Background in Biblical Interpretation: Part 2

Noel Weeks
Editors' Note: This is the second part of a two part series on this topic. You can read the first part here.

Developing a Critical Sense

Since there are such problems and yet some background information is valid and helpful, how can the average reader sort the useful from the spurious? I think there are a number of simple things. Here I will elaborate on some examples.

First and most important of all, the biblical text must have priority. If the explanation does not fit what the text itself tells us, it is wrong. From misunderstood Nuzi texts came the explanation that Abraham called his wife his sister because the custom of the time was to adopt wives as sisters. The biblical text has an alternate explanation. Trust the biblical text, not the concocted explanation. (As mentioned above it would be very unlikely for something, attested only at Nuzi, to explain the biblical text.)

It is frequently claimed that Hosea's wife became a temple prostitute and that temple (or sacred) prostitution was rife in the biblical world. This is a very good example because it shows how little we actually know. It is clear that there was prostitution in Babylonia. Whether it was connected to the temple is the question. I know of no clear evidence that it was, but that does not mean it was not. There is good evidence that transvestites played a role in the worship of the goddess Ishtar. I do not know what we should infer from that in the way of sexual practices.

Suppose there was sacred prostitution in Babylonia. Does that prove it existed closer to Israel? Once more, it is extremely difficult to say. We have no evidence, besides what the Bible says and what might be guessed from remains of temples, of the religious practices of the Canaanites. We do have some information about religious practices in Syria, especially from the north Syrian coastal town of Ugarit. Many scholars assume that whatever applied to Ugarit applied to the Canaanites and certainly some, but not all, of the gods, were the same. Other scholars question whether we can simply apply evidence from Ugarit to the Canaanites and I share those doubts. Anyway, there is nothing conclusive from Ugarit with reference to temple prostitution. 

Would knowing that Hosea's wife became a temple prostitute change our interpretation of the book of Hosea all that much? Is not God's message in the text the important thing? I think this is a good example of the way looking for "background" can lead to speculation which tends to obscure the really important thing, which is what the text actually says.

Exodus 23:19 forbids boiling a young goat in its mother's milk. The aftermath of this command is of great historical importance because it was on this command, aided by the Jewish practice of "building a fence around the law", that the whole apparatus of kosher food laws was erected, with the further consequence of isolating the Jewish community.  Recently it has been commonly claimed that the purpose of the commandment was to forbid a pagan religious practice. The evidence for this claim is rather weak - the text appealed to is Ugaritic and hence it may or may not reflect Canaanite religious practice, the context is obscure and some of the words in the passage are of uncertain meaning. However there is a bigger issue. Let us assume it was a pagan religious practice. Is the Bible in the habit of saying that believers are forbidden to do anything a pagan does, or even anything done in pagan religious practices? Of course not; pagans make sacrifices, have temples, pray and so on.

Yet the implication is often that something is forbidden purely because pagans do it. Many interpretations make that claim, where the text says no such thing. This is not an argument for kosher food laws. I am merely suggesting that we should consider whether the forbidden practice is wrong in itself.

The second principle I would put forward is that we should be very wary of any interpretation built on the claim that something was "just what everybody did or thought in those days". It assumes a uniformity which is not necessarily the reality. As I have mentioned, it is common to take Babylonian practice as though it is the standard for the whole of the Ancient Near East. Yet there are significant differences between Babylonia, Egypt, the Hittites and Ugarit. 

For example, arguments were put forward for interpreting and dating biblical covenants on the basis of the assumption of a uniform treaty practice across the Ancient Near East. The said arguments had the commendable aim of defending the historicity of biblical covenants and the books which contained them. This case was also used as proof for the argument that God, in the composition of Scripture, simply made use of the forms and ideas common in the culture around. However the assumption of uniformity had flaws and led to confusing differences between cultures with differences between dates of composition.(1) That there is a relationship between covenant forms and treaty forms is clear. What is not as clear is why that is so. My explanation is that the source of the similarity was not borrowing at the time the Bible was written, but goes back into much earlier history. Internal factors within the Hittite kingdom explain why the whole Hittite use of history, and hence their treaties, stayed closer to biblical ones than Assyrian ones did.

A third principle is that we should beware of assuming that practices and beliefs in the surrounding world stayed uniform throughout the period of the Old Testament. Often one encounters something from the outside world introduced to explain a biblical passage, when the crucial thing did not exist at the time of the text it is supposed to explain. I have mentioned the tendency to explain biblical passages and customs as derived from Babylonia. One common such attempt was to derive Genesis chapter one from the Babylonian Creation Myth (Babylonian title: Enuma Elish). It is now realized that all evidence indicates that Enuma Elish was not yet written when Moses wrote Genesis.(2)

The last example raises another principle. Often evangelicals take over explanations proposed by scholars who do not believe the Bible is the Word of God. The explanation seems attractive and convincing, so there is a failure to explore the assumptions on which the explanation is based. It is common in non-evangelical scholarship to deny the biblical connection between Moses and the Pentateuch and to date parts of the Pentateuch very late. On that premise, the late date of Enuma Elish is no problem. To revert to an earlier example, the reason the Bible gives for Abraham calling his wife his sister was simply dismissed as the creation of an author, who did not know the customs of earlier times as well as we do. (Hubris is alive and well in scholarship.)

