Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Here's a Little More on That Hermeneutical Discussion

While reading in How to Read Genesis by Tremper Longman III, I encountered a perfect example (among many) of what I'm talking about. Here's a clipping (pp. 24-25):
Question 4. What can we learn about Genesis from comparable ancient Near Eastern literature?

The stories of Genesis have analogues from the other Near Eastern cultures. Israel was not the only people from this general area and time period to present an account of creation or even a devastating flood.

There are many dimensions to comparing ancient literature, but the main point that becomes obvious as soon as we become aware of literature written in other Semitic (e.g., Akkadian and Ugaritic) and non-Semitic languages (e.g., Egyptian, Sumerian and Hittite) of the Near East is that God did not create a unique form of literature any more than he created a unique language to communicate his truths.

However, we must tread carefully here. Too often the similarities have lured scholars and others into thinking that the Bible is just a superficial re-working of, say, Mesopotamian literature. They fail to see the significant differences between rival creation accounts—that is, between the biblical account and those from the ancient Near East. As we study ancient Near Eastern literature, we will remain attentive to both the similarities and the the differences. We will also inquire into the reasons for both. The important point that comes to the fore through theis kind of study is that the Bible is a literature of antiquity and not modernity. This truth will have a great impact on our study. For instance, we will come to realize that the biblical creation accounts were not written in order to counter Darwinism but rather the Enuma Elish and the other ancient ideas concerning who created creation.
Clearly, the author's belief is that extra-biblical literature sheds valuable light on the authorial intent of the biblical text. That doesn't mean I disagree with everything he says. For example, I agree that many Christians read Genesis 1-2 as little more than an apologetic against Darwin. Clearly, it is far more than that. But the conclusion simply seems inescapable to me that if we need to understand extra-biblical literature to understand Scripture, then the very foundation of our professed commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture crumbles.

21 comments:

Ashley P said...

Ben: Too often the similarities have lured scholars and others into thinking that the Bible is just a...re-working of, say, Mesopotamian literature. They fail to see the significant differences between rival creation accounts—that is, between the biblical account and those from the ancient Near East.


You're not implying that Longman believs that, I hope.

Ben said...

Sorry for the lack of clarity. Everything from the bold question to the Enuma Elish sentence is a direct quote from Longman.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ben,

This is exactly the kind of writing that brought my agreement earlier. Way, way, way too much is conceded to liberalism when form critical methods are applied to the Bible. Are there similarities between the Bible and ancient near-eastern texts? Yes, to some degree, but probably FAR less than is supposed.

I believe that this type of hermeneutics is the result of an over-emphasis on scholarship and the desire to be accepted in the 'scholarly peer group'. The result is subtle threads of unbelief woven into otherwise orthodox commentary.

Regards,
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Dave said...

Ben,

I am very sympathetic to your position on this, but I am not seeing the connection that you are making. It seems, at least to me, that Longman is saying that understanding the nature of the literature is helpful in studying it. He doesn't seem to be saying that we have to have extra-biblical literature to interpret the text.

This is a fine line of distinction, but probably necessary. Developing an understand of literary genres isn't the same as depending on archeology or outside texts that comment on the biblical text.

I may be missing your/the point, so please help me understand you better.

Ben said...

Don,

Whether there is a lot or a little similarity simply isn't my concern. Even if it could be proven that there is a high level of similarity, I'm wholly unconvinced that it should have any impact on our hermeneutic. It sounds as though you still think it has some fundamental effect, just not as much as most people think.

Ashley P said...

Ben: "I'm wholly unconvinced that it should have any impact on our hermeneutic."

On what basis, Ben?

Ben said...

Dave,

The next chapter beyond what I've read gets into that very issue. I'll try to post examples of why I understand him the way I do. There are also a number of brief comments on other matters that contribute to my understanding. I can see how this passage on its own does not present as robust a case as might be necessary.

I agree with you on developing an understanding of literary genre, and I also agree that the line can become rather fine. But I also wonder if we can fall into danger by imposing our understandings of extra-biblical literary genres on biblical texts that were never intended to fit those genres. It's possible that we might misinterpret texts by categorizing them in genres they were never intended by the Author to fit simply because we observe similarities with extra-biblical literature.

In other words, we must be open to the possibility that the Bible is wholly unlike any other book. But we can still learn to recognize the distinct genres it contains.

I'm still thinking through many of these issues. At the end of the day, I think Longman goes beyond what the text requires, but I've changed my mind before. In any case, I'd be happy to hear more of your perspective, particularly since your sympathetic to mine. ;-)

Ben said...

Ashley,

If you haven't read this post yet, it might help you see where I'm coming from. It contains some background as well as my explanation of the questions and presuppositions we need to address first.

http://paleoevangelical.blogspot.com/2006/10/does-john-macarthur-really-believe-in.html

Sojourner said...

Ben,

Right now, I'm working towards my Doctorate in History. I'm taking a few courses as a Non-Degree student to fill all the requirements. One of those classes is a Greek Exegesis class of the book of Hebrews.

One of the assignments is paper on the theme of "sacrifice" from the book of Hebrews, and one of the required readings is the Mishna. I'm thinking, "Can the Mishna really be a reliable source to help me understand the book of Hebrews?"

