I think I may have blown my book budget for a couple months buying copies of the Archaeological Study Bible. It’s the single greatest study Bible idea in a long time and possibly ever. Why, you might ask, am I so enthusiastic, especially about a Bible version that certainly isn’t my favorite?
Well, it’s brilliant to put extra-biblical information that provides historical context right next to passages that the info reflects upon. Secondly, instead of having to read an entire book on archaeological finds in ancient Sumer, one can see the pertinent details right there, right when you need them. It’s really rather awesome.
But there’s a more important reason, and the editors touch on it in the “About This Bible” portion of the introductory pages:
“Awareness of the context of the Bible is an antidote to the dangerous dismissal of history that we see too often in both the church and the academy. In our day the postmodern outlook all but rejects history and context. Under the influence of this movement readers simply refuse to hear the writers of Scripture on their own terms and instead assert that it is up to each reader to make whatever he or she will of the ancient texts. Many outright reject the suggestion that we are obligated to attempt to understand the objective of a passage’s original writer. The author’s intended meaning is thus rendered irrelevant to the modern reader, who feels free to interpret a text in any manner whatsoever. Such an approach makes a mockery of Biblical authority. Further, many well-intentioned Christian readers, although not fully committed to a postmodern way of thinking, tend to interpret the Bible strictly in terms of their own experiences and standards, without ever considering what a prophet or apostle was saying to the people of his own day. An awareness of the beliefs, conflicts, history and habits of the people of Biblical times forces us to confront questions like, “What did Paul actually mean when he wrote these words to the Corinthian church?” (pg xiii of the Archaeological Study Bible)
I have recently been confronted by the fact that the malady so aptly described above is an absolute epidemic within American, evangelical Christianity. The really frustrating part is that most individuals afflicted with this hermeneutical disease would protest vigorously the idea that they’ve been overly influenced by postmodernism. The reality is, however, that Christians have by-and-large adopted the Reader-Response theory of literary criticism , shaken it up with misunderstandings about the illuminating activity of the Holy Spirit, and adopted it as their practice for Bible interpretation.
This scourge of relativistic interpretation of Scripture can serve only to further fracture the unity of the Church. It ignores any role the Holy Spirit may have played in forming the understanding of believers who have gone before us, and refuses to acknowledge the problematic nature of focusing only on our response to a passage, as if our thoughts and feelings are a definitive reflection of the Holy Spirit’s illuminating guidance. What if the Spirit tells your neighbor something different? How will we resolve the apparent conflict between “the Spirit’s leading” of individuals within our sundry communities?
This brings up another aspect of this pandemic…individualism. The Scriptures record God’s dealings with a people. Yet American Christianity is obsessed with Scripture’s message to the individual. No wonder we are confused. What God intended to be pondered by a community we are parsing as individual islands, desperately searching for anything to cast our opinion of a text’s significance as its God-intended meaning.
What is the remedy for this sweeping illness? I don’t know; but I shall start by pointing out its existence and then being a signal beacon pointing the way toward more rational theories of Bible study. Here are some good quotes about what it means to dig up the text and discover its meaning.
“…the first task of exegesis is to penetrate as far as possible inside the historical context(s) of the author and of those for whom he wrote. So much of this involves the taken-for-granteds of both author and addressees. Where a modern reader is unaware of (or unsympathetic to) these shared assumptions and concerns it will be impossible to hear the text as the author intended it to be heard (and assumed it would be heard).”
“…A text is essentially a message from an author to its first readers, which the author hoped would be understood and acted on. Because both readers and author shared a common language and culture, there was a reasonable chance that the writer’s intentions would be realised and the message understood correctly. Our distance in time and space from the author and first readers makes it much more difficult to pick up the original sense of the message. However, just as readers of modern texts, whether they be e-mails or scholarly tomes, do their best to grasp the author’s intended sense, so responsible interpreters of ancient texts have tried to do the same.”
An exhortation from the Archaeological Study Bible seems an appropriate way to wrap up this diatribe.
“A study of the context of the Bible is an encouragement to faith. Many modern Christians shun the study of the ancient world for fear that scholars will make them aware of troubling facts that will serve only to undermine their faith in the Bible. In reality, a careful study of the world of the Bible enhances our confidence in its historical accuracy and in its distinctiveness as the Word of God. Set against the astonishing variety of cultures that made up the Biblical world, the unity of the message of the Bible is remarkable.” (pg xii)
If you’re interested in pursuing responsible principles of Bible interpretation further, I highly recommend An Introduction To Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning, co-authored by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. and Moises Silva.
- Kaiser, Walter C., Jr., Duane Garrett, eds. NIV Archaeological Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan (2005)
- See the writings of Hans Robert Jauss, Norman Holland, David Bleich, etc.
- Dunn, J. D. G. Word Biblical Commentary : Romans 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated (2002). Page xv.
- Wenham, Gordon J. Story As Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic (2000). Page 1.