Posted by: Ken Brown | January 4, 2009

Reading the Bible in Context–But What Context?

Recently, John Hobbins of Ancient Hebrew Poetry called my blog “Christian postmodern,” which puzzled me at first, but I suppose makes sense in light of various things I’ve said around here, not least in this post. The problem with nice thing about a label like “postmodern” is that it’s ambiguous enough to take however I want–in this case I’ll go with “hip and unconventional”–but since others may define the term differently, I wanted to clarify my position, particularly regarding how I understand biblical interpretation:

To many, “a postmodern doctrine of Scripture” (John’s phrase) means a reading cut off from its original context, based on the assumption that meaning and truth are flexible and necessarily imposed by the reader. Thus you might have a feminist, post-colonial or vegan reading of a text, with little concern at all for whether such a thing was intended by the original “author.” Now, on the one hand, I do have a great deal of sympathy for such an approach. The very fact that the Bible has been written and rewritten, collected and interpreted through numerous different contexts–from bronze age nomadic tribes to Imperial Rome and beyond–suggests that flexibility and reapplication are inherent to its very nature, as I suggested in the post linked above.

In fact, it is not at all clear to me that the authors of the New Testament themselves felt restricted to the “original intended meaning” in their own interpretation of the Scriptures they treasured, so why should we? They clearly believed that more recent events and knowledge, especially the life and death of Jesus but also including broader political and cultural realities, set their scriptures in new and quite unexpected light. Nor is it easy to see why such a process had to end with the New Testament authors. Thus, I not only think it is appropriate to ask new questions of Scripture, but such may even be demanded by the text itself. After all, is “the word of God living and active” (Heb 4:12), or only dull and lifeless? Doesn’t Paul say we have been given “a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:6)?

But clearly that can only be half the story, for why bother reading in the first place if you are not willing to hear what someone else has to say? If we only bring our own questions and perspectives to the text, there is little point in reading at all, and almost no chance of reading well. This is especially the case when dealing with an ancient document like the Bible, which derives from a very different cultural context. As John’s post makes clear in the case of Jeremiah 7:22, ignorance of the original context inevitably leads to distorted understandings of the text, and this is hardly excusable simply because our interests lie elsewhere. Thus, even if it is legitimate and even necessary to go beyond the text, such can only be done responsibly after we have made every effort to understand it on its own terms.

More fundamentally, has not the very purpose of preserving and reinterpreting scripture been to face these new situations in ways that are faithful to, or at least aware of, what has gone before? If it is appropriate for us to ask new questions, then, we must also learn to hear anew the questions the text itself was intended to ask and answer, as these are often enough not questions we ourselves are likely to ask. If we are not willing to do that, we might as well ignore the text altogether and focus our attention elsewhere.

Ultimately, I don’t think there is just one legitimate context in which scripture is to be interpreted. Rather, there is a necessary tension between our own varied contexts and the “original” context of scripture. To read the Bible faithfully is to live into that tension, allowing our questions (and answers) to shape and be shaped by those of our predecessors, to learn from our tradition even if we refuse to be trapped by it.

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Responses

  1. Context is perhaps useful in interpreting the author’s intentions.

    This should be approached with a clear understanding of your intentions. A much more difficult task.

    If you are exploring grace then context matters. If you have accepted grace, then perhaps not.

    All studies of texts need to appreciate the commonality of the human experience across cultures and time. Differences are at the edges.

  2. Very nicely done, Ken. You have a way with words.

  3. arclein,
    There is certainly a vital and undeniable commonality across all human experience, and no sharp break between cultures can be maintained. But there are also dramatic differences in assumptions and background knowledge between different times, places and people. To return to Jeremiah 7, the details and ritual of animal sacrifice were common knowledge in ancient Israel, but almost entirely unknown today. Thus, when dealing with a text like this, which assumes knowledge of the different types of sacrifices, modern audiences almost inevitably need to be told explicitly what was already implicit for the original audience. Even this, however, can never really replicate the impact the text first had–and must always remain tentative–but it can at least give us a better idea of what that impact was intended to be.

    Thanks for the comment!

    John,
    You are too kind!

  4. [...] to foster a critical approach both to scripture and their own traditions, seeking (though perhaps never finding) the objectivity to honestly assess the interpretive options. Not only believers (of various [...]

  5. [...] questioning attitude in the life of faith. It was first posted here, and sparked a follow-up post here. I hope you enjoy it, but most of all I hope you question and discuss [...]


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