Priscilla & Aquila: when and where?

Sometimes I write in order to process thoughts.  Spoiler alert:  my current answer to a question I’m pondering is “we don’t know.”

In the process of reading and considering the account of Corinth in Acts 18, someone raised this question:  Were Priscilla and Aquila already Christians, or possibly still Jews, when Paul met them in Corinth?   I thought about it a little more, and I think it’s a good question, so I have a few thoughts about it.  But first, the text:

After this, he left Athens and went to Corinth, where he found a Jewish man named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. Paul came to them, and being of the same occupation, stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade.  He reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath and tried to persuade both Jews and Greeks. (Acts 18:1-4, HCSB)

So, we have Paul arriving in Corinth, a major city, where the duo, Aquila and Priscilla, had already set up shop.

The expulsion of the Jews from Rome by the emperor is mentioned.

Aquila is identified text as a Jew.

Priscilla is not identified as a Jew, but it would be reasonable to assume she was also, at that point, and in at least the ethnic-heritage sense.  On the other hand, it has been noted that, later in Acts 18, as well as in Rom 16:3 and in 2Tim 4, her name appears first, and she might have been more articulate and/or more advanced in Christian faith.  It’s therefore easy for me to imagine that, in Corinth, she was ahead of her husband faith-wise.

Were both Aquila and Priscilla Jewish by faith when Paul met them, or were they already Christian?

Could Prisca/Priscilla (the latter form is diminutive, nicknamey) have been moving in/toward Christian faith while still in Rome, with Aquila lagging behind?

Could Paul have easily latched onto this pair (with whom he shared a trade learned while he was a Jew) while they were both yet Jewish in faith?

Now, for some context.  I wondered whether the Acts text hints one way or the other.  I perceive these items highlighting the Jewish faith in Acts 18:

  • mention of the Jews’ having left Rome
  • focus on the synagogue and its leaders

In addition, the occurrences in Ephesus—immediately subsequent in Acts, and the first, involving these same two people—involve not one, but two spotlights on “partial knowledge.”  Partial knowledge is just what a Jew-before-faith-in-Jesus has, so perhaps there is a contextual hint there that Priscilla and Aquila had partial faith as Paul (and we) meet them, too.

This larger scriptural context may or may not shed much light on the early days in Corinth, but it does make me muse a little . . . maybe ol’ Aquila, at least, wasn’t fully Christian until after Paul had been in Corinth a few months (see 18:11).  Or maybe both of them weren’t full-believers yet.  With hindsight, and with observations of historical progressions and patterns based on other sources, we might develop an opinion one way or the other.  Luke’s first audiences probably would not have been able to do that.

Both historical and textual sources leave me wondering.  The answer is probably a flat “We don’t know when A & P became Christian.”  Now, the next question is “Does this matter, and if so, why?”

I think it matters because
Investigative questions like this are interesting.  Personally, I both need and want this kind of stimulation.  Many others of you are also interested in this kind of thing, I know.  It could very well be that this matter has already been well researched via historiographical, archaeological, and textual data, and my “answer” herein may be proven lacking.  Although I am attempting to bring exegetically based reasoning to bear here, I know virtually nothing of archaeology, and I haven’t even thoroughly considered the little I do know of early Christian history in the 40s and 50s.  Most of what I’ve written above is speculative and perhaps not much more than “interesting.”

But it also matters because
One of the pervasive themes of Acts is the spread of the Christian message outward from Jerusalem and Jews, showing The Way’s progression from being a Jewish-originated sect to being a world-altering faith-group.  Maybe the stories of Aquila and Priscilla—and Apollos, too—serve as part of the larger picture of motion from Jew to Greek, and from Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus as Messiah to some (e.g., Crispus the synagogue-presider, 18:8), who came to believe in Him.

Questions like this matter because it causes us to come face to face with the chronological and geographical realities that shaped the early Christian movement.

B. Casey, 1/7/16

Inkblots from Philippians

The following verses or partial verses from Philippians have in my experience been used in isolation from their literary context(s).  There are many of these “offenders” in Philippians!  The ones in bold are those I think could stand as “poster children” for the disease of “inkblotitis” (Dr. Greg Fay’s term).

