Post-Christian New Testament Studies

Strange winds are blowing in the field of Biblical Studies these days, and some of them involve clouds that carry no rain, and promise no lasting crops. What I am referring to is the growing trend to assume that you should be able to do a higher degree in the Bible without: 1) learning any of the Biblical languages, and 2) without learning the proper history of the Biblical cultures and times, and 3) without assuming that these ancient texts need to be studied in their original contexts, because, it is assumed, ‘meaning is in the eye of the beholder’.

The problem here is not just an anti-historical approach to the Biblical text, the problem is also an anti-linguistic, anti-contextual approach to the meaning of texts, and thus it involves epistemology, assumptions about how meaning is formed, and the like. These assumptions are seldom argued for, they are simply taken for granted, as if Stanley Fish wrote the Bible on meaning and texts and how they work (or don’t).

One manifestation of this proposed new model for studying the Bible could be called the purely literary approach. The Bible is literature, therefore we will read it in light of modern assumptions about, for example, fiction. Not mind you, ancient approaches to novels or histories or biographies, no modern approaches entailing modern theories of meaning. The Bible on this approach is treated as a document originally appearing in English and subject to the trends in analysis of modern English literature.

Of course it is possible to study the Bible like this, but whether it is an adequate means of studying the Bible if one wants to get at its meaning is another question altogether. If you do study it like this, then you should study it as a part of English literature and the development of the English language, which still will involve you in historical research, including research on the development of English. It’s just that now you are studying a different period of history, and a different language group.

Sometimes we encounter this same solipcism in the so called ‘inductive Bible study approach’ of some of our contemporaries who think that all you need to make sense of the Bible is a good English translation and a good concentrated inductive reading of it for yourself. This approach is sometimes coupled with the notion of ‘the individual right of interpretation’, though whoever came up with that notion doesn’t understand the collective nature of ancient texts and how meaning is culturally and contextually dependent.

In short, what the NT text meant in the first century A.D. is still what it means today. It may have differing applications and significances for individual readers today, but it does not have a different meaning.

Sometimes the anti-historical approach to the text surfaces in what is called ‘post-colonial readings’ of the Bible, where free reign is given to the reader to read into the Bible all sorts of current issues and concerns that the original Biblical writers would be very surprised to hear they were discussing. The epistemological assumptions behind the post-colonial readings are several: 1) we are all active readers, and therefore even if there is an ‘original meaning’ of the text we can’t get at it because we are just too locked into our own cultural context, viewpoint, and subjectivity. While I would grant that we are all active readers, and must take into account our personal biases and perspectives, it is not true either that texts do not have inherent meanings embedded in them or that with due diligence to the original contexts, including the original languages, we cannot get at that original meaning; 2) the second assumption is a natural corollary of the first, namely that studying ancient history, ancient languages, etc. is unnecessary to find a meaning in these texts, and so we are given permission to not have to do the hard historical homework required to properly understand them.

In some ways, this whole approach is about as arrogant as what you sometimes hear from fundamentalists who think that they are never guilty of anachronistic readings of the Bible, and that the Holy Spirit can show them the precise meaning of the text without any kind of language study. All they need is an infallible translation (preferrably the KJV in some form) and they are good to go. They too deny the need for any serious historical homework. My reply to the latter sort of student of the NT is ‘don’t use the Holy Spirit as a labor saving device. It’s a shame you are not giving the Holy Spirit more to work with’.

Having said all this, I do not deny that some post-colonial readings of the Bible have indeed showed us some of our blind spots in understanding the Biblical text. I do not deny either that Eurocentric readings of the text can sometimes impose later notions on the text which are not part of the meaning of the Biblical text. But just as we should guard against the anachronistic fallacy with Eurocentric or fundamentalist or charismatic readings of the text, so also we must guard against the imposing of ideas from the post-colonialists readings as well. The Bible is not, for example, a proto-Marxist manifesto, and Marxist readings of the text frequently skew rather than unveil what the text intends to say. I do not think it is a good use of the Bible to treat it as an inkblot into which one can read whatever modern agendas one has.

