Reading Historical Context into Scripture
In an age dominated by Historical Criticism, one of the most challenging tasks facing modern expositors of Scripture is that of properly using historical data in Biblical Hermeneutics. Excessive emphasis upon historical context is being used by some scholars to undercut the inspiration of Scripture, leading to the position that the Scriptures were created simply as a product of Israel’s experience and surroundings. This critical view is known as Historicism, and it represents a sizable threat to Christianity today. It is therefore crucial that expositors of Scripture avoid this pitfall by finding a balanced use of historical information in hermeneutics. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the value of historical context and evaluate the role that it should play in Scriptural interpretation, with a special emphasis upon refuting the position of Historicism.
For the bulk of the history of the Christian church, comparatively little attention was paid to the subject of historical context in hermeneutics. In the early centuries of the church, a number of Alexandrian scholars, including Origen and Clement, popularized a method of interpreting Scripture in a fanciful, allegorical manner with, at most, minimal regard to the literal historical context of Scripture.1
This methodology evolved into a four-part interpretive system that became the primary hermeneutical vehicle of the Roman Catholic Church for a millennium.²
While allegorizing may have sufficed for Catholic theologians, such methodology was entirely repugnant to the Protestant reformers. They developed the concept of the Collegia Biblica, or a compendium of proof-texts that supported the various Protestant doctrines.3 This systematization of theology, in which Scriptures were ripped from their historical context and listed categorically to prove doctrine, became the mainstay of Protestant Christian theology until the dawn of the Enlightenment.
With the rise of Rationalism in the seventeenth century, many scholars reacted against the rigid, systematic approach by seeking to interpret the Bible within the context of the history in which it was written. This was by no means an entirely negative development, for it revealed to scholars the value of–as well as the need for–proper historical research to supplement and support Scripture study. However, this reaction against traditional theology intensified exponentially with the passage of time; impregnated by the rise of the theory of evolution in the nineteenth century, it eventually spawned a plethora of critical methodologies, including Historicism and the Historical Critical Method.4 These methods exist to the present, and are among the leading causes of the questions relating to the use of historical context in hermeneutics.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT, HISTORICISM, AND THEIR RELATIONSHIP
Historical context, or historical data, should be distinguished from Historicism. Although historical context is an important element used by Historicism, historical context is also used by other systems and is thus not inherently associated with critical methodology. Historical context might be considered to be a foundation upon which other methodologies build, while Historicism is the actual methodology that utilizes the historical data.
Historical context is, in a strict sense, the circumstances and environment that comprise history. It includes elements such as the geography, culture, religion, and politics that shape nations, peoples, and individuals. Context is the backdrop against which the drama of history takes place. Information about historical context originates from a variety of sources. Some historical data can be gathered directly from the inspired histories recorded in Scripture itself, while other data comes from other sources, such as ancient literature or archeology.
A working knowledge of historical context is of tremendous value to Bible scholars. For example, history provides historical context surrounding the story of the three Hebrew worthies in Daniel chapter 3. History records that in 595/594 B.C. a major uprising took place within the Babylonian empire that threatened the throne of King Nebuchadnezzar; this uprising was so serious that the rebellion spread to the palace of the king, forcing him to take up his personal sword to defend himself.5 This event is most likely what triggered the king’s plan to erect his golden image and require his servants to worship it, for in Babylonian culture worshiping a king’s god was equivalent to taking an oath of allegiance to the king himself.6 This historical and cultural information, not stated directly in Daniel 3, is historical context. It is helpful because it explains why the events happened as they did, why Bible characters acted as they did, and why the story is significant. It enriches the story with additional details that would not otherwise be available, as well as revealing the fuller picture of the message of Scripture.
If Historical context is raw data, then Historicism is a method of using that data. According to theologian Rudolph Bultmann, the Historicist approach is to view the Bible as mere history, as a record of a sequence of events governed by historical context and unaided by Divinity in any form.7 Thus, the Historicist views Scripture not as the record of God leading His people, but rather as the product of the society and circumstances surrounding the Hebrew people. Because Historicism emphasizes the idea of a scientific, objective approach to the Bible, it must reject anything subjective–including the idea of revelation. Because revelation seems to introduce the possibility of subjectivity into the study of the Bible, Historicists attempt to interpret the Bible simply in terms of historical facts and data.8 In a sense, Historicism replaces the concept of God with the concept of historical context by treating it as the sole driving force behind history; history shapes itself without the intervention of God. God is not needed in the Historicist paradigm because history is simply a cycle of man’s interaction with his historical context; man is shaped by his world, and in turn his world is shaped by him. Thus, to understand the Bible, one must understand the human historical context because it is the sole creator of Scripture; one does not need revelation in order to understand the Bible, because revelation was not involved in its creation.