Although I rarely use the NIV on this blog, its largely familiar wordings will serve illustratively here.  As you scan these, please consider how easy it is to think you understand of what they “mean” apart from the surrounding thoughts in their full context.

Chapter 1

I thank my God every time I remember you.

18b  The important thing is that . . . Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel.[1]

Chapter 2

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: [2]

12b  continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. [3]

14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, [4]

17a But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering . . . [5]

Chapter 3

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.

10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

12b-14  I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. . . . 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

18-19  For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.

20 But our citizenship is in heaven. [6]

Chapter 4

2b  be of the same mind in the Lord.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [7]

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

19 And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

[1] 1:27 may be a “verse” that, when ripped from its context, hasn’t actually strayed too far from its original import in its current-day application.

[2] Here, I am passing over the famed 2:6-11 passage, although it, too, is frequently understood outside its Philippians context.  This text is considered by most scholars to be some type of ancient ode or hymn (whether originally sung or not, whether original with Paul or not) text.  Its exalted poetry is legendary, and it stands on its own to some extent, although it is imbued with additional/different meaning when seen within the contextual shape of Philippians.

[3] Here’s an exceptionally convicting bit of non-exegetical, personal history:  I once spoke a message—translated on the spot into another language, even—that forced a separate theology onto this passage, ignoring its own context altogether. The theology I was “pushing” was a good one, I’m convinced, but nonetheless was a theology unrelated to this particular context.

[4] Oh, the numbers of parents who have quoted this one to their grumbling children!

[5] I know a song, “Would You Be Poured Out Like Wine,” that came from this, but the rest of its words had nothing directly to do with Philippians, insofar as I can remember.  Now that I think about it, the song might have mixed two contexts, since it used the specific word “wine,” which is not used here.  Perhaps a little latitude for the songwriter who knew that the word “drink” doesn’t sing all that well?  Or perhaps the songwriter was leaning on historical rather than literary context (I’m not at all sure), understanding that wine was what was used in the “poured drink offering”?

[6] True confession:  I quasi-intentionally take this one out of context myself, and probably will continue to do so.  Although recognizing that these words find their most valid illumination within the context of Philippians, I feel that they succinctly state an important concept that all Christians would do well to take in.

[7] It might not do much harm to take this one out of context.  In suggesting that, I would lean a little on the “anything” and “every” language:  perhaps this is duly taken as more broadly applicable.  Yet its original meaning is to be found within the context of the letter to the Philippians.


Important city, important words

The letter to the Philippians—presumably written by Paul (and Timothy), some time within a couple years of 60CE, to Christians in the ancient city of Philippi, which was an important city in the Roman world.  It seems clear that Paul had a close relationship with the people in this church.  Not everything was perfect (it never is), but I’d have to say that Paul had had a special, generally very positive experience with these believers, leading to high expectations of their spirits and their actions.

I haven’t paid much recent attention to this gemstone in the bracelet of NT letters.  I suppose the last time I studied it, I wasn’t really studying it, if you know what I mean.  What that admission means to me is that, more than a decade ago, I was much more typical in my knowledge and application of “study” methodologies.  Those methods led to familiarity—but very little else that was valuable.  I was also much more accepting of . . .

φ  perfunctory readings that failed to take historical and literary contexts into consideration

φ  surface-level “word studies” based on English tools

φ  jumped-to conclusions

. . . and other results of dubious “study” methods that I now reject out of hand.

Despite previous personal ineptitudes (and many remain to this day), there was at least one general conclusion I reached years ago about this letter that I believe was quite “ept”:  that “verses”¹ within this letter must be read in the context of the whole.  To point up this concern, in the next post about Philippians, I will share some “verses”¹ that tend to be lifted out of their contexts (both macro [book-level] and micro) and invite you to consider how you, too, might have erroneously developed an understanding of what certain Philippians words “mean” apart from the surrounding thoughts.

Given a couple of long-term opportunities coming in early 2016, I expect that my insight into Philippians specifics is about to start down a road of significant enhancement.  For today, I merely want to say this, transparently:  I have been struggling in recent days with two other (unrelated) essays intended for this blog.  For different reasons, I am questioning their content and have been delaying in finalizing and posting them.

