For the sake of consistency

A summary of Historical-Cultural Background from Klein, Bloomberg, and Hubbard’s Introduction to Biblical Interpretation

This may come as a shock to many –but the Bible is not written specifically for us.

In the duration of our study in Hermeneutics it has been ingrained in us that  biblical interpretation is the process of carefully studying the biblical text in order to understand its meaning and relevance, first of all in the past, and secondly in the present.

Accordingly the process of analyzing the biblical text in its original context in order to clarify or understand what it means implies that the task of the exegete is to allow the text to speak for itself. Exegesis then focuses on the then of the text rather than the now of contextualized meaning. For that reason, Jeannine Brown writes: “exegesis is the task of carefully studying the Bible in order to determine as well as possible the author’s meaning in the original context of writing.[1]” Therefore engaging in biblical interpretation means that the exegete is to be engaged in a cross cultural task, as it involves bridging gaps or distance of time and location, language and culture.

That is why one can find Klein, Bloomberg and Hubbard’s chapter on the Historical-Cultural Background of the text as a helpful tool in biblical interpretation as the chapter focuses on the fact that there must be an awareness of the cross-cultural and epoch-spanning dimensions of the Scriptures, as each passage was God’s Word to other people before it became God’s Word to us. As a result the Bible as it is now emerges as something that comes to us secondhand[2].

The reason why this is so is because as the authors note: the biblical authors like in the case of the New Testament, the Apostles or others sent letters to the first century churches to specific people living in certain places concerning particular circumstances in their lives. In most instances the writers and recipients had shared common experiences, spoke the same colloquial language and possessed common information about each other and their world. To interpret correctly these books today, the reader needs to understand as much as possible the details of this historical and cultural backdrop to which the text was written at the time[3], thus pointing to the need for consistency in our interpretation and contextualization of Scriptures to the historical-cultural background which is the very heart of the interpretative task[4].

With regards to the contextualization of the text the authors write:

Contextualizing biblical truths requires interpretive bifocals. First, we need a lens to look back into the background of the biblical world to learn the intended meaning. Then, we need another lens to see the foreground to determine how to best express –contextualize –that sense for today’s world[5].

Here the authors highlight that the task of interpretation is to bridge gaps or distance of time and location, language and culture by looking at the text from the vantage point of joining two horizons: the horizon of the intended meaning in the past and the horizon of its sense for the present. Perhaps the difficulty in the statement lies in the concept of God’s people as Scriptures in its form suggests that the Bible is written to a specific community upon which we claim to be heirs of those communities that the Bible authors wrote to.

In dealing with the principles of historical-cultural interpretation the authors offer the following principles that could function as constructive interpretative tools:

  1. We must understand each passage consistent with its historical and cultural background. The authors point out that any interpretation to qualify as the intended meaning of a text, must deal with the given circumstances of the original writing, so that any suggested explanation of a passage would be consistent with the historical and cultural setting of the author and its recipients[6].
  2. We must determine the impact that the biblical message would have had in its original setting. That is to know how the original recipients would have reacted to what was written.[7]
  3. We must express biblical truth in our language in ways that most closely correspond to the ideas in the biblical culture.  That is to find the adequate or proper idioms that will best articulate the intention of the passage so that the contemporary audience will sense the meaning and impact that the original readers sensed[8].
  4. Do not allow features of the historialcultural background to sabotage the main task of understanding the point of the text. While knowledge of the historical-cultural setting is important for discovering the meaning, it must never supplant the plain meaning of the text[9].

With regards to the background of the texts’ author or writer the authors propose that the exegete should research on the author’s identity, position among God’s people and relationship with his/her recipients and circumstances at the time of writing, as this information will help the exegete understand the book from the point-of-view of the writer. As for the recipients their characteristics, circumstances and community sheds light on a passage, in particular on how and why has written and eventually develop his/her take on the various subjects that the Scripture addresses[10]. Klein, Bloomberg and Hubbard also mentioned the date as another key historical-cultural factor as it enables the interpreter to include in the analysis historical information from other sources for that period[11]. There are other factors to which the authors of the book have pointed to as important in the task of knowing the historical-cultural background of the biblical literature this includes:

  • · Worldview: values, mindset, or outlook of the writer/editor, recipient, other people mentioned in the text, or in society at large.
  • · Societal structures: marriage and family patterns, gender roles and racial issues.
  • · Physical features: climate and weather, structures, implements or ease and means of transportation
  • · Economic structures: means of making a living, issues of wealth and poverty, slavery or economic mobility.
  • · Political climate: structures, or loyalties including actual personnel
  • · Behaviour patterns, dress or customs
  • · Religious practices, power centers, convictions, rituals or affiliations.[12]

Lastly, the authors highlight the importance of historical-cultural background by stating that the goal of historical-cultural background is to reconstruct, or at least to comprehend the historical setting and cultural features of the specific passage as clearly as possible[13]. For ultimate aim of biblical interpretation is to discover and explain the meaning of sacred texts in light of its historical and cultural reconstruction in order to bridge the gap of the texts in terms of time, in faith that what has been communicated in the past speaks to those in the present –thus paving the way for an encounter with the One who is the essence and object of the Sacred Scripture.

[1] Brown , Jeannine Scripture as Communication (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007) p. 23
[2] Klein, William W., Craig L. Bloomberg, and Robert Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993) p. 229
[3] Ibid pp.229-230
[4] Ibid p. 231
[5] Ibid
[6] Ibid p.232
[7] Ibid p. 233
[8] Ibid p. 234
[9] Ibid pp. 236,237
[10] Ibid p. 238
[11] Ibid
[12] Ibid p. 238
[13] Ibid p. 240

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