Some branches of Historicism are not so aggressive, such as the philosophy of Historical Conditioning. While Historical Conditioning recognizes that God was, at least in principle, responsible for the formation of the Bible, it proposes that human history was responsible for shaping Scripture into its present form.9 In doing this, Historical Conditioning makes the same basic presuppositions as Historicism; first, it assumes that history is influenced by society rather than directed by God, and second, it assumes that Scripture itself is not entirely inspired and must be interpreted within the guidelines of human historical data. Historical Conditioning and the rest of Historicism make use of the same Historical Critical Method.
The key question is over the respective roles of historical context and revelation, and scholars are divided over the issue. On one hand, there are those who favor of a contemporary interpretation of Scripture, without noticeable regard for the past; this camp tends to emphasize the role of revelation in the interpretation of Scripture, while disregarding the aspects of historical context. On the other hand are those who, like the Historicists, claim that Scriptural history is not merely shaped by context, but that it is governed by it; they downplay the role of inspiration, both in the formation of Scripture and its interpretation.
While the disregard of historical context is a gross error, it is the overemphasis of historical context that has caused the greater harm to the church today. The study of historical context is a crucial element to Bible study that has been long neglected, but unfortunately the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme, and Historicist scholars have attempted to present historical context as the panacea of theology. Thus, the question is not whether historical context has value in hermeneutics, but rather how much emphasis hermeneutics should give to historical context.
LIMITATIONS OF HISTORICAL CONTEXT AS AN INTERPRETER
While the study of historical context has many virtues and benefits, it should be noted that it is also necessarily limited in terms of the information that it can provide. Although Historicists strive for objectivity, the unfortunate reality is that true objectivity is impossible and historical data cannot provide a truly balanced and objective view of the Bible. There are three major weaknesses with using historical context to understand Scripture. First, there is the difference between historical context as experience and historical context as data. Second is the fact that the pool of historical data is incomplete and constantly in flux. Third, there is the challenge of the modern scholar attempting to correctly interpret the ancient data.
The first weakness with the Historicist premise of using historical context alone is that it is based upon an incomplete understanding of what historical context is. As explained earlier, in a technical sense historical context, as it relates to the Bible, refers to the background surrounding a specific historical event recorded in Scripture. It includes elements that are living and interactive, such as culture, circumstances, and environment. The world in which the Bible took place was a sensory world in which the context could be seen, felt, heard–in short, historical context was an experience.
However, in the context of modern scholarship, historical context must necessarily differ from the idea of experiential context. Modern scholars do not have the benefit of firsthand experience in the historical context of the Bible world; rather, their concept of historical context is limited to a reconstruction of the original experience, based upon their interpretations of what information they have been able to gather. Herein lies the problem; the context in which Scripture unfolded was an experience, while scholars are limited to studying a reconstructed context that is composed of data about the experience. This paradox between a context of data and a context of experience is impossible to perfectly reconcile from a purely scientific perspective. Modern scholars who rely upon a purely historicist methodology are attempting to reproduce an experience based purely upon a data record of the experience, without the experience itself.
The second weakness with exclusively using historical context to understand the Bible is that the currently available historical data is not entirely certain. Data collection is a continuous process; even the most complete database of the latest information is rendered incomplete by the latest findings from the field. Scientific fact is the ever-changing process of data collection; one cannot assume that even the clearest scientific data is indeed certain, for future research may well discredit the entire notion. Thus, the collected data of historical context that scholars embrace at one moment may be rejected the next.
