Monday, December 26, 2005

Biblical Potpourri for 500 . . .

The study of the Bible is an inherently political action, in more ways than one. There are, of course, the oft noted ways in which this is so, such as the way reading the Bible establishes the relationship between Church and world in public life; but there are more intramural ways in which reading the Bible is a poltically charged endeavor, and I'm not talking about denominationalism. A good deal of commotion is generated in what one could call "departmentalism".

It seems like studying the Bible in an academic setting means being swallowed whole by colonizing sub-disciplines, all of which vie for supremacy among specialists. The net effect of hyper-specialization is that not only is a pastor (such as myself) beset with choices between different translations of Scripture, and choices of interpretations within the text of Scripture, and choices of hermeneutical schemes to interpret Scripture, and choices of theological systems that are faithful to Scripture, but with the choice of which one of these questions is more important than the others! Which questions are most determinative in trying to understand, preach and obey the Bible?

Bart D. Ehrman argues that textual criticism is every bit as ideological as it is textual - how can a person even begin to engage in "biblical theology" if the selection of texts which supposedly constitute an author's (or set of editors') "theology" is arbitrarily selected by contemporary scholarship? The theological nature of variant readings mean that in selecting what is supposedly the "original" text one is ultimately aligning herself with competing theologies. How can Scripture be said to be inspired if we don't even know which words belong to Scripture? How reliable are the manuscripts which make up the Bible? How substantive were the changes and is the original text recoverable? Even if it does make sense to speak of an "autograph", what does the fact of scribal changes say about the cohesiveness of Christianity in its earliest days? Moreover, if one can't establish an authoritative text, what's the point of doing theology or talking about interpretation?

Biblical theology is an enterprise that is notoriously spoken of as "in crisis" even though it continues to pulse with activity. While the Biblical Theology Movement can said to have been leveled by the criticisms of James Barr and company, the academic task of establishing a plausiblly historically situated theology continues. Moreover the basic project of Biblical theology seems an invioble part of Biblical studies as a whole. Baruch Spinoza or J.P. Gabler didn't invent the concern that the Bible should speak for itself, with its own categories and agendas. The idea that the Bible should be understood on its own terms instead of serving as a dogmatic diving board is something close to a universal intuition. It's this inutition that makes the discipline of Biblical theology an invetibly colonizing force on other disciplines, ready to slap the hands of the ambitious systematician, reprove the anachronisitic philosophical categories of the hermeneutically fanciful and carry the banner of Biblical authority for the Church.

On the other hand, without dogmatics it becomes unclear what unites the cacophany of divergent voices of Scripture in all their historical particularity. What does something Isaiah said in his historical context have to do with anything Matthew might say in his? Can one even "preach the Gospel" without engaging in some kind of supra-historical creedal synthesis? For all the lofty ambitions of Biblical theology, its historical interests yield such a strict emphasis on diversity that the Bible collapses into a disjointed product of human imagination instead of the singular voice of God. But more than that, theological preunderstandings and creedal loyalty subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) fund both historical criticical and Biblical theological methodology; and that fact places systematics in a position of primary importance.

The new totalizing force in Biblical studies seems to be the issue of how one relates to the postmodern turn, which has brought with it a self-critical emphasis on philosophical starting points. Postmodernism seeks to pull back the curtain from our detached claims to theological knowledge, revealing the wizard of culturally informed theories of truth and justification. Epistemology has become the new prolegomena. One can't engage in any level of the theological task without giving account of the philosophical superstructures within which it takes place. I would have never imagined that being interested in Biblical studies would impel me toward the likes of Wittgenstein, Searle, Heidegger, Tarski or Davidson.

Textual criticism, biblical theology, systematic theology and philosophy are just a few of the sub-disciplines within the guild that seem to draw all others into their orbit, defining the problems and solutions in light of their own gravitational fields.


If you're in ministry, which of these disciplines do you believe is most determinative in trying to faithfully minister the Bible to your people?

If you're in the academy, does this picture misrepresent the current state of affairs?

If you're neither (or both) of the above, do you think that there's one primary "center" for theological studies, and if so what is it?


Jonathan Moorhead said...

Hmmmmm. Sharad, are you asking for a "method"???