Rather than deal with those essays further, I thought it was far better that I spend some time reading Philippians today.  So I did just that.  I read the entire letter aloud in the New English Bible.  At this point, no background info, no Greek, no textual criticism or consideration of textual variants, and no word studies or discourse analysis, and no commentaries.  Just the letter, read as a whole.  I am better for having taken in these important words.

Sola scriptura
B. Casey (12/27/15)


¹ I put “verses” in scare-quotes not only because the verse numbering is not original.  More important:  seeing Bible texts as “verses” can detract from the flow of a text by visually delineating things not meant to be delineated.  After all, I’m focusing on contextual flow here, and verses inhibit the reader’s sense of context.  It is a far better thing to consider texts in larger blocks—blocks based on contextual reading and intratextual clues.

Reprise: quality in study methodology (2 of 2)

A recent post on “quality” and “better methods” prompted a thoughtful challenge.  Here, I responded in general terms about the nature of, and impulses behind, contextually aware, high-quality (for me) Bible study.  Today I want to spend some time with specific commentary on the Rick Warren methods.

There are other things
I first want to acknowledge that activities other than Bible study are important and can result in growth, better feelings, and other positives.  Some of these other thoughts and experiences have great value.  I haven’t dealt, for instance, with prayer, worship, or mutually accountable “discipling” relationships.  Here, I intend only to be addressing Bible study methods—and those, only in summary fashion.

Yet a text orientation is crucial
To “live out faith capably” is a wonderful aim, and I appreciate that crystallization.  My position is that rationally based standards must exist as we try to hone in on the role Bible study plays in the living out of faith.

The best standards and methods I’ve seen lean heavily on literary context and historical context (in that order).  I suppose that, in using the expression “the best . . . I’ve seen,” I am again putting myself in the position of one who can judwpid-img_20151023_090040_001.jpgge what is better than something else.  In this case, I’ll own that with only a tiny bit of embarrassment.  It appears self-evident to me—and I doubt seriously that anyone reading this far will disagree in concept—that a) contextually aware study is inherently better than b) study that moves easily and non-judiciously in and among various documents, bodies of texts (e.g., the entire Bible) and theologies.  Sadly, most Bible studies seem to head in the (b) direction, whereas the practice ought to be brought into alignment with the conceptual, mental assent.

Premise:  Any “study method” that doesn’t at least attempt to base its substance and conclusions in one textual document isn’t as viable as one that does.

It bears stating here that the Bible is a library, not a single book per se.  No matter the particular vantage point re:  “inspiration,”¹ it must be acknowledged that the Bible is a collection of documents, not a single document.  It follows that “context” must properly be thought of as residing in the particular book/document one is studying, not the collection called “Bible.”

With the above premise in view, although not confining myself to it, I’d like to address some of . . .

Rick Warren’s Bible Study Methods

  1. The Devotional Method
  2. The Chapter Summary Method
  3. The Character Quality Method
  4. The Thematic Method
  5. The Biographical Method
  6. The Topical Method
  7. The Word Study Method
  8. The Book Background Method
  9. The Book Survey Method
  10. The Chapter Analysis Method
  11. The Book Synthesis Method
  12. The Verse-by-Verse Analysis Method

Based on general experience with Christianese and with many public teachers through the years, I could have pretty safely claimed that #1 and #6 are not really “Bible study” methods at all.  After skimming a bit, I stand on that presumption.

I didn’t know exactly what #3 and #4 referred to, but they were questionable, so I looked them up. . . .

#3 (“character quality”) turns out not to be a study method per se.  Rather, it majors in devotion and “personal application” as does #1.  While this might provide intriguing and valid insights, here’s a guiding truism:  we all need more thorough, contextual study before jumping in to “apply” our “take-aways.”

Neither is #4 (thematic) viable as a “study method”—not for anyone with less experience than I have, anyway.  I wouldn’t trust myself with it very often at all.  It jumps around in different texts, and that is always dangerous.  Any purported method that makes application prior to coming to a solid understanding of a discrete text is likely very well intentioned and may well lead to benefit, but such constitutes a thematic or theological thought train, not Bible study, and the resulting applications might turn out to be less than valid.

I would assert that several of the 12 “methods” should not be viewed as stand-alone methods but instead should be considered and employed together.  When combined, they could in fact constitute a holistic, relatively effective, viable Bible study methodology.

