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  • Kevin D. Johnson 9:44 am on June 27, 2017 Permalink | Reply  

    On the Guidance of History in Interpreting Scripture 

    Jerry Bowyer sat down with N.T. Wright recently and the conversation is available online at Forbes. Here Bowyer is busy explaining that we need to take into account the actual historical context of the Gospels in order to properly interpret them. On the whole, I agree with such a statement as any capable interpreter of the Scriptures would. However, there is more to the story.

    We can all agree that Second Temple Judaism is a historical context that is relatively important to interpreting the Gospels. However, we also can’t forget that much of the scholarly work done in this area is by folks that have little commitment to Christian orthodoxy and often postulate wild ideas about both the Scriptures and the historical context around them. There has, of course, been some orthodox pushback in recent years by scholars like Bauckham and Hurtado — I would generally include Wright in this category though his postmodernism and British social considerations often blur his witness as to what really is important to consider from this historical era.

    We also have to be careful to remember that scholarly appropriations of an era do not make for the actual context in which Jesus and his disciples lived and this becomes especially true the more scholars depart from an actual orthodox consideration of the subject.

    So, while I agree with the basic premise of what’s being said by Bowyer here I have to register at least a little caution and say it’s just not that simple.

    Additionally, it’s not at all clear that the Scriptures were meant to be understood only in light of their original cultural environment.  As Christians, we don’t understand the Old Testament this way, the Apostles felt free to interpret the Old Testament in light of the revelation of Christ quite apart from the original context, and it’s clear that the Gospels among other passages of Scriptures were written with more than just the current issues and problems of Second Temple Judaism in mind.  More properly speaking, the Gospels were written within an ever-expanding context of Christian mission and Gentile outreach that quickly became a universal force for cultural, civilizational, sociopolitical, and even technological change.  In fact, by the time the Gospels were written and well-received in the churches the first century Jewish context was already radically different than Second Temple Judaism.

    Furthermore, the Scriptures are a product of divine inspiration (2 Timothy 3:16-17) and also have to be seen in a canonical and theological light that often transcends any immediate cultural observation about them.  History and culture are proper tools to understand Scripture, but they’re also not meant to guide or control meaning without cause.  For example, simply because Jesus references seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22) we can’t immediately assume that Jesus is referring to the 490 weeks of Daniel (490=70 * 7) or that his hearers would be immediately cognizant of the same.  Perhaps they were, but the real meaning and application of the passage has little to do with the eschatological concerns of Daniel or particular segments of Second Temple Judaic thought.

    This fact brings up another point about the cultural era in question.  Second Temple Judaism was actually a period of great religious diversity both among the Jews and the wider Roman culture.  Practically speaking, this means it’s very difficult to pin down exactly who Jesus was talking to and why unless the Gospels make that explicitly clear.  Part of the reason why it’s popular among some to think like N.T. Wright in examining the Gospels in light of Second Temple Judaism is because postmodernism sees great value in how different communities might receive and deal with the biblical texts.  This methodology in interpretation gives further room to different interpretations and takes on what Jesus was doing and what the Gospels mean.  This postmodern take at its worst point is a form of interpretive maximalism that allows for a less than traditional read on any given passage.  For example, in less than orthodox circles, this interpretive gambit is what allows more liberal scholars to posit the ridiculous idea that the Gospels never taught the divinity of Jesus–an astoundingly inaccurate claim all things considered.

    One last consideration is found in the fact that these studies by scholars can lead to a situation where the average person or even pastors become dependent on them in order to understand the Gospels because to sift out all of the potentially relevant historical and cultural contextual material is no small feat.  This mindset strikes hard against the fact that the Scriptures are available and clear for all to interpret in light of the work of the Holy Spirit and for our salvation (cf. Westminster Confession of Faith 1.7).  If we really need all this scholarly historical and cultural work to grasp the truth of the Gospels as far as our salvation and life in the Lord is concerned, how is it that we avoid placing the scholar as mediator in our spiritual walk with God?  Pastors need to be very careful in remembering the true clarity that is available to the people through the work of the Holy Spirit.  Scholarly study is not bad and often necessary, but it also isn’t meant to take the place of receiving what the Scriptures are actually saying to people in the life of the church as far as their salvation and sanctification are concerned.