TheBlueRaja said...

Maybe - what do you mean?

metalepsis said...

Do the sub-disciplines swallow up the academician, or does the academician colonize the sub-disciplines?

TheBlueRaja said...


I think both seem to be true - the existence of established sub-disciplines set the table for a person's research and thus "swallow up" the academician in the sense that they are forced choose which area they will make their contribution. Other areas of Biblical studies then tend to get viewed through the eyes of their particular specialization, which can result in legitimate insight, but it can also result in a kind of myopia. Moreover the breadth of work in each sub-discipline makes a truly non-superficial "inter-disciplinary" approach seem impossible. Attempts at such an approach are easily labeled as "naive".

Scot McKnight said...

First, textual criticism is not in the disarray suggested. Childs blew this fear away when he suggested that "all" the variants are part of the ecclesial tradition. We'll never have autographs, and that evidently doesn't matter to God. We have reliable texts, in spite of what Bart is suggesting. The theological tendencies of the tradition are clear because we have other witnesses.

Second, biblical theology is not as clear as some thing. The only ones for whom it is clear are those who think there is a "system" behind it all and if we are patient and good enough in our exegesis we'll be able to find it. This is unjustifiable as a procedure. The unity of biblical theology is found in central themes (like the work of God to redeem his people) that are probed in different ways by different authors, but are all "variations on (the same) a theme."

Third, systematic theology, in its traditional form, is deeply challenged today. Why? Because it carries an assumption and a praxis: the assumption being that there is one and that we can find it, and the praxis being that it results in a system no one in the Bible believed.

Fourth, philosophy: postmodernity can't be avoided but neither is it the be-all and end-all.

Overall, my point would be this: Protestants find the authority in the Scripture, but everything comes to play in the interpretation of Scripture and we can't departmentalize. Departmentalizing is modernism pure and simple: bracketing is modernism. If our pursuit is wisdom so we can live as God's will, Scripture is plenty clear -- in fact, too clear.

PS: I'll be posting on Ehrman's new book when it arrives.

Michael F. Bird said...

I could not add much more after what Scot McKnight said (but I will anyway). For me the biggest problem is being able to recognize the different disciplines and put them into practice. We have to realize that there is a story and a tradition behind Scripture, there is the phenomenon of Scripture (what it says, signifies, and does), the interpretation of Scripture, and the theology of Scripture. The problem is when we confuse one for another. Some groups (Fundamentalists usually) preach the authority of the text but practice the tyranny of the interpretation. They fail to recognize the existence of hermeneutics, let alone the role of culture and pre-understanding in shaping their theology. Otherwise, there are those who can't seem to get into their head that the Bible is anything other than a proof-text manual for systematic theology. In sum, the biggest challenges are recognizing that there are different sub-fields (who colonizes who is of no care of mine) and as an academic trying to keep abreast of them.

Antonio said...

Too much traditional "interpretation" is the problem. We are well removed from the writers of the NT. We see from history how quickly the adherents to Christianity deviated from their teaching.

New and fresh analysis is needed. Tradition has colored all facets of theology.

Daniel said...

New and fresh analysis is needed.



Actually what -is- needed is a contrite and humble walk with God.

The only reason anyone would bother seeking after "new and fresh" analysis is they believed there was something wrong with the "old established" truths.

Surely men will continue to be always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth, and others will not only do the same, but approve of those who practice it.

Good gravy! Surely we are not so blind.

TheBlueRaja said...

Scot and Michael,

Thanks for your comments! I can't wait to see Scot's thoughts on Ehrman. What's probably more interesting than the actual positions being propounded by Ehrman are the autobiographical bits which come through all over the place.


I don't think anyone is advocating a brash and proud scholarship devoid of a genuine walk with God, and I doubt that "new and fresh analysis" is the antithesis to such a walk.

The problem with relying on the formulations of "old established" truths is that no one does so unilaterally, and no one seems to mind "new and fresh analysis" when it suits them (Luther might be case in point - and seeing him as "recovering old apostolic truth" doesn't cut change the newness of his formulations from his surrounding context; it also doesn't explain much of the theological language he used which isn't found in the NT).

