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.