History, Right Reading, and the Providence of God: the Problem

Recently I finished reading N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God. One of his major emphases is the importance of history for right reading. Thus, exegesis is a historical practice, what is needed is pure history, and so on. He devotes a lot of time (and even more space) developing the historical background of Paul, including his thought as a Pharisee, philosophy and religion at the time, etc. To put it plainly: if we want to adjudicate our debates about reading Paul rightly, we simply need to do better history.

Obviously these claims can be a bit overblown and I would want to tailor them in specific ways, but the overall thrust is well and good. I think there is great gain from doing historical work. To give one example that is really helpful for a large segment of Western readers, social-scientific interpretation with its explanation of the cultural milieu like purity, honor, shame, kinship, patronage, and so on clearly helps one see matters in the text that we would often overlook otherwise. So yes, do the historical work and learn how that helps us read God’s Word rightly.

But here I think of a passage from Brad East[1]:

Let me finish my examples with New Testament scholar N.T. Wright. Wright
serves as a nice segue because of his views about the tradition, which is our next
topic. Wright regularly speaks of the church’s tradition of reading the Bible as misguided at best and distorting at worst, and often rhetorically pitches his own
proposals in explicit contradistinction to nearly twenty centuries of Christian
scriptural interpretation. Regarding Wright’s historically unprecedented reading of
the parable of the prodigal son, for example, Richard Hays wryly implies that,
instead of apologizing or accounting for this rupture with the tradition, Wright
seems to see it as a vote in favor of his reading. For a church tradition that ‘has
seriously and demonstrably distorted the gospels’ by ‘screen[ing] out [Jesus’s]
kingdom inauguration’ is an obstacle in the way of responsible interpretation, not an inducement or path to it. Indeed, for this reason Wright can go so far as to call ‘the historical quest for Jesus … a necessary and nonnegotiable aspect of Christian discipleship’. Reading such a claim, I confess I do not know what Wright thinks the church could meaningfully have done with the Gospels prior to the nineteenth century. At times in his corpus one gets the sense that Wright believes that extensive historical-critical knowledge of Second Temple Judaism is a necessary condition for understanding Jesus and Paul – that is, for rightly reading the Gospels and Pauline epistles. Apart from the question of its correctness, such a view has unhappy theological implications. By way of response, then, in support of my
counter-claim that historical criticism is neither necessary nor sufficient for faithful
Christian interpretation of Scripture, let me now say why Christians, including
biblical scholars like Wright, should agree.

First, to pick up a point mentioned briefly in the previous section, and as evidenced in the exaggerated claims of Wright instanced above, the standard view of historical criticism’s indispensability makes nonsense out of almost the entirety of the church’s hermeneutical tradition. The church Fathers, the medievals, the scholastics, the Reformers and the early moderns all fail the exegetical standards of historical criticism. They break every rule, commit every foul, transgress every boundary. Their readings quite literally make no sense on historical-critical grounds. Biblical scholars usually do not trace out the implications of this, if taken to its logical conclusion. The early theological controversies that beset the church occasioned authoritative and consequential decisions regarding matters of great import for Christian faith, such as whether the Old Testament is Scripture; whether God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; whether Christ is fully God and fully human and so on. Down to this day, these judgements have led Christians the world over to ecumenical agreement. Yet historians and critics often make sport of the Fathers’ reasoning on these matters – a strange thing for Christians to partake in, given the alternative. For if the scriptural and theological reasoning that led to judgements about faith that continue to be confessed and believed today was not only misguided but fundamentally wrongheaded, unjustified, exegetically vacuous – then we might as well throw out the tradition and start with a blank slate. Some people, radical reformers and restorationists among them, have done just that. So it is indeed a live option. But it is important to see clearly that one has to be willing to go all the way in order to stand by the commitment to historical criticism’s necessity.