Walter Harrelston captured this idea well when he stated,
“Recent study of the Old Testament and the ancient Near Eastern world has provided better understanding of the life and faith of Israel than was available previously. The recovery of material and literary remains of numerous ancient Near Eastern cultures has been of profound importance for biblical studies… Many of these fresh insights are not as well known or understood as they should be. Such new insights as are available, however, do not negate the findings of scholars from earlier times. Many problems appear in a fresh light. Older hypotheses are modified or corrected. But it would be a mistake for the present generation of scholars to suppose that its own understandings represent anything more than a stage in a process of continuous learning.”10
If Harrelson’s assessment is correct, then any interpretation of Scripture that is based exclusively upon human understanding of historical context cannot be entirely certain. Because the pool of data is constantly growing and expanding, one cannot know that the findings of tomorrow will not negate today’s research. Certainly, research that has provided consistent results over a long period of time is more reliable than research that has not; however, any historical data gathered from sources other than Scripture itself should be used with a measure of caution. While some information can be regarded as being fairly solid and reliable, one should not be too quick to assume that all the information is available or that it is entirely reliable.
Even were the historical data available to historicists complete, the third weakness of historical context would still remain; this is the challenge of correctly interpreting the data. One may well wonder whether the modern man is equipped to understand and interpret the historic experience of another era. As Geerhard Hasel notes, “…The presupposition that the past has to conform to the present or that the present is indeed a guide to the past is to be questioned.”11 The past does not necessarily follow the same pattern as the present, and the modern scholar cannot be sure that he is able to understand the ancient mindset or its experiences. Interpreting the experience of another era is subjective, and any results should be viewed as tentative rather than as fact.
If the available historic data is incomplete, and its interpretation is subjective, then it would appear that a purely historical-scientific approach is not an effective chassis for Biblical hermeneutics. The postulation that a strictly Historical approach is necessary to objectively interpret Scripture–and that Scripture must be interpreted in a manner harmonious to the historical data–is undercut by the fact that historical data itself is not certain. This indicates that historical context, while useful, is not sufficiently qualified to serve as an independent and authoritative guide to the interpretation of Scripture.
The shortcomings of using historical context as the primary interpretive tool can be illustrated readily. If one follows the historicist philosophy, then Scripture, rather than being inspired by God, is simply a product of its historical context and can only be understood properly when read within that historical context. However, this presents a sizable problem for the Historicists when they encounter books such as Joel.
The historical background of Joel is virtually unknown. Scholars do not agree upon the era in which the book of Joel was written; some place the date as early as 830 B.C., while others believe the date to be as late as 444 B.C.12 Bible Commentator Adam Clarke declares that it is not possible to precisely date the book of Joel.13 Without this crucial piece of information, any effort to interpret Joel from a Historicist perspective is doomed to mere speculation. There is no way of knowing whether Joel ministered before or after the Babylonian captivity, whether the first or second temple was standing, or anything else historically significant. Thus, Historicism can offer minimal meaningful insight into the study of Joel.
To summarize, historical context is limited as an interpretive tool; some passages of Scripture have minimal available background information, and methods that rely exclusively upon historical data cannot interpret such books. Even when such information is fairly abundant, the pool of data is still incomplete. Experiential context is not duplicatable by modern scholars, and even the interpretation of the available data is subjective. These points indicate that historical context alone is not adequate for interpreting Scripture; revelation is needed to make up for the deficiencies of raw historical context.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT AND REVELATION
The concept of revelation is essential to interpreting the Bible; without it, a purely historical approach to interpreting Scripture cannot yield solid interpretation. Although Historicists have claimed that revelation adds an element of subjectivity to Scripture, the Historicist approach is itself just as much a package of subjective presuppositions. To say that God did not inspire Scripture is as arbitrary and un-provable a statement as it is to say that God did inspire Scripture. Because no definitive scientific data exists proving or disproving God’s involvement in history or Scripture, subjectivity will necessarily be a part of any scholar’s view. Therefore, Historicists may not legitimately discredit revelation as a factor in either the creation or interpretation of Scripture on the basis of subjectivity.
The belief in revelation and the inspiration of Scripture has significant ramifications for Bible scholars, and provides the necessary stability for effective Biblical hermeneutics. Revelation of Scripture includes that idea that all of Scripture is authoritative in all particulars; likewise, it indicates that the truths of Scripture are timeless and transcendent. Most significantly to this study, however, is the fact that revelation indicates that Scripture is a complete unit, and that it can be interpreted within its own context. Scriptural truth is not dependent upon human data.
