Learning from Paul

(Guest Post by Ben. T)

This weekend I finally made my way through Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul by Richard Hays. As expected, the book was loaded with helpful insights from a seasoned Pauline scholar. Surprisingly, though, I found the book personally challenging on a number of practical levels.

Hays writes as both a scholar and a churchman, seeking to make accessible and practical his insights to the community of faith. He writes, “Paul’s readings characteristically treat Scripture as a living voice that speaks to the people of God. The Bible for Paul is not just a chronicle of revelation in the past; the words of Scripture sound from the page in the present moment and address the community of believers with authority.” [1]

The book ends with several points aimed at summarizing his proposal. His observations and trajectories are not new in the sense of being unique, but it is refreshing to read a scholar who is so candid regarding the functional role of Scripture in the formation and transformation of the church as God’s eschatological community.

He writes:

If we learned from Paul how to read Scripture, we would read it in the service of proclamation. Christian biblical interpretation has its original and proper Sitz im Leben in preaching or (as in Paul’s letters) in pastoral counsel–that is to say, in acts of reading that construe Scripture as a word of direct address to the community. When Bonhoeffer read in 2 Tim. 4:21, ‘Do your best to come before winter,’ and took it as God’s word to him, he was operating with hermeneutical assumptions faithful to Paul’s example. This may not be good exegesis, but it was never proposed as exegesis of the text; rather, it was a charismatic, prophetic transference of the text’s sense. Indeed, Paul’s way of using Scripture suggests that homiletical and prophetic readings can sometimes be more faithful than rigorously exegetical ones. Exegesis gives us critical distance from the text; preaching thrusts the text’s word directly into our faces. The word is near us, and it demands a response. This strategy of reading is risky, because it strips away critical controls, exposing us to the danger of arbitrary or manipulative interpretations. On the other hand, unless we learn from Paul to read Scripture as a word addressed directly to us, we will never proclaim the word of God with power. [2]

I am constantly wrestling with the divide that exists between the academy and the church. How do we go about bridging the chasm between the two while moving towards synthesis over mere supplementation? Is it even possible?

Whatever the case, Hays presents a vital starting point—we must (re)capture the kerygmatic function of Scripture. It is God’s living and active word to us.

See also:

Richard Hays on “Why we need Eschatology

Richard Hays on “Reading the Bible with Eyes of  Faith”

[1] Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 165.

[2] Hays, Echoes, 185.


What is Rhetorical Criticism?

(Guest Post by Ben T.)

Rhetorical criticism, like many approaches to biblical interpretation, can be understood and applied in a number of ways to both Old Testament and New Testament studies. For our purposes, rhetoric among the ancient Greeks can be concisely understood as the “art of effective communication.”

Does this so-called rhetorical analysis provide a helpful framework in our interpretation and application of biblical texts? Arising from dissatisfaction with historical-critical analysis of the Bible, rhetorical criticism is an author-centered interpretive approach that generally regards the ‘final form’ of the text as the object of investigation. In this way, rhetorical criticism may provide a helpful and compelling way forward.

Patricia Tull writes:

…many have begun to direct attention to the hortatory nature of the much of the Bible—that is, its effort to persuade audiences not merely to appreciate the aesthetic power of its language but, even more importantly, to act and think according to its norms. Thus while rhetorical critics often begin with textual, literary questions reminiscent of the approaches of the Muilenberg school, many also inquire about the ways in which a text ‘establishes and manages its relations to its audience in order to achieve a particular effect.’ [1]

Interacting with Meir Sternberg’s The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, Tull demonstrates the confluence of rhetorical criticism with a more literary approach:

To Sternberg, biblical narrative is regulated by three principles coexisting in ‘tense complementarity’ with one another: ideology, historiography, and aesthetics. Although one might conclude that these principles would drive the discourse in contradictory directions, Sternberg is convinced that the Bible’s ideology is reinforced and underscored by its aesthetic choices. In Sternberg’s view, the most important rhetorical goal of biblical narrative is to inculcate in its readers a divine system of norms: By appearing to serve the readers, the narrator seeks to readers’ subjugation to God and God’s ways. In intricate retellings of biblical stories in which every word and every silence counts, Sternberg shows how the reader is ineluctably drawn into the narrator’s ideological orbit—that is, if the reader first lays aside his or her own opinions to ‘play by the Bible’s rules of communication.’ [2]

What do you think? Does this approach/method represent a viable way forward? Are there any issues inherent in its application to biblical texts?

