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Historically-conditioned Scriptures

September 1, 2010

Most of my own published work involves historical investigation of early Christianity and its historical context.  But, of course, questions about the relationship of historical investigation and religious meaning of the biblical texts swirl constantly in the field.  The following thoughts, often shared in the course I’ve frequently taught on Biblical Interpretation.

Imagine a line representing the continuum of opinion on the question of whether the biblical writings can be considered and can function in some real way as “Scriptures” (i.e., as conveying or uniquely witnessing to divine revelation).  At one end of the continuum you have extreme “liberals” and at the other end extreme “fundamentalists”.   Although each regards the other as its polar opposite, I suggest that actually both extremes tacitly share the same premiss:  If the biblical writings are really historically conditioned they cannot be Word of God.  The extreme liberal, noting that the texts are self-evidently historically conditioned, concludes that they cannot be more than historical relics.  The extreme conservative, wanting the Bible to serve as scripture, desperately tries to deny or minimize their historically-conditioned nature.  They share the same premiss, but draw opposite conclusions from it.

Two comments:  First, the shared premiss is a fallacy.  There is nothing in principle that requires divine revelation to be unconditioned by history, and nothing that disqualifies historically-conditioned texts from serving as Scriptures.  Indeed, one would think that Christians would readily affirm that any true divine revelation must be historically conditioned.  The biblical witness is that the biblical deity has acted within history, not apart from it.  So, how could there be a divine word/revelation/action that was not conditioned by the historical circumstances in which it came?

Second, both the extreme positions that I’ve mentioned share in another almost unforgivable feature:  They’re both fundamentally boring!  The really interesting people and positions are those that both try to do justice to the historically-conditioned nature of the biblical texts and also seek to explore how these texts can function as Scripture.  In between the two extreme positions that I’ve mentioned, there are, all along the continuum, various people and proposals that involve some creative thinking.  These are the people worth reading and pondering.  Among them, the following are illustrative:

  • Stephen E. Fowl, Engaging Scripture:  A Model for Theological Interpretation. Oxford:  Blackwell, 1998.
  • Sandra M. Schneiders, The Revelatory Text:  Interpreting the New Testament As Sacred Scripture, 2nd ed. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1999.

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  1. Steven Carr permalink

    Did the earliest Christians think of the scriptures as ‘historically conditioned’?

    Hebrews 5
    But God said to him,
    “You are my Son;
    today I have become your Father.”And he says in another place,
    “You are a priest forever,
    in the order of Melchizedek.”

    The author of Hebrews is not just claiming that God spoke to Jesus, quoting the Old Testament while doing so.

    He is claiming that Psalm 110 actually IS God talking to Jesus. The ‘other place’ where God spoke to Jesus is Psalm 110,

    Is this the opposite of ‘historically conditioned’?

    • Hmm. You’re more confident that you can read the author of Hebrews’s mind than I! I’d be more inclined to think that the author knew that Psalm 110 was written well before Jesus was born, and so was not composed as an address to Jesus.
      In any case, the point I tried to make isn’t whether NT authors did or did not recognize the historically-conditioned nature of biblical texts but whether people today do, and what they do with that knowledge.

  2. Dear Dr. Hurtado: I am finding this statement of yours more complex than it would appear:

    “But it’s unlikely that Paul imagined that he was speaking to/for 21st century believers!”

    It seems that Paul did in fact expect his hearers (Christians, churches, etc.) to take his teachings as authoritative. That would seem to imply that he *did* in fact envision some kind of temporal permanence.

    The question of how many centuries Paul thought his teachings would have to do for his growing churches seems moot. Maybe Paul thought Christ was returning sooner, maybe not. But does that matter?

    It seems clear that Paul did think his teachings were to remain active and authoritative until Christ returned. There seem to be many self-conscious references to his authority and the truth of his doctrine/gospel.

    Paul must have been aware of the fact that the Christian body generally did not know, and perhaps were not going to know, the time of Christ’s return. If Paul knew this much already, then he would presumably have assumed his teachings would be necessary to ride out whatever period of time might be required by God before the Coming of Christ and restoration of all things.