For more on what it takes to do justice to the meanings embedded in the Bible, see my Is There a Doctor in the House?. In my view there is no getting away from original language and context studies of the Bible if you want to understand its original inspired meanings.

  • Robert

    Nice strawman.

  • Dieter

    Nice thinking and true I thing, for someone studying the scripture at a college or university level. But what about me who is just trying to cut through all the clutter that is produced by the conflicting views coming from Preachers and Theologians about the meaning of it all. Do I have a chance interpreting the word of God without the knowledge of the ancient languages?

  • Matthew Hamilton

    I had a discussion about this with a friend on my blog, here:

    I would be very curious what you thought about our different takes on the matter. Thanks!

  • Matthew Hamilton

    Without a knowledge of ancient languages you can interpret the text; you must, however, “stand on the shoulders of giants” that have gone before you and translated and interpreted the original languages already, instead of doing it yourself.

  • Jim

    Thanks Dr Ben!

    Please could you tell me if you have ever skewed the real meaning of the bible, and what percentage of your bible scholarship is accurate?

  • Dieter

    So, who are the giants. Why do the Giants have the discussions that are going on in theology, confusing the christian trying to live his daily live.

  • Samuel

    Dr. BW, do you have any suggestions for resources if one were to teach a course along these lines? I’m thinking about teaching a course on the narrative of Scripture. Thanks.

  • Steve

    What postmodernism giveth (hey, maybe the Enlightenment isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be)…postmodernism taketh away (reader-response, deconstructionist hermeneutic)…count your change before leaving the window…

  • Matthew Hamilton

    The “giants,” (a figure of speech) are those who have translated the bible into English and have written commentary. They are the ones responsible for the “christian trying to live his daily life” having access to the scriptures.

  • Mkholmes 25

    also, to a certain degree you have already stood on them. As you read a Bible in English, you are reading a translation of the Bible which is just as much an interpretation of the original languages. As a layperson, I do not know the original languages, but still find it important to study what I can… especially since I am basing my life off of what the Bible reveals. I believe that you can read the Bible on your own and gain a decent level of understanding. However, as with any subject, you cannot expect to read the Bible on your own and have the same level of understanding as someone who has spent 7 hours a day for 20 years studying and writing on it. That is why it is important to consult people who have done that.

  • Kelly


    That I might understand: You wrote “sometimes” twice in the paragraph that referenced “inductive Bible study approach,” because, I think, you see some forms of inductive Bible study as not being guilty of the solipcism for which you are denigrating those who are guilty of it. This would make sense, because the kind of historically, grammatically, contextually, theologically grounded exegesis that you do yourself is inductive in its style of research and reasoning from evidence, no? You constantly and consistently use induction in your commentaries, but obviously see a difference between the “inductive Bible study approach,” which perhaps falls short in not searching everywhere for evidence (i.e., it doesn’t insist on the importance of knowing and applying original language research or doesn’t always take context seriouly enough, either literary or historical context), and your own method of induction which does take seriously the importance of history and context. Am I correct? Your denigration of the “inductive Bible study approach” as you have characterized it, I get, but I don’t think you are disparaging of inductively studying the Bible. Again, am I correct?

  • Cindy

    I believe all ministers should study and get degrees in studying all there is to be found in theology. I also believe that they must be a holy spirit filled Christian (which all are that believe in Jesus as their Savior). Studying without the guidance of the Spirit is happenstance. There are embedded meanings in scripture that only the Holy Spirit will reveal. Trying to study the Bible without prayer for the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth, is sure to be too literary and void of truth. Christians should learn from those that have diligently studied and have a degree in the ministries. But the Holy Spirit can reveal meaning of God’s truth to the word as it applies to your daily life. BUT it must line up with truth of the Bible as a whole and not taken out of contents.

  • Matthew Hamilton

    I would mention also, that most of Dr. Witherington’s cohorts at Asbury Theological Seminary do tell their classes that proper IBS should be done in the original languages (at least Dr. Bauer and especially Dr. Thompson do), and that the one of the final stages of IBS does involve using outside resources to understand the socio-historical context that the passage was written in (after one has already understood the text within its own context).