The Scriptures don't say that learning stopped in the 1st C., and learning isn't always of such a kind that "never arrives at the truth" - discipleship is an ongoing yoke of learning (not just "reviewing old established truths").

Ted Gossard said...


Great thoughts (stretching for me in a good way) and great comments.

I was thinking how easy it is for evangelicals at times to pooh-pooh scholarship. But without scholarship none of us would have our Bibles. Indeed Jesus and the apostles would not have had the Septuagint and alot of other things in that day that shaped their worldview.

I am very glad that people like you are wrestling through these issues. And I am a very interested bystander.

Through it all, in the end, I believe that God is at work. But that certainly involves the work you're doing.

Thanks "blueraja" for the stimulating post.

blessings in the new year,


TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks for your kind comments and reflections, Ted! Blessings to you in the New Year!

Sameer said...


Thanks for the post - I do find it a valuable question to ask. Although the disciplinary demarcations you've identified are only useful fictions, they serve to point up the complexity of theological enquiry at any level. To follow the path of a research question that seems to properly belong to one arena quickly leads you into subsidiary questions which are both a) clearly necessary for an adequate answer to that question and b) belong to (or at least imply) constructive work in a discipline external to the question originally posed.

Both Michael and Scot are right to respond to this by suggesting that the theological enterprise cannot finally bracket any “departments” capable of independent progress. But I also don’t think that this sort of response really scratches the itch you are attempting to point out. There’s no question that many different types of theological enquiry mutually imply one another, whether or not they are susceptible to any one taxonomy. If I am hearing your concern correctly, the question is, in the face of such a diverse and complex range of questions – all of which appear crucial to the task of studying/doing theology – are some sorts of questions more important, foundational, primary, or central than other sorts?

Two thoughts come immediately to mind for me when considering this question. First, I think that Michael’s distinction between the phenomena and the interpretation of Scripture is helpful, but it more appropriately addresses your concern when broadened to encompass the entirety of the theological enterprise – i.e. there is the phenomena of theology and the substance of theology – the theological objects (and Subject) of our enquiry on the one hand and our approaches to and descriptive formulations of that phenomena on the other hand. I think that it is preferable to see the substance of theology as consisting of various *access points* into its phenomena. Each access point uniquely shapes the perspective and concerns with which we look upon the same theological phenomena, and it is the unity of the phenomena that explains why all of the differing access points are mutually dependent and to some extent, fluid. Each individual access point (e.g. text-criticism, etc.) is more a matter of “turning up the volume” on some sorts of questions and “turning down the volume” on others rather than a discrete category of theological enquiry. The Bible (which is only one relevant theological object of enquiry - and not even the most important one) is an ancient, etiological, theological document, thereby containing historical data, ideological projections and philosophical perspectives. So any disciplinary hierarchy, theological center, or order of priority must argue for (or assume) a particular characterization of the nature of theological phenomena if it is to justify its procedure for mining and appropriating its substance.

Second, the massive, inexhaustible, and to some extent inevitably mysterious character of theological phenomena require that its substance be pursued as an essentially communal achievement, if it is to be a successful one. I think that the potential for despair (perhaps the despair of having to read Tarski) and even the longing for some centralizing or “totalizing” force from which to approach the Bible comes from placing the entirety of the theological task upon yourself as an individual. Learning to think about the interpretation and teaching of Scripture in a communal context alleviates that pressure. Thus, perhaps I should depend upon e.g. N.T. Wright more for his judgments on Jesus studies than for his judgments on postmodern or critical theory. Likewise, there is no shame in assessing your own contribution in such a way so as to make your congregation aware of your limitations and shepherd them to look elsewhere within the Christian community when necessary.

TheBlueRaja said...


I actually had a much longer reply to both Scot and Michael, but decided to can it for another post on the topic; but with your comments I'm not sure if I'll have to do that - I think you expressed my sentiments exactly.

Your comments about the communal nature of interpretation is more in the way of an answer to the question than the other posts, though I suspect that this is something both Scot and Mike would agree to.

Sameer said...

Cool beans. In any case, doing theology is much more fun and satisfying than talking about what we're doing when we do it!

TheBlueRaja said...