  3. ANNANG ASUMANG permalink

    Thanks Prof for making these distinctions. Do you think though that there may be merit in the criticism that when the result of historical enquiry sets up an alternative theological narrative to what is claimed in the Bible, then that historical enquiry cannot continue to characterize itself as purely historical but theology of some sort? And if so isn’t the idea of a purely historical enquiry an illusion, since all history is after all interpreted history and depends on who is telling that history?

    • All historical inquiry is done by humans, with all their own historically-conditioned situation (including prejudices, limits of knowledge, preconceptions, etc.). So that’s why critical inquiry is always “peer reviewed” and placed before other historical inquirers whose limits may be different and who may be able to point out where one’s own limits impede things. We can’t see as the angels might. But historical inquiry can in principle guide and enrich enormously our understanding of biblical texts, and that can in turn enrich the use of them.

  4. Scott Caulley permalink

    a clear and cogent statement. You describe well the problem with Prof. Ehrman and his ilk in baiting fundamentalists (for sport, I suspect) with “news” about variants in NT manuscripts and discrepancies in the Gospels. Both sides labor under the premise that variants or discrepancies somehow invalidate the texts, make them historically untrustworthy, and negate authority. To borrow a line from “War Games,” an old movie about computer-controled nuclear warheads, “The only winning move is not to play.'”

  5. Larry, I think the $64,000 question is:

    “Corrected for matters of time and place, are the text’s content and assertions 100% true?”

    The fundie says yes, the liberal says no, and the “Libertive-Conservible” says: “Close enough!”

    I have to say, “no.” Not even “close enough.”

    Nor do I deny some uncanny wisdom, extraordinary intertextuality and good advice.

    But so many aspects of the scriptures are just… wrong!!

    So it’s a fascinating thing to study…

    • Ahem. Well, you clearly have an opinion, but it’s hardly on the topic, whoever you are (and I repeat the simple request that, unless you’re some under-cover CIA agent or whatever you identify yourself on this site). My post was simply making the point that the historically-conditioned nature of biblical texts is undeniable and not necessarily an impediment to them also serving as instructive and inspiring scriptures. But the latter will be of interest solely to those who seek from them religious meaning. As you’ve already decided that you aren’t interested, I’m surprised that you commented.
      The theological question isn’t whether the biblical texts are “correct” (and by the way “correct” on what and in whose eyes?), but whether they witness to divine revelation, not whether they supply correct details of history, paleontology, botany, etc.

  6. steve hays permalink


    “I haven’t named names and will not do so. I don’t think those you’ve mentioned classify themselves as fundamentalists and I wouldn’t so classify them.”

    i) I was wondering if you use “fundamentalism” as a synonym for Christians who affirm the inerrancy of Scripture–which is one reason I cited those three scholars.

    ii) Another reason is that Bock teaches at Dallas Theological Seminary, which is the flagship of Fundamentalist seminaries.

    “I’ve defined ‘fundamentalists’ as those who feel uncomfortable with the historically-conditioned nature of the biblical texts, and so either deny or seek to minimize this. E.g., I am told that there are some who assert that the ‘King James’ Version is the verbally-inspired text, not an early 17th century translation of a late and uncritical Greek text of the NT writings.”

    i) While that’s certainly a crackpot position, I don’t see how KJV-Onlyism directly bears on the historical conditionality of the Bible. We’re not talking about the Bible, per se, but a 17C translation.

    ii) To my knowledge, mainstream Fundamentalist organizations like Dallas Theological Seminary and The Master’s Seminary don’t subscribe to KJV-Onlyism.

    “Likewise, there are those who would feel terribly threatened by a dating of the book of Daniel to the 2nd century BCE, feeling that it would destroy its value as Scripture. They do not argue the matter, but simply refuse the argument. These are the sorts of views that seem to me to represent the ‘flight from history’ that I portray at one extreme of a continuum.”

    i) Again, I’m not clear on why you’d classify that position in reference to the historical conditionality of Scripture.

    ii) What about scholars (e.g. Gleason Archer, Andrew Steinmann) who do argue for the traditional date of Daniel?

    iii) In the case of Christian laymen who lack the expertise to defend the traditional date, are you suggesting that they should simply reject the book’s professed provenance if, say, John Collins rejects it?

    iv) Why do you think it wouldn’t destroy its value as Scripture? If the book professes to be by/about an exilic Jewish seer to whom God disclosed the future in a series of visionary revelations when, in fact, these are failed prophecies and/or vaticina ex eventu, then doesn’t that falsify the book on its own terms?

