καὶ οἱ γραμματεῖς τῶν Φαρισαίων⸃ ἰδόντες ⸄ὅτι ἐσθίει⸅ μετὰ τῶν ⸂1ἁμαρτωλῶν καὶ τελωνῶν⸃⸌ ἔλεγον τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ· ⸀ὅτι μετὰ τῶν τελωνῶν καὶ ἁμαρτωλῶν ⸁ἐσθίει;
When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (NRSV)
As I was reading through the Gospel of Mark in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, I came across a comment on Mark 2:16. The commentator mentions the following:
“Scribes of the Pharisees” indicates a group unknown in antiquity; it may have been a slip of the author.
The commentator is not arguing that the Pharisees did not exist. Instead, it is the “scribes of the Pharisees” that the commentator is distinguishing as a separate and seemingly non-existent group.
Here’s my question: does not knowing about a group of people automatically make it a slip? Are we to assume that the author made a mistake because current scholarship has not found evidence to the contrary? Now, if the commentator would have just stated that the “Scribes of the Pharisees” is an unknown group, that would have sufficed. But the last line adds a whole new dimension to the conversation (and maybe revealing some of the commentator’s presuppositions regarding the text.)
Most of the reputable New Testament scholars that I have read are quick to recognize the limits of historical research into New Testament backgrounds. There are many questions yet to be answered, and even more that will likely never be answered with any degree of certainty. Historical study has its limits.
With that said, I do think that historical research into early Christianity and the Greco-Roman and Jewish culture of Jesus’ day does help us understand the Bible better. However, it must be done with humility. After all, the author of the gospel was there; we were not. So, to say that it may have been “a slip” is to question the credibility of the witness while also bearing the burden of proof. The gospels are the reports of eyewitness accounts in a world foreign, distant, and very different than our own. Just because we have not found an old manuscript dated to the 1st century with the phrase “Scribes of the Pharisees” in no way refutes the testimony of the author.
 Harrelson, W. J., Senior, D., & Abingdon Press. (2003). The New Interpreter’s Study Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1809.
Dr. Dale Allison seeks to clarify the divide that exists between the Jesus of history (that is, the picture of Jesus that emerges from a purely historical study of the Gospels) and the Jesus of tradition (which is in many cases devoid of the historical conscience and focuses on theological task). His view is rather grim. Coming from a liberal scholarly background and wanting to focus on Jesus as primarily an eschatological prophet, his conclusion is that we can never really know who Jesus is and what he really says if we rely on the Gospels.
“The Gospels are parables. When we read them, we should think not that Jesus said this or did that but rather: Jesus did things like this, and he said things like that.” (p. 66)
“The end is like the beginning. Genesis is no historical record of the primordial past, and the New Testament offers no precognitive history of the eschatological future. The New Jerusalem, the last judgment, and the resurrection are, just like Eden, the serpent, and Adam, theological parables.” (p. 97)
The ever-shifting world of Historical Jesus scholarship and the presupposition that the Gospels are unreliable records of the life and work of Jesus will limit Dale’s perspective on who Jesus can possibly be.
This work is an example of the Historical-Critical approach to Jesus that does not accord with the traditional view of the church. This Historical-Critical method is a useful tool, even for more conservative scholars that want to explore the Jesus of Scripture. But in the hands of scholars like Dale, it becomes a weapon that destroys the very foundations of the Christian faith. He probably would not agree with my assessment, but that is the understanding that many would come to.
I recommend this work if only for the sole reason that it helps Christians understand how liberal scholarship can cast doubt over the traditional understanding of Jesus as Savior and Messiah.
Here’s a follow up to yesterday’s post.
It is easy to succumb to the temptation of reading secondary sources (dictionaries, commentaries, etc.) before you have had the time to absorb the text for yourself. In the endeavor to interpret the Bible, especially some of the more difficult passages, we might be moved to grab that commentary to help us figure it out. Resist it, standing firm in the text!
It is much, much better for all readers—students, preachers, and other serious readers—to learn the habit of first reading the text largely on their own. Even the most sophisticated advocates and practitioners of the most complex historical-critical methods emphasize this:
Before reaching for the secondary sources, such as the commentaries, one should try to formulate a provisional analysis of the text.