Second, apart from the theological tradition, consider the consequences for the
church and its relationship to God and Scripture. God must have done a very strange thing indeed in providing the church with the Bible, if it could not be read rightly until a group of European intellectual rebels came along 1,700 years later to provide Christians with the necessary tools to read their own Scripture. Moreover, most of
the world’s Christians today are not informed by the results of historical criticism; consider the village pastor in Tanzania, or the rural priest in Panama or the underground minister in urban China. Might any of these benefit from the knowledge afforded by historical criticism? Undoubtedly. Yet without it, are they lacking something essential for their ability to read Scripture productively for the sake of their respective flocks? I suspect few would want to answer in the affirmative. My point is that, if it is truly the case that such persons (and their churches) are not lost without historical criticism, then the inflated claims made on its behalf – as, say, the sine qua non of legitimate exegesis of any sort – must in turn be deflated; and that, once one starts to take note of the rhetorical pitch and sweeping nature of such claims, the counterclaim – that it is neither necessary nor sufficient for faithful interpretation – starts to assume a good deal more critical force than one may have initially assumed.

I want to take his point on board too. These do not necessarily form a contradiction (as I did not commit myself to the claim that historical criticism is necessary for faithful interpretation), but there is a lot of tension here.

This tension comes to a head when we look at the on the ground reality for a lot of readers of Scripture. One of the responses, I think, we do not want to give is one that makes every whimsical and unstudied reading acceptable. That is, when reading Scripture (and Scripture alone) more closely would lead to faithful interpretation, then we do not want to use the history of the church and the providence of God to justify the laziness of so much Christian reading.

So here are three broad propositions I want to commit myself to, although they might have to be modified as we explore the question:

(1) Both the providence of God and the practice of the church (historically and globally)  show that historical criticism is not necessary for faithful interpretation.
(2) Historical criticism is important and can lead to both insights about the text of Scripture and disconfirmation of certain readings of Scripture.[2]
(3) There are unfaithful interpretations borne out of laziness, vice, and neglect of what God has given us.

So that is the goal of this series. Where it will go, I honestly have no clue right now. A resolution could be discerned immediately or it might lead down many winding roads. It’s this exploration that is the reason for this series.

I believe I will continue by looking at each proposition in turn and attempting to refine what is and is not meant.

[1] Brad East, “The Hermeneutics of Theological Interpretation: Holy Scripture, Biblical Scholarship and Historical Criticism.” International Journal of Systematic Theology, no. 19/1 (2017): 48-50; citations omitted.
[2] Here I want to think more about Brad East’s comment in ibid., 51-52: “For, notwithstanding its many assertions to the contrary, historical criticism does not, hermeneutically, and could not, theologically, have the power of interpretive
disconfirmation – that is, exegetical veto power.” There is footnote here that reads: “Along the lines of the pattern: ‘X scholar says Y text means Z; but that cannot be
because the original context …’. (emphasis original)

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The King’s Honors

Esther is a weird book. God is never named. Mordecai and Esther seem to be  faithful Jews, but the way the story unfolds with joining a harem in order to become the new queen doesn’t exactly seem law abiding. But maybe God speaks through Esther too.

Mordecai had spoiled a plot to kill the king. His deed is written down in the Chronicles. One night, the king decides to read the Chronicles and is reminded of this act. What had been done to honor this man, Mordecai? Apparently nothing. Then Mordecai”/ enemy, Hanan comes to visit:

So Haman came in, and the king said to him, ‘What should be done to the man whom the king delights to honor?’ And Haman said to himself, ‘Whom would the king delight to honor more than me?’ And Haman said to the king, ‘For the man whom the king delights to honor, let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and the horse that the king has ridden, and on whose head a royal crown is set. And let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials. Let them dress the man whom the king delights to honor, and let them lead him on the horse through the square of the city, proclaiming before him: “Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor.”’ Then the king said to Haman, ‘Hurry; take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to Mordecai the Jew, who sits at the king’s gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.’ So Haman took the robes and the horse, and he dressed Mordecai and led him through the square of the city, proclaiming before him, ‘Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor.’ (Esther 6:6-11, ESV)

Haman thinks he is the one the king will honor but it is actually his enemy, Mordecai. And so Haman must honor Mordecai and proclaim this is what is done for the man the king wants to honor.  If we have ears to hear, being dressed might evoke larger resonances in Scripture:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.’ (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’”

“Follow me.” The words that began it all. Follow me, Jesus says, and you Peter will be clothed by another, and crucified. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Here is what it means to be honored by Jesus the King: to be crucified like Him.

God have mercy on our souls.