    More broadly, Christianity professes to be a revealed religion. A religion grounded in the existence of a God who reveals his nature and will in words and deeds.

    If we deny that Daniel was inspired to foresee the future, does this mean we deny that God reveals himself to man? Likewise, what’s the discernible difference between a silent God and a nonexistent God?

    I’m just wondering how far you take your own position–in contrast to “fundamentalism.”

    • Lots of questions! A blog site isn’t the place to engage them adequately. That’s why I cited a couple (and there are numerous others) recent books in which thoughtful scholars engage them. And the issues to engage aren’t this or that person or institution. That’s tittle-tattle. The hermeneutical issues are much more interesting and demanding.

  7. Dear prof Larry,

    Thank you! Very engaging. I did a module last year in Durham with prof Francis Watson called Theological Interpretation of Scripture. We had lively debates and focussed particularly on Augustine, Lessing and Schleiermacher. How does your take on historical investigation and religious meaning compare with prof Watson?

    Best regards
    Frederik Mulder

    • I’m not sure where Watson and I line up with each other on the matter. He’s published on the subject, and I’m not. He’s one of those somewhere along the continuum I mentioned, not one of the extreme ends.

  8. Larry:
    Very nice post and very clear. Thank you! Interestingly, some have charged N.T. Wright’s exegesis on passages re: the NPP with “foregrounding what should be in the background” (viz., history) and “backgrounding what should be in the foreground” (viz., Scripture), thus seemingly committing the same fallacy on the shared premise. Your thoughts (notwithstanding the firestorm surrounding the NPP and the upcoming ETS annual in Atlanta)?

    • Hmm. I don’t know what “NPP” is, and don’t keep up with the “ETS”.

      • Ah…apologies for my cryptic note above, I was referring to the New Perspective on Paul as unpacked by N.T. Wright. He is the plenary speaker at this year’s annual ETS to debate Tom Schreiner (in the place of John Piper).

  9. I self-identify as a fundamentalist (when given the chance to define the term) and attend a seminary that self-identifies as fundamentalist. (FWIW, we use modern Bible translations and the critical Greek text, but we would argue–but not merely assert–for an early date for Daniel).

    My training has taught me to place texts within their historical situation and to connect them to the present situation in variety of ways. Interestingly, one of my discomforts concerning Stephen Fowl would be the seeming disconnect between history and Scripture. For instance in chapter four Engaging Scripture Fowl takes the general concept of the Spirit speaking through the testimony of believers to adjust the cultural norms that the church operated under. To me, this seems to abstract the Acts accounts into a very general principle which is then applied in such a way that the application runs up against the plain sense of a number of other Scripture texts (as Fowl himself admits and seeks to justify).

    I would prefer to keep the principles that I draw concerning Jew-Gentile relations closely tied to the historical contexts of the law and its fulfillment in Jesus. The applications I would make would be primarily in helping me determine how to relate the Torah to my situation as a Christian.

    Am I missing something of what you are getting at when you speak of historical conditioning?

    • Well, yes, “fundamentalist” has a varied history, sometimes with self-affirming (positive) sense and sometimes (more popularly) with a pejorative one. So, no offense intended.
      My point in the post was that the biblical texts are historically conditioned, and that it’s a fallacy to think that this stands in the way of them also serving as Scripture. That’s all. How you use biblical texts as Scripture (if you do), while also respecting (perhaps prizing) their historically-conditioned nature, that’s hermeneutics.

  10. steve hays permalink

    You haven’t stated how you define “fundamentalist,” and the sense in which you think “fundamentalists” deny the historic conditionality of Scripture. For instance, would you classify scholars like D. A Carson, Darrell Bock, and Craig Blomberg as “fundamentalists”? If so, in what respect do they deny the historical conditionality of Scripture?

    • I haven’t named names and will not do so. I don’t think those you’ve mentioned classify themselves as fundamentalists and I wouldn’t so classify them.
      I’ve defined “fundamentalists” as those who feel uncomfortable with the historically-conditioned nature of the biblical texts, and so either deny or seek to minimize this. E.g., I am told that there are some who assert that the “King James” Version is the verbally-inspired text, not an early 17th century translation of a late and uncritical Greek text of the NT writings.
      Likewise, there are those who would feel terribly threatened by a dating of the book of Daniel to the 2nd century BCE, feeling that it would destroy its value as Scripture. They do not argue the matter, but simply refuse the argument.
      These are the sorts of views that seem to me to represent the “flight from history” that I portray at one extreme of a continuum.

