Re: historically informed interpretation (longish)

Wed, 18 Dec 1996 20:43:51 -0800

Carlton Winbery wrote, in part:
Edward Lohse's _The NT Environment_ is a good resource to see some ways
that a knowledge of the historical and cultural setting of the NT
better translation. Another is Bo Reicke, _The NT Era_. One draw back
that they sometimes chew up the data for the student and digest it.
Students need to be encouraged to do some chewing of their own. The
way to do that is to read the primary sources and the NT in large

While this encourages me to add yet more titles to my list of thngs
to read, I would like to add a little more to chew on. If you can bear
with a little personal "journey", when I entered my doctoral program, I
essentially held to the model that Gordon Fee (who once taught at my
alma mater, Souther California College, if I may be excused for
namedropping just this once -- but not many AG scholars get read so
widely) presented in his book on New Testament Exegesis. You take the
text, follow the steps and out comes "the meaning" of the text.

I now think the issue is much more complicated, and all sorts of
questions need to be asked before arriving at "a meaning". Furthermore,
we might apply Robert Polzin's approach to the OT to the NT and say that
it is necessary to understand a NT document as a literary work before we
can correctly read its historical and cultural background. It is not
merely a one-way trip from culture to text. Furthermore, "culture" and
"history" need to be expanded and nuanced a lot. Culture needs to
encompass language and lnguistics *what a Greek speaker meant by using
an Aorist, as a non-controversial example), sociological factors,
literary conventions (when does a NT author do something because of
theolgoy and when does he/she do sometihng because it's convention, such
as the highly classical rhetorical structure of Galatians) and then of
course how does a modern reader's culture and perspective influence her
reading of a NT text, and how large a role the reader plays in creating
the meaning of the text. I don't mean to be taking positions here or
attacking anyone else's view, but to suggest that merely looking at
"historical" information needs to be seen in a much larger matrix to use
it appropriately. One of the questions that is engaging me these days
is how to ascertain, if it can be done at all, how an ancient reade
"read" a text. What did a resident of Corinth expect from Thycydides,
quite apart from what Thucydides might have said about his own work.
What did Theophilus expect of Luke-Acts? Idon't know how to get at the
answer to that question, and without being able to answer that question,
I'm in much more doubt about asking from this distance what the text
meant, if it had/has only one valid meaning.