[1] Patricia K. Tull, “Rhetorical Criticism and Intertextuality,” in Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes, eds., To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and their Application (Louisville: WJK Press, 1999), 160-61.

[2] Tull, “Rhetorical Criticism and Intertextuality,” 162. For a more comprehensive overview of Rhetorical Criticism and its application see Phyllis Trible, Rhetorical Criticism: Context, Method, and the Book of Jonah (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994), 1-90.

What is Historiography?

(Guest Post by Ben T.)

Historiography, properly understood, is the study of the way in which history is (and has been) written. The term “history” itself proves at times a confusing concept as it can refer to either the bare events of the past or the written (and oral) records of those events.

When studying history we rarely (if ever) have unmediated access to the bare facts of the past. The way in which these events—and the circumstances and motivations surrounding them—are preserved is always perspectival. That is, history is always codified through the ideologies and experiences of certain persons or groups. This does not make the history less valuable as historical artifact, but helps us realize that when we read history—especially biblical history—we are not encountering un-interpreted and un-mediated facts.

Following Huizenga and VanSeters we may helpfully define history as “the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of its past.” This definition highlights at least two important points:

1. History writing is purposeful, not accidental: When encountering and engaging narrative texts in the Bible, it is important that we attempt to discern the purpose(s) behind them. We should ask the same questions of these narrative accounts that we do of Pauline Epistles. Who wrote this? What may have occasioned its writing? What is its rhetorical function or strategy? The sweeping biblical narrative is more than just the mere accumulation of traditions and accounts over time. It is a deliberate re-telling of events. In this way, we may note that the biblical writers purposed much more than simply relating past events to future generations. They are purposeful documents, meant to give shape and substance to the Israelite identity as a people set apart to YHWH.

2. History writing uses the past to explain the present: It can be persuasively argued that some of the best history writing takes place far after the events it purports to record. It has long been assumed that an author’s close historical proximity to an event ensures the accuracy of the recounting. While this may be true to a certain degree, it is also true that historical distance allows for a more comprehensive perspective on the event, its importance, and its lasting significance. Take for instance the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan. While we can certainly document and write of the immediate impact caused by these destructive forces, it will take many years to fully understand the implications and significance of these events. In much the same way, assigning a later compositional date to biblical texts may in fact heighten their value as historical texts. Due to this historical distance between text and event, we also see that these narratives are not written to  the same people that they are written about. Thus past recounting is meant to address present situations. For instance, the so-called historical narratives of the Hebrew Bible appear to be shaped in some capacity by the catastrophic experience of exile.

It is my suspicion that approaching narrative texts as compilations of bare historical facts has ultimately proven detrimental to the contemporary evangelical church and its understanding and appropriation of these texts. If Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Matthew, or Acts are “just bare history,” it is difficult to see their practical import. There are certainly things we can learn through the unfolding of history, but it is my contention that this approach tends to miss the rich contours of these historical narratives. More than simply “what happened?” perhaps we need to learn to ask questions like “why this story?” or “how does the narrator want people to respond to this account?” More pointedly for us as a contemporary audience, “what is this text trying to accomplish in the lives of its hearers/readers?”

What do you think? Does our understanding of historical narrative require more nuance? Is this trajectory practically helpful or is it more trouble than it’s worth?

History, Narrative, and the Book of Judges

(Guest Post by Ben T.)

