Whether we’re looking for gospel meaning or struggling with understanding revelations in the Bible, historical Bible study can help us find our way.
Ben Witherington III, author of the following article, “Asking the Right Question,” once hitched a ride from a couple who believed the Earth was flat. Why? Because the Book of Revelation says that angels stand on the Earth’s four corners. Can we use that logic when we’re understanding revelations in the Bible? Historical Bible study doesn’t treat Revelation as a cosmology textbook.
The New Testament includes books that are biographies, histories, letters, sermons, and one book of apocalyptic prophecy. Each genre must be studied with some awareness of historical context and historical Bible study. Ancient biographies are different from modern. The gospel meaning reveals the character and purpose of the subject through episodes, not personal details. For example, the gospel meaning of Mark is evident in Mark’s emphasis on Jesus’ death and resurrection. He never mentions Jesus’ birth or childhood. He saved his precious papyrus for what was important to him: his gospel meaning. In the following article, Witherington notes that “a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.”
If you’re looking for gospel meaning, consider looking into more aspects of historical Bible study—starting with this article by Ben Witherington III.
Asking the Right Question
To get the most out of the New Testament, you need to know what kind of books you’re reading.
In the late 1960s, my car broke down in the mountains of North Carolina, and I had to hitchhike home to the middle of the state. I was picked up by an elderly couple driving an ancient Plymouth. After a little conversation, I discovered they were “Flat-Earthers,” by which I mean they did not believe the world was round.
I pressed them on this and asked, “Why not?”
The elderly man’s response was, “It says in the Book of Revelations [sic] that the angels will stand on the four corners of the earth. The earth couldn’t have four corners if it was round.”
The problem was that the gentleman had made a genre mistake. He though the Book of Revelation was intending to teach cosmology, but it’s not. It’s a piece of apocalyptic literature that teaches theology, history and ethics, and involves prophecy. In this particular passage (Revelation 7:1), the author, John of Patmos, is simply indicating that angels would come from all points of the compass.
The conversation brought home an important message: In order to interpret any book of the New Testament properly, you need first to determine what sort of information it intends to give you. Just as you don’t go to the phone book to look up a word, or to the dictionary to figure out what’s wrong with your car, you don’t turn to Revelation to find the layout of the cosmos.
So, then, what sort of documents do we have in the New Testament? In my opinion, we have (1) three ancient biographies—Matthew, Mark and John; (2) a two-volume Hellenistic historical monograph—Luke-Acts; (3) various letters (like 2, 3 John), some of which (including Paul’s) are in truth rhetorical speeches with the framework of letters; (4) several ancient homilies or sermons—Hebrews, 1 John and James; and (5) one work of apocalyptic prophecy of a hybrid sort—Revelation. Each of these different kinds of documents needs to be approached in a different manner.
Even when we have identified the genre, we must still beware of the dangers of anachronism. An ancient biography, letter or sermon is not the same as a modern one. One example will suffice.
When we think of modern biographies, we think of hefty tomes that mention everything a person did (and often what they didn’t do, too) from birth to death. When I say that Mark is a biography, we might immediately assume that it is a womb to tomb description of Jesus’ life. Of course, that’s not the case. The Gospel of Mark opens with Jesus as an adult, and at least 30 percent of the text that follows is devoted to the last week of Jesus’ life.
Ancient biographies, unlike their modern counterparts, were highly selective in character and were anecdotal. In part, they were selective because the author was limited by the length of papyrus he had to write on. Further, ancient authors didn’t have access to our modern data-gathering tools. He couldn’t look up every reference to, say, Jesus in Capernaum, in a computerized database. Ancient biographies reveal the character of the person in question not by recording exhaustive detail but by focusing on revealing episodes in his life or particular historic moments. When you want to know the character, significance and identity of an important ancient person, you turn to an ancient biography. In Mark, the death and resurrection of Jesus are the crucial salvific moments that Mark devotes extensive space to, not least because they best reveal Jesus’ character. (This is different from historical monographs like Luke-Acts, which focus solely on those words and deeds of a person that were deemed to be of historic moment.)
How then can modern people avoid making a genre mistake when reading a book of the New Testament? How can they avoid bringing the wrong sort of expectations to the text? By studying the Bible in its original historical, literary, rhetorical and social contexts. As I often say, a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean. Any serious student of the Bible must be prepared to do his or her homework on the genre question and read good commentaries on the various books of the Bible. Only then will they be truly able, in Paul’s words, to “rightly divide the Word.”
Ben Witherington III is professor of biblical studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky and doctoral supervisor for St. Andrews University in Scotland. For more on the genres of Mark and Acts, see his books The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Eerdmans, 2000) and The Acts of the Apostles (Eerdmans, 1998).
“Asking the Right Question” by Ben Witherington III first appeared in Bible Review, Apr 2003, 10.