Rather than viewing Scripture merely as a human product that can be interpreted strictly through human information, the inspiration of Scripture views it as containing the essential ingredients for its own interpretation and that it must be interpreted with the special guidance of the Holy Spirit. Although Scripture was written within a human context–and understanding the human context is important–the human context should never supersede the greater divine context. Rather, the best context with which to read Scripture is that of itself; interpretive steps include following Scripture as God revealed it over time, comparing it to itself, and treating it as the work of single, master Author working through multiple men in multiple human contexts. Because God revealed Scripture to its authors, then His special revelation is needed to interpret it. As Richard Davidson notes,
“In sum, the Bible cannot be studied as any other book, coming merely “from below” with sharpened tools of exegesis and honed principles of interpretation. At every stage of the interpretive process, the book inspired by the Spirit can only be correctly under stood “from above” by the illumination and transformation of the Spirit. God’s word must be approached with reverence.”14
Thus, Historical Context and Revelation are both important components of proper hermeneutics. Because God was involved in the creation of Scripture, His guidance and leading is essential to hermeneutics; likewise, because God used human instruments to write Scripture, and because He intended Scripture for a human audience, Hermeneutics must also concern itself with historical information as well. This historical information does not supersede revelation, but rather it supports it.
For a Christian who accepts the entire canon–including books such as Joel–as the meaningful and revealed word of God, Historicism is an inadequate hermeneutical approach to the Bible. Historical Criticism, while appearing to be an objective and reliable interpreter, is itself inherently subjective. This is not to say that scientific research cannot produce useful information, or that Christians do not need to understand the human context; but it does indicate that historical data alone is not sufficiently reliable to be used to correct Scripture or to drive its interpretation. Thus, Christians cannot trust the Historicist approach to Scripture.
Historical context and other historical data are important to interpreting Scripture; it flushes out the Biblical accounts by revealing the backdrop of history against which these stories took place. Historical data is essential. Yet, historical data is limited in value, and is not in itself complete or precise enough to interpret all of Scripture. The historical context that scholars reconstruct is at best inherently limited, because it is based upon gathered data rather than experience. Likewise, the data available is a growing pool of information, not yet complete. Finally, there are significant differences in factors such as time, location, and culture, which inherently limit the abilities of modern scholars in correctly interpreting the available historical data.
Because of these limitations, Christians need the element of revelation in order to understand the Bible. God’s spirit, which inspired the Bible authors and led the events of history, is instrumental in correct hermeneutics. Because of revelation, Christians can interpret Scripture with confidence, prayerfully trusting in God’s Spirit for insight.
Revelation and historical data work together, acting as checks and balances to keep each other in line. Historicists are incorrect for removing the aspect of revelation; likewise, any methodology that focuses excessively upon historical context, without due regard for the revelation of the whole of Scripture, is not reliable. Historical context should serve a supportive role, rather than being the driving force of hermeneutics. Historical context is but one aspect of Bible study, and should not dominate the entire interpretive process. Christians must make efforts to keep their methods balanced and solid by making proper use of historical data, but never allowing it to supersede the aspect of revelation.
Tanner Martin is an amateur theologian, who has a love of photography and birds. He’s currently winning souls working with the Central California Conference of SDA.
1. Earle Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 77.
2. Le Roy Edwin Froom, Finding the Lost Prophetic Witnesses, (Washington DC: Review and Herald, 1946), 31.
3. Charles Scobie, “The Structure of Biblical Theology”, 2, 3.
4. Geerhard Hasel, Understanding the Living Word of God, (Mountain View: Pacific Press, 1980), 24.
5. William Shea, Daniel, (Nampa: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2007), 73, 74.
6. Ibid, 74.
7. R. Bultmann, “Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?” in Existence and Faith, ed. S. M. Ogden (Cleveland/New York: World Publishing Co., 1960), 291, 292.
8. Eta Linnemann, Historical Criticism of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), 87.
9. Kwabena Donkor, “Is Scripture Historically Conditioned?”, 1.
10. Walter Harrelson, Interpreting the Old Testament (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1964), 3, 4.
11. Geerhard Hasel, Understanding the Living Word of God, (Mountain View: Pacific Press, 1980), 27.
12. Bernard Ram, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Boston: W. A. Wilde Company, 1956), 68.
13. Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1826), 656.
14. Richard Davidson, “Biblical Interpretation,” in Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology, edited by Raoul Dederen (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2000), 68.