    So, in short, yes historical and cultural contexts are important to consider when looking at the Scriptures but their existence doesn’t necessarily drive the meaning or import of the text itself without any sort of qualifications like I’ve made clear above.  We would do well to remember “my sheep hear my voice” (John 10:27) when attending to issues like this or we risk compromising the clear character of God’s word in our lives in favor of an endless round of scholarly postmodern takes on what the Bible has to say.

  • Kevin D. Johnson 9:52 am on May 28, 2015 Permalink | Reply  

    On the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text 

    LXXThe Dead Sea Scrolls don’t prove that some books of the Hebrew Bible were still being edited/supplemented/reduced well past the writing of the New Testament. That’s an assertion and an unproven one provided by modern scholarship. We know from New Testament textual criticism that just because a text is older or agrees with other manuscripts–that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the original readings. Ironically, what the Dead Sea Scrolls actually do overall is provide us with extreme confidence as to the nature of the Masoretic text and its reliability.

    The truth of the matter is that the Dead Sea Scrolls revealed very minor differences for the most part between the Masoretic text and some of the manuscripts provided by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Timothy Michael Law’s book on the Septuagint suffers from modern critical assumptions in approaching the text and his diagnosis is by no means certain.  Instead of Law’s book, I’d recommend getting your hands on the Jobes/Silva introduction to the Septuagint since it seems to avoid the sort of unnecessary speculation provided by Law in calling the Hebrew text of the Old Testament into question.

    However, if for the sake of argument we grant the highly speculative assumption made by Law and others that the Masoretic text is unreliable and that the Hebrew text continued to develop through the “Common Era” we have to be willing to admit that the situation is even worse–much worse–for the Septuagint.  This creates huge problems for those who want to retain dogmatic faith in the Septuagint as the “official” version of the Old Testament as we find in the Orthodox communions.  Wurthwein makes it quite clear that the Septuagint can’t really be used this way if we’re going to call the Masoretic text in doubt (66).

    Historically speaking, several versions of the Septuagint existed, revisions were made over its life even well after the New Testament was written, and this is so much more so given its history than what we could ever propose about the Hebrew Bible via the Dead Sea Scrolls. We’d also have to admit that not all copies of the Septuagint contained the same material nor can we really say that any book in its varied collection was considered Scripture by the church except those actually a part of what we now call the Old Testament. Just take a look at the section on the Septuagint in Wurthwein’s work noted above and you’ll see what I mean.

    The Additions to Esther

    As for Esther, Jerome was quite clear in providing evidence to us that the Greek versions–what we typically refer to as the Additions to Esther–didn’t reconcile with the existing Hebrew versions in his day. That’s part of the reason why they’re thrown in doubt and not really received by Protestants or Jews as a legitimate part of the original Esther that we find in the Masoretic text. Furthermore, as Law notes, at least two of the additions appear to be Greek originals and likely didn’t have a Hebrew version underlying their origin.

    So, while the Septuagint was a useful tool of the early church to provide Greek readers of the Bible access to the Hebrew Old Testament in advancing Christianity, claiming more than that for it is extremely problematic.

  • Kevin D. Johnson 9:42 am on February 13, 2015 Permalink | Reply  

    On the Apocrypha 

    I happened upon a postLXX defending the inspired nature of the Apocrypha this morning by Timothy Matkin, an Anglican priest.  The post contained a number of inaccuracies, so I responded on a friend’s FB feed.  Here’s that response with a few extra details and links.