  • Danny Yencich

    I’m not sure it was a strawman as much as it was a critique that you don’t agree with? Labeling something a strawman is much easier than engaging an argument, but it doesn’t get anyone anywhere.

  • Restr8
  • David Gibbs

    Dr. Witherington,

    Doesnt Paul at times re-interpete the old testament anachronistically (certainly creatively). Isnt there a level of interpetation based on the fallen, patrchiarcal, zenophobic nature of society in the writing and editing of the scriptures? Doesnt, say, the writer of Deuternonmy/Joshua both record and interpetes events and personalities in a way which marginalises and dehumanises non-Jewish cultures? Such scriptures being further re-interpeted by a dominant Euro-centric Greek, Roman cultures making the “original” meaning even more obfuscated and unaccesible today. A post-colonial interpretation may thus take cognizance of these realities. Interesting matters.

  • John

    Thanks for highlighting this continuing problem.

  • Robert

    “Sometimes the anti-historical approach to the text surfaces in what is called ‘post-colonial readings’ of the Bible, where free reign is given to the reader to read into the Bible all sorts of current issues and concerns that the original Biblical writers would be very surprised to hear they were discussing.” etc…
    Total strawman.

  • Benw333

    Robert calling something a straw man does not enlighten us in any way as to why you think it is. It’s just a way of dissing something without bothering to discuss it. Have you bothered to read post-colonial interpretations of the Bible? There are some useful things said from time to time, especially when we are dealing with readings ‘from below’ but at the same time there is plenty of wild and implausible stuff read into the Bible that in no way comports with its original text or context.

  • Benw333

    Actually David the short answer to your queries is no. The OT does not do what you are suggesting it does. The Bible can’t really be accused of fostering xenophobia. If anything it promotes xenophilia— ‘respect the stranger in the land’ etc.

  • Paul

    I’ve read the quote six times and I’m afraid I don’t see it. That isn’t a strawman. The strawman fallacy is when you misrepresent a view in an exaggerated or ridiculous way to make it easier to knock down. Please explain how that’s happening. Or rather, as Danny said, engage the argument on why you disagree with whatever it is.

  • Robert

    Ben Witherington the third misrepresents “post-colonial” readings. A postcolonial approach to the Bible can take many forms, but typically it functions as a dialogue partner to the current discourse of biblical scholarship, than as an excuse to read anything one wants into a text. Moreover, postcolonial biblical scholarship is not “anti-historical”; if anything it aids historical interpretation, by enabling a more objective approach to studying ancient contexts, through providing a heightened awareness of the politics of interpretation.
    Furthermore, to suggest that the original authors of the Bible would be surprised by some of the postcolonial readings, as Witherington the third does, is also a stretch, given that many of these authors had experience of something similar to colonization, (Roman, Persian, Assyrian, Babylonian empires, etc) and so the sentiments would not be completely foreign to them. That is not to say the Bible is anti-empire or proto-Marxist (I agree with Witherington the third here), but negotiating life under imperial rule is part of the historical context that surrounds the biblical texts, their authorship and their early consumption.
    Like I said above, total strawman.

  • Robert

    If Ben Witherington the third was serious about discussing the pros and cons of postcolonial biblical scholarship, he would meet it on its own terms, and not resort to caricature.

  • Benw333

    Sorry Robert, I plead not guilty. Have you read this stuff??

  • Robert

    I have read quite a bit of it. Might you name some examples of “post-colonial” readings that you think are representative of the approach and commit the failings you attribute to them?

  • Benw333

    The ones I have found least convincing are the Asian perspectives. The far eastern cultures are just too different from ANE culture and the readings tended to over spiritualize the Gospels especially. I also found the Latin American Marxist readings very unconvincing.

  • Robert

    If by the Latin American Marxist readings, you mean those that emerged from the Catholic liberation theology movement, then I would probably steer clear of equating them with “post-colonial,” which, although there are some similarities & common threads, refers to an intellectual movement that developed later. Liberation theology was conducted primarily at the grassroots by socially engaged theologians.

