The Hebrew Bible and Historical Context

By Billy Doolittle

It seems that most churches today use the Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament) to proofread the New Testament, to preach half of a book or a book’s major theme, to back up a topic of scripture (such as systematic theology), or to read it with a New Testament Christology. Errors in such methods may be hidden to new readers or overlooked by the most experienced. The sheer amount of text in the 900 some-odd pages preceding the New Testament is intimidating to both layman and pastor. How should our churches be taught the Hebrew Bible and how can we study it in our preparation?

The role of history for understanding the Hebrew Bible is essential to learning much about the book. This however is very different than understanding what the text is saying. History answers the who, what, when and (sometimes) where questions. But what role do these questions play in understanding what the author meant in the original words that were written? Commentaries today are filled with lexical word studies, geography, and, on occasion, extensive archaeology. We teach what the world of the author looked like in order for our congregation to at least have an idea of what Israel experienced. But is this correct?

If this is correct, the main problem that should come to our mind is inspiration. Was the event in history, which recounted in the text, inspired or was the text, which tells of the events, inspired? As conservative Christians, the answer is, “the Word of God alone is inspired.” We know these events took place in the manner they did because the text has said it. Now, studies which seek to recreate the biblical world in order to give the text a “clarified” meaning oppose the previous statement. Recreating the world of the text does play many roles, such as an apologetic task, but this is separate to understanding the meaning of the text. I once was sitting with a good friend who used the illustration of the word “wolf” in scripture. “If we take into account the location of this book when it was written, we can determine what breed of wolf it is, and also what type of sheep it hunted in that area, and come to the conclusion that Isaiah was prophesying about misleading leaders” Ultimately, if any biblical author sought to identify one particular wolf, he would have done so. The text is complete in and of itself. In terms of teaching the Bible, we make effort to recreate the world in order to set the context of the event in order to understand the text. Extra-biblical studies which seek to define and explain scripture’s meaning are by definition, eisegesis. The text is all we need to understand what the author meant when he wrote it. The text itself is what we need to understand Scripture. Scripture interprets Scripture.

Although these extra-biblical historical studies used alongside scripture may turn out to correlate with biblical teachings, the conclusions are not ultimately what the text has intended to say itself. This was the Lutheran’s error. They would take scripture, conjure a meaning by loose exegesis, find a relatively equivalent connector, and place a meaning on all of it. What makes this so dangerous is that it can be done with any verse and come to any number of conclusions. I will say now that a helpful role which philology gives is an understanding of the early interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, such as the Targums, which aren’t inspired. With all that said, the church needs a solid method.

Well what about the grammatical-historical method? As I was taught in my schooling, the grammatical-historical method is (loosely) defining the meaning of a biblical word throughout its ancient near-eastern time frame. In the word “grammatical-historical”, the Latin conjunction “sive” (meaning “namely”) occurred between “grammatical” and “historical”. Thus it was “grammatical, namely historical”. The sive was later replaced by a dash by Karl Keil, or et, so they came to be understood as two separate things (p. 195, Sailhamer). We have thus come to define a biblical word by the history of its usage, both within and outside the confines of scripture, and it is taught that way to us. The grammatical-historical method is the history of the words usage within scripture alone. I will not repeat too many more words of John Sailhamer but I would ask you to read “Johann August Ernesti: The Role of History in Biblical Interpretation, JETS, June 2001. pg. 193-206”, just google the title. The only way, in my mind, that Ernesti’s and Sailhamer’s definition of the grammatical-historical method could be accurate (apart from scripture alone being inspired) is if the authors intended scripture to be a commentary on other scriptures.

The Hebrew Bible is theological. The history of Israel as recounted in the Bible is theological. Its main purpose has always been and will always be to tell us who God is. What is essential to remember when teaching the Bible, the authors of scripture, both in the Hebrew Bible and the NT, never recreated or reinterpreted scripture. The way in which scripture is to be taught and understood is within the context of the text of scripture. In no way, shape, or form do the NT authors ever misinterpret scripture, just as they do not re-invent new meaning to the Hebrew Bible. The NT authors clarified and commented on the Hebrew Bible. That is what the NT ultimately is. If they had given the Hebrew Bible new meaning, they would have never identified Jesus as the prophet like Moses.

The Hebrew Bible is not a history of Israel nor was it meant to be complemented by extra biblical history. We should understand the Hebrew Bible how the New Testament authors did, as a complete whole. We want students to walk away knowing that scripture is sufficient to understand scripture, this can be done without explicitly telling them not to use extra biblical research. If you want to teach correct hermeneutics efficiently, read the Bible with them! The church should stand on the foundation of scripture and believe in Jesus as the Messiah. How can we do that if the foundation of our New Testament isn’t taught and what proves Jesus to be the Messiah isn’t taught? Jesus is the prophet like Moses and we should be able to show them how Jesus is and how others weren’t.

Let’s read our Bibles. More importantly, let’s teach others how to read their Bibles!

Billy Doolittle, a native of Louisiana, is an undergraduate student at Boyce College.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s