Like many, I grew up with a steady diet of Old Testament Bible stories. David, Noah, Adam and Eve, Abraham, and even Samson were all quasi-familiar characters in what appeared at the time as a disorganized conglomeration of ancient events. How these individual stories related to one another, and what held them together appeared unimportant to my understanding of what it meant to “be like David.” It wasn’t until my undergraduate studies that I began to realize the serious deficiencies in my piecemeal understanding of the Old Testament. The realization that (a) Genesis-2 Chronicles tells essentially one story and (b) Jesus doesn’t come to us in a historical vacuum spurred me on to further study of this strange and wonderful collection of Old Testament books.

Recently, I have become deeply interested in the function and purpose of biblical narratives. In my current studies I have focused primarily on the Book of Judges and its role within the sweeping story of the Hebrew Bible. More broadly I have taken a keen interest in the writing of history (historiography) and the ways in which the Israelite storytellers shaped and crafted their narratives in order to communicate and impart to future generations their grand successes, epic failures, and unique identity as a people in covenant with YHWH.

I must admit that many of my conclusions remain provisional, as my thinking in this area continues to mature. Over the next several weeks and months I will post a variety of materials (bibliographies, summaries, quotes, etc.) related to the issues mentioned above. I would gladly welcome any and all feedback or thoughts!

By way of introduction I’ve provided three brief bibliographies. The first relates generally to the study of historiography and biblical narratives. I have been heavily influenced in this area by the work of Robert Alter and Adele Berlin. The second list is like the first, but aimed specifically at the study of Judges. I am persuaded that Judges is a late(ish) book, perhaps taking its final form in the exilic period. I have also included a selection of commentaries that I have found to be exceptionally useful. Most of these commentaries helpfully–and in my opinion rightly–treat the book of Judges as a literary whole.


Historiography and Narrative
:: General Introduction ::

Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

Amit, Yairah. “Narrative Art of Israel’s Historians.” Pages 708-15 in Dictionary of the Old Testament Historical Books. Edited by B. T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005.

Berlin, Adele. Poetics and the Interpretation of Biblical Narrative. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994.

Kofoed, Jens Bruun. Text & History: Historiography and the Study of the Biblical Text. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005.

Long, V. Philips. “The Art of Biblical History.” Pages 281-429 in Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation. Edited by M Silva. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

McConville, J. Gordon. “Faces of  Exile in Old Testament Historiography.” Pages 519-34 in Israel’s Past in Present Research: Essays on Ancient Israelite Historiography. Edited by V. P. Long. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999.

Merrill, Eugene H. “Old Testament History: A Theological Perspective.” Pages 65-82 in A Guide to Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Edited by W. A. VanGemeren. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.

Provan, Iaian, “Ideologies, Literary and Critical: Reflections on Recent Writing on the History of Israel.” Journal of Biblical Literature 114 (1995): 585-606.

Historiography and Narrative
:: Book of Judges ::

Brettler, Marc. “The Book of Judges: Literature as Politics.” Journal of Biblical Literature 108 (1989): 395-418.

Dumbrell, William. “‘In Those Days There Was No King in Israel; Every Man Did That Which Was Right in His Own Eyes’: The Purpose of the Book of Judges Reconsidered.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 25 (1983): 23-33.

Spronk, Klaas. “The Book of Judges as a Late Construct.” Pages 15-28 in Historiography and Identity (Re)Formulation in Second Temple Historiographical Literature. Edited by L. Jonker. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 534. London: T & T Clark International, 2010.

Tollington, Janet. “The Book of Judges: The Result of Post-Exilic Exegesis?” Pages 186-96 in Intertextuality in Ugarit and Israel. Edited by J. C. De Moor. Leiden: Brill, 1998.

Wenham, Gordon J. “The Rhetorical Function of Judges.” Pages 45-71 in Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000.

Select Commentaries
:: Book of Judges ::

Block, Daniel. Judges. New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999.

Butler, Trent. Judges. Word Biblical Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009.

Niditch, Susan. Judges:  A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Louisville: WJK Press, 2008.

Ryan, Roger. Judges. Readings. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007.

Schneider, Tammi. Judges. Berit Olam. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000.

Webb, Barry. The Book of Judges: An Integrated Reading. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2008.