It is almost impossible for the average reader of the Bible and commentaries to recognize such assumptions behind confident claims. That is why the text must always be the crucial test. If the explanation does not fit the actual text it is not a satisfactory explanation. Of course we have to consider what "fit the text" means. Here another assumption often appears. Historical determinism is the assumption that all human thought and action is determined by the ideas and values of the particular time in which the text or practice in question arose. Thus the biblical text cannot have lasting truth and relevance. This assumption means that even when a biblical author teaches something as true for all time, it was really just something considered to be true in his own time. Thus, if the biblical author says homosexuality is an abomination to God, he is just saying what was thought at the time. This way of thinking is often applied to any teaching of the Bible considered controversial today.

Of course, if the principle of historical relativism is true, it must apply to anything we do or say. Thus, we could argue that we hold the Bible to be expressing the views of its time because that is how our time sees the Bible; but that is just our way of seeing the Bible. Such an argument is logically consistent but it defeats the whole purpose of historical relativism and so is ignored. 

Many claimed explanations of the Bible in terms of its historical context or background are really forms of historical relativism. They say that the Bible is expressed in the ideas of its time and so the passage in question is an expression of the ideas of its time of no authority or relevance for us. While this argument is typically used with reference to what are seen as controversial topics (such as sexual relations, creation), logically it can apply to any part of the Bible. Some contemporary evangelicals are thus opening the door to the total rejection of the authority of the Bible.

Often the assumption of historical relativism is linked with the assumption of uniform Ancient Near Eastern culture. The assumption of uniformity means that anything attested in any other Ancient Near Eastern text or discovered archaeologically at a particular site, may be assumed to be the background for any biblical passage which resembles it. Historical relativism then says that that biblical text is then just expressing the ideas of that time.

When one comes across the claim that this or that in the biblical text is to be explained in terms of something found in a Babylonian text or an Egyptian text, one has to ask a few questions. How would the biblical author have come across the foreign text? Even more important, if the author is supposedly writing in terms of the common ideas of his day, how would the general Israelite community have become familiar with it? Second Kings 18:26 tells us that the average Judean of the time of Hezekiah could not understand Aramaic. Aramaic is far, far closer to Hebrew than Babylonian or Egyptian was. Once again the assumption of a common background goes to work: whatever was said or thought in Babylon or Egypt had to have been said or thought in Israel. All one can say is that that idea is rubbish. 

Certainly when you read Isaiah and you know Assyrian royal inscriptions, you can see that he had some idea of Assyrian ideology but that is in a context where Assyria was the foreign power often ruling Judah. Take away those sorts of interactions and my questions become a lot more difficult to answer. Often the claim is made that certain stories or ideas were transmitted orally. The problem with oral transmission is that it leaves no records. So we are completely unable to say whether it was a significant factor or not. 

There is a very real danger that, in spite of all the talk about appreciating the historical background, we read the past in terms of our situation. In the two cultures that leave us the most information, Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) and Egypt, the scripts in use were very complex. Literacy in ancient Egypt has been estimated at around 4%.(3) I think the Mesopotamian script (cuneiform) is more complex that Egyptian hieroglyphs. Hence, there is a real possibility that the texts we think give us background for the Bible, were actually inaccessibly by most people in their own country, let alone by foreign Israelites and Judeans.(4) 

A second cautionary example comes from library records of the last major Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. He collected texts for his royal libraries and we have accession records for texts added to the library over a number of months. The texts that are commonly compared with the Old Testament, such as the myths and legends (what we might call in general the literary texts) appear in very small numbers, less than ten out of two thousand. The vast bulk are the texts which are part of the practical "science" of the day: divination manuals, medical texts in the form of rituals for expelling disease causing demons and so on.(5) The "literary" texts do play a role within the culture; they were used as "great literature" is used in many societies in teaching pupils to read and write. But we must remember that such pupils are a very select group. Of course the Bible is aware that people practice divination, but it is obviously not nearly as prominent in the immediate biblical context as it is in Mesopotamia. 

