Backgrounds

Yesterday in my Hebrew exegesis class, we were discussing poetry. A question from a student led us back to the discussion of narrative, which then led to a lengthy discussion of the importance of knowing (as much as is possible) the historical-cultural background of the text one is studying. My prof said something to the effect of this: if he had the choice between one who has mastered biblical languages and one who had mastered the backgrounds of biblical texts, he would take the backgrounds person. Initially it was an unexpected answer from a Hebrew professor, but it made sense.

The assumption that underlies this position, as far as I can say, is that exegesis of texts involves language. Language is comprised of smaller units, particular constructions of which are informed and shaped by the one who uses it, who are informed by their culture. The short of it is that to rightly work in biblical languages, one must have a working knowledge of the culture out of which that language comes.

While this is certainly a rudimentary aspect of hermeneutics and exegesis in general, our discussion reminded me and reaffirmed for me just how important it is to know the backgrounds of Scripture’s texts. It also gives me a renewed appreciati0n for the many scholars who have poured themselves into making these studies available for others’ benefit.

Αυτω η δοξα,

Jason

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9 thoughts on “Backgrounds

  1. I can see what you are saying as understanding background and culture, you’ll then understand the language better and why things are phrased they way they are – I guess I’d like to have my feet in both camps! lol!

  2. Brian: Certainly it’s ideal to have a foot in both camps. In fact, all the language scholars I’ve read/heard are versed in both fields (so far as I know!).

  3. You may suspect I would quibble a bit here. Yes, context is important, quite, actually, but at the same time I think contemporary biblical scholarship has really begun a move toward literary analyses (a la my dissertation!) that are still ‘cutting edge’ and illuminating. Yes, I do adduce some history in my dissertation, but I am much more interested in the narrative world the story creates. This is where I think contemporary scholarship has begun also to successfully wed the two through socio-literary readings (see Gottwald’s seminal introduction published by Fortress Press in 1985, I think, or Rain Albertz’ two volume History of Israelite Religion in the OTL series). Literature shapes society, and society shapes literature. This is where context (though not necessarily the numinous history of traditions lying behind a given text emerges) as important. But at the same time, one need only look to Brueggemann’s magisterial Theology of the Old Testament to see an (almost) entirely ahistorical reading of the Hebrew Bible. And, in my view, it works. But I also admit it is only one piece of the puzzle. But I can’t in good conscience say that context is king. We have the text. We ‘know’ what it says. The context is reconstructed, and not always with a great deal of reliability.

  4. John: Hmmm–I never figured you for the quibbling type! HA! I am afraid my post, as with many/most I do, suffers from a lack or specificity to some degree. I think the main argument my prof was advancing was that languages, in and of themselves, are not as helpful as knowing the cultural-historical backgrounds of the authors of the texts. I think backgrounds and languages, as indicated originally, are involved in a somewhat reciprocating relationship, which I think may have been your suggestion. Indeed, there are many customs/cultural distinctives that we simply don’t have enough data about to fully grasp. In such cases we do the best we can with the data available. I think is especially true for the OT/HB, though the NT is not without some of the same difficulties.

    As to my comment that “context is king,” it was made in jest, at least to a minimum degree. Again, lack of specificity can lead to ambiguity, for I know well that context involves much more than the cultural-historical backgrounds of the texts.

    Good to hear from you. Hope your writing is still going well!

  5. Jason:

    Sorry, but I would still quibble. I do think the relationship is reciprocal, yes. But at the same time, if pressed, I would choose the obverse: grounding in the language, for the very reasons I specify. It seems to me if one has only context and doesn’t know the language (at all, or even just know it well), then you will be hard-pressed to make those claims.

  6. I’m going to have to stick out a little here and say that I think the most important skill in carefully reading the Bible, OT or NT, is knowledge of the text in its original language. I believe strongly in the Reformation principle “Scripture interprets Scripture.” For instance, when you want to understand a word or phrase or verb or tense or whatever, you can best understand it by looking throughout the text of the OT or NT, whichever applies, and see how it is used. The meaning of words is determined by usage, particularly the usage of the biblical authors, not the cultural-historical context.
    While I do think that insights can be gained from studying cultural-historical context and it should not be ignored, I believe that the context of the biblical texts is far more useful in understanding Scripture. The texts of Scripture are a cohesive whole and must be understood as such. Because we are reading a supernatural book that itself is the very Word of God, all other sources are of secondary value. We should primarily focus upon the text of Scripture as a whole, giving special attention to its interrelation, in order to understand its parts.

  7. I should clarify that in the second paragraph I meant that the ‘literary’ context (a specific text within the whole text of Scripture) is far more useful than the cultural-historical context.

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