Saturday, July 21, 2012

Biblical studies: The elephant in the room

I recently saw a Biblical Hermeneutics course describe its goal as teaching the Bible "with attention to studying the Bible in its historical, literary, and cultural contexts." It sounded like that would be the focus of the course.

Do we want to study its historical context? Sure; consider how the gospels make more sense when you understand about the people living in a territory occupied by the Roman empire, and how locals who collected taxes for the conquerors were not viewed well.

Do we want to study its literary context? Sure; everyone who reads the Bible comes across its allusions to other writings, and the common poetic styles employed. There's even some understanding to be gained by comparing other literature from surrounding peoples.

Do we want to study its cultural context? Sure; consider how the Passover and Pentecost, both ancient Jewish celebrations, figured into early Christianity.

Is that enough? No, and in a vital way. "One course can't teach all you need to know about the context" -- that may be true but it's hardly the biggest problem with the approach. The larger problem is that, even if somehow you learned everything about the historical context, literary context, and cultural context, it doesn't touch these questions: What mattered most to the authors? Why did they write? What were they hoping to communicate? If a course on understanding the Bible doesn't consider those questions, is there any way it can be an adequate course on understanding it? What is the point of studying a book, if the whole time you make a point of avoiding the book's point?

If a legitimate study of the Bible includes its content and message and purpose -- if we think it has anything meaningful to say about what it's talking about -- then historical context, literary context, and cultural context are background to bigger things. Study the background to help you grasp the bigger things being discussed, but not as a replacement for them. The Bible itself aims to be, strives to be, something that touches eternity, and the purpose of life, and the nature of right and wrong, and what it means to know God and to live as his people. If we're going to study the Bible in earnest, we can hardly help noticing that the authors intended to reach beyond their own immediate context and touch something more universal. Did they succeed in transcending their local limits? Did they find purpose in life? Did they give us insight on the nature of right and wrong? Do they tell us anything about what it means to know God, and to live life as his people? Did they, in any sense, communicate the word of God?

Any course that claims to teach the Bible -- even from a non-religious point of view -- is being dishonest with the material if it does not consider the questions that the authors themselves raise.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Some good questions.

And, what did God want to say to those who read or hear this passage?