An Apology for Historical Study of the New Testament by Ben C. Blackwell
It’s been a while. We have a new addition to our household, but more on that later. I just wanted to reblog this post I found on the importance of historical study when it comes to our understanding of the Bible. I found it helpful. Enjoy and feel free to leave comments below letting me know what you think.
We got a few responses from our Reading Romans in Context: Paul and Second Temple Judaism volume that we were just beholden to the New Perspective and its fundamental problem—letting Jewish texts determine the meaning of inspired revelation. (That said, if they had actually read the volume or understood the New Perspective, they would have not so easily made that claim about our volume.) The challenge seems a little less pressing when you consider Jesus in his Jewish environment like we have with Reading Mark in Context: Jesus and Second Temple Judaism, but even then I (Ben) have received a comment from some quite hesitant to allow any uninspired text to shape our understanding of the Bible. That sounds spiritual, but the historical study of the Bible is foundational for all serious interpretations. Whether one follows the historical-critical method or its evangelical cousin the historical-grammatical method, the key idea is history.
We don’t have any problem studying the practices of the cult of Artemis in Ephesus to help us understand Luke’s portrayal of Paul’s experience there in Acts 19. We don’t have any problem looking at archeological dig sites to help understand the daily life of Jews and their Decapolis neighbors to understand Jesus’ early ministry in Galilee. In fact, my evangelical compatriots often rightly appeal to the distinctly historical nature of the narrative accounts in the Gospels and Acts to argue for their reliability. In these cases, allowing for historical boundedness to meaning does not entail that we are letting uninspired knowledge determine the meaning of the Bible. Rather than a hindrance, we think of these as aids. In the same way, we have a treasure trove of Jewish texts that give us a window into historical perspectives of Jews contemporaneous with the New Testament. Why would ignore this rich variety that we find in the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Josephus, etc.? These help us gain invaluable historical information about the first-century Jewish experience.
When you read Reading Mark in Context, you will see that Jesus and Mark disagree with or modify Jewish categories as much as they accept them. As a result, we are not allowing these other texts to control our understanding of the Bible. They do, however, enlighten our understanding. If we are concerned with bad interpretation, I am much more worried about those who ignore historical information and therefore import their own very modern conceptions back onto Jesus and the New Testament. As they try to avoid letting actual historical documents determine the meaning, they end up committing a worse error by allowing their own opinion to determine the meaning (i.e., eisegesis). God chose to reveal himself in Jesus in a Second Temple Jewish setting for a reason, and it behooves the serious interpreter to understand the historical context in which God’s revelation occurred so we can understand it better. Reading Mark in Context won’t uncover all the historical issues, but it can at least tangibly introduce you and your students to Jesus’ world.