God’s Temple

In the Ancient Near East, the temple was supposed to reflect how great the god was. After all, if this is god’s dwelling place, then it better match the god dwelling there. If we pay attention, we will even see this in the text: “I [Solomon] have indeed built you [God] an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever” (1 Kings 8:15, ESV). This also underscores what Solomon says in v. 27: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” So even this great temple is not great enough for the true God. And the temple reflects creation as God’s purpose is for all of creation to be His temple (Gen 1; Rev 21-22), but even that is not great enough. 

Maybe it is this theme that so animates Paul. If the church really is God’s temple (1 Cor 3:16) and so is the individual Jesus follower (1 Cor 6:19), then this thought might be what is behind his radical view of what the church and the Christian is meant to be. N. T. Wright says that there are two main themes in Paul’s view of what the church should look like: unity and holiness. It should come as no surprise, then, that the letter that has those verses just cited is eminently concerned with those two topics. If the temple reflects God, then the church has a high calling indeed.

A Better David

1 Samuel 18:6-16.
As they were coming home, when David returned from striking down the Philistine, the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with songs of joy, and with musical instruments. And the women sang to one another as they celebrated,

“Saul has struck down his thousands,
    and David his ten thousands.”

And Saul was very angry, and this saying displeased him. He said, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands, and what more can he have but the kingdom?” And Saul eyed David from that day on. 

The next day a harmful spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house while David was playing the lyre, as he did day by day. Saul had his spear in his hand. And Saul hurled the spear, for he thought, “I will pin David to the wall.” But David evaded him twice.

Saul was afraid of David because the Lord was with him but had departed from Saul. So Saul removed him from his presence and made him a commander of a thousand. And he went out and came in before the people. And David had success in all his undertakings, for the Lord was with him. And when Saul saw that he had great success, he stood in fearful awe of him. But all Israel and Judah loved David, for he went out and came in before them.

—–

Saul is jealous and he is clinging to his power. God is working through someone else, David, and people are recognizing it. Saul cannot let that be. So he tries to kill David, but David evades Saul and is kept safe.

I am reminded of another Saul. This was is also from the tribe of Benjamin. Just like Saul the king tried to kill David, so this other Saul was trying to kill the Davidic king, but he must be struck down (Acts 9:3-5; Gal. 2:20). Saul the king is clinging to power. The other Saul must learn to boast in weakness (2 Cor. 11:16-12:10). But we should have already known that Judah would offer himself as a substitute for Benjamin (Gen. 44).

Saul the king was the forerunner for king David. Here we should think of another forerunner. He was God’s prophet, speaking God’s truth, and amassing followers. But he was just preparing the way, and he knew it. Saul the king tries to cling desprately to power and fame, the other forerunner is faithful even unto denying himself, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)

God unmasks all of our idolatries about power and fame. These kingdoms of mudpies always end, but is it an ending that we resist or one that we embrace?

“Come, take up your cross, and follow me.”

Distribution of Numbers in Numbers 1

So Numbers 1 includes a census list. I was reading through it and noticed that there seems to be some grouping of numbers, so I decided to write it all out here so that it is some place. I will not be considering the last two digits of the numbers since the numbers come in distributions of 50 and so the last number will always be 0 and the second to last number will always be 0 or 5.

Let’s look at the distribution of the first digit. We are separating this since it cannot be a 0 and so it must fall within the 1-9 range.
1 = 0
2 = 0
3 = 2
4 = 4
5 = 4
6 = 1
7 = 1
8 = 0
9 = 0

So there is definitely a clustering in the first digit. This might be somewhat expected as one might hypothesize that the tribes were around the same sizes (although note that the firstborns are listed at 22,273 (3:43)–significant both because of its distribution of numbers and the fact that it does not round to the nearest 50, which makes sense in the context).

Now let’s look at the rest of the digits and see where they fall (again, excluding the final two):
0 = 1
1 = 1
2 = 3
3 = 2
4 = 6
5 = 5
6 = 3
7 = 2
8 = 0
9 = 1

We can see here that the numbers are not evenly distributed. There are 24 different numbers with 10 possible results (0-9), so one would expect 2.4 as the average per number. Yet four of the numbers have 0 or 1 as a result. On the other end of the spectrum, 4 comes in at six and 5 comes in at 5.

Now, whether all of this is significant or not and, if so, how it is significant, I am not sure. Nonetheless, the results are worth noting.

There are other interesting questions about the census (who could imagine!) that I might get around to later.