Saturday, April 12, 2014

Context vs. Proof Texting

Brilliant words from James H. Charlesworth:
In the attempt to move closer to the ancient authors and to grasp their needs and dreams it is essential to be ever self-critical of who we are and from where we are coming, and to struggle for a sensitive indwelling of their world. While we are primarily occupied with their bequeathed words we must always endeavor to supplement the received words with other non-literary artefacts and archaeological discoveries, and to define words, broadly, inter alia, in terms of their essence, their content, their function, and their social setting. I presume that they, like we, struggled towards an intended meaning, not scouring around in search of words, but by flowing through perception and intentionality to communication. Words, after all, come somewhat mysteriously as we shuttle between worlds of silence. Since most words in the Pseudepigrapha have not yet influenced our lexicons, and since most of the ancient Semitic words disappeared when Hebrew and Aramaic died out, it is unwise to support arguments or develop ideas by myopically citing lexicographical data. It is the living word, not the dead record of how it was employed in a few surviving texts, that alone can open our eyes to that world two thousand or so years ago when the documents in the Pseudepigrapha and in the New Testament were being composed and read aloud.1
It is too easy to impose a presentist interpretation of ancient texts when we read the scriptures and other ancient documents. It would be well to read the scriptures (and all ancient literature) by reading them as though we "were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago..."2 and to heed Charlesworth's admonition to be careful that we understand context, lest we be guilty of proof texting these documents in a way that they were never intended to be understood. 
1 James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and the New Testament: Prolegomena for the Study of Christian Origins, Society for New Testament Studies, Monograph Series 54 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 4-5
2 Brigham Young, The Discourses of Brigham Young, ed. John A. Widtsoe (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 128


  1. I totally agree that we shouldn't be reading the scriptures through the lens of a 21st century radical progressivism.

    1. Mormonchess, I'm not quite sure what you are implying with your comment, and you are welcome to elaborate. I do think that there should have been an inclusion of a caveat in my post above, and that is that if we wish to understand the scriptures as they were written, we should follow the above instructions. However, Christ himself removed the context from some OT scriptures and gave them a new application and meaning. Accordingly, I'm not suggesting that reading the scriptures from a presentist standpoint is bad, or wrong, I'm simply providing Charlesworth's quote because I think it will help us understand the scriptures based on the context in which they were written.
      Thanks for your comment.

    2. Scriptural interpretation is dicey business. My remark was a bit edgy, and for the following reason: I have just about lost my patience for progressive LDS folks who read the Nephi/Laban story, for instance, and turn Nephi into a cold-blooded murderer. Why then read the Book of Mormon? If the first main character, whose story comprises the first fifth of the book is an ethically repugnant individual, then of what value is our foundational scriptures? Of what value is Nephi's witness of Christ if he's a brutal killer?

      That is why I said what I said. I apologize if I have taken your worthy posting into a direction that you didn't intend. I just believe that we should take the scriptures for what they are: a miracle from God. I guess that makes me a very old fashioned Mormon these days.

    3. Thanks for the response Mormonchess. Without knowing any better, I'd presume that you were referring to Corbin Volluz' post on Nephi slaying Laban as a result of following the spirit (in his argument, an evil sprit's prompting)?
      His interpretation is certainly an interesting one, and definitely imposes presentism in his take on the matter, although he does provide some thoughtful material to justify his supposition based on the consequences that Nephi and his posterity face. If there is any merit to his 180 degree take on the topic though, it remains deficient without engaging the ancient context of the mosaic law and early 6th century BC culture religious and legal perspectives regarding the slaying of Laban.

      (See John W. Welch's excellent article: "Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban" -

      At any rate, I get where you are coming from. It does seem quite trendy lately to impose a 21st century paradigm upon a 2,000 year old book, which inevitably will result in a spectrum of interpretations - some good, some bad. I definitely agree with you though that the scriptures certainly are a miracle from God.

    4. I've read both Welch's treatment, and Volluz's. Unfortunately, among the LDS progressives, Volluz's interpretation seems to hold sway. They accord Nephi less respect than a child pornographer, and it irritates me exceedingly.