#10 (chapter analysis) appears pretty good to me, and if I were ever “forced” (not that that would or could happen in my case!) to use Warren’s book, I might point to #10 as a basis, complimenting it with material from many of the other methods and being careful not to allow chapter divisions always to determine the limits of a section.

Method #s 8 (book background, including archaeology, geology, history, and culture) and 12 (verse-by-verse, observations, personal paraphrase) could well supplement #10, as long as the cross-reference part of the latter is either ignored or used extremely carefully.

#4 (“themes” in scripture) starts with the investigative “friends” who, what, where, when, why, and how . . . but it goes awry when it shows a wide-open field for investigation.  Step #1 is “choose a theme.”  Step #2 is “list all the verses you want to study.”  (And here, my wife is cringing, when I read the draft of this post aloud to her!)  The “personal application” a few steps down the road will be compromised if the student has not limited his study to a theme in a specific document or smaller context.  #5 (biographical) approaches the investigation of a Bible character similarly, but I find this method more likely than #4 to bear good fruit, insofar as it goes—namely, because the student will likely be dwelling in single texts for longer periods of time as s/he tries to glean insights into a Bible character.

#9 (book survey) and #11 (book synthesis) have good merits and probably ought to be combined.  Comprehension of the book-level context is oh-so-significant, and perhaps especially so when the book/document is possible to read in one sitting and/or isn’t composed of multiple, major sections that potentially complicate the literary aspect of the whole.

In my case, method #2 (chapter summary) was the one being used in a small group.  This method is rather insidious:  it combines a few generally good ideals (contents, caption, crucial words, challenges, and central lesson) with some horrible ones (“cross references” and “Christ seen”), leading to a false sense of security.

My recent experience (and this was to an extent a function of the leader’s choice) of #2 was more or less confined to one aspect of that method—a sub-method that produced marginal results.  When a “Bible study” ends up consisting in people going around the room saying, “Well, I liked the word _______” because the word seemed like a crucial word, or because they just wanted to be different from the last person, I twitch.  Every other person might turn out to be onto something noteworthy, but students must recognize the inherent credibility of a source (human or otherwise) with real knowledge of the text.  The ensuing discussion must be shaped knowledgeably, rather than a scene in which everyone gloms on amicably to all comments as though they have equal value.

In Bible study, a democratic paradigm isn’t always best.  Neither is a monarchy, yet those who have some capabilities of digging into the text and interpreting based on sound exegetical principles ought to be given credence and opportunity.  Those with mere opinions deserve to be heard—with the aim of across-the-board senses of value and belonging . . . but often, their opinions, views, and take-aways need shaping and honing, so they will ultimately line up with what may actually be read—when one is reading contextually, that is—in the texts.

Personal note to Steve:  I deeply appreciate your challenge and your asking for more thoughts.  (And more thoughts you have received!)   My two-part response surely seems even stronger than the original post, but I have at least intended to acknowledge some value in methods I don’t personally gravitate to.  In all this, I have actually been assuming that you and I would see about 80-90% of this eye to eye, but I could be wrong.  I have written mostly for the sake of clarifying my own thoughts and scruples, and more, for less experienced readers.

How about this—I’ll give you the last word if you want to respond with another comment.  Rebuttal is totally OK.  Or, if you want to write a guest post, I’m all ears.  I suppose I might respond briefly, for the record, if in fact it turns out that I disagree much, but I promise not to argue specific points further!

¹ Statements about scripture that use the word “inerrancy” are suspect.  Some folks that claim to believe in “inerrancy” haven’t thought or studied enough to be using the word, and others seem merely to have had the wool pulled over their eyes by past dogmatics.  Views of inspiration that claim what the ancient documents claim (and no more) turn out to be “higher” views than some traditional, dogmatic views based on wispy notions of inerrancy.

Logos screen shot

Reprise: quality in study methodology (1 of 2)

A recent post on “quality” and “better methods” prompted a thoughtful challenge from a regular reader.  Generally, I took the interlocution as probing my assessment of Bible study methods:  “Who sets the standard for ‘better’?”  Specifically,¹ Rick Warren’s published methods (which I’d identified as being of uneven quality) were mentioned, and I’ll deal with those more in the next post.