    I also wonder which Asian perspectives you are referring to. Benny Liew’s postcolonial reading of Mark is incredibly critical and not guilty of “spiritualizing” the text. Are you referring more to contextual readings, like Kinukawa’s reading of Mark from a Japanese feminist perspective? The designation “post-colonial readings” seems misleading.

  • Benw333

    Robert I think part of the problem here is what counts as a post-colonial reading. If it is any non-Eurocentric reading then certainly the Asian and Latin American readings I was referring to count. Yes, some of the Japanese readings, for instance in light of Taoism were the ones I especially had in mind.

  • Robert

    Thanks for your response Ben Witherington the Third. You are right in your diagnosis that this may be an issue with definitions. But your suggested definition of a “post-colonial reading” as encompassing “any non-Eurocentric reading” is quite inaccurate and I fear quite different from those who are more engaged with the approach. Perhaps it would have been useful to define your terms and the scope of your critique a little more, rather than making crass generalizations about a subfield you happen to disagree with. The second presupposition of “post-colonial readings” that you outline, especially, is not representative of the approach as a whole. And your reasons for refuting the first presupposition are, I fear, more ideological than critical.

  • Mark

    Perhaps there is an element of semantics in this debate. Ancient people lived in an oral culture. It’s unlikely that they had the same attitudes towards scripture that we have, as something thing that was fixed and unchanging. Their scriptures were being written, translated and organized right up until the time of Christ or shortly before. They didn’t have the luxury that we have of an abundance of materials as well methods of interpreting historical data. Maybe the questions should be; have we gotten so bogged down in historical and political debate, both within the church and without, that we have lost the lifeblood scripture?

    Each of the Gospel writers appears to use the scripture freely in their attempts to give context to Jesus’ life. Jesus the Galilean seemed to be more in the tradition Rabbi Hillel, as a somewhat liberal interpreter of Scripture, unlike many of the Jerusalem Pharisees. Would that make Jesus a liberal? I believe that it would, at least relative to the rigid fundamentalist teachings of the Temple leaders. Did they think of the scripture as a living thing like a modern liberal judge might regard the constitution? Is that even a reasonable comparison?

    Having said that, how can we hope to understand the intent of the Biblical writers without a fundamental grasp of language, custom and culture as well the political and economic factors surrounding the lives of Biblical figures?

    There might be another way of seeing this debate however. If I wanted to be a musician like Bach, I would have to start with music theory, composition, improvisation and arranging. Those things would be absolutely necessary. But if I really wanted to be like Bach I would eventually have to move beyond a rigid interpretation of Bach’s music and begin to find my own identity—or in the Biblical vernacular, my mission. Miles Davis put it another way; “study your instrument and then forget all that sh*t and play!”


  • Benw333

    What qualifies as crass is your rather snarky and rude attitude Robert. Post-colonial readings do not need to be reified as it they were ‘critical’ readings and traditional historical critical readings do not qualify. There are serious problems with the methodologies employed in post-colonial readings, not the least of which is the problem of anachronism, of reading modern concerns and modern cultural givens into ancient texts. Post-colonial readings are not value free readings any more than traditional historical critical readings are and any methodology worth its salt can withstand a good critique without unhelpful comments about ‘straw men’ that don’t advance the discussion even a little.

  • Robert

    I apologize, Ben3, if disagreeing with you counts as a snarky and rude attitude! No intention of coming across that way.

    I think the reference to straw men is appropriate and still stands. It is an argumentative fallacy to caricature a position and then to dismantle it, and, unfortunately, that is what your post does.

    The failures attributed to “post-colonial readings” are not constitutive of the sub-field as a whole. Many of the major practitioners of the approach within New Testament (like, for example, the work of Benny Liew, which I alluded to below), are entirely conversant in “ancient history, ancient languages, etc” and use these tools and knowledge in their interpretation of the text. This is why I find your refutation so bizarre. Perhaps if you could name some specific major postcolonial works that do this, and then engage with them directly, your argument would come across more strongly. But the blog post reads as if all postcolonial biblical critics hold to these presuppositions, which is simply false.

