Saturday, May 30, 2015

Reading Scripture Wisely and Well (Part 3): Steps to Achieving a Close Reading of a Passage in Its Scriptural Context

This is the final set of steps for reading a text closely. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

7. Read each passage in its broader book context. We have used two metaphors for talking about reading the Scripture at different levels. We’ve emphasized the necessity of both an eagle’s eye view of the Scriptures and a ground level analysis of individual passages. Individual books serve as the middle ground.[1] This involves more work for the interpreter, but the payoff is immense. First, look for connections. Take time to look for other places in the same book where the author deploys the same words and phrases (or close synonyms). Such repetitions or recurrences are often purposeful and can lead to substantive insights. For example, in Philippians 3:1-16 Paul offers his own life as an example for the Philippian believers to emulate (3:17). When he is describing the zeal of his pre-Christ following life in 3:6, he boast that he was a “persecutor of the church.”[2] In 3:7-11 Paul recounts the dramatic transformation that he experienced through knowing Christ. This transformation moved Paul from a person rooted and secure in a righteousness derived from his own credentials and accomplishments to a person rooted in a righteousness through Jesus the Messiah.  In 3:16 Paul articulates a moment-by-moment orientation to life through Jesus by writing, “I am pressing on continually toward the goal to win the prize of the upward calling of God in Messiah Jesus.” The phrase “pressing on” is the same Greek word typically translated “persecute” in 3:6. Observing this connect offers a real insight into the transformation of Paul. Paul, as a Christ follower is no less zealous in his faith than he was as a Pharisee. But Paul has undergone a radical reorientation. His compass point has shifted to the Risen Jesus. Paul surrendered his pre-Christian rubric of a righteousness rooted in his own abilities and accomplishments for the ultimate prize—knowing Messiah Jesus. When knowing Jesus became Paul’s primary focus, Paul’s gifts and graces became a means of glorifying and honoring Jesus rather than a means of boasting of himself to others. Second, it is vital to make sure that we understand a discrete text’s function within the broader book. What contribution does our text play in the wider contours of the book? What would be lost or gained without it? How does it relate to the passages that precede and follow it? For example, Matthew 4:17 begins a major section of Matthew’s Gospel.[3] Jesus begins his public ministry by announcing the in-breaking new age of God’s saving reign, and by exhorting his hearers to realign themselves continually in light of the Kingdom. This verse serves as a general programmatic statement for understanding 4:17—16:20. To understand fully every discrete section requires that the reader reflect on how it informs a way of life in line with the Kingdom of heaven and that one realign one’s life in conformity to the vision of the text. In 8:1–17 Jesus models boundary-breaking acts of ministry with outsiders. This is no mere report of Jesus’ historical acts. It serves as a paradigm for shaping present and future followers of Jesus to live out the ethos of the kingdom of heaven. 

8. Read each passage within its broader canonical context. Texts do not exist in isolation from other texts. There are often multiple conversations taking place within the Bible between texts. In particular, it is vital to recognize and explore the ways in which the texts that we are studying stand in dialogue with other texts written before or after. For example, in its majestic praise of God, Psalm 8 looks back on the creation of humanity and God’s granting of dominion in Genesis 1:26–31 as a profound basis for worshiping God. As we interpret Psalm 8 it is vital to catch its connection back to Genesis and reflect on the way that Genesis informs our understanding of Psalm 8 (and vice versa). But there is more to Psalm 8. The writer to the Hebrews in chapter 2 verses 5–9 quotes Psalm 8:4–6 in part of his proclamation of the person and work of Jesus the Messiah. Thus, in understanding the meaning of Psalm 8 within its canonical context it is important to read it in conversation with both Genesis 1 and Hebrews 2. Likewise, this is also the case with a reading of Genesis 1 or Hebrews 2. However, not every biblical text will have explicit links to other passages as is the case with Psalm 

9. Establish a research agenda to engage secondary resources. Thus far, we have described the process of engaging a biblical text first hand through the practice of close reading. The best close readings do not provide the final word on a text. As suggested, many of our best observations raise additional questions. Some questions can be answered through the close reading process, but others will require the use of the fruits of biblical scholarship. After you have pondered over the text using your own observation skills, ask yourself: What are the key questions that remain unanswered that I need to resolve in order to understand this passage of Scripture? At this point, the wise interpreter will turn to resources such as Bible dictionaries, atlases, theological word books, grammar and syntax texts, journal articles, and commentaries. 

Use the best resources at your disposal. In the age of information, Internet search engines can quickly inundate an interpreter with more data than one could process in a lifetime. Biblical interpreters must learn to read all reference material critically. We must also eschew the tyranny of the available and commit ourselves to using the finest resources so that we are engaging the finest exegetical minds and not merely dialoging with those resources that make it onto the first screen pages of web searches. In general, such a commitment involves resisting popular authors and the latest fads for the commentaries and articles written by biblical scholars and for works by the classic interpreters of the past (early Church Fathers, the Reformers, John Wesley among others). It is critically important to use up-to-date Bible dictionaries and atlases so that one has access to the most recent discoveries as our understanding of the socio-historical background of the world of the Bible grows annually. Given the missional reality in which we find ourselves, we need to deploy the best and most penetrating resources in order to engage the text at the level that we need in our day. I'll post some suggested resources in future blogs.

Let me know if you have any questions.

© 2015 Brian D. Russell  

[1]There is another intermediate level as well: corpus context. Books written by the same authors or redacted by the same community function in a way similar to book context in terms of helping to understand smaller passages and themes. For example, a passage in Galatians serves a role in the book of Galatians, but it also contributes to our understanding of Paul’s other letters. The same would be true of passages in Luke-Acts, John and John’s Letters, Ezra-Nehemiah, the Pentateuch, and the Deuteronomistic History.
[2]Grk dioko
[3]David R. Bauer, The Structure of Matthew’s Gospel: A Study in Literary Design (Library of New Testament Studies: 31; Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 1989).

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