My post on 10/14 was not one of my “better” (ha) ones, and I was probably scapegoating, to some extent.  (Maybe I’d do “better” to bemoan the lack of quality in other areas:  conductor selection processes, auto insurance departments’ lack of communication with each other, fast food touch-screen programming, etc.)  Quality and substance are always of concern to me, not just in Christian arenas.

I’m not prepared to ease up much on—much less to retract—the basic call for utilizing the best known methods in Bible study.  In the spirit of discussion, I’m setting out here to identify what I see as the hows and whats and whys (the whos aren’t the issue) of quality in Bible study.

What’s paramount?
wpid-img_20151023_090040_001.jpgOne problem with most Bible Study “methods” and practices is that they simply don’t expend energy on context.  In the “general church folks” milieu, not taking textual scholarship into consideration is probably secondary, but it is also significant.  I believe these two items are of paramount importance.  Methods that do not scratch the surface of either 1) context or 2) responsible scholarship are inherently of lesser quality.

In giving Warren’s list of study methods a once-over, I thought the dozen was neatly and readily marketed, but only 1/3 to 1/2 seemed to have authentic merit.  One evening, I was in a group that used one of Warren’s methods—one of his better ones (or so I’d thought)—but the discussion ended up majoring heavily in vague, nearly baseless opinions, teased out by the question “Which word stood out to you in this chapter?”

  • One strong pro several people in the group seemed to have read the whole chapter at least once, in preparation (!).  They actually had ready answers to the above question!  Wow!
  • A few cons: 1) book-level context was ignored; 2) the range of meaning of the original-language word was not on the table; 3) the situation into which the letter had been directed was presumed impertinent by default (not by direct statement); and 4) no textual structuring within the document was considered.

May people’s faith be stimulated by activities that don’t have biblical text as their basis?  Of course, yes.  On the other hand, if it walks like a cat, it’s not a duck.  If it’s more devotion- or inspirational theme-based, it’s probably not be Bible study per se.  Such motivations for living Christianly may be great, and I’d accept that they can be God-originated.  More often, I observe that they are synthetic, and I’d suggest that apparent “spiritual growth hormones,” synthesized by humans, are not organically grown out of the text.  They can produce artificial results.  Such insights might well be valuable, but why call them “Bible study”?

Some may not be “into” responsible, contextual handling of Biblical texts
In his response to the earlier post, my esteemed interlocutor speculated on the needs of young believers, as well as women’s take on things.  He would never have been attempting to paint an entire gender pink, but I took it that he was (rightly) saying, “Not everyone’s like you, Brian.”  Another relatively academic friend’s wife, the guy says, isn’t interested in anything that seems “academic,” and more women may indeed feel that way than men.  To the extent that it’s a women thing, it may be because of bad male behavior—blustering through dogma and other junk under the macho guise of scholarship, rather than purveying genuine academic insights.

Personally, I’m glad my wife is more into context than in typical “let go and let God” fluff or jumping around through different biblical books to find bits about love, joy, peace, faith, and goodness.  I do not judge the hearts of the women or men who are inspired and spurred on to good by such things, but I am not myself drawn by non-contextual study, and I do think there are more viable, more valid ways of going about edification, to boot.

I’m happy to report that quite a few other insightful women with whom I’ve had the privilege of studying would also prefer to be honest and responsible with one text on its own.  I’m sure it’s the same just about anywhere, although we also know some others (women and men) who reject anything that seems academic to the slightest degree.Barton

As for new believers, there is certainly a need for good study methods appropriate for baby Christians.  What is not OK is using bad methods that lead to invalid conclusions that in turn lead to shallow Churchians.  The alternative is good methods—methods that help to produce lifelong learner-disciples who over the years come to understand more and more of how history and ancient texts inform authentic faith.

Next:  Rick Warren’s methods

¹  Caveat lector:  I had originally also called out Joel Osteen’s fluff, and that stuff deserves no more comment—not while discussing Bible study, at least.  Arguably, the Gospel Advocate (a sectarian publication) does major in Bible study, but its tenor has in much of the past been more geared to watch-dogging and propping up denominational tenets than to digging into texts without prejudice.  On this my friend Steve and I agree.  One thing further here:  I shouldn’t have named the Beth Moore material, not having had any personal experience with it.  I imagine it is some of the better devotion-based material out there, and I presume it gets into real Bible exegesis at least some.  My wife, having had two experiences with Beth Moore material, has now supported my impression in general terms.