I am right with you on this.

Ben said...

Sojourner,

Did a little digging on your blog and saw you're at NOBTS. I'd love to hear your impressions if you want to e-mail me sometime.

How did you come adopt this approach?

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben

to clarify... (as if clarity is possible in blog comments!!)

I think that some insights can be gleaned in a methodology sort of way in some passages. The Psalms for example (and other poetical passages) express ideas through poetical forms. Some profit can be found in comparing other similar poetic forms to discern how the author is communicating.

But in general, I agree that there is too much reliance on form criticism and other anti-supernatuarl suppositions, even in otherwise conservative commentators. A prominent example to me is whether Moses' mother was the immediate daughter of Levi or not. The conservative commentators I have consulted all want to make either her or Moses separated from Levi by one or more generations. If you don't, Moses mother was at least 250 or so when she had Moses. This is kind of incredible, but I can find no textual justification for any suggested alternative. I wonder why conservatives won't at least entertain the literal interpretation. Can God do anything or not?

Anyway, I don't know if all that clarifies. I guess I am saying that we can learn some things from ancient secular sources, etc., that can aid us in our understanding, but too much is made of them, often in a bid for scholarship. The Scriptures are sufficient in themselves for life and godliness.

Regards,
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ben said...

Don,

If you open the door to some extra-bibilical data, I wonder what are the grounds for excluding other data. What are the parameters? How do we evaluate extra-biblical data to determine what is relevant and what is not? How are the Scriptures sufficient if we need some of it at all?

Ben said...

Dave,

Chapter 4 is "Myth or History? Genesis and the Enuma Elish. I think it nails down the fact that Longman is actually reading the message of extra-biblical texts, not just using them to help define the genre. (And I don't concede even that we need such texts to define the genre.)

If you want a concise statement from Longman, his summary on pages 79-80 says this:

"Reading Genesis 1-2 in light of Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Canaanite creation accounts enriches our understanding of the former, mainly through contrast. The main contrast has to do with the identity and nature of the Creator. The biblical account presents one God, who alone is God, who created the world. This one God created unopposed. But in the Mesopotamian and related Canaanite accounts teh cosmos came into existence by means of conflict. According to Genesis, conflict is introduced into the world not by the gods but by humanity's rebellion (Gen3)."

I could go on, but I think this shows how Longman is using extra-biblical texts to draw attention to certain elements of the text as points of emphasis. He may or may not be right that they are points of emphasis. But he is clearly telling us that the extra-biblical accounts help us determine the authorial intent of the biblical text.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben

I am not saying we need extra-biblical data, but the data exists. It can help us develop insight into the scriptures at points, but it isn't necessary, and if I don't happen to know all the data there is (as if!!), my spiritual understanding of the Word is sufficient for life and practice.

But the external data can be useful. We just shouldn't become slaves to it, or make the Bible equal to it. It seems that what many scholars do is drag the Bible down to the level of just another Mesopotamian feudal contract, or some such thing. The Bible is nothing of the sort, it is the mind of God revealed through men.

Regards,
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Sojourner said...

Ben,

Honestly, Dr. John Sailhamer at SEBTS is the one who first stumped me with this idea. I'm not exactly certain how it came up in class, but his points were very similar to yours. He rejects using archaeology and 'history' in interpretation, which is pretty significant considering he studied Near Eastern Lit at UCLA, unless I am mistaken

Dave said...

It sounds like three of us have been influenced by Sailhammer on this point.

Ben, I wonder if you aren't pushing the point, however, too far. In the quote you provide from Longman, he does not seemt to rely on external texts at all to interpret the biblical text. He is comparing them by way of contrast, but his understanding of the biblical text is not dependent on an external source.

We can debate the relative value of the comments he makes, but he isn't making the proper understanding of Scripture dependent on extra-biblical literature.

Ben said...

Sojourner,

That's what I figured. I'm disappointed though. I was hoping someone else outside of SEBTS was addressing these questions.

Ben said...

Don,

Can't the data also distract or mislead us? Isn't it unreliable, being uninspired and all? How do we determine which is helpful and which isn't?

Ben said...

Dave,

I don't want to deny the possibility that I'm pushing it too far, but from my reading of Longman it seems clear that he's determining which elements of the Genesis narratives are significant by contrasting them with extra-biblical texts. When one adopts that approach, one is taking interpretive guidance from extra-biblical texts when the inspired clues may be found by reading the text itself.

It seems that narrative texts with a theological agenda demand an interpretive approach that relies on some kind of interpretive markers of meaning and emphasis in the absence of those times when the narrator comes right out and tells us what the point is. And if we're going to rely on extra-biblical texts for those markers, we're denying the possibility that the text is self-contained, or sufficient.

I'm certainly hoping that these ideas get more discussion, and I don't claim to have it all figured out--far from it. But I do think Longman is using the extra-biblical texts as hermeneutical guides. At least that's how I'm reading him.

Dave said...

Valid point about the markers.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben, yes the data can mislead us. That is why, in the end, what the Bible says is so critical. The internal evidence is more important than the external.

Regards,
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3