously.  He has been more than fair in his assessment of my work. While nothing he has said has changed my mind, his review has certainly given me food for thought as I revisit Galatians down the road in a future commentary.

On a personal note, Ciampa has gone out of his way to be kind, encouraging, and gracious in our various personal interactions. He has been an excellent model to me of how to engage in gracious critical interaction with those whom he disagrees.

Fridays in Philippians

As some of you may know, I am currently working on a commentary on Philippians in the Mentor Series published by Christian Focus Publishers. I have been working on this project on and off for about 4 years and hope to send it off to the publisher within the next year. To hopefully whet your appetite for the commentary, I am starting a new feature called Fridays in Philippians. Each Friday I’ll share some brief thoughts from either a particular verse, a key theme, or perhaps even the historical/cultural background.

But today I want to start by explaining what I hope to accomplish in writing a commentary. The starting point for me is to determine the author’s intended meaning. I want to understand as best I can what Paul communicated to the Philippians. To do that requires studying the words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, and arguments within four different levels of context: literary, historical/cultural, canonical, and redemptive-historical. Let me explain what I mean by the last two.

By canonical context I mean taking into account what other biblical books have to say. Priority must be given to Paul’s other letters, since they help us understand what and how Paul thinks. But we must not neglect what the rest of Scripture says since God is the author of all 66 books.

By redemptive-historical context I mean taking into account where a passage of Scripture falls within the overall storyline of the Bible. Paul writes as an apostle of the risen Jesus who eagerly awaits the return of Christ and the consummation of all things. He also writes at a time when not all of the New Testament books had been written.

Once I have determined the author’s intended meaning, my goal is to determine how the text applies to God’s people today. While strictly speaking Paul did not write this text to me (I’m not a Philippian!), the text is written for me as a member of God’s people. What Paul says to the Corinthians about the Old Testament is true for us as new covenant believers: “Now these things [i.e. Israel’s failures in the wiulderness] happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11). Similarly, Paul writes to the Romans “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15:4).

Thus my approach begins with the historical-grammatical method, but it does not end there. I am convinced that once the historical-grammatical foundation is laid, the interpreter must then apply all the available tools of biblical theology (typology, tracing themes, exploring OT backgrounds, etc.) to achieve a fuller understanding of the text. Of course, many others before me have studied Philippians so I seek to draw upon the insights of others who have gone before me (a combination of historical theology and Wirkungsgeschichte [the study of the effect the text has had on readers throughout the ages]]). The process is not complete until the text has been integrated into the larger categories of what Scripture teaches elsewhere on the same subject (systematic theology) and suggestions are made for how the text applies to the lives of believers today (pastoral theology).

Of course, while in theory the process just described is linear, in reality it is more of a spiral. My preexisting understanding of biblical theology, historical theology, Wirkungsgeschichte, and systematic theology not only inform each other but also my exegesis. When there is dissonance between them the choice must be made as to whether I have misunderstood the text or my biblical, systematic, or pastoral theology needs to be modified.

Of course, whether I succeed or not is up for others to decide. But my prayer is that by clearly explaining what the text means and how it applies to our lives as God’s people, Christ will be exalted, God’s people will be transformed, and the gospel will advance. Would you join me in praying that God would be pleased to do this through this commentary?