About literary context (3)

A horrible illustration we mustn’t forget
Perhaps the most infamous illustration of the violence that can be done by taking words out of their context is the stringing together of these two Bible “verses”:

Judas went out and hanged himself.

Go thou and do likewise.

We all “get” that context is important.

Bible verses don’t just “mean” something outside their contexts.

But what do most of us ever do about context, aside from paying lip service to the general idea?  Do we actually pursue the framework for understanding that contexts alone provide?

We laugh at the very idea of imitating Judas, and then we move on, so often glibly unaware of literary context.

What two scholar-friends have written (putting flesh on the bones of “context”)
Gary Collier has cogently asserted the primacy of literary context over historical and other contexts:

However important historical research is (and I think “very”), it is always incomplete.  How could we possibly uncover or rightly understand everything there is to know about something in the distant past and in some distant place?  At best, historical background is always incomplete.  It is a mistake to think that any supposed “historical background” that we think we know is a full picture.  It is easy to force something onto a text and thereby change its meaning.¹

And in another place, Gary has said,

The literary context is always the first and most important consideration in reading any text.¹

Further on the necessity of paying attention to the “book-level” literary context in order to hear God’s “voice,” Greg Fay has offered this:

Sometimes, when people talk about the context, they are referring to a chapter or to a paragraph, a set of verses before and after a particu­lar verse.  This is not what I mean by “literary context.”  I’m talking about the book as a whole—the over­all, big-picture of the book as a whole.  Of course, there are smaller paragraph- or chap­ter-level con­texts, and reading a verse in context certainly means seeing it as an inte­grated part of that context—its immediate context.  Any intelligent reading requires that; otherwise, you don’t really have com­muni­ca­tion at all, just words or even letters, if we take the logic far enough.

The literary con­text of a verse certainly includes its imme­diate context, if we want to understand it properly.  But—if I may be elementary for a moment—a letter is connected to other letters to make a word.  Words are connected to other words to make sentences.  Sentences    . . . to sentences—to form paragraphs.  Para­graphs . . . to paragraphs—to make a letter, or an essay, or a book.  Breaking apart any of those connec­tions risks the ability of the context to control the meaning.  

So, yes, the literary context includes the immediate context of a sentence or verse, but it also includes the rest of the book.  That’s the heart of what I’m trying to say.  Separating the verses or paragraphs—the immediate con­texts—into individual pictures is the start of inkblotitis.  (Think shat­tered mosaic.)  What we want to do is learn to see how the immediate contexts fit together as smaller, but integrated pictures into the land­scape view of the book as a whole.²

Speaking personally now . . .
I can’t adequately summarize or crystallize the things I’ve learned in recent years about biblical interpretation.  Although Greg and Gary are more than equal to this task, I’m not equal to the task of setting forth a hermeneutical hierarchy or prioritizing principles used in interpretation.

I can tell you this one thing, though:  terms and phrases and paragraphs are infinitely more meaningful when considered in their book-level contexts.  When we pay attention to those contexts, we hear God better.


¹ Dr. Gary D. Collier, private group e-mail, used by permission.

² Dr. Gregory L. Fay, Inkblotitis:  Christianity’s Dangerous Disease, Book 2: Rediscovering the Books of God (2013).


About words (2)

Words are obviously important when we seek to understand written language.  Consider this passage as an illustration of what could happen when we are called on to interpret the words of scripture.

What does the word “score” mean?  And what does it mean “to score”?  The meaning depends, doesn’t it?  How many ways are there “to score”?  Scoring in football is completely dif­ferent than scoring in—say—ping pong. . . .  There are multiple ways to score in American football, but not in baseball (the only way is to have a base runner touch home plate).  Every sport is different.  On the other hand, if a high school teenager were asked if he “scored” after an evening out with the prom queen, the picture is quite different.  And—to continue the rela­tional (or should I say sexual) image—a young Don Juan might scratch a mark into the side of the bed­post or headboard to keep tally of his conquests.  Teachers give us scores on tests; musicians compose scores. Sometimes, the word refers to a degree of indebtedness (what you owe me), and I just might “even the score.”  Do you remem­ber that a “score” can refer to a group of 20—”Four score and seven years ago . . .”  How about a groove cut in wood for a rope, or a crease or perforation so you can fold or tear a piece of paper?  It can refer to the state or facts of the present situa­tion, or a suc­cessful robbery or drug deal.  And there’s more. By itself the word is pregnant with poten­tial meanings, but we don’t know the specific length, weight, health, even the sex of the child to be born.

