Interpreting Scripture Historically

The last century has provided significant paradigm shifts in the field of Biblical interpretation and theology. The first shift occurred in the Western world where Biblical interpretation became disillusioned by the categories of modernity that exalted historical evidence as the sole basis of truth. The other shift occurred most recently through the globalization of Christianity and the proliferation of contextually-based theologies, which have served to enrich the Church and the practice of interpreting Scripture. Nonetheless, Christianity faces a new set of challenges based on these paradigm shifts. The first challenge is the potential for hermeutical anarchy under the façade of postmodern pluralism. The second challenge are the dangers of syncretism that can surge out of the process of doing contextual theologies tailored to speak or engage with a certain political and cultural framework. It is in the scope of the recent paradigm shifts and new challenges that I reflect on the three important ways to read and interpret Scripture.

The first important way for reading Scripture is to interpret it historically. Before I go any further, I must emphasize what I mean by “historically” here. I am not referring to the rationalistic and objective approach of historical criticism that emerged out of modernity, which mainly focused on demythologizing the Bible by attempting to disembody it from it’s message. Rather, what I mean by interpreting the Bible historically is the approach that bases Scriptural interpretation on the premise that the Bible is a historical witness to the story that it tells. The Bible tells the story of God and the world through a script that is composed of different acts. These acts include Creation, the Exodus, Israel, Jesus and the Church. The history of God with the people of Israel is contained within these different acts. God moves and acts within history, providing layers of information about who God is, what God has done, and what God intends to do in the world today.

To interpret Scripture historically is important in order to obtain a full picture of God’s story with humanity. It is history and the stories within it that shape the imagination of a people. It forms the theological and epistemological framework through which the writer is able to communicate God’s revelation in a way that makes sense to his/her listeners and to us today. This is true about the New Testament writers who were shaped by the history, tradition and practices prevalent in their day. The Old Testament provided a background for the construct of a new imagination and interpretation of what God was doing through the revelation of Christ. This new revelation did not come about ex-nihilo, but was to be understood in light of the Torah and the Prophets. Common themes in the mission of Jesus, such as liberation and peace, would have been misunderstood if it were not for the collective imaginary being shaped by a shared history and the Messianic expectation that was commonplace in the context of imperial oppression. God steps into history to reveal Godself in a way that people can understand.

To interpret historically is to look at Scripture and attempt to understand what is happening in the world behind the text. It is to gather information about the characters, what they communicated about their world, and what they intended to do. This particular approach is important when reading and interpreting books like the Prophets and the Epistles. In this engagement, the reader can ask questions from the text such as; what time in Israel’s history would the story have taken place? What was particularly important about that time? What was the cultural background at that time? And, how can the geography, economy and the social-political reality inform me about what Scripture is intending to communicate about God and God’s mission? Historical interpretation offers the reader information about another time and place. When the interpreter finds answers to some of these questions, he/she can begin to experience ways to apply Scripture to the world in front of the text.

The other facet of historical interpretation is to look for the reason the text was produced and what it meant for the people who were reading it. This historical approach explores the semantics of the text on the presumption that the authorship is known. Although this method may encounter glitches in precisely dating a text, meaning can still be extracted when interpreting within the knowledge of the general history of Israel and the Church. For example, when interpreting narratives such as the Gospel of Matthew historically, one can ask what it might have meant for the church in Antioch who was reading it, if one assumes that Antioch was the intended audience. Nonetheless, one could also interpret by reflecting what the text might have meant for the general Church of the Mediterranean world in 100 AD, given that we know that the early biblical texts circulated among different churches at that time. Some of the guiding questions in this exercise can be; who was the author? What does the text say about him/her? And, what do we know about the intended audience?

When these questions are applied, we are formed by a missiological imagination and begin to interpret our own story as a continuation of a grander discourse. The Bible is accurate enough to disclose and fulfill its role as a divine witness to God’s story in history. Historical interpretation has been the preferred method of the rational academia since the advent of modernity. Nonetheless, there have been some important paradigm shifts in the study of Biblical interpretation. The quest for a historical reading of Scripture has taken interpreters from the demythologizing criticism of Biblical history, to a prolific array of hermeneutical schemes and decontextualized generalizations that overlook the importance of continuity and the message. These schemes have themselves become the institutionalized practices of a postmodern pluralistic framework, whose goal has been to flee from historical identity.  One can never disconnect the message from its time and place. Historical interpretation recognizes that the message is timeless and what it spoke to the Church then, is what it intends to speak today. It provides continuity between the early and contemporary Church as the same Body and interpretative community regardless of time in history. Historical interpretation can serve as a call to renounce manipulative interpretation of all kinds, all the while remaining aware of the trivializing tendencies of modern rationalism and postmodern pluralism. It becomes meaningful when used to transport the reader to the world behind the text. In doing so, the reader is shaped by its imagination while seeking to interpret and apply Scripture in the world in front of the text, that of his/her own.