  • ME

    “In short, what the NT text meant in the first century A.D. is still what it means today.”

    That got me thinking… Each individual writer of the New Testament had a very specific meaning he meant to communicate with every sentence he wrote. That meaning he intended to communicate would certainly be timeless. But, is there any chance Jesus/God/Holy Spirit wanted a different meaning communicated than the author intended? I assume theology has covered this particular question extensively. What are some of the common answers?


  • Benw333

    Something doesn’t need to be timeless to be true. There are timely truths, and timeless truths in the Bible. For example, the Levitical rules while symbolizing eternal principles in various ways (e.g. the need for atoning for sin), in themselves are culturally specific, and not binding on Christians who are under the new covenant, not the old one.

  • Hatch821

    Oh good grief. Just shut up and sit down and read it closely.

    And give a tip of the hat to Stanley Fish, because you *will be* interpreting it.

  • Benw333

    Hi Jim: Of course everyone, including me has only partial knowledge of the field, and so of course there are mistakes.

  • Matthew Hamilton

    Last night I read through Hermann Gunkel’s “Israel and Babylon,” which was a short (xvi + 78 pages, including translator’s intro and appendixes) pamphlet, written in response to Friedrich Delitzsch’s 1902, 1903, and 1904 lectures.

    As I am sure you know, Dr. Witherington, and some of your readers might know, Delitzsch basically threw the entire Old Testament under the Babylonian bus, claiming that all that is good in the world that we perceive to be derived from the OT and the Hebrew people actually came from Babylonian influence over the writers of the OT. Gunkel’s response and critique of Delitzsch was the most harsh when he pointed out that Delitzsch was an assyriologist posing as a biblical theologian.

    This stands out to me based on your comment about only having “partial knowledge of the field.” I had linked to a discussion on my blog about halfway up the page of comments, in which a classmate of mine from Carson-Newman College were debating whether or not original intent of an author can actually be known based on the literary, socio-historical, and linguistic data. He basically argued that we can never be certain that we know what an original author intended, and I basically argued that we can have a pretty good idea about what an original author would have likely intended (and certainly be able to identify interpretations that are far from what an original author intended).

    I, however, am no expert. I’ve spent my time in college, and then my time at Asbury, and then my time during the two years since I graduated from Asbury studying the Old Testament (and some of the New, as well), ANE History, and Hebrew language. I could spend the rest of my life studying any one of these before I could consider myself an expert. I, therefore, have to depend on others (“standing on the shoulders of giants,” as I mentioned above) to do some of the ground work for me. I can translate a passage, and I can work to translate any related inscriptional parallels, but I will have to depend on historians and others for expert help where I fall short.

    None of us can master everything, but I think that what is important is for people to look past the idea of post-colonial readings of the text, and embrace the historical-critical reading, the linguistic understanding, and the context of the original authors and audiences in order to understand the most likely original meaning of the text. Only then, once a likely original meaning has been grasped, can one attempt to re-interpret the text into our post-colonial setting.

  • Graham V

    Good to admit your limitations. I hope you will begin to engage more thoroughly with post-colonial scholarship soon :-)

  • J.R. Miller

    Dr. Witherington, I agree with your analysis of the anti-historical approach and I believe it is the underlying thinking behind narrative preaching today. The challenge, however, is to engage the post-modern mind of young men and women so that they take an interest in these historical and linguistic contexts. In April, I am leading my students through the book of Acts and I am doing a 12 part “Interview” with Luke. I used some insights regarding Luke’s rhetorical style from your commentary on Acts to develop my dialogue in these animated interviews. I thought you might like to see the result of my first video

  • Benw333

    Thanks J.R. If you don’t mind I will post the video on the blog later in the month :) It’s cool.

  • Denny Burk

    Here, here.

  • Denny Burk

    Oops! Change that to “Hear, hear”!