Bottom line:  you have to have more context to know what’s really intended.

– Greg L. Fay (adapted)

There’s no doubt about it:  interpretation happens.  It happens when Bible versions are produced; it happens when commentators write and when preachers preach; and it happens when you and I read our Bibles.

I would say that the following items are part of well-founded interpretation:

  • Awareness of the “range of meaning” of a word
  • Ability to define that word through understanding of its literary context

(To be continued . . . )

About words and contexts (1)

I assume that all of us who study the Bible have a few things in common—including reverent love of God and respect for the written words that constitute our Bibles.  Most of us have grown up in churches that would not shy away from being labeled “People of the Book.”

Moreover, almost everyone would get the multiple-choice question about “context” correct on an exam.  We all do understand, on some level, that context is important; we could affirm its importance without a second thought.

But what do we mean when we agree that context is important, and what do we do about it?

Through the years, when studying biblical documents, it has become increasingly clear that some important concepts seem to be ignored in most Christian circles.  One is the question of the genre, or type of document/book, such as historical narrative, letter, poetry, etc.

Another concept that is often apparently overlooked with regard to letters (and certain other documents) is their occasional or situational nature.  By “occasional” I do not mean to imply any casual manner or approach.  Far from it!  I mean that there was a specific situation, or set of situations, that led to the occasion of writing the letter.

I do take (most of) the biblical writings as God-directed (in some way), and the writers as God-inspired (a factor that is also beyond explanation).  These assumptions are baselines for most of us.

On the heels of the belief that God has been involved in the production of what we call “scripture,” though, must come a principle:  that understanding the meaning of an ancient document in its original context comes first, prior to attempting to apply that meaning to the current day.  That context includes both the historical situation in which the document was written and the self-contained literary context of the document itself.

(To be continued . . . )

John 12:32, as Rorschached

Although I continue to be inspired by the pages I’m scanning of the Sweet/Viola book Jesus Manifesto, I do find periodic non sequiturs and unjustified assumptions.  For example, their introductory mention of John 12:32.

John 12:32 is a “verse” I’ve known for most of my teen-to-adult life.  It says, roughly, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself.”  In order to understand more fully this “verse” in its context, one might need to take into consideration such things as

  • John’s life
  • his association with Jesus
  • the date of authorship
  • other historically contextual matters
  • literarily contextual matters such as
    • John’s purpose in writing his gospel
    • symbolism and themes of the gospel (logos? light? truth? etc.)

But even a cursory reading of 12:32 and immediate context (I won’t begin to deal here with any deeper contextual questions, analysis of John’s literary themes, or the like) shows clearly that “when I am lifted up” means when I am crucified.

There’s this gospel song titled “Lift Him Up.”   My parents used to sing it with groups of close friends, and we sang it at church a few times.  The first stanza queries,

How to reach the masses—men of ev’ry birth?
For an answer Jesus gave a key:
And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”

Fair enough.  Simple enough.  And profundity aplenty.

But the chorus repeatedly invites the singer/hearer to “Lift Him up!  Lift the precious Savior up!”  And thereby, for decades, congregants have run afoul of scripture.  John 12:32 is not about conceptually “lifting” the notion of Jesus and holding it/Him high, i.e., “exalting the Christ,” for all to see!  Exalting Jesus, calling attention to His lordship, etc., are generally good ideas, in my opinion, but John 12:32 has nothing directly to do with them.

Doesn’t it strike you as laughable that this song essentially has Christian congregations shouting “crucify Him!” because John 12:32 was treated as an inkblot to be “interpreted” subjectively, instead of understanding “lift Him up” in context?

The Essential 100–better than nothing

Some time ago I picked up a tri-fold brochure that describes “The Essential 100”–a “carefully selected list of short Bible passages–50 from the Old Testament and 50 from the New Testament–that helps you get the big picture of the Bible without getting bogged down.”

