Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Do you need to know background in order to understand the Bible?

Do you need to know background in order to understand the Bible? That is the question I'd like to ask here. Do you need to have a familarity with second-temple literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the rabbinic writings, apocryphal and pseudepigraphal Christian writings in order to properly understand the New Testament? If you say "yes" does it mean that no-one since E.P. Sanders and G.W. Nickelsburg has interpreted the New Testament properly and that biblical interpretation is now the domain of an elite few who have the time, skill, and opportunity to read such a vast array of writings? If we say "no" are we saying that historical context does not matter that much? If we say "yes" are we reducing biblical study to the practice of an elite few and taking the Bible out of the hands of Christians?

Factors to take into account: (1) In the early church there were those who doubted the necessity of knowing the OT in order to understand the NT, and the orthodox Christians affirmed that you need the OT in order to make sense of the NT, so the idea of studying background, specifically inner-biblical background, is completely warranted. (2) Several NT authors quote pagan literature, echo thoughts from found in Jewish apocryphal documents, and even cite pseudepigraphal literature. (3) Many Christian authors such as Justin Martyr and critics like Celsus were already engaged in the process of comparing and contrasting the NT to other religious writings. Thus, history-of-religions questions were present at the genesis of Christianity. (4) While understanding and applying the NT may be a function of the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit, by doing some historical study we give the Holy Spirit more to work with in terms enabling us to understand the context, content, and concerns of the New Testament authors.

On background to the NT see the website New Testament Background, the volume on background edited by Stanley Porter and Craig A. Evans, and the book also by Craig S. Keener.


martin shields said...

The fact is that no-one reads the Bible without appealing to background information, whether implicitly or explicitly. This is because we either read a translation which is based on a knowledge of the Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek which is itself built on historical information, or else we learn these languages ourselves to read the Bible in the original language, and our learning of these languages is based on information derived from historical background information. Consequently, it is not possible for anyone to read the Bible apart from background information, whether it be their own or that of the translators and language scholars.

John said...

Dear Michael
Thank you for your blog which I have found very helpful over some time now. I was interested to follow up the New Testament Background link and was disappointed to find that it was not active - can you help, please?

Michael F. Bird said...

I found the link via googling "New Testament Background" and there is also a heap of good background cites on my sidebar. In addition, check out Mark Goodacre's NTGateway which has some excellent resources.

Eric Rowe said...

I remember when I first saw the IVP Bible Background Commentary and thought that it would be a great boon to my studies. But then when I actually turned to it for help I was greatly disappointed. That was quite awhile ago and I can't completely remember what my big problem with it was, but if I recall correctly, I think it was that it didn't give specific citations for the relevant non-canonical primary sources that it depended on for it's claims. For a so-called Bible background commentary, this lack makes it almost useless. (I hope I'm not remembering this wrongly, if I am, my apologies to IVP.)

But the Dictionary of NT Background is an outstanding source (also by IVP). And there is also a new set out called the Expositor's Bible Background Commentary, which looks very good, and I'm pretty sure does give the primary source citations.