In other words, spend time with the text by itself. Look at it over and over again. Ask questions, even basic questions you think you already know. Meditate on the passage when you’re standing in line at the grocery store or sitting in a waiting room. Listen to it on audio. OWN THE TEXT for yourself. Then, and only then, can you handle secondary sources responsibly.
Here’s a suggestion which I have written about before and one that was recommended by Dr. Nijay Gupta on his blog.
“WORD WALL: Print out the Scripture text in super-large font and plaster it on the wall. I use colored pencils and mark up the text with notes and thoughts, prayers, impressions, highlighting important words, etc. I suggest keeping it “up” all week and spending time each day (maybe twice a day) marking it up more.” [he’s addressing pastors here, but this can easily be adapted for personal use]
Don’t be owned by commentaries; Own the text first. Then make responsible use of those commentaries that can help you refine your interpretation and guard you against going down some rabbit hole.
 Michael J. Gorman, Elements of Biblical Exegesis: A Basic Guide for Students and Ministers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 28.
Translations can be frustrating.
We tend to forget that when we read our English, Spanish, French, German, or whatever Bible, it is only a translation of the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic text. These translations were done by groups of scholars (and sometimes individuals) that were looking at the original languages and trying to figure out how best to translate words that were used in a different cultural context than our own. This is difficult work.
One of the reasons it is difficult is because of the nature of language. Language is not stagnant. It changes over time and how words are defined changes with it. Here’s an example. Let’s look at the word “nice.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “nice” means:
1 giving pleasure or satisfaction; agreeable.
▶ good-natured; kind.
2 fine or subtle: a nice distinction.
▶ requiring careful attention. 
But that was not its original meaning:
The word nice entered Middle English in the sense ‘stupid’, from Latin nescius, meaning ‘ignorant.’ It developed a range of senses, from ‘wanton and dissolute’ to ‘strange or rare’ and ‘coy or reserved.’ It was first used with a positive connotation in the sense ‘fine or subtle’ in the 16th century, and the current main meanings, senses 1 and 2, are recorded from the late 18th century.
That’ll make you think twice before you call someone “nice.”!
On top of this issue, Greek and Hebrew words have what is called “semantic domains.” A semantic domain is a range or area of meaning related to a specific word. And the word’s sense is dependent upon the surrounding context (i.e., the sentence, paragraph, document.) “For instance, English has a domain ‘Rain,’ which includes words such as rain, drizzle, downpour, raindrop, puddle. We use these words to talk about the rain.”  So, the translators have to determine what sense the author of the text was trying to communicate to their audience.
Words alone do not determine meaning; we interpret them based on the context that they are in, namely their genre. The same words will be interpreted differently if they are found in a different genre or context. 
[Semantic Anachronism] occurs when a late use of a word is read back into earlier literature. 
What does this have to do with how we interpret the Bible? There is an overarching tendency amongst Christians to import our 21st-century meanings into the words we read in the Scriptures. We think that the translated word means the same thing back in its ancient context as it does today. When we do that, we end up doing violence to the text and rendering an interpretation that can be far off from what the original author intended. In other words, we make it express something that it does not signify.
One of the struggles that we have as individual interpreters is that we have traditional readings that have been handed down to us by our family, pastor, or favorite teacher. We think we understand how a passage or word is to be interpreted because we have been told how to interpret it. In other words, we do not do the work ourselves and just accept a reading because it came from an “authority” we trust. This is just plain laziness on our part and one of the root causes of mishandling God’s word. This not only does damage to the Scriptures, but it can really hurt other people that you share it with.
We have some great translators that have done a great job giving us very accurate renditions of the Bible. Some of the best are those like the NASB, ESV, NRSV, and others that seek to stay as close to the original language as possible. But that still does not solve the problem about how to interpret individual words.
Here are a couple of suggestions that will set you on the way to interpreting words and passages will greater accuracy:
 Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson, eds., Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
 Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), 13.
 D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Carlisle, U.K.; Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster; Baker Books, 1996), 33.
Pay attention to how the video describes “meditation.” This slow, methodical, vocal reading of Scripture is a key absorbing the text into your mind and heart.