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  • Brian Chilcote

Based on a True Story! Hermeneutics Part 5

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

Like most things involving human communication, the spectrum of hermeneutic lenses is a complex and fascinating subject. As we have seen in the last few articles, there's an appreciable amount of personal temperament involved in the process. Do you appreciate the beauty of the literary craftsmanship and the compelling story in Bible narratives? Or are you a Sherlock Holmes when it comes to digging for historical data and clues to what an original author might have meant? While there might be some hermeneutic approaches that we find less appealing than others, all have something to teach us about our search for meaning in the wisdom of the ancients, whether it's poetry or proposition,

To review and remind the reader of some of the basic realities of interpreting the Bible, a few thoughts…

Comparing our modern systems of written communication to ancient ones is like comparing a spatula to a spaceship. It's easy to forget that we bring these assumptions with us when we think about the Bible, and it does affect how we interpret and use biblical material to shape the way we think and move through our world. A sustained effort by scholars to research and debate the "facts" helps all of us to recognize what we actually have on our shelves and coffee tables. Regardless of your hermeneutical leaning, all agree that the Bible is a collection of documents that have come down to us from a rather distant past, which brings the historian and her tools into the process of deciphering what the book is about.

Historians deal with likelihoods and probabilities. Very few conclusions if any are made with extreme certainty. Some interpretive styles favor certainty by including divine intervention in the production and transmission of biblical documents, but like all other hermeneutic approaches it leaves the interpreter with problems to solve. No single hermeneutic is perfect.

Scholarly consensus can help us differentiate between a hermeneutical premise that is legitimate and grounded in data and one that is more fanciful and less evidentiary. As an example, let's look at two possible origin stories of the gospels.

One story tells of early Christian communities scattered through the Roman Empire for each of whom a gospel was remembered, compiled, written and read in regular liturgical settings. The differences in each gospel reflects what was important to its community of origin as well as their unique outlook and identity. Were they more culturally Jewish, and would implicitly understand Jewish place names and customs? Or were they a mixed group of Hellenized urbanites?

While we can guess at their reading or hearing audience, we don't have much to go on from the writings themselves. We don't really know what motivated the writers to record their version of the story of Jesus. Luke hints at his purpose, but we know that his foreword was not unique. Many ancient Greco-Roman authors used the same formula, indicating that a commission from a patron to write up a history may not be as authentic as we imagine. It's a bit like beginning a story with the words, " In a galaxy, far, far away…"

There is no scholarly consensus on what a "Matthean" or "Markan" community might have been like. We don't know if they were large, small, rich, poor, Greek, urban or rural. In addition, there are many examples of contemporary literature that are similar enough to the gospels to offer revealing comparisons. And by the way, not many of them were written to a distinct small community of religious outliers!

A competing story focuses on the literary culture of the first century. We know that the gospels as compositions place them in the hands of people who had an exceptionally rare skill at the time. We know that there were small networks of authors in an exclusive fellowship of well-to-do literate elites that shared, discussed and interpreted their work. The conventions of the time period governed the production of these documents, such as allusions to other famous works like Homer or Plato or sacred literature like the Hebrew Bible.

In terms of formative influence and audience, this second story implies not a small community of believers collecting and preserving the tales of Jesus and his disciples, but an association of writers who published their work for very different reasons. There is scholarly consensus that the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) knew and used each others' work to weave their own accounts- possible evidence that the author-network is the more likely story.

Finally, we find in the gospels some common literary themes of their day, such as an empty tomb signifying ascension to divine status. Robyn Faith Walsh in her article on this topic in Biblical Archaeology review, mentions that "Plutarch discusses the motif at length, citing the missing Alcmene, Aristeas of Proconnesus, Cleomedes the Astypalaean, and Romulus, calling it an established mythic tale among writers and one that 'all the Greeks tell' [Life of Romulus 28.4])."*

The gospel originals we imagine coming from the hand of the actual disciples for which they are named has very little scholarly support, so readers of the New Testament may need to shift their conception of what they are reading. Neither Mark nor Luke were actual eyewitnesses, for one thing, and though various church traditions affirm that Matthew and John were both disciples and authors of their gospel accounts, there are mitigating factors that argue against the idea.