    The author’s information on the Septuagint (LXX) is not exactly accurate and is somewhat outdated. There is some evidence that the Septuagint was not quite the static set of books people pretend and modern research is bearing out more in that light (see Jobes/Silva’s book here, as well as Law’s). The LXX was more like a convenient biblical currency of sorts used by the Jews and the early church to enable Greek speakers access to the Old Testament and other important documents but it is doubtful that it had a static form sufficient to consider its contents inspired simply because a manuscript was a part of the collection. We have different copies of the Septuagint and it’s very difficult to prove the exact nature of the Septuagint as used by the church originally (except what gets quoted in the NT) and even more difficult to prove that all such manuscripts in the collection were seen as inspired.

    There’s a hidden assumption here in treating the LXX the way Matkin does and it’s a bit like inferring that Paul and his mention of “books, and above all the parchments” in 2 Timothy 4:13 meant that he only wanted Scripture passed to him rather than including other important works he might refer to in his studies and preaching.  In truth, we don’t know which works Paul required.  To infer Paul meant include only Scripture in the parchments is an assumption and perhaps a dubious one given that we know Paul quoted from other works in the NT (even pagan ones, cf. Acts 17:28) and the terms for books and parchments could mean anything from a book of the Old Testament to a notebook that Paul used to record his thoughts (cf. Towner, NICNT, pp. 629-630).  Furthermore, when Paul is talking about the Scriptures he generally uses other technical terms (1 Tim. 5:18).

    When it comes to the Septuagint, the same sort of assumption has historically been a part of how some scholars have looked at the Septuagint until more critical studies came along like the ones offered by Jobes/Silva and Law (linked above).  We have to remember that the use of a set of books–really manuscripts or parchments–isn’t quite the same historically as it would be for us today.  So, we can’t look at the LXX and infer that any book in the collection was Scripture simply because it was included with the other books.

    But, there are more problems with this post than a dated understanding of the Septuagint.

    The Jews never “decided” that the Masoretic text had a canon and haven’t approached the Scriptures the way Christians later did in recognizing one. There’s no evidence post-70AD that rabbis codified any sort of canon by council or other means.  It simply wasn’t necessary.

    Why wasn’t it necessary?  Because, there was already a recognition among God’s people that these books were the word of God regardless as to any issues about a formal canon per se. As a result, there is no evidence the Jewish community as a whole ever held the apocryphal books as Scripture. Jesus wasn’t referring to a canon if by that we mean a rule the Jewish community consciously put in place to determine the contents of the Old Testament.  Such a contention would be anachronistic; however, from his statement in Matthew 23 Jesus was most certainly referring to the historical contents of the Tanakh as he did in other statements in the gospels.  The dispute about which Zechariah that Matkins mentions is irrelevant once we take all of Jesus’ statements about the Tanakh together in the gospels.  Clearly, Jesus saw the Tanakh as Scripture and this division of the OT was always the 39 books of the OT in Jewish studies and never included the Apocrypha.

    Jesus didn’t endorse a formal canon but he definitely endorsed the threefold division of the Tanakh that later became the Old Testament for Protestants and much of the early church.  So, when Protestants cite Jesus in defending the Protestant canon of the Old Testament, they speak in shorthand and it’s an entirely valid point to make.

    Additionally, it’s quite clear that the English Church via the 39 Articles never saw the Apocrypha as Scripture since they were ratified.  It’s always curious when an Anglican writes something like this and neglects to mention the doctrinal standard of his church as it has been received for some 500 years.

    Last, the Councils were not always united on the question of the Apocrypha and differences existed historically between East and West as to which books should be included. The West’s appraisal of the Apocrypha has not always been consistent in the Councils. Rome herself didn’t really define the canon–as Rome–officially until Trent.  So, it’s not exactly true to say the Councils have unanimously endorsed the Apocrypha without any sort of qualification as to the actual history of the matter.

    The Reformers were on very good grounds to doubt the canonical status of the Apocrypha and did so for additional reasons as well that the post does not even mention (such as problems with its inherent theology and its inconsistencies).

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