A couple of weeks ago, a friend shared that the primary teaching pastor at his church had recently committed what I consider a major instructional infraction:
While delivering a message on how to study the Bible, historical and cultural contexts were treated at some length, but no attention at all was given to a book-level, paragraph-level, or even “verse”-level look at the literary context.
What passed for “literary context” was really only a nod to the historical setting in which the document was originally penned.
Let it be noted here that the friend referenced above has a terminal degree in NT biblical studies, and the teaching pastor, of approximately the same age, is well down the road toward his own doctorate in Hebrew and OT. What the one knows and understands about overall emphasis in text study should also be what other knows and understands. And the latter very well may know and understand it. The problem is that he missed a golden opportunity as a public teacher to emphasize literary context!
It makes sense that literary context should be considered primary in biblical studies. Historical, cultural, sociological, and theological studies may undergird and will be of great interest, but what is actually in the text is more fundamental—and almost always a more objective enterprise. Pursuit of the literary context should therefore be considered ahead of the pursuit of other contexts. I might put rhetorical and discourse analysis methods in a tool bucket (along with selected reference tools) to be used as part of contextually aware studies. Knowledge of the syntax of the original language is indispensable. (Personally, I have only enough grasp of Greek syntax to know how important it is.) There is always more to learn about the words and sentences and “paragraphs.” The point here is that intensified contextual awareness is fundamental when seeking to understand a document.
The number of instructions (reputedly 613) in the Hebrew Torah is daunting. The number of superimposed rabbinic teachings (Talmud, etc.) is positively dizzying.
It doesn’t surprise me that Christians would fall into the habit of looking at the “New Law” in the same legal terms, but it does surprise me that any of us would defend that habit explicitly. In the words of Danny Gamble, a neighborhood boy from my childhood, “What are ya—dumb or sump’n?” (He was talking about my family’s habit of praying before meals. His rude-yet-innocent comment speaks much better to stupid human tricks such as creating a new legalism.)
There are matters on which God has spoken, of course.
There are also matters about which people wish God had instructed.
And there are quite a few matters about which people claim God instructed us—but the supposed instruction sometimes turns out to be trumped-up, or even bogus.
I won’t specify things I think fall into any of these three categories, because I might get in trouble with some people I respect. 🙂
The structure and design of biblical documents is typically overlooked. This post (from a year and a half ago) laments the tendency of very good, otherwise spiritually minded people to ignore text design in favor of what turns out to be a faux devotional vantage point.
Even when structure is to some extent in view, it is rarely understood and applied very thoroughly in local churches. We may affirm that (literary) context is king, but even those public teachers who pay lip service to context will rarely spend appropriate time dealing with its significance.
Here are a few examples/comments:
The structure of Psalm 119 famously involves an acrostic design (based on Hebrew letters). The literary structure is obvious, aiding understanding of this piece’s origin and possible its intent.
The structure of Paul’s brief letter to Philemon is clear, making the thrust of the message quite impossible to ignore in Greek, although it rarely if ever shows itself in English Bibles or in Bible classes. Although richly provocative clues reside in the Greek, if more disciples would merely take more time with the English, truly studying this document instead of dismissing it as a nice story about a former slave, the document would speak volumes. Loudly.
I’m somewhat acquainted with the structure of both Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels, but I would have to say that it’s required many years and great opportunities to come to understand only a little of their design. In other words, the structure of a more lengthy document requires deeper, more extended experience. I am currently engaged in Matthew studies. Every step of the way, I learn something that enhances my understanding of this text.
Knowing how these documents are put together—how they are designed—is key in coming to understand their emphases.
There is so much more. The Bible is a lifelong pursuit but must not be seen as an end in itself. To conclude this series on perhaps a lighter note, I think I’ll soon post a survey about word frequency, i.e., “how many times is X word found in the NT?”