I suppose doing this type of reading is better than nothing.

And as I scan the list, I’m thinking that it’s a reasonable smattering of significant passages.  It would appear that a participant in this “Essential 100 Challenge” would experience a relatively balanced doctrinal diet, emerging uncontaminated by sectarian slant.

Yet I am more interested in reading with greater attention to larger contextual slices.  I have never read the Bible all the way through and feel something akin to pride in that fact.  Quite frankly, I don’t know God well enough as revealed in Genesis and Exodus in order to spend time both in 2 Kings and in 2 Chronicles.  I don’t know enough Psalms lament and worship material to move through the laborious pages of Jeremiah or to memorize random Proverbs.  And I don’t know anything like enough about Jesus to worry with scholars’ interpretations of Jude or Song of Songs or Obadiah.

This is not to denigrate any canonical writings; neither is it to downplay the value of scholarship in texts I have chosen to gloss over, to date; rather, it is to express my belief that some scripture is more significant than the rest and I want to know more of what is most significant.  It strikes me as I write this that I’m actually engaging in a different sort of “Essential 100” pick-and-choose.  (Touché! to those of you who caught this self-incriminating inconsistency before reading my admission.)

I am also persuaded, both etymologically and historically, that the biblia (plural in Latin) is Books, not Book, so it is much more important to handle each individual book well than to view the entire sacred collection as a literarily coherent entity.  In other words, I don’t care what the middle verse or the middle book of the Bible is, and I don’t care about any mathematical relationship between 39 and 27 (the numbers of canonical OC and NC books).  It’s helpful to have a sense of how much of the Bible is history, and how much is poetry or prophecy, but in the grand scheme, I think I need Mark’s gospel a lot more than I need to understand the apocalyptic Ezekiel.  I don’t care a lot about color-codings and cross-references that clue an unsuspecting reader into a thematic relationship between an isolated verse in Isaiah and another in Ephesians.  I do care very deeply what Exodus reveals about God, and about the entire witness of what the inspired Paul wrote to the Colossian Christians, and about what John’s complete portrait of our Jesus tells us about Him.

The individual books are self-contained and are best viewed as coherent within themselves, rather than as commentary on other Bible books.  This is not to say that there’s no relationship; clearly, Revelation’s language draws on Daniel’s and Ezekiel’s, and Jesus quoted Psalms, and Paul treated the Torah, and the understanding of parts of Malachi informs understanding of the Incarnation of God in Jesus the Christ.  There is a consistent, developing voice in scripture, when considered on the whole, and it all does harmonize, but that is a natural by-product of the God behind all the writings, not a course for us to major in.

As I consider Bible reading and Bible study on the whole, I am more interested in thorough, exegetical study than in “not getting bogged down.”  Oh, I do recall thinking “when are we ever going to be done with this particular study?”  But I am now more compelled by book-specific context than by randomly stringing together 8 verses in one book and 5 in another, and I resist the urge simply to read randomly and pray subjectively, passing over elegant textual structures the likes of which our western minds don’t often get to explore.  There is so much in scripture that awaits earnest attention and investigation!

Our study group enjoyed more than 20 sessions in the gospel of Mark last year (that number was limited by my limited brain and by the limiting calendar), and this fall, we’ll probably have 3-4 more sessions in Philemon.  These types of investigations into God’s inspired messages catapult me into deeper, greater understanding than has been possible for me previously.

Back to the Essential 100 … the Scripture Union brochure also suggested their “Bible reading method,” and I was not too impressed:

  1. Pray.
  2. Read.
  3. Reflect. (Later changed to “Meditate.”)
  4. Apply.
  5. Pray again.

There was not much more than that in print, and I found it way too subjective.  My sensibilities are offended by the implicit suggestion that praying twice and reflecting personally will result in a good hermeneutic or will enable appropriate “application” to life.  Upon checking this organization’s website, however, I found a more fleshed-out version of the “method.”  Steps 2 and 3, in particular, are well extrapolated.  Check this out and see what you think.

Any Bible reading is likely to be better than not reading, but methodologies are important, too–so that God’s voice, not my preconception or prejudiced assumption, is clear.