Re: historically informed interpretation (longish)

David L. Moore (
Thu, 19 Dec 1996 12:10:34 -0500

At 08:43 PM 12/18/96 -0800, KEN LITWAK wrote:
>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.

It seems logical that in pursuing doctoral studies Ken would
recognize that a great deal more than a simple understanding of historical
facts surrounding a given text may be called for in the task of
interpretation. And I believe he has correctly stated that "historical
background" may also entail a very ample set of cultural, sociological and
rhetorical (and other) aspects of the society of that time. Consideration
of these things certainly must affect how we approach the task of

Carl's post in answer to Ken points to the need for those who
interpret the biblical documents to be forebearing in judgement of one
another's reading of the text, and I agree with that focus - at least within
certain limits. That is, there needs to be freedom to disagree, but let us
not draw the conclusion from that need and from that freedom that the
biblical texts may be polyvalant in meaning or that all possible
interpretations are correct.

It is fairly well agreed by all that the writer encodes his meaning
when writing the text and that the reader reads meaning from the text, but
key to any discussion of meaning and the possibility of correctly
ascertaining the meaning of any text is whether we may legitimately say that
there is meaning in the text itself. If there is, then there is the
possibility of either correctly or incorrectly understanding that meaning.

I hear Ken questioning not only whether correct understanding is
possible (Does he mean *correct* understanding or *comprehensive*
understanding?) but, also, whether there really is such a thing as the
*correct* understanding of a text. It seems to me that our not having
comprehensive understanding of all background data related to the texts with
which we deal should not make us despair of finding correct meaning. And
our presently not having a way of absolutely validating the correct meaning
of a given text should not make us think that there will never be a way for
its absolute validation.

David L. Moore Director
Miami, Florida, USA Department of Education Southeastern Spanish District of the Assemblies of God