Saturday, December 27, 2014

Why Study the Intertestamental Period?

I used to tell undergraduate students that I would not be surprised if they gained more understanding of the New Testament from taking Intertestamental Jewish Literature than they would from Old Testament Survey. I still remember one student who went on to Princeton telling me that this course better prepared her for seminary than any other course she had at IWU.

Why? Here are some reasons:
  • While the OT provides much of the content background for the NT (it provides the bullets), the Intertestamental Period provided the lens through which that content was filtered and read (it aimed the gun).
  • We tend to read the NT out of the blue, as a contextless text that dropped out of heaven (or rather, we are unaware of the way our modern church context informs our reading of the NT texts). Once we are aware of the historical and literary context of the first century, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to read the NT in a timeless bubble (aka, what our Sunday School teacher told us).
  • For those who have grown up with a certain kind of fundamentalism, there are strategies and techniques we are taught that probably don't make sense if we could step back and get some perspective. A reflective person begins to realize this when they read non-canonical writings and increasingly sense a contradiction in his or her method. The drive for consistency will gnaw at them.
  • In short, the writings of "early Judaism" inevitably increase the Bible reader's objectivity and sense of historical consciousness, whereas Bible courses can sometimes merely confirm a person's initial biases (or those of the teacher).
I remember one student who is now a New Testament scholar in her own right who was so resistant to the idea that Jesus in Matthew 11 might allude to the book of Sirach. I never push things like that. A teacher doesn't have to push something if the evidence speaks for itself. I'm sure she would just laugh if I reminded her of that today. She went on to Duke and then Baylor, and is now teaching at Campbell.
Fun memories!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree completely, as this can cause a radical shift in interpretative understanding. Thom Stark took this approach and came to conclude that the biblical Jesus is not "God the Son, second person of the Trinity," with which I concur. Did you ever get a chance to read his "Oh My Godman" series that was on the web for a while? He was going have a book published on the subject, but it seems that movie making has taken the front seat for him.

I suspect that the reason so many focus on the ante-Nicene fathers instead of the intertestamantal literature is precisely because the Fathers are the true source of many traditional beliefs that men have come to embrace, and those later beliefs are the lens folks tend to prefer.

~Sean Garrigan