A network of highly cohesive details reveals the truth.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Celebrating another perspective

Rick Brannan of Ricoblog recently posted "Context involves perspective". In that article he says:
It makes me realize that I need to be a bit more diligent about understanding the background and setting of the specific books of the Bible. That I need to know more about theories of authorship and circumstances of writing. And, most importantly, I need to be better about tracking who is saying what to whom in epistles, narrative and dialogue. And the relationships between those people.
My response is a hearty 'amen' and a 'let's clarify this a little'. I think one of the hardest things facing the careful exegete is to make sure he or she doesn't view the text from a foreign perspective. At least, not until an understanding from the original audience's perspective is obtained. Bringing that exegesis forward and applying it to today is very important; but reversing or inverting the process is anachronistic. So, Rick is right on.

But let me get specific, lest I be misunderstood.

First, I don't think the "theories of authorship" are all that important. At least not for exegesis. I think all that really needs to be accepted here is simply that the author had a level of authority from the perspective of the original readers. And I think this is somewhat self evident. At the very least, we wouldn't have the writings today if it weren't for the original audience thinking that the letter or sermon or writing was rather important to hold on to. So, I don't think we have to get too hung up on (say) whether the person who wrote Hebrews was male or female. It simply doesn't affect the exegesis of any sufficiently important, author intended, point.

I accept that certain issues of how the text is put together may bear some benefit, however. My caution here is that "theories of authorship" weren't really a part of the mental (or cognitive) environment of the original audience. The notion of authorial authority (gosh that's a painful alliteration) was important. Whether or not Moses penned every jot and title of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures is not a problem that needed to be solved for the original audience. It, therefore, shouldn't be that important a topic for the exegete to worry about.

However, Rick's point about circumstances of writing is, in my opinion, right on the money. For example, we know that during the 1st CE there were quite a few claims on Messiahship by various men (interestingly, some named 'Joshua' or, to use the Greek name, 'Jesus'). Why? What was driving that level, and that focus, of activity? Getting an answer to that 'why' question generates a whole context within which to interpret all four gospels as well as Acts (and I shouldn't stop there). And may I add here somewhat tangentially to my point: why did this one Jesus, the one I call Lord, get all the notoriety? Why did he radically change the direction of the story that all these other Messiah hopefuls were hoping to write? Well, he rose from the dead! That wasn't exactly expected by anyone. And I am very thankful.

What I'm getting at is this: the people in the original audience had this life thing going on. You know, just like you and I do. They were living a story. We're living a story. We have to interact with all the stuff that goes on around us on a day-to-day basis. They were no different. And that life thing they lived was, to significant degree, within a social, political, economic, and theological situation that for many people was anything but a happy one. That was a context for change. Not to mention a context for some quite powerful writing.

You can see this in the text. Paul gets in trouble with the government officials, both Jewish and Roman. Jesus eats with "sinners". He even ate with Pharisees. Well, if you put yourself in that context, you would expect him to eat with Pharisees--Pharisees were respected people. But eating with those who failed to keep Torah? That was confronting social dogma of the time and the comfortable weren't happy about it. Then there's the money issue. There's always the money issue. And, lastly, there was Mars (god of war) and Aphrodite (god of sex), and several other important gods that formed the idols of the day. So, you see, the whole problem of money, sex and power was just as alive then as it is today. We, too, have the same idol problem, we just don't symbolize our worship with little wooden figures. These things made up the stuff that those people had to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Just like us. This was the context within which they lived. It was the story they were writing with their lives.

Or, to put it more simply, we have to understand the narrative of their lives so we know how to interpret the texts that sought to bring about changes to the story they were living. That perspective will enable us to apply that story to the story we live.

And that's really what exegesis is the foundation for. Changing our minds, and thereby changing our story, brings about a celebration (cf Rom. 12:1-2, Luke 15:7, 15:10, and 15:31-32). Let's join the celebration.

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