  11. Steven Carr permalink

    ‘So, do we conclude that Paul’s statements have no meaning for us?’

    Doesn’t Paul insist in 2 Corinthians 13 that Christ is speaking through him?

    If Paul is correct that Christ is speaking through him, then when Paul writes in his letters that he has a word from the Lord, about , say, divorce, should not Christians believe this was genuinely Christ speaking through Paul?

    • Paul believed that he had been called (by God) to be apostle to the gentiles, and could claim that his letters should be received by recipients as authoritative (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:37-38). But it’s unlikely that Paul imagined that he was speaking to/for 21st century believers! If God/Christ/the Spirit spoke through Paul, it was a speaking occasioned by and conditioned for the situation to which Paul spoke. The question for believers thereafter is how responsibly to use what Paul (and other biblical texts) said for subsequent belief and practice. That’s the hermeneutical question.

  12. Interesting contrast. As I go through my days leaning on Scripture, meditating on it, words from the Word jump out at me, and, I confess, rarely does the thought of history cross my mind, unless my pastor notes it. Where am I? Am I lost on that continuum? On one end? I am appreciative that there are scholars such as yourself to ground me, else it is all subjective for me.

    • Of course, in the context of a spiritual quest one can often experience “unmediated” meaning leaping out from the biblical text. In part, this is because the biblical texts are so . . . authentic, so fully human in the faces that we meet in them. Esp. the Psalms!
      And it’s not a matter of requiring every reader to be a trained historian. I would, however, urge all readers of the biblical texts to be aware that they are historically-conditioned texts, and therefore take that into account in reading them. So, e.g., Paul was greatly concerned about his gentile converts undergoing circumcision, not typically an issue for us. So, do we conclude that Paul’s statements have no meaning for us? Or do we simplistically take them as forbidding cosmetic surgery? Or . . .??

      More positively, if the biblical God has self-revealed, it was within history, in the language of the time (e.g., Hebrew and Greek, not 21st cent English), and in the context of customs and circumstances of the time. So, some awareness of this can actually assist us in using the biblical texts as scripture. History isn’t (contra Henry Ford) simply “One damn thing after another”; it’s the context in which believers dare to believe that the biblical God has self-revealed, and so the precious form of that revelation.
      The ultimate model for Christians, of course, is the fully historically-conditioned revelation: Jesus of Nazareth. Were he not fully, authentically human (insist the Church Fathers from the 2nd century onward), he would not be able to redeem humans.

      • Scott F permalink

        If Jesus is the historically-conditioned [do we really need a hyphen here ;)] revelation, then his nature and mission must be parsed through the lens of historical-criticism and all-the-other-criticisms as well. Did Jesus need to be fully human to redeem us? Did he have to be pre-existent to do the same? These are too often premises that shape the analysis rather than conditionally held conclusions that must yield to the emerging facts. Even among those found toward the center of the continuum.

        Although I am a liberal and skeptic I am no mythicist. I do not hold the entire bible as historically worthless. Yet neither do I trust interpretations that claim to be historical and yet always lead to the same conclusion – “Jesus is Lord!” This phenomenon is in no way unique to Fundamentalists, merely more blatant.

        That said, there are many scholars who are pushing back against traditionally held views of the early church while maintaining their commitment to the core elements of the faith. I do not intend to demean their contributions to historical understanding or exploration in spite of my suspicions regarding the paradigm that colors their ultimate conclusions.

      • You’re entitled to your own sentiments, of course. But I’m not sure what/whom you’re referring to in your complaint about “interpretations [of what?] that claim to be historical and yet always [really??] lead to the same conclusion – ‘Jesus is Lord!'”. Historical analysis proceeds on its own warrants and is subject to criticism on historical warrants, not whether you like its conclusions or not based on views for or against a given religious standpoint. If one can show that historical arguments are in fact shaped by religious views and not by historical warrants, that’s a serious critique. Otherwise . . .
        (Oh, and, yes, when you construct a compound adjective from an adverb and adjective, as in “historically-conditioned” you do use a hyphen.)

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