The first part of this unsent, hypothetical letter is found in the last post here.
In my last letter, we were talking about reading ancient scripture texts without much sense of what’s around them (“out of context”), and about the pitfalls of programs that don’t allow for deep, contextually aware reading. Let me point to a spot in the Matthew-gospel as a detailed example of a more granular focus on a single book.
When Matthew has the word “coming” in 24:3, do we consider Matthew’s unique use of the Greek term “parousia,” and do we linger at the portrait he painted? Many English Bibles render the word that way, but its meaning can go in more than one direction. Some will rush off to 1Thess 4 and 1Cor 15 . . . but is Jesus really talking about the same thing Paul is in those other texts? And/or is Paul always (or ever) referring to the “second coming” that a 20th- or 21st-century Christian seems to have in mind? The word formula “second coming” has taken on a theological life of its own and is absent, per se, from the NT. Perhaps Matthew’s concerns overlap some of that, or perhaps not.
We could then consider the prologue to John’s gospel, which is thought by some to have been composed after the rest of the book. 1:1-18 is in one analysis an intense section of standalone Christological poetry (and I’d say there are lots worse sections to read as standalone passages). It does clearly connect, though, to the rest of that gospel. Presumably you recall some of the other content of this gospel . . . there was the “water to wine” events and other signs, the blind man, the woman at the well, Nicodemus, the foot-washing, and the rest. How rewarding to ponder the connections between the prologue and the rest! The later-stated purpose—”to believe and have life in His name”—is most meaningful not cordoned off as a general, theological pointer-to-belief, or re-appropriated as a pulpit exhortation, but in its John-context! Truly, nothing in literature should be considered to “stand alone.” Every word has context. (On this question, if you have more time, you might be interested in what I wrote here about “The Farmer in the Dell,” Paul’s letters, and context.)
Matthew’s “parousia “and Paul’s “parousia” and John’s “until I come” do not necessarily share the same referent. So Paul is not Matthew, and Matthew is not John. (Nor is any one of them Lindsey or Hagee or Casey, and that’s not beside the point.) Each NT author wrote from a uniquely God-inspired vantage point, and in many cases to unique Christ-communities. Accepting both God’s involvement and these “communicator” and “receptor” identifications doesn’t mean that all documents use a word identically—or even that each subcontext within a single document necessarily uses a word the same way.
And Greek is not English. Sometimes, not even English is English! Translation can involve both art and science, and it comes into play even within a single language. Words are curious, sometime chameleonic characters, as is communication in general. Decades and even centuries of Christianese and Christian publications have had impact on how we read and hear some words and expressions. My mention of “parousia” is but one example, based on a single word. Hundreds and maybe thousands more exist! What is required of a conscientious reader? To read responsibly and contextually, honoring God and the intent of the original document.
A holistic study of a single document such as Matthew will lead to questions not only about the coming/presence/arrival/parousia of deity, but also about such topics as these:
- The Mosaic Law
- The Jewish temple
- The “kingdom of heaven” theme as traced throughout Matthew
- “The end of the age” (a phrase unique to Matthew, occurring in two of the five “teaching blocks,” including Matthew 24—and notably appearing at the very end of the gospel, 28:20)
Few questions about what Matthew was attempting to say about the above topics will be addressed aptly without focused study of that single document. It seems that Matthew has designed his gospel intentionally to connect some of these things. On the other hand, John’s scope, purpose, and design are quite different from Matthew’s. If we found a “Law” or “temple” in John, we would not want to assume the implication or meaning is the same as in Matthew.
But who can focus so sharply? You can, and I can. Responsible reading and interpretation may at points start to seem attainable only by academically trained scholars such as experts in biblical languages. Not the case! Yes, there are academic principles involved, and knowledge of biblical languages helps immensely, but there are so many tools available to any serious reader-investigator these days. Diamonds await those of us who will simply read responsibly, carefully, contextually, and with an eye to an author’s intentions.
Underlying my whole thrust here is something I think of as a “differently high” view of scripture— a view that elevates (1) the book-level (single-document) context and (2) the inspiration of the author as he wrote a single document. I tend also to downplay inter-document connections in the Bible as a whole. (After all, the “whole” of the Bible is really a collection of single, whole documents.) The connections found when comparing documents can be very real and meaningful, but they also tend to be overstated and unwittingly abused by those who are largely untrained, like you and me. We do well to abide in one document at a time.
[ . . . ]
The above began as a draft letter to a person I’ve never met face to face. I decided not to send it personally, but I thought I’d share it here, with much adaptation and expansion, since I feel this is broadly applicable.
What have I written that raises questions in your mind?
Does anything appear misleading or erroneous?
How would you conclude the letter?