This is the last in a first group of posts talking about my hermeneutical pilgrimage. I'm calling the group:
Reading out of Context
1. Stages of Hermeneutical Development
2. Does History Matter in Interpretation
3. Meaning is Always Local
Historical context is something you can't get fully from the text of the Bible itself. The Bible gives great clues, to be sure. And it needs to give the deciding vote. One problem that scholars of the Bible can have is knowing too much. A scholar may know a parallel to a biblical text somewhere that they try to make a connection with when that other text has absolutely nothing to do with the passage you're looking at. It's sometimes called "parallelomania," looking for parallels to shed light on a biblical text and finding ones that are completely irrelevant.
The problem is that the bulk of historical evidence has been lost to history. Those who wrote things were usually the privileged--who hardly represent the majority of those who lived and died in the ancient world. Was the author of Genesis really aware of the Babylonian Enuma Elish or the Gilgamesh Epic? It's a very legitimate question.
It thus was rarely this sort of historical evidence that convinced me on various issues. More than anything, it was the inductive Bible study method I learned at Asbury Theological Seminary. This is a method that gathers its primary evidence from the biblical texts themselves in order to draw the most likely conclusions about the original meaning. It's called "literary context."
Once you ask the question, "what did the verse say that comes right before the verse I'm reading," everything changes. What comes right before the verse that says, "I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil" (Jer. 29:11, KJV)? It's a letter to Israelites who are in exile in Babylon. They are the ones God is talking to. If the text is also for me, it is only for me indirectly in terms of what it really meant originally.
It's popular to see Isaiah 14:12 in relation to the fall of Satan from heaven before Adam sinned: "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!" (KJV). In our dictionary, "Lucifer" is one of the names of Satan. But it wasn't at the time of Isaiah.
The NIV translators are not evil perverters of truth by translating it "morning star." Even the slightest read of the verses that come before this one make it clear that this passage was not originally talking about Satan but about the King of Babylon (cf. 14:4). I'm not saying it couldn't have an additional meaning, a "fuller sense." I'm just saying that's not at all what it meant originally.
I was raised on the King James Version and I still love its lofty prose, but it is interesting that it often lists each verse independently, like a list. The disadvantage is that you then can tend to see individual verses as stand-alone statements of truth. You don't read them in paragraphs. You may lose a sense of the literary context and literary flow.
So we are trained as children in Sunday School to memorize memory verses. I'm all for it. I often find myself quoting verses and excerpts from verses. I think it is great when the way someone talks breathes and echoes Scripture, where the text regularly leaps from a person's sub-conscious. The down-side is that if one focuses too much on small snippets of biblical text, then you are not as likely to get a sense of its context. You will have a tendency to read it wrongly.
So the first stage of my Bible reading was what I initially called the "mirror-reading" stage. You come to the words of the texts with a host of assumptions, a "dictionary" you inherited from wherever you grew up speaking whatever language you spoke with all the assumptions of that particular culture and subculture. You will define words like "Lucifer" in accordance with the way you've heard the word used. You will define the words of your memory verses in the terms you have heard.
But you will not come to the text with its historical context. This is something largely assumed by the text. After all, the most significant, most central assumptions in the communication of two people are often the things they don't say to each other because they already know them. So it takes a great deal of unlearning and relearning to be able to read the books of the Bible for what they really meant. The tendency to find in the Bible what you already think is almost more difficult to overcome than smoking. At least a smoker knows he or she is smoking and needs to quit. We often aren't even aware we are reading the Bible out of context.