RE: Either/Or?

From: Perry L. Stepp (plstepp@flash.net)
Date: Mon Apr 27 1998 - 09:09:23 EDT


Far be it from me to contribute to a thread Dr. Conrad never wanted to begin
in the first place. However, let me offer a slightly different take on the
issue than Carl's, one that is NT interpreter-specific:

> From: Carl W. Conrad [mailto:cwconrad@artsci.wustl.edu]

> At 11:16 PM -0500 4/26/98, Paul S. Dixon wrote:

> >This is not to say there is little or no value in studying non-canonical
> >literature.
> >Undoubtedly studying such can contribute to one's understanding of the
> >Greek
> >language in general, and by implication to his understanding of the Greek
> >in the NT or LXX, but the law of diminishing returns does set in
> >somewhere.

My problem with this line of thinking is that it attempts to isolate the NT
from the literature of the surrounding world. What NT authors intended (and
audiences heard/read) is impossible to determine with any degree of
certainty if one has no knowledge of how the people in that society
thought--knowledge that we gain by, among other things, reading
contemporaneous extra-NT texts. For example: witness much of the work
currently being published--[shameless plug] to which I am making my own
incredibly humble contribution--by the SBL's Luke-Acts group, where new
studies tracing concepts and ideas across ancient Greco-Roman literature
have shed a great deal of light on the interpretation of Luke's biography of
Jesus and his followers.

Without reading Philo, Diogenes Laertius, Plutarch, Josephus, Diodorus
Siculus, Cassius Dio, Arrian, Lucian, Philodemus, plus other historians,
philosophers/historians of philosophy, biographers, rhetoricians, etc.,
there would be no comparative material. Our interpretations would simply be
the repetition of our own thoughts (themselves nurtured in the intellectual
atmosphere of Imperial Christendom). Our interpretations would be ignorant
of the milieu of the texts' we're attempting to interpret.

Unlike Carl, when I read secular Greco-Roman literature my interest in the
theological payoff is *always* present--even when I'm reading primarily for
other purposes (enjoyment, edification) as well. I suspect the difference
in our interests is a difference in vocations, not a disagreement over the
comparative value of different texts.

> This appears to me to be a reformulation of Tertullian's classical
> challenge: "What have Jerusalem and Athens in common?"

In the "either/or" formulation, where do interpreters go for an
understanding of ancient biblical texts? To Church tradition and
writings--much of it written centuries after the fact? Or to the extant
documents contemporaneous to the ancient biblical texts one is studying?
The latter is to be preferred.

Perry L. Stepp

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