The phrase "cool beans" will get your post deleted without reading further, pal. Keep the early 90's where it belongs . . .

Sameer Yadav said...

You're acting like you're all that and a bag of chips. Like you're the bomb. As if! Anyway, I was totally using the phrase tongue-in-cheek, like back in the day, so no need to ice my grill. Peace out!

Rose~ said...

This might be a dumb question, but: do you have a twin? Is that what the post called, "Who is the blueraja?" was all about?

Anyways, I don't have any good thoughts to add here, (surprise!), but I do have a comment:

It's this inutition that makes the discipline of Biblical theology an invetibly colonizing force on other disciplines, ready to slap the hands of the ambitious systematician, reprove the anachronisitic philosophical categories of the hermeneutically fanciful

It is quotes like the one above that makes reading your blog so, ... ... challenging!!! and enjoyable!

Have a good week! cool beaners...

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks for your kind comments, Rose! I DO have a twin, and he's the cheeky fellow who just posted before you. Sameer is my best male friend and one of my favorite conversationalists. He's aiming for a post-graduate degree from Duke University and is currently teaching at a young upstart undergraduate school called Eternity Bible College.

Ephraim said...

I actually read this here:

"Indeed Jesus and the apostles would not have had the Septuagint and alot of other things in that day that shaped their worldview."

And what, exactly, would "Jesus and the apostles" do with the Septuagint? Read it in the synagogue on Shabbat?

How do these religious urban myths keep going after all these centuries?

Hey Blue. Love the vocabulary.


TheBlueRaja said...


Myths which also happen to be facts die hard! The New Testament authors use the Septuagint more than any other edition of the OT. It didn't eliminate the use of Hebrew, but with the hellenization of Palestine it became the Bible of synagogue worship and Jewish instruction.

The letter of Aristeas gives the (likely quasi-mythical) account of the translation, as does Philo and Josephus. Early Greek papyri (with various portions of the Pentateuch, dated in the 1st and 2nd C. BC.)and uncial codices (codex Vaticanus, Alexandrinus) testify to several editions of the LXX. There are also of course secondary witnesses in Syriac, Coptic, Old Latin, patristics, etc.

Thanks for your comments about my verbage! If you'd like some more information about the origin and use of the Septuagint, let me know and I'll email it to you!

Ephraim said...


Thanks for the offer!

But I have done quite a bit of study on the Septuagint, its origins and usage during the time of Yeshua.

While it may be that Greek and Roman culture was pressing in on the Jews at Jersusalem, it had not, and would not displace the adherence to the Hebrew scriptures clung to by the dominant religious groups of Jews at that time.

Consider the difference between the genealogies of Matthew and Luke in their gospels. You will find that Luke had used the Septuagint to populate his, while Matthew used a Hebrew source. The additional person in the Greek version is not supported by the Hebrew scriptures.

And why would the disciples use a Greek version of the scriptures when they did not use Greek in their everyday communication? Do you think that Greek was commonly spoken around the Galilee at that time among the Jews?

Hellenized Jews had rejected the Hebrew culture in favor of the Greek, and consequently were rejected by the Hebrew culture that remained. There was a true division there. Just as with the Samaritans. And, as far as the Jews were concerned, for good reasons.

Perhaps we could explore further at your convenience. I'm sure your studies exceed mine and I should like to hear how you think about this.

Till then.


Sameer said...

Hi Ephraim,

Sorry to intrude on this conversation, but I'm just curious.

Are you denying the commonplace assertion that the majority of OT references by the NT authors come from the Septuagint? If so, what evidence is there for that?

Or, do you grant that and then add that those authors who do quote exclusively (or primarily) from the LXX belong to a fairly localized Hellenistic group? If so, why would you think that?

Given the position you describe, it seems like you are left having to explain the NT phenomenon in roughly one of these two ways. Neither sounds very compelling to me!

Further, could you clarify your reasons for thinking that there is a "Hebrew" source behind Matthew? Do you subscribe to the idea that there was an Aramaic Matthew, or are you advocating something else?
Which "Hebrew Scriptures" are violated by Luke's genealogy?