Think of the gospel narratives like you would a based-on-true-story movie. In the hands of skilled writers and directors, the old tale of William Wallace's of resistance against Scotland's oppressor, King Edward I becomes a Mel Gibson classic: Braveheart. Did Wallace really shout "FREEDOM!" to pump up the troops before they charged the English army? Or again when he was being tortured by the executioner? Probably not, but that's what he should have done as the movie producers saw it. The fact is that there was a real William Wallace that lived in Scotland in the late 1200's who inspired his nation to rebel against the English. The basic outline covered in the film is true to what historians have discovered about Wallace, but lots of details have been added to burnish his reputation as a great military leader and Scottish hero.

The stories told in the pages of the Bible did not emerge from eyewitnesses who took notes or video. Rather, later biographers followed the accepted conventions of the time period during which they compiled and edited their work. This includes putting speeches in the mouths of famous heroes, such as the long speech made by Jesus in Matthew 24-25. Like most of his contemporaries, the Matthew author was intimately familiar with the prophecies of Daniel and placed a reference in the mouth of Jesus in Matthew 24:15. Why? Because it helped explain to early Jesus communities the significance of the social and political unrest in the time the gospel was composed- much later than the events recorded in it. The destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans in 70 CE, when "every [stone] will be thrown down," the activity of many other self-proclaimed Messiahs, and widespread persecution (the early Jesus community was tiny and essentially unknown and ignored until much later) show a strong probability that Matthew was written after 70 CE.

Is this a case of anti-supernatural bias? Could Jesus have actually anticipated circumstances that occurred later in the first century? Of course it's possible that he could have possessed some kind of prophetic powers and you can certainly entertain that assumption in your hermeneutic approach, but consider the idea that it seems just as likely- in light of strong evidence- that it's hindsight on behalf of the writer of Matthew. Jesus is portrayed as a seer, foretelling the immediate onset of the final apocalypse, echoing a very common belief of early Christians. Paul was especially adamant that the present world would come to an end within a short enough time to recommend that people forgo long term commitments like marriage.

Readers of Matthew would also so well to remember that we need to evaluate our own biases and assumptions when we interpret literature that is almost 2000 years removed from our day. Eric M. Orlin, in and introduction to a bibliography for the study of Greco-Roman historiography, writes:

"The practice of writing history in the ancient world differed markedly from the practices employed by historians today, in large measure because ancient historians conceived of their task differently. The term “history” derives from the Greek word historiê, which means “inquiry,” used by Herodotus to describe his work. This inquiry could take many forms, and the boundaries between history as we understand it and such genres as ethnography, geography, and biography were never clearly defined.

"Most ancient histories were explicitly didactic in nature. They aimed to be useful to the reader either imparting practical knowledge on how to address certain situations or lessons for moral improvement through the provision of historical examples; sometimes they aimed at both at the same time. Even making sense of the past meant something different in a world where the gods might be considered to play active roles in human affairs." **

When we read Matthew 24 and 25 from our modern perspective, we tend to imagine Jesus and his band of disciples sitting in the grass under a shady olive tree engaged in intense conversation. And as we consider the words of the Olivet Discourse, we forget that the probability of it being an exact word-for-word rendition is vanishingly small, unless your hermeneutic emphasizes the miraculous. Along with other literature of the period, it's more likely a mix of remembered teachings processed through some years of theological development and the author of Matthew's impressions of what Jesus would have said had someone been there to record it. Were there concerns that people were opting out of normal social and economic engagement because they believed that the end was near? That's one possible reason for the lessons about how to be responsibly expectant in 24:36 and following.

To Think About...

How does it change the interpretive game when one sees the Bible as a primarily miraculous document? Can you still rely on a mostly historical record to understand what happened?

Do you think it's OKto put words in the mouth of your subject even if there's no way to know if he or she actually said them?



**Oxford Bibliographies

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