The crucial thing is to maintain a balanced perspective. The Bible was speaking to its own contemporary context as well as to us. Even when the point made is universally true, the reason for making it was often some situation or threat of the time. As long as we do not fall into historical relativism, we should recognise that fact. Yet the other danger is that of just bad scholarship: assuming the cultural and linguistic diversity of the surrounding world did not exist or believing that elite literary texts would be commonly and universally known. The crucial way to avoid such mistakes is to make sure the explanation fits the biblical text. If the text does not say it is written only to refute a contemporary error, we have no right to impose that meaning upon the text. 

Sometimes other biblical texts will give the clue as to how we are to read the text in question. Another of the great dangers of the fad of explaining the Bible in terms of poorly understood foreign texts is that we move away from the principle that Scripture is to be interpreted by Scripture. If there is a choice, there would be very few, if any cases, where we should prefer an interpretation derived from a foreign text, over one derived from another biblical text. The other biblical text is not only from the same cultural world as the problematic text; it is also inspired by God.

New Testament

I have concentrated on the Old Testament because that is the field I know best. But I think that similar cautions and principles apply to the New Testament. In some ways, the issues are clearer. Paul quite clearly indicates when he is dealing with a contemporary problem, where the beliefs and sensibilities of surrounding society are important, such as the issue of eating meat offered to idols. Therefore it is doubly wrong to expound him, when he makes general affirmations of truth, as speaking only to a local custom.

Allow me to outline some parallels to issues facing us in Old Testament interpretation. We have a huge mass of material coming from later Judaism, for example the Talmud, but that material is later than the New Testament. If we rule it out of consideration we have a lot less material we can use to establish New Testament background. Hence scholars do not routinely rule later material out of consideration. Perhaps they should. There are indications within the later material itself that it represents an innovation. The later material is much more likely to appeal to the Old Testament Scriptures than the earlier ones. The picture of extreme Jewish discrimination against women, derived by very selective use of later material, does not fit the picture the New Testament itself gives us of Jewish society.(6) 

Thus, the Old Testament problem of lack of background material from Palestine is paralleled by lack of background material for the gospels. Older scholarship turned to the Dead Sea Scrolls for that background. However, it is striking that no unique practice or belief of the Qumran Community emerges in the gospel and nobody is identified as belonging to that group. Maybe it is because they were a secret society as their vows indicate. 

One can cite many cases where background has been proposed, ignoring the reality of historical change. For example the explanation of "the eye of a needle", which a camel cannot traverse, as a narrow gateway, is appealing to a form of gate that did not arise until the Middle Ages. 

If one wants examples of trying to explain the text by "background", while ignoring what the text says, then the myriad explanations of what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 11 are excellent examples. In that same letter Paul makes clear that his rules on eating meat offered to idols are very context-dependent. Regarding the question in chapter 11 he appeals to "nature" which, as a concordance study will show, is an appeal to the created order, not to custom. Paradoxically, one can cite contemporary evidence to prove that women of the time would have covered there heads and would not have covered their heads. The reality is that we are ignoring cultural diversity. It is time we left aside conjectures about the background and read the text.(7)

While I cannot prove it, I suspect that there were many forms of contemporary Judaism. The Qumran community is quite different from the Pharisees or the Sadducees. I know of no contemporary text, which throws clear light on the strange mixture of philosophy and Jewish tradition addressed in Colossians. The New Testament itself is a prime sources for showing the Jewish complexity of the times.

In short, by all means examine proposals that use the background to interpret texts but please, please READ THE BIBLICAL TEXT.

Dr Noel Weeks earned a B.Sc. (Honors in Zoology) from the University of New England, Armidale (Australia), a B.D. and Th.M. from Westminster Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. (Mediterranean Studies, dealing with some of the Nuzi texts) from Brandeis Univeristy, Massachusetts. He is a Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at the University of Sydney, and is an Associate of their Department of Classics and Ancient History, with an interest in the Ancient Near East, specializing in Mesopotamia and Israel, and the Akkadian Language.

1. See my Admonition and Curse: The Ancient Near Eastern Treaty/Covenant Form as a Problem in Intercultural Relationships (London, T. & T. Clark, 2004).

2 W.G. Lambert, 'A New Look at Babylonian Background of Genesis,' Journal of Theological Studies 16(1965), 285-300.

3. J.Baines & C.J. Eyre,"Four Notes on Literacy," Göttinger Miszellen 61(1983), 65-96. Note that Israel used an alphabetic script and so one would expect literacy there to be higher.

4. One very late Babylonian text even indicates attempts to stop ordinary people learning to read: P.-A. Beaulieu, "New Light on Secret Knowledge in Late Babylonian Culture," Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 82(1992), 98-111

5. Simo Parpola, "Assyrian Library Records," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 42(1983), 1-29.

6 See my The Sufficiency of Scripture (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1988), ch, 18.

7. I have my own interpretation of what the text says ('"Of Silence and Head Covering," Westminster Theological Journal, 35(1972), 21-17) but more important than my view is allowing the text to determine its interpretation.