Finally, why do you take the Hellenization of Palestine to be such a clear cut affair, with "the Hellenized" on the one side and the "Hebrews" on the other? Do you not see any broader cultural and social implications of Alexander's Hellenization (which was accelerated among the Jews during the Maccabean period, particularly by Jason)? Do you think that this activity was limited only to Alexandrian Jews?

A final point: Langauge aquisition isn't always a good indicator of cultural or ideological orientation. It remains possible to be a Greek-speaking and yet an opponent of Greek-Jewish syncretism. Consider the influence of Aramaic upon exilic Judasim, for example, which nevertheless retained significant lines of ideological continuity with its Hebrew-speaking predecessor. Sure, both were Semitic languages, whereas Greek is Indo-European, but the principle is the same. All that to say, it is one thing to show that Greek-speaking Jews was a localized or minority phenomenon, and it is another, more complex task, to determine the prevalence of full-blown Hellenization.

Sameer said...

By the way, forgive the awkward phrasing and grammar of that last post, it was sort of a hurried response.

Anyway, I AM a native-English speaker despite the subject-verb agreement errors ("Greek speaking Jews WAS"? sheesh!)

Ephraim said...


I am honored that you have joined the discussion. While I certainly do not have the scholarly credentials you have, I will attempt to answer your questions the best I can. Unfortunately, I am at work and do not have access to my resources from which I could quote so that you could check them for yourself. But, if I may, I could offer some of what is floating about in my head as to why I have taken the position I have regarding the use of the Hebrew scriptures by both Yeshua and His disciples.

Your first question:

"Are you denying the commonplace assertion that the majority of OT references by the NT authors come from the Septuagint? If so, what evidence is there for that?"

To the first part of your question I would have to say no, but with the objection of your implying that those references to the LXX were made by the authors, rather than the copyists who came along later.

The evidence of that assertion? I wish I could quote some reputable historical document which would completely substantiate my position, but, it is my own logic that must suffice at this point.

Consider this: the Torah scrolls which are read in the synagogues today around the world, in which language are they written? I ask the obvious because if what you are implying is true, and that the Greek language had superceded the Hebrew, for whatever reason, then would not those modern day Torah scrolls be written in Greek instead of Hebrew? Or perhaps even Aramaic? If the Jews had abandoned their language then, why make any effort to keep it intact today?

You may well ask, does this make a difference? Greek, Hebrew, who cares? It is the content of those scriptures that should be our concern, not the language in which they are written. I might agree. In fact there was a time when I would not only agree, but defend your position! Today, I can no longer do that.

Language, as I'm sure you know, is more than just a collection of agreed upon sounds and symbols. It is the very expression of the heart and soul of the people whose language it is. Our thought processes are revealed in our language. Multi-lingual folks often say that though they may be speaking one language, they think in terms of their native tongue. They must translate, in their heads, not just the words but their proper contextual meaning, or they will have failed to communicate.

Which brings me to a question for you.

Why would Hebrews (Israelites, Jews) think and speak in Hebrew, with its associated thought processes and worldview, and then try to force fit those very specific spiritual concepts which had been ingrained in the Hebrew language for thousands of years, into a language which had a pagan worldview and did not even contain the letters and sounds so vital and neccessary for proper communication of what the writers would consider to be extremely important ideas and instructions?

Would you or I do that today?

Punjabi may be a very expressive language but I would not use it if it did not contain the important foundational elements I needed to communicate my ideas to those who spoke it in their daily lives. I would have to work closely with and rely upon a competent translator if I had any hope of making myself clear. This may require the redefinition, if not the invention, of certain words to bring the clear meaning through to the other language.

I don't want to go too far down the "reliability of scripture" road. I am more interested in discovering, perhaps even verifying, the original Hebrew concepts that have found their way into our hands so many years hence. It could be an empty quest, others have said so, but for me at this time it is not.

Your other questions are excellent, but, I will have to address them individually in separate comments so as not to alarm out host.

I do hope we can continue at least for a little while.

Shalom Blue

Shalom Sameer

Ephraim said...

I guess we're done here.

Sameer said...

Sorry Ephraim,

I'd be happy to carry this discussion a bit further, but at the moment I'm a bit bogged down in course prep and other pressing matters.

I expect I'll catch some time for